Countless artists sell their work at outdoor arts festivals, fairs, and shows* each year. For some it is a sole source of income but for most it supplements income from other sources. Among these artists are some photographers and I am one of those. Over the past seven years I learned from people who are experts at doing arts festivals. I also learned by making some mistakes. Thanks to all of that I have made a reasonable profit selling my photographs, but doing it was much harder than I ever thought it would be. This essay contains a lot that I wish I had known before starting.
Depending on whom you ask, sales of photography at outdoor venues in 2015 were between 40% and 80% lower than they were before the Great Recession. Of course that's a big range, there are exceptions, and those numbers were not scientifically determined, but you get the general idea. Lots of people used to make lots of money at these shows, but for most except jewelers that is no longer the case. The huge and continuing proliferation of digital photography** further depresses prices, making it even harder for photographers to make a decent profit.
The big problem is that sales need to at least pay for all costs and those costs increased substantially as sales declined. Among other things costs include time spent making prints, preparing for shows, and working at shows, in addition to materials, jury fees, booth fees, amortized equipment expenses, and insurance. If significant travel is involved, hotel, travel time, mileage, and meal expenses must also be included. Many artists fool themselves into thinking they make a good profit by considering only their cost of materials and neglecting other much larger expenses. The value of time is perhaps the most widely neglected of these. The time invested in all aspects of doing a few summer shows amounts to a lot of money even at minimum wage. The bottom line is that you need to sell many prints at a good price to make outdoor art shows financially worthwhile, and doing that is now harder than ever.
To get started you need a tent, display panels, print racks, and a sizeable inventory of prints. All of that will cost several thousand dollars. Exact numbers can vary quite a bit, but somewhere around $4000 and up is in the right ballpark. Perhaps you already have a large vehicle capable of carrying everything to the shows. If not you will need to rent a van or trailer, or get a larger vehicle that will get lower gasoline mileage all year long. Either way it adds to the cost of each show. The good news is that you will sell more photographs in less time at these outdoor shows than at any other venue. The bad news is that "more" does not necessarily mean "enough".
Nearly every show has an associated jury fee and booth fee. The jury fee pays a panel of experts who judge the work of each artist to determine who gets into the show and who does not. Jury fees vary but generally range between $15 and $50. They are not refundable. The booth fee is what you pay to rent a 10’x10’ piece of ground to put your tent on if a jury accepts you into a show. Booth fees vary widely too, but seem roughly based on the length and quality of a show. For example a three day show will typically cost much more than a comparable one day show. You can usually count on paying between $25 to $30 per hour for each hour the show is open to the public. In general shows with lower fees have lower sales. That is not always true, but shows with low fees and great sales are rare exceptions. Shows with high fees and low sales are more common, but as with most things you usually get what you pay for. Booth and jury fees are paid months ahead of the actual event and are not refundable after a stated date, which is often a month or so before the show. If that date passes and you skip the show because the weather is horrible, your work may get ruined, and nothing will sell due to bad turnout, not only will you lose the booth fee but most shows will ban you from future events. Show promoters do not want empty spaces at their shows even if it means the artists will likely have damaged work and low sales if they participate. There is nothing quite like setting up a tent and a display of your work that is easily damaged by water in the pouring rain, all the while knowing almost nothing will sell.
Pricing your work is difficult, and important enough to lose a little sleep over. I can’t tell you how much your work should cost, but there are a few important concepts I can share:
• Consider how similar work at similar venues in the same region is priced. Attend lots of shows, get a large overview of the prices, and don’t consider those that are exceptionally low or high.
• Be realistic. I have seen very nice 11x17 inch (mat dimension) matted prints priced at $35 and very nice and 11x11 inch (mat dimension) matted prints priced at $150. In my opinion neither of these prices is realistic. The person with the $35 prints is giving away his time and talent. In fact it is probably costing him money to sell his prints. His tent and display equipment are among the best available and look new. Further, he was not selling many prints, probably because the dirt cheap price gives an impression that the artist doesn’t value his own work and the prints must somehow be inferior or shoddy, even though they are not. The tiny amount he can make on each one cannot add up to enough to pay the show fees, much less pay for a day of his time and the labor involved in creating the prints. The person selling the smaller $150 prints was at a more prestigious show and had a very impressive resume’, but he sold literally nothing. That’s probably because people perceived the price as a rip-off for the small prints.
