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Five Proven Art Festival Showing Strategies for Artists Selling Their Work

Aug 17, 2007
So you've always wondered what it would be like to be an artist and show and sell your work around the country at weekend art shows. Here are some tips that can increase your chances of succeeding.

1. Visit the Art Shows First -
You may not always have the luxury of visiting each and every art show before you apply for acceptance. After all, if you visit before applying, you'll have to wait another year to participate (if you are accepted) and most of us are not that patient.

However, when you can visit the show first and talk to participating artists, you will get a feel for whether or not this is a show in which you wish to participate.

Be up front with the artists that you talk with and ask a few questions. Most will be happy to answer your questions if they sense your honesty and sincerity and you don't distract them from those who visit their booth. After all, they are there to show and sell their work, not to act as your show researcher.

With their permission, ask how long they have been doing these types of shows? Is this considered a good show? Was it hard to get in? Is the fee reasonable? How is the attendance? Are the show hours long enough, too long, or just right? Was the set-up and take down schedule suitable? What do you like about this particular show? What do you not like about it? Do you plan to return next year?

There are a number of other questions that could be asked, but please respect the artist's time.

Some events that bill themselves as art shows or even arts and craft shows end up with a lot of questionable "art" booths that are not really art at all. If the "art" show has more than it's share of artists who make foam rubber alligators on a coat hanger or rubber band gun crafters, it's probably not that high quality of art show. That is not to say that there is not a place for these products.

There are many large festivals that attract huge crowds that have all kinds of vendors from artists and crafters to cosmetic salespeople to sausage-on-a-stick vendors. Don't knock these venues, just be aware that you will encounter a lot of folks at these events who may have little or no interest in your art. The good thing is that you will encounter a lot of folks and sometimes that's what it takes to find a few gems who will make your efforts worthwhile. I have experienced successes at both types of venues and I have come up short on occasion, as well.

On the other hand, a juried event will elevate the level of quality work that is shown, which should attract an audience that has a greater appreciation for art. It may reduce the number of attendees, but those who do attend may be a more "qualified" audience. By qualified, I mean that they not only have a greater appreciation for art, but hopefully the means to purchase it if they like it.

Once you have determined that you want to participate in a particular show or festival, here is what I think is vital to your success both as an artist and as a businessperson.

2. Have a Consistent Body of Work -
Even though you may be good at every artwork you ever produce, your audience of potential purchasers/collectors will likely identify you with a particular subject, a color, a style, a medium, a method of presentation, etc. Show a lot of whatever you enjoy doing the most and a lot of what seems to be connecting with folks the most.

A bunch of random paintings of various subject matter with no distinctive style or color pallet in cheap mis-matched frames will not likely hold a potential buyer's attention for long, even if the paintings are good. A hodge-podge of sculptures that look like they were made by ten different sculptors will not likely enhance your reputation. This randomness does not help to identify what you are all about.

I'm not advocating that you never try anything new or experimental, but you must make your art memorable to gain any kind of following. Consistency is the key. Look at the work of some of the more successful artists that you admire. What ties their work together and identifies it as their own? Subject matter or theme, style (the way they paint or sculpt), choice of colors used, size, framing? Any and all of these characteristics may apply. Don't copy their work, but learn from it.

If you are doing work that connects with an audience, folks will seek you out to buy your art, even after the show is over. It's happened to me many times.

3. Have Varying Price Points -
Whether you choose to show only originals, or limited editions, or a combination is often dictated by the show guidelines. Sometimes, it is entirely up to you. If you have a body of work that connects with viewers, it obviously would be desirable to sell some of it.

If you limit your offerings to large, expensive (whatever that means to you) original works, your potential market will be smaller and you will eliminate a number of folks who, otherwise, might like to purchase. That may be OK if your work is selling for the prices you want on a regular basis.

However, my experience is that having artworks at several price levels makes it possible for purchasers/collectors to enjoy ownership of some of my art in the "now" until they are ready to move up to more collectable, thus more expensive and profitable, pieces.

This might be achieved through offering a number of sizes of original works, offering print or sculpture editions in two or more sizes, having some limited editions and some less expensive open editions, or even offering gift type products such as note cards or calendars with your art reproduced on it (if the show allows it).

