Art Fair Insiders

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

Back in 2008 and 2009 when the economy was hit by the "great recession" many events closed up shop for economic reasons. But its' been awhile since I've heard of any more. Then today I read that a 26 year old art fair in St. Joseph, MO, Trails West!, held annually since 1993 had been suspended.

The organizers cited increased costs of producing the festival, not a surprising reason considering the inflation since 1993 and the security costs incurred since 9/11. But the second reason was one we talk about among ourselves (e.g., art fairs aren't like they used to be) the changing  of consumer behavior.

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How are you dealing with how people do/don't buy art?

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Comment by Carol Joy Shannon on September 29, 2018 at 1:29pm

Yes, Connie, Artisphere seems to buck the trend.  It is a relatively new show (10 years old?) and in a booming area that has never had art shows of any kind before Artisphere.  They are VERY particular about the artists chosen, because they seem to know their base.  It is a smallish show (# of artists) and the very affluent demographic of the Greenville/Columbia corridor is a good mix of white collar and blue collar. 

Lawrence M. Sawyer, you are right on all your points about photography.  I still see it going home with more people than take home original paintings, but it has become a victim of its own technology.  Whenever I see the ads for "mixtiles" and the other platforms for hanging phone photos, I cringe -- for all of us!  We have two fine art photographers in the gallery I am in in Beaufort.  One of them consistently sells his very, very painterly pieces.  But, just as likely, people who "love" them, will show me their own versions of the same shot (never as wonderful, but I can't tell them that!)

Cindy Welch: cultivating our collectors IS the only way to maintain our art as business, absolutely.  I am SO grateful for my faithful collectors who continue to hang my work in their homes. 

Artists are nothing if not flexible and adaptive.  We will all find our ways of making all this work for us.  We are quite lucky to have Connie Mettler's fantastic platform here, so that we can all work with each other.  I recommend it often to people who are new to the business or who have questions about shows I haven't done.  I say, "Do you know about Art Fair Insiders?  Ask your question there; someone will know."

Comment by Judy Christian on September 28, 2018 at 8:52am

Lots of good thoughtful responses.

I would like to add that I think shows should look for some serious feedback. Not the type where we get a paper to fill out at the show marking a few boxes, but a search for real thoughtful feedback, such as what is on this thread.

Companies ask for feedback all of the time now via emails. 

The shows should be looking for feedback from the artists and also from the customers.

Comment by Connie Mettler on September 27, 2018 at 1:50pm

Many thanks to everyone who has responded above. I'm sure all reading here appreciate their thoughtful and helpful comments. I certainly agree that not to keep current and continue to the same old, same old is death, not only for art fairs but for art events.

The festivals need to keep fresh, continue to develop their audience, be sharp with social media. Because, believe it or not, social media is the defining PR these days. 

The organizers of the Garage Sale Art Fair in Kalamazoo do amazing things with their Facebook postings. Guess what? that is nearly free to do, as opposed to buying print advertising. I hope to get the mastermind of that FB use, Bonnie Blandford, on a podcast soon so we can all learn new tricks.

The shows that are flourishing (as the economy changes, people retire, go smaller, go larger, lose jobs, choose other ways to spend their $$) are the ones that continue to work on engaging their communities. Here are a few excerpts from a PR email I received today from Artisphere in Greenville, S.C.:

  • ... 88,645 patrons braved the heat and spent more than $1,050,000 purchasing art and setting a festival record for bottled water sales.  The weekend produced a $5.8 million economic impact on the community making the annual festival another huge success. ...


  • ... Ceramics artist Michael Schwegmann traveled 674 miles from Bement, IL to participate in the festival and complimented the Board, staff, City of Greenville, and the volunteers on an amazing event saying that Artisphere is “one of the best run [art] shows in the USA!” ...

Read the rest of this PR release to see what Artisphere does to keep the excitement going at their show: Artisphere%202018%20was%20Hot%20Hot%20Hot%21.pdf

Comment by Lawrence M. Sawyer on September 27, 2018 at 12:32pm

Carol Joy Shannon: Salient comments, and you make some great points, but there is one that I would argue with: that photography is part of the "future" along with crafts. 

Photography, 99.999% of the time is 2-D, and so it is perceived (by some) as useless wall art, just like a painting. But more importantly, a VERY prevalent attitude among the younger crowd is that since it's only a photograph, and they have a great camera in their phone, and software is cheap (all true thus far...stay with me here...) then they could "do that." And in many cases they could! They are not doing it at the moment; and there is a huge learning curve, but yeah, for some work, they could do that, if they set their mind to it. 

