There’s an art fair for everyone, everywhere and new ones are sprouting up every year. With fairs featuring artists with non-traditional arts backgrounds to a focus on photography and prints, there is seemingly an art fair to fit any number of collecting tastes. There are even art fairs focused directly on recruiting artists to show their own work, such as the newly-minted The Other Art Fair and Clio Art Fair. As a result, emerging artists are exhibiting at art fairs due to increased opportunities for non-represented (by an art gallery), artists to show and sell their work. In turn, independent visual artists are afforded platforms for making sales and building networks.
While some more established art fairs, such as UNTITLED, require brick-and-mortar art gallery representation, emerging artists have created an alternative. Through artist collectives and online galleries, artists are leverage their existing networks and entrepreneurial skills to produce their own booths at art fairs. In addition, with so many fairs, there is a range of exhibitor fees that make it more affordable for artists to pool their money together and share a booth. Given these opportunities, the environment is ripe for artists ready to take the plunge and participate in an art fair.
Before you dive in, we’ve gathered the pros and cons of selling work directly at art fairs. From measuring the administrative work involved to frank conversations around marketing and sales, there are several factors to consider before moving forward:
- Are you choosing an art fair that aligns with your goals?
- Will other exhibitors’ work will be of comparative quality?
- Will there be enough traffic to produce sales or leads?
- Does the fair hit attract your target audience of potential buyers?
Let’s tackle the above questions and weigh in on whether and where you should show your work at art fairs.
Art Fairs: Location, Timing, and Goals
Art fairs tend to happen in clusters around pivotal flashpoints on the art market calendar, whether it’s focused on Miami Art Week in early December, The Armory Show New York in early March, or the Frieze Art Fairs in New York and London. Approach this endeavor from a business standpoint, with a firm understanding of the market and your target buyer and their price range. You may be focusing on a design fair or an affordable, lower-price point art fair. If you work exclusively in one medium, you would be better served by finding out where buyers for those works flock and examining your options for exhibiting there. Make sure that the fair is aptly timed, occurring when you are most likely to see the highest number of visitors. For example, a fair that takes place in the summer months near New York City may see higher foot traffic and sales if it takes place in the Hamptons rather than in Manhattan. It’s important to know your audience’s habits and to identify the place and time that works best to lead to potential sales.
Next, identify your end goals when approaching art fairs. Are you looking for greater exposure as an artist, or are you looking for a higher sales volume? While a single fair can achieve both, if you are prioritizing one goal over the other, you may reconsider the fair you choose based on that.
Emerging artist Ida Ivanka Kubler weighed these choices before showing her work with an artist-run initiative at an art fair. Kubler noted the immediate benefits of showing her work at the art fair, “Communicating with potential clients and sensing their passion for art yields positive energy…it’s rewarding for artists to hear how fascinated people are with the art.” While potentially draining for more introverted independent artists, there is a direct and immediate payoff when you get instant feedback on your work. You can also tell your story and discuss the genesis of your work with potential collectors and curators. It’s common for collectors to want to meet or be acquainted with the artists whose work they buy. When you’re there in person, you’ve fulfilled their goal and can ignite a passion for your work that no one else can, making a sale or piquing the interest of arts professionals who will follow you as you develop. According to Kubler, a “no” now may be a “yes” later and lead to future results. “[Some] people buy years after [when] the image of a certain artwork stays with them,” she notes.
The Pros: More Profit, More Control
You’ve identified your ideal art fairs, nailed down exhibition dates and exhibitor fees, and are accepted and ready to go. What are some of the pros you can expect from self-representation at the art fair? From the very beginning, you have greater creative control by determining how your work is installed within the space and what work is shown. When exhibiting with a gallery or dealer, the booth design and selection of work is up to them. Even in a collective of other emerging artists, you have greater creative control in displaying and pricing your artwork to its best advantage. Use what you know about your work to truly let the exhibition design sell your work for you, and show your works in their best light. Literally – set up a lighting design that accents your work, and you will attract more visitors to your booth.
Turning foot traffic into sales is a matter of engaging and identifying what visitors are looking for at art fairs. Bring extra work in different sizes and price points to show buyers looking to purchase work on a different scale or price. Load your laptop or tablet with images of your work, links to your website, previous sales, and critical reviews. Now you’ve got your whole inventory of work with you. Have business cards ready for buyers who need to walk around the fair and return later to make a purchase.
