AN INTRODUCTION TO JURIED FINE ART FAIRS
By Zack Schnepf
I get a lot of people asking me how I got started selling prints at fine art shows so I thought I would write about my experiences in this blog. This will be the first in a series of articles.
Four years ago I was mostly a stock photographer. I was in the process of transitioning away from commercial work like wedding, and product photography. I wanted to find a way to make money photographing what I enjoyed, nature and landscapes. Stock was already drying up for me so I knew I had to find something else to fill that gap in my income. I thought about doing art shows, but didn’t really know where to start. It is during this time that Mike Moats gave me some great advice. He told me about his success doing art shows and he helped me get started with some very helpful advice. I thought I would do the same and share some of my own journey into the art fair adventure.
I’m right in the middle of my third season and in spite of the economy I’ve been very successful. I started out looking for a way to fill in a gap in my income and now I make about 50% of my income from shows alone. I only do about five or six shows a year, any more than that and I start to get burned out. Avoiding burnout is very important for me. I know photographers who do 20+ shows a year and love it, but I’m not built that way, I prefer to do a handful of quality shows and spend more time in the field and doing workshops as well. This is a balance everyone has to figure out on their own.
SHORT DESCRIPTION OF AN ART FAIR
I think it would be helpful to describe what selling prints at fine art shows is like. First of all, it’s very hard work, but it can be very rewarding as well. It’s fun talking about your photography with people, and I actually enjoy selling my photos. On the other hand, the days are long and you are at the mercy of the elements (at least for outdoor festivals). Setting up and tearing down is physically exhausting and it takes a lot of stamina to man your booth and be in selling mode for three or four days in a row.
Here is a very short description of doing a single art show. First, you need to generate a massive inventory of prints in multiple sizes, fewer sizes the better. I carry about 200-300 prints to every show. Mat and frame ten to fifteen display prints to adorn the walls of your booth, the bigger the better. I carry about eleven framed pieces, three 32×40 show stoppers and eight 22x28s. Box up and pack your inventory, canopy, display walls, and everything else in a van/trailer. Drive to the show and unpack everything in your 10×10 booth space. Setup your canopy, display walls, print bins, desk, and hang your frames. Go home, mix a strong cocktail and relax 🙂
Wake up bright and early the next morning and sell prints for 8-10 hours, unless it’s slow which means you have to find something to do to look busy. You can’t read a book, or play on your iphone, this makes you inaccessible and turns off customers. You need to find time to eat and drink in there somewhere. I stay pretty busy at most shows, except on Friday mornings because most people are working. You will end up telling the same stories and answering the same questions all day long. This is just part of selling and you need to stay positive all day long or you won’t sell anything. Attitude is everything; I will go into more detail on this in a later blog. At the end of the day you’ll pack up your credit card machine (required if you expect to make any money at a show) and receipts and head home to pass out from exhaustion. Rinse and repeat for two more days. At the end of the last day of the show, you pack up everything into your van/trailer and head home. It usually takes me a few days to fully recover from a show.
One other important thing to know about doing shows is how expensive it is to get started. My total investment my first year was about $14,000. This included a new printer, canopy, display walls, display bins, framing materials, flat file, mat cutter, packaging materials, and lots of other miscellaneous items. You don’t have to spend quite this much, but I wanted to have a very professional looking booth to compete with veterans of the art show circuit. Having high quality work also helps a lot, but I’ll talk more about that in the competition section.
RESEARCH AND RESOURCES
Before undertaking an endeavor like this I always do extensive research to find out if it is something worthwhile. There are some great resources out there to get you started. I started by talking to Mike Moats (http://tinylanscapes.wordpress.com/)
and a few other photographers that were having success. Mike in particular was very helpful and helped put me on the right track. There are also many online resources to help find information. One of my favorites is http://bermangraphics.com/artshows/artshowphotography.htm.
Larry also runs a forum devoted to photographers doing shows, http://groups.yahoo.com/group/artshow_photo/.
One of the best resources to get a feel for the show life is a book by Maria Arango called Art Festival Guide. I found this book to be invaluable when getting started
The other thing I found extremely helpful was go to some art shows and talk to artists. While you’re at the show, look around and see if this is something you would enjoy.
I will continue this series later. I will talk more in depth about topics like competition, setting prices, doing your own printing, selling, attitude and many other helpful topics.