Art Fair Insiders

Call for Artists, Making Money at Juried Art Fairs, Craft Shows and Festivals

Is there a discussion of the good, bad, and ugly art fair practices?

I've been occasionally reading in here for a while, but I don't recall seeing any specific place that talks about practices by art fair organizers that are appreciated, and those that are problematic...  My searching didn't turn up a specific topic, but I figure that just means I'm not searching correctly.

I've done a couple small, local shows, and am looking at branching out a little bit, so I'd like to know more about things that should cause a red flag when looking at applying to shows (or when speaking to a show organizer), and things that would indicate a particular show may be a good one.  Are there specific things people look for, or specific questions you ask, or other methods to help determine which shows to apply to?

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Ah, that'd match the experience I related above about having the office worker tell me they actually didn't have a jury.  Whoever was around when the entry came in took a look and decided...

I'm pretty new at this, but I suspect there are a LOT of smaller shows around here are like that.  OR, they're extremely (for my budget) expensive (in excess of $500 with a $30-50 jury fee)...  Or, they're imposing artificial limits on some types of entries but they don't mention that when you talk to them...

Are the administrative fees a new scam or have they been around in other parts of the country for a while?

It's sort-of spring here in Minnesota, and I've applied to a couple art fairs.  I've decided to skip the local fair(s), even though they're very close to home, since my photography just doesn't appear to sell there.  On top of that, the organizer(s) have decided they were too much of a bargain and increased the booth fee, the jury fee, AND added an "admin fee"...  So, I'll be trying a couple other fairs to see if I do any better.

Hi Geoff,

   I tried to review every show I did last year for this very reason.  I wanted to give those artists who were new or were considereing what shows to do and which  ones to avoid as much information as I could.  I just wrote a blog on AFI called "The Distraction Factor" and it is just one of many red flags to consider when researching shows.  I think a reasonable list of criteria or things to consider when researching shows should be:  cost, size of show, are there any conflicting festivals or holidays on the show weekend, is the show well established, past exhibitors, type of work included, where is the show (street, park, indoor/outdoor), do you recieve answers to your questions reasonably quickly and professionally from the show staff, size of metro area of show (bigger is not always better)...I had a good show in Spring Green, WI last year, population:  less than 2,000 people.  What is the mix of media?  Is the show heavy in one or more medias, light in others?  What will it cost you to do the show, assuming you will not sell anything? 

Above all, make sure you ask those of us who have been doing shows for our opinions and insights.  Personally, I have researched a lot of shows, a lot more than I have actually done, and would be happy to answer any questions.  You can always e mail me here on AFI and I will pass on whatever I know about a show.  I am considering starting a show in my area within the next couple of years, so I have been busy at work looking at both good and bad shows across the country.  Best of luck to you!!! 

Honestly, you should read Maria Arango's book Art Festival Guide. You can get if off Amazon (instantly if you do Kindle). It would probably help you.

One thing I always look at is what the draw is to the show. If the show is known for beer & barbecue & they just happen to have craft booths. Well guess what, they come to the show for beer & barbecue & will probably only browse through your booth while they eat & drink them.

If you have the opportunity to go to a show, do that as an observer & if you like what you see, apply the following year.

I once done a show that got pretty good attendance for the area. I tried the show out (as an artist) & found out the biggest draw to the show was the massive free gifts & drawings that were given away constantly at the show. The people came out to put their names in the drawings for the free gifts. These people were professionals at it to because lots of them didn't even use ink pens to fill them out. They brought their own preprinted address labels. They would just peel & stick & then move onto the next booth. Most artists didn't make a dime at the show & the ones that did mostly sold $5 & $10 items.

I was going to do another show that was a nonprofit & all the proceeds went for a good cause. The attendance was pretty good but I backed out after calling & talking to the promoter. The booth fee was $350 & there were 300 other booths. Turns out I was going to be the only art & craft booth at the show. All the other booths were food, thirty-one, scensy, Origami Owl, & etc.

Some questions you can ask is the number of artists & the percentage of returns & the number of applications they get. If they automatically invite all artists back year to year & only 10% return that can be one of your big red flags. Also if they have 300 spaces & 85% return & they get 1,100 applications you can do the math. That means they will have 45 new positions available & pouring through 845 applications to get them. This means that they can be very very picky about selecting. If you have two photographers fighting over the same space that have equally skilled work, they are going to pick the one that has the most stunningly appealing booth.

