If you have considered diving into the world of art festivals, here's a little glimpse of what to expect based on personal experience. Spoiler alert, it's not an easy road to travel.
I remember my first art festival. It was in my hometown. I had applied and been accepted several months in advance, which is the norm, and suddenly realized that I needed a whole lot of things to happen pretty fast to show my work there. I needed a canopy, walls to display my work, more work printed, and a way to get it all down to the park come the day of the festival setup.
The canopy I picked up on Craigslist. It was a little older and heavier than the newer models but would do the job well for several years to come as it turned out. Display walls were another matter. I quickly found out that the nice-looking ones that I had seen in other booths were quite expensive to buy, so I commenced making my own out of wood and indoor-outdoor carpeting from Home Depot. They ended up looking not half bad.
Come the day of setup, I had borrowed a trailer from a friend to get my canopy and booth walls down to the park. It was not an enclosed trailer, so thankfully, the Colorado sunshine came through, and I didn't have any concern with rain. All my artwork was piled in the back of my car.
Looking back, there is so much that I do differently now. The canopy functioned well but was a pain to set up, and my work was a hodgepodge of different things I had printed and shown in galleries and coffee shops over the years with a few new pieces added in. But I learned a lot, and by my standards at the time, sold quite a bit. About $1,500 worth of my work, which was certainly more than I had made in any gallery shows or coffee shops up to that point.
I was off and running, or so I thought. So, after having invested the money and effort to get the necessary components together, and making some money to boot, I thought to myself why not do some more shows that summer. I hadn't applied to any others up to that point, so I had to quickly find a couple more that I could put myself into. This is where I learned my first big lesson.
Not All Festivals Are Created Equal
The very next show was a real back down to earth moment. It was in a nearby affluent community, and I figured it whould be a perfect market. Sadly, it was a hot July weekend, and the show was set up on an asphalt parking lot with temperatures hovering around 100 degrees, and to top it off, no customers were coming through. I think I sold maybe one matted piece and a card all weekend.
I learned in this experience that most of the better art festivals have an application and acceptance process many months in advance. The shows that I could get myself into at the last minute were probably not all that great. There are exceptions, of course, such as shows with a last-minute cancellation. I also know of one promoter that keeps the application process open until almost the very day of the start. But for the most part, you must plan in the spring to get your applications in for the summer.
The only real positive that came out of that show was meeting other artists who sold their work in that way, one of whom became a friend that I found could rely on for advice about art festivals in general.
That was the other lesson that I learned from that first summer. Building relationships and making connections with other artists has helped me find better shows to do, getting pointers and feedback about my work and my display, and has made my journey so much more enjoyable. They have also provided valuable input on what shows to do and what shows to avoid. And at the worst shows, they’ve given me someone to talk to when no customers were coming around.
My friend from that second show helped me learn that there are certain promoters that he avoids. Just because the festival isn't a good location doesn't mean it's well run or is doing a good job of advertising. He also avoids shows that are in their first year or don’t have a consistent track record. Even though he works in a different medium, his advice has been invaluable.
Be Willing to Start Small
I think one thing I might have done differently were I to start all over again would be to start with smaller shows, such as one-day farmers' markets, etc. I did a few small shows when I started, but I also jumped into some bigger shows that might’ve been a bit out of my league to start with.
Over time, my work and my display have continued to get better and more refined, and as it has, I have seen my average sales go up and become more consistent, although the next point is something that I always have to keep in mind.
There Are No Guarantees
It can be discouraging when people around you are selling their work and you are not. But I found that I just have to remember that sometimes, it’s just not my day or my weekend. I can be at a show that’s in a great place and I’ve done well before and still have a flat day or weekend. If I do enough shows throughout the summer, it just all averages out. And the clunkers get averaged out with the surprise hits. It’s quite a bit like gambling in a way. You lay down your money and buy your space and take your chances. There are no guarantees anybody’s going to come by and buy your stuff.
There Will Be Lots of Competition
One thing I discovered quickly is that the art festival world can be competitive. The bigger shows can be very difficult to get into. And even if you do there might be another photographer across from you or down the aisle that has a booth full of enormous, beautiful prints. I have learned to not let that bother me too much. I try to take the attitude that if my work is different enough, I’ll find my customer. But it is a constant challenge to make my work as good as I can and to develop my style.
Your Fortunes Can Change in an Instant
I don’t know how many times it’s happened. I’ll be sitting there in the middle of the afternoon on a day or a weekend where I haven’t done very well yet. Just when I’m getting discouraged and starting to think I’ll just have to lick my wounds after this one and move on to the next show, someone walks up out of the blue and makes a big purchase, and the whole day or the whole show is turned around. You just never know.
So, there you have it, some of my experiences and observations from the past decade of selling my work at art shows. If this is something you’re thinking about doing I wish you all the luck in the world. And maybe I'll see you out there.