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Setting Up for Art Shows: Lessons Learned
Posted By: ajtour, 04-18-2009, 08:08 PM

**** Sorry this is so long! Lots of lessons learned from past shows, though. Let's help others avoid the same mistakes we've made along the way! ****

I've been a "photographer" since I picked up my first Polaroid at the tender age of three. It wasn't until 25 years later that I realized I could offer my work for sale and others would actually open their checkbooks.

Inspired by the abundance of festivals in my area, decided to set up shop at a few and learned some interesting things in the process.

Which types of shows work best?
My parents were antique dealers for a bit. When I asked why they didn't do it as a full time profession, they used the ugly word "cycles." They were quilt people, and quilts were popular and very lucrative in the 80's, then dry in the 90's.

Whether it's because of the down economy or a cycle where people simply aren't buying photographic art, I've had terrible luck at the "Popcorn Festival" type craft shows. People are there to eat elephant ears and buy packages of soy candle tarts for $2. They're not looking for original photography.

Next stop: the farm market. My friend had a jewelry booth, so I tagged along and set up a print display. Yikes! Great for advertising and chatting with friends . . . not so good for actual sales. Again, people were there for $5 bouquets of flowers and $2 of fresh green peppers. Not art.

And, then . . . bingo! My town organizes an "Antiques & Artisans" show each summer. It's well attended, and the market there is ripe. No elephant ears in sight.

Straight down Main Street, we set up booths for antique dealers along with photographers, painters, jewelry makers, knitters, potters, underwater basket weavers, etc. The show is advertised well, and people come prepared to buy. I quickly learned that was my target market when, in about two hours, I sold five prints and numerous cards, and got leads for a few clients who wanted to put framed work in their places of business. I have a feeling I'd have sold many more, but we had a huge rainstorm midday, and that resulted in closure of the event. Let's hope June 2009 has better weather!

Every market and geographic area is different, but my suggestion is to browse event guides for your area and look for shows which incorporate words like art, artisans, antiques, juried, limited, "art league", gallery, etc. Skip those which use terms like "crafts," "flea market," "carnival," and "lots of great junk, stop here."

How Should I Set Up My Booth?

{ I'll outline my setup here, but remember that I did not invest in all of this just for one art show a year in my town. I also have a stationery shop and do several bridal shows per year. Most of the set-up and display items are used for marketing that business as well. }


- I do not make prints at home. Instead, I have them printed through either Miller's (cheaper but still good quality) or H&H Color Lab (phenomenal quality but quite expensive). I usually send the 4x6's and 5x7's to Miller's and the 8x10's and above to H&H. My theory is that the larger the print, the more the extra expense shows and pays off.

- I do not cut my own mats. Instead, I buy them during 50% off weeks at Hobby Lobby. They have a much better selection than Michael's, and I'm able to get decent quality pre-cut mats for a reasonable price. I bring in all the prints I plan to sell, line them up on Hobby Lobby's work tables, and match prints specifically to mats which look best. Then, I have the Hobby Lobby staff cut acid-free backing boards for all.

- I take all of this home and use Scotch-brand, acid-free, removable, double-faced tape to hinge the print to the mat. Just one piece at the top center edge of the print. It keeps the photo in place as long as it needs to be there, but if the buyer wants to change out mats, they can do so easily.

- On the back of the backing board, I use the same removable double-faced tape to affix a card explaining the image title, location, my contact info with website, and the price.

- I place the completed print/mat/backing board in a protective cello sleeve with a resealable flap. The sleeve should be just a tad bit larger than the mat to keep everything from moving. I order these online at Ebay from this seller.

- At the event, I set up a portable table. I use a black sheet for skirting, then add some colorful fabric to give the table some punch. I arrange the following: two table-top easels with my favorite samples, several nice black baskets with all 8x10's in one, all 5x7's in another, etc., a small basket with my business cards, and a display stand of greeting cards (also in protective sleeves).

- I "decorate" my area with one large easel with my absolute favorite print at about 20 x 30 and framed.

- If I get really motivated, I tie a line across the back wall of the tent and use laundry clips to hang a sign I had made with my logo.

- I took a simple black document frame (8.5 x 11) and slipped in a printed sheet with my prices. That also goes on the table.

- I fill a small basket with suckers for children so that they have a treat while Mom and Dad are shopping.

