When I first started selling my jewelry there was only one real way start and that was at Art Fairs. Some people were starting email lists but the idea of an artist with a website was laughable. Amazingly, finding art fairs were almost all word of mouth. Artists would learn about fairs that were advertised in their area in newspaper, posters or from other artists.
The Internet changed this world. I know many artists who sell enough online that they never go to art fairs anymore. At the same time it is hard to resist the lure of being able to make $500 to $10,000 in a weekend versus over the whole year. These little boosts can make a huge difference in the bottom line for a year. But, do your research before you decide to participate in a fair. There are many hard and soft costs involved in doing an art fair.
The Kind of Fair
Before you select a fair you need to know your market. If you don’t know who buys from you, then don’t just starting signing up for fairs. Talk to your customers and do some research. Different fairs have different mentalities.
The first fair I ever did was in Colorado and was hosted at Colorado College. This art fair had a mixture of some very high end and some medium end items. It also allowed some venders that other fairs would not have allowed, such as people selling CD’s of their music. I did this fair for 2 years from 2003 to 2004 and did pretty well.
I also sold at the Community Art Fair next to the 57th Street Art in Chicago in 2005. This fair was much more high end compared to the one I did in Colorado. One of the big differences with the Community Art Fair was that many of the customers expected to use credit cards because so many of the items were so expensive.
In 2008 I did a horrible art fair, which was horrible for several reasons, but one reason was my items were not the right market. Most of the people who came were very hippy and could not afford my work. I had a similar experience at an art fair in Bloomington. Although I did well in the sales at the Bloomington fair the primary audience consisted of people who were part of hipster and alternative scenes, and once again they could not afford my work.
I have realized over the years that my main market is women in their mid 20s to early 40s with good incomes. They tend to be liberal but are mainstream liberal. I do not sell well in the pearls and diamond market or to high school kids. I also don’t sell well in markets that want an image of something like a heart, state or skill.
Location is important on two counts. Is your market there? What is the set up? Where I currently live in Portsmouth Ohio my market is very small. There are lots of Flea markets and other rummage sales but my market doesn’t attend those in large enough numbers.
Therefore, I need to find out if my market is in nearby locations. One thing I look for is large universities in the surrounding towns about 120 miles away. The people I tend to sell to live in university towns or in larger metro areas. If you know the income bracket that tends to buy from you, looking in the USA census can help you identify appropriate areas to look for fairs.
The physical set up of a location is really important. Is it in a nice convention center? Is the art fair outside? Is it located in an old warehouse with no parking? These are really important. Countless factors affect whether a customer, or the right customer, will show up. I always ask about parking, bathrooms, shade, rain protection, food, near main walking drags and access to ATMs. Depending on the location and the demographics some of these factors may be more important but in general they are all important. Another big issue with location is the cost.
When selling at an art fair there are always hard and soft costs. The hard costs are table fee, gas for transportation, renting fees (such as a table or table cloth), tents (if outside) and a hotel if the fair is far away from your home. Soft costs are loss of time during the fair, time spent preparing for the fair, sales that could be lost from online shops while at the fair and potential idea theft.
Some of these costs cannot be avoided such as a table fee and idea theft. Every fair has a table fee and the moment other artists see your work ideas they are likely to be borrowed. At the same time other costs can be minimized or even neutralized.
For example I only do indoor fairs now. I decided I don’t want to invest in a good tent and doing fairs indoors saves me that cost. In addition I have minimized costs because I try to sell at art fairs that are only 1 day. This way I save on transportation costs. I have noticed in general that I sell roughly the same amount at a one day fair that I sell at a multi day fair. I will only do a multi day fair if I have a free place to sleep and I try to avoid sales that start on Friday evening and go through Sunday. That is a rough weekend.
Another cost is the set up of the table. One way I have reduced the cost is that I use old books as risers. I don’t put the books on my table but I cover them with a large black velvet sheet. This way my table looks nice but I don’t have to drop 200 bucks on displays.
Some of your hard costs are continuing costs, such as buying display items. What I try to do is calculate all the hard costs and then determine a minimum amount that I need to meet in order to cancel out all my costs. So let’s say I have a $75 table fee, $10 to rent a table, and $15 for gas I need to make a minimum $300 to break even.
Choosing art fairs is hard. Do your research because if your market is not there or if the art fair is in a bad location you can lose some serious money. I have made these mistakes in the past and I try to learn from them. In addition, art fairs are really draining and it can take a few days to recover from them. My last recommendation is that if you have never done an art fair choose a small one with a less expensive table fee and work your way up.
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