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Making art into a career is not only a business decision, but a lifestyle decision. There are many different paths an artist may take toward a professional career in art. One path that thousands of artists, including me, have chosen is exhibiting and selling art at fine art and craft shows, fairs and festivals. You may have been tempted to try this yourself. After all, art shows are dynamic, fun, social and rewarding events that offer artists great control over the presentation and sale of their work. But before you test the waters, recognize that making a living at such shows requires a commitment to the show business lifestyle.
Planning and Commitment
There is a lot of planning involved in being part of the show business. Ideally, you should visit a show personally in order to best judge whether or not your work fits the venue. You will then also be able to judge the crowd and location, and discuss setup and sales with other artists currently participating.
Once you’ve begun to select the shows to which you want to apply, you will likely need to send in applications six months to a year prior to the show dates. I keep a calendar to mark the dates for the shows to which I have applied so I don’t apply to more than one scheduled for the same date (booking two shows for the same date doesn’t go over well with show promoters and may waste application fees).
The process of fully completing an application requires considerable work. Read the prospectus or application instructions carefully, and follow the directions to the letter. You do not want to be refused acceptance because you accidentally missed providing some bit of information. Juried events are going to require photographs of your work, often in a specific format (e.g. slides or JPEGs on CD, or via some online application process). If you are a well-organized person, this process becomes much easier.
It often takes several years of doing the same shows before patrons really begin to follow you and sales reach your expectations. Committing to an annual show schedule may mean missing birthdays, your anniversary and other family events. Be sure you are okay with this kind of commitment.
I do about 20 shows a year, but only need to spend a handful of nights away from home. I chose a lifestyle that necessitates doing shows close to home, and luckily, my geographic area supports that choice. It is entirely possible that this may not be the case for you; you may have to travel considerably and spend time away from family in order to fill a solid annual show schedule. This may mean traveling alone and being on the road and in hotels by yourself.
On the other hand, if your situation permits a spouse or partner to accompany you, you’ll have companionship and a helper. The two of you may really enjoy the adventure of it all. There are couples who travel to shows in their motor homes and greatly enjoy the opportunity to see new places. I typically do shows alone, but during summer months, my wife and daughter can accompany me, so we make a mini-vacation out of the event.
There are many shows across the country from which you can choose, so decide if you want to travel extensively or stay close to home, and seek out the shows that best accommodate your preferences.
A Lifestyle of Physical Work
Doing fine art and craft shows is physical labor! You will need to load your vehicle and/or trailer with your artwork, display walls, canopy, various supplies and maybe a suitcase (if a hotel stay is involved). If you are doing an outdoor show and are lucky, you’ll be able to drive right up to your allot- ted space, and unload all your materials and display. If you are unable to drive to your space, as is the case with most indoor shows, the situation is not as pleasant. It may entail carrying or carting your display and artwork over lumpy, hard ground or grass. The distance from your exhibit space to your vehicle will also vary from show to show and may include some inclines. I’ve had some long, exhausting treks from my van and trailer to my exhibition space. Unless you have a cart with large wheels, this can be very demanding on the legs, arms and back. Then, once you unload and carry everything to your space, there is more physical work to be done — the display walls have to be set up, the work hung, the lighting connected, a rug put down, and your sales supplies arranged. To be honest, it is some of the best exercise I get, but it is all physical labor, and that can be taxing.
Keeping yourself healthy and in good physical condition is a necessary part of being an artist in this lifestyle. Remember, there are no paid sick days in the art show business. If you are not feeling well, the process of transporting and setting up your show display becomes a major effort. If you are injured in some way that impedes your movement or causes pain, the process may become impossible. In such situations, having a helper is a real benefit and may be a necessity. I actually do some yoga and a bit of weight training so I am less likely to pull a muscle, strain my back or lose my balance while carrying artwork and supplies. However, if you have been to art and fine craft shows before, you know that there are artists of all age groups and physical conditions represented. I’ve done shows with folks in their seventies and even eighties who find ways of getting themselves set up and ready to sell their work. Sometimes they have help; sometimes they don’t. Solving the physical requirements of doing shows is part of the lifestyle adjustment that artists need to make.
If you are seriously ill or injured, the only other option may be to cancel doing the show, which will most likely result in all show fees being lost. Worse still is that you miss a payday, or pay weekend, as the case may be. You may also lose your space at that particular show for subsequent years. Try to stay healthy, and you can avoid this worst-case scenario.
A Social Lifestyle
The art show lifestyle is very social. Sure, it is primarily about business, but it requires a high level of social engagement with customers, potential customers, non-customers and other artists. Become comfortable with this kind of socializing, and you will be prepared to interact with people about your work in any venue. Some artists are naturally good at interacting with people; others face anxiety when talking freely about their work. It is very important to have an attractive presentation for your artwork, a professional presentation of yourself, and the ability to speak about your work and the process behind your art. It may not be easy for you to present yourself to lots of people (and there may be thousands at some shows), but it is something that becomes easier with time and experience.
Art shows are dynamic, fun, social and rewarding events that offer artists great control over the presentation and sale of their work. ~Paul Grecian
Doing shows will likely bring you in contact with a broad range of attendees, including serious art collectors, talkative art lovers and attendees who may seem like they are afraid of you. You will need to learn to “read” people in order to measure what approach you should take in greeting them and speaking about your work. You will also need to develop techniques to deal with people who make you uncomfortable or who monopolize your time and attention. Remember, you are in business to sell your work. Taking control of interactions that you think have gone astray from your business objectives is all part of the social lifestyle of being a show artist.
Personal connections with other artists are some of the most important connections you will make at shows and probably the ones you will value the most. The most significant artist interactions may be with those who are your neighbors at the show — that is, those artists who are set up on either side of you, across from you or behind you. These are the artists whom you will get to know best during slower periods of the show, and who will watch your booth for you if you need to grab some food or coffee, or need a break. Some of your contacts may become your friends, as well as sources of information and advice. They will be the friendly faces at future shows that help make being at new shows not feel so strange.
The art show lifestyle is full of challenges, hard work and uncertain outcomes; however, it is also full of good times, rewarding friendships and professional satisfaction. It is certainly not a lifestyle that is right for everyone, but if you like being in control of how your work is presented, how the message of your work is delivered, and making a personal connection with your customers and other artists, it may be the lifestyle option that will offer you great benefits.
Paul Grecian is a full-time fine-art photographer specializing in nature and travel imagery. From his Bucks County, Pennsylvania home, he has access to wonderful local and regional locations on the East Coast, but mostly works close to home. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines, calendars and corporate projects. For more information, visit paulgrecianphoto.com and lambertvillearts.com.