Art Fair Insiders

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

Okay, I know this will never happen in any big way, so don't sweat it, and those of you who disagree with my rambling musings, it's just a thought, I was thinking.

Recently got back from the Fountain Hills Not So Great Fair and whilst I was standing around freezing and waiting for the occasional buyer to manifest I had a thought. Occasionally I have more than one but I did have this one...Booth fees are way out of control and my first experience with shows that charge a commission was in California 7 years ago. At the time I was incensed. ( Yes, I am fully aware that I signed up with the knowledge that I had to pay a commission but to mention that would ruin my diatribe) "How dare they charge me a __% commission on my sales on top of the already over inflated booth fee! The nerve of those guys!" As it turned out the __% commission I was to pay them amounted to about $26.45 and on the way out of the flea market grounds the collector of said funds said, "keep it for gas money", was that meant as an insult?

I digress, so the thought I had at the previously mentioned show was; what if more shows actually DID charge a commission IN LIEU of an over inflated booth fee. Those that sell a lot pony up what would only be reasonable if they did well and those that didn't do so well would come out with their skin still intact. The Festival of the Arts in Oklahoma City is one such show with a model that I will use as an example. First, they charge a nominal booth fee, if my memory serves me, of $150. Second, if you make a certain level of sales the booth fee is credited back to you and you pay a __% of your sales to the show. How can that possibly be in the artists favor? The show is sharing the risk with you. How? Well, they have the responsibility of delivering actual buyers to the show, they want you to do well so that they can do well. Win-Win don't you think? Of course this show will only consider you for future fairs if you reach another pre-determined sales level but that's their prerogative, they have to make their expenses and fund whatever projects that they fund.

Okay that was just an example but the point I'm trying to make is this. Booth fees are going up astronomically. Just got an email trolling for artists for the Cherry Arts Festival and they want $600! Remember when booth fees went to $100 and artists got incensed? What warrants this kind of highway robbery? The show is only in its third year and the reviews that I read of the previous years were not blindingly brilliant. What if instead this show did a low booth fee, took a commission and the promoters actually worked to deliver buyers? It is in the best interest of the show that you do well but if you don't? The risk is shared, and you don't have to mortgage your house for the second time!

I guess another point that I'm getting around to is this. How many show "promoters" are actually promoting with the intent that artists benefit from the experience? Locally, I've participated in one show where the promoter really does his homework and delivers the buyers! I can think of another one that I signed up with that may not necessarily have had the artists interest at heart as the show was held in the back of a shopping center with heavy road construction going on nearby. I bet he'd work real hard to get people in there if it were a commission show and he had something at stake.

Yah, I know, there are no guarantees of ever doing well at a show but at least I'd feel better about it if I knew that the show was really working for the artist. Ultimately, our participation is voluntary. No one twists yer arm and says you have to do any particular show at all but, wouldn't it level the playing field a little if the show had everyone's interests in mind in addition to their own? Just say'n.

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Comment by Barrie Lynn Bryant on March 8, 2017 at 10:28am

I'm really only in the position right now to find shows that are profitable since I'm braving this new market of mountain states and the West. One fact is certain, I need good shows to provide me with income! I need to take my art to the people, and outdoor (and some indoor) art fairs are the best way to do it, commission or not!

But I've seldom considered what promoters or arts organizations should do to get customers to the shows. I feel almost 100 percent responsible for that factor in the shows. I work to keep the art interesting and worth seeing. I notify customers and potential customers that I'm in a show, and I pay attention to as many people as I can while doing a show. I'm at the show early, I normally don't close before closing time, I keep a positive attitude even if the show seems crummy, etc. I'm not a saint, either. I don't have all the answers, either. I'm in it to win it, though, and rooting for all y'all, too! WOOHOO!

Comment by Larry Berman on March 7, 2017 at 8:44pm

I did Oklahoma City for three years in the 1990's. They have always had a $150 booth fee plus a 20% commission. If you didn't do about $3500 you weren't invited back for the following year. The show has a three year cycle per medium and the only time you can get in one of the two off years was if someone in your medium did low enough that they weren't invited back.

I never raised my prices to compensate for the commission and did really well each year I did the show.

Larry Berman

Comment by Len Jagoda on March 7, 2017 at 2:43pm

I agree - I think :)  My strategy is to have some items priced for an impulse buy because that is pretty much the situation but I also bring things that I don't expect to sell so I can put my best foot forward and hopefully catch the judges eye.  I pick up a commission about once out of every 10 shows and then some come a year or two later.  It is rare to sell something that more than an impulse buy (price wise) at a two day show but it happens. The larger higher priced pieces can draw people into the booth and sometimes results in them buying something more in their price range.  Many facets to shows and salesmanship but I am a capitalist artist. I don't have much regard for being labeled as a starving artist begging for sales - some under price their work which pulls down the market value for everyone.  I don't want my work perceived as cheap to be hung in a bathroom or worse a closet.

