TAKING THAT FIRST STEP – DOING ART SHOWS
By Christy Nicholas
Aka Green Dragon, Artist
So, you are an artist. You have some stuff on consignment at a couple local shops, you have a website, and perhaps you have even had a private showing at a friend’s house. But what if you want to get into that crazy world of Art Shows? Scared? Of course you are. It’s a big step – and a complex one. There are many things to consider first, and many preparations to make. I’m here to help defray your anxiety – at least a bit.
I’m not an expert, but I have been doing shows for 3 years now, and have learned a lot by trial. I’ve also gotten some wonderful help and advice from older, more experienced artists, as well as from several magazines such as Sunshine Artist and Where The Shows Are.
It takes a lot of hard work to do art shows – don’t let anyone ever tell you otherwise. Besides all the preparation and costs before you do the first show, there is the back-breaking labor of setting up, tearing down, keeping up with stock demands, advertising, schmoozing, keeping records, doing taxes – oh, and making art. Almost forgot about that part!
I’ll break this article into three parts. The first part is preparing for the show; what to buy, what stock to have, etc. The second part will concentrate on the show itself – setting up, selling, breaking down. The third part is the tedious stuff – the record keeping, paperwork, etc. Each part is, of course, essential to success. However, you will not be successful if you don’t enjoy the process!
PART I – PREPARING FOR THE FIRST SHOW
Where to begin? Well, let’s start by figuring out how you want to display your art, as that will dictate a lot of the rest.
TENT: In order to do art shows, you must have a tent. Many shows require it to be a white tent (unless you are going to do renaissance festivals), and the stronger the better. However, most of us start out simple, and get an EZup tent, hoping to upgrade to a Flourish or Craft Hut later. This is fine – as long as you take certain precautions on your EZup. The reason they are cheap ($200 or less) is because they are not strong, and can blow away in 15mph winds. But not many artists just starting out can afford a $700 investment in a Craft Hut, plus the Propanels to go with it.
If you do buy an EZup, try to get one of the sturdier models. I purchased an Encore II at Sam’s Club three years ago for $100, and it included four zippered/Velcro walls. It’s done well by me, though the roof is starting to droop a little. I got concrete weights to put on each leg, and weigh down the tent by attaching everything to the frame. Eventually I will upgrade, but since I often set up alone, EZup is a useful and practical option for me.
DISPLAY WALLS: If you sell 2D art, such as paintings or photographs, you will want walls for your tent to hang them on. If you sell 2D art, such as pottery or jewelry, you will want tables, stands, or other display items. I sell both 2D and 3D, so I have both to worry about!
I started out with gridwalls, which you can buy at display stores, and cost around $20 a piece (plus shipping!). Gridwalls are sturdy, but heavy, and aren’t as professional looking as Propanels… but they won’t break the bank either, and can weigh down that tent nicely, especially after hanging framed prints on them. I still have some gridwalls, but I have lighter aluminum ones with thinner metal grids. For the sides of my tent, I have graduated to mesh walls, which are a wonderful mid-range option. These are walls made of strong mesh, easy to hang on your tent (they attach to the frame) and have a stabilization bar at the bottom. They are easily transported as they fold in half and roll up. They are expensive though – $600 for three of them, retail. Check artist groups online, as many people upgrade to Propanels and sell off their old mesh panels at a discount. That’s how I got mine – 2 walls for $100 including shipping.
TABLES: If you have 3D art, or browsing bins for your 2D art, you may want tables. I love the plastic durable folding tables you can get at Sam’s or Costco – they are virtually indestructible, and MUCH lighter than those wooden monstrosities. However, you will want matching table cloths for your display – trust me, it looks so much more professional, with the fabric coming to the ground and hiding all those storage boxes.
DÉCOR: Yes, décor. An art booth at an art show is competing with 200 other artists, and you want the patrons to be welcomed into your booth, and enjoy their stay. Better yet, remember their stay and come back when they are ready to purchase. If it is memorable (in a good way!) then you have an advantage. This can be achieved in a color scheme (my booth is all green and white), a theme (one lady had everything like a desert bazaar), or just simple and elegant. One lady had her jewelry all displayed on the necks of glass vases, with black and white stones in all the vases. One man had his nautical themed paintings on walls decorated with fake coral and fishing nets.
