How to prepare for a successful art fair

A six-page feature article about my advice on how to prepare for a successful art fair is published in the June/July issue of International Artist magazine. Here are the scanned pages from the print version of the magazine, followed by an all-text version. I hope you find this information helpful!

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Below is the text of the original article. It was shortened to accommodate the space considerations within the print magazine.

How to prepare for a successful art fair

You’ve been accepted to participate in an art fair. Let’s make this investment work for you.

What are Your Goals?

            What criteria will you use to see if participating in an art fair is worthwhile? By setting objectives, you can go back to assess your results. Here are some goals you might consider:

  • Selling original artwork
  • Selling prints and/or merchandise
  • Finding representation with a good art gallery
  • Being asked to participate in group shows
  • Building your mailing list for future sales
  • Getting feedback from potential buyers to validate your art
  • Making connections with other art world professionals

            If it’s your first time showing in a specific fair, then it’s possible that the exhibition can be a success for you even if you did not profit on the money front.

What to Sell

            You must first determine what products you plan to offer. Will it be all originals, or a combination with prints and other merchandise? See if there are any restrictions on what you may show in the exhibitor’s catalog, which is your go-to information source about your current art fair. Don’t assume that something that’s fine in one fair will work in another.

            Pick items that cover various price points, so that you have something for serious collectors, but also for people who are on a tighter budget. Smaller items may be matted prints, note cards, or tote bags. Try to keep the bulk of your inventory on display in the under $5,000-range, to make it in the “affordable” category. Works that cost more than $10,000 do sell, but your clientele for those works is much more limited.

            When pricing your work, use a consistent formula, such as pricing per square inch, or figuring that each additional complex element adds a specific amount. Consider exactly how much money you need to make from each work, and then mark it up about 20 percent. Potential buyers will invariably want a deal of some sort. Make sure that you’re firm ahead of time about how much of a discount you may be willing to give (if any) and respect your artwork and the effort that went into making it. Do not drop below the bottom-line price you determined before the show.

While it may seem that any sale is better than none, you don’t want to undercut your own pricing. If your work takes a long time to make, you want buyers to honor that. You do not want to be uneven in your pricing and have collectors compare notes only to find that some people got better bargains from you than others.

It is your responsibility to find out when and how much sales tax you must collect. Will you include that in the price, or will it be added separately? Will your pricing include shipping within the United States, or will you give a discount to someone who takes the artwork directly from the fair?

How to Take Payments        

            Prepare to have several types of payment methods ready before the show. For cash transactions, make sure that you have sufficient change available. This works well for small items, like prints and calendars.

            The Square POS (point of sale) App is popular with many artists. You set up an account with Square and order the plug-in for your phone or a Square reader that accepts chip cards and contactless payments. On your computer, you can create a list of your inventory and even upload photos of your artworks to go with it, so when someone buys a particular piece, you can select it from the inventory and email a receipt to the buyer showing what they purchased.

            You can also use a card reader or mobile payment terminal with a company like PayPal. PayPal Zelle is another app that is linked to your bank account ahead of time and works via your cell phone. Customers can pay a customized invoice instantly, even if they don’t have a PayPal account.

            If you plan on using Venmo to take payments, make sure that you’re using a Venmo business account. You can create a business profile under an existing Venmo login and seamlessly switch from your personal profile to your business one. That’s the one you want to use at an art fair. The business profile will help you with tax reporting and disputes services.

            All these services have a transaction fee and that is the cost of doing business. When you price your artwork, keep these kinds of fees in mind. Each company has instructions for setting up an account with them online and can be found with a simple online search. Other payment methods, such as Apple Pay or Samsung Pay may also work well for you.

            Having several payment methods available will help you when you’re trying to run a credit card and your reader malfunctions. Most people are impatient to complete a transaction, even though buying an original artwork is not like buying a hot dog from a food truck. If you have not practiced by testing these methods ahead of time (send yourself $1.01 to test: lower amounts usually don’t work with credit cards), then you may lose a sale. It is best not to accept personal checks unless you know and trust the buyer.

            One problem with some of these methods is that you may not have much customer information on hand and previous customers are your best base for future sales. Find a way to get name, address, email, and phone number for at least the buyers of original works. With a quick Venmo transaction for a print, you may not have time to get all this data if your booth is busy and your customer is in a rush.

            Getting a sale is exciting, but if your skill set is in painting or sculpting, you may be nervous during a transaction. Take a deep breath and relax. The hardest part of the sale is getting your customer to decide to buy your artwork. Even though you may be shaking inside, make sure your alternate plan is in place if a credit card does not work with one of the payment methods. Appearing professional will make the right impression on a collector to encourage future purchases.

Before the Fair

            If you are participating in an outdoor fair, make sure that you have the requisite equipment (tent, wall panels, weights, furnishings) in good repair. Many indoor fairs may include a table and chairs, but still look at your furnishing needs for your booth. I built a custom table with a shelf and floor-length tablecloth to hold extra artwork and tools during a fair.