While it's true that some will never purchase anything of significance, others may use this as a stepping stone to begin their collection of your work to whatever extent they can afford.

Your job after that purchase is to keep these lower end purchasers (as well as all of your purchasers) informed about you and your art through mail outs, newsletter, website, newspaper or magazine articles, or however you can to let them know you appreciate their business and look forward to seeing them someday own some of your better art pieces.

They are more apt to desire to own more of your art when you show your appreciation for their purchase and they know more about you and your progress as an artist.

4. Have a Clean and Attractive Display Booth -
There are a few generally accepted artist booth set-ups that are used at most quality shows. The standard size booth is often a 10x10, so many canopies, or tents, are made to this size. EZ Up, Flourish, ShowOff, and a few others seem to be the most popular.

As your inventory and sales increase, you can always add on for a double booth space, when available. Though some brands of tents come in a myriad of colors, a white top is recommended.

Some shows won't accept anything else. Choose the one that suits your budget and make sure it has adequate sidewalls and leg weights in the event of inclimate weather. If you show long enough, you will experience inclimate weather.

The actual racks that you hang your work on or use as a background might be metal grid type panels such as those made by Graphic Display Systems, or carpeted type panels such as those made by Pro Panels, or mesh netting made by Flourish.

Get what you can afford and upgrade as sales allow.
An indoor/outdoor carpet or other ground covering is a nice added touch if it enhances your booth and does not distract from your art.

Have a focal point in your booth, a "whopper," a signature piece, or something that stops the show attendees in their tracks so that they will want to come in and see what your art is all about.

I hang a matted and framed 24x36 limited edition of my signature piece above a custom made credenza (that is on wheels, but the wheels are camouflaged) right in the middle of the back wall of my booth.

This popular image is what I am most identified with as it has become my best selling print. Since I have started doing this, I have seldom failed to sell one of these framed prints. The credenza also tastefully displays very small pieces such as note cards, hand painted tiles, and a guestbook for addresses and e- mail addresses (my favorite way to contact folks).

Inside the drawers of the credenza are my change (keep adequate change), sales tickets, credit card forms (in my opinion you must accept credit cards for higher end items), tape, string, insect repellant, business cards and brochures, and extra hang tags for my framed pieces. Underneath are unframed prints ready to replenish my print rack when one is sold.

All of my work that is hanging is framed (with the exception of an occasional gallery wrap canvas) in similar style frames with brass nameplates to enhance the value and identify the title of that piece. All unframed prints are sleeved in clear bags that have an adhesive flap to seal them and placed in a browse rack.

Have a tool box to contain such items as pliers, hammer, nylon connectors, wire, duct tape, clamps, small broom and other miscellaneous items that you may need over the course of the show.

Once you have shown a few times, you will get an idea of what items are useful. Keep this and anything else that might distract from your art out of sight as much as possible.

5. Give Your Potential Customers Room -
I have noticed that more people will actually come inside my booth exhibit and look longer if I stay outside my booth until I sense an interest in my work. I try to be very attentive, but I will only approach a visitor when I sense some kind of interest, however slight.

Do not block your entrance by positioning yourself and your staff or friends and family where no one can walk in and look around. Even if there are two of you and each is sitting at the side near the front of your booth, there seems to be an invisible barrier through which visitors will not pass.

I have seen other ideas of where the artist(s) position themselves to encourage better "booth visitation," and in a larger booth than 10x10 I could see where sitting over to the side at the back of the booth might work well.

However, in my own personal booth I don't want my face to compete with my art. At this point, I am only incidental to the art.

I created the art and I answer any questions and take the money. Otherwise, I don't want to get in the way. Yes, I want the customer to remember me, but I first want them to see my art. When you make a sale of any significance, follow up with a handwritten thank you note.

Showing and selling your work at outdoor art festivals is hard work often accompanied by some expensive lessons. However, when you finally make that connection with folks who like your work and are willing to part with their money to own some of it, the rewards can be great, both financially and artistically.
About the Author
Neil Lemons represents Texas Artists Industries, an eight year-old professional fine art painting company. For more information, visit http://www.atexasstateofmind.com.
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