Be creative in this, but it must look nice, professional, and not distracting. Try to stay away from colored ceilings or tent tops – it will distort your work in something other than white light.
SETUP: Now that you have a tent, display furniture and a décor, how to set things up? I would suggest having things at several ‘viewpoints’, i.e., something at eye level, something at table level, and something in between. This will make the best use of the limited space available. Finding a good solution to this has as many results as there are artists. I use collapsible wire mesh boxes (got them at Bed Bath and Beyond) that can be constructed on site, deconstructed afterwards, and carried in one small bag in the meantime. They not only give me a second level on my tables, but offer sheltered cube for displays that are easily blown down by wind. Some folks simply use carrying boxes covered in attractive (and matching!) cloths, while other build shelves for each show. Remember that a display should have several features – be useful, attractive, easy to set up, and easily transported. It is even better if it doubles as a carrying container, so there is no wasted space in your van.
If you have items hanging on the walls, you will want them to look nice. Similar color and size frames put together helps, as does a straight line of images across. While some artists are good at making attractive ‘clumps’ of paintings, it often comes off as just jumbled together. Use your judgment, and ask opinions of others – sometimes you are too close to the project by this time.
INVENTORY: OK, now what do we put IN this wonderful, lovely looking setup? Well, I have noticed that putting one spectacular piece out front – I use a beaded shirt I made – brings people to the tent in droves. What brings them all the way in is another spectacular piece at the back center of the tent. In between is the affordable stuff, the items they actually purchase. I usually have one each of my matted prints, though I bring 3-4 of my best sellers, and replenish when they sell. If people are flipping through bins, and see lots of repeats, they usually stop flipping. If they realize there is only one of each image, they often want to see each one. You may want to consider whether you will frame/unframed on request at the show, and bring equipment accordingly. My jewelry is an easier inventory solution – I just bring everything, and put most of it out. Each piece is unique, so someone might like this one, but in that color. Oh, I’ve got that right here!
Another inventory piece of advice: Have something at several price points. You don’t want to only have items that cost $100. You will likely never sell anything at many shows. I have handmade beads that sell for $1 each, gift cards at $3.50, all the way up to necklaces for $100, $200, and some items at over $1000. Something for everyone, so everyone buys something J
PRICING: The eternal question! No one has a true answer to this, but I have some ideas to pass on. I’m a tax accountant as well, and the formula SHOULD be as follows. For anything you sell, take your costs of making it, your own hourly wage for creating it (times the number of hours spent on the project) and then add your overhead. Double this for your wholesale price, double THAT for your retail price. In real life, this isn’t always easy to figure out.
First, what hourly wage should I choose? That’s up to you. What would you be comfortable making, doing this for a living? $10? $30? $50? I find I charge less for items I do less ‘creating’ on.
Second, what’s overhead? That’s the costs that aren’t directly related to creating your pieces of art. It includes the cost of traveling to shows, the jury and art show fees, the cost of the tent and tables, your meals while at the show, advertising, business cards, website fees, etc. It’s very difficult to figure out, especially when you are first starting out. After the first year, you can add up all those expenses, and divide by the total hours you spent making art – and that is your hourly overhead fee. During the first year, however, you need to estimate it the same way.
For instance, say you spent $600 on your setup (tent, tables, cloths, etc.). Then you spent another $300 on framing prints, matting, making gift cards, and all your stock. You plan on applying on 4 shows this year, and each one will cost $100 in fees, and $50 in traveling expenses and meals. You spent $50 on business cards, and $50 in website fees.
So, your inventory cost is $300, and you kept track of what item cost what, so you don’t have to ‘apply’ a percentage. Item A cost $10 and you spent 10 hours on it (at, say, $20 an hour), Item B cost $50 (and 20 hours @$20 an hour).
Your overhead is a total of $600+(100+50)*4+50+50 = $1300. You estimate that you will spent about 500 hours making the art you currently have in stock, so your overhead cost per hour is $2.60.
