The Survivors Guide to Exhibiting Art

The Art Fair

I recently wrote about the need to have an offline strategy when it comes to selling your art. Yes, even in the 21st Century, art buyers tend to favour the face to face engagement with artists and to interact with them. Online is crucial, but offline sales remain equally as important.

Galleries take huge commissions when you are starting out, and if they decide to offer and display your work. Don’t worry though, it’s not just the newbies that get stung with rates of 50%, established artists do too. The reason why galleries take such huge commissions is another subject for another time, but essentially if I owned a gallery I would take 50% too. There are many valid reasons. In the meantime if you get offered a gallery gig, my advice is to try and negotiate the best rate, but as long as you are comfortable, take the deal. Galleries promote, they have knowledgeable staff, and for the most part, they curate great art.

Today though I will be taking you through the experience of attending a local art and craft fair. Something I have done multiple times in the past, and it is something I will always consider doing again. This time around I will be a little better prepared.

I say this because when I first went on the road to sell my artworks I managed to get it all really wrong. My very first was a disaster, the weather was appalling and no one actually turned up except me, even the event organisers didn’t turn up. It was a cold frozen field, minus fifteen degrees, and I sat in my marked spot in the middle of the field for two solid hours before starting to develop signs of hypothermia. If nothing else, I could never be told that I didn’t make an effort and besides, no one actually told me it had been cancelled. This my friends shows the level of my determination to sell a greetings card.

Cold Days
Cold Days, Hot Days, Be Prepared

 

My second attempt didn’t go much better. I turned up in a community hall only to discover that I had chosen the wrong subject matter. I was displaying vivid abstracts, the show featured black and white figures. To be fair this wasn’t entirely my fault. I was given two dates and I thought I heard the organiser say that I needed to book the first date not the second. It wasn’t a complete disaster, I still managed to sell three pieces of artwork, and I was commissioned to design some business cards.

By the third event I had started to learn and to take multiple notes. The third event really was a breakthrough. I managed to sell all of the fifteen pieces I had took and only spent two-hours selling. The problem was that I was unprepared, had I have took many more pieces I could have been there all day selling. Instead I stayed around to speak to people and hand out business cards. But there really is no way of knowing what mood the public are in prior to turning up.

Art Fairs
Setting out your stall

 

My fourth event was slick. It was an old warehouse and it only featured digital art. There was a beautiful pop-up coffee shop, and it was advertised nationally. Everything was perfect. I spoke to many people, I met artists who have since become good friends, and I drank more than I earned in coffee. I sold five big pieces, and to this day I recall spending a small fortune to exhibit, but it wasn’t the sales on the day that mattered, it was the fact that I met new clients who continue to this day to be clients. One of whom continues to commission a portrait of his daughter each year. She is now 12, and the client has a series of portraits in different mediums for each of her years. The last three have all been digital, this year though I will be working with mixed media.

Subsequent events since have been very carefully selected. So here is top tip number one. Do your homework.

For some, art fairs won’t necessarily attract the right audience. The demographic might not be suited to your style of work, or they might not want to pay a high price. Equally the demographic may be in the market for high ticket items, and if you are setting up selling $10 prints you might not get much custom.

Always visit an art fair before you commit to hiring a space. This will give you sight of expected visitor numbers, what the competition are selling, what style of work sells, and how much space you have. I remember turning up to an art fair having booked what I visualised as a reasonable large space, when I got there that space was about the size of a postage stamp and two of my works could not be displayed as intended. I had run out of wall.

Going back to the demographic, you really do need to consider what you will be charging at the exhibition. If the demographic is predicated on $10 print collectors, you will struggle when you exhibit that $1500 limited edition print.

Many art and craft fairs attract people who are on the lookout for quality local art and handmade goods and they are prepared to pay. This is why going to the same art fair/market and gauging what people are interested in and buying is critical.

Whilst an artist’s usual prices might be in the hundreds of dollars/pounds/other range, in order to make sales it might make sense to offer lower priced products to fit some art/craft fairs, alternatively it might make sense to create higher priced products.

When you start considering the demographic, it is also worth spending some time considering if your work is relevant to that particular fair or market. My mistake of taking abstracts to a black/white figurative sale was a stroke of luck when I sold those pieces, but had I have taken the work that was to be featured at the fair, I could have sold much more.

