Art Fair Insiders

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

Recently I had the privilege of Moderating a Discussion Session entitled “Strategies for the Seasoned Artist” at an enrichment conference held by the Best of Missouri Hands artist organization.  The purpose was promoted to be figuring out how to gracefully transition to the next stage of the aging artist’s career.  The session was well attended, the discussions lively, and most heads were crowned with silver.

The mediums represented were fiber, glass, metal, photography, jewelry, wood, painting, and clay. 

There was one new artist, four that had been selling for twenty years or more, and the rest were in between.

Two thirds of the artists depend on the income generated by the sale of their art as their primary source of income.  The other third considers their sales as part-time income.

A bit of time was spent on shows.  All but 1 attendee (and myself) reported that they could set up a show with only the assistance of their spouse or significant other – i.e. free help. I acknowledged that I pay helpers but am Blessed to have a person for St. Louis shows and a sister for out of town shows. 

The advice for the 1 attendee who needed help was to post an ad on Craig’s List.  Several have done this and found it works well.  All contact with the helper is in a public place – no private contact is necessary – therefore it is safe.  The suggested fee for the helper was $50 for set-up and $50 for break-down.  Alternate suggestions were to contact the show staff and particularly select shows that provide assistance.  There are quite a few shows that will provide assistance ranging from unloading/loading the vehicle to full set up.

Additional advice for facilitating show set-up/break-down was to create displays on wheels; use tents that break apart so that the components can be divided into lighter packages; and be sure that all boxes, etc., are light enough for the artist to manage on their own.

One artist questioned how to learn about shows that fit specific needs. was lauded as the primary resource. was also mentioned as was St. Louis Artist’s Network group.  Naturally, the artist was encouraged to investigate any offerings listed with these groups.

In addition to shows, the attendees reported sales on-line, sales through galleries, wholesale opportunities, and one sold exclusively through a marketing representative.  The artist with the marketing rep acknowledged that it had started serendipitously but had developed into a full time job with no other outlets for sales.

The biggest shock from the discussions was in response to the questions “How many are planning to retire?” followed by “How many are thinking about retiring?”  The answer to both questions was zero.  No one in the group was even considering retiring! 

What turned out to be the pertinent question was “How can an artist continue to create income when they start to decline physically?”  The general sentiment from the group was that the artists would die before they quit.  It was acknowledged that aging bodies do put limits on capabilities but for those who enjoy still doing shows, the suggestions stated earlier were re-iterated.  Many said they love doing shows due to the interaction with the people and the positive reinforcement of their creativity.

So the discussion now turned to the ways the artist could continue to create income as their bodies began to slow down.  Ironically, those ways had pretty much been covered earlier as the artists had been queried as to where their income came from.  Specifically, the top recommendations were galleries and on-line sales. 

A lively discussion came from the suggestion of getting your art displayed “on consignment” in different locations like dentist/doctor/lawyer offices, hospitals, banks, restaurants, or office buildings.  It was acknowledged that this suggestion was primarily beneficial for, but not limited to, 2-D artists.  The host gets free decorating and the art is available for purchase.  The reason this discussion was invigorating is because most of the group had assumed that such locations were by invitation only whereas, in fact, the artist is free to approach any host.  Don’t be shy.  Cold Calling can’t hurt you.

For those artists who feel that production of their art is no longer necessary for an income stream but who want to still be regarded as a functional artist, these suggestions were made with the assumption that the artist is not asking to be paid: 

Mentoring which could take the form of spending one on one time with another budding artist.  Or holding sessions at an event.  For instance, GSLAA always has children’s booths at their Queeny Art Fairs in St. Louis.  If an artist wanted to provide such a service, they could contact the staff of an art show and make the offer.  Most shows would bend over backwards to make such a thing happen.

Teaching classes.  BOMH’s Visiting Artist is a classic example.  Once again, contacting an organization to offer your skills and letting them take the heavy work of providing the facility, supplies, and promotion would probably be well received.

What about literary contributions?  Blogs and columns on a variety of art topics should be another win/win situation.

What about a regular Q & A column in a newsletter or on Facebook?

Pretty much any idea is a good one.  And as Nike likes to say “Just Do It!”

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I've been the key note speaker at the BOMH annual event. I did a presentation on creating good jury images and then ran the projection of the images and was able to get artists to critique other artists images.

It sounds like what was missing from your presentation was the creation of, and examples of ancillary businesses related to the art show industry. And I'm not just talking about becoming a show director and running a show or three, though I can point to a number of artists who have gone that route.

