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 I guarantee the hard drives will 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..
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
This is a hazy area, and my little scheme might be way off.
First, your selling price must exceed what it cost to make the work, otherwise you won’t make any money. You would be surprised how easy it is to forget this. The operative term here 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?
If you are selling unique pieces (painting, sculpture, etc), as opposed to duplicates of the same image over and over again (photographic prints), your price will be based on how much time you spent on it, and how much your time is worth to you. (There are entire books on this, so I won’t go into much detail.)
On the flipside, there is the concept of “perceived quality.” Customers generally expect the prices of similar media 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 will come out of the woodwork. If you set your prices way too high, they’re all gonna laugh at you.
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. 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.
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 change prices. (And if you want to be nice, let people know in advance.)
Then again, Mike Albin’s article “Pricing Your Work” says I’ve got it all wrong.. Your mileage may vary.
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.
(Update 09/07/2010 – I don’t number my prints anymore. I wasn’t keeping good enough notes and started duplicating numbers — I just wasn’t doing it properly from the start. My prints will have a single number in the corner, but this is just for my inventory. UPDATE 2013 – That number is gone too.)
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 have better stuff 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, 1/10 will be one price, but 8/10 can be considerably more because there are fewer copies remaining.)
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
- existing photography hobby (..trust me, it’s pretty handy :)
- print and frame your work – If you don’t do your own framing, find a local frame shop and get the most basic frame style you can (i.e. – black metal, white mat, plain or non-glare glass). At the minimum, you will need one copy of each item you are selling. But when you sell something, you don’t want to leave a gaping hole in your booth, so you should print and bring duplicates. Then you’ll need to carry them. (Remember, each frame contains a sheet of glass.)
- ..UPDATE: To heck with all that glass! The new hotness is canvas gallery wraps! See mpix.com or redipix.com
- carrying cases for artwork – either make boxes out of wood (stupidly heavy, but it’s the most ‘professional’), use custom cardboard boxes for each piece (a bit fiddly because they’re always sliding around, you need a sheet of foam inside to protect each one, and they are not waterproof), or buy huge Rubbermaid plastic carrying totes from Home Depot ($35 each, also use foam to keep the frames from knocking around).
- cardboard boxes from uline.com for selling the framed images. For protection: include a sheet of foam, or line them with bubble wrap. Cardboard is abrasive.
- Clearbags for protecting the matted prints
- handle bags from uline.com for selling the prints (If you’re selling 18×24 matted prints, they fit perfectly in 13-gallon trash bags. They’re way cheaper, and they’re called “Glad Bags” because you’re glad to sell some artwork!)
- State Tax ID – (Not required, but very handy.) I’m pretty sure every US state considers this a business, so you will have to charge taxes and report them on a regular basis. Some people register as an LLC, but being a Sole Proprietor is the most common. If you don’t get a Tax ID, you will have to submit your taxes at each show you do. (They will provide tax forms.)
- tent (canopy) – either an EZ-Up tent from Sam’s Club — which is $200 each time the previous one falls down; or a Light Dome, Trimline, or Showoff canopy — which are a lot more sturdy, and depending on options are between $900 and $2000.
- tent weights (for pavement) - No matter how good the canopy, it WILL take flight if you don’t use enough weight! The more the better. One option: build them out of PVC pipe and quickcrete (35-50lbs), about $50 for all 4 weights. I prefer 4″ PVC. — Another option: use a bunch of five-gallon water jugs (40lbs each). You can fill them and empty them at the site, and you don’t have to drive around with 200 pounds of extra weight in your car. EZ-Weights are an interesting looking water weight system. — An even better option: surplus ammo boxes from Atwoods, and fill them with weights from an old weight machine (find scrap metal at junkyards). Seven of them fit nice and snug in each box, resulting in 70lbs per corner!
- tent stakes (for grass) – Get 8 spiral tent stakes (don’t get the straight ones). I know, you might only use 4, but if you’re in high winds, you will want a couple more. The straight ones might be easier to push in the ground, but they can pull out on their own (causing your tent to take flight).
- ratcheting straps – They attach your booth to the weights or the tent stakes. They’re immensely handy for a lot more than just holding you’re tent down.. Heck, I’ve seen artists use a dozen straps wrapped all around their booth just to keep the thing square! Straps are awesome!
- display – I have seen artists use upturned shelving racks, and other homemade stuff, but a lot of art festival promoters require a carpeted wall system: Propanels (Dallas, TX) or Armstrong Displays (Guthrie, OK). Their price is around $1200 to $1500 for enough panels and accessories to fill a 10′ x 10′ tent, and they look wickedly professional. (A more reasonably-priced option is a set of mesh panels by Flourish for about $500. They look sturdy, but if the wind picks up, your work bounces around.)
- print bin (and maybe an easel or podium) – about $50 for easel or print bin, but a podium is $200 — Armstrong makes a good one that matches their panels: see the ‘Fold-a-Desk’ at the bottom of the page.
- hanging mechanism - Drapery hooks are pretty strong ($3.50 for about 30 of them at Hobby Lobby), but they will put weak spots in your carpeted walls. Here’s a clever way to use velcro, but I haven’t tried it. Propanels.com has a super strong (yet somewhat expensive) wire system, but you have to velcro it down so your work doesn’t dance around in the wind.
