by Lee Anne White
Over the past 18 months, I participated in eight art festivals. Three were out of state; the rest were closer to home. Some were small, local art and crafts fairs. Some were major festivals with art, music, food and other events. Some were just for contemporary art. Only one was a repeat.
I’ve always believed in “putting yourself out there.” That’s what this was about—sharing my art with others, getting feedback, connecting one-on-one with potential collectors. I picked very different shows, hoping this would give me a chance to learn the most. Here are some of the things I’ve learned, which I hope might be helpful to those who are considering getting into the festival business:
1. Art festivals are hard work. And by that, I mean physical labor. Consider moving your entire "gallery" (heavy tents, display units, furniture and artwork) four times in a weekend (to the car, to the site, back to the car and back to the house). There is also the preparation—making enough work to fill your booth. (This was my favorite part of the process, and I loved having the festival as a motivating deadline.) And, of course, there is manning your booth all weekend. Most events are two days, but some run three. Some were open from 9am-7pm. That's a long day on your feet interacting with others. Some people find that energizing. Others find themselves drained by mid-day. Most artists I met traveled with a companion who helped cover the booth so the artist could take breaks. Not all had that luxury.
2. Art festivals are highly susceptible to the whims of Mother Nature. I've always thought of festivals as having ideal weather. I now realize that's just because it's the only time I ever go to them. As it turns out, the events go on, rain of shine. But people don’t buy art when it is raining, snowing, freezing or 98 degrees outside. The weather can also take its toll on your booth or inventory. Eight booths were destroyed in heavy downpours at one of the events I attended. Heavy winds blew framed art off my walls at another. I heard stories of hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding along the way from other artists who have been doing this for a while. Still, they persist. And on those rare occasions when the weather is just right, it can be a glorious way to spend a working day.
3. How to talk about my work. When you talk to a steady stream of people all weekend, you start to get the hang of talking about your work. That was something I really needed to do. I now have a better sense of what stories to share, what to leave to the viewers' imagination, when to engage and when to step back and just allow viewers to enjoy the work. The best part of every festival was connecting with individuals drawn to my work, whether they purchased it or not. In fact, one of my favorite conversations was with a teenager who was genuinely curious, remarkably articulate and truly passionate about landscape photography.
4. Every day is different. Some days people buy. Some days they don’t. Saturday and Sunday crowds tend to be different. And it’s really hard to know why or what to expect. The most consistent predictor I found was the weather. In beautiful spring or fall weather, people love to get outside and are generally in a good (and hopefully "buying") mood. Then again, sometimes they are just out to walk their dog. There tend to be a lot of dogs at art festivals.
5. Locally organized festivals tend to take better care of artists and promote events better. They have more at stake, the support of the community, volunteers on site, the attention of local media and are often doing these as fundraisers for some local cause. Certainly, there are exceptions, and that doesn't mean shows by promoters cannot be great shows. But I did notice a significant difference in the shows I attended.
6. In addition to needing inventory in various price ranges, it really helps to have a signature “gift” item for $20-25. Even at slow shows, the artists who had this still had sales to cover their out-of-pocket expenses.
7. Every sale you make takes effort. Art is not a commodity. It is a very personal purchase. When others buy art, the connection they make with the artist is usually an important part of that process. In turn, I genuinely loved connecting with buyers--hearing what attracted or spoke to them, how they planned to use the artwork, and even a bit about their personal lives. I love knowing my work has found a good home.
8. Not everyone is going to like your art. Others will like it, but not necessarily desire to purchase it for any number of very practical reasons (like it doesn't match their decor). And that’s okay. We all have different preferences for food, music, clothes and, yes, art. As artists, we have to learn not to take it personally.
9. Inventory portability, durability and weight are all issues to consider. You have to load and unload your artwork every time you go to a show; it can take a beating in your car or van if you don’t pack them well; and customers have to carry pieces home once they are purchased.
10. Each venue is different. I'm not sure I realized just how different each show is until this year. If you’re going to participate in festivals, you have to figure out where your audience is and go there. Is it big cities or small, rural communities? Is it an arts-and-crafts fair or contemporary art show? Indoors or outdoors? Mountains, coast or plains?
I had several good shows and a couple of truly forgettable ones. I believe I have a better sense for which types of shows work for me and which don’t. If I continue participating in art festivals, I have some changes I’d like to make in my inventory and the way I present my work. For now, however, I just want to rest and spend some time in the studio creating new work. I also have other markets I’m anxious to explore—in some cases, based on feedback I received at the festivals. Whether I continue participating in festivals or not, they were good learning experiences and I loved being able to share my work with others in a casual, outdoor environment.
I also made some wonderful friends along the way. The artists and artisans I met at these festivals were kind, generous and hardworking. They’d lend a hand in a heartbeat and were generous with tips and advice. We’d keep an eye on each other’s booth for bathroom breaks, and keep each other company when the weather turned bad and festival goers went home. Some of these folks make their living doing two shows a month; others were more like me, just trying to figure it out. I tip my hat to all of them and wish them much success in their artistic and marketing endeavors.