Selling Photography at Art Fairs: Getting Started

I mentioned last time that I was starting to work the art fair circuit in my region, the southeast USA. Before I dive into the details of building my booth, and what has and has not worked there, I would like to take a step back and talk about art shows as a whole, and what you need to get started. The idea is to come out of this post with a good idea of what it would take to start selling photography at art shows, and what needs to be invested before you can make a profit. Here’s my working list for this endeavor.

Prints and other stuff to sell:

Obviously, you need something to offer your potential customers. I’ve been told that the big prints are what draw customers in to purchase the smaller items. So your big prints should have that oomph necessary to make someone want to look closer, and perhaps walk out with a lighter wallet. You can’t expect everyone that walks in and likes your work to be prepared to drop a few Benjamins on your big prints. Different sizes, matting and framing objects, and print styles are key. I have some cool, large scale images made up of a grid of 4×6 prints. I price them lower than similarly sized individual prints, as a way for someone to get big art, but can’t afford to drop $500 on it. A framed 32×40 print costs me about $150 for the print, mat and frame. Let’s say I sell it for $475. Eventually. A mosaic print of the same size costs me about $15, and I sell it for $100. The profit margins are similar, but in the case of the large individual print, I have to invest $150 to make $475. For the mosaics, I only have to spend about $85 to make that same $475. Moreover, the large individual print can only be sold to one person. I need one guy to walk in with $475. For the mosaics, I need 5 people with a hundred bucks. Which is more likely? I guess we’ll see. In any case, I’ll write a post that is just about these mosaic prints later. They’re pretty slick.

It’s best to offer products at a variety of price points, from post cards and other small, un-matted prints for less than $10 each all the way up to your mega-prints, running a few hundred bucks each.I feel like I do a good job in this area: I offer prints and postcards for as little as $5, a great impulse buy. I also have big 32×40 prints that are (hopefully) impressive enough to generate some customer flow-through.

I don’t do my own printing, but that’s a whole ‘nother post in itself. In regard to cost, prints are going to be the least of my worries.

Frames and mats:

Frames and mats are going to be my biggest running expense. I find this a little funny, because the prints are the part with the most value, but the frames are about 20x the cost of the prints. I rarely cut my own mats. Suffice it to say I have issues with detailed manual labor. The Hobby Lobby in my city has always provided great value in this department, and I happily sub-contract my mat-cutting to them. I can buy the pre-cut mats for a few bucks or get mats custom cut for 50 cents a cut. Certainly more expensive than cutting it myself, but the time and frustration savings makes up for it.

Hobby Lobby has a perpetual sale on frames, usually 50% off, when they start to become a good deal. I also buy frames from IKEA. I like their 14×14(ish) square frames, and I use their CLIPS frames (4 4×6 frames for $1!) for my mosaic prints.

As with mat cutting, it would pay to make my own frames. That’s on the to-do list.

Packaging:

Someone comes into your booth, finishing off the last of a funnel cake, they point at one of your prints hanging up and says “I’ll take it!”. When someone purchases a print, you’ve got to have a way for them to transport it. If they don’t already have a bag, provide some. This is a great way to recycle your bags from home (I turn them inside out to downplay the logos). Framed, matted and loose prints should all be wrapped in something like tissue paper, as a way of keeping dirt and dust off the print until it can be hung up. You wouldn’t let a purchasing customer walk out without some info, right? Be sure to pack a small card in with all your purchases with some photos, your name, contact info, and website.

Displays:

Your display represents a big chunk of your sunk costs, the money you have to spend before you can operate at all. You could purchase a pre-fabbed art fair booth, but you should be prepared to drop at least several hundred dollars doing so. I don’t have that kind of coin. The whole point of my venture into the art fair circuit is to provide a cash infusion, not another place to spend money. I have plenty of those. So, I am building my own display system. More on that later, once I can show you pictures that aren’t poorly drawn napkin-blueprints.

