All a Newbie Needs to Know... And More.

Got this email today from someone I don't know, asking for information on starting out with shows. I spent more time than I intended answering his questions, and thought some of your other newbies might benefit as well. Here's his email:

My name is *** and I’m a photographer...  As a fellow photographer I would like to ask you a few questions regarding art fairs.  

I’m exploring the idea of participating in a few art fairs for the 2014 season; I anticipate my start up cost to be approximately $10,000, does that sound right to you?  This start up money would buy a tent, print enough material to have on hand at the show, and traveling/art fair cost?   I assume subsequent shows won’t cost as much; is it safe to conclude each art fair thereafter would cost approximately $6,000?

How do you determine the number of prints to display; do you sell the display pieces, and if you do, does the customer take the purchased product at the point of purchase or do you keep it until the show is finished?

How many smaller unframed prints do you carry to each show; for example, do you bring twenty 8x10”, ten 11x14”, and two 14x17” of each picture?

In taking with other photographers I am aware that I want to look for shows that are juried, is that your opinion also?

My last question is a bit sensitive and I don’t want to make you feel uncomfortable, however, I appreciate any advice you can provide: Roughly, what kind of sales may a photographer expect to see at an average size art show?  I know there are a million factors that come into play but I’m looking for a rough idea on what to expect.

So here's what I wrote back:

That's a lot of questions. Fortunately there are a number of resources to help you get started, and to commune with your fellow artrepreneurs!

First off, let me suggest

There is a lot of material there, much of it based on questions similar to yours. There are forums for just about every media, and many of the subjects come up time and again. There is also a photographer's forum.

On Facebook, there is a group for art show photographers. Started by Larry Berman as a Yahoo forum years ago, it's morphed into a group that sees some activity. Feel free to join, ask questions, lurk. If you're already on Facebook, here's the address:

There are several good books devoted to selling and setting up at art fairs. Among the best is Maria Arango's book:

and Bruce Baker's CD set on selling:

Check out the NAIA organizatoin:
Some helpful information there, too, although you have to join to get most of the meat.

Show information is much easier to come by these days. Several pubs deal this out: is the main online art show application application. Most of the big national shows list on here. One thing to keep in mind: once the deadline is past, the show drops off the Apply to This Show list. You can find a list of all the shows that list though, under a separate navigation topic.
This is the other major listing application. What isn't on ZAPP or JASV is on Entry Thingy

Greg Lawler's Art Fair Sourcebook used to be worth the subscription price, especially for those starting out. Now, maybe not so much, but take a look at it anyway.

Your cost estimate isn't too far off.  You will need display materials inside the canopy however, and those are not particularly cheap.

Flourish makes the most solid tent. Solid steel frame, heavy vinyl, heavy duty zippers. You can trick it out any number of ways, but a basic Trimline will run you about $1000.

You can start with an EZ-Up, a Caravan or any number of other cheap folding tents, but I wouldn't advise it if you can afford a stronger tent.

A set of Propanels (9 x 38" x 7') run another $1000 or so. Depending on if you buy braces and lights, you can spend more. Their site is instructional.

Armstrong Display products makes a similar set of panels for about the same cost.

Jury fees set me back about $1000-1500 per year, depending on how many shows I apply to. If I'm accepted, the booth fees run anywhere from $200 for a small local show to upwards of $1500 for the very top shows in Coconut Grove and Sausalito. Most good juried shows fall into the $400-600 range for a single 10x10 spot. I do about 20 shows a year, which run me on average $500 per booth. That come to about $11,000 just to play. Some shows are less, some shows charge you extra for electricity, if they have it, or a corner space, or a double.

You should have liability insurance. Some shows require it. That may cost you $350-650/year, or you can insure per show with a company called Artists, Crafters  & Tradesmen Insurance

Miscellaneous show equipment:

  • Weights for your booth: at least 50 pounds per leg
  • Awnings
  • A chair
  • Some sort of write-up desk
  • Bins or folding racks to display matted prints
  • A credit card system. Most people use the Square now, or PayPal's swiper, or Intuit. You can still open a merchant account and use a wireless terminal. Square requires that you have an iPhone or iPad, and a cellular data plan or access to wireless. Same for the others. Lots of research on this.
  • Office supplies: stapler, tape, duct tape, bags, all kinds of miscellaneous stuff.
  • A flashlight, lantern, or headlamp
  • Raingear
  • Plastic tarps
  • Bungie cords
  • A-clamps
  • A dolly to move stuff back and forth to your vehicle when you can't drive to your booth location
  • Plastic tubs to carry matted prints in

