In over five years of selling photography at art shows, I’ve had the opportunity to make a lot of friends, and to observe many more artists and their handiwork. I got to thinking about why some kinds of art seem to sell better at certain shows. Things like garden art, for example. Or jewelry. The art show world is evolving in many ways, not all of them good. For example, the proliferation of imported “buy/sell” items from Asia has impacted craft artists. Technological advances in digital cameras have made it simpler for the average person to make good photographs. Many more shows & many more artists have increased competition for patron attention and dollars.
So what makes a good art show item? After thinking about it, I came up with several criteria that are critical to success as an artist.
- Demonstrates YOUR skill and expertise.
Years ago, painters and potters got together on blankets and spread their work out on lawns. Art shows today have gotten much more sophisticated, and so have the products. Some things are more easily made than others, and require less of a commitment to education and skill. Certain types of jewelry fall into this category, as does travel photography. Choosing a niche that requires a higher level of skill insures that your work will be regarded as special, and will make it less likely that amateurs will attempt to emulate it. Whatever you choose to create should demonstrate YOUR individuality and creativity, and a high level of technical expertise. The best work is not duplicatable — although the Asian factories can copy most painting styles, ceramic objects and anything else you can think of.
- Easy to make with accessible materials.
It should be easy for YOU, based on your experience, expertise and skill set. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy for anybody. The things you choose to make should be repeatable, from a process standpoint, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you start out making a new item, or designing a new line. Keep track of the little things you do to enhance the production process. That might also include the ideation process: how you come up with new ideas and new techniques. If it’s too easy to make, it may be easy to copy, as well.
You should be able to get the materials you use in your work easily. Find sources for the things you use every day, and strive to build relationships with your vendors. Lead time between ordering and shipping should be days, not weeks, unless it is such a unique material that there is no other substitute. If an item is unique, it may take time to find new sources if an old source runs out just when you need to reorder. Develop backup vendors for your key items.
- Unique, hard to copy.
The more unique, the better. Originals have more intrinsic value than reproductions. Limited editions with smaller numbers of prints are more highly regarded by collectors than lithographed posters. Many people like to know that theirs is the only one of its kind in existence. This generally gives painters, glass blowers and sculptors an advantage. But you can add unique qualities in other ways as well. Choose subject matter that is yours alone to sketch, to paint, to photograph. Own your niche. Choose not to follow the crowd.
Almost anything can be replicated in Asia nowadays. Special, hard to duplicate techniques, a signature style, niche subject matter — all of the above can help to shield your work from copyists. Copyright your images. For photographers and 2-D artists who publish on the web, TinEye.com can check to see if other sites are using your work without your permission.
It helps if your art widget is something that people actually want to buy. You can spend all the time in the world developing unique processes, wonderful technique and beautiful finishes, but if no one wants your widget, you’ve spent your time fruitlessly. Do a little research. See what sells at art shows. There’s a reason that doggie visors, scented candles and yard sculpture fly out of the crafters’ booths. There’s nothing stopping you from making art that pleases YOU, but if you want to be successful in the art fair world, other people must want what you’re making.
The easier your artwork is to transport, the easier it will be to get to shows and setup your display. And easier for your customers to carry home with them! Large work, such as heavy metal sculpture and big canvasses are at a disadvantage here. Jewelers have it the easiest. Most of their inventory can go home in a suitcase every night! Of course that leads to the need for increased security. If your items are too small, it will increase the possibility of them walking away on their own. Systems to pack and transport whatever you make need to be taken into consideration. Even the simple act of changing a frame size may have ramifications on the way you pack your van or trailer. The more you carry, the more expense you will incur going from show to show.
- Easy to display.
It goes without saying that your display should look professional. But some art is fragile (glass, ceramics), or requires special lighting. Take into account how your display will be unpacked, set up, and repacked at every show. Most artwork is not designed to be carted around forever — the more it gets moved, the more likely you are to incur incidental damage.
Your work should be visually appealing. A mix of larger and smaller pieces helps to create contrast in the retail booth environment. If all of your work is small, consider what will draw potential customers into the booth. If it doesn’t look good, chances are, it’s not going to be of much interest to casual passersby.
- Resists weather.
Weather is a fact of life at most art festivals. Rain, wind, humidity, sunlight all play a factor in how well your artwork can survive before it finds a home. Some work is very susceptible to damage — pastels, for example, are extremely fragile. Other work, like ceramics, sculpture and glass are subject to wind damage, but can withstand moisture fairly well. Think about what venues you are likely to be exhibiting in, and plan accordingly.
- Value at an affordable price point.
Art fair shoppers are always looking for great values. This doesn’t always mean that they are looking for “cheap”, but that they are looking for that special find. Adding value through your experiences in creating the work is a bonus. Tell your stories. Spin your web of romance. Unique materials, and special techniques add value to your work. Make sure your prospective buyers know about your secret sauce. Give your customer something to brag about when they proudly display that new piece on the wall.
Don’t price your work too high or too low. One mistake that beginners make is assuming that their work is less valuable than experienced artists, and price lower to “get in the market”. Others will price themselves out of the market by placing too high a value on their prized work. Every market has a price comfort zone for specific types of work. Your work may not fit every market. Do some research and don’t be afraid to negotiate price. Remember, you made the piece. You can always make another. If you’re in it to make a living, you are in it to sell your work, not hoard it.
- Can be sold for a profit, including cost of materials, and labor.
If there’s a demand for your item, you need to make a profit. You can’t sell each piece at a loss, and make it up on quantity, as the old saying goes. Take into account ALL of the factors that go into your work, including the cost of your materials; fixed costs like studio space, insurance and equipment; and make sure that you pay yourself for your labor. There are many formulas out there to calculate what you should be making. Just keep in mind that you will spend a large amount of time your art, marketing it and selling it. Unless you are a highly unusual individual who only makes art as a labor of love, you will want to get paid for what you create.
- Love what you do.
The most important factor of all: you must throw yourself into your work with a passion. Just making objects to sell will not help you sell them. You must have strong emotions about your work. When you talk about how you create your vision, people must hear the emotion and feel the romance behind the work. Without passion in your work, you might as well be flipping burgers.
Take a few minutes and evaluate your creations with this handly little worksheet,using a scale from 1-5 for each factor. The higher the score, the better a fit for the art show market. Not everybody is going to score high on all ten of these factors. What is the perfect art show product? Some might say jewelry — small, easy to transport, always in demand. Others might opt for large paintings, or sculpture because of the high price point originals can command. Whatever you choose, have fun doing it, and sleep well at night, knowing that you don’t have to sit in an office from nine to five!
As always, comments are welcome. If you have some thoughts to add, please do so!
It’s been a while since I posted about the mechanics of doing shows, and there are several good posts on the blog that cover certain aspects. With the economy the way that it is, many people I meet ask me, “How do I get started doing art fairs?” Many folks have dreamed of a life of independence, creating art that they enjoy, and wonder if it’s possible to make a living doing it. For most people, the mystery is in the logistical aspects, not so much in the creation of the work. So I’ll point you to some of the previous pieces, and add some new comments, focusing mostly on points 2-5.
- Create a body of work, or organize work that you’ve done over the years into cohesive units. If you’re considering doing shows, you should already have work that you are passionate about, enjoy making, and most of all, enjoy talking about. While everything else is important, nothing should take a back seat to your continual creative evolution. For more on how to spend more time in the studio while still marketing and selling, you can’t beat Alyson Stanfield’s book, “I’d Rather Be in the Studio”. You can find it on her website, along with other weekly doses of inspiration on her Art Biz Blog, here.
- Create a display to show your work in its best light. Think of this as a retail environment, like a gallery. This is the most important part to get right, as you must have not only a system to protect your work from the elements and sell to art patrons, but also a way to present your work to show jurors. Most shows require several images of your work and a booth slide that shows your display as it would appear at a show. There are many ways to get there, from the simple EZ-UP or Caravan canopies, to the Trimline and Lightdome tents. At a minimum, you need a 10×10′ tent, with sides that can be secured at night; display walls or pedestals, depending on how you want to display your work, and the work itself.
Many people use home made walls, using plywood, hollow-core doors or other materials that can be broken down and carried in a van or trailer. Arguably the best systems for 2-D artists are the lightweight panel walls from ProPanels and Armstrong Displays. The walls come in different heights and widths, and you can get good ideas from their sites.
For photographers, printmakers and other 2D artists, framed work is hung on the walls, and prints are usually displayed matted in browse bins. I’ve written quite a bit about my bin systems: here’s a recap. ProPanels and Armstrong also make collapsible bin systems if you don’t want to make your own.
