Life As An Itinerant Artist

Stories and anecdotes from fifteen years on the art show circuit. 

Five things you must do to succeed in the Art Show World

It’s been a while since I posted about the mechanics of doing shows, and there are several good posts on the blog that cover certain aspects. With the economy the way that it is, many people I meet ask me, “How do I get started doing art fairs?” Many folks have dreamed of a life of independence, creating art that they enjoy, and wonder if it’s possible to make a living doing it. For most people, the mystery is in the logistical aspects, not so much in the creation of the work. So I’ll point you to some of the previous pieces, and add some new comments, focusing mostly on points 2-5.

  1. Create a body of work, or organize work that you’ve done over the years into cohesive units. If you’re considering doing shows, you should already have work that you are passionate about, enjoy making, and most of all, enjoy talking about. While everything else is important, nothing should take a back seat to your continual creative evolution. For more on how to spend more time in the studio while still marketing and selling, you can’t beat Alyson Stanfield’s book, “I’d Rather Be in the Studio”. You can find it on her website, along with other weekly doses of inspiration on her Art Biz Blog, here.
  2. Create a display to show your work in its best light. Think of this as a retail environment, like a gallery. This is the most important part to get right, as you must have not only a system to protect your work from the elements and sell to art patrons, but also a way to present your work to show jurors. Most shows require several images of your work and a booth slide that shows your display as it would appear at a show. There are many ways to get there, from the simple EZ-UP or Caravan canopies, to the Trimline and Lightdome tents. At a minimum, you need a 10×10′ tent, with sides that can be secured at night; display walls or pedestals, depending on how you want to display your work, and the work itself.
    Many people use home made walls, using plywood, hollow-core doors or other materials that can be broken down and carried in a van or trailer. Arguably the best systems for 2-D artists are the lightweight panel walls from ProPanels and Armstrong Displays. The walls come in different heights and widths, and you can get good ideas from their sites.
    For photographers, printmakers and other 2D artists, framed work is hung on the walls, and prints are usually displayed matted in browse bins. I’ve written quite a bit about my bin systems: here’s a recap. ProPanels and Armstrong also make collapsible bin systems if you don’t want to make your own.
    At shows that run into the evening, you may want to consider lighting, too. Some events will supply electricity, others charge for it, and some allow you to use a generator or marine batteries. Lighting is a “nice to have” in most situations. To learn more, read this post on portable lighting. Honda Generators are the quietest, but not all shows will allow them, or gasoline.
    Go to shows and see how other artists that work in your medium set up their booths. Walk the show, take notes, and talk to artists, if it seems as if you are not distracting them from the primary business of working with their paying customers. Use these ideas to plan your own display.
    When you have your booth and displays thought out, you’ll want to have some photographs made that you can use to apply to shows with — this is known as a “booth shot”. It can be made at a show, or set up in a driveway. Chris Coffey, a respected art-show photographer, has this to say about the booth shot and jurying for shows in general. Larry Berman and Chris Maher have also set up a monster resource site for art show artists at artshowphoto.com.
  3. Apply to shows. To get your work out in public, there is no better way than to do art festivals. For the most part, the people that come to shows come to look at art, talk to the artists in person and hopefully, buy some art. There are lots of shows all over the country, and depending on the season, there are probably shows right in your area. There are several well-known resources for locating shows, detailed in this post on Finding Nirvana.
    To get into shows, you’ll need to apply. (Seems obvious, doesn’t it?) And to apply, you need examples of your work to show to jurors. Both Zapp and Juried Art Services only accept digital files, and the specifications for creating these files are very specific. Read Zapp’s article on creating digital slides, and follow their advice. While it’s free to join Zapp and JASV, shows generally charge an application fee to apply to their show. These fees range from $25-75. If you’re accepted, you’ll also be required to pay a space rental fee to reserve your space, often months in advance of the show. Booth fees run anywhere from $200 to $1500. Tiny local shows may be less expensive. Generally, the more exclusive the show, the more the booth fee. Larger shows attract more customers though, so it’s usually worth the extra dollars. This is one of the tricky parts of the show business.
    Local shows and smaller venues may still require slides instead of digital files on a CD, although this is changing rapidly. There are two ways to do this. Hire a local photographer to shoot your artwork and provide you with slides (harder and harder these days to get processed), or take your digital files to a resource that will convert back into analog slides. Two good resources are Slides.com and iprintfromhome.com. I definitely recommend reading the show’s requirements well ahead of the deadline so that you can provide exactly what they need. Shows are picky about this. If they ask for four slides and a booth show, labelled with a red dot in the upper right and your name on the bottom, that’s what you should send. Every show’s requirements are different, so read carefully and do as they ask.
    [Note: since writing this back in 2009, slides are pretty much a thing of the past. Shows are jurying digitally nowadays, via ZAPP, Juried Art Services or Entry Thingy. If you are interested in galleries, then CAFE is also a contender.]
  4. Show up. I can’t stress this point enough. If you apply to a show, it is your responsibility to get yourself and your booth there, on time, and set up ready to sell by the time the show opens. But showing up also means that you are there physically and mentally, ready and passionate to talk about your work to anybody who walks in the door. Art shows require a commitment of 110%. Sometimes it is really hard to drag your butt out of bed at 4AM to go set up a canopy in the rainy dark pre-dawn hours and be ready to smile at 9AM. If you want to do shows, then you need to be prepared to make that happen.
    Showing up also means that you make a commitment to evolve your work. Some show artists are still showing the same old tired work that they carted around to shows ten years ago. The mats are dog-eared and dusty, the frames are chipped and the canopy is brown with mold. It’s obvious that they lost interest years ago and they are now just doing it for the fame and glory. Don’t be one of them. On second thought, do be one them — it’ll make my booth look better!
  5. Market your work. This topic covers a lot of ground. From creating good signage in your booth, to sending out postcards and emails, to social networking, it’s important to let potential customers know how to find you and your work. Alyson Stanfield, Maria Arango and Bruce Baker all have interesting contributions to this subject, so it’s worth your while to study this subject in depth. I’ve written several posts about this in the past, and this one sums it up nicely.
    It bears repeating that participating in the social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn will help you to connect with others who are struggling and succeeding, as well as people who are generally interested in your work. Sign up for an account if you haven’t already, and participate in the conversation.

You can start small, with a cheap EZ-Up, and some homemade walls, doing shows within a few miles of your home. Or you can do what I did, and jump in both feet, and travel round the country, meeting all kinds of interesting people and constantly seeing new vistas. The choice is yours. Good luck! And if you found this info useful, don’t be shy about adding a comment, or dropping me a line at info (at) parkerparker.info.

Happy Trails!

December 5, 2009

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