Life As An Itinerant Artist

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

10 Requirements for a Successful Art Show Item

In over five years of selling photography at art shows, I’ve had the opportunity to make a lot of friends, and to observe many more artists and their handiwork. I got to thinking about why some kinds of art seem to sell better at certain shows. Things like garden art, for example. Or jewelry. The art show world is evolving in many ways, not all of them good. For example, the proliferation of imported “buy/sell” items from Asia has impacted craft artists. Technological advances in digital cameras have made it simpler for the average person to make good photographs. Many more shows & many more artists have increased competition for patron attention and dollars.

So what makes a good art show item? After thinking about it, I came up with several criteria that are critical to success as an artist.

  1. Demonstrates YOUR skill and expertise.
    Years ago, painters and potters got together on blankets and spread their work out on lawns. Art shows today have gotten much more sophisticated, and so have the products. Some things are more easily made than others, and require less of a commitment to education and skill. Certain types of jewelry fall into this category, as does travel photography. Choosing a niche that requires a higher level of skill insures that your work will be regarded as special, and will make it less likely that amateurs will attempt to emulate it. Whatever you choose to create should demonstrate YOUR individuality and creativity, and a high level of technical expertise. The best work is not duplicatable — although the Asian factories can copy most painting styles, ceramic objects and anything else you can think of.
  2. Easy to make with accessible materials.
    It should be easy for YOU, based on your experience, expertise and skill set. This doesn’t mean that it’s easy for anybody. The things you choose to make should be repeatable, from a process standpoint, so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you start out making a new item, or designing a new line. Keep track of the little things you do to enhance the production process. That might also include the ideation process: how you come up with new ideas and new techniques. If it’s too easy to make, it may be easy to copy, as well.
    You should be able to get the materials you use in your work easily. Find sources for the things you use every day, and strive to build relationships with your vendors. Lead time between ordering and shipping should be days, not weeks, unless it is such a unique material that there is no other substitute. If an item is unique, it may take time to find new sources if an old source runs out just when you need to reorder. Develop backup vendors for your key items.
  3. Unique, hard to copy.
    The more unique, the better. Originals have more intrinsic value than reproductions. Limited editions with smaller numbers of prints are more highly regarded by collectors than lithographed posters. Many people like to know that theirs is the only one of its kind in existence. This generally gives painters, glass blowers and sculptors an advantage. But you can add unique qualities in other ways as well. Choose subject matter that is yours alone to sketch, to paint, to photograph. Own your niche. Choose not to follow the crowd.
    Almost anything can be replicated in Asia nowadays. Special, hard to duplicate techniques, a signature style, niche subject matter — all of the above can help to shield your work from copyists. Copyright your images. For photographers and 2-D artists who publish on the web, TinEye.com can check to see if other sites are using your work without your permission.
  4. Demand.
    It helps if your art widget is something that people actually want to buy. You can spend all the time in the world developing unique processes, wonderful technique and beautiful finishes, but if no one wants your widget, you’ve spent your time fruitlessly. Do a little research. See what sells at art shows. There’s a reason that doggie visors, scented candles and yard sculpture fly out of the crafters’ booths. There’s nothing stopping you from making art that pleases YOU, but if you want to be successful in the art fair world, other people must want what you’re making.
  5. Portable.
    The easier your artwork is to transport, the easier it will be to get to shows and setup your display. And easier for your customers to carry home with them! Large work, such as heavy metal sculpture and big canvasses are at a disadvantage here. Jewelers have it the easiest. Most of their inventory can go home in a suitcase every night! Of course that leads to the need for increased security. If your items are too small, it will increase the possibility of them walking away on their own. Systems to pack and transport whatever you make need to be taken into consideration. Even the simple act of changing a frame size may have ramifications on the way you pack your van or trailer. The more you carry, the more expense you will incur going from show to show.
  6. Easy to display.
    It goes without saying that your display should look professional. But some art is fragile (glass, ceramics), or requires special lighting. Take into account how your display will be unpacked, set up, and repacked at every show. Most artwork is not designed to be carted around forever — the more it gets moved, the more likely you are to incur incidental damage.
    Your work should be visually  appealing. A mix of larger and smaller pieces helps to create contrast in the retail booth environment. If all of your work is small, consider what will draw potential customers into the booth. If it doesn’t look good, chances are, it’s not going to be of much interest to casual passersby.
  7. Resists weather.
    Weather is a fact of life at most art festivals. Rain, wind, humidity, sunlight all play a factor in how well your artwork can survive before it finds a home. Some work is very susceptible to damage — pastels, for example, are extremely fragile. Other work, like ceramics, sculpture and glass are subject to wind damage, but can withstand moisture fairly well. Think about what venues you are likely to be exhibiting in, and plan accordingly.
  8. Value at an affordable price point.
    Art fair shoppers are always looking for great values. This doesn’t always mean that they are looking for “cheap”, but that they are looking for that special find. Adding value through your experiences in creating the work is a bonus. Tell your stories. Spin your web of romance. Unique materials, and special techniques add value to your work. Make sure your prospective buyers know about your secret sauce. Give your customer something to brag about when they proudly display that new piece on the wall.
    Don’t price your work too high or too low. One mistake that beginners make is assuming that their work is less valuable than experienced artists, and price lower to “get in the market”. Others will price themselves out of the market by placing too high a value on their prized work. Every market has a price comfort zone for specific types of work. Your work may not fit every market. Do some research and don’t be afraid to negotiate price. Remember, you made the piece. You can always make another. If you’re in it to make a living, you are in it to sell your work, not hoard it.
  9. Can be sold for a profit, including cost of materials, and labor.
    If there’s a demand for your item,  you need to make a profit. You can’t sell each piece at a loss, and make it up on quantity, as the old saying goes. Take into account ALL of the factors that go into your work, including the cost of your materials; fixed costs like studio space, insurance and equipment; and make sure that you pay yourself for your labor. There are many formulas out there to calculate what you should be making. Just keep in mind that you will spend a large amount of time your art, marketing it and selling it. Unless you are a highly unusual individual who only makes art as a labor of love, you will want to get paid for what you create.
  10. Love what you do.
    The most important factor of all: you must throw yourself into your work with a passion. Just making objects to sell will not help you sell them. You must have strong emotions about your work. When you talk about how you create your vision, people must hear the emotion and feel the romance behind the work. Without passion in your work, you might as well be flipping burgers.

Take a few minutes and evaluate your creations with handy little worksheet, using a scale from 1-5 for each factor. The higher the score, the better a fit for the art show market. Not everybody is going to score high on all ten of these factors. What is the perfect art show product? Some might say jewelry — small, easy to transport, always in demand. Others might opt for large paintings, or sculpture because of the high price point originals can command. Whatever you choose, have fun doing it, and sleep well at night, knowing that you don’t have to sit in an office from nine to five!

As always, comments are welcome. If you have some thoughts to add, please do so!

April 3, 2010

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