The younger generation places more value on useful things than pure art. I do not, but I certainly see the value in thinking that way. In addition, Costco and FAA and other venues have brought great photographic images to the masses. And I participated in that by selling my work as stock for over 20 years. So yeah, it is inevitable that large photographic prints would be available at dirt-cheap prices, perfect for the kids who work in a gig economy and will never have $500 to spend on wall art. 

Because I have a unique style, lots of people stop in their tracks as they walk by my booth. Then they come in and oooh and ahhh...but I have observed that far more people at the fairs I attend, are buying pottery and clever yard sculptures and jewelry, and turned wooden bowls, etc. The fine craft phenomenon is real, and the downgrading of photography as a valued medium is real. Not everywhere, for sure, but it is happening, and I think it is only going to get worse. 

One point of irony that I see as well is this: we use the "digital darkroom" now, many of us, to achieve our vision. And the better we get at that, the more our work seems too perfect; so the tools become visible, and that diminishes the actual imagery on the wall. If we make it "too great", it's assumed that software was used, so it's not real art and no skill is involved! 

The challenge for me, and other photographers, is to find the right shows, with the right audience, and show the right work. 

It is like solving a multivariable equation. 

Comment by Carol Joy Shannon on September 27, 2018 at 10:55am

I live in the southeast and we are being inundated with retirees.  (Don't harass me, I am in my late 60s myself, so I am not being critical.) BUT these people give me all these excuses (even in the gallery where I sell my work): "we're downsizing;" "we don't have enough wall space;" "we aren't buying anything new."  So, consider this: our art fair patrons have been people with money who are "of a certain age" to afford fine art.  This demographic is now moving into a different part of their lives, where they are not acquiring as much as settling, and even "giving away."

So, this demographic will buy lovely fine crafts, like glass, garden art, jewelry, ceramics, which can sit on tables and shelves, but they will rarely buy 2D wall art.  That's one issue I have observed.

Another is a piece that someone else pointed out: many of these fairs are "seniors" themselves.  It used to be that when I saw a show that was "our 63rd year!" I figured it was a good show.  The problem with these well-established shows is that they get lazy.  They've done it for so long, the machinery is in place and no one tweaks it.  As someone who had a public studio for years, and owned a gallery, I can tell you: you have to tweak it constantly.  If a gallery doesn't change things up on a regular basis, people just walk by.  It is the same with art shows.  If you don't change how you appeal to the public, the public just begins to "not see" you.

I have watched this happen to a number of shows.  They simply do not understand that you have to appeal to a different base, a broader base.  They think that the "way we've done things" in the past will work forever, and it doesn't.

To get a younger demographic to come out to art shows, you've got to change the way you have appealed to people.  Make it interesting to young people.

I am glad the artist in Santa Fe is finding Californians who have money and want big art.  That is much rarer on the "circuit" these days.  Even the "big" shows are no longer reliable.  You can pay big bucks for a prestigious show and still be swamped with tire kickers. My demographic has always been young couples, single professionals and some affluent young families, but I don't see that group coming out to art shows as much, anywhere.  The most reliable shows over the years have all started to show a down-tick in attendance, too.  

As for the "Fine Art America" piece and other online venues - yes, they are absolutely cutting into the festival market, and if you do not have an online sales platform, you are going to be in trouble in a few years.  People are buying groceries online.  I've got 3 platforms online and I am on my laptop every morning tweaking and poking and trying to get attention.  It is the way of the future.

I do not think art festivals are going away this year or next, but I think the cavalier attitude of show organizers is also killing them.  Most shows just plug in the usual methods, get their jury fees (this is where they make a killing!), extending deadlines to get MORE jury fees, and then, once they have our booth fees, they really do not care if we make money.  Because if you and I don't come back to do it again, another artist will apply next year to fill our spot.  

The future of "art festivals" appears to be high end crafts, and photography, but I would LOVE to be WRONG!

Another "piece" is large crowds in downtowns.  People may be leery of this now, in our crazy age.  I did two shows in Atlanta last year that were affected by "politics."  One took place during the "womens march" and no one could get anywhere because of that.  The other took place while they were tearing down Confederate statues, and the show organizers had to issue a "plan" for us in case there was a riot in the park (which had a major statue.)  Those kinds of things may seem insignificant, but if it makes a patron think twice about attending, it affects us.

We can all get complacent, and I have to pull myself up by the collar to get excited sometimes, but I've made a living this way for the past 12 years.  I got in on the tail end of the "just buy it" largesse before the recession; I survived the recession; and, now, I am cutting back from 22 shows a year to maybe 10.  Trust me, if I could figure out a fine craft that wouldn't require a complete retooling, I'd definitely do it. But I paint. 

I will continue to paint, because I have to!  But I will also be looking for any new venues I can find to sell my work, and if that is online, so be it.