At shows that run into the evening, you may want to consider lighting, too. Some events will supply electricity, others charge for it, and some allow you to use a generator or marine batteries. Lighting is a “nice to have” in most situations. To learn more, read this post on portable lighting. Honda Generators are the quietest, but not all shows will allow them, or gasoline.
Go to shows and see how other artists that work in your medium set up their booths. Walk the show, take notes, and talk to artists, if it seems as if you are not distracting them from the primary business of working with their paying customers. Use these ideas to plan your own display.
When you have your booth and displays thought out, you’ll want to have some photographs made that you can use to apply to shows with — this is known as a “booth shot”. It can be made at a show, or set up in a driveway. Chris Coffey, a respected art-show photographer, has this to say about the booth shot and jurying for shows in general. Larry Berman and Chris Maher have also set up a monster resource site for art show artists at artshowphoto.com.
- Apply to shows. To get your work out in public, there is no better way than to do art festivals. For the most part, the people that come to shows come to look at art, talk to the artists in person and hopefully, buy some art. There are lots of shows all over the country, and depending on the season, there are probably shows right in your area. There are several well-known resources for locating shows, detailed in this post on Finding Nirvana.
To get into shows, you’ll need to apply. (Seems obvious, doesn’t it?) And to apply, you need examples of your work to show to jurors. Both Zapp and Juried Art Services only accept digital files, and the specifications for creating these files are very specific. Read Zapp’s article on creating digital slides, and follow their advice. While it’s free to join Zapp and JASV, shows generally charge an application fee to apply to their show. These fees range from $25-75. If you’re accepted, you’ll also be required to pay a space rental fee to reserve your space, often months in advance of the show. Booth fees run anywhere from $200 to $1500. Tiny local shows may be less expensive. Generally, the more exclusive the show, the more the booth fee. Larger shows attract more customers though, so it’s usually worth the extra dollars. This is one of the tricky parts of the show business.
Local shows and smaller venues may still require slides instead of digital files on a CD, although this is changing rapidly. There are two ways to do this. Hire a local photographer to shoot your artwork and provide you with slides (harder and harder these days to get processed), or take your digital files to a resource that will convert back into analog slides. Two good resources are Slides.com and iprintfromhome.com. I definitely recommend reading the show’s requirements well ahead of the deadline so that you can provide exactly what they need. Shows are picky about this. If they ask for four slides and a booth show, labelled with a red dot in the upper right and your name on the bottom, that’s what you should send. Every show’s requirements are different, so read carefully and do as they ask.
- Show up. I can’t stress this point enough. If you apply to a show, it is your responsibility to get yourself and your booth there, on time, and set up ready to sell by the time the show opens. But showing up also means that you are there physically and mentally, ready and passionate to talk about your work to anybody who walks in the door. Art shows require a commitment of 110%. Sometimes it is really hard to drag your butt out of bed at 4AM to go set up a canopy in the rainy dark pre-dawn hours and be ready to smile at 9AM. If you want to do shows, then you need to be prepared to make that happen.
Showing up also means that you make a commitment to evolve your work. Some show artists are still showing the same old tired work that they carted around to shows ten years ago. The mats are dog-eared and dusty, the frames are chipped and the canopy is brown with mold. It’s obvious that they lost interest years ago and they are now just doing it for the fame and glory. Don’t be one of them. On second thought, do be one them — it’ll make my booth look better!
- Market your work. This topic covers a lot of ground. From creating good signage in your booth, to sending out postcards and emails, to social networking, it’s important to let potential customers know how to find you and your work. Alyson Stanfield, Maria Arango and Bruce Baker all have interesting contributions to this subject, so it’s worth your while to study this subject in depth. I’ve written several posts about this in the past, and this one sums it up nicely.
It bears repeating that participating in the social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn will help you to connect with others who are struggling and succeeding, as well as people who are generally interested in your work. Sign up for an account if you haven’t already, and participate in the conversation.
You can start small, with a cheap EZ-Up, and some homemade walls, doing shows within a few miles of your home. Or you can do what I did, and jump in both feet, and travel round the country, meeting all kinds of interesting people and constantly seeing new vistas. The choice is yours. Good luck! And if you found this info useful, don’t be shy about adding a comment, or dropping me a line at info (at) parkerparker.info.
A recent comment spurred me to write a bit about how I go about selecting shows. It used to be much more of an arcane science than it is now, with the help of the internet, several printed publications and lots of other artists to rely on.