Item A has the following costs: Item B has the following costs:
Direct Cost $10 $50
Direct Labor 10X$20 = $200 20X$20 = $400
Overhead 10X$2.60 = $26 20X$2.60 = $52
Total Cost $236 $502
Wholesale $472 $1004
Retail $944 $2008
These are guidelines, of course, not set in stone. They reflect absolutes and estimates, not the real world. You also have to look at your market, your competition, the economy in your area, and your cash flow. If someone next door to you is selling the same item for 30% less, you won’t sell much.
OTHER STUFF: Oh, there are lots of other things to do to get ready for a show. You will need many of the following items – get them ahead of time, and save yourself some worry. This list is not comprehensive, but it should cover most bases.
Price lists or price tags
Credit card machine/knucklebuster/credit card receipts/MC Visa signs
Pens (one will always go dry on you during a show, bring several)
Hooks for hanging (I use curtain hooks and S hooks)
Business card holder
Sign with your name on it
Weights (concrete, water jugs, etc.)
Side walls (to close up at night)
Lantern (for after dusk or pre-dawn setups)
Hand towel (setup can get sweaty)
Mirror (you want to look nice after that sweaty setup)
Change box and change (very important!)
Project to work on while the customers browse (reading a book makes you look uninterested)
Guest list for mailing and email addresses
Good attitude, smile, and sense of humor!
I highly recommend thinking about taking credit cards. My sales have doubled since I have done so, and using a low-end service like www.propay.com means there is no investment in equipment. I pay $60 per month and a transaction fee per sale, and use a $5 knucklebuster for my sales.
APPLYING: OK, you are all ready for the shows, let’s apply to one! Which one? That’s the hard part. There are several magazines and websites that list shows by area. Sunshine Artist and Where the Shows Are are both good sources. I also search the web for events in my area, and ask other artists. I’ve found some gems by word-of-mouth. There are promoter shows (such as Howard Alan or Amy Amdur) that have fairly high display standards, but they spend a lot of money getting people to the show.
I have learned a couple things. More people at the show don’t necessarily mean more sales, but if no one shows up, no one will buy. I have had light attendance shows that did well, and then the same promoter had another show where there were NO patrons – and no sales. I’ve also learned that the more things there are going on at a show, the fewer art dollars are spent. So if the show has a carnival, a seafood festival, a concert, a car show, a pet show, and an art show, very few people will be there to buy art.
Also, local is best for several reasons. First, people are always more willing to buy from a local artist, and second, you have less travel expense if you don’t have to stay overnight in a hotel, or spend a lot in gas. Starting out, I’d recommend only doing those shows you can stay at home for. In my third year, I am just branching out to overnighters – but then I am blessed with many good local shows.
Most shows require that you apply several months in advance. I apply for my fall shows in the spring, and vice versa. They also require slides or photos of your work – and your tent. Set up in your backyard on an overcast day (no harsh shadows). Take the glass out of your frames (no glare), do a simple setup (not cluttered) and as professional as it can be. Send that in with your application, and it should be fine. There is a great debate over whether juries want a ‘real’ booth, or a ‘staged’ booth photo, but I believe in being honest, and each jury will have a different preference.
Once you’ve applied, you will have to wait for a response, usually several months. You either get a rejection or an acceptance letter. The acceptance letter is sometimes accompanied by a vendor packet, telling you where to go to check in, etc. So now, we graduate to Part II:
PART II – THE SHOW ITSELF
BEFORE THE SHOW: I collect data that is useful for each show. Not just how many people attend, or how many artists are setting up, but also whether I will need to dolly in my stuff, if I can set up Friday night, what the hours of the show are both days, and if there are prizes and booth-sitting services available.
I keep that data in my database, and have it available for next year, when deciding whether I liked that show enough that dollying wasn’t too bad. For instance, I just had a show in DeLand where I had to dolly my whole setup (by myself) and it took twice as long as normal. However, sales were great and I won a prize – definitely a good show!
