The outdoor art festival season is winding down in the USA with Autumn winds and crisper weather on its way. If you’ve ever thought of running a stand at an art festival to sell your wares, now is a very good time to start planning for next season (while catching a bit of the Christmas season). You’ve seen the stands and the art this year and thought, “I can totally do this! My work is on par with what I’m seeing sold.” If that’s the case, great! You already have the motivation, so let’s dabble into some specifics about selling your photographs at art festivals.
(Note: The advice here is meant to be a general overview as the many different festivals have many different, specific regulations beyond the scope of this one post)
1. Plot And Plan
You’ll want a large pad of paper or a notebook for this phase. It’s time to gather info and come up with a plan and for that you’ll be taking lots of notes. Let’s start with your goal for showing at an art festival. Is it merely to make as much money as you can? Just join in the community fun? Or network and press the flesh with would be customers? Having a clear goal is very important as it’ll help you set a budget. Will you take credit cards or just checks? How many images do you want to include? What were the popular sizes provided by your competition? Will you need a tent, tables, walls, display racks? At how many festivals will you display? How will you cart around your material? Will you have a website ready and business cards to point to it? Will you need insurance? Will you advertise beforehand? Will you provide unframed photos? All of these questions and more feed into the budget.
Starting from scratch and budgeting is something of a trial and error method. This is no tried and true “do this and this will happen” path. But it is important to know how much you plan to spend from the word ‘go’. Answering the questions above will help this process. Specifically, when you know how many images and quantities and sizes of each, it’s easy to shop around for both a printer to handle the job and a frame shop. You can save money in doing the framing yourself, but as a beginner I’d suggest having a shop at least cut the glass, matte and frame. You then are responsible for putting it all together. This may seem daunting at first, but it is easier once you get the hang of it.
Lay out a budget and see where the numbers fall. From there, you can decide to maybe increase or decrease the number of photos involved. Or the sizes. A sample first time festival budget sheet can be found here.
3. Find the Right Festival(s) And Apply
Chances are you know of most of the festivals in your neck of the woods. If not, start with an internet search. There are a ton of online resources to help get you started including Greg Lawler’s Art Fair Source Book which allows searching of over 900 fairs, festivals, shows and more.
Make a list of all the festivals you’d like to have a presence. Be reasonable when you first start and give a two to four week lag between your first and second show. I suggest this because you’ll need some time to recuperate. Your first show will likely be run much on adrenaline. It calms down after that, but give yourself time to regroup and learn from that first show while getting ready for the second. Also, you will need to replenish your stock of photos if you have not invested heavily in too much inventory, which is a good thing in the beginning.
With the list of festivals in hand, it’s time for some paperwork. Some may require you to carry insurance. Most will need an entry fee. Others will need a sample of your work to be judged before allowing entry. This step will take time. While it’s not as fun as being in a booth selling your images, it IS necessary. Apply early to get a better location and secure a spot as many festivals will fill up.
4. Getting Ready For The Show
Ok, you’ve been accepted at the local art festival! Congratulations! Now get to work!
You’ll need to get your images printed, framed (either doing it yourself of outsourcing the work), priced and stored. You’ll also need to acquire the appropriate tent or canopy, tables, displays and so forth. Look around at other festivals and see what you like. There are 100 ways to arrange a typical 10′x10′ showing space, pick one that works for you and set it up (without all the artwork). Can you access it easily? Will people bump into artwork? Is there ample showing space for your artwork? Where will you keep the cashbox?
Now practice loading and unloading it all into your vehicle of choice. This is one of the hardest parts and should be done as early as possible. Know the rules for accessing your art festival and the setup times. Some allow setting up the day before, but some give you a small 2 hour window the day of opening. Others don’t allow vehicles into the festival area (such as if it’s in a large convention hall) so you’ll need to figure out how to haul your merchandise and displays around.
Make sure you have a means of tracking sales. It doesn’t need to be a fancy computer program, it can be a sheet of paper. This first event will be a learning experience and if taken that way, can be a lot of fun. You may be making a guess as to which size of prints and which specific images will sell best, but until the event is over, that’s just a guess (and actually always is). Recording what sold best helps for the next event by not spending money on images or sizes that aren’t selling well.
Ahhhh, the day or weekend or week of the show is finally here! Your blood is pumping, you’re nervous, excited, probably a bit tired from lack of sleep because something always comes up at the last minute. Take it all in stride and enjoy it!
The gates are flung open and the hoards of eager festival goers come rushing in. A huge smile crosses your face followed by a frown as you worry about selling out all your product too soon! But then reality hits, and you’ll find yourself in a number of different situations. Most likely you’ll do a lot of talking and if you like to socialize, showing at a festival is great fun. People will ask questions, sometimes not so lucid, and relate their own stories regarding your subject matter. A lot of people will look and if your artwork is exceptional, some will buy.
If you’re an introvert like me, it’ll take a bit for you to come out of your shell. I’m not into heavy selling or pushing which keeps me on the non-talkative side. However, I’ve found it’s always polite to let people know you’d be glad to answer questions, smile and note stare down customers. Be available, but don’t be in their face. Chances are sales will come and go in spurts so be prepared to have 3 people waiting in line (and the credit card machine on the fritz) followed by a lot of nothing. It comes and goes. And when it wanes, eat something and drink plenty of water. This is usually forgotten for the first five hours of any event, but eventually your body will remind you. Listen to it and the rest of the day will seem to fly by. Ignore feeding yourself, and you’ll give off a tired and cranky vibe that will repel buyers.
The show is over, the truck is sitting in the driveway waiting to be unpacked (maybe tomorrow?) and you’re coming down from your high. You did it! People actually bought your artwork. You talked with a LOT of people. You handed out many business cards and received many in return. You’ve got a number of follow up calls to make tomorrow. And hopefully you had fun doing it.
After the show take inventory of what’s left and don’t forget to pay any taxes (or set the money aside for income or sales taxes to be paid). If you’ve signed up for another show, it’s time to start ordering new material and preparing. But also take a few hours to write out what worked and what didn’t, because by the time the next show rolls around, you’ll be too busy to remember this moment of calm. As each show comes and goes the process will be become easier until one day it’s second nature.
And it’s then that you’ll wonder why you ever thought it’d be too much work to exhibit at an art festival. Done well, there is a decent living to be made from selling your art in this fashion.
Peter is an avid photographer who enjoys travel, portraiture and wildlife photography. A travel related blog of his past and current shenanigans can be found at The Carey Adventures.