- I learned my lesson the hard way: GET A TENT! Even if it's just a quick popup sun shade. Summer festivals are hot. If it's too sunny, you'll get condensation collecting inside your "protective" plastic sleeves. NOT GOOD!

- I also learned the hard way that people do buy my work . . . and need a bag! I bought cute little bags for greeting cards at Hobby Lobby but didn't think to have anything large enough for the larger prints. Thankfully a fellow artist lent me some of hers. I don't go to the expense of having bags imprinted with my info, but I've been frequenting 50% off sales at Hobby Lobby, Michaels, Jo-Ann, etc. and stocking up on plain Kraft shopping bags for this purpose.

- I very rarely sign things. The only time I sign a print is if it's framed and going into a charity auction and they need that look of "exclusivity" to raise the silent auction price. I never sign the print itself. Intead, I number the print and sign it using an acid-free sepia art pen. Okay . . . if someone begged, I'd sign the mat for them. But, really. I'm not Michael Jordan. Do they really need my scribble ruining the look of the photo?

What Will People Be Willing to Pay?

If only this had a simple answer. You'll need to attend shows in your area to see what prints are selling for. I'm sure I don't charge enough according to other artist's standards, but I live in an area where people like to think they're rich but aren't really.

- The large framed print on the easel is NFS, but I do take orders and tell shoppers the final cost will be determined by the actual print size and type of frame they end up choosing.

- 8x10's matted to 11x17 with acid-free backing board are $32
- 5x7's matted to 8x10 with acid-free backing board are $16
- 4x6's matted to 5x7 with acid-free backing board are $8
- Greeting cards (printed myself on linen paper) are 2 for $5

The $32 variety goes well with women who want to put prints in their kitchens. The $16 variety goes well with those who want to send gifts to kids who live out of state now and want to see pics of their hometown. The $8 variety goes well with sports fans who like my tennis and golf pics and just want a fun print of their favorite player to stick on their bookshelf.

Which Subjects Sell Well?

- Beach prints sell. I live in the Midwest. People want to pretend. Or, they've been to that same beach and remember it wistfully.

- Local prints sell. We have some really great historic landmarks and nostalgic places in my town. My "hottest seller" is a print of an old diner sign, as the diner just closed this year. Another is a shot of liquor bottles at the bar of everyone's old favorite restaurant, which closed about 5 years ago. It's scanned from film, and it's a shot no one else in town has captured - ever - to my knowledge. And, local prints don't need to be just for locals. If you live in a touristy area with great natural beauty, those traveling through will purchase local prints as souvenirs.

- American flags sell. We have a great Roller Mill, and I have a good shot of the Stars & Stripes against that old red mill. You can vaguely read the sign as well. This is VERY popular with parents of deployed military who send them to their kids overseas to be patriotic and remind them of their beloved little hometown at the same time. I sell lots of greeting cards of these for that reason.

- World landmarks *do not* sell for some reason. Parthenon? No. Eiffel tower? No. Gorgeous river in Scotland? No. Sad, as they're (in my humble opinion) great shots. Perhaps if you live in an area other than a relatively small town in the Midwest, you'll find more buyers for images with a global theme. I tend to get a lot of, "That's gorgeous! Where is it? . . . . Cool. I should go there someday." And, then they buy a photo of their own Main Street instead.

Hope this helps, and please PM me if you'd like to discuss best practices for shows. I'd like to see what works for others! Happy selling . . . and shooting!
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04-20-2009, 11:16 AM   #2
Senior Member

Join Date: Dec 2008
Location: Baltimore, MD
Posts: 178
excellent post, I read the whole thing. perhaps I will piggy back on a relatives jewelry/lampwork setup next time around

good luck with the summer season!
04-20-2009, 12:49 PM   #3
Senior Member

Join Date: Dec 2008
Location: Christchurch, New Zealand
Posts: 206
Thanks for these very helpful tips.
One thing I didn't understand - you don't attach the photo+matt to the backing board in any way? Why is that?
01-27-2010, 10:52 PM   #4
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irishwhite's Avatar

Join Date: Apr 2008
Location: philadelphia
Photos: Gallery
Posts: 349
excellent article! i really appreciate the time put into this well composed piece as I'm thinking about getting into the local art festival "circuit" this upcoming spring/summer/fall.


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