• Your work should always have the same price everywhere it is sold, regardless of venue. Charging different prices based on the different fees or commissions you must pay at different venues is a suicidal business practice. When (not if) customers find your work for sale at a lower price than they paid somewhere else, they will rightfully be unhappy. If your work is to be regarded by yourself and others as something special and unique as opposed to a cheap discount store commodity, the pricing must be stable. Otherwise those who like your work will put off buying and wait for a sale or venue with a better price. When (not if) a gallery owner finds out that you charge less for your work at outdoor events than you do at that gallery, they will rightfully be unhappy and ought to kick you out of their gallery. Would you promote someone's work only to have people go elsewhere to buy it? It is your responsibility to price your work low enough to sell and high enough to make a profit at your most expensive venues. If you need to raise your prices in order to realize a profit at a venue that charges high fees, raise them everywhere your work is sold from then on or do not participate in the expensive venue. This is a very fine balancing act and one that deserves careful consideration.
• In general your prices should never decrease. If your prices decrease those who paid the higher price will definitely be upset. It’s best to start low, but not so low that you can’t make money, and then increase prices very gradually and carefully until you find your proper place in the market. That can take years, but if you stick with it long enough you will definitely find it. Again, it’s a balancing act, and it’s very important to realize your true costs of doing business. Without knowing your true all-inclusive costs you cannot know whether you are making or losing money. Also realize that, as the saying goes, “time is money”.
• Volume, not cost, is the advantage of selling at outdoor arts festivals. You might begrudge paying high commissions at a gallery, but when you consider air conditioning, heating, light, and sales staff expenses, plus the promotional benefits and all of the work you don’t need to do, it is a real bargain. If you think your total cost of sales at outdoor venues is lower than a gallery commission you do not realize what your true all inclusive costs are, or you put no value on the hours of time and effort expended.
• I should also mention that if you make a sale to someone outside of a gallery that is due to that person having seen your work in the gallery, you owe the gallery their rightful commission on the sale. Not doing so is theft of the gallery's investment of effort. If you don't want to pay gallery commissions you should not exhibit your work in one.
Weather is the biggest problem you will encounter at outdoor shows. Bad weather keeps people at home where they cannot see or purchase your photographs. Gloomy or rainy weather can easily make the difference between a earning a good profit and not being able to cover your expenses with proceeds from the show. Beyond rain and gloom, everyone will eventually deal with a severe storm. Photographs and mat board do not tolerate water so the loss of some loss of artwork, or loss of everything if your tent blows over, is a very real possibility. Keep your tent in good shape. Be sure to have heavy duty stakes and rope to hold it down on grass and heavy weights to hold it down on pavement. Multiple day shows demand leaving your tent and artwork set up overnight since taking it all down and hauling it home each night is impractical. Take every possible precaution to secure and protect everything you can from overnight storms. Shows always have security to prevent theft, but police and guards will do nothing to protect your prints from a tent that leaks or one that is not securely anchored. Insurance to cover material losses is a must, but even with insurance it will take months to recreate and repurchase everything if you get wiped out. Liability insurance to cover those injured by your tent when it blows over because you did not stake it down is also necessary. Insurance is just another thing you need to buy before making back your first dollar.
To illustrate what I have described so far, suppose you participate in a three day show at which the jury and booth fees amount to $500. Such a show is probably open to the public for about 20 hours. With setup, tear down, and opening and closing on the second day you will be there for about 28 hours. Further suppose your materials cost is 25% of your selling price and the hours of skilled labor it took to mat, frame, and create your prints is worth the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. Likewise, suppose you need minimum wage for the 28 hours you will spend working at the show. With these assumptions you must sell roughly $1200 to make minimum wage, and that assumes your images cost nothing to obtain and have no value beyond the materials and labor used to make the prints! On top of that we have not addressed paying back your initial investment, show related travel expenses, or other costs like insurance, and we have assumed you do everything yourself without a helper. Are you starting to see my point? It is difficult to sell enough prints at high enough prices to make this scenario truly viable. Financially you would be better off flipping burgers at a fast food restaurant for than selling $1200 in three days at a show like the one I have described. Unless you made this investment of money, time, and effort to buy yourself a part-time minimum wage job, you need to do significantly better.
Some say you can start off with a dozen or so of your best prints. That's true, but more unique prints mean more sales. Offering 100 different prints is not too many, and more is better. In addition to offering a variety of images, having a variety of sizes and price points will also produce more sales. Offering small matted prints in bags for the buyer to frame and displaying the most popular pieces as larger framed versions provides appealing choices to a variety of different buyers. It’s obvious that more prints for people to look at will increase the odds that any given person will find something they want to purchase. On the other hand inventory is expensive and keeping your costs as low as possible without sacrificing quality is difficult.
Doing all aspects of the printing, matting, and framing operations yourself using premium materials can lower your costs significantly while maintaining high quality standards, but it will immensely increase your investment in equipment, education, and time. This can be done to various extents, from creating a professional frame shop to assembling pre-cut pieces. The further you go the higher your initial investments will be, the more you will save in the long term, and the more room you will need to do it. Do not underestimate the amount of space it takes to handle and cut large pieces of glass, mat board, and mounting materials, store raw sheets of these in small but economical volumes, on top of space to do large format printing and store those materials.
