Tiny Art is Hugely Popular: Capitalize on a growing trend by hosting ATC swaps in your store
by Anya Harris
People around the world are creating Artist Trading Cards (ATCs). They’re getting together, making art on small pieces of paper, and then trading them like baseball cards. ATCs were born in Zurich in 1997 when artist M.Vänçi Stirnemann held a show of more than 1,200 cards he’d created. Stirnemann invited the artists in attendance to create cards of their own and asked them to bring them in to trade on the closing day. From there, the Canadian artist known as Chuck Stake brought the idea to Calgary, where he collaborated with Stirnemann to host an international swap a few years later.
Its participants use any and all fine arts media on their miniature canvases, and the format imposes few restrictions (see rules below). Anyone of any age, from art novices to veteran crafters and professional artists, can make and swap ATCs.
Here are the rules:
• They must be created on paper that measures 2-1/2 by 3-1/2 inches (64 by 89 mm).
• The back of each piece of art needs to be labeled with its title, the artist’s name, contact info, and the number of the card (1/4, 2/4, etc.) if it’s one of an edition, and
• These small artworks are traded – never sold. Art Cards, Editions and Originals (ACEOs) are the for-sale equivalent of ATCs.
While trades and swaps can be arranged online and completed through the mail, the goal is for artists to meet in person, share ideas and techniques, and trade cards. If your store has a space for meetings, classes, demos or receptions, consider hosting ATC swaps.
How it works
Stamp Antonio Arts in Texas hosts swaps for a group that’s been meeting on and off for about 12 years. “The woman who runs the group has been doing it since I started working here four years ago,” said Mindy Miller, manager. “She’s not an artist by trade; she simply enjoys organizing the swaps.”
Retailer Claire Reeder, who hosts swaps at her three art supply stores in North Carolina told us, “We set up a station where participants can try different materials and see what others are doing. We’re there to answer technical questions, like what paper works best with what paint. It helps if a facilitator gives an ATC group a theme or some instruction. A leader keeps things moving along. People will sometimes freeze up if they don’t know what to do.”
If a group is at a loss for ideas, a good resource to have on hand is the book 20 to Make: Artist Trading Cards from Search Press. It includes instructions for combining paper, metal, beads and stickers with painting, stamping and stenciling techniques.
The artist Robinsunne, author of The Great Library ATC Swap, offered a different perspective. She recalled a recent meeting of a newly formed ATC group and remarked, “The place was jumping! The hostess put together all these materials to show the group a bunch of techniques, but when the people came in, they just started making little collages,” she said. “I think our culture is hungry for making art in community.”
Robinsunne thinks ATC artists are pretty evenly split between collage and drawing/painting. She noticed that there’s little demand for oil paints for ATCs because of the ratio of mess to the size of the finished product. “I think there is demand, however, for different types of funky markers in metallics and those containing glitter, as well as dimensional paint.”
Keeping it going
Swaps can be formal, with monthly themes and goals of how many cards each artist should bring, or they can be less structured, with artists bringing few, many or no cards at all.
“I’ll open a box of markers, set out some pens and pencils, swatches from paper companies, old magazines and a container of glue,” Claire explained. “I bought a big box of junk on e-Bay last year for about $20, and I make that available too. It contained about 500 random items, such as stencils, broken watches, old musical scores, photos and playing cards. We’re still going through it. It keeps them interested.”
“Camaraderie is a big aspect of the swaps,” said Mindy. “You have a group of artists who may not all work in the same medium or style, but because the cards are so open-ended, everyone can do what they like and the other artists usually appreciate it.”
To find out if there is a trading group in your area, or individuals online who are interested in joining one, Facebook, Yahoo and Meetup.com are good places to look. You can also reach out to community arts organizations, libraries, schools, and your customers through your newsletter or e-mail.
How and what to merchandise
You probably are already carrying many items in your store that can be used for creating ATCs. To improve sales, however, you might want to group together these items in a dedicated display:
• Entry-level painting, drawing and calligraphy sets
• Decorative papers
• Inks and stamps
• Textural embellishments
• Acrylic gel medium
• Heavy-duty acid-free cardstock and paper
You can cut some paper to size for your customers or carry pre-cut ATC papers and envelops from Strathmore that are available for a variety of media. The assorted pack is a best-seller in her stores, said Claire, followed by “illustration board, probably because it feels substantial.”
To appeal to the computer-oriented crowd, try a display of iron-on inkjet transfer sheets, also from Strathmore.
Add-ons in this category include individual storage
sleeves, full-page sleeves for binders, and boxes sized for
storing collected cards. Mini easels, frames and other display options are also popular.
If you find out about a big regional or international swap scheduled nearby, you might want to secure a booth there to raise your store’s profile in the broader ATC community.
The bottom line
The sales generated by hosting ATC swaps can vary widely and are difficult to measure. “People don’t have to buy anything to participate, but I think that they keep us in mind when they’re purchasing ATC products,” Claire said. “Hosting swaps may not translate into direct sales, but it definitely translates into goodwill. It generates a buzz, and we think of it as free advertising.”
At Stamp Antonio Arts, however, it brings in existing customers more frequently and attracts new ones. “Hosting ATC swaps has brought in a lot of customers who would probably not shop in our store otherwise – some from as far away as Austin, about 100 miles from here,” Mindy said. “There are stamping and scrapbook stores near them, but there are no retailers in their area who host swaps. They come here to check out what’s new and exciting, and it’s really impacted our business in a positive way.”
Learn more about ATCs online at: