Art Festivals: Alternative Exhibition Opportunities for the [Fine Art] Photographer

My spread at Art Under the Umbrellas. La Quinta, California

My spread at Art Under the Umbrellas. La Quinta, California

This article was written for photographers (and other artists) who seek exhibition and sales opportunities beyond the conventional art gallery model. If you are not a photographer/artist; if you would not consider yourself a “people person”; and/or you have no desire to meet, talk with, and sell directly to potential patrons of your work, this article is probably not for you. Some background in sales and customer service would generally be considered helpful in these environments.

This article is not intended as an exhaustive treatise on how to make, curate, print, finish, exhibit, and sell your work (there are links to good resources later in this article), although it does assume that its readers have had some previous experience with all of the above. I cannot recommend that you start applying to Art Festivals without having at least some of this experience – your bank account and pride may be harmed.

This article addresses only juried Art Festivals (or “Fine Art Festivals” or “art shows”); it does not discuss nor offer advice on showing your work in art & craft shows, craft shows, restaurants, coffee shops, or conventional art galleries. With art festivals, your work should be strong and well presented in order to make it past the jury and onto the festival grounds.

Some background….I have been showing my work in a handful of art festivals in southern California for approximately six years. Some artists travel “the circuit” and follow top-selling festivals around the U.S., often exhibiting in upward of 20-30 festivals per year. That’s not a pace or style I can handle, so I choose to exhibit in only a handful of festivals where I think my work fits best (and where I have had previous successes). I generally exhibit at a festival 1-2 times before ruling it out as not-the-best-market-for-my-work (some markets/venues may be a better fit for your work than others). As an example, if it’s a festival on or near the coast, my black and white desert landscape photography is not likely to perform near as well as colorful seascapes. Consider the location and market when choosing festivals and curating your work for them.

I enjoy showing in fine art festivals because hundreds if not thousands of eyes land on my work during 1-3 day shows. The venues are often quite beautiful and the weather is often radiant (show dates are always carefully chosen!). Good live music, beautiful weather, and superb art make sales very possible.

I greatly enjoy meeting and talking with potential patrons about my art. After the show closes, I often deliver directly to patron homes works they have purchased at the festival. My photographs are routinely placed in stunning showcase homes, and they are often hung alongside other beautiful works of non-photographic art or sculptures – seeing this makes this particular photographic artist rather proud.

What is an Art Festival or Fine Art Festival?
Art Festivals take place across the United States and abroad throughout most of the year. These are typically “pop-up” events which take place in parks, sporting venues, city streets, or anywhere that offers good weather and is conducive to hosting thousands of patrons and 100-200+ artists, and their displays, representing various media (oils/acrylics; watercolor; sculpture; photography; textiles; et al). These are festive and jovial events which typically offer many superb artists, live music, food/beverage, and a wonderful atmosphere conducive to studying, talking about, and selling art. While many festivals are free, I prefer to show my work in festivals with entrance fees (entrance fees discourage lookie-loo’s). Art festivals are often attended by patrons as a tradition; many return each year with distinct plans to purchase something to take home with them. If they have seen your work before and like it – and they return each year – you may eventually make a sale to a patron of tradition. Many patrons arrive with measurements and distinct ideas about the kind of color/form they want – they have a specific space to fill and they have come to buy something!

I show my work directly in markets where I think the fit is best – for example, exhibiting desert landscape photography in desert communities. Artists typically pay a low application fee, a moderate booth/space fee, and commissions on sales (all proceeds from some festivals go directly to charities) are sometimes non-existent and/or significantly lower than the traditional gallery model (typically 50% commission). You get to keep much more of your own money than in a traditional 50/50 split, but you also invest a lot more effort to get your work sold (and why wouldn’t you be interested in selling your work?).

Why would I show my work at Art Festivals? What’s wrong with conventional art galleries?
If you’re like many (most?) nature/landscape photographers, your submissions to brick and mortar galleries in recent years have likely resulted only in rejection notices. All of the galleries that once represented my work did not make it through America’s Great Recession. Further, for many artists, having gallery representation is often better for the Curriculum Vitae than it is for actual sales. Many galleries that exist today still struggle with sales and they typically only serve an elite market who potentially have no interest in or connection to nature and landscape photography.

It was once suggested to me that during an ordinary four week gallery exhibition, 80% or better of the total exhibition sales typically occurred during the opening reception (a few hours in one night). If you have recently attended an exhibition opening, you’d likely concur that only 200-300 persons (other artists and photographers?) turned out [for the wine & cheese?]. Have you ever walked into a gallery at 4:30pm on a Wednesday? I’ll bet that no one other than the sales rep or gallery owner was likely present. During any art festival, (permitting for typical ebb and flow in traffic) there is a fairly constant stream of bodies throughout the duration of the festival. Again, this typically amounts to hundreds if not thousands of eyes seeing your work during the entire show – that’s a lot of eyes in a short span of time.

