A Primer In Selling Your Art At Festivals

A Primer In Selling Your Art At Festivals


Copyright hhjack 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.

2. Budgeting

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.

Copyright Morgan Harrison

5. Showtime!

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.

6. Learning

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.

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Peter West Carey leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics - A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

Some Older Comments

  • Micheal Jane July 2, 2009 04:14 pm

    Hi Well Written Post,
    I don?t normally comment on blogs but your post was a real call to action. Thank you for a great read, I will be sure to bookmark your site and check in now and again.


  • Lori Osterberg October 14, 2008 02:05 am

    While most people will buy your photographs there if they have an interest, also consider making a business card/postcard that lists your website. If you have a dynamic website that allows people to buy your work online, you may also get sales and followers that way as well. Too many people assume it's an immediate sale or nothing. Some people may think about an image, and if they have your contact info, will come back later and make the purchase.

  • Dave October 10, 2008 10:06 am

    Check E-Bay for Matt Boards. There are several people selling precut boards. You can also find "show packs" at a few online stores. They contain the Matt, the back, and a clear bag to put the pictures in. The clear bag gives you the same look as a frame with glass in it.

    For frames, I watch for sales at the local craft stores. I've also found decent frames at Dollar General and Big Lots, for a few $$s each. I also keep some inexpensive stuff available, like 4 x 6 or 5 x 7 prints in $2 Dollar General frames that I sell for $7.50.

    I hope Gail's comment about Gallery Wraps holds true! I've got a big show this weekend and did up a few Gallery Wrapped Giclee prints on canvas.

  • James O'Brien October 10, 2008 02:58 am

    Interesting peice. Have thought of doing something like this as I am now retired and looking for something to fill that artistic urge. Were do people buy the items they need such as matting boards, frames etc ? I have many photos stored and feel some are worthy of display but don't know how to go about staging them. Any suggestions would be greatly appriciated.


  • Gail Peck October 9, 2008 11:57 pm

    I had to laugh when I saw this in my email box on Monday having just done an art show over the weekend.

    A few lessons I've learned in the last year selling photography:

    1. I can't say enough that you must be prepared for all kinds of weather. Particularly in Florida, it is blazing hot one minute with tremendous rainstorms the next. Have serious weights for your tent if your weather tends to be windy. One big gust and all of your work can be ruined.

    2. Talent is almost the least of it. I constantly have budding photographers ask all the details about being basically a street peddler. To consistently sell you have to have images that people can relate to emotionally. Although I'm not the most talented photographer out there, I've sold from the very first day because people like what I do. They care very little about the qualities that most photographers stress over. What you need is a winning personality that can engage well with the buying public. One young man who has wonderful images sells very little because he lacks conversational skills. I can't stress this enough!!!

    3. Find a good printer. Selling art work can be extremely challenging when you do it all. I have been blessed by finding a man who not only charges reasonable prices, but does an outstanding job with giclees.

    4. Canvas prints with a gallery wrap are very popular.

    5. In uncertain economic times I recommend starting very slowly--find a local market and test your work to gauge interest.

    6. Try not to take it personally when you don't sell. Very, very hard to do!! Over the weekend I was fortunate enough to sell $770 worth of prints whereas my next door "neighbor" sold $95. When the show closed he remarked, "I didn't know my works sucked so bad!" This was hardly the case, his work was beautiful.

    7. Which leads me to my final point: price it reasonably. My smallest print is only $9. This opens up a huge audience who otherwise might just be browsers. Often children remark it is their first piece of art and ultimately that is what we want--to share with the world our vision of it.

  • Cathy H October 9, 2008 06:45 am

    Did anyone ever get that link on the festival budget to work? I am getting ready for a craft show as I write this. There is a lot to do to get ready. Sometimes it can be over whelming. I am curious to see how I do at this one. I have done well on my last two outings, but this is a new crowd for me. I don't use a credit card yet. I seem to have done ok so far just with cash and checks.

  • Steve October 8, 2008 04:42 am

    As for renting a tent that is easy. Go to you yellow pages and look up rental. There should be several listed. In general, go for the one with the biggest ad. Oh, and it sounds like just spending extra money, but if they offer cheap set up pay for it. Those tents are frequently more difficult to set up than one might think.

  • Adam October 7, 2008 11:40 pm

    I would like to also suggest that many of the major festivals (if not all) you have to be judged in... find out what the festival coordinator wants; You might have a lot of scenics or sports photos, however some shows might want something more artistic, the flowers, the rustic European scenes. I suggest that you have at least a dozen samples set up in digital format as well as slides for the the judges.

    One note to add, most of the art festival people do this for a living almost weekly; I have met very few that take 2 or 3 week breaks between shows (only photographers); I would question that note if you are doing it just for fun then that might work, but if it's a job you will probably be hitting festivals through out the country. Buy a reliable fan, be read to come home to keep making inventory just to turn around and head out to another state.

    It's rewarding as well as very tiresome.