Finding shows is pretty easy. Online, there is the king of the heap, Art Fair Sourcebook, managed and maintained by Greg Lawler, who haunts most of the top 25 shows in the country handing out his literature. If you haven’t had the chance to speak with Greg personally, you can visit his site and take a free test drive of the online search capabilities. AFSB is broken down into regions and ranks shows by sales and attendance. Rankings and sales data are compiled from artist reports, and AFSB only lists the top 600 shows in the country. You can subscribe to the A-List edition, the B-list edition, regional subsets, or the whole shebang. Depending on the level of service you purchase, you can drill down into historical sales data or artists comments and see how the shows stack up against one another. An online calendar of events, emailed deadline alerts and online show tracking is available, as is a printed version, which is published once a year in January. With all of the features, AFSB is definitely not cheap, but it is definitely worth the money, especially if you are just starting out.
Another similar online application is the relative upstart, Art Fair Schedule, run by another Greg, Greg Erb. AFS has many of the same features, with the notable exception of the sales data. Mr. Erb feels that the artist-submitted data is likely to be tainted. The price is very reasonable however, at $69.95 yearly. There is no printed version available however, and no rankings for comparison. You can try it for free for thirty days, too, which is generous. It looks quite promising, but I haven’t had a chance to try it out yet.
Another very good source of information online is Connie Mettler’s Art Fair Calendar and the associated social site, Art Fair Insider. She is a long-time veteran of the show circuit, and directs several art shows in the Michigan area. You can subscribe to the regional artfair newsletters, for free, by filling out this form.
The top shows in the country are almost all online now, using a digital application process. There are two major players, ZAPP and Juried Art Services. Both require the artist to set up an online profile, and upload images to use in the application process. If you are curious about what the top shows are, this is not a bad place to start. But you won’t find a lot of smaller shows on these sites, just the cream of the crop. Another smaller player, EntryThingy, also has associations with a few national shows, most notably the Bonita Springs National Art Festivals and Art on the Square in Belleville, Illinois.
Offline, there is one major publication that covers most every single fine art and craft show in the country. Unfortunately, it’s not generally available at newsstands, so you do have to subscribe. The pub is “Sunshine Artist”, and you can search their database for basic information on shows for free on the site . To get the contact information for each show, you do have to subscribe to the magazine though. They also publish a hefty compendium of shows bi-yearly, called the Audit Book, which compiles artist feedback forms and lists contact information for most of the shows across the country. The monthly magazine contains articles on creating, marketing and selling your art, and is written by a competent editorial staff and a number of regional contributors who exhibit at shows and provide commentary. Each month, several past shows are written up, with comments and opinion. Good for finding filler shows, but not as incisive and direct as AFSB.
Other publications include the Crafter’s Blue Book, and regional lists, such as craftshowlist. A quick Google search for your state and “art show list” will turn up hundreds of listings, some good, some not so good. There are also some big art show promoters that run big national shows year-round:
- Howard Alan Productions, Plantation, FL
- Amdur Prodctions, Lincolnwood, IL
- Thunderbird Artists, Fountain Hills, AZ
- HotWorks, Milford, MI
- The Guild, Ann Arbor MI
- Sugarloaf Craft Fairs, Gaithersburg MD
- Pacific Fine Arts, Pine Grove, CA
So if finding shows is easy, how do you pick the winners from such a broad array of choices? First off, try to determine what your market is. If you are new to shows, go to a few local shows and walk around. Observe what artists are showing, what kinds of people are attending, and if there is a lot of “energy” or excitement in the air. Word of mouth is one of the best determining factors, and one of the reasons that AFSB is such a good resource. There is no substitute for your own experience at a show, but other artists’ opinions are very helpful. When I first started out, a good friend of ours sat down and wrote out a list of what she considered to be the top 25 shows in the county. This “A” list saved me a good deal of time (years!) in figuring out which shows to apply to. I’m still trying to get into some of those shows, however!
Artist groups can also be helpful. One in particular stands out — the NAIA, or National Association of Independent Artists. They have lots of helpful information on their site, but much of it requires that you join. For a yearly membership fee of $65/year you gain access to the forums and to many discounts on travel, art supplies and resources, including a 15% discount on the Art Fair Sourcebook!
I still apply to many more shows than I get into in a year. There are many artists now, and many shows competing for those artists. ZAPP and JASV have leveled the playing field in some respects, as it is much easier to apply to shows than in the old days, using slides. My criteria for shows is probably different than yours however, so think about who your primary collector is, and why they might be drawn to your work. Then look for shows that cater to that kind of buyer. Once you get on the mailing lists, you’ll find that you get many more offers to participate than you have time for. Be picky. And good luck!
