(thereby increasing the likelihood I’ll apply or encourage other artists to do so)
While among artists there are a few art shows that are considered worthwhile no matter the distance and regardless of schedule, the feasibility of most shows depends on location, expenses, and other factors. If you have never travelled the country making your living from art festivals it may be hard to know exactly what factors are most important to an artist’s when applying to your show. It might not even seem significant whether more or less artists do apply in a given year. I would argue that it is better for both you and I that more artists apply to your show. Besides the increased application fees (which may or may not matter to your organization) the larger pool of applicants will allow you to be more selective in which artists exhibit and that selection will in turn have a better chance of interesting more selective customers. If these customers tell their friends that the artwork is interesting, these friends may attend future shows and become additional customers for the type of work that is now at the show, in turn generating more sales for the exhibiting artists and a greater desire on the part of other artists to apply.
Attract a significant number of real customers.
The size of the whole crowd is moderately important because I do sell to people who have never bought before or who weren’t intending to buy that day, but the percentage of attendees who are actively interested in purchasing something even before they arrive is very important. For instance: if you have a show of 100,000 attendees 95% of whom show more interest in the main stage and beer tents, I may choose to skip your festival next year in favor of a show with 20,000 people 50% of whom waited in excitement all year, come with the intention of getting something and show enthusiasm even for art they may not purchase.
Your attendance will likely determine how far I am willing to drive to your show, but not how loyally I participate. Even though I regularly drive halfway across the country to do top ranked shows, I participate with great dedication in smaller shows within a few hundred miles and even pass over applications for well-ranked shows in favor of smaller ones because dedicated patronage. A show may only have 10,000 in attendance, but even 30 of them could make it a record-breaking show for me.
Offer generous prizes.
This factor has a much greater effect on the overall reputation of the show than you might expect. I do sometimes win prizes and this, in turn, becomes a factor in what shows I apply to. Honestly, even if you offer no prizes at all but you have strong success in attracting serious collectors, I will probably apply to your show but even these shows could get more applications if they added or improved their prize money. Customers decide whether to attend next year based on the quality of the work they see at the show and artists often decide to participate based on the quality of the customers. Having serious prizes or increasing prize money can act as catalyst to draw high quality artists that will help retain serious customers thus attracting more serious artists. It seems to me that increased prizes can thus help build a show’s reputation and, conversely, a decline in or lack of prizes can precipitate the general decline of the show. As a general rule, prize money becomes a factor in my decisions if, in addition to the Best of show and runner ups, prize money is given in each category and if the lowest prize is enough to cover my booth fee. It is interesting to note about myself that I win just often enough that I consider the possibility of winning at each show when I weigh whether to apply or not even though I clearly don’t win all the time (I guess that’s how Vegas was built). I carefully balance the prize factor, like serious attendance, against distance and, often enough, it can be enough to sway my decision.
Keep my expenses down.
The largest expense that you directly control is my booth fee. I know you have a lot of budgetary items to balance but I am a price-conscious shopper. There are thousands of art festivals in the country and even if you eliminate the ones I’ll probably never consider, there are still 3-4 festivals the same weekend as yours. The difference between betting $250 and $500 on a weekend is significant when you consider the number of booth fees I have over the course of a year. Of course I am not intimately acquainted with your organization’s finances, but if you can find a way to get corporate donations or gate fees or exclusive art gala’s to generate the funds for your educational charities and side projects and keep my booth fee low, I may decide to choose your show over another. Along with keeping the tab small, if you do have extra fees either from within your organization or imposed by the city or for private parking etc, it is great to have those listed in advance. Even if they don’t add up to much in the end, it’s not pleasant to be surprised by extra-budgetary items and it is the kind of thing that can detract from an artist’s opinion of your show.