I did a lot of local tiny shows my first year, & I learned so much from that. Sometimes people can't really tell you what shows to do, you learn from experience.

Sometimes it helps to do research about the area where the show you are interested in will be. You may not want to do shows in a huge city if all your work is of fields & tractors. You may not wanna do shows in major mountain states if all you work is beach scenery or exotic islands. Sometimes you have to figure out if you are a match for the show. If it's a show that's all about waterfowl & your artwork is all about ducks you might want to do the show despite the artisan that tells you they did horrible & they are a potter. I have done shows in the beginning where people came along & told me that my work didn't fit in at the show. Other times I had people that kept saying "Chick you should be in a gallery or something"

There is also a little more math you can do. For small shows(not top shows or anything), most of the time this applies. They say 50% of the general public will spend $20 or more while out & the other 50% will not. Take the number of attendance & multiply it by $10 then divide that number by the number of booth spaces. If you have 5,000 people & 500 booths that gives you an earning potential of say $100 per booth. This could help you decide on if you should do a show or not.

They say if you do a show & you did okay, you might want to repeat it a second time. You can always invite your customers to certain shows (don't forget to do some form of a guestbook or something). There are certain shows that I do that are only worth doing because of my repeat customers that come back by invites.

You can write out on paper a list of questions you want to ask when you call. It will make you sound more professional & you will hang up knowing everything you wanted to know. Think of it like you would if you were going to rent a house. Read the contract first & then ask all the questions the contract doesn't cover. Does the rent (booth fee) include electricity & what other amenities? If you are going to be renting a space you need to know what type of neighbors you will have & what kind of neighborhood it is. Approach it just like the house rental & you will be in the good.

People can give you advice & try to help guide you, but you will learn the most by being out there & doing.

Good luck,

I's always a good idea to interview the promoter. Background, how long, etc.

But the one thing that I have found to be the most successful in finding shows, promoters, sales, etc is to form a group of fellow exhibitors from your area. Make friends with exhibitors who have different media than you. This way you can be open and honest. You'll find out many of you will be doing the same shows, so comparing notes works. Our group consists of jewelers, woodworkers, florals, photography, as well as 2D artists.

One jeweler who is from Maine and has a thick accent went down to South Carolina for a show. He didn't even make expenses. He came back and said "Nobhaady undasthood me when I tahked to them!"

Hi all. I'm just getting my feet wet on the art show process. I did a couple of church-level (and a military "family day" event) last year, but I expected those to be a learning task in setting up and taking down the tent, and learning how to speak to people who come around asking questions. That all worked, and I didn't make many sales. I assumed "wrong venue/audience".

This year I have gone to the next step, and applied to and attended community level fairs/festivals. I have to say Elle that your article "The Distraction Factor" was the most recent article I had read before this last weekend's attendance at the Perry Georgia "Dogwood" festival. It was amazing how many of those things in your article I saw as I manned my photography booth. There was a large stage (which I now officially nominate as another "red flag") where all the local dance teams were doing their thing most of the day. Then there was the "dock dog" competition where dogs run off of a pier, jump into the water and fetch a target, all against the clock. Very entertaining, but not what art buyers come to an event for. There was the hot air balloon festival, and on and on. So I thought back to your article all weekend and spotted all those distractions you mentioned.

My two outings this year have been great for experience (load-in and load-out fire drill, logistics, etc), but I now plan to watch out for as many of Alison's "red flags" and Elle's "distractions" as I research my show choices.

Thanks everyone.

Hi Gordon!