What this next list of businesses have in common is that they were all started by artists, or friends of artists, who exhibited at art shows and saw the need or lack of a particular product.

The Flourish Company (Trimline canopy and mesh walls), Pro Panels, Creative Energies (Light Dome), Craft Hut (actually got started when photographer Clyde Butcher asking his friends Ann and Jim Newton to build a canopy for outdoor art shows), Greg Lawler's Art Fair Sourcebook, Armstrong Products (started building their displays at the request of an artist friend). Chris Maher and I build web sites for probably over 200 artists. Art Fair Insiders (Connie and her late husband Norm sold their photography at art shows), Art Linx, and my own image improvement and artwork photography business.

Though it won't bring in a lot of money, I recommend artists offer their display for rent when not using it. I've been renting my Pro Panels for over ten years and make between $500 and $1500 a year. I even offer to deliver them, help the artist set up and pick them up at the end of the event.

Larry Berman

Thank you for sharing that information, Larry.  Connie and I have chatted about how developing Art Fair Insiders was key to keeping her love of art viable.  My only caution for the reader would be to recognize that starting up any kind of business - even one that seems a natural progression - can be extremely taxing.  The basis for the BOMH session was to understand how to lighten the load without losing credibility as an artist.  Taking a new direction can be invigorating.  The artist should evaluate carefully and honestly.

At 74 I can still lift heavy hides for building saddles but I am planning for the future. At present the studio has three income streams: belts and leather artwork for shows,  new trick saddles and accessories, and antique saddle and gear restoration and repair. Each contributes about 1/3. At some point, saddles and saddle restoration will be phased out. Small leather goods can still be made. A new venture I am looking at for my 90's LOL, will be designing and making custom trick rider costumes for horse and rider. Lifting bolts of fabric should be manageable and I will have a name already established in the industry.

Love the planning. I'm following in your footsteps, well, at least the philosophy.

I had a friend who made really good money doing historical side saddle costumes. I envy you being able to still lift hides. I sure cant.

 I am turning 74 next month and, after 25 years, have been "forced" into retirement because of my husband's escalating health problems. I do not have financial concerns about this. My problem is that this happened rather abruptly, without any real preparation, and I find myself floundering. I am at such loose ends, and I don't know how to deal with what is essentially grieving the loss of what has been such a big part of my life for so long.

Do plan for scaling down or changing direction as you get older, but don't forget that something may happen that will put you in my situation. Plan for that, too.

That is kind of what happened to me also, Susan. My husband's health caused us to leave when I was still strong and willing and looking forward to seeing friends at the shows and the travel. It was an abrupt end. Our retirement plan was to fall dead off our chairs at an art fair. I was only 64, not ready to do that. Luckily here I am 10 years later being able to support myself with all my online ventures and able to share my experiences to help the new kids. 

So what are you going to do?

What is retirement? If it means you want to cut back on your work due to age or health you must have other passive  sources of income to make up for the loss. I would think for most its having some good investments like a IRA or Roth IRA that you start withdrawing funds from. Work with a financial advisor with a good well known company and invest a fixed amount every year. Most would recommend very conservative mutual fund plans.   The younger you start the better off you will be when you can no longer lift the boxes into the van.  Social security helps if you have been paying into it.  Renting out a house you inherited from a deceased parent rather than selling it is a possibility as well as many other things.  You cant just keep working only to find out some day if you cant work you must join the homeless on the street cornor. 

My husband is close to retiring. He has his own career but does all of the shows with me, and helps me with a few other things.

I am a few years older then him and our plans are for me to keep working, with him helping with my business.

I read or heard once: If you are planning to retire, you need to answer these 3 questions.

1 What will you do?

2 Where will you live?

3 Where will you get your income?

After doing calculations, I began taking my social security last year at age 62. You may be surprised at how much you may receive.

There is a cut off limit as to how much income you can make while collecting social security, but there are legitimate legal ways for that to not have any affect.


Let's consider people moving on to "retirement activities".  Most folks in their planning hope to have time for travel, painting, wood crafts or a pottery class.  We are blessed to have this every day - and enjoy most of them.

 As a 70 yr old woman woodworker, I have cut back on the number of shows and concentrate on those with an easy set up. Yes I am usually the last to leave. I have also limited production to lines I know will sell and a few experimental pieces where I can really stretch my ability.

Locally a number of libraries and corporate centers offer gallery walls (often hallways) where artists can exhibit free for a month and distribute information.  This has always led to a few sales.

Before you think of changing, just cut back to the parts of your job you enjoy most      JoAnn

Sounds like a good discussion


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