GETTING THERE: Next question will be – how do I get my stuff to and from the show? Well, if you have a van already, you are set. If not, you may want to rent one for your first try. What if you hate doing this? No need to sink $20,000 into a van and then regret it! Another option, if you have a heavy-duty car or truck, is to rent or purchase a trailer, and put all your stuff in there. This has advantages and disadvantages. Driving with a trailer is difficult, and more so in tight spaces (like setting up at the show). However, you can disconnect the trailer and drive around town each evening without it, and you won’t have to unpack between shows.
SETTING UP: Let’s say you had or have rented a van. Pack up the night before, and head on out Friday evening, hopefully. The shows that have Friday night setup are higher in my book than those that don’t, as I don’t care for waking up at 4am to do all that setup myself. In addition, my husband will help me set up the night before, but not if he has to wake up and go with me in the morning J
You arrive to your show, find the check in booth, get your spot assignment and go. Do everyone a favor – unload everything first, go park your vehicle, and then come back and set up. Ask a neighbor to watch your stuff while you do so. Most will be glad to, as it will cut down on traffic and congestion within the show, which is chaos at this point anyhow.
I usually set up tent first, then walls, then framed prints, then tables (so I don’t have to lean over tables to hang prints), tablecloths, and mesh boxes on the tables. This I do Friday night, if possible, close up my booth with the white walls, and come back the next morning. I roll up the side walls (makes it easier to take down again Saturday night), set up my matted prints, my jewelry, my sales area, and I’m ready to go. Without help, it takes me about 3 hours start to finish.
SHOWTIME!: It’s 10am, the patrons are starting to filter in. One by one, they look at your booth – they see the spectacular piece out front, ask you how many hours it took, stand amazed at your beautiful pieces, tell you they should be in a museum… and then walk out without buying anything. It is very frustrating, and all artists go through this. Do not despair! Do not take their unwillingness to buy to heart – someone will buy your stuff. Just this weekend, a patron loved a necklace, but didn’t buy it. Next Wednesday they emailed me, asked if it was still available, they wanted it shipped to them. It happens! Having a website is a good backup tool, as well – I hand out my card as they leave, saying ‘most of my stuff is available on my website’. I’ve gotten several after-show sales this way.
I also get commissions after the fact, and have had last minute sales while breaking down. One gentleman came in to my booth at 5:15pm. Show had ended at 5, most vendors had started breaking down earlier (a local race pulled all the crowds away at 4). He came in, asked how much a piece was, and bought the $200 piece on the spot. Can we say last minute birthday gift? (It was a necklace).
The most important part of the show is talking to the customers, smiling, enjoying your conversations, learning things about people. To me, this is my shining social hour, and I love it. I’m not a hard-seller, but I give information about pieces people are looking at, such as ‘that piece is based on an old Russian beading technique’, or ‘I took that photo this summer in Ireland’. It gives them a chance to continue the conversation without having to start it. If they are interested, they may ask more questions, if not, they will nod and keep looking.
If you are shy, this isn’t easy, but having something to talk about may help a lot. Talk up your work – mention that the prints are on archival paper, or on canvas, or that you created that work for a Breast Cancer Charity Event. ‘Let me know if you have any questions on a piece, I’ll be happy to answer them’; ‘If you wish to try a piece on, I’ve a mirror over here’; ‘Are you looking for something in particular?’ I never used to ask this, but this weekend I sold three pieces just by asking that. The first said he was an O’Brien, and I realized I had a photo of a castle that was his ancestral seat; he bought it right there. Another lady said she collected dragons – I directed her to one of my dragon drawings, and it sold. A third couple had stayed at a cottage in Ireland near where one of my photos was taken – they bought the framed copy right away. Information is powerful!
While you sell items, make sure to keep records of what you sell, as well as the sales tax charged (very important!). I keep a running tab of my sales for the day, so I know where I stand at any point. Most artists are cagey about letting other artists know their sales, but I have no problem saying that, three years into the business, I’m averaging about $700 a show. Some folks who do higher-end stuff aren’t happy with a show under $2000, but then again, they are frequently traveling more than I am.