  • Dave October 7, 2008 11:33 pm

    I thought I'd add a little about Booth setup itself. I've seen lot's of configuration, and it all depends on personal preferences. You can buy wall sections to hang your work on at several different places, like Flourish.com. What I use is 2 x 6 steel gridwall sections. I've found that 3 hinged together make a managable section. Outdoors, 2 of those sections make up one wall of my booth. Anchoring the wall sections to the tent adds about 100 pounds of weight, which helps on windy days! I use Flourish's StaBar kit to add strength to the booth and it gives me something to anchor the gridwall too.

    The gridwall is probably the cheapest way to go, at about $20 per wall section (look for your local store fixture store). Originally I used "S" hooks and Gridwall hooks to hang pictures. I've since bought a bunch of baskets and shelves for the Gridwall. The baskets hold matted prints, and I can put framed work on shelves instead of hanging them on hooks.

    Another suggestion is to have something cheap to sell. I have a "bargain bin" with older prints and note cards - basically at the cost of the paper. I've never been to a show that I haven't sold prints from there!

  • Embassy Pro Books October 7, 2008 11:22 pm

    This is def. a great way to gain traction on selling your stuff and getting yourself noticed.

  • Sunnyman October 7, 2008 08:00 am

    This stirs up memories... I tried those art festivals many years ago, when I lived in Florida.
    I remember buying a party tent and a nice high, foldable, chair, and driving around the state, even all the way down to Key West once...
    and I never sold anything!

    My advice: if you ever get into this, realize you must cater to a rather un-sophisticated audience. Pictures should be easy to like, nothing that "makes people think", and NOT the kind of images you see in art galleries. Also expect many hours of hard work and a substantial gas bill.
    Good Luck!

  • Peter Carey October 7, 2008 05:07 am


    #1) Dave's got some good advice. Costco works well and if you're not sure if you want to do this year after year, look at the cost in terms of rental. If you use it for a season and decide it's not for you, chances are you will have made a number of contacts who will help you sell it for half the initial cost.

    #2) First check with your bank as Dave notes. Then check around with other vendors who aren't direct competition (pottery, food vendors, etc...) and see what they do. Our first festival had a deal with a local bank that set everything up.
    For machines, make sure there is power at the location. Some units now are handheld and can use a cell signal or wifi to run the transaction.
    Basically, you'll need a company to process the credit card and then a business checking account to deposit the money into. The merchant bank (the one handling the CC transaction) will take a cut and then send the money on to an actual bank account. In the beginning this part of the process was probably the most confusing but once I talked with a banker, it all became clear. After that, we shopped around for the best rates based on estimated sales.

  • Dave October 7, 2008 02:05 am

    To answer the questions from George:
    #1 I found a good buy on Caravan tents at Costco, but have seen a lot of EZ Up and Caravans for around $200. Make sure you get walls with the tent. Flourish.com sells a more rugged tent system, and they also have a lot of accessories for artists booths.

    #2 There are several credit card processing companies (like North American Bankcard) that will set you up with no monthy minimum, but a monthy charge of around $10. I talked with my bank (BB and T) and they gave me a better deal - but that was because I have a good history with the same bank (like a mortage, etc.). My advice is to talk to your bank. If they say there's a monthly minimum, high setup fee, or other charges, then tell them you found a better deal. They may be flexible (mine was) and waive some charges.

  • Dave October 7, 2008 01:57 am

    I've been doing Art Shows for a little over a year, and wanted to add some thoughts. When I first started I set my prices a little low to see what sold and what didn't sell. After doing that for several shows, I realized there was no rhyme or reason as to what people bought! I print note cards in addition to prints, and some shows I sell dozens of the, some shows none at all. Some shows I'll sell a lot of butterfly prints, other shows a lot of shore bird pictures. Some shows I sell framed prints, others just matted prints. So, I guess the answer is to have a variety!

    Be prepared for wind and rain, if you're outside. Don't pack up and run with the first rain drop. The show organizers don't like that, and you may not be invited back. In April I did a two day show and it started raining Sunday morning. I had walls, and I pulled some stuff back from the front opening. The rain turned out to be a boon for me. Visitors stayed longer in my tent, and I actually sold more on Sunday than I had on Saturday.

    The thing I like the most with Shows is the interface with the people. Some shows there is also a big sense of community, and exchange of ideas, among the Artists.

    Sometimes it's hard to find a list of the shows. Joining the local Art Association provided me with information on shows that I wouldn't have known about.

    Good luck, hope to see you all at a show sometime soon,

  • Clarence Olson October 7, 2008 01:55 am

    Great information but your link to the Budget sheet does not work 404 Ole

  • George L Smyth October 7, 2008 01:45 am

    Your article came at an excellent time. Yesterday I attended the fair in Fells Point (Baltimore) and came to the conclusion that I should be able to be as successful as others I saw. I've two points on which I am hoping to get help.

    1.) Where does one get or rent a tent? My preference would be to be able to rent one - even though I think my work is good, I don't know if anyone is actually willing to pay for it.

    2.) What is involved with setting up an account for credit cards and getting a machine to handle them? My guess is that people do not carry hundred dollar bills around with them, so I think that accepting credit cards is mandatory.

    Cheers -


  • Wes Chamness October 7, 2008 01:13 am

    The link for the sample budget comes up with a 404 error

    The requested URL /digital-photography-school.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/sample-festival-budget.xls was not found on this server.