Don’t art festivals require a lot of commitment and cost?
It’s assumed that you’re still reading this because you want to sell your work. Who else is better qualified to talk about and sell it than you? Starting out with art festivals is not unlike starting out with digital photography. You’ll have some large upfront costs (printing; finishing; establishing inventory; buying your booth/panels and all related exhibition materials [truck, cargo trailer; etc.]), a not-so-terrible learning curve, and then lots of refinement once you learn the festival ropes, your tools, and your goals. Once you’ve sunk your upfront costs, you’ll only be paying for festival application fees (a very minor expense), booth/space fees, and costs related to travel to and from the event.

Don’t some artists return home from festivals empty handed?
Not every artist makes a sale at every festival – you roll the dice and take your chances. You can lose hundreds of dollars on one festival and make thousands in profits on the very next – there is often little rhyme or reason. Just remember that you stand NO chance of sales if your work is not being seen. Festivals provide an innumerable number of eyes for your work. How well it actually sells depends upon the content and presentation and how well it is received by that particular festival audience on that day (and upon how engaging your discourse is with patrons!).

What’s wrong with “Craft Shows” or “Art & Craft Shows”?
Potentially nothing. However, most craft shows are not juried; there are typically no entrance fees; and you could find yourself sandwiched between a kettle corn booth, Popsicle stick art, and a crafty doily vendor only to be left wondering why you cannot sell a $50 print. Because I make and sell art, “craft shows” are not an avenue I desire to set my shop upon. You will determine what works best for you and your work.

How do I find Art Festivals?
You can likely already name a few art festivals that take place near you, but I’d recommend an exhaustive study so that you can hone in on the very best (or the very best market for you and your work). Google to find festivals near you or check out www.CraftMasterNews.com, www.ArtFairSourcebook.com, or www.SunshineArtist.com. I recommend that your first check out a show as a patron to get a feel for the venue and crowd. Take the time to talk with a few artists (only when they are not talking with potential buyers!) to see what knowledge they might be willing to offer you regarding the show. There is no right or wrong show; there is only your gut feeling and how that audience will respond to your work once you put it in front of them. You ultimately have to determine which shows are best for you in the context of your own art and abilities.

How much inventory will I need?
Typical booth sizes at most festivals are either 10×10’ or 12×12’. Artists can also buy double or larger booth spreads (which obviously increases your total booth fees). I recommend that you start small (one booth) and grow as needed. Unless you are selling doilies or kettle corn, you’ll probably require much less inventory than you think. I typically hang about 14-16 finished pieces of varying sizes in a 12×12’ booth and do not keep excess inventory on hand. I show a few large pieces and numerous medium-sized pieces – nothing small. You will be able to fit many more pieces into your booth if you choose to show smaller work in a more tightly packed space.

What about booth aesthetics/presentation?
Consider your presentation well and show only your best work and/or work that has previously performed well. I try to create an inviting environment that draws patrons in, attempting to create a gallery-like atmosphere instead of pawn-shop. In other words, a clean and tight presentation with no clutter, good breathing space on the walls, and a well-curated selection of art. Consider showing your work in themes/collections rather than a hodge-podge assortment of your Best Of.

Where do I learn about tents/canopies, walls/panels, and other related exhibition materials?
Most artists use tents/canopies from Flourish (I highly recommend the TrimLine Canopy!), Light-Dome, or some sort of EZ-Up style pop-up tent. If you will be doing shows in inclement weather and/or windy environments, I highly recommend you stick with a heavier-duty tent/canopy. The better your setup, the less catastrophic the outcome when a ravaging windstorm lands unexpectedly on the venue (check out this video!!).

ProPanels is the typical wall of choice. You can also find used tents and walls at often significant discounts on the Pro Panels Trading Post.

What other art festival education resources can you recommend?
Printmaking artist Maria Arango has written a wonderfully helpful guide for exhibiting artists (published 2007) entitled Art Festival Guide – The Artist’s Guide to Selling in Art Festivals. Whatever it is, if I excluded it in this article she likely has it covered in her book. I cannot recommend this book enough!

Bruce Baker offers helpful CD’s: “Your Slides and the Jury”, “Booth Design & Merchandising for Craft and Trade Shows”, and “Dynamic Sales and Customer Service Techniques”. I recommend that you buy the entire three CD set. If you are not a born marketer or salesperson, you will find Baker’s CD’s immensely helpful to selling your work.

The Life As An Itinerant Artist blog by Jim Parker offers helpful ideas from an artist that does a lot of shows.

I have not watched it, but this one hour and 45 minute YouTube video (How To Successfully Sell Pictures at Art Festivals and Fairs) from B&H Photo looks helpful.

The Art Show Photo Facebook page hosted by Larry Berman may be helpful to you.

I hope that this article was helpful! Please let me know if I’ve excluded anything of importance. I wish you the very best with exhibiting your own work in fine art festivals!

I’ll be exhibiting next at the Beverly Hills Art Show on May 16-17, 2015 (#201). Come on out and say hello!

You are visiting the blog of fine art landscape photographer Michael E. Gordon. For additional photos and information, please visit his official website. You can also find Michael on FacebookGoogle+, and  Twitter.

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5 thoughts on “Art Festivals: Alternative Exhibition Opportunities for the [Fine Art] Photographer

  1. This is a very helpful piece, Michael. I’m definitely not at the point yet where I’d use it directly, but it’s still good food for thought and helpful to get a sense of what options are out there for sales.

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