Collective Wisdom | Tips to Succeed at Art Fairs and Festivals

The summer is upon us, and with it the art festival season. Many artists will be participating in at least one art festival, and, as I recently discovered on my Facebook page, some artists will show in more than a dozen over the summer. As many of you know, the success of these shows can vary wildly for individual artists. What have you learned from your experience participating in shows in the past? If you could share one thing with an artist getting ready to participate in a show or festival, what would it be? Share your advice in the comments section below and be sure to check back to see what others are saying.

 

Starving to Successful

StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

40 Comments

  1. Go out and visit as many different shows as possible. Visit ALL the local ones, no matter how small, plus as many farther-away ones as financially possible. Eventually you can use ArtFairSourceBook to find the best shows. Don’t bother when starting out, you won’t get into them anyway.

    Visiting a show, look at everything: the quality of the art, the number of shoppers, how many of them seem to be buying, how happy or busy the artists seem to be. Talk to the artists, especially the ones who are showing work similar to yours. Go on the last day of a multi-day show, so the artists know how well they did. “I’m thinking about doing this show next year, how was it for you?” is a good opener. There are a few grouches, but most artists are happy to share info. It’s how they started too.

    Take notes on displays, tents, everything. Ask people where they got their stuff. Read everything available about doing shows. Figure out how to apply. Many shows use Zapplication.org, so set up an account there. Get all the necessary equipment – tent, display system, boxes for your work. Start with small local shows (make your beginner mistakes there) and work your way up into the better shows.

    Finding the shows where your work sells is trial-and-error. You pretty much have to try them all and just see how it goes. Drop the duds and keep the gems. Keep careful track of all of your show-related expenses. You might have a few more sales at an “away” show but if the hotel costs eat it all then it’s not worthwhile. It takes a few years to find the gems. Some shows are so hard to get into you’ll probably take a few years just to figure out how to get in.

    Have a mailing list signup sheet out at all times. Your list is your key to success, so work it.

  2. This is your time to sell your work. Do not make it easy for family and friends to stay for long periods of time. Leave chairs at home. Bring a bar stool or diector’s chair for you alone.

  3. Knowing a particular show or festival’s market audience and product range has proven one of the most important aspects of a show’s personal success. Ideally, I try and accept shows where there is a proven history of high traffic volume and greater incomes and/or tourism.

    I have found the most important criteria, however, is the range and price point of the artwork at the show. If a show is mostly lower craft, I typically do not sell well since I cannot compete with a far lower price point. The show visitors also tend to be more concerned with bargains and getting a good price rather than the quality of the work. If there is a broad range of artwork in style, media and price, I tend to do fairly well. These shows also seem to attract the more art savvy clientele. It is not always just about the sheer traffic volume, but whether or not they are truly there to enjoy and purchase art.

  4. Knowing your audience at an art festival is a key factor in determining your success. I try to find festival’s where the audience is there to celebrate the arts and not so much into the party scene.

    The neighbor booth at one festival last summer, sold completely out of everything during the first day of the festival. I figure he sold $20,000 worth of art in just a few hours! He sat in a chair at an empty table for the remaining two days, handing out business cards! He clearly had done his research had artwork priced correctly and a product that everybody found interesting. People were lined up to buy his stuff, it was truly amazing.

    Additionally, I think it is important to make your booth look professional and gallery-like. Don’t hang everything you have ever produced in your booth, be selective and choose pieces that will draw people in. When possible, demonstrating your art process in the booth always gets attention. I found that it is better to keep your business cards behind the table and hand them out only when someone needs the information. Too often customers will take a business card and say, I’ll be looking at your website and get back to you. Unfortunately, they don’t.

  5. Be there! Be positive and interact with people who view your work. If you sell the artist, you will sell the work. Of course do the research about the type of show, and choose wisely.

  6. One valuable thing I learned in applying for an art show is that your artwork might be rejected from one show but actually win an award at another show.

  7. As a veteran art festival attendee/artist, I have found that looking and sounding as professional as possible is a must at any mid-to high end show. It is so easy for buyers to look down their noses at a display that screams: “I don’t know what I’m doing!” Be tasteful–be neat–don’t overcrowd your booth, or attend a show when you have only five things to display (unless they are huge). Dress well. Smell good, but not overpowering. Don’t eat while at your booth. Otherwise, smile and enjoy the people and the experience. I love art festivals!

  8. I started at smaller events, luckily I took pictures of my booth because when I applied for larger events they requested images of your booth setup. Here are my recommendations;

    *I go with my husband and young daughter, we’re a small family and don’t always have a sitter for her. We work together, setting up, taking down and established a rule that only one person at a time in the booth and no eating inside the booth.

    * When I setup, I step out of the booth to check the key areas where people will first see my booth and hang my best work there.