Quality, quality, quality. Have I mentioned quality? High quality standards show pride in your work and are appealing to everyone. There are far too many people competing to sell poorly presented artwork that is poorly constructed and produced with the cheapest materials at the lowest possible price. The only way to avoid being one of them is to do things differently. That requires learning how to properly mat a print using the right materials. It is common to see artistically good prints that are stuck to the back of a window mat with a strip of tape across the top and have a flimsy paper backing that is held to the rest only by the clear bag it is sold in. There's no mechanical strength, the print will eventually warp because it's improperly mounted, and the whole experience of removing it from the bag screams "this is just crap!". Quality should be built into your prints and that should be obvious even if someone takes apart your frames and mats. The way your prints are made and displayed should convey a message that this is high quality work that is worth its price. Art shows are not the place to display prints as if they were on sale at a discount store. The buyers you want in your booth are picky and if you expect them to purchase anything you need to be pickier. The greatest prints on earth will not cause anyone to overlook awkwardly proportioned mat borders, hooked or overcut mat corners, poorly chosen mat colors, scratched frames, shoddy construction, or other problems. These things are a nasty red spaghetti sauce stain on the front of a white suit, not a skipped stitch in an imperfect pair of undershorts. Any issue bad enough to notice at the show or after a buyer gets the print home is too bad to display or sell. This does not mean you need to put a $500 frame around every print you display or install a marble floor in your tent, but nothing should be chintzy or look like it came from a second hand store. Everything in your tent should be should be clean, orderly, and professional. The artistic qualities of your prints should also be top notch, but that is a subjective matter that I will not address here. It has a big effect on sales so only display prints that meet your highest artistic standards. What I have said about quality extends to everything you sell, from the largest and most expensive framed print to the smallest and least expensive matted and bagged print. The quality represented by every item, large or small, reflects on all of the others.
You should realize that when it comes to art shows the artist is always the lowest person on the totem pole. They are the first who must spend time and money and the last to be paid, if they are paid. Materials, equipment, jury fees and booth fees must be paid months in advance. Then the artist can only hope a show is well promoted, the weather will allow a big turnout, and people will buy what is offered. If everything happens as it should the artist might make back all that was invested in addition to a profit. If anything goes haywire everyone except the artist will still make money, and that money comes from the artists. Basically, the artists who participate in these venues absorb the risks, and those risks are significant.
Choose the shows you participate in wisely. It is always best to attend any show you consider before applying, and apply only to those you find impressive. In addition to affluent art lovers the best shows are often attended by gallery owners and others who may provide you with further opportunities. Shows with low quality and low prices are attended mostly by bargain hunters who will not pay a reasonable price for your high quality items. These shows are not worth your participation.
There are quite a few shows that are “juried” by people who are not artists, and who accept any work that will not offend people. These juries are usually composed of local Chamber of Commerce members whose goal is selling the maximum number of booth spaces. The art is just an inconvenient detail, and as long as there are artists willing to pay nothing will change. Such shows attract quite a few artists who can’t get into other shows. They also attract attendees who expect rock bottom prices or have run out of garage sales to rummage through. Others attend to eat carnival food, walk around, and browse for bargains at the art show and in nearby shops. There are always a few good artists at these shows, but you will find that they typically do not return after a season or two. Details like these are never publicized but the results are always apparent in the overall quality of any show. It pays to notice before you apply. High quality shows are worth the price of admission and low quality shows never are, even if admission is cheap.
In addition to the generalities I have already discussed there are many small details that may not be immediately obvious. Here are the first ten I can think of in no particular order:
1. Indiscriminately giving out business cards and otherwise advertising your website at these shows will reduce sales. Providing business cards and your website URL tells everyone that there is no reason to purchase now. They can make contact later, after giving the decision more thought, maybe, if they remember, sometime, possibly. The fact is, if someone leaves your booth without making a purchase it is extremely unlikely that they will ever buy something. Give cards only to those who ask. Optimistically you will hear back from a few percent of those who ask for a card and perhaps half of those you hear from will eventually buy something. If they purchase after the show you need to worry about how to get your prints to the customer. If the sale is small it is often not worth the extra time involved. Regardless, anyone not interested enough to ask for a card is definitely not interested enough to purchase. On the other hand it is a good idea to put a business card in the bag of anyone who makes a purchase, whether or not they ask for one. Letting everyone freely take cards from a stack will cost more in cards than you will ever gain from them in sales.
2. During these shows your camera will receive countless
compliments for taking
such nice pictures.
