In my “former” life (as I like to call it) I owned an exhibits company. For years, my job was to work on trade shows, build exhibits, and create product show rooms for big companies like AT&T, Samsung, and so on. So I was intrigued when I learned that there was an entire community of artists who traveled from art show to art show, setting up their tents for a weekend then taking them down once the event was over.
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After selling my exhibits business in 2011, my husband and I decided to take the art show plunge ourselves—we knew we’d enjoy being wandering artists, and certainly wouldn’t mind setting up and dismantling a tiny tent after all those shows we had done in our prior occupation.
Oh but what I have learned since my first show! Here are some tips for those of you considering art shows yourself. . .
Talk with artists at shows near you
There are tons and tons of shows in every city all over this country on any given weekend. There are local craft shows, fine art shows, and arts and crafts fairs—and when I first started, I didn’t know the difference. So I began by researching my options. And, frankly, any artist that wants to sell their art at these types of events would do well to start with research themselves.
The best way to do that is to go to some shows and talk to the artists. Artists are always glad to help and give advice. One of the very first things I learned is that there is a jury (judging panel) at most of your better events, and the caliber of show (and jury) really drives the amount of people who are applying for the shows.
Make use of free—and paid—application services
These days (unlike the days of slides and snail mail) there are several online services where you can apply to shows with digital files of your work and a photograph of your booth.
Once you’ve set up your online portfolio and booth shots on these sites, it is very easy to enter shows. Just keep in mind, there’s almost always a fee to enter this way (usually $25-50 per show) and you’re not guaranteed that your work will be accepted.
What’s a booth shot, you ask? Great question!
Every traveling artist must—fairly early on—take a leap of faith and decide to buy a tent to house their artwork. This can be a big investment, and it’s a big step! Your tent is your own personal gallery—and you’ll need to take photos of your booth (booth shots) when you apply to shows. This is part of what the jury looks at to decide if your art belongs in their show or not. The better your booth looks, the more likely you’ll be invited to their show.
During my research phase, I looked at tents of all kinds and talked to artists about the pros and cons of each. I am the type of person who jumps in with both feet, so I went ahead and purchased a really nice tent that was going to be able to take the rain, wind, and abuse of outdoor shows and still be easy to set up and take down.
How to choose an art show
Once you’ve been accepted, shows cost anywhere from $75 to $600 for a 10 x 10 space so I typically try to enter shows that have:
• A good reputations from other artists
• Attendance of over 20,000
• Or have been ranked high in Sunshine Artist magazine
There are all kinds of closed art show discussion groups that you can get onto by sending a pic or two of your work (Art Show Reviews is one of my favs). I have mentioned over and over the importance of talking to other artists. I can’t punctuate that point enough. Find an art show group or two, get involved, and discuss the viability of a show by talking with other artists who have previously attended.
I should also mention that all shows are definitely NOT created equal. There are shows with amenities like meals, snacks, booth sitters, and Friday set-ups. It’s a good idea to make a list of what matters to you, and make sure the shows you’re considering offer those perks.
My own goal is to make money, so I really try to stay with shows that have a proven record of high attendance or a great buying public, but I also keep an eye out for awards shows. Some award shows really give a lot of cash awards and I have been fortunate to have benefited greatly from them. The caveat with the better shows, of course, is that there IS more competition to get into them. There are shows that get thousands of applications to fill a couple of hundred spots so the competition is fierce for the best ones.
Over the years I have done 200+ shows and have been turned down twice and have been placed on a wait list 3 times. A wait list is not quite a “no”—it’s just a list the promoters (or owners) of a show keep of alternates in order to fill up spots vacated by artists who were initially invited. If you get invited to a show, you have to cough up the booth fee by a certain date, sometimes months in advance, so artists so drop out and others pulled up out of the wait list.
(Yes, we are the only people in the world who will put forth money for an event months in the future, in places where we have to travel across the country, without knowing what the weather will be like or what the economy will be! Art show artists are a hearty breed but if you are up for hard work and can deal with not knowing from month to month what you’re going to make, the rewards can be fabulous!)
3 questions to ask before paying a booth fee
How well is this art show promoted?
Every art show has someone running it. Some art show coordinators put a lot of money into advertising (getting attendees), some put lots of money into amenities (artist perks) and some put it into award money (prizes for the artists). I prefer a show that advertises, so I know there will be attendees there.
No matter what, though, I always try to take advantage of the social media opportunities that come from being in a show. Most art shows have (at least) a Facebook page, and it’s important to utilize every bit of free advertising you can—I do that by ALWAYS linking back to my own website at Foliotwist, so whatever happens at the show, I’ve at least gotten some exposure.
How much does it cost?
In my experience, the better shows tend to be in the $300-600 range plus travel expenses (if you’re making a budget, don’t forget to add travel expenses!)
If a booth fee is under $250, I find it suspect and tend to shy away from those. That type of fee can’t possibly give the promoter/owner of the show enough money to properly advertise a show. If the show is right here in Atlanta, where I live, I would consider the lack of travel expense into the show but for the most part, I travel to the shows that have good reputations for getting customers in front of you.
I also lump my shows together by region and do several at once in order to make the expense of the trip worth considering.
How much could I earn selling at this show?
A good rule of thumb for me is to be able to make at least 10 times your booth fee. Again, I don’t care that much about amenities, so I tend to enter shows that either have an established record of bringing in people, or awards show. Of course, award shows are harder to get into because they tend to attract the best artists, so take that into account as well.
My top tips for art show hopefuls
If you skimmed the rest of this post, here’s everything you need to know:
1. Get on www.artfairinsiders.com. Art Fair Insiders is a free service for art fair artists only, and has a complete section for “newbies.” It covers what to bring, credit card acceptance, insurance issues, tent types and their pros and cons—you can even get used tents here!
3. Look for the 200 Best Book put out by Sunshine Artists. They have both a free and subscription section for their services.
4. Talk with other artists (again and again I say this!)
5. Have business cards printed (to hand out) and a good website. I get many, many of my buyers using this simple little thing called a business card. I can’t over-exaggerate the importance of a business card that includes your web site and phone number.
Are art shows for you?
Doing art fairs day in and day out is hard, hard work. The long drives to the venues, then setting up and tearing down your booth in rain, hot sun, and wind can be exhausting. When bad weather hits, it can bring a show to a halt and it’s completely miserable. With all that, there are still some weekends that I don’t even meet my expenses (not many but, yes, they happen).
But the payoff can be enormous, too.
Most weekends after the booth is up I spend my time shooting the bull with people, enjoying myself outdoors, and happily selling my art and winning a few awards along the way. I travel all over the country and will, this summer, do 6 shows in 7 weeks in Colorado. I also just spent the winter in Florida.
The way I see it, I have the best possible life—my schedule is mine, and the only constraint on my time is how hard I want to work and where I want to go.
Special thanks to Marjorie Bowers for sharing how she makes a living selling at art shows! To learn more about Marjorie’s work, please check out her portfolio of pencil, pen, and ink drawings.