THE BIG WON
ART BIZ COACH
- Fair Fun & Profit
Long It Took
FAIRS: Market Research for Fun & Profit
(c) Elizabeth Berrien 1992
Whether you're a rookie potter or a seasoned watercolorist, the
occasional art fair or craft show will give you plenty of fresh insight
on improving of your work and its presentation. Here's an introduction
for folks gearing up for their first fair, and a refresher course for
those who've semiÄretired from the scene but might do well to
reconsider fairs for purposes of Research & Recreation.
First, Find Your Fair: your local art centers, Chamber of Commerce, and
fairgrounds should have ample leads, as will your fellow artists.
Remember, flea markets are a no-no unless you're a practicing
sadomasochist and enjoy arguing that you're work's not really
substandard trash. Since first-time fairs are often shakedown cruises
in which the organizers may not be so organized, veteran artists look
for established events like "Seventh Annual Warthog Festival".
Once you've found a few likely fairs, get their application forms.
Usually these list show fees, setup & takedown schedules, and
basic ground rules. Inspect all your information; if you have any
questions, don't feel shy about asking for clarifications. To be as
prepared as possible, here are some of the things you'll want to know
How big is your booth space? Is it indoors or outdoors? On dirt, cement
How early do you have to arrive and get set up? How late will you need
If it's a two-day event, does everything need to come down overnight?
Is power, lighting, shade, tables, chairs, or curtains provided?
How close to your booth space can you park for loading &
Is security provided? In what form?
Can you share and/or split a single or double booth with another artist?
What kinds of art & crafts predominate here? How many artists
in your medium?
In past fairs, what price range and art type has done best?
What promotion will be done: posters? flyers? TV and/or radio spots?
What other public draw will tie in: live entertainment? festival? good
Does the public have to pay to get in?
The object of gathering Fair Information isn't to argue or negotiate
changes, but to create a composite picture of what the show's elements
add up to. You pays your ticket and takes your chances, but
professionals develop the best strategy for making the most of a given
set of circumstances. For your first couple fairs, your focus should
not be on the money you might make, but on improving your act so you do
better at future shows. Pricing, of course, will be a factor; if you're
lucky enough to have goods to offer in the Impulse-Buy-to-Moderate
range, you're likely to make expenses the first time out. If your
prices are more imposing, you may get a couple lucky Windfall Sales,
but should think more in terms of Product Research and making a display
that generates substantial follow-up sales after the fair is over. You
should wade into ANY show, be it fair or gallery exhibit, with a cash
sales expectation of Zero; that way anything you happen to make is
Gravy. As a professional, you assess the show itself as an experience
upon which you intend to build your future & expand your resume.
Uncle Social lends an acronym denoting The Romance of the Stage: KISS
(Keep It Simple, Stupid). Attend some fairs as a "tourist", researching
booths with an eye to factors like sturdiness and durability (in high
wind areas, sandbags or guy wires are an integral design element, and
booths must be able to withstand being bumped into by the occasional
Aimless Toddler), Ease of Assembly, sun/rain resistance, and Overall
Elegance of Design, which when analyzed may surprise you in that the
most professional looking booths will have LESS on display: maybe two
or three exquisite showpieces anchoring clumped arrangements of more
affordable "Bread & Butters". Most artists are happy to talk
about what does and doesn't work with their booth, & what they
might do different if they had it all to do over again. Take notes.
Here are some things I pack for a fair: Sunscreen, hat and shades;
business cards; singlesheet Mercenary Handouts, which bear an image of
my work, information on how & why I make it, and
how-to-reach-me info; Guest Book, to build the Mailing List; Day Book,
for interesting inspirations or transactions and sketching prospective
commission concepts; portfolio; a tiny skirted table, to hold the above
and hide drek under; a tall chair, to make me more approachable (people
aren't comfortable stooping way down to talk). Miscellaneous hardware
(picture wire, duct tape, scissors, hammer and staplegun, etc) to fix
inevitable Small Things Falling Apart at the Seams (including yours
truly). Several yards Unbleached Muslin, to unify and camouflage a host
of visual impossibilities. And, to save my back and mental faculties,
Sturdy Hand-Truck to transport it all from the parking lot to the booth
(did I forget something? oh yeah, the artwork and something to hang it
SLEEP the night before the show: you're about to do a 12-hour day, so
you must be fresh. Show up on time, with everything you need to set up
your booth. Take along a thermos of coffee and a book, in case you have
wait in the predawn mists for Mgmt to show up two hours late to assign
everyone spaces, expecting you to hustle doubletime to be ready by
Opening Time. Brace for Craft Show Harpies, bleakly hissing
"expensive... expensive..." avert your eyes and they will go away.
When the public arrives, put away the book and behave as if you're Just
Delighted to be confined for ten hours to a 10 ft square booth. (Hiding
Behind a Book is tempting, but deters folks from approaching and
interrupting you to buy something). As the Great Unwashed arrives to
swarm over your display, you may garner a certain amount of friendly
comments; the challenge is to maintain cheerful professional aplomb in
the face of caustic and/or provocative cracks. Bear in mind that every
show has its hecklers. Some wisecrack to impress companions they hope
know even less about art than they do; others are what I categorize and
dismiss as social cripples, who have somehow attained adulthood without
acquiring rudimentary social skills and courtesy. Keeping it all in
perspective makes it easier to shrug off intended offense and keep the
ears open for genuinely constructive criticism.
If you seek truly unvarnished criticism, hide behind your booth or
pretend to be a part of the crowd. What you want is a) which of you
Grand Creative Concepts simply isn't getting across as intended, b)
what aspects of your art DO affect people, and should be further
explored and enlarged upon and c) how your price range is coming
across. Big corporations spend millions of dollars doing market
research to get this kind of information, but it's all yours for the
cost of the entry fee to a fair. And if you happen to make some sales
in the process, Wotta Deal!
To combat Fair Fatigue, pack sandwiches and iced tea, too; talking
dehydrates you fast. Move around a lot. Get a friend to sit the booth
so you can stretch your legs and brain. Better, arrange to share a
booth with an artist whose work complements your own so you can take
turns exploring & hobnobbing with the other artists. Bring
along Works in Progress, both to educate your public on all the work
and thought involved and to give you something to play with so you
don't keep sneaking after that Book.
As a final note, if you're an artist who outgrew fairs as the quality
of your work (and therefore your price range) increased to the extent
that you no longer see fairs as worth the entry fees and bother,
rethink the equation. There have been times when I've responded
politely to a fair organizer's invitation by saying I frankly didn't
envision selling anything at a one-day event. Guess what? Sometimes
they came back and offered to pay ME, as a Demonstrating Artist. (WOW!
Guest of Honor at the Yuba City Prune Festival! Fame at Last!) So keep
your options open, and revisit the longÄlost camaraderie of a
sunburnt day among your gypsy compadres.
was first published in the news letter of the Ink People Center for the
Arts in the 1990's.