With Spring comes art shows, art fairs, and conventions. If you’re considering taking the plunge and purchasing exhibit space to either sell your work or promote what you do, here are a few tips.
• Prepare. Don’t put everything off to the last minute. Research the type of venue you’ll be showing at and the space you’ll be setting up in. Ask questions of the organizers if their information packet/website doesn’t include everything you’d like to know. If they don’t mention state or municipal laws for sales tax, definitely insist on some clarity. How are you planning to take money: cash only, checks, credit cards? Do you need electricity or a phone line? Is there free WiFi available? Questions, questions, questions: there’s no way to know the answers unless you ask. • Make a list of what you’re taking that you can also use to keep track of your sales. Never assume that the venue will have everything you need to display your wares—or, if it does, that it’s free. Booths usually consist of the space, a table, and some chairs: everything else is on you. Plan on bringing tape, clips, hangers, lights, or whatever you may need to set up.
• Figure out a budget for your expenses. Transportation, hotel, food, price of space, cost of goods: it all add up.
Above: The design for the Spectrum booth at SDCCI. Below is a slight variation.
• Design your space. You’re artists: plan on making a visual statement. You want to quickly intrigue the people walking by your space, make them want to stop and look (and hopefully make a purchase). How are you going to display your originals? How are you going to display your prints? Banners, special pop up booths, and all manner of trade-show display options at all levels of prices are available for purchase or rent: anything that you do to help your work stand out is a plus. You don’t have to spend a fortune, but you do want to make an impression—and make your space easy to remember if customers want to return with money in hand. • If you’re going to sell originals, prints, books, T-shirts, what-have-you, start framing, printing, or ordering with the understanding that things usually take longer to produce than planned. It’s not a crime to get things done early.
• If you don’t have a business card, get some! Not all purchases are made at a show: many happen days or weeks (or sometimes months) later as one patron or another can’t get a piece they saw at an event out of their minds. One exhibitor at Spectrum Fantastic Art Live last year sold a painting he had displayed at the show two months later for a high four-figure sum to someone that had seen it there. If the customer hadn’t known how to get in touch with the artist, the sale might not have taken place.
• Decide how you’re going to get your stuff to the venue and, if you’re shipping to and from, make sure you allow enough time to ensure that your material arrives at the event on time. Also make sure that anything you send is packaged tighter than a brick privy: ask Dan Dos Santos about the condition of a wooden crate he sent to San Diego a few years ago. • Let your fans and potential patrons know where you’re going to be and what you’re going to be selling. Do not assume that everyone knows everything; do not put all the responsibility of bringing buyers to your space on the event organizers (they’re usually worried about all sorts of other things, not just about whether you personally have a profitable show or not). You know your customers and clients better than anyone else: use your website, Facebook page, Twitter feed et al to let them know that you’ll be at a particular convention, open for business.
• Plan on selling items at a variety of price-points and not place all your hopes on selling one piece for $10,000 to turn a profit. Selling 50 sketchbooks at $20@ fetches a tidy $1000: not a bad wage for a day’s work. As I always tell artists, people are comfortable spending $20—$100 on things that “like” without too much difficulty, but when it comes to writing a check for a number followed by a batch of zeroes, they have to “love” something. “Love” doesn’t happen often, especially when it comes to art. Budget with the expectation of people “liking” you; if “love” happens along the way, feel warm and fuzzy (and buy your neighboring artists a beer after the show closes for the day).
Above: Donato does a great job of branding his space at shows.
• Be personable. You don’t have to sing and dance, but you need to interact with potential customers. They’re there to see you and to some, meeting you will be one of the highlights of their year. Talk to folks as they pass, say hello and engage them without being pushy. People might ask questions, sometimes clumsily and sometimes not particularly coherently, and they’ll sometimes relate their own stories regarding your art. Be polite, give every visitor to your space equal time, disengage nicely as needed, and let everyone know you’re happy to answer their queries. Joe DeVito recently described his experience exhibiting at an Edgar Rice Burroughs convention. One attendee returned to his space several times without buying anything and was rather quiet and fairly shy; Joe engaged him in brief chit-chat every time the guy appeared at his booth, just out of politeness without expectations of selling anything. The final day of a slow show, the attendee again appeared at Joe’s booth…and bought everything. Paintings, drawings, several bronze statues—and he commissioned Joe to do a painting. Being nice paid off.
Above: Tara McPherson meeting a fan.
• Be prepared to man your space. Everybody needs to take time to hit the loo or grab a bite to eat or sit on a panel during an event, but you should plan on spending a lot of time in your booth, selling work and meeting fans. That’s what you paid to do, right? Nothing disappoints and frustrates attendees more than visiting a booth in which the artist is rarely if ever there. Also…it’s really unfair to your exhibiting neighbors to expect them to watch your space, sell your goods, and make sure nothing walks off while you’re wandering about or sitting outside smoking. When you gotta go, you gotta go—but make it infrequent and readily reciprocate your neighbors’ kindness.
Above: Rebecca Guay uses over-sized banners to catch people’s attention.
• Be a pro. Everybody likes to have a good time, particularly when they’re among friends and the after hours booze is flowing—but don’t party so much that it affects your ability to run your booth properly and interact with potential customers. And remember that everybody you encounter at a show is a potential customer or client and they’ll remember everything they see and hear (and with camera phones these days, snap embarrassing pix or video and post them to the internet). In other words, keep your pants on when in public, don’t get into fisticuffs, and don’t barf in the shrubbery (at least when people are watching). Definitely socialize and network after hours—get the most you can out of the opportunities being offered. Chatting with fans can lead to commissions; networking with your fellow artists and art directors may lead to new work. But plan to be ready to go every morning when the show opens, if not exactly bright-eyed at least not severely hung-over.
These are just some basic tips. There are others, of course, including those listed at this website, but much has to be learned through trial and error. You never know whether seeling at art shows/fairs/cons are for you until you try. If anyone else has some experiences or suggestions that will help make exhibiting at a show smoother, please chime in.
Arnie Fenner has worn a number of hats in his career, sometimes several at once. He was a Senior Artist for Hallmark Cards for 19 years, and for the last 14 has been the Senior Art Director for Andrews McMeel Publishing (part of Universal Press Syndicate).
While working in the corporate world, he has also (as time permitted) been a junior partner in the Jankus/Tiber advertising agency, served as art director for Mark Ziesing Books, been a small press publisher (of both books and magazines), and worked as a freelance illustrator and designer.
Fenner has produced many CD and book covers over the years for titles by everyone from Stephen King to Harlan Ellison to Bob Dylan to R.E.M.; he's received medals from the Society of Illustrators, certificates from Communication Arts, and two World Fantasy Awards. He collaborates with his wife, Cathy Fenner, on a wide variety of art books (including retrospectives devoted to Frank Frazetta, Dave Stevens, and Robert McGinnis among others) and the annual SPECTRUM: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art.