Art Fair Insiders

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

Digital Artist Opens a Gallery: A 2-year Report

I've been doing art fairs for many years exhibiting my digital paintings (prints). A couple of years ago my wife, Marcia, and I opened an art gallery in the resort town of Douglas, Michigan, right across the river from Saugatuck. This area is billed as "The Art Coast of Michigan" and boasts 30-plus art galleries. We opened the gallery because we're getting old. After many years we finally figured out how to make money at art fairs, but they are so much work! More work every year. We thought, maybe we can make a living selling art at a gallery and make a living that way.

We work hard at it. We decided to make our gallery a niche gallery specializing in the growing area of Digital Art. We recruited some of the best digital artists on the art fair circuit, Chuck Wimmer, Ed Myers, Jason Brueck, Kate Harrold, Tanya Doskova, Geoff Harris, Susan Littman, Dewey James and Nels Johnson. And, of course, myself as well. Since its my gallery, I get to show lots of my own artwork. We pay artists 60% of sales.

We're making more money in our second year at the gallery than in the first year. But not enough to take the place of art fairs. Our dream of gallery sales taking the place of art fairs is a long way off. We continue to exhibit at art fairs. They are just too profitable to stop. But here's what I've learned. The gallery is making money, just not enough to supplant the art fairs. The combination of art fairs and gallery sales have definitely increased our income. We've also found that our contacts at art fairs help drive people to our gallery, and vice versa. So, our ultimate audience is greater.

We've also made some good friends and business attachments with the digital artists we represent at the gallery. It's kind of fun showing other artists work. And, although we're not gonna make any of them rich with their commissions, they all seem to be happy with an extra check now and then. Another advantage to showing at art fairs is that we can often connect with the artists we represent and exchange new artwork for the gallery.

They say it takes five years for a good retail business to be truly profitable. Maybe in another three years we can drop the art fairs. But, for now, we'll continue doing both and we'll continue recruiting new digital artists for the gallery. There seems to be more of them art art fairs every year.

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Comment by Nels johnson on December 4, 2018 at 5:58pm

I think your gallery is a real plus for Douglas.

Thanks for representing me, I saw sales almost double over the first year.

When people see me at a show and find out I am from Saugatuck, I proudly tell them to go see my work, and others, at the Leben Gallery.  It thrills me to tell them that.

I think you have a worthy goal, but sales from the big shows are a real asset.

Mele Kelikimaka, John and Marcia from Nels and Ellen

Comment by David S Randall on December 5, 2018 at 1:39pm

I have owned and opperated a custom frame shop/gallery on Hilton Head Island, SC for the past 15 years.  I had always avoided the art fairs until last year.  I'm very slowly creeping into the art fairs, local only, so far and have not ventured beyond a close radius to our shop.  I have yet to try for a bigger show but that may be the next step.  Difficult because I have been a one man shop for a long time so I either close the shop to do a show or get someone to work part time while I'm running about doing a show.

Comment by John Leben on December 5, 2018 at 1:57pm

Nels: Thanks for your comments. Glad things are going well for you in New Smyrna. Doesn't look like I'll be seeing you there this year. Got juried out.

David: Yes, finding help while I'm away at art fairs is a scheduling problem, but we do have two other people who work here, so its not as much of a problem for us. Think of this. The big art fairs can be very profitable... enough so that they can pay for help in running the gallery.

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