If you are taking modernist work to a vintage themed fair, or quirky cheaper pieces to a high end fair, you will feel out of place and your items will be much more difficult to move. Taking relevant pieces to the relevant fair or market makes much more sense.

Another important thing to check prior to going to a fair or market is the quality of other artists work. Are their pieces a similar quality to those of your own and competitively priced, or do you feel that your work is inferior/superior to that which is on display?

When you exhibit, your name will more often than not be on the advertising for the event. If the fair/market you want to exhibit at has a reputation for low quality, or you notice on your visit that the overall experience is poor, then your potential clients will have noticed this too. You want your artwork to be seen as a quality item, selling it in a room full of sub-par products doesn’t necessarily make your work stand out, people might form the opinion that your work is also sub-par.

Getting the demographics right could mean that you attend and sell out over getting them wrong and not selling a single piece. Consider who the audience will be buying for. A Christmas fayre means that they are more likely to be shopping for others to pass on as gifts, but also be considerate of what else is going on in the local area. I attended a craft fair a few months ago that was next door to a wedding fair. Might have been an idea to take along some wedding invitations as well.

SETTING OUT THE STALL

Most of the fairs and markets will have some kind of table or even a wall for you to exhibit but you may have to consider taking your own. A wallpaper pasting table is rarely a good idea if you need to take your own, it will look out of place and by default will detract from the quality of your work. If you need to use a cheap table, make sure it is covered with something that compliments what you will be displaying.

You also need to consider the height when displaying your art. Take a lesson from retail supermarkets here and put those items which will draw in people at eye level. Consider too that people just wandering around will miss work that is just laid flat on the table. Think about how you will prop the artwork up so that it can be seen. Always alternate the height of paintings and products too. For smaller pieces I use small display stands and position them on wooden blocks covered by a clean white cloth, actually sometimes I use a blue cloth, sometimes a black cloth, it all depends on what I am displaying. Some will say that a subtle orange cloth works well, just see what works for you and if you have no sales early on, change it. Whatever you do, just make your exhibit as visually appealing as you can. There are no hard and fast rules here, so you will need to experiment.

When it comes to providing information you need to consider again what type of fair you are exhibiting at. If it is high-end and sophisticated then you will need to make sure that any signage is professional, clean, and easy to read. If you are exhibiting at a rustic country fair that is less formal, you could get away with casual looking price tags or those brown luggage labels.

Signage should always be clear. Handwritten signs that have been created in seconds are not a great idea for formal or informal. Nice typography and easy to read and understand with no grammatical errors are clearly the way forward. Generally I find that not displaying a price list or prices on the products will put some people off. I have little cards sat on mini easels which were purchased from a dollar type store look visually attractive.

You can also utilise props. I love props and am constantly in the garage either producing them for filming or creating something that will make my displays look better. But depending on your product, you might want to utilise the products as props too. Handcrafted bowls can be filled with sweets, although cupcakes and cookies seem to work well for some reason.

Art fair stall
Setting out your stall beautifully is the key to better sales

 

Letting people know who you are is really important. Many local print shops can produce banners for very little cost. A good logo, your name, contact details such as phone number or email, and even your website address. Just don’t make them too cluttered. I crafted a QR code for my banner, now whenever they take a photo of the QR code they can be taken directly to my artist website, or this blog.

You might want to consider having two banners, one for more formal events and one for casual events. However you decide to do this, both need to be eye catching and easy to read. Also, make sure that the banner describes easily what you do and sell.

SHINING THE LIGHT

One of the easiest things to forget is lighting. Turning up in a warehouse with dim lighting doesn’t help you with sales. You might want to consider using spotlights to shine on certain pieces.

When you consider lighting, also consider how the lighting will be powered. If you are taking your own is there a policy that states that your equipment has to be first checked for safety. Also consider if you have access to enough power sockets, or do you need to run low voltage from batteries or utilise a generator.

PROMOTION

Here we are again. The topic that keeps coming back. The more people you get through the gates at a craft market, the better chance of success. Never assume that the organisers will be promoting everyone and everything.

In most cases you will be provided with official flyers, posters, images to use on social media, and there may be some rules around how you personally publicise the event so you need to check.