- transportation – truck or van. (assume 15 mpg..) For artists with tons and tons of inventory, you will notice them unloading what looks like a covered horse trailer full of art and supplies.
- UPDATE (09/07/2010) – a dolly! – I went a long time without one, and my joints are hating me because of it. Some shows will require you to park about a quarter-mile away from your booth, and you won’t want to carry everything by hand. If you don’t mind dealing with Harbor Freight’s non-existent customer service, they’ve got a foldable hand cart for about $60. The more expensive (and bigger) option is the Rock-N-Roller.
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.
- Power source : marine deep cycle battery. It can hold a consistent charge for a lot longer than any other 12V battery. (Gel batteries are better than wet ones because they don’t leak. If your battery tips over during travel, you do not want battery acid to destroy your floor mats, trust me.)
- Use an inverter to convert the power from 12V to 120V. It’s just a little box with battery cables on one end, and three-prong wall outlets on the other. (This 750W Black & Decker from Lowe’s is awesome!)
- Use extension cords, power strips, and lights all through your booth — use the 14W spiral-looking fluorescent ones or your battery won’t last. (I use 6 of them, and a full battery can power them for over 8 hours.) Some people use a mess of 50W halogens, but they must have a pile of batteries to extend the life past about 10 minutes.
- After the show each night, charge the battery at your hotel with a 12V battery charger.
Credit Card Processing
If you don’t take credit cards, you ain’t gonna sell much.
- If you have a smartphone (who doesn’t?), get Square. Done.
- The cheap route uses an old-style knucklebuster : $40 for a credit card imprinter, $60/year for a phone and web-based transaction service (Propay.com), and $20 for a printing calculator for figuring taxes.
- The expensive route can involve such things as a wireless Nurit 8000 handheld terminal along with a transaction service (1st National Processing). They will nickel-and-dime you with fees though.
Odds and Ends
$100 and up
- single- and dual-sided velcro – little strips to hold all the wiring to your carpeted panels. ($50 bucks will practically get you a lifetime supply from Lowe’s)
- $15 for a level to help hang your artwork, if you don’t already have one. (The ones with the ruler along the side is especially handy for centering framed work on the panels.)
- $5 for packing tape, for sealing the boxes when you sell a framed image
- ?? for a website. There are thousands of ways to do this.. If you know HTML, sign up for a hosting site and make one from scratch. Template sites such as smugmug or zenfolio can help you configure a site, and allow you to use your own domain name, but they cost a little bit more than a simple hosting site. If you’re just starting out, flickr.com isn’t bad, but it doesn’t look professional when it’s on a business card. WordPress (what you’re reading right now) is a pretty decent blog site, but it still doesn’t do photo galleries very well (even version 3, which they said would address it.)
- insurance for everything. (anecdote time) A storm came through a show late one night, and a woman left all her paintings in her tent (which you should never do, for security reasons). She lost everything — found the tent and all its former contents scattered about a block away. When people talked to her, she seemed upbeat, “everything was covered by insurance, it’s not a problem!” I guess so, but still.. All the money in the world will not replace original pieces of artwork.
- Wear. Sunscreen. If you’re doing outside shows (which are most of them), you will be standing in the sun most of the time. Even if you think you won’t burn, give it eight hours.. A great companion to sunscreen is a goofy straw hat. I wear one.
- as always, allow a few hundred bucks for Murphy’s Law.
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):
- Clubflyers.com – glossy on both sides, which means you can’t write on the back, but they look really good.
- Vistaprint.com – I’ve heard good and bad things about them, but everybody and their dog uses them.
- Overnightprints.com – Their prices are a bit higher than Vistaprint, but they offer overnight printing. (very handy if you’re like me and put stuff off for the last minute)
“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.
These little guys were designed in Illustrator and printed on presentation 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. As for the glossy surface, I was tired of them getting dinged up during transport, so I had my local frame shop put them together and coat them with a layer of print guard. They use a dry mounting technique, and the total cost was around $10 for each 8.5×11″ sheet.
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)
And if you’re feeling excessively narcissistic, get a big sign with your name on it:
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 15 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”.
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 jury filters out crappy artists (“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.) 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, 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.
Once you’re set up, the selling process is simple. It’s technically a retail environment, but it’s not anything like working a register at Wal-Mart — all your customers are there because they are genuinely interested in your work. 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!
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 five or six shows. You will have good shows where you sell a dozen pieces in 12 hours, 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:
- Customer name
- (optional) Customer address, phone number, email address – keep a mailing list!
- Items purchased, and price
- (and if you use an old fashioned credit card scanner) CC number, expiration, last three on the back, and the zip code.
- Art Fair Source Book and its Forums — the “Tools & Techniques” forum is quite handy
- Mike Albin : Marketing Articles and Show Reviews — Insightful stories from a couple who have been doing art festivals for quite a bit longer than I have!
- Ron Frazier’s blog — The blog where I picked up on concrete PVC weights and the velcro hanging system.
- Art Festival Guide — FAQs, sample documents, even a book about the entire process.
- Berman Graphics — he covers every aspect of the art show circuit in good detail, specifically “Selling Photography at Art Shows” (I’ve read that article a dozen times!)
I may have missed something, but I think that covers the basics. enjoy!