Tips For Summer Art Fairs

July 1, 2012

An email from Betty C. asks: “My gallery sales are down and I’ve been wondering about doing something I have never wanted to do: participate in a local art ‘festival’ for lack of a better word. It is part sale, part summer fair, and I have always thought these kinds of events were inappropriate for me. But I need to increase my sales. Any tips about what to expect or how to maximize my experience?”

After decades of teaching, blogging and writing about the business of the visual arts, I am lucky to have a very large mailing list that is now an excellent resource for me. The artists on my list provide me with rich insights into many aspects of a visual arts career that are outside my experience. In response to forwarding Betty’s email, within twenty-four hours I received the tips below:

  • I get far greater interest in my booth if I am working while I am at the fair/sale. People ask me questions and stay longer and often that can lead to a sale. Besides, I am more comfortable painting than just standing watching customers.
  • Have an extra folding stool (or two) for a person to use while deciding which of several paintings to buy and be ready to rearrange things so they can focus on those paintings.
  • A fellow painter told me to leave a couple of spaces empty to make it look like I had sales; apparently this makes people think they should buy right away and that my work is popular.
  • Have lots of promotional material ready – with your website on everything and hand it to everyone with whom you engage. Be ready with your interesting stories about your work (and ask intelligent questions of those who stop to look at your work). The more folks interact with you, the more likely they are to buy.
  • Smile constantly even if you haven’t sold a single thing; you can never know which visitor might go home and contact you later!
  • This year I am teaming up with two other artists with whom I get along and who are using very different styles or media. We can give each other a breaks and we are better at promoting each other than ourselves.
  • Try not to respond to any compliment by saying, “Thank you.” It ends the conversation. Instead, ask them a question or lead them into a discussion you think they might enjoy. Don’t say, ”Thank you,” until they leave or buy.

Ask intelligent questions of people who stop to look at your work. Sometimes people may ask you simplistic questions or questions that you are always asked. You have to remember to always take the high road with every response. One respondent said: “I often ask if it’s their first time at an art fair and if I can answer any other questions they might have about choosing art. They may not buy, but I get them on my mailing list and who knows what will happen down the line.”

In more than real estate, there should be a concern for location, location, location. “Register early and be proactive about your choice of location if you know the layout of the fair. Ask for prominence or proximity to a popular feature or amenity. Also, on set-up day, go early so that you have enough time to ask about changing location if that becomes something you want to do.” Showcase your work even if it is not available for sale: “Keep a 3-ring binder of images of your other work – sold and unsold. I have gotten commissions for images this way. Also, people like to look through it.” Another artist reiterates this point with: “I use a Digital Photo frame on my table. It features a slide show of most of my work.”

Here is one response that really resonated with me: “Keep your table or booth really simple and clean. Keep back-up inventory in your car and get it when you need it. Too much looks messy, uninviting and unprofessional.” But, experiences can also vary. I have seen the following advice produce spectacular results: “Don’t be afraid of stock piling work. I had a nice clean, professional-looking table at a fair last year, but the guy beside me recently sold his work like crazy, unframed and unmated off a table.” The right thing to do is what feels right for you and your work – or try both at different locations.

Finally, two artists referenced something I think worth mentioning in my own words, and that is art fair or sale etiquette. Both respondents mentioned that fellow artists at a summer art fair had engaged them in conversation but stayed too long. As someone who respects and encourages networking, I wanted to address this point carefully.

If you see an artist whose work or practices spark your interest and you want to speak with that person, approach them efficiently. My advice is to pay a short compliment, then address directly and succinctly why you wish to speak with the person, tell them where you are located, give them your business card and ask them to contact you at their convenience. People at these events need to stay focused, but artists are a friendly and generous people, and, from my experience, most will get in touch with you after the fair/sale.

If you have an interesting experience with regards to the development and administration of your creative practice, please let me know. My modest little blog that is designed to support the business life of visual artists has become quite popular lately. Here is the address: http://visualartmerchandising.blogspot.ca. Lately, it has been getting four hundred to five hundred hits a day! So if you have something interesting or valuable to share with other artists, please let me know.

I am excited to be part of the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts this year at Pearson College, 650 Pearson College Dr., Victoria. This summer festival of learning and networking expects over four hundred artists to attend the forty-five workshops on offer. My workshop is on July 7th and it is a long one: 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. If you or an artist you know wants an intensive career boost, please let them know about this opportunity.

Chris Tyrell Loranger is the author of Artist Survival Skills and Making It!, an arts writer and educator. His popular opinion pieces have appeared in our newsletter since its first issue in 1986. Visit his website, www.christyrell.ca or his art marketing blog http://visualartmerchandising.blogspot.ca, to learn more.