5 Things to Consider Before Signing on to an Art Festival

By Niki Hilsabeck in Art Business Advice > Selling at Art Fairs

As summer winds down, there are still plenty of art festivals on the horizon for fall. Perhaps you’re looking to dip your toe in the water and try one; maybe you’ve tried a few but aren’t sure if you want to continue putting the effort into showing at festivals.

While sharing your art with festival-goers can bring great rewards, it’s also an investment of time, money, and energy. Here is a list of factors to consider before signing on to an upcoming festival.

1. Cost

The first thing I look at when signing up for a festival is cost. In addition to the fee to participate, I know that I’m going to be spending money on gas, food, frames, and any other packaging and display items to bring to the event.

Some events will offer perks for artists, such as a meal, snacks, or drinks, which helps. And, keep in mind that if your artwork isn’t priced appropriately for high-end festivals, the cost to attend the festival might mean that you’re going to lose money.

Likewise, if your artwork is priced too high for a low-end festival, you may have trouble finding customers and will end up wasting money to attend (and, more importantly, time which also translates to money for many of us).

Before signing up to an event, take out your calculator and tally up your costs (don’t forget to leave a cushion for money you might end up spending on small emergencies that often happen en route to or during the event).

With those costs in mind, determine how much art you would need to sell to recover your costs, and decide whether or not you feel comfortable spending the money to attend.

2. Setup stress

After a few years of festival experience, I now consider parking and setup to be a huge factor in whether or not to attend a festival. I’m a petite person, so even with help I find myself physically exhausted after setting up and breaking down at festivals.

Add to that the stress of having to maneuver a vehicle to my setup space, and having to find parking for my car during the festival (which I then have to lug my stuff back to when the event ends), and I can be one grumpy vendor by the end of the weekend.

A festival that provides a smooth setup process (especially with event helpers to get you quickly unloaded) and reasonably close parking can make a big difference in your event experience. Beware of events where you’re expected to maneuver your own way through roadblocks to get to your booth, or expected to park far away from the event itself.

Festivals located in the middle of a busy eating or shopping district can be appealing, but if the local business owners do not want vendors parking anywhere near the event, you might find yourself facing a long trek to and from your vehicle when setup is over and breakdown time arrives.

Whatever you do, don’t be tempted to park illegally—I was at a recent festival where an artist had her car towed, leaving her and her toddler stranded at the event because the car seat was in the car. If you haven’t attended or participated in a particular festival that interests you, inquire ahead of time about setup and parking.

3. Weather

This may sound funny coming from a Southern Californian, but weather can make or break a festival for me. I know there are hardier festival exhibitors than I who brave storms and gale-force winds with their displays, but I don’t have that kind of stamina, so if a festival is in an area known for wind gusts, I’m usually out.

Oppressive heat is another consideration, although out here, people tend to expect the heat. If you’re looking at the requirements for a festival and extreme weather is mentioned, be sure you have the appropriate gear to secure your display (and insurance on your work, to cover losses if they happen).

4. Competition

It’s a good idea to look at the competition outside a particular art festival’s grounds—namely, other festivals and art events running at the same time.

I live in an area where there are multiple art festivals throughout the season, often occurring on the same weekends, so I take those factors into consideration when deciding on events I want to attend, and the likelihood of making sales.

Once you’ve picked the best festival for you, you may also want to think about your competition at the festival itself. When I first began doing festivals, I was so excited to participate that I didn’t think about how I’d be competing for dollars while at the event. But that’s an important thing to think about!

For example, at my last event, I was surrounded by shops and restaurants, in an area that was well-populated by weekend visitors. Great, right? Unfortunately, this area has spent the last few years transitioning from an antique shop haven to a trendy bar crawl. So, most of the people streaming into the area were headed straight for the bars and restaurants.

I’ve also been at events where there were plenty of free forms of entertainment to draw the crowd—activities for kids, street painting, music, and even a beautiful beach in easy walking distance. Add food, wine tasting, beer gardens, and low-priced jewelry or clothing, and you could see that festival-goers might be more likely to spend their money on quick consumables, rather than a piece of artwork they’ll have to carry back to the car.

In short, if you have the choice of festivals for a particular weekend, you may want to focus on the event that is tailored for the art buyer, rather than the curious onlooker.

Which brings me to my last (but extremely important) art festival consideration. . .

5. Crowd

If you can, talk to vendors about the crowd that typically attends an event you’re considering. Are you going to be getting a lot of “lookie-loos,” who are happy to stroll by and check out the event without even engaging with the artists? Is it a family event? I enjoy talking with children in my booth, but to be honest, they’re not usually allowed to make their own art purchasing decisions.

If the festival is promoted as a free event with lots of low-cost options for food and entertainment, that will generally determine the spending mentality of the majority of those attending the festival.

Maybe a less harsh way to look at it is this:

What do you hope to accomplish at each particular festival? If you’re looking to sell high-priced art, a street painting festival might not bring the crowd you’re hoping for. If, on the other hand, you’re looking to connect with people and talk about your work, just about any event will provide you the opportunity to do that, as people are naturally curious.

Identifying what you want to get out of the festival ahead of time will help you decide whether you want to invest the time and money to bring your artwork to the crowd that a particular festival tends to draw.

Of course, even with all these considerations in mind, choosing festivals can be hit-or-miss.

I once signed up for a festival that had all the right components: well-attended, long history, promoted widely, even easy setup and good cost. Unfortunately, it drew a crowd that was looking for alcohol, free music, and a walk down to the beach, so I just enjoyed the entertainment and went home empty-handed.

My last event involved three days of sweat, bad weather, and three days of lookie-loos. However, one very sweet couple I met in my booth come back a couple of weeks later to purchase one of my favorite pieces. So despite the “miss” at the festival, it still worked out!

With a little research ahead of time, you’ll at least increase your chances to get the most out of your art festival participation—and considering all the work that goes into festivals, I guarantee it’s worth it!


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