    * Listen to the comments, you can learn alot from it, my first year someone came in and said “Oh the pink lady!”, this was huge feedback that I needed to expand my color palette. Since then I’ve created series of works with exciting new colors.

    * At the end of the day, we analyze what went well, what didn’t and adjust.

    * If possible, try to get the same spot every year, people that follow you will look for you there.

    * Be freindly, have a positive attitude and it’s OK not to give your artwork away!

    * I don’t sell notecards because people will look for the least expensive item.

    * Have a sense of humor, no matter how tired, sick, frustrated or hot you are, customers will pick it up quickly, first impression is everything!

    * My last show I had a cast on my leg, it was a good icebreaker…so, good luck and break a leg!

  9. Most people are gracious and complimentary, but be ready to roll with a few punches…..
    “Is that the price or an inventory control number”
    “Uncle George paints like that”
    “Her grapes are too grapey.” (my favorite!)
    “I’m taking a course to learn this on Friday night.”
    Be sure you are set up early and at the time specified, the judging is often done before the event opens.
    You can have a banner with your name on it made at Ofc Max or Staples, this looks nice on the outside of your tent. Once set up, take photo’s of your display, many shows require this as part of the jury process, you’ll then have them for next year’s entries.

  10. Set up your tent early. Make an emergency box which should include aspirin, a hat, rainwear, sweater, water, snacks , sunglasses and extra supplies. Be prepared to take credit cards, I highly recommend square, it is quick and easy to use. And most importantly don’t forget business cards.

  11. A few points of etiquette for artists going to art shows to scope it out. The artists are there to sell art, not to talk with other artists . Ask them briefly and politely if you can contact them after the show, and write down their email. When a customer sees someone engaged in conversation they may have the intention of coming back, but if something else catches their eye, and they can’t quite remember where that booth was …. Get the picture? Don’t be the reason that a hard working artist loses a potential sale or a valuable contact. It can cost 6-700 or more to do a show when you include jurying fees, booth fees, possible vehicle rental – not to mention hotels, food, maintenance on your booth equipment, and so on. When I have only 8 hrs to make the most of a sale, no, I don’t want to discuss where I get my frames or where did I get that canopy or replacement parts for my panels. I just don’t have the time, sorry. And at the end of a show I’m dead tired and have to take it all down and pack it up so I can unload it all back home. At a recent show, I sold pretty well, all things considered economically. The guy next to me sold nothing. He’d tell you it was a lousy show and don’t bother. I’d say it was OK. All you’ve learned is that people’s tastes vary, quality of work varies, pricing varies, salesmanship varies and they are all independent of the quality of the show. The best approach, I think, is to spend a long time at a show and be the observant fly on the wall. Watch the traffic. See how many bags are being carried. Note if there’s distracting entertainment or other side shows that pull people away from the art. See how people’s work is priced and how it compares to yours. You’re going to learn most of what you need to know that way, I think.

  12. I second the comment about not overcrowding your display. It should not look, as one fellow-artist put it, “like you are showing everything you ever made”. I am a jeweler, and my colleagues are often guilty of overfilling their cases. Hard as it may be to leave a set-up looking spare, it creates the space necessary for the browser to focus on individual pieces. It looks sleeker, more confident and professional, and less like a rummage sale!

    I would also say that it helps a LOT to share a story with shoppers. Describe how or why you made what you made, in brief, unusual terms. This story gets people invested in you and your art, making them more likely to buy, and to remember you. And they pass this story on to others. An example– “I call this piece ‘Cross Country’– I was cross-country skiing when I came across this scene. I always carry a sketchbook with me, so I stood there on my skis and drew it. Then I went home and created this piece”. Many times, people go away, and come back with another person, show them the piece and repeat the story. Most people have no clue how an artist works, and they enjoy the glimpse into the process.

  13. A quick question to those who recommended not eating in the booth – which brings up the issue of the need for occasionally relieving ones self as well – I’m guessing that ideally one has an assistant or helper in order to pull this off? Leaving the booth un-personed seems like asking for trouble….and if one has an assistant and one is only supposed to be the only one in the booth…well then what, please?

  14. Make sure that your booth is not a dead end space. Leave a way for people to circulate without feeling trapped. This will also aid the traffic flow (and the air flow) in your space.

    Place eye-catching, important art where the viewer can see it at first glance while approaching your booth.

    Try not to answer a compliment with “thank you”. It psychologically ends the conversation or transaction. Say that you appreciate the compliment or you are glad that they like it. Also it is one of your favorite pieces or did you notice the ______________ I painted in the background? Say thank you when they are finished or have purchased something.

  15. A packing checklist with everything from panels to bandaids minimizes forgotten items when you get to your site. I also like to have a visual inventory with a thumbnail image of the work, title, price & tax (This is especially helpful for those helping with sales).
    **Last but not least, STAY HYDRATED (I learned the hard way- dehydration is worse than the port-a-potties!).