The cost of doing business at shows
It’s a tough business, and requires a lot of physical labor, long hours at the wheel getting to and from shows, and more than anything, it costs money to make money. It’s a long road, and before you set off down the path, you may want to figure out how much you can make at any given show.
This sheet will help you determine whether or not it’s worth it for you to do a specific show by estimating the downside costs and potential sales income. Plug in your own figures as indicated in the notes and the sheet will do the heavy calculations.
Before you do too many estimates, you’ll want to know what your manufacturing costs are. So gather up the following information:
- Cost for each of your print sizes
- Cost for each of your mat sizes
- Framing costs, including glass or plexiglas for each of your sizes
For each show you do, you’ll want to know how much the booth fee and the application fee is, and how far you’ll have to drive to get there and back.
Show Expense Estimator
You’ll need Microsoft Excel to open the file. There is no support supplied with the file — it’s merely a template to get you started. Making shows into a full-time business requires dedication, hard work and you’ll find that the road to the final destination is much longer than you had originally estimated.
Gallery wraps and more…
First you need to decide if you are going to put it under glass, or mount it to canvas stretchers. The mounting style will determine your framing options.
Putting canvas under glass sorta negates the advantage of printing on canvas, although I have seen it done. You can then just cement the canvas to a substrate — use Glamour II as an archival glue on the back and glue it to a stiff board, like masonite, for example. Wrap the edges around to the back and trim the excess.
Wrapping the canvas around stretchers and then framing the assembly is how most people do it. You can use pre-made stretchers or make them yourself. If the image is small, you can use the lighter weight frames, such as the Fredrix or Dick Blick standard stretchers. For larger images, a “gallery wrap” is common, where the image goes all the way around the sides, and the excess canvas is tacked to the back of the stretcher frame. In either case, the stretchers are sized to the size of your image, and the excess canvas is used to attach the canvas to the stretcher frame. You can use upholstery tacks or a staple gun to attach the canvas. Start at the middle and put a staple on one side, then pull the canvas taut to the other side and attach another staple. Flip the canvas around to check that the image is aligned to the stretcher properly before driving in too many staples or tacks. Then pull an end taut, and put a staple into the middle, repeating the procedure at the other end. Check for alignment again. Then continue stretching and tacking until you get to the corners. Leave a couple of inches for trimming up the corners.
Here’s where it gets tricky. If you are doing a gallery wrap, you’ll need to fold the corners around so that they are neat and clean. Trim the excess canvas so that you have enough to go around the corner and tack to the back of the frame. Fold the short side right up to the corner, and make a 45 degree angle fold with the excess under the edge. Tack it down temporarily. Take the long side which will have quite a bit of excess, ￼and make an angle fold so that the folded edge lies exactly along the corner of the stretchers. The excess canvas needs to flow carefully under the edge without any ripples or bunching. Tack this down on the back, over the other edge’s fold. If necessary, make an extra fold at the BACK of the canvas to take up the extra fabric and tack it down again. ￼This is harder to describe than it is to do, and with practice you won’t think twice about it.
If you’re not doing a gallery wrap, you can tack the edges of the canvas directly to the edge of the canvas. Trim off the excess at the back of the frame. Corners are less finicky with this method, but you will have to use a framing method that covers the tacks or staples. ￼Just fold the corners under and overlap one to the other, and tack down. You may need to trim first.
Once you have a stretcher, there are couple of ways to frame it without glass. Canvas “floater” frames surround the edges but don’t cover the top of the stretched canvas. Typically a floater attaches to the stretchers by drilling through the bottom of the frame and putting a few screws into the back of the stretchers. Regular canvas frames have a lip just like a normal picture frame, and are available in both wood and metal versions. Canvas frames will enclose the print in much the same way normal picture frames do.
You can also get a linen liner that extends the the frame size and puts a canvas wrapped “mini-frame” between the canvas image and the frame itself. These liners may come in various widths and typically have a slight slant inwards, to accentuate the image. Liners are usually either white or natural colored, just like canvas.
When you order the frame, be sure to accommodate for the extra little bit of width that the gallery wrap and/or staples will make to the size of the stretched assembly. It will be between and 1/8″ and 1/4″ longer, and not necessarily the same on both sides, so measure carefully. Some frameshops build this into their frames, so you might want to ask first.