Comment by Bettie Grace Miner on September 26, 2018 at 4:43pm

This trend is worrisome to me as I'm sure it is to others. One thing I've noticed about customers since I first started doing this is 2000 is that they are either less and less sophisticated or quality just doesn't matter anymore. The mentality is "Why buy an original when you can fill your walls up with 'art' from discount stores." One time a customer and her friend were looking through a print bin that I had and one said to the other "No, don't buy two. Just buy one and I'll copy it." I thought my head would explode and I refused to sell them anything. As one other artist said, it really got bad after the recession. Chinese imports, cheap prints, and junk printed on vinyl (not canvas) seem to be good enough for a lot of people. I do abstract work and many of the uneducated think that anyone can do that, after all. :( But I'll be out there, hoping to find the real art enthusiasts and buyers. I don't know what I'd do otherwise. 

Comment by Heike Strobel on September 26, 2018 at 2:24pm

Since 2004 I live in Santa Fe,NM.

The first 5 years here my shows were really great (I am an abstract painter and a silversmith).

In 2010 everything here went south and the big shows here on the Plaza now have about 30% of the artist participating than before.

This year so it changed again...more and more people are moving to Santa Fe, mainly from California.

The real estate prices are going through the roof, thanks God I got my house.

The new "Santa Feans" are buying art, big art!

For about 10 years I heard: "we are down sizing, no wall space".

Now I get asked all the time at shows: "Do you have this painting in a bigger size, can I come to your studio?"

I only do Originals, NO prints at all and that really works for me.

My customers tell me, that when they see print bins in front of other artists booth, they do not look closer.

Now finally I get to your point Connie: Yes I also see here in the South-West, former hugh art shows getting smaller and smaller and eventually some of them will close too.

BUT I also see a change in peoples habits, moving away from the big cities to smaller places like Santa Fe and those people have the money to buy Original art and they are buying big.

Artists have always been very "adjustable", we just need to change our old artist lives and transform our self in a "kind of new way", to keep up with the challenge and changes in our world.

love and peace to all of you.... 

Comment by Lynnette Shelley on September 26, 2018 at 9:59am

Not speaking for this particular festival, as I have never attended and do not live in this area, but I wonder how many are just failing to adapt and / or have organizers that do not understand where to promote to the next generation of art buyers and how to effectively use social media? Again, not saying that is the case here, but I have seen shows where they keep doing the same thing every year without adapting. Maybe the shows need to be smaller and even more curated. Maybe bring them indoors if weather keeps being problematic at that time of year. Maybe other shows are competing and you need to differentiate your brand better? by and large I think social media is way underutilized by many too. Doing an occasional post on facebook or instagram is not using social media effectively.

And yeah, the economy can be a factor too but the people who buy artwork - especially at the higher price ranges -- are not really affected. I would say it's the middle class buyers that are. This was the same conversation that was happening in 2008 (I had just started doing art as a business in mid 2007, so I was worried). I think it's best to always make sure you don't put too many eggs in one basket so if one venue starts to fail for you, you can cut it off and work on other venues. If art fairs become too difficult to make a living at them, it's possible they may need to rescale and reevaluate their business (Too long SOME of them - not all -  just increase booth fees without doing any added value for the artist, and coast on past reputation).

Just some thoughts. I don't claim to have all the answers.

Comment by Cindy Welch on September 26, 2018 at 9:48am

How do you deal with those who don't buy art?  I guess it depends on why they don't buy.  That might be a place to start with them.  We can't address the fact they don't buy till we understand what is holding them back .... Is what they like (and want) outside of their budget?  Maybe they unable to make a decision on what they like?  Possibly they feel they don't have room for it?  Etc., etc.

For those who do buy art ... continue (or start) cultivating a relationship with them.  Show appreciation for their purchase and their input as to what they like about your work.  Ask questions about why they purchased from you.  If asking questions is not an option, just pay attention to what art is walking away from your both in the form of purchases.

I have been doing shows only since 2013.  I don't have the decades of experience many of you have and I don't do fine art shows (never have, probably never will).  However, I am seeing trends in less spending and more "tire kicking".  Dh and I see that at shows in general at the vintage shows we do.  Where we live in in coastal Louisiana, we have alway lagged behind the rest of the country when there is a downturn in the economy.  The rest of the country seems to get affected long before we are.  Then we lag behind the country in recovery.  I think we are still in economic recovery down here, but are still behind the rest of the country.  That can truly affect what people purchase and how much they spend.

Comment by Mark Loeb on September 26, 2018 at 9:43am

I do believe that art buying in this country is in flux and that any artist or organizer that does not continually evaluate their product is likely to eventually fail.  I don't have all the answers, heck, I don't even know all the questions!  I do know that unless you are very lucky, trying to do the same thing in the same way for multiple years is likely to stop working.   It's not the world's fault that things are changing, it may be our fault for not keeping up with those changes.

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