  16. It would be nice to have family or friends to help out, but some of us do this alone. It’s not too bad.

    Regarding bathroom breaks: Official booth-sitters from the show are never around when you need them, so I just let my nearest neighbor know where I’m going and make it as short a trip as possible. (Your neighbor can then let people in your booth know you’ll be right back.) Admittedly, with my big paintings I don’t worry about theft the way a jeweler does.

    As for eating, you have to eat and you have to be at your booth. But you don’t have to eat inside it! I usually duck behind my booth or sit at the side and unobtrusively grab a bite when traffic is light. There’s always a quiet moment here and there. (Baby wipes, by the way, make for easy cleanup.)

    Bottom line, you gotta stay hydrated and you gotta eat. People understand.

  17. No matter what, stay positive. Smile! I like to have a couple of pieces from that area where I am showing as the eye catcher. I like to hang a recent award in (8 x 10) a place where a browser can see it. I try not to sit down and try to be eye level with the buyer. A tall seat can be the best investment when it’s a more than one day show. I move work around for the second day. It looks like things were sold. A returning customer might need to ask where the piece they liked is now. Try not to be negative about the weather. I had one of my very best shows in the pouring rain in Bar Harbor! I often use that as an example when I hear negative comments from artists as well as customers!

  18. I don’t sell at fairs, but wondered how reliable Squareup was for being able to take credit cards with a smart phone. The device itself is not expensive, but is there a service? Also, how do artists handle it when people dispute a charge? I have a friend who sells antiques on ebay; she says every so often she ships a piece with a return receipt required, and gets the receipt back signed…then the buyer disputes it and says they never got the item. Their CC co removes the money from the seller’s account and poof, she is out the antique and the money plus the shipping, and someone got a free antique. How do you prevent that sort of thing?

  19. I’m a part-time artist/art teacher has done summer shows in the past, but found that the fees for shows were staying high while the profits were coming down. I’ve joined a fine arts group in Waupun Wisconsin and have been influencial in starting a high quality, low fee show in Waupun to allow for maximum profitability for artists. Our goal is not to make money off this event, but to break even just to support artists and the visual arts in Wisconsin. We are open for submissions until June 8th or until full if any of you are interested in becoming a part of this show. You will find all of the necessary information at the Waupun Fine Arts website: http://www.waupunfinearts.org
    Happy to be a part of supporting the arts!
    Gerri Buteyn, Visual Arts Coordinator
    Gerri Buteyn

  20. A lot of great advice and suggestions here. Especially the one about not saying “Thank You” until the deal is done. I’ve been guilty of that far too often.

    If you have a specific genre, my suggestion is NOT going straight for your niche crowd, unless you know you have a following there. For example, if your work tends toward the horror-genre (as mine does), you may not do as well at Horror-Themed Shows, as there is direct competition from everyone there. Among a more ecclectic audiance, your work will stand out.

  21. Cindy, that’s called a “chargeback” when a customer disputes a credit card charge. For fine art, chargebacks are VERY rare. I’ve never had one. I think selling fine art face-to-face is completely different from selling antiques on eBay. You make a personal connection with your collectors. They like your work and want you to do well; they are invested (literally) in your success. I don’t think they’re going to try to screw you. At least mine haven’t!

    There are ways to dispute a chargeback. A signed sales slip should be good enough proof. You definitely should check your merchant account’s chargeback dispute procedure to make sure it’s reasonable. Some companies charge you a fee even if you successfully dispute a chargeback. This is one of many things to check before signing up for a merchant account.

    I haven’t used Square so I don’t know what their chargeback procedure is.

    Even though it is a good idea to take credit cards when selling fine art, I don’t recommend a first-timer run out and get a merchant account right away. Do a few small local art shows first, tell people you take checks, and offer to deliver the painting to their home if they don’t have their checkbook with them. Take a $20 cash deposit or something to hold the painting. Be creative. People will understand. Once you know you’re going to do art festivals in a serious way, that’s the time to start thinking about taking credit cards.

  22. Cindy- I’ve been using Square on my smart phone for almost a year & think it’s the greatest thing since white bread!! When making sales in person, the customer signs on the phone itself with his/her fingertip. Most people think this process is kind of fun mixing technology with fine art. They choose whether they want an e-mail, text or no receipt. I always fill out a paper receipt as well. By the time I get home from a day at the fair, I have an e-mail receipt of the sales. With regard to phone sales, e-mail & faxes help to keep a record of the dialog regarding the sale. So far, I’ve had only positive experiences!