What you must never do is assume that the attendance is taken care of. Promoting you is key here so always treat shows, fairs, events, as if you were organising the event yourself.

Never ignore using the promoter’s material. If they are supplying posters, chances are that they are used to this and know what works. Some organisers will also feature artists prior to the event on their websites, social media channels and blogs. Grab the publicity if it is offered, if no one has mentioned it, ask.

BUDDY UP

I am not a salesperson. I wouldn’t know what a SKU is (stock keeping unit, OK I knew) and I doubt I could sell a hot meal to an Eskimo. I do try, but so many artists come from one of two categories. Introverted, or extroverted. In my day job no one could accuse me of being an introvert, the moment I go along to a gallery I need a helping hand. I become introverted when talking about my own work.

I gave up beating myself up at my lack of selling experience as soon as I figured out I wasn’t very good at closing a sale. Some people just seem to have it, me, not so much. I have got much better but it has taken me years. Considering I get involved with very high level negotiations in my day job, in fact I tend to lead them and set the strategy, when it comes to selling my own art I know my limits. Ask me to sell someone a Matisse or Renoir and I would edge my bets and say no problem.

So even now I take a friend with me. Usually the offer of a free day out, a picnic provided with smoked salmon, a bottle of artisan craft beer, and a bag of salted peanuts does the trick in terms of payment, if they do exceptionally well I pay them a commission. When I say exceptionally well, I mean I pay them a cut of everything they sell. Friends are great, friends who can sell are better.

Friends such as these are also handy when like me you are over the hill and constantly need to find a restroom. I do find that taking a friend means that you can also keep busy with customers whilst potential customers are engaging with your friend.

THE SURVIVAL KIT

Be prepared for anything. Over the years I have witnessed craft fairs that have flooded, stalls hit by sudden 50mph winds, no one actually turning up, weather akin to that experienced by the Ice Road Truckers, and impromptu heatwaves that became so draining that even bottled water at three times the usual price had sold out in the first hour.

You kind of need to be Bear Grylls when attending some events. There have been times when I have had to climb a ladder over six feet high, times when I had to carry twenty framed prints for over a mile on a handcart, even times when I have gotten completely lost trying to find the place. You need to be prepared.

Do you need a table, stall, wall hanging facilities and are these supplied? Something often forgotten and still surprises me is when a huge facility runs out of chairs. Take a chair.

Taking a lockable cashbox is also a good idea, but you might also want to consider if you need to take other kinds of payment. It is rare that someone will be bringing enough cash with them to pay for a $1500 piece of art, so consider setting up an account with one of the many card reader suppliers. You might have to then pay a commission, but point of sale on an iPhone is possible these days with some systems and much better to pay a small percentage than to lose a sale entirely. Android and Windows phones also have systems available, but I find iPhones better suited and better represented.

Take some business cards. Nothing worse than having to write down contact details on a piece of paper dug out from the bottom of a rucksack, then only to find that the pen in the side pocket that's at least three-years old has run out of ink. Also, take a pen and paper, or have access to a good notes app on your phone. If you are using your phone to take payments, collect orders, take your charger too!

If you have a website or a blog you might also want to take a camera or make sure you have enough storage space on your phone. Updating social media during the event might encourage those local to come and take a look, and also consider using Facebook’s Live Feed. If the Huff Post can live feed the opening of a banana, you can live feed from your exhibition. Be careful though, sometimes cameras and photography are prohibited, but prior to the event there shouldn’t be too many issues. If you are filming or taking photographs of other exhibitors work, make sure you get their permission. Most will welcome the potential for more visitors and will engage with you, sometimes even posting on their timelines too.

I mentioned checking out the competition but actually what you are most likely to find is that artists promote artists. Just because a potential customer is buying from the exhibitor next door doesn't mean that the client will not buy from you. I like to engage with other artists because it's a useful way to network, find out about other events, and when you do exhibit alone, you have someone to pass a few minutes with.

Food and drink. I love a good coffee as much as the next person but it can be quite expensive at some events and especially if you are there for a long period. Taking a flask, bottled water, and snacks that you can eat quickly are good ideas. Remember that many events won't close for lunch so having something that doesn't take you away from your clients for too long makes much more sense. Also consider foods and drinks that won't cause too much of a problem if you end up spelling them.