The best part of showing your own work at art fairs? No one is getting a commission from your sale and cutting your revenue. You keep the sales profits for yourself. It motivates you to engage potential buyers. You’ll be able to connect with a curator, art advisor or collector and reap all of the rewards. And why shouldn’t you? You put your blood, sweat, and tears into your work. Now, all that money goes into your pocket. This combined advantage of having greater creative control of how your work is shown and priced, along with greater profit incentives, goes a long way toward being in favor of exhibiting your own work at art fairs.
The Cons: It Costs Time and Money
Take a closer look at producing an exhibitor booth for an art fair. What is really involved and – most importantly – do you have the time and money to expend given your current workload to not only organize for the fair but to still have the bandwidth to produce new work for it. From wall labels and shipping to marketing outreach and installation, hours of work and time will go into setting up and managing your booth. Emerging artists pursuing these opportunities need to make sure they’re aware of the cost of your time and resources and is the benefit you expect to gain is worth it. Do you feel confident that you have the ability to see everything through from beginning to end, while also dedicating time to art-making? Kubler noted of selling at art fairs has impacted her time adversely. “It takes me away from actually producing new art, [and] all the organization takes a long time.”
There will also be expenses involved, other than just the booth fee. If you secure your own booth but have other commitments and will be unable to staff the booth yourself, you’ll need to hire an assistant or get a friend to help for the duration of the fair – which, frankly, you should anticipate doing anyway at art fairs. You’ll need a break and so will your assistant. And, when multiple visitors admire your work, you want to give them personal attention right away. You won’t be able to do that by yourself. Being prepared for the time and effort it will require to adequately run your own booth and engage attendees will go a long way in yielding results at art fairs. After all, you didn’t allocate all of your resources to exhibit to sit in the corner and read a book or check your phone.
How Comfortable are You Engaging Visitors?
Some people are natural-born sellers; they have high energy, love to gab, and their extroverted personality engages others. For introverts, you’ve got some work to do. If you’re selling your own work at an art fair, you have to be comfortable attracting and engaging people with you and your work. If you’re sitting in the corner, looking down, appearing busy, unapproachable, or shy, it will be very difficult for others to feel welcome. Check out our article on selling art in person for actions you can take to improve your skills.
Your job as an artist-representative is to stand by the front of your booth, smiling and making eye contact with visitors. Say hello to visitors, make eye contact, and initiate conversations. Otherwise, yours will be the work that people pass by. Not necessarily because they didn’t like it, but because you don’t appear interested or available to others. Just a simple, “Hello, how are you today,” or, “How are you enjoying the fair,” is an easy ice breaker. Don’t wait for others to ask you questions first. Time is money, and talking to as many people as possible increases your chances of selling. What can you do? Practice. Go to events and introduce yourself to others. Say hello to the person next in line at the coffee shop. Ask a fellow commuter about the weather. You will have to get out of your comfort zone, at least for the duration of the art fair.
Investigate Quality and Curation
If you’ve chosen to show at an artist-driven fair, you have an advantage. The fair will most likely focus more resources on advertising on behalf of its independent artists/sellers. While you may feel good about the work you will be exhibiting, keep an eye on the quality of other exhibitors’ work. Is the jury or curator(s) of the fair well-respected and well-known in their field? Do they have a history of showing or curating high-quality work? Who are the artists that have participated in previous? How well did they sell at the fair? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you determine if the types of collectors who are seeking your work will be attending the fair.
Exhibiting at art fairs is a significant investment of time and resources, so making sure you feel confident as you prepare to make and sell your work is key. Investigate which art fairs have produced results for other artists by finding out who participated in the past and asking them: What type of audience was at the fair? Did a lot of people attend? Did you receive support and proper communication from the art fair organizers? Did you walk away with sales? For every artist who doesn’t want to tell you about their experience, there will be many who want to share – both positive and negative. If the art fairs you’re considering have shown emerging artists that exhibit high-quality artworks and have proven sales numbers, then you might just be ready to move ahead. Ultimately, there is a risk to every endeavor, but with proper research, you can make an informed decision on what is best for you.
Have you attended or participated in an art fair? Was it worth going to or being in one? Share your feedback all things art gallery.
Nicole is a veteran arts and culture journalist. Her work has appeared in Reuