Arts, Farts & Applecarts
A Blog about Being an Artist
I published this blog in two parts on my website. It is mostly directed at people who buy art, but I thought other artists might find this interesting as well.
There are a lot of different kinds of art fairs. Typically, they are gatherings of artists, usually outdoors, where artists can exhibit and sell their work. In recent years, the New York City-centered, gallery establishment, has co-opted the term, “Art Fair,” to mount expensive and extravagant exhibitions by high-end galleries from around the world. That’s not the kind of art fair I participate in. I’m talking about grass roots, artist-centered, localized art fairs.
These days, local art fairs are sprouting up all over the country. Too many, in my opinion. These art fairs originate in two ways, by arts organizations and civic groups, or by entrepreneurs and promoters.
The majority of art fairs are profit-making enterprises organized by promoters. It is a business for these entrepreneurs, who depend on us artists to pay entry fees and booth rentals. In return these promoters guarantee an audience to buy our work. These entrepreneurial businesses provide a service to us artists by bringing artists and customers together. But, the more art fairs they can organize and sell to us artists, the more profits they can realize. Some of these businesses have 100 or more art fairs going on in any given year. Some of these art fair promoters are good, with a healthy respect for us artists. Some are not so good. But, in an effort to make more money, they continue to organize and establish ever more art fairs, diluting the market for buying art.
Art fairs organized by arts organizations and civic groups are the other category. These are non-profit art fairs run, mostly, by volunteers, although some of the big ones have a paid staff that work year-around to organize and promote their art fair. The goal, in most cases, is to provide their communities with access to the arts. The best of these community-based art fairs have a long history and tend to draw the best crowds. Over the years I have participated in both promoter art fairs and community art fairs, but I prefer, and do better, at art fairs run by arts organizations and community groups.
In my art gallery I might see a couple dozen people on a weekend. At an art fair, I see thousands. Art fairs are a terrific venue for selling art but they are expensive to do. Some misconceptions about art fairs:
First, art fairs are not all alike. There are thousands of art fairs around the country but only a handful will provide the audience and the income to satisfy the professional artist. The good ones can be very profitable as long as the weather is good.
The good art fairs are difficult to get in to. Artists have to apply to art fairs with samples of their work. A jury reviews the samples of all the artists who apply and selects only the best artists in the application pool. A good art fair may have up to 2000 applicants but only 150 booths. Only a fraction of the applicants get to exhibit.
Art fairs are expensive for an artist to participate in. Besides the application fee, which ranges from $30-$60, a 10x10 foot booth fee will range from $400-$1000, depending on the show. Add the expenses of lodging, transportation and meals and an artist’s investment in a given weekend show can be over $2000 before selling a single piece.
Art fair equipment is also expensive. Most professional artists own their own tents and exhibit panels. The best setups cost $2000-$3000. And then, there is the vehicle for getting all that equipment and artwork to the art fair. A reliable van or a trailer and SUV devoted to the art fair business can easily cost $20,000 and up.
How can artists afford to participate? Here is a short statement from the application prospectus for the Cherry Creek Art Fair in Denver (one of the best):
…historically very high art sales potential, estimated at $19,400 per artist in sales for 2021…
Yes. Art fairs can be very profitable.
Another misconception is that us art fair artists travel en mass from art fair to art fair… like a circus. All artists are different in their approach to art fairs. Some travel with RVs to sleep in. Some use hotels or B&Bs. Some seek out nearby campgrounds. But, no, we don’t sleep in our art fair tents. It is a gypsy lifestyle, but each “gypsy” has his or her own agenda and interpretation of that lifestyle. I know art fair artists who sleep in their cars and brush their teeth at a local gas station. And I know art fair artists who travel with an entourage of helpers and stay in the best hotels. I know a high end jewelry artist who travels with an armed guard to protect his gold and diamonds.
Art fairs are a lot of work, and they are also very stressful. The work is setting up the outdoor art gallery, and the stress comes from the uncertainties of weather and the mood of the buying public. After renting the booth space, reserving a room for the weekend at a local hotel and traveling hundreds of miles to an art fair, an artist might have $2000 or more invested before selling a single item. Hopes are always high among artists before an art fair begins. We are an optimistic breed.
If severe weather hits the art fair and the public stays home (or the art fair is cancelled for safety reasons), there are no booth fee refunds and the hotel still has to be paid. All art fair artists have their own personal horror stories about those lost weekends. Marcia reminds me of some of the more memorable disasters that we survived over 20 years of exhibiting at art fairs… the tornado warning sirens going off in Columbus,… cowering in a campus building watching the wind and rain batter our tent in Ann Arbor,… sloshing through puddles up to our knees, in Winter Park, Florida,… hiding with our fellow artists in the brick rest rooms with tornado sirens blaring in Peoria.
I especially remember one show we did in St. Louis. This was before we invested in a heavy-duty tent. After setting up the booth on a cloudy, threatening day, Marcia and I went back to our hotel and had a nice dinner as the rain and wind picked up. Early the next morning I got a phone call from the art fair. “You better get down here. Your tent has been knocked down by the storm.” We rushed to the art fair and, sure enough, the tent was all bent out of shape and lying on its side with all my art scattered around… my precious framed artwork lodged under the devastation. Volunteers from the art fair sprang into action. They showed up in force with towels and tools to dry off the artwork and help us get the tent back up. After we realized the tent was a complete loss, the committee, somehow, found another tent that we could use. With the help of about a dozen volunteers, we got our booth set up again. Lots of artwork was ruined, but a lot was saved as well, thanks to a terrific art fair committee.
There were a couple camera crews from local TV stations recording the destruction caused by the storm. We weren’t the only artists who had storm damage, but, apparently, we were the most photogenic. We were featured on several local newscasts and, over the weekend, we were the beneficiaries of a sympathetic audience. We sold lots of artwork and had our most profitable show, ever. Yes. The bad with the good…
I now have a 10x10 foot Trimline tent; a dome-style tent that is one of the best brands for withstanding foul weather. But it is expensive and very heavy. It is a beast to set up. I use 7-foot tall pro panels (carpet-covered walls) in my tent and I’ve designed and fabricated many additions to display my artwork and to keep my tent from blowing away. It typically takes me about five hours of back-breaking labor to set up my exhibit. I prefer art fairs that have an extra setup day before the art fair begins (which also adds an extra day to the hotel bill). Although no tent is impervious to bad weather, this heavy Trimline tent gives me a little peace of mind when the wind picks up.
A long time ago, when I made my living as a TV producer, I produced a documentary called “Art Fair.” It opened with scenes of artists setting up their exhibits at an art fair in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. One of the artists tells this story:
“Two ladies were admiring all the art exhibited at the art fair. One asked ‘All this beautiful artwork. Where do you think they find the time to make all this art? The other one answers: Well, you know, they don’t work!’”