Art Fair Insiders

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

The Summer Art Fair. What's The Mission There?



Welcome to the Cooper studio.  Yup, still on the topic of that summer art fair.  Who'da thunk it was so complicated, eh?


The summer art fair.  And no, we don't have to limit ourselves, it could be a fall event--we'd even allow winter if you move it indoors.  Think art festival, then it becomes season-less or generically seasoned.  However/whatever.


Today we need to talk about one of the major problems with the art festival venue.  In a nutshell?  Rampant abuse of the format.


I've looked into the history of the art fair a bit.  The original purpose was for a group of artists to show their work, sans a brick and mortar style gallery.  It makes perfect sense that the local art center or art gallery would help with that, organizationally speaking.  They often pull in a lot of volunteer work, and their mission statements tend to read like this:



Our Mission: To bring People and Art together

Our Vision: To enhance the quality of Life through Art

Our Goal: To provide communication and aesthetic appreciation of the visual fine arts, through the use of education 


 Or this:


It's About the Art.

Experience collaborative, creative merrymaking at its finest.  Join friends old and new... 



And this:


From a spark of love of the arts and small town life, the idea of Art on the Prairie grew with dedicated planning...

(MaryRose Gallery)


How did we get from that to a company directing a collection of 14 art fairs?  And in the off season hosting a "boot camp" to tell artists what they need to do to be art fair artists?  Average price to "show your art" there?  $479.  And then the company grows and needs to make more money, so of course, another art fair is created.  Is it about the art, or about the company needing more revenue?  Please don't tell me you need a moment or two to think about your answer. 


And of course, they are not the only culprits.  When the local school dance team needs a fund raiser, their moms decide to host an art fair.  When the town 4th of July festival isn't big enough, they add on an art fair to attract more attention and numbers.  Does it matter that they don't have a clue about showing art and their mission statement doesn't have anything to do with promoting art? 


"We can charge the artists to show us samples of their art, and make some money there, and then we can pick the ones we like to exhibit their art at our fair and make even more money there."  "We can make money, lots of money" . 


Which is all well and good for the hosts of art fairs.  But what happens when there is an art show every other weekend?  When the art fair patrons begin to see the art show as "just another art show, and we went to one last weekend so why go to this one, it's pretty much the same."?


Obviously the art fair patron is the ultimate decision maker regarding the success of the art fair.  But the artist doesn't need to be the hapless victim caught in the middle.  If you are an art fair artist, or planning on becoming one, do some questioning first:


1.  Who is hosting/directing the fair?

2.  What is their goal or mission statement?

3.  Is it business or is it art?


Think of it like this:  Is it called an art fair, or a money fair?  Whoa.  Caught you, did I?  If as artists we would chose to exhibit at events that put the art first, could we thin out the events that think of their revenue first?  


Because when the art fair host thinks "anything for a buck" it trickles down to the artist.  And when the artist thinks "anything for a buck" they start to use phrases like "cobble something together to sell next weekend/next year".  That's not good for the artist.  It's not good for the art fair patron.  Most of all it's not good for art. 


When you look at that schedule of art fairs for 2012, please, put art first.  Thanks for reading.


Later, Cooper

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Comment by Mark Loeb on September 28, 2011 at 10:23am

Unfortunately it has to be more than just about the art. If we are in a downtown area, we need to have respect for that town and it's businesses.  If we don't take them into account we will lose that venue. 


Gone are the days when a group can "put on an art fair" and the media and public will get excited and just show up.  It takes marketing and advertising.  The cities demand permits.  Police and fire regulations, have gotten much stricter.  The costs go up and up.  It used to be practical to produce an event for a few thousand, now it is almost impossible to do so for $20,000. More if you are properly advertising.


Where does that money come from? As often as not, sponsors and vendors.  It's not the artists that are funding quality fairs, it's the sponsors and vendors that pay the money to keep the art booths less expensive.


Yes, it's all about the art, and all about the city, and all about the sponsors.  It's a business now.


That said, the directors integrity and intentions are important.  Is this a community celebration with art or an art event with community involvement?  I try to keep clear focus on my events and communicate that focus to artists and other participants.  When you hear about the Clay, Glass and Metal Show, you know what to expect.   When you hear that someone else has a heritage festival or music festival why would you expect that art would be the focus?  It's your choice if you want to do these different focused events. Frankly many of them support a lot of artists.


OK, enough rambling.  What am I saying?  There are many different events of varying kinds and caliber. None are appropriate for everyone.  Let's not complain that the purity is no longer there, instead support the events that share your values and help fund your life goals. 

Comment by karen cooper on September 27, 2011 at 7:48pm
Good advice from a definite veteran.  Thanks Nels!  I am a comparitive rookie at a measly 19 years :)  But it's enough years to understand your vision on the subject and totally agree.  I get a bit concerned when people digress on who's copying who--they are wasting a lot of time that could be put to better use painting, sculpting, photo-ing etc. , something new, that keeps them ahead of the copiers and artist wannabees.  And. oh that it would be EXCELLENT work that they create...
Comment by Nels Johnson on September 27, 2011 at 6:46pm

Yes, but the herd will be thinned out, because the losers will drop out--they cannot afford it anymore.

Among my association  of artists, we are all successful.  That is why we carry on each year.  The losers drop out, the good ones keep on chugging forward.  Times like this really thin out the herd.  I am still chugging ahead--successfully after 36 years.

If you want to succeed, you gotta constantly come up with new art.  You gotta keep creating.  All my friends are just like me, they keep creating and moving on.  That is why they are there.

Comment by karen cooper on September 26, 2011 at 6:34pm

Right.  Artists are not unionized and there is zero-to-no hope of that ever happening.  As if we'd want it anyway.  And a boycott is an equally ridiculous probability.

Leo, you are right about the we--I should have used I, and made it personal to each artist. 

Also you hit the target with this statement:   in the end, an artist will go where his stomach tells him to go, for in the end eating, paying the bills and supporting a family trumps a nonbinding cause.  But if that's true venue-wide, then why do the same people return to the same loser shows time after time, convinced that the next time they'll make the big bucks--that they just have to create something really quick and cheap?  The person next to me this past weekend was selling some beaded bracelets for five dollars apiece.  How does that pay the bills?  Those are the people who need to be reading here.

You speak of the glut of people wanting to be artists--they are not the problem, if they are truely bringing their art.  The problem happens with the ones who've forgotten their art, and are cobbling stuff together to sell at art fairs thinking they'll make that quick & easy dollar.

Comment by Michelle Sholund on September 26, 2011 at 3:56pm

Leo - good points - Amen!  I also want to add there isn't a universal standard on how fairs should be run to go along with the point of the boycotts, unions, and honor systems.  The question is, should there be a guideline?


Karen - You said you have never heard of an artist demanding their money back - here at least in my neck of the woods (Maryland/Mid Atlantic) I hear at least one angry "craft person" raise a ruckus for that reason or another.   You'd be surprised what happens at a show.  I also agree with Leo in that every show has one person who does absolutely horrible and another who says it was the best they have ever done.  The thing is who you believe is going to be based on so many factors (booth placement, if the person stayed in their booth the whole day, the weather, takes credit cards or not, is a sour puss, etc. )  and with each show and each year the roles could reverse.  It's a crap shoot.

Comment by Leo Charette on September 26, 2011 at 3:01pm
No, I didn't miss your point, I'm just confused about the WE. Artists are not unionized! How do you intend to get such a boycott when for every show that one artist does poor another does fabulous, and for every show that an artist chooses not to reapply, three more are waiting in the wings to take her place. in the end, an artist will go where his stomach tells him to go, for in the end eating, paying the bills and supporting a family trumps a nonbinding cause.

The artistic profession is experiencing a glut in folks wanting to be artists (I am part of that), this has resulted in an increase in shows across the country. Some are very effective and some not so. There is no organizational entity with authority to implement boycotts or do you think this will work by honor system. This is unsustainable.
Comment by karen cooper on September 26, 2011 at 1:40pm

Leo, you seem to be missing one of my points where the control IS in the artist's hands.  If we stop sending jury and exhibit fees to shows that have minimal chance of success, then we are controlling that show's future.  In a successful business enviroment, if a sector is not performing well, it's shutdown or eliminated, and so it should be in the art fair business.

As long as the exhibit money keeps flowing in, it's a given that the show staff won't shut it down.  It's up to the artists then--and that means we need to research a show before we apply. 

And then apply the two strikes rule:  if a show appears worthy give it a try; if after year one you're not quite sure, try ONCE more.  And if year two is still lackluster, then be done with it.  It won't be better the third year just because you HOPE it will.

Michelle--I have never heard of artists demanding their money back at the end of an unsuccessful show.  Where on earth does that happen??

Comment by Leo Charette on September 26, 2011 at 10:40am
Karen, this has been discussed in many threads for example ( As pointed out in that thread by Nels and Jim Parker, art shows still remain the most viable means for getting art out to the public. Until a new alternative is created, the problems with many art shows will continue. Let me add, not at all art shows. There is still an enthusiasm for art by patrons at many shows. The recent St. Louis show was a good example.