Travel costs depend entirely on how far you plan to range for shows. The further you go, the more it will cost you. $6000 / show is way high, though. For a two day show, you might have three days' of hotel, two days on the road, meals, gas, etc. Priceline, Hotwire, Orbitz, other sites all help you reduce travel costs. If you stay within a 50 mile radius of home, you can probably sleep in your own bed and cut out travel costs entirely. But you can't make a season of shows too easily doing that. You can get a couple of practice shows in.

A transportation system. This stuff needs more than a Honda Element to cart it around in. Although I know a painter from Canada who can do shows in an Element. Most people drive big white vans or Sprinters. I haul a trailer with a pickup truck. If you are going to use Propanels, you'll need something more than an SUV, unless you go with the knockdown panels. (I had those for a season -- got rid of them at the same time I bought my first trailer).

There is way way more to this than the summary above.

You single biggest cost over time will be inventory. You absolutely must have framed work or canvas wraps, or metal mounted prints, or some other sort of work to hang on your walls. As far as the number of pieces to make? Only time and experience will help you here. As a rule of thumb, you need a couple different sizes of matted prints, and a couple different sizes to hang on your walls to draw people in. I hang about 20-25 pieces, maybe have another 40-50 choices in the flip bins, in multiple sizes. You can start smaller than that, but you will need 4-6 pieces on each of three walls as a minimum. You are better off making fewer larger pieces than a whole passle of little dinky ones.


When you sell a framed piece off the wall, people usually expect to take it with them. You wrap it up, either in a black garbage bag (tacky and cheap) or using premium materials that show the work off as it walks down the street. It helps to have a postcard with your logo on it that you can slip into a clear bag. Sometimes you will have to deliver a piece if it's too large for the customer to take home. Every once in a while, you can keep the piece till the end of the show and the customer will return and pick it up, but that's the exception not the rule. Mostly the framed work is there to sell matted prints or smaller version. If you have two pieces, one bigger and one smaller, people will mostly opt for the less expensive of the two. Not always, but mostly. It helps to have a few extra framed pieces to fill in the holes when you sell one. Near the end of a show, it sometimes helps to leave a blank spot or two to indicate that you're selling out.

Sales are wildly variable, based on the show, the attendance, the weather, the competition in your media, the competition in other media that compete for wall space (paintings, drawings, prints, 2-D mixed media), how good you are, how cheap you are, how exclusive you are... I have grossed $0 at more than one show; I have also made close to $10,000 for three days work. Keep in mind that $2000 gross at a show where you can sleep in your own bed and sold nothing but low cost items will make more profit that $2000 at a show that you had to drive two days each direction to get to, with hotels at $100/day and a booth fee of $500. Make yourself a business plan that gives you an idea of what you have to sell in order to be profitable. If you don't you will lose money steadily for several years before you figure it out. There are very few photographers making good money at shows these days. I know most of them, and even those guys are not making what they did ten years ago.

Keep your presentation cohesive. Don't show a little bit of wildlife you shot at the zoo, some pictures of barns in the snow and the shots you took on vacation. That stuff will NOT sell anymore. Trust me on this. Develop a point of view, and DO NOT steal other people's ideas. You will need an artist statement that says, in 100 characters or less, what it is you do, and what makes your work different. Start there, and develop a few key images around a concept. Otherwise you will be throwing your money down a rathlole. People can get cute kitty cats and lions sleeping at the zoo on the interwebz for much less than you can sell them at a show.

You will need a booth shot showing how your booth looks when setup for a show in order to jury for shows. If you don't have this, some shows will let you apply in the emerging artist category without one. Ann Arbor, the Original, for one. Main St. Fort Worth, for another. Do your research. Start with the local shows, closer to home. Call the show if you can't find the answer online. But look online first. Check the show websites.

You will need a website. Something simple at first, that can showcase your concepts, highlight your show schedule and maybe sell some work for you in the off season.

Be prepared to work very, very hard. Be prepared to get very, very discouraged. This is not a business for the faint of heart. It helps to have deep pockets, because you will lose money learning.

