A lot of details have changed since this article was written in 2008, but the general principles still apply — and they apply to artists in any medium, not just photography.


One morning in late 2007, one of the hard drives in my computer wouldn’t spin up. This drive contained all 17,000 of my photographs going back seven years. I wasn’t doing much with them; printed a couple here and there, but they just spent most of their time being ignored. I was too lazy to do backups then, and my computer was well aware of that fact. It seemed like the machine conspired with fate itself, “well, Jason, if you’re not going to use all those pictures, we will gladly take ’em! Thanks!”

My father and I spent all day and half the night running data recovery software on it, and slowly, one by one the images came back.

A week after the recovery, I discovered that in fact I had made a backup of the images six months before. They were on my second drive! Excellent! I’m better at backing up stuff than I thought– oh, wait… that drive is dead as well.

This whole situation snapped me to attention. I learned two things: First, do NOT use a Shuttle XPC as your main computer. They neither have proper airflow nor strong enough power supplies for a heavy workload, and the hard drives are likely to fail because of it. Second, if you don’t do something with your artwork: fate, entropy, and the immediate environment will try to consume it, and leave you with nothing.


Browsing around the internet back in 2007, I got a few responses from forums and other blogs about how to get into art shows, but I didn’t learn much until I jumped in head first and started doing it. And now I’m here to recite everything I learned. here we go..

booth at Paseo in OKC, 2008

If you’ve been to an art festival, you’ve probably seen some excellent work. And likewise, you have probably also seen work that makes you wonder how it got juried into the show in the first place. I have seen people use obvious photoshop filters like plastic wrap, a few lens flares, and a bunch of silliness that wouldn’t even pass muster in high school, let alone a decent flickr group. If you’re somewhere between silliness and excellence, you’re already beating half the competition.

Why art festivals? Shouldn’t you just put your stuff in a gallery?

That’s a good idea, but there’s nothing stopping you from doing both. Galleries give you permanent exposure, but art festivals are more engaging — you are there with a zillion people enjoying themselves. Even if you don’t sell anything, you’ve still placed your name out in public.

Even then, a few people ask me where my gallery is, and I have to create an excuse, “Uh, you’re looking it! It’s a mobile art gallery! Unlike a brick & mortar gallery, this one fits in my minivan, and I can take it anywhere I want!”

Do Your Homework

Attend a few shows as a customer and pay attention to what the artists are doing. I cannot emphasize this enough. Pay attention to everything you see, because your goal is to someday be a part of this environment. What kind of displays are the other artists using? What kind of accessories do they have (print bins, easels, podiums)? How do their business cards look? How do they process credit card transactions? How are they preventing their tent from flying away when the wind comes? Feel free and ask an artist, “What do you think of this show? I was thinking of applying.”

Pricing your work (technical)

This is a hazy area, and my little scheme might be way off. In this section, I have to be careful not to encourage price fixing (which is illegal). Even though my prices are clearly visible on my website, don’t just copy them — they might not work for your business situation.

You would be surprised how easy it is to forget this: your selling price must exceed what it cost to make the work, otherwise you won’t make any money. The technical term is “cost of goods sold.”  If you’re really serious, you not only have to consider how much it costs to create one piece, but to operate the entire business for a solid year. Since you will be your own boss, what will you pay yourself?

No matter if you are selling unique pieces (painting, sculpture, etc), as opposed to prints of the same image (photography), your price will be based on how much time you spent on it, and how much your time is worth to you.

Consider every square inch of the piece — the image itself, and the workmanship. How is it printed? matted? framed? Did you use linen hinging tape, or did you dry-mount the image? Did you use matte paper or Exhibition Fiber paper? Is the framed piece using standard glass, or non-glare museum glass? Is the canvas simply wrapped, or adhered to a solid backing?

Offering your work as limited editions is another factor for justifying the price of your work. (see “the “Limited Editions” sections below)

Pricing your work (perception)

Think of this as how much it costs to permanently license a printed copy of the work to your customer.

