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An art show is a collection of various pieces of art, often in different mediums, on display at a convention. Artwork may include paintings, drawings, jewelry, ceramics, textiles, and so forth.
Some History: The Bjo Trimble Factor
In 1960, Bjo Trimble initiated and directed the first art show to be included at a science fiction convention. It was called "Project Art Show." Trimble's promotion of con art shows also led to the publication of her International Science Fantasy Art Exhibition Bulletin fanzine. Her "Project Art Show" was a success, and its success was a main factor in art shows becoming a regular feature at conventions.
From the 2002 Worldcon bio for Fan Guests of Honor Bjo and John Trimble , Tom Whitmore wrote: "Without John and Bjo, conventions might not have art shows. Their Project Art Show, and its fanzine 'Pas-Tell' changed the way fans look at art. In the early days of fandom, the art at cons was donated by publishers (generally magazine publishers) for auctions to help cover the convention expenses. Since the art shows started, they have become one of the major sources of new professional artists (George Barr, Alicia Austin, Tim Kirk and many more started there) and artists in SF have taken on a great deal more power and respect."
Art for Sale
When art is offered for sale at an art show, it's sometimes a precursor to an art auction. Pieces available for sale have a bid sheet attached to them, on which people can write in their bids. There's a cutoff number of bids; below that number, the high bidder wins the piece and purchases it directly for their bid price after the art show closes. Above that number, the piece is sent to auction, where any registered bidder can bid on it. Auctions generally take place on the final day of the con.
Other Ways to Purchase Art
Large conventions with large art shows may also offer a "print shop", with specific paintings or drawings available for sale as lower-quality prints throughout the weekend at a set cost.
Controversy Regarding Profit
The tradition of auctioning off art for as much as people are willing to pay has caused some friction within media fandom, since the practice is contrary to the more generally accepted standard of "don't profit off your fanwork". The largest sum paid for fan created media art may have been Suzan Lovett's original artwork from the Starsky & Hutch zine Timeless which she sold for $3,000 at Zebracon in 2003. For more about fan art for sale and fandom's reactions to fan artist's making profit on their fan art see Selling Fan Art and Fandom and Profit.