   Thanks for reading my article, The Distraction Factor.  It is great that you have done some shows and now have a few under your belt.  The experience of doing the first shows goes a long way in helping you chose shows in the future.  The Distraction Factor can really hurt artists and I hope that more people look at it as a detriment to their investments of time and money.  It is really amazing what you notice when you are looking for things.  I have found in my experience that the type of organization that is promoting the show tends to determine the level of distractions.  For example....The Brookside neighborhood association (?) puts on the Brookside Art Annual in Kansas City, MO.  That show is directed by Donna Potts, arguably the best in the business and there is no distraction factor whatsoever.  The focus is all art and the sales are through the roof!  On the other hand, I did a show in Baton Rouge, LA last year that was nothing but distraction factor at work!  I do not recall the organization that promoted it, but the art was literally a side show.  Seperate from the "entertainment" that was the focus of the show.  Needless to say, it was a huge money loser for me.  Some had success there, but many vowed never to return.  I had the same experience at another show in Iowa where every other booth was a sponsor, charity or carnival food vendor.  Nice people running the show, but few sales and totally wrong crowd for fine art.  I distinctly remember one artist, who I bought an original from (I was his only sale) leaving in disgust and creating quite the scene.  Artists spend lots of time and money to do these shows and none of us want to be "eye candy" for the county fair atomosphere some of these shows provide!  Please feel free to e mail me or ask questions on AFI whenever you are contemplating doing a show that may have too much of the distraction factor involved!

Thanks for the replies.......

Unfortunately, I've tried to put together three different replies, and scrapped them all 'cause they just sound depressing and disgusted..... 

I read "The Distraction Factor", and every fair I've been to in the last 4 years is rife with what's in there.  The Riverfront Fair in Northfield competes with a weekend of other events, bike races/rides, runs, bank raid reenactments, parades, toy tractor pulls, soap box derby races, and anything else organizers have been able to think up. 

The Riverwalk Market fair puts farmers and food with the artists.  The overwhelming majority of people are just there for a cinammon roll.   It takes as much time to set up and tear down for a 4-hour event as for a 2-day one.  Considering we've never made more than $100 or so, with two people, and 7 hours of time, at minimum wage it'd be a LOT cheaper to stay home and watch tv. 

I always contact the organizer, and have a set of questions:

How many years has your event been in operation?  (I've learned not to do 1st year shows)

How many booths do you have?

Do you have a specific category/criteria for photographers?  (what constitutes photography and is it juried separately from other art?)

How many total applications did you receive in each of the last three years?

Of those, how many were for photography?

How many photographers do you entry to?

How many past attendees are grandfathered in to the event?

How much preferential treatment is given to "local" artists?

----  Remember, my experience has been with fairs in Minnesota.  Organizers other places may be more forthcoming or truthfully answer questions ----

So far, asking those questions has been a total bust.  I get the same answers every time when they're trying to extract a jury fee and get applications, and drastically different ones after they've collected the money:

Other than the years in operation and the number of booths, the information appears to change significantly before and after they get the money...

The number of applications is always a HUGE shock that it's gone up SO MUCH since last year - usually by a factor of at least 2.

The number of photographer applications is an equally HUGE shock - usually being at LEAST twice as many as I was previously told.

The number of photographers is NEVER restricted when they're trying to extract money.  Oddly, the number they restrict to always appears to be well under 10% of the available booths once they've gotten the applications.

NOBODY is EVER grandfathered into an event.  At least they never ADMIT to doing that.

There's NEVER any preferential treatment given to "local" artists.  Although, a look at the artists in the show with their city of residence seems to show a huge predominance of local people.

I don't know what the "art" fairs in other areas look like, but here in Minnesota, for a fair with 90 - 100 booths, they seem to have become something else - 6 photographers, 7 painters, maybe 6 sculptors, 25 jewelers, 30-40 clay/ceramic/glassware/whatever people, birdhouses, wooden sign makers, ink pens, recycled clothing, and so on.

And given the very poor return we've had at any of the fairs we've done, I can't justify the large outlay of time for two people or the $1000+ for the cost of the very few larger shows in reasonable range.  We've applied to two out-of-town shows so far (I'm getting more and more pushback from my wife about wasting entire weekends on shows to not even pay the entry fee), and been wait listed for one (there were NO restrictions on photographers until AFTER they got the jury fee, then, amazingly, it was restricted to 6 photographers)...  Still waiting on the other.

I completely agree with you. The people who are attending those shows usually are not there to look for serious art or craft. You are just the side entertainment. I complained at one show about a hair removal booth next to me at a show. The woman was dressed in skimpy clothing and had put a big table out in front of her tent. When I said something to the management, I was told that they needed those booths to help pay for the show. I didn't say this but I should have. "No. You need the artists to put on the show. Without them you have no show." Never did that show again.


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