There is the psychological concept of “perceived quality.” Customers generally expect the prices of similar things to be comparable to each other. Simply, “does your work look like it’s worth it?” If you set the price too low in relation to your perceived quality, people will consider it “cheap art”. (You know the mass-produced stuff at Hobby Lobby: “It sure looks nice, but it can’t be all that good because it’s so cheap.”) If your price is comfortable, the customers who are just looking for cheap art will ignore you, but the more serious art collectors should come out of the woodwork. If you set your prices way too high, they’re all gonna laugh at you. There is no concrete answer for this, and it will vary from one venue to the next.

Depending on a few factors, consider how your own work might fit in with those around you. If you see an artist with mediocre 9×12″ matted images for $20, and you think yours are better, set your prices a little higher. (Show some confidence in your work.) If you see a seasoned veteran of the art show circuit selling gold-framed 24×36″ prints on canvas for $1800, and you’re not a seasoned veteran, then you might have to set your prices a little lower — but once again, don’t undersell yourself.

Don’t change your prices randomly from one venue to another. Some people do this, and they don’t last long when customers find out about it. “Hey! That print was $45 last weekend, not $75?!” Wait for the next season to adjust prices. And if you want to be nice, let people know in advance. Even better, let them know why: “This is a second edition of prints, offered on a better paper, with conservation matting, etc. yadda.”

Limited Editions – Numbering your prints (x of y)

There are entire books on this topic as well, so I’ll just cover what I learned from random places. See the COA section below for more info.

Many of the biggest art shows will only allow an artist to sell photographic prints if they are from a limited series (in a series of 250 or fewer, for example). This means that once you sell that many copies of a given image, you will effectively “destroy the negative” and that’s the end of it. This is for two reasons: (1) the value of each image goes up when customers know that there are only so many of them in existence, and (2) the printing plate or negative will slowly degrade with use.

You’re probably thinking, “Since part 2 doesn’t apply to digital photography, why should I still use such a seemingly arbitrary limitation?” ..because that’s what everybody else does. (Also, see the legal requirements in the COA section below.)

But don’t worry about limiting yourself, you’ll probably get bored selling the same image 200 times. It might take you a few years to sell that many copies, and you might (and should hope to) have better work by then.

According to some, the series number can affect the price of the print. Most often, you can justify raising prices as you progress through the series. If you are only offering 10 copies, 8/10 can be considerably more than 1/10 because there are fewer pieces remaining.

Limited Editions – Certificate of Authenticity (COA)

This is not the biography page that some artists put on the back of their prints. This legitimizes the artwork.

The concept of a COA goes hand-in-hand with numbering prints — upon the sale of each print, provide an official-looking sheet of paper that describes the image (title, number in series, medium, process, date), and put your name and signature on it. Heck, sign it right in front of the customer if you can.

Oh, boy.. this is a big can of worms. There’s no format for COAs, there’s a lot of fraud running around, and it’s a bit of a mess. Some artists are really strict about it, and others don’t care. The best thing is to play along and be honest.

NOTE : A few states apparently have laws requiring the use of COAs. See: California Civil Code Section 1740-1745 , and New York ACA (Arts and Cultural Affairs) Article 15. (I am not a lawyer.)


Startup Costs: $4,000ish

it doesn’t have to be pretty

My EZ-Up turned out to be a suicidal thing with low self-esteem, and that was only my second show.

Lighting and Power Source

(optional, about $300)
A lot of art shows will go past sunset. Some of them will offer a wall outlet for a fee, while others will leave you to fend for yourself in the dark.

Credit Card Processing

If you don’t take credit cards, you ain’t gonna sell much.

Odds and Ends

$100 and up

Business Cards

They give you a business presence in a thousand places at once.

You could slap together a bunch of stuff in MS Word, print it on cardstock, and still get the point across. But consider that you’ll be at an art festival.. People are there to see art, style, and creative genius. Be impressive.

My cards above are one of a zillion ways of doing it, but they definitely get people’s attention. I designed them in Photoshop, and printed them on Epson presentation paper with a little inkjet. Since the paper isn’t quite cardstock, I have been using 3M’s Super 77 spray adhesive and gluing a sheet of 24lb paper to the back of each printed sheet before cutting them. Total pain, but it works.