Saturday night, I usually take my little items (jewelry) that are more expensive, and box up my matted prints (to keep them from getting damaged by dew or rain), and leave the framed ones up on my walls. I put my walls down and close up the booth, but it would add another hour to setup the next morning to take down the framed items – and with photos, none are originals. If they are stolen or damaged, I can reprint them. It’s a matter of cost vs. benefit, and usually I err on the side of laziness J
Sunday morning, since I live in the Bible belt, shows usually don’t get swinging until after noon. However, I find a lot of patrons wait until the second day to make their purchases, so it makes up for early light activity.
PRACTICAL MATTERS: If you are doing the show with a friend, spouse, or partner, these matters may not be as difficult, but what if you are alone? I usually am, and things like eating, going to the bathroom, and getting my vehicle are items which require assistance. I usually ask a neighbor if they would mind watching my booth for me while I run to do whatever – most are helpful. You may return the favor for them in an hour, after all! Some shows have booth sitters, but you usually have to sign up ahead of time for them. Sometimes I see a friend at a show, and ask them to grab me some lunch. There are several solutions to these matters!
LODGING: So you’ve gone and done a show that’s 2 hours away from your house. Do you drive back or do you rent a hotel? Well, think of the price of gas. With your van, does it cost more to drive back and forth each night than a $50 hotel room will cost? Usually. And the time lost, and the fatigue while driving after setup and a day’s work will cost, as well. So, I usually use the 2 hour mark as my guideline – anything more than that, and I stay overnight. I search online for basic, cheap accommodation. For instance, I found a Suburban Extended Stay room in Daytona last weekend for $45 a night – about 20 minutes from my show site. Score!
There are other options for the adventurous. You might have a bed in the van, or bring a tent to camp out, or have an RV. However, I prefer to bring less and sleep more. J
BREAKING DOWN: No, I don’t mean a nervous breakdown, though you may be ready for it! I mean breaking down the tent after the show ends. I caution highly against breaking down early, even if the crowds are light! Not only is it usually against the show rules, but I’ve had many last-minute sales over the years. Often it is because I am one of the few tents still open! Yes, it is very tempting when the crowds have gone for the day, but resist the temptation if you can!
When you have packed up all your stuff, then go and get your vehicle – again, this cuts down on traffic and congestion in the street or park. My breakdown (alone) is usually only about 1.5 hours, much less than setup, as I have a system of what items go in what boxes, and have them labeled. The prints go in here, the framed items go in those, the jewelry on those T-bars goes in this box, etc. Everything to its place, and it goes quickly and efficiently. Then you go home, relax, and procrastinate your unpacking J
PART III: PAPERWORK AND AFTERMATH
AFTER THE SHOW: You’ve done your first show, yay! Now you are exhausted, but hopefully you’ve made some profit. Remember, a no-sale show is not necessarily a wash – you can make a lot of contacts, get your name out there, and start getting an artistic reputation in the area. And you learn something each show; my display changes a bit each show, as I think of better or different ways of doing things, packing things, displaying things.
As soon as I get back home, I do the following things;
- Enter my credit card sales online (faster done, faster paid)
- Go through my cash, take out the amount over my ‘bank’ of $100, leave the rest for next show
- Take out any checks for deposit the next day with the excess cash
- Enter my sales (and sales tax) into my sales spreadsheet, including keeping track of my inventory
- Replenish my inventory for sold prints
I usually unpack the next day, after I’ve recovered a bit physically from the show, the packing, and the drive home. Of course, if you have a trailer, that step isn’t necessary!
TAXES: Oh, that dreaded word! There are a couple to pay attention to, though. Sales tax needs to be paid in, either quarterly or monthly, and income taxes. If you are making a profit (and you will know that if you are keeping good records!) then you may need to make quarterly income tax payments to avoid penalties at year end.
So, now that you’ve come through the roller-coaster, did you enjoy it? Sure, it was hard work, but was it fun? I personally truly enjoy the chance to meet people, share my visions and artwork, and make some cash as well. I started out doing 3 shows my first year, and have done 15 in the last 12 months. I haven’t quit my day job, but I am definitely making enough money to start thinking about those estimated tax payments, and it’s still early days.
I hope my ruminations have helped you on your own path towards art shows. Remember, it’s not for everyone, but if it is for you, go for it and have a wonderful time!