The display is likely going to be your biggest initial expense. Luckily, it’s not something that needs to be replenished, so once you’ve covered this initial expense, it will no longer stand between you and profits.

Tent:

You’ll still need some sort of overhead covering, in case of rain and skin cancer, not to mention the comfort of your potential customers. In fact, if you have electricity, why not mount an overhead fan somewhere for yourself and your customers? People congregate in comfortable booths. I’m sure the price varies by region, but around Atlanta, you can rent a tent for a day for about $75. Renting from an unfamiliar vendor in an unfamiliar locale is going to be a crap shoot. Make sure to ask specific questions about the tent’s dimensions. Get photos, if you can. I would avoid black and colored tents. A clean white, waterproof material is best, because it will provide a comfortable, diffuse, clean source of light for your work. Black, opaque material can be nice if you can provide your own lighting. The prints look great, but these tents are too dark for my tastes. Definitely avoid colored material, like those God-awful blue tarps, which will put a color cast on your prints. Your best bet is to purchase a prefabbed tent, so you are no longer run the risk of being stuck with God-only-knows what kind of dirty, leaky, patchy blue tent.

Applications

There are two kinds of fairs: Juried shows judge entrants, whereas non-juried shows take all comers. If you can get into the juried You generally need to apply several months in advance of an art fair. Some require you to provide photos of your display booth with your application. Everyone makes you pay the full fee upfront. This makes it tough to get into, because you have to invest a lot of money into your booth, and have that equity sit around and not make money until the art fair, which is 3 or 6 months away. If you can find a fair that has a shorter turn-around, like the Savannah River Street Festival Series, go for those first.

Miscellany

You will want somewhere to sit. Get something tall, so you’re at a comfortable conversation level with your potential customers.
You will also want a card table and a plain table cloth to display smaller prints, advertisements, and as a place to store boxes and things.
You will want PLEXIGLASS for your framed prints, so it can take a few hard knocks.
You will want plenty of padding material for transporting your materials to and from the art fair.
You will want plenty of cash handy to make change for people. You will want a notebook to keep track of what sizes and images are selling and which ones don’t seem to be generating interest, so you can fine tune your offerings.
You will want to be prepared for the inherent seasonal discomforts. Summer is hot. Winter is cold. Think ahead. Whatever the season, if you are outdoors, bring the appropriate beverages, dress well, and bring sunscreen.

Yikes. Over1400 words. That’s about enough for now, I think. Next time, I’ll talk more on this topic. I am definitely interested in hearing about your art fair experiences in the comments.


  1. This is an excellent post on a very informative blog. I’m glad I stumbled upon it. Thank you so much for sharing your wisdom with those who know less.

  2. I’m just getting started in photography, and look forward to my first “art fair” (we call them craft festivals). My Mother is a long-time crafter, so much of this article was already known to me, but I loved it none the less!

    Question – How do you sign your mat’s? Do you label and name each photo? I’m selling, or attempting to sell, 8×10′s and 5×7′s.

    Thanks so much for this blog!

  3. @anthony – thanks for stopping by! it was pretty awesome that my second post back got lit up on stumbleupon.

    @shaina – It’s good to know that someone else can corroborate the claims I make here. hahaha! signing mats is a topic i am going to cover in a little bit of depth shortly, so stay tuned!

  4. I actually meant stumbled as in found by accident, though it may well have been on StumbleUpon as well. I need to be more careful with my Internet verbs. Regardless, thank you again for the wonderful information.

  5. Thanks for your info. I am thinking about embarking on the same road, currently evaluating the cash outlay versus potential income. I am really curious to hear what your thoughts are on sign your work. I have been taught that one signs the image. Your thoughts?

  6. Thank you for your post. It is very informative and straight forward. :)

  7. Great info. I hope to do my first art show within the next 18 months. This info if great to get the gears turning. Thanks!

  1. 1 Minnesota Valley Photography Club » The Art Fair Circuit

    [...] http://shaunkrisher.wordpress.com/2008/08/19/selling-photography-at-art-fairs-getting-started/ [...]




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