          Figure out how you will transport your artwork to the venue. Will you be shipping the entire show and need to make crates? Or will you need to rent a truck, van, or trailer to transport your work there in person? Do you need to reserve airline tickets and/or a car rental for the show?

          Arrange where you will stay during the event. Airbnb or Vrbo are good options to check well in advance, especially if you are staying for multiple nights. Otherwise, see if the fair has arrangements for discounted rates at nearby hotels. Heed the reviews for the place you plan to stay. I had booked a place that turned out to be unacceptable when seen in person. Searching for new lodgings right before the exhibition opening added extra stress to the experience.

          If you have pets that will be staying home when you’re out of town for the fair, plan for a pet or house sitter. It was fortunate that I had a dependable college student staying in our place for one of my shows, since a leak had developed under the kitchen sink. She cleaned up the flooding and turned off the water for the faucet. It would have been awful on our return if she had not called us and acted right away.

          If you have a job in addition to your art business, arrange to have leave during the time of the show. I had to ensure that the substitute for my college art classes had projects set up, so that my students could seamlessly continue their work while I was gone.

          It is always easier to do an art fair if two people work a booth, so see if a spouse or friend is free to tag along and help. Make clear what kind of compensation they will earn, if applicable.

          Are you registered for sales taxes in the state where the fair is taking place? Make sure that you’re informed on all the regulations that may affect your art sales.

         Does your art fair include insurance? If not, see what kind of liability insurance you may need to purchase before you can exhibit. Transit coverage can be useful in case the artwork is damaged while going to and from a fair.

          Review your wardrobe for the show. Do you need to purchase additional outfits to project a professional image?

          Assess your printing needs well in advance, so you can order reprints if a mistake is made. Have sufficient business cards for the entire show. Consider whether you want to have free postcards available. If so, that might cut into potential sales for small prints. Will you need to have a sign made for your booth? Look online at photos from previous fairs at your venue to see what kinds of signs fit in. Will you require scratch-off wall words or a more permanent sign? Double-check with the exhibitor’s manual to ensure that you follow the guidelines.

         If your artist website is an e-commerce site, confirm that the pricing matches what you will ask for at the fair. You don’t want your website to undercut your in-person sales and challenge your credibility. All the works you’re offering at the fair should also be on your website.

          Plan for your social media to help promote your participation in the fair. With Facebook Business Suite, you can schedule posts to your business page and your Instagram business page in advance. Find out if fair organizers are recommending specific hashtags and if they will retweet your tweets to help people find your booth. Send emails to your mailing list and include your booth number and links for free tickets for collectors. In spare moments during the fair, post photos of buyers with your art and images of your booth to your most active social media accounts so your fans can find you.

           Assemble a toolbox for helping you hang your work. It should include such things as a utility knife and blades, screwdriver, hanging hardware, hammer, level, pliers, microfiber cloths for wiping your artwork, packing tape, masking tape, stretch wrap, mounting tape for art labels, and red dot stickers. Pens, a black marker, a small container of paint and brushes for touching up frames and a calculator can also come in handy. A ladder is always a good idea.

            Create labels for each artwork. Will you include QR codes for each piece? Visitors to my booth did not use QR codes much when I tried them.

            How will you be collecting contact information for new fans? Will you be doing a giveaway of some sort? Having a special landing page on your website to help booth visitors sign up for your email list is useful. I use a tablet computer to encourage sign-ups, but also have a traditional fishbowl and pen and paper for dropping in business cards. A guestbook for comments is nice to have.

           Schedule an email for the visitors to your booth for the day after the fair to thank them for stopping by to meet you. Let them know how frequently they can expect a newsletter from you about your art developments and add the giveaway winner’s name right before it is sent.

           Assemble a folder with hard copies of paperwork for the fair. It should include certificates of authenticity for original artworks, sales contracts, your art resume, biography, and artist statement. I also have an explanation of the symbolism in my narrative artworks.

           Will you be using a computer during the fair? It can show a continuous PowerPoint presentation of your artwork, a video of you creating work, or show off your website and the works you could not fit into your booth. See if you need to pay an additional fee for an electric outlet in your booth. It is well worth it. Bring a power strip so you can charge your phone and computer simultaneously if needed. Is a good wi-fi connection included with your booth fee? If not, visit your cell phone carrier beforehand and find out how to set up a wi-fi hotspot.

            Plan the layout of your artwork in the booth. Your fair organizers may ask for your booth design a few months beforehand. If you need additional lights for your booth, it is usually less expensive to order them in advance.

            If you’re planning on hanging works Salon-Style, consider printing out small thumbnails of the pieces and arranging them in a scale drawing of your booth to confirm that everything will fit the way you expect. When I hung paintings in double rows, I created a full-scale template on Kraft paper of where each work should go. When I had to hang the show, I did not have to do more calculations to get even spacing. I tacked up the template with masking tape, hammered in the hanging hardware, and then removed it.

           Check the weather forecast before you pack. Besides appropriate clothes and comfortable shoes, remember to pack necessary prescription medications, glasses, toiletries, and an umbrella. Adding snacks that won’t be messy can help to keep hunger at bay during long show days.