I get sneaky with these cards when I’m running my booth.. I will stand back and watch people as they enter. When someone starts paying real close attention to a certain image on the wall, I’ll grab the stack of cards and move the corresponding one to the top. When the person makes eye contact with me, showing interest, I’ll talk with them and do my routine. When we wrap up the conversation, I hand them that specific card, and their eyes light up like Christmas! “Wow! Your cards have that picture on them!” “They certainly do!” It’s great fun! :)

If you don’t want to print them yourself (and I wouldn’t blame you.. Super 77 stops working in temperatures below 45F):

Booth Signage

“What’s the title of this? Where was it taken? How much does it cost?”

There are a zillion ways of doing this. Come up with something that complements your own style. Some artists print a little price tag and wedge it in the corner of the frame, some use sticky labels, some people leave the price off altogether to encourage haggling.

I apologize about the crappy table, I do not have a studio

I designed these little guys in Illustrator and printed on matte paper. They are the size of business cards, and then glued to black foamcore (my first version used Super 77 adhesive). A little strip of velcro makes them hang on the carpeted panels.

Another cool technique I saw was an artist using little tile pieces with the price written in sharpie. That way you could wipe them off and write something else on there without having to print anything!

Booth Signage – About the Artist

who are you, what do you do, and how you do it? (more and more shows are requiring this)

(from 2008) It’s basically a copy-paste from the about page on my website.

And if you’re feeling excessively narcissistic, get a big sign with your name on it:

CNC machines are awesome. Having a friend with a CNC machine in his garage is especially awesome.

How to find art festivals

First order of business, get a subscription to Sunshine Artist Magazine. Do it.

If you’re not already a member of a big local art club, check and see if your state has one. (Here in Oklahoma for example, we have OVAC.) Hop on their mailing list, and they will tell you everything art-related that’s happening in the state — art shows, galleries, and even restaurants and banks that rotate out local artwork.

The big website that a lot of shows are using is zapplication.org. It’s really easy to use, totally free to browse, and each show charges about $30 when you submit an application. But that means if you’re not accepted, you’re out the $30. The problem is that since each show only accepts a few hundred artists, there will be a huge number of rejections because Zapp’s growing popularity is getting more people to apply. A lot of people on their forums are complaining, “I can get in all the local shows that don’t use Zapp. But when I apply for 10 of them on Zapp, I get nothing, and then I’m out $300 in application fees!” So, if you are lucky enough to get in a Zapp show, then chances are it’s going to be HUGE and will earn you millions. Yay.

A clever way of finding local shows: Go to any local art festival and pick up a business card from each artist. Go home and check their website. Find the section of their website labeled “schedule” or “past events”. (For example, here’s my Events page.) It’s a trail of where they’ve been.. enjoy! :)

Look for art festival promoters like Howard Alan Events (from Florida, and who uses the conveniently-named website artfestival.com), or the smaller, but equally-well-respected Amdur Productions out of Chicago.

If you still can’t find a show, either check your local Chamber of Commerce site, or google a random city’s name + “art festival”.

Most importantly, find the “style” of the show, and see if your work matches it. Is your work a little funky? Then you might fit better at a show with other funky artists. Do you have a contemporary style? Then you might fit better at a downtown show among the skyscrapers. Check the website of a given show, and see which artists were accepted in previous years.

Once you find an art festival

Most shows are juried. That means they have a panel of professionals who examine all submissions and only accept artists who are of a certain quality. They generally require each artist to submit 3-5 slides of their work, and one image of their booth (submit them on CD, or over Zapp). If the show isn’t juried, it’s a matter of getting your entry in before the show fills up. Juried shows are usually better because the purpose of the jury is to select artists of a certain quality (filter out “buy/sell artists” ugh.. don’t get me started). If a show is known for having better artists, they tend to get more customers.

All shows tend to have a signup period which is somewhere between three to six months before the show itself, so expect to enroll in the fall for the ones that occur next spring. (The application period is so far away from the actual event because it takes a long time to set up a show. Once they know exactly how many artists will be there, they have to get all the fiddly details worked out — get permission from the city to borrow a street, get the site inspected by the fire marshal, find volunteers, advertise the event, and so on.)

