PPP: Making Art Shows Work for You

March 1, 2010
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Since the costs and potential losses associated with art shows can be significant, it's important to plan ahead and be as well-informed as possible.

Track lighting and halogen spotlights or floods can be aimed directly where you want the light.


My first art show was on the grounds of an art center in Connecticut. Being a woodworker did have its advantages, as I had the skills needed to build my own booth display. At the time, though, I had little knowledge about displaying my work, choosing the right shows and finding the best weather protection. Now, after some 30 years of exhibiting in shows and 25 years as a show promoter and gallery owner, I have experienced it all from every perspective.

Whether you are a potter, glass blower or woodworker, the basics are pretty much the same. These days, an overabundance of art fairs and craft shows for the public to choose from has made going to an art show almost routine. While opportunities abound, this climate makes the shows very competitive for the artists. Since the costs and potential losses can be significant, it's important to plan ahead and be as well-informed as possible.

Your booth is your gallery. Keep it simple and easy to erect but sturdy enough that it can withstand difficult weather conditions.

Building Your Booth

Your booth is your gallery. Keep it simple and easy to erect but sturdy enough that it can withstand difficult weather conditions. Starting with a professional outdoor booth canopy or tent would be ideal, but costs are typically in the range of $600-$1200 (including weights to keep the tent in place on concrete and stakes for setup on grass). Pop-up type canopies are generally easy to erect, but they can be problematic in high winds. Cheap canopies are available for purchase everywhere, but keep in mind that they will probably not hold up very well over time; some might not even make it through one rainstorm.

For under $300, it is possible to construct a 10 x 10 ft booth that will be both lightweight and sturdy. I have designed and built booths and temporary retail galleries using hollow core doors and 12-in.-wide bi-fold doors for inexpensive warp-free shelving.

Track lighting is very effective; use either screw-type 50-watt PAR20 or 75-watt PAR30 narrow floodlights, or transformer-type 50-watt bulbs. Regular household bulbs are intended for general illumination and, as such, they tend to cause a blinding affect as they shine in visitors' eyes while doing little for the appearance of your work. Halogen spotlights or floods can be aimed directly where you want the light.

Before going to the show, it's a good idea to do a dry run and set up the entire display, including the canopy and product. This gives you the opportunity to adjust the overall layout of the booth or the placement of specific pieces, and it simplifies setup on the day of the event since you already have an idea of where everything should go. Your show booth can act as an indoor display in your studio as well.

Show Selection

Selecting which shows to attend can be very challenging. Start by considering how much money you can afford to risk. Costs will include the show fee, travel expenses and time away from your studio, as well as any expenses associated with having an assistant at the show with you.

Your first few shows should be as close to home as possible. Pick low-cost local shows just for the experience. Get used to setting up your booth, displaying your work and, of course, selling.

As you gain more experience and confidence, do some research to discover larger, regional events that you might be interested in. Keep in mind that larger shows might cost more to enter, and your travel time and expenses will certainly increase as well.

Explain your process so the buyer can understand and appreciate the work involved.

Pricing Issues

Put prices where they can be easily seen on each piece, and consider leaving a little room for negotiation. Try not to get indignant if someone asks if you can do any better on the price. Remember, you want to go home with money in your pocket. A response of "What did you have in mind?" followed by a friendly negotiation can lead not only to a sale, but to a happy-and hopefully repeat-customer. You shouldn't expect to always negotiate your price, but being prepared will help you successfully manage the situation.

Keep in mind that the people who visit your booth may not understand much (if anything) about how your work is made. Explain your process so the buyer can understand and appreciate the work involved-and theoretically then become more comfortable spending the money. The key to selling is to be attentive and friendly to everyone. Talk freely about what you do. Making a friend can put you on the fast-track to a sale.

To get an idea of what to charge for your work at these events, visit many different shows and get a feel for what the price ranges tend to be for work that is similar to yours. This will help you gauge what prices the market will bear. (Editor's note: For more information on Pricing Your Work, read the expanded online version of this article.)

One issue that is often a major problem is the ability to accept credit cards. If you don't take credit cards, you should be prepared to lose a majority of your sales. Not a lot of people carry the cash necessary to make purchases at a show. If you're willing to take a check, be sure to review the buyer's driver's license and get a phone number. You might also ask the buyer for a credit card number as well, if you feel it's necessary.

If the buyer doesn't have cash or a check, consider offering to hold the piece until they mail you the money. You can then ship the piece at no charge. If the piece is large and/or fragile, they might be willing to split the shipping costs.

Show Success

With a little preparation and planning, art shows and festivals can provide many opportunities for expanding your ceramic or glass art business. In the end, if you love what you do and want to make it your career, the key question that you must ask yourself is: "Does anyone want to pay for what I create?" If so, don't give up-you will eventually get there.

For more information, contact American Art Marketing at P.O. Box 480, Slate Hill, NY 10973; (845) 355-2400; fax (845) 355-2444; e-mail aam@warwick.net; or visit www.americanartmarketing.com.

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