Arriving at the Fair

            Usually, the set-up happens the day before the opening. Check in with the fair organizers and get a name tag or lanyard identifying you as exhibitor so that security will not question you going in and out of the venue with artwork and equipment.

            Find your booth space and make sure that everything you ordered is in place, such as an electrical outlet, table, chair, and spotlights. If you find something missing, swing by the fair organizer’s desk to put in a work order so it can be fixed as soon as possible.

            Find out if you need to get a special parking pass or if you must pay-as-you-go each day. See if there is a special lot for artists once the artwork is unloaded.

            If you’re working an outdoor fair, putting up your tent and wall panels will be challenging if you’ve never done it before. Make sure you have someone available to help.

            Then hang your show and show signage. Affix the wall labels next to each artwork. Set out your business card holder or lay your postcards on your table. Review how your booth looks and see if you’re ready for the crowds.

            Introduce yourself to the artists in the booths surrounding yours. If you have good rapport, you may be able to help each other out if one of you needs to step away briefly or loan each other tools that you might have forgotten.

At the Fair

           Try to arrive early enough to your booth that you can put out your print bin, set up your computer, and possibly have time to look around to see other artists’ work.

            Smile. Let people come into your booth, and if they seem interested, ask if you can answer any questions. Don’t spend your time engrossed with your mobile phone or appearing bored, since that puts off visitors.

            Looking professional helps you sell your luxury goods. Try to alternate watching your booth with your helper, so you won’t be stuffing your face while a potential buyer stops by.

            Encourage people who genuinely like your work to sign up for your mailing list.

            When conversing with visitors, identify whether the person is a potential customer or whether they are another artist trying to pick your brain about your art techniques. It may be fun to talk shop, but if it’s busy, limit such conversation so you can concentrate on more serious buyers.

            Smile some more. You will hear the same kinds of comments from multiple guests and have to repeat answers to “How many hours did it take you to paint this piece?” numerous times. Interacting with large numbers of the public can be invigorating if you’re getting many compliments. But it’s also draining. It is probably the antithesis of what it was like for you to create the artwork that’s on display. See if your helper can give you short breaks so you can stay fresh. When it comes to a collector wanting to make a purchase, they always want to talk to the artist in person, so don’t stay away long.

            Stay hydrated and try to have at least one decent meal for each day of the fair, so your energy won’t flag. Then repeat the process until it’s time to pack up.

After the fair

            Once the posted deadline for the fair is up, you may be surprised at how quickly artists can break down their booths. Crates, tools, and ladders are summoned, and the artwork is quickly wrapped and taken back to the various vehicles. If you participated in an indoor fair, make sure that you remove the mounting tape for your wall labels and any scratch-off signs, so fair organizers won’t charge you extra for not tidying up your space. Smaller vendors are expected to clear out the night that the show closes, while larger galleries continue to dismantle their booths the next day as well.

            Draw the name of the winner for your giveaway and notify them via an email. In your scheduled email to the fair visitors, take a moment to include the name and city of your winner, so that everyone knows that you did indeed honor your giveaway. Then send the prize when you get home.

             In the days after the fair, check your email regularly, even your spam folder. I made the mistake of missing an email from the fair organizers that told me about a potential buyer for one of my paintings. When I finally did follow up, she had purchased something else with her budget and I missed the sale.

             Use some of the photos you took of your booth and with visitors in your social media posts in the days after the event. Follow up with any emails from new fans or comments on Facebook or Instagram to see if you can close a sale for someone who was on the fence about a purchase.

             It is not unheard of to have a sale to someone who met you at the fair afterward when they have looked over your website. My biggest sale came from a collector who had bought a smaller painting in my booth and then called me a few weeks later to purchase my largest and most expensive painting from my website.

             Some collectors contact you so you can do a commissioned work since they like your style. In one instance, it has taken nine years from the time a couple purchased their first artwork to commissioning a custom piece. It helped that I saw them at other fairs in the meantime, so when they were ready, they got in touch.

             You may also hear from gallerists or art curators inviting you to participate in future exhibitions in the coming weeks.

             If you felt that the art fair was a success for your business, consider booking a booth for next year. As a repeat customer, you may be able to negotiate a better location or a discount if you do so right away.

            Assess what you learned from the experience. Do you need to adjust your artwork in terms of size or subject matter to attract more buyers in the future? Do you want to do art fairs in person, or are you more suited to working with a gallery to represent your art? Does doing outdoor fairs or just indoor ones work for you? Participating in an art fair is a big investment in energy and effort. I hope these tips will help you decide if it’s right for you.

Florida artist Kevin Grass specializes in realism paintings. His current body of work is called Lame Ducks and features humorous creations with rubber ducks. He has exhibited at the Red Dot and SPECTRUM Miami art fairs, at ArtExpo New York, at SPECTRUM Indian Wells, CA, and at a local art fair in his hometown of Tarpon Springs, Florida.