The summer art show season is upon us again after a year of cancelled and postponed events. This summer is poised to be a return to a somewhat normal art season when tens of thousands of artists have the opportunity to show and sell their creations to the art-loving public. Participating in these shows can be exhilarating, terrifying, and exhausting, all at the same time.
I’ve long recommended that artists take advantage of the opportunity to show their work at art events. Not only do the artists have the chance to sell their work, they also learn first-hand what potential buyers think of their work and get to learn about the challenges of selling their work. But how can an artist have the best shot at success in an art show or at a festival?
For the last several years (prior to the pandemic), about this same time, I’ve run a post asking for tips from artists who participate in art shows and festivals. I asked what advice they might give an artist who is just beginning to show their work. Readers made some great suggestions, and I would like to re-post them here as we go into the summer season. I also ask you to share any wisdom you’ve gained by participating in shows. Thanks for all the great input!
Suggestions from RedDotBlog Readers
Barbara J Carter
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.
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.
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.
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.
A few days ago I put up an article meant to give artists information on how to prepare and sell at small art shows based on some of my experiences. You can read it at http://www.bobestrin.com/artshow.htm.
Jo Ann Nelson
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
Great advice Joy, everyone should have the ability to process credit cards and Square makes it easy –http://www.squareup.com
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!).
Barbara J Carter
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.
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!
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?
Julie Bernstein Engelmann
Wow, I just want to say Thank You to each one of you who contributed so much wisdom here!!
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
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.
Barbara J Carter
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.
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!
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%
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.
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.
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.
Carol Joy Shannon
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.
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”
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?
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.
In addition to the great comments, we also had an artist create a more comprehensive guide, which I’ll also include here in the interest in consolidating all of the info on this topic.
Successfully Marketing Your Art through Art Festivals
by Larry Berman www.bermangraphics.com.
You’ve been painting for years. Friends and family members give you positive feedback, telling you how much they love your work and suggest that you should be selling. Or maybe you’ve visited an art show and have seen other painters selling their work. You imagine setting up a booth in front of thousands of people who might purchase your paintings. You’ve been told that art festivals can provide a viable way to earn a living doing what you like best.
Creating Artwork that Juries Well and Sells Well
Contrary to what you might think or have heard, it’s not that easy to get into an art show. One of the first things I learned that helped me get into the better shows with my own photography was the importance of having a unified or related body of work. It made for better jury results and helped attract buyers that were interested in a personal style, not just a random piece.
The Application and Jury Process
The application requirements of “juried” art shows are that you submit individual digital images of your work, usually three, four or five, depending on the show. Additionally they require an image of your display or booth. The display image will come across more professional looking if your body of work is unified and matches the style of the individual images submitted.
Some major art shows get over 1,000 applications for about 200 – 300 spaces. Smaller more local shows get fewer applications and are easier to get into.
Jurors spend very little time viewing the images of each applicant so your jury images need to be of the best quality with nothing to distract the jurors. Projection juries use multiple digital projectors and project the entire set of jury images simultaneously, usually for less than 20 seconds per artist in the first round, where up to 50% may be eliminated. Images are viewed by each medium so you are competing with other painters for space in the show.
The preparation of your jury images is the most critical component to your being accepted because your images are all they have to go by. You can be the best painter in the world, but if that isn’t reflected in your images, you won’t get accepted.
Photographs of paintings should not include mats or frames as they make the painting look smaller within the space allocated to each image in the jurying process. The display image should be representative of what your display will look like at the show. The work should be shown hanging in the booth under a white canopy or tent without identifying signs or people. If you don’t have a white canopy yet or have never even done an art show, look for a show (usually only a few of the top shows) that has an emerging artist category where the show provides the display. If you apply in this category you’ll be juried only against other emerging artists.
For the smaller shows, communicate with them, explain your situation, and they will probably let you photograph a grouping of your work or submit an additional artwork image instead of an image of your display or booth.
Where the Shows Are
Online resources have largely replaced print media. ZAPPlication and Juried Art Services are the online application systems that most of the major art shows use. Artists use ZAPP® to find shows to apply to and art shows use ZAPP® because they know that’s where the artists look for shows.
Art Fair Insiders has art show listings besides being an online forum/blog where over 9,000 artists share information. Art-Linx has a large artist e-mail list and art shows pay to have e-mail blasts sent out with their information and closing dates. There are even a few Facebook groups where artists share show information.
For new artists, Sunshine Artist Magazine is the only trade publication for artists doing art shows. The Art Fair SourceBook lists the particulars of the top art shows in the country and also has regional editions. Both are still available, though the SourceBook is now only online.
Most art shows have application deadlines 3 to 6 months before the show actually takes place. Artists doing shows regularly plan their schedule up to a year in advance. For example, Florida winter shows take place in January through March close in September and October. Midwest summer shows close in January through March.
Most areas have nationally rated, difficult to get into shows, and there are thousands of smaller local shows that are much easier to get into and are a good place to get your feet wet, so to speak.
I strongly suggest walking a few shows to see how other artists are displaying. Even better if you can walk shows that you’re specifically interested in. The best tip I can offer is to attend an open jury, even if you have to travel some distance. A few of the top shows allow artists, even those that haven’t applied, to sit in the back of the room to watch all the submitted images projected. It’s an amazing experience and there’s no limit to what you can learn by seeing how your images, or those of your competitor’s, project.
Getting Accepted – the Display
You’ve gotten through the jury process and are actually going to put together a display. White tents or canopies can range in price from $200 for an EZUp at Sam’s Club (or Caravan at Costco’s) to $900 for the starting price of a Trimline canopy, the sturdiest canopy you see at art shows. You may consider renting a tent to start off, but rental tents are usually opaque, not letting light through, so your paintings will not be viewed well. Canopies like Trimline and Light Dome (lighter but still sturdy) are translucent, designed to let light through and make the artwork hanging on the walls look good.
Inside the canopy you will need walls to hang your paintings on. The most professional looking are the carpet covered Pro Panels. They look like walls of an art gallery but light weight and sturdy. The best alternative are mesh walls made by the Flourish (Trimline) company for all types of canopies. They are made from a vinyl mesh and roll up taking very little space in your vehicle.
If you sell reproductions of your paintings, you will need a display bin for your unframed work. You will also need a desk or table for making sales and displaying promotional material or business cards. Pro Panels makes carpeted desks in the same style as their panels. Your vehicle will probably determine what type of display you eventually end up with unless you plan on always renting a van. When I downsized from a full size van to a minivan, I stopped using my Pro Panels and went to mesh walls because they fit better in a smaller vehicle. I now rent my Pro Panels to artists who do shows in the Pittsburgh area where I live. Whatever canopy you decide on, make sure to use lots of weight in each corner to reduce the chance of wind damage.
Making Sales – Taking Credit Cards – Packaging
You need to be able to take credit cards. The Square (and similar credit card processing companies) allow anyone with a mobile device and a data plan can sign up for the Square and take credit cards wherever they are.
For packaging the sold painting, I’ve always been a believer in using large clear plastic bags so your painting can advertise for you as your customer walks around the show.
Leave a Comment Below
Do you have advice to share about succeeding in art shows and festivals? Do you have a response to one of the suggestions above? Would you like to say thanks to the artists who contributed to this post? Please, share your thoughts below.