What I Learned by Participating in an Art Festival | Part 1 – Preparation

I vaguely remember traveling with my parents to several outdoor art festivals. I was too young at the time to understand what was going on – I just knew that dad was setting his art up in the park, people were coming to see it and talk to dad, and we would celebrate when any art sold. Dad soon moved toward gallery representation and stopped participating in art festivals.

I would go on to open a gallery with my wife, Carrie, and we’ve been very focused for most of our adult lives on building our business. As consumers, we’ve attended a few outdoor art festivals over the years and have enjoyed the experience. In my interactions with artists, I talk to many artists who make a living through their participation in outdoor art shows.

All of that is to say that my connection to art festivals has been casual and somewhat distant. Until this last weekend, that is.

In 2019 we opened a second gallery location in Pinetop, Arizona, a small mountain resort town in eastern Arizona. We’ve enjoyed cultivating a clientele here during the summer season. In a small town like Pinetop, it’s easier to get a sense of what’s happening in town, so it’s hard to ignore the summer art festivals. The biggest is held on the weekend leading into the 4th of July. This show attracts thousands of attendees and dozens of artists, jewelers, and other craftspeople. Over the last few summers, we’ve noticed that the gallery is pretty quiet over the show weekend as most art lovers in the area focus the art experiences on the festival.

When the chair of the art festival, Sandy Pendleton, who also happens to work a couple of days a week in our Pinetop gallery, invited me to consider participating, it seemed like a great idea. Not only would we have an opportunity to expose thousands of new people to Xanadu artists and introduce them to our gallery, but I would also have a chance to experience first-hand what many RedDotBlog readers experience when participating in art festivals.

So, what did I learn?

First and foremost, I learned that selling art at an outdoor show is a lot like selling art in the gallery . . . but with rain.

Over the next several days, I will share some of the biggest takeaways from the event – things I think went well, things I could have done better, and what I learned by participating in our first art festival. Today, I’ll talk about preparation.

Preparation

I was shocked by how much preparation was involved in getting ready for the show. First and foremost, we had to buy a canopy and display walls. I talked to a few artists and determined that the best option for the display walls was ProPanels. These panels are durable, lightweight, and versatile. They were not cheap, but I was assured they were worth every penny.

my initial back-of-napkin design

I had registered for a 10′ x 10′ booth space, so I developed a design for the walls that I thought would give me a good display space. Once I had the plan, I called Pro-Panel and asked them to take a look and give me feedback. After asking some additional questions, the rep took a look and made a few suggestions to improve the display. I ended up buying 13 wall panels.

I hopped on Amazon.com to buy the canopy and found a highly rated one from ABCCannopy.

Now that I had the walls and canopy, I needed to figure out how to hang the art. ProPanels offers a variety of suspension solutions, but they were expensive and more complicated than I had hoped. I did an internet search and found a small company, Harmon Hooks, out of Payson, AZ (just down the road!), that makes velcro-mounted hooks that will hang right on the ProPanel fabric. I ordered some of these hooks and tested them on the panels. They seemed to work great.

Now that I had the display space taken care of, I needed to plan the mix of art we would display and figure out the display. I was also nervous about how the setup would go. It’s one thing to sketch out plans, but I’ve learned that the execution can be quite another.

The booth set up in our backroom.

I decided that the only way to be sure I knew what I was doing would be to do a dry run. I cleared out a space in our back room, set up the canopy and walls, and then hung the art. Doing this not only allowed me to figure out how everything worked, but it also permitted me to have the hooks in place so that I didn’t have to figure out anything on the day of the event. I’ll have more to say about this in my post on the setup, but this dry run was tremendously helpful, and I’m so glad I did it.

About a week before the event, I realized I didn’t have a sign for the event. I quickly put together a design and ordered a vinyl banner with grommets from UPrinting.com. Fortunately, their turnaround was quick, and the banner arrived several days before the event.

The final preparatory step was to print pricing labels for all of the art going to the event. We used the same tags we employ in the gallery and put them onto 3″x5″ cards to hang on the ProPanels. This did not work well, but I’ll have more to say in an upcoming post. I’ll also have more to say about the mix of art we showed, which was critical. All of this was preparation, but these subjects deserve their own posts. Stay tuned for more in the coming days!

How do you prepare for art festivals?

Do you participate in outdoor art festivals? What do you do to prepare? What tips would you give an artist preparing to show at a festival? If you are considering offering your art at a festival, what questions would you ask artists with many of these events under their belts? Leave your thoughts, comments, tips, tricks, and questions in the comments below.

Keep an eye out for upcoming posts on setup, selling at the show, the surprises, the results, and the tear-down.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. 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.