If you end up with an emergency situation over spills, a few materials that can be used to repair your work on the fly are a must. Although it's not always possible, you might be able to salvage something if the worst happens.

Take a calculator too. Yes, we have our phone, we can add two plus two, but make sure that you have a way of working out the math for the customer. Occasionally you will get asked if you can convert in to their local currency, work out sizes from inches to centimetres, and if you are really lucky you might want to offer a discount because they are buying multiple pieces.

If it is practical always take a project to work on during the event. This draws in a crowd especially when your style of work is different to other exhibitors. Take the opportunity to also film yourself so that you can upload a time-lapse to your blog or social media after the event. Even a cheaper GoPro camera will provide some stunning results once edited when you are back home.

DISPLAY

I have already mentioned that your display needs to look great but there are a few things that you can do that will give it a professional touch, and it needn't cost much money at all.

Labelling:

I already mentioned using small wooden easels from a dollar store. They are cheap, you can often buy them in a multi-pack, and they look great. Whenever I get a new pack I dip them in either wood stain or will paint them in black or white. A little Blu-Tac on the back holds the printed cards in place. For the cards I tend to use 12 point Ariel font, and print on a thick card and laminate the ones I will use again at a future event.

You can also use pre-made point of sale cards available from many of the stationary box stores but these can often look a little garish. Using good quality card and printing your own will mean that you can utilise a more coherent look across your stall.

If you don't want to put a price tag on each artwork you could create a folder with a price list. As my works are digital for the most part I created a catalogue that states the prices for each size. Framing options are covered in another section of the catalogue, as are matting options. I use an A,B,C, system whereby they pick the art and size from A, select the mat from B, and select the frame style from C.

This way I can mix and match pricing depending on the event and also replace a section when I run special offers. I also have a postage rate sheet that works out postage to any region globally should the buyer decide not to take the piece home with them on the day. We will cover packaging shortly.

Hand written price tags can look really nice in some but not all contexts. If the exhibition is vintage themed for example, you can get away with something that looks a little more rustic. I use brown coloured luggage labels with the string attached to the rear or underside of the artwork. For the most part I either use my catalogue or I add a price to the cards displayed on the easels. If you are going to use hand written cards, make sure that the prices are legible and can be read from a distance.

PACKAGING

You will need to think about packaging especially for larger pieces of work, or where the buyer might want the piece delivered. I use what I call packaging frames for prints. Cheap frames from a local carpenter who uses offcuts of wood to create a very cheap frame for shipping.

The same carpenter also provides me with real wood frames in different styles and sizes and he then builds a shipping crate. It's a little more expensive to provide good quality packaging but it is far better for the client to receive everything in tact.

If the buyer wishes to purchase a frame I tend to wrap the edges and corners in cardboard, and sometimes polystyrene or a combination of both before wrapping the entire piece in a sturdy cardboard outer carrier. If the piece is being couriered I use wooden packaging to ensure the prints or originals don't get creased.

When exhibiting and selling prints I purchase sturdy cardboard rolls with sealable lids, and I keep a number of different sizes. These can be found cheaply on eBay and are great for rolling up a work.

When you do exhibit it's also worth taking some polythene and packaging tape, and remember to take a pair of scissors.

For smaller items I tend to go with paper bags which come from sustainable sources, as do all of the frames and packaging. Branding the bags is easy with some bespoke ink stamps with my logo.

THE REALLY VERY IMPORTANT BIT!

If you don't succeed don't give up. It's not that your work is poor or overpriced, it might be that the particular fair or event you have chosen didn't have the right audience. Never underestimate the power of handing out business cards. Some people might not want to commit or have the means to make a purchase on the day, but they might make purchases down the line. Engaging with them will increase the chances.

Most importantly, relax. Stress resonates and puts people off. Just enjoy the experience and the snacks. Talk to potential clients and talk to other artists.

It takes practice to get it all right, but when you do you will love the experience. It is a lot of hard work but it is worth the effort when your work starts selling. Stay focused, stay organised, and eventually it will all fall into place.

If you have any experiences or tips that you would like to share please leave a comment. Also if you know of any good events for artists starting out, let me know and I will spotlight the best on this site.

 

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