  23. Intuit has Go Payment which I use. I read that it is a tighter from a security standpoint than square. If you have Intuit Quickbooks, which my bookkeeper does, then it is free and the rates are quite low. (My rate is lower than any of the Square users that I have talked to. I download the deposits from my bank account right into Quickbooks where they are allocated.
    The swipe device is free and plugs into your phone audio jack. The customer can sign with their finger pad on your phone or iPad screen. If you enter the card data with the card remote, then the percentage that you pay goes up about 1%

  24. Plan an afternoon well in advance of your actual show, to set up a practice show at a local ball field or vacant lot. Be as thorough as the real one, from preparing your inventory for transport, packing your car, setting up the booth with all your merchandise, taking it down, and going home to unpack.

  25. I also use square. I have a merchant services account as well thru my bank…but found that square is amazing. I can track when my sales happened during the day at the art festival…I can make notes of what sold at what time of day…the customer gets a receipt emailed to them with my logo and information on the receipt…and I can get approvals right in the middle of asphalt without expensive merchant services equipment. I totally agree with Judith. AND the device and app are FREE! I even ordered a second one to keep on hand in case the first one fails.

  26. The more I read about galleries as opposed to outdoor shows, the more I am convinced that an outdoor display should resemble a gallery space. I have been guilty of worrying that I didn’t have enough paintings to fill the space, so I placed pieces far too close together. More than once, I’ve heard the words, “I’m all confused now” from potential buyers. It is ALWAYS easier to make a choice when there are fewer options. I’m not suggesting that a display should go from 30 pieces to 10; but how about twenty with lots of space between, and no more than two horizontal rows? Also, you can offer to remove one or two paintings from the display and let the “looker” take them away from the others for a few moments to allow for un-distracted viewing. For my next show, I plan to have a few pieces “in the back” if someone wants to see more of my work.

  27. I’ve been doing outdoor shows for many years now. It is cash flow and gets my work in front of people who may not see it in my studio or in galleries. All of this advice is very good. I think the key ingredient is that
    you have to really enjoy interacting with people, lots of them, and saying the same things over and over again, in a different way. Treat everyone as if he were a collector. That funny looking woman in the well-worn sweater may be the one who buys your big piece. Engage people. The “story” suggestion is a good one. It’s much more interesting to hear why you painted something than why they should buy it. Show a cohesive group of work in a complementary palette and have at least 3 price points. The Square works great. Don’t worry about it. It is the least expensive and most trouble-free way of taking credit cards, and you must take credit cards. In the last few years a lot of people have been using cash, but if you are going to make a big sale, you will likely make it with a card. The advice about scoping out shows is huge. Shows are expensive to do in terms of money and time, and it pays to know which will work best for you. Find out what kind of numbers they expect – how is it advertised, what is the attendance history etc. And, yes, do the shows that are art shows, not “festivals with art” — that way your audience is coming for the right reasons.

  28. Looking in the ebook and reading some comments given by Linda McCoy, I can add a couple of the better ones I have gotten as a wildlife photographer, including:

    Q. Are these real photographs?
    My answer is either: “They are real, I’m fake” or “Joe’s down the aisle are the real one’s”

    Q. Were you there when you took this picture? (no kidding, I’ve been asked twice)
    My answer the second time (too stunned the first time it was asked), “No, my camera is mature enough to travel on its own”

  29. Several people referenced “telling the stories ” of their pieces. People do love these, and it often makes the sale. As a gallery part owner, I have thought about some way to post short stories by the pieces on display. One certainly doesn’t want to follow visitors around, offering the story of every piece that catches their eye. I think this applies at art fairs as well. Does anyone have experience posting stories, and how do you do it in a professional-looking way?

  30. I learned a great marketing technique from an artist who had been painting and showing for many years. She created rather large, beautiful paintings and it was easy to fall in love with one or even several. The price tags were prohibitive to most people visiting her booths or shows. She also had framed giclees usually in two smaller sizes so potential customers could still purchase the image they loved without breaking the bank.

    I began employing this technique myself. My art was digitally created and printed on artist’s canvas, so I already had the pieces saved in a format where I could print smaller canvas sizes too. Plus I created archival paper print versions in two smaller sizes as well. The paper prints had the best markup–a good size to purchase at a very reasonable price, yet very inexpensive for me to produce on my own printer at home. This allows me to do shows where I may not sell a large canvas piece, but people will fall in love with one particular image and get the paper print instead of leave my booth empty-handed. I usually sell many paper prints and make my expenses back plus enough to make it worthwhile. If I didn’t have those paper prints I would sell less than half my usual volume, and even one more larger sale would not bring in more income than several paper prints.

    I realize this may not work for all artists, but it has been very successful for me and now I never do a show without a good supply of my archival paper prints.

    1. Evie- Great idea on the paper prints. I am a photographer doing my first show and thought of doing card stock posters from my photo lab as a less expensive alternative. I’m struggling to know how many of each image to print and how to send these poster prints home with people. Any ideas would be helpful. This is a smaller show and I am selling some of my travel print and advertising my portrait studio in my community as well. Thank you.

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