Barrie I know a quality high end sporting/wildlife artist whose typical pricing starts at $2000. He was asked to do a gallery show but they also asked him to bring 15 or so 5 x 7 paintings framed but they could not be priced under 300.  He did and brought them with his "regular stuff".  He sold all of those impulse buy paintings at 300 and a few other "regulars".  Know what I am going to do before my next show?  I just bought 6 @ 5x7 canvas panels!  

PS. I will still bring several pieces priced a whole lot more.     

Comment by Barrie Lynn Bryant on March 7, 2017 at 2:07pm

I don't disagree with the numbers, Len. What I'm saying is that we'll be rethinking what we create and then bring to the show if we are judged by the shows ultimately upon our sales at the shows.

Comment by Len Jagoda on March 7, 2017 at 1:57pm

Barrie consider this:  high end booth is say 500 more than low cost commission booth.  Then let's say the commission is 30%.  Divide 500 by .3 and you get $1,666.  That mean the two options come out the same or break even at sales of $1666 and their incentive would be for your sales to be more. Are you willing to give up 30% of sales over that amount?  I am.

A business rule of thumb is that if your costs increase you increase your prices by half of that increase. Do you think a 15% increase would kill your sales?  

Comment by Barrie Lynn Bryant on March 7, 2017 at 1:45pm

I agree with keeping prices the same. I would have to change all my prices on my website if I raised prices. I like being consistent. But I certainly did not mean gouging people. Just upping the price a little. Again, we could price ourselves out of the market, which is probably where I already am, anyway. Just ask Marion Arts Festival about that very thing. They tell you on the application that they think art over $1,500 won't do very well in their show and they want art their patrons can afford. They want happy artists. etc.

Greetings, Len. Yes, I was thinking that it's nice seeing you here and that I miss you! We cannot return to the South any longer due to my wife getting very sick in April 2015 during a tour across the Florida panhandle. Had to cancel shows, she nearly died in Macon, GA hospital. We came home and have since learned we cannot return to the South. Long story shortened! We're doing great, now!

I cannot imagine any promoter or other person thinking that they'll know what will sell and what won't in a market. If that be the case, I would have never been accepted in Florida shows. Consider JK Rowling's rejections. Shows might know about price, but who doesn't? They might have a general idea about appealing subject matter in art, but they'll exclude the greatest thing on Earth due to their biases trying to think about what might or might not sell.

Good luck getting into the high dollar show that does it all just right. There are some like that out there. Very difficult to work in that market. You'll be spending money on magazine ads and finer frames (which you should already be doing, anyway) and other things. The grass isn't greener, it's just got more liability attached to it. It's got its pros and cons.

I've been in plenty of commissioned sale shows. That's the way the majority of the western art market was and probably still is, what's left of it. I prefer those that aren't commissioned shows.

You want awards to disappear? I bet a lot of shows that have awards will disappear if the awards disappear. They'll pale in comparison. But if you really want to do shows without awards in them, just head to the WEST!

Why not try wholesale markets?

Comment by S Brian Berkun on March 7, 2017 at 12:51pm

My prices were the same. Upping my prices might mean outing potential buyers. Just because it is a different model of "pay to play" doesn't mean you gouge people. I don't know how others might approach it.

Comment by Barrie Lynn Bryant on March 7, 2017 at 12:39pm

Are any of you commissioned show proponents raising your prices when you exhibit in those shows? Or are you keeping your prices the same?

Comment by S Brian Berkun on March 7, 2017 at 12:35pm

@Len, not so hard to incorporate accountability or "control" into the formula. OK City does it through receipt books that have 3 or 4 carbonless pages. The artist fills in the sales info and gives the copies to the patron who then takes it to the (not so far away) sales booth where tax, donations, etc. are added in. The patron then takes the receipts to the artist who releases the paid for piece. I know, a lot of foot work for the patron but if the show is small enough or well run enough it is not that great an inconvenience. By-the-by OK City does a great job of getting the artists paid in a timely manner as well. Also a concern and an area that could be abused by nefarious show promoters!

You made another good point about promoters knowing what will sell in a market! Sure there may be some exclusionism going on but hell, I'd rather be excluded from a show where my work wouldn't typically sell vs driving 2000 miles, paying an exorbitant booth fee, food, gas, lodging, etc. only to learn that for myself! That seems to be the case with lets say, un-named show where taste is in some way fed to the audience.

@Peggy, you vote by not applying for a show. Word seems to get around if a show is not doing it's job. Example: a show on the western slope of Colorado is no more, real artists stopped showing up.

@Sandra, I don't believe that advertising alone is the answer. Some shows do a great job of having patron parties, pre-pledged dollars that will be spent, etc. That's also a good use of "advertising" money.

Comment by Peggy Crago on March 7, 2017 at 12:07pm

Promoters need to be more accountable for how they spend the fees they charge the artists.  Too many of them run shows that are consistent duds for the artists, but they rely on a long list of us who apparently are desperate and willing to put up with supporting the promoter but losing money ourselves.  We need a voice and some clout - besides voting with our feet.  Our vote must not be very effective because the promoter is able to keep filling their show.

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