And lastly, you can check out my blog for some personal ideas. I haven't updated it in a while, but there are some useful posts there.

Okay, I'm sure you all have your own tips and tricks to add to this, so I'll leave it at that.

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  • Good info about the creating of inventory, John. You may be in love with an image but will anyone else? I know photographers who have piles of unsold images in their storage areas that never found a home.

    The bottom line is the bottom line. If you need/desire/lust after making money in this business then it must be approached as a business. If at all possible do not travel far to sell. Do not be lured by that show 2000 miles away with its consequent expenses.

    Do cultivate any local shows, within 100 mile radius. As Jim said, "if you can sleep in your own bed" it is definitely under consideration. Ferret out any possible gallery events/markets that are near also. Visit them all. Most people in this business take "busmen's holidays", visiting shows that are near, or planning trips near shows they are interested in. You can never do too much preparation. 

  • Jim,

    Great advice! I got an email from him too and just finally got around to answering him. Here is my 2 cents worth...

    I know Jim Parker gave you some great information. His resources are terrific and are ones I have used over the years in this business. It's always a learning process. Yes, 10K is a decent amount to start up. Roughly 3-4K for canopy, walls, desk and print bins. Another 1K or more for inventory and then money left over for application fees, booth fees, travel costs, etc. It took me 2 years until I routinely was making profit at shows, but I still have shows where I'm relieved to just make expenses. The business is not for the faint of heart, and I assume the reason why you are interested in doing this is because your passion of photography has become an obsession and want to live the dream. If that is the reason, congratulations and enjoy the journey. If it's because you think you can make quick easy money, then I'd suggest you look elsewhere. If you don't quit, have talent and work hard you have a decent chance of being able to make a living at it in a few years, although probably not a rich one.

    As far as inventory, I'd just print one in each size until you have a sales history with that image. I can't tell you how many times I thought something was going to be a hit, only to find it didn't sell. So to this day, when I'm introducing something new, I just print one in each of the smaller sizes. When it has a history of selling, I begin printing more. I have an excel spreadsheet to calculate how much I sell of each size at an average show and then carry 5 times that amount in inventory. Unfortunately starting out, you won't have worthwhile data until you complete several shows. So it'll be hit or miss at first. When I run out of an image in a size they want, I offer the next size up at a discount or offer to ship the size they want for free. Seldom I lose a sale over it. Sure, shipping costs more but carrying way too much inventory can be even more expensive.

    Like Jim pointed out, sales run the gamut and a worthwhile show depends not just on your sales but your expenses for that show. When starting you can might expect to gross at most shows between $0 and $1000. After a few years in the business, most full time photographers might have sales ranging between $500 to 10K per show (your mileage may vary).

    My personal opinion is the best juried shows are usually the ones hardest ones to get into. When I began doing shows, I tried a few non juried shows or very loosely juried shows. But the buying energy at those type of shows are generally much lower, people are looking for things CHEAP at most of those events. If those shows work for you, great it'll be easier to configure a schedule. But for me, I couldn't find my customers at such shows.

    Best of luck to you and hope to see you at a show.

  • Kind words, Geoff. Thank you.

  • A note to the newbies who read this:  Jim (the author) is as smart and as knowledgeable in this profession as anyone you will ever find, anywhere.  His advice is 100% on target, and I urge you to print this out and keep it with your business plan. 

  • Not only rain gear, but cold weather gear despite the weather forecast.

  • I probably should have started this as a discussion...

  • Wow, Jim! I am so glad that you also posted this here so you can get some more mileage out of all the time you put into writing this.* Very thorough and mostly they are all sources I use also.

    Ditto on all of them. If you are not committed to making this work, if it isn't a passion for you, don't JOIN us! This is not for sissies. I especially liked your part about getting discouraged! Slog on and on and hope and pray and work for the rewards and when they don't appear on your schedule keep going.

    So I'll add a few self-promotional links also:, where you can find show reviews written by artists;, where you can find shows from all the services (Zapp, JAS, EntryThingy and the independents) listed together., a recorded podcast library of useful downloads to listen to for tips on making our business work for you. You can also listen/download at iTunes.

    My e-books -- over there in the ads on the right hand side: Getting Started at Art Fairs.

    *Like most online writing it may look quick and easy to the reader but the time put in to make it readable and useful to that reader is lengthy and a labor of love.

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