When you get accepted, expect an admission/booth fee from $50 to around $300 — the biggest shows in the country are $500 and above. This is on top of the application fee you will have already paid. For some shows, you will submit a check for the booth fee with the application, and if you get denied, they will mail the check back to you. (Don’t worry, all of these details will be on the application.)

After taking care of the finances, all you’ve got left is figuring out how to pack your van/truck/trailer with everything required to assemble the booth.

What to expect at the show

Most shows allow artists to set up the day before the show begins.

The first thing you do upon arrival is sign-in at the management tent. They will give you a welcome packet and let you set up your booth. The packet will contain things like: the tax rate in the city/county/state, a tax form if you want them to report your taxes for you, a map of who goes where, an itinerary for the schedule of events, contact information in the event of an emergency, a name tag that lets everyone know you’re a world-famous artist, a t-shirt, travel mug, and probably candy.

This is when you build the booth. (Practice ahead of time.. get accustomed to building the thing in your back yard. Work out all the kinks before you get to the show. You do not want this to take more than a couple hours.) When you set up your booth, it should be pretty easy to navigate. People don’t buy much if they feel like they’re in a maze. (And if you do shows in the summer, consider air flow. If the air can’t move around, people can’t either.)

Northpark Mall, OKC – 2008 — oh, don’t do mall shows.

Once you’re set up, the selling process is simple. It’s a retail environment, but it’s not anything like working a register at Walmart — all your customers are there because they are genuinely interested in artwork. And you don’t have a boss. You’re there because you want to be there, and so are your customers. This is a happy place, enjoy it!

What to do – put on your dog & pony show

What not to do

Get used to not wearing sunglasses. They might make you look cool, but it’s much more comfortable to show your eyes when handling other people’s money.

How’s the money?

Don’t expect to make a lot of money at first. After the startup costs, you might not break even until you’ve done a few shows. You will have good shows where you sell a dozen pieces in an afternoon, but you will have bad shows where you don’t sell anything for an entire weekend. Even though you might not sell much at a given show, customers may ask for a business card and contact you later about commission work. That’s when it branches out and gets even more interesting.

When you sell something, take notes:

More info / community

I may have missed something, but I think that covers the basics. enjoy!

8 Responses

  1. We are looking into setting up a photo booth at our local art and wine festival. I have absolutely no clue where to start and how much money it will cost us.
    I wanted to thank you for your blog! It was very useful! Thank you for taking the time to write all that out.

  2. Thank you for this very useful information. Can you give me an idea of how much money you’ve made at various sized festivals? For example, a 1-day local arts festival with 20K attendees compared to a week-long 500K attendee state fair? Thank you very much…

    1. There doesn’t seem to be a link between gross sales and the size of the show, at least where my work is concerned. My work is location-based, and customers seem to be more attracted to imagery which was taken in their “back yard” — at least imagery which was taken in their home state. For instance, I had a three-day out-of-state show with over 400 artists and 300,000 visitors, and I only made $100 in sales. But there have been several occasions where I’ve done relatively tiny shows here in Oklahoma (~60 artists, ~10K attendees), and I broke $1,000 in the first day.

      Also, I’ve only been doing the art show circuit for three years. Even though I have had repeat customers, it hasn’t really been long enough for me to make a name for myself. I’ve heard of artists who can make upwards of $20,000 per show, but numbers like that are impossible for me because I don’t even carry around half that much inventory.

      The old chestnut “your mileage may vary” definitely applies to the art show circuit! :)

  3. I appreciate you sharing all your experiences in presenting photography at Art Fairs. I am interested in giving this a try and I like how you shared your honest experiences and want others to learn from them as well :)

  4. Thanks for all your great info! One question i hope you will answer… Do you sell the work right off the wall or do you take orders or both?
    thanks in advance!

  5. I think people will learn a lot from what you’ve said here. The podcasts by Cara Cake talk about a lot of similar stuff. Have you ever heard them?

  6. Your site is very helpful! I was wondering how much inventory you usually take to shows. I hope to get into selling my photos one day. It looks like a lot of work. If you are ever doing a show in the DC area, I would be willing to give you a hand in exchange for the experience. Best of luck to you in selling your photos. Yvonne

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