Keep the paperwork simple and information accessible
Even if I have participated several times in your show, I have to double check information before I apply. Dates, booth fees, prizes, etc. all change and it helps immensely if this information is accessible either online or on your mailer. For shows I’m considering but have never done, I require more detailed information and if it is not easily found, I may skip the application that year. When accepted, there is still quite a bit of information I need access to. I do many shows each year and I am often on the road for weeks if not months. If you do require me to fill something out after acceptance, I may not be able to unless it is emailed or accessible online. Lastly, while on the road, I find it a great help to have listed on your website information about the daily show hours, load-in, booth numbers, hotels, parking, etc. As a general rule, I am grateful for shows that offer an alternative to the mail. Online applications, emailed or uploaded images, web forms and informative websites make it much easier to (thus more likely that I will) apply. I can remember quite a few applications that I skipped or missed because I was traveling and couldn’t get a CD burnt.
Keep the layout simple and balanced
Most customers walk a show casually and without a map and complex patterns can lead to low traffic areas. Full circles, long rows and complete city blocks make great patterns without gaps. IF you are going to require all artists use 10×10 white tents, please make the spaces eleven feet. It is almost impossible to get a tent into the air in a 10′ space without bumping the tent next to it and it makes setup needlessly complex. Please keep loud music and food contained to areas where it will not interfere with the art booths. Many artists have complex techniques and serious ideas that your patrons love to talk about but being too close to the stage or food can disrupt their ability to do so at leisure.
Additional things that will make me love your show:
While this is a kind of wish-list, it is also what artists praise shows for. I wouldn’t apply to a show based on this list, but these things will affect my memories of the show and can affect my choice between two similar shows. Since many of the freebies can be given as donations by local businesses, it may be easy to provide them with no negative fiscal results. There are shows that do provide all of these things and they are praised highly for it among artists.
- Free water (brought by volunteers is even better)
- Free coffee (at least in the morning, but all day is wonderful)
- Well placed restrooms (so I don’t have to be gone from my booth for too long)
- Artist’s break room (more important in hot climates)
- Free parking I can walk easily to (if not free, at least reserved parking for artists)
- The ability to drive to my space to unload before setup and tear-down
- Artist’s breakfast (eggs in some form is even better- the days are long and we get there early)
- Awards Dinner (Wine always makes it feel more celebratory)
- Artist’s lunch coupons or bag lunches.
Problems that may actively discourage me from applying in the future:
- Inadequate security ~ I know you are not legally responsible for theft, but I have stopped applying to some shows due to repeated vandalism and theft of artwork combined with a lack of concern by the staff.
- Uneven or biased enforcement of the show rules.
- Long hours ~ Shows that start early and go late are exhausting and my sales data rarely justifies participation before 10 or after 7. In a cocktail party atmosphere, I have enjoyed staying open late at some shows, but the sales I do get in those hours often would have happened before if the customer had known the show was due to close at 7.
- Complex load-in and load-out ~ Some shows clearly need to carefully schedule load-in and -out but we do this every weekend and often do not need micro-management.
- Promotions that favor music and other events over the art.
– Benjamin Frey
The opinions in this essay are my own and are not intended to represent those of the National Association of Independent Artists (NAIA). The NAIA has a detailed list of suggested policies and practices (“The Advocacies”) that can be found at the following web address: naiaartists.org/advocacy
If you feel that these issues are important to you, please share this with shows that you care about. While there are many shows that already do these things well, there are plenty that are looking for ways to improve and could find these suggestions helpful. It is in the spirit of open dialogue that I chose to write this, and I hope it can be of use to those shows who are interested in understanding the industry from an artist’s perspective. Please don’t simply drop this essay off with show staff, however. Instead, consider writing a letter letting the show know who you are and why you think this is important. Or at least jot a personal note at the bottom of this page and sign your name to it. There are many times when artists anonymously address issues with shows and I think that this practice creates an environment of antagonism. Instead, we need openness to work on improving the shows (which are our common endeavors), and in such a spirit we need to be straightforward in our communications. -BF