3. Some people will leaf through the small prints in your print racks without seeing a single one because they do it while looking at and talking to the person they are with. Really. Others will quickly view random prints in a rack without looking at any of the ones in between, as if they must all be the same. This is always done quickly, and you will never have any idea why they came into your tent or bothered pretending to look at your prints.
4. Parents will often bring children with candy covered fingers into your tent. The children will always be fascinated with your photographs, especially the matted and bagged prints. These parents will never buy anything, but they will stay a long time to make up for it. In the meantime other potential customers want to look at your prints but give up because the kids take so long rooting through them. Damp paper towels will clean up most of the mess, but you may also need a dash of ammonia-free glass cleaner to cut grease on the clear bags. Be sure to inspect the matted prints for damage while you are cleaning.
5. Sales at any given venue tend to increase after a few years of participation. I was told this by a gallery owner but did not quite believe it until I experienced it at several shows. It’s as if people want to know that you’re in for the long haul before they invest in your work. Whatever the reason, it seems to be true.
6. Cardboard boxes are a great way to carry and organize things until they turn into paper mâché when it rains.
7. Set up your tent for the first time at home so you know how to do it. Make sure you have all of the parts, including those you need that do not come with the tent, like stakes, weights, rope, and the like.
8. Don't forget tools. At minimum you need a claw hammer, a good set of pliers, a cheap all-purpose knife like a box cutter, and a couple screw drivers. Throw in a roll of packing tape too. Too many tools are better than not enough. Just trust me on this.
9. You need a chair. The high “director’s chairs” that put you at eye level with customers will save you from continually standing to talk with people. After ten hours or so you'll be much less tired if you have one of these.
10. You need a table, but in a 10'x10' tent along with everything else it has to be quite small. A table provides a surface for completing transactions, it can be a good place to display a small print or two, and with the usual table cloth the space below it becomes an out of the way spot to store stuff in your tiny gallery. All sorts of custom display equipment and furniture is available, but it is expensive and the basics will get you off to a good start.
Even if you do well, from a purely financial perspective doing nearly anything else will earn you more money more easily with a smaller initial investment than selling your photographs at outdoor arts festivals. If your primary goal is financial you should find something else to do. But, if you think creating art is its own reward, you want to share your work, and you would like to sell some of it so you can create more, outdoor art shows might be a good choice. Likewise, if you want to get involved in the local arts community, participating in these shows may be a good start. Just remember that selling your work at prices that do not account for the time spent producing prints and working at shows in addition to paying for the materials and equipment you use helps make starving artists of those who need to survive from their work, it hurts the local arts community, and does you no good either. If you truly want to give away your time there are many better causes that could use it. It is obvious that the huge investment of time is what makes realizing any profit difficult. On top of that, selling your work at outdoor art festivals is not something that can be easily tried on for size. Getting started takes a significant initial investment. Deciding it’s not for you leaves you with a bunch of hard to sell display equipment and more prints than you could give to family and friends in several lifetimes.
The most important thing I can possibly say here is that turning something you are passionate about into a job is often a good way ruin a passion. Selling your work has nothing to do with photography or whatever you may love about it. Will you continue photographing what you are most passionate about if it does not sell, or will sales take control of what you photograph? Can you remain passionate about producing countless small prints? Those will be your bread and butter. Making lots of them can be quite similar to turning out widgets in a factory. Lastly, ask yourself "Why am I doing this?". You need some very good reasons beyond money to make it worthwhile. Only you can answer questions like these, and you owe it to yourself to think about them before diving in.
Good luck, and if you decide to do it, happy selling.
* Terminology: Arts festivals, fairs, and shows are all events where various art forms like painting, sculpture, and photography are displayed and sold. That and perhaps some food vendors are about all you’ll find at an arts fair or show. An arts “festival” typically has a more celebratory mood and draws more people by incorporating live performances of music or dance, wine tasting, and other ancillary events. Artists sell more at major arts festivals than they do at smaller art fairs or shows, but beyond that participating in any of these is the same. For the purposes of this essay they all mean the same thing.
** Today everyone has a camera in their cell phone and everyone is a photographer. Most do not realize photos that look great on Facebook often usually look terrible in prints larger than snapshot size or that it takes specialized equipment create certain kinds of photographs. Even good photographers with good equipment can overlook the fact that most photographic situations are not repeatable and that capturing a great photograph gets you less than half way to a great print. Sending files to a lab never produces the best possible results, but it’s the best you’ll get unless you master print making and buy some expensive equipment plus different papers that are best suited to the look of different images and your personal preferences. It takes years to develop true expertise in printing. Then we come to matting and framing. Regardless, many think they can create your prints themselves even though very few actually can and even fewer will ever try. Regardless, this notion keeps some from buying photography. Ironically the same people seem to realize that they can't create a great painting.