16 Comments

  1. I participated in New England outdoor art festivals in the 90s and early 2000s. If the festival was in Maine, I had to leave my NH house at 4:00 am to arrive and set up in time. I was on my own and it was physically challenging. Once set up, I enjoyed talking to those who stopped by my booth and selling my work. The shows were large, so if I was new to the show, the buyers already had their favorites and I was less likely to sell at that show. I did sell well at the shows I did year after year.
    During one summer, the owners of 2 new galleries (different locations) were scouting for artists and invited me to show in theirs. I did so and dropped the outdoor shows. All the prep and driving, set up and loading/packing was stressful.

  2. Wow, your display on the panels looks awesome! We use a wire grid system and I participated in a July 1st event with a few of our local artists. One of the great things about the Fisheries Museum of The Atlantic in Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, is that they set up the tents for us! We had to carry our own grids and that posed a bit of a problem as they were a bit heavy for me to take out of my husband’s pickup truck. I was lucky to have help from another female artist who is a bit younger and a lot stronger!
    We managed to set the grid walls up and screw them down to the wooden wharf with u braces and a bent shape for support. The event was well attended and I was pleased to have my first sale of the day early. Unfortunately, my Square unit for sales was not working on my data. Thanks again that my artist friend’s booth was beside mine, I was able to use her payment system for transactions.
    Take down was a bit tougher at the end of the day because the crew from fisheries had to start removing tents at 3pm and the crowds were still roaming. We could not bring the truck in close enough to remove our work so I ended up parking in a spot reserved for someone else, who happened to show up after I pulled in. Not a great scenario but he let me stay there until I loaded up. A couple of great lessons learned that day, always test your sales equipment at the location and ensure you have a way in and out of the venue to load your art.

  3. I have a lavender farm as well as an art business so I am doing at least five festivals a summer. We have a 10×10 tent and instead of the pro panels I have to triangular metal stands that I put in front of my tables that I have in front that I displayed my art. What I have found in the downturn is that my miniature art sells phenomenally. Where as my larger art doesn’t sell as quickly. Although lately I am selling one to two large paintings a show, but I sell out of my miniature three and a half by fives and 5x7s every show. I have wooden displays that I set up for those and I put those paintings in a frame to show people what they look like. I could probably sell them a little bit more expensive, but I don’t know that I could sell them for more. I don’t know. People are asking a lot for my cards and they do go to my website but I don’t see that they’re buying for my website after that. So I don’t know about the running people to your website. I do like that they buy immediately from me and I am appreciative of that. I am in two galleries here in New Mexico, and I am into online galleries if that helps. It could be that my website is not a good one and that I don’t keep it as up-to-date as possible. I do put all of my art immediately on Instagram and I put it on Facebook as Twitter. The Gallery in Santa Fe sells a couple of my large paintings every few months and the gallery in Madrid, New Mexico sells as many or more. Prior to doing an outdoor show I look to see where I’m going to be at the show and then I make sure that my miniature paintings are what is going to be in that area and I’m painting towards that. My next show is going to be at lavender Festival so I’m painting a lot of lavender and bees. My larger paintings are not necessarily that they’re more branded. I’m a wildlife painter, however I do a lot of cowboys, and wildlife.

  4. I’ve continued to gain respect for you with each of your posts but this one really ratcheted it up! You’ve just got your finger in every pot and I love it. Art festivals would be the last thing on my list but I’m very curious about what you’ll have to say in the upcoming posts. Your generosity of spirit is admirable.

      1. I’ve always tried to make contact with the venue and ask what their set up is, i.e….walk in front only, walk in front and all the way through or walk in front and then out to side. Once I know this, I make a mock run at home and set up my tent accordingly and give myself an idea of lay out so I’m not trying to work it out at the show(very time consuming, so being prepared is key).
        your blogs are so helpful!!
        Reclaimed Equus

  5. I think it takes at least 2 people to set up one’s exhibit. I have never done it because of the labor it takes , setting up your area, transporting your artwork, keeping watch over it so no one walks off with your work. I prefer indoor exhibits.
    The main reason is because I feel my work will
    be safer in a respectable gallery.

  6. I have not done an outdoor show myself but help a fellow artist with hers. For a first time exhibitor diy hooks might be cost more effective than the hooks you used. She epoxied picture hooks to small pieces of Masonite on one side and industrial strength Velcro to the back. They work great! She’s used them for 20+ years. One more tip is to slip Hula hoops into the inside upper corners. This helps keep some of the puddled rain from sagging on the canopy.
    I’ve read all three articles of you experience and you have excellent advice as well as the commenters.

    1. Great input Jean – thanks! For what it’s worth, the velcro hooks we bought really weren’t that expensive, and it saved a lot of time to be able to buy them ready-to-hang.

  7. Your so right prep is the key, I have been doing shows all over the country now for about 4 years. I try to stick with about 12-15 per year, because I can’t work while on the road and need studio time. It can be very stressful until you get your system down, I’ve had to do them alone and with help, sometimes the help is more stressful. I have also come to realize the show life is not what I want long term and the stress is punching me to open my own gallery instead. I do show in many galleries around the country too but love the interaction with the people.

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