Rather than a circle discussion of the problems (of which solving, is little controlled by the artist), it would be good to focus positive energies on alternatives.
Comment by Michelle Sholund on September 26, 2011 at 10:27am
Sorry, my thoughts were cut off...  It isn't the landlords fault.  Good days and bad days just happen.   The last show I did could have been canceled as there was 2 inches of standing water all over the grounds - but the promoter of the whole event said the show must go on.  Every artist demanded the promoter to fix the grounds - the park (as this was at a park) rangers said absolutely not all that can be used are large flat rick rack boards.  Those who took matters in their own hands brought outdoor carpets and I went out and got wood shavings and used a carpet to better my odds.  There are times, as business owners, you just have to buck up and do what you need to do to make the situation better.  If I were the promoter, I would have gone ahead and dealt with the wrath of the park rangers later as having done so would have generated more happy PAYING customers to cover any extra fees/fines, ensuring a better show next show.  But that's me.  All in all, we as artists have choices - we can pay the high fees of doing a show in the hopes (and luck) of it bringing a lot of people, paying customers, to cover all the costs and make money or not.  Some people have better luck doing the smaller, local shows where expenses are lower, and despite not high yields they still make money.  For me I do both art fairs and whole sale orders to local businesses - both of which are a winning combination.   My wholesale orders have surpassed my earnings at art fairs, but still do them as I am a social person who also values the instant feedback from customers to make my work better in the future.    That's just me...  Sorry for the long post...  - Michelle,
Comment by Michelle Sholund on September 26, 2011 at 10:14am

What a topic!  I have been struggling with the very subject myself.  I have been a promoter of my own show (struggled doing the right thing by making the shows' focus being an art show put on by artists for the benefit of art) and I will always be an art/craft fair artist - this year makes year 9 for me and just turned 34.  Having been on both sides of the coin let's just say it isn't easy - being an artist AND being a promoter.  What it boils down to though is you can't get too emotionally wrapped up into it - and this is something I struggle with at each and every show.  The "casual" art fair isn't casual anymore.  The ol' doing business on a handshake and a promise has been abused time and time over because of the way society is today.  The fact of the matter is if you look at the whole relationship between artist, promoter and customers/fans as a business relationship it becomes easier. 


I don't agree with "let's have an art fair to raise money" - this is what bothers me the most.  That is NOT how a "business/non-profit" should see art/artists as a way to make a few bucks off of them without really knowing what it is to put on an art/craft show and having a clearly defined mission behind doing an art fair as it will always be to help "raise awareness of <insert health issue here> in the community and  FUNDING for the cause". 


Now that I digress, my main topic of looking at things as a business is this... We - craft artists - are most like a micro retail store that happens to make our own work.  At least we all should be doing, right?  On any given weekend we participate in a large "mega craft show mall" displaying and selling our wares.  Based on that alone we are not just artists - we are businesses having a business relationship with both customers as well as the promoter.  Just like the promoter - a promoter is in business too!  Their goal is to create an event in a locale - promoting it too -  that (with luck) will make for a great event for both patrons and those who will be selling/performing/etc. at the event.  The property isn't free - a park, convention center, etc. so the promoter has to figure out their expenses based on all the things like publicity, hall rental, staff, their time, etc.  and from that figure out how much a space is for an artist to rent.  Realistically a space shouldn't be too much, but when all is said and done the promoter - the landlord - is offering us a place to set up shop and sell our art and taking care of advertising for us, etc. so all we have to do is set up and sell, right?  Again, this here is a business relationship.  The goal isn't to be everyone's friend, but to make money to cover expenses and make a living - just like all other craft artists.  This isn't horrible, being greedy, etc.  it is all about the end result - putting food on the table and paying mortgages.  The only thing that is horrible is how some promoters make money - I am having too high of a booth fee (and other expenses) to not make it possible for artists to have a fighting chance to earn money.  I can imagine not every art fair isn't profitable for both artists and the promoter.  Promoters have a lot of money to loose - worst case scenerio if we don't make a cent at a fair - we are out booth space, travel expenses, etc. - but still have the same art to do another show.   Promoters don't have that - they loose too.  Where will the money come from especially with several artists going back to the promoter demanding their money back because the show wasn't successful.  The next fair the promoter puts on already starts in the negative digits and there is even more pressure to recoup "last years" fees, this years fees and with luck, earn a few bucks.


Just think of all the retail shops, gallery owners, etc. who have a bad sales day, they don't go to the landlord and say I demand one day off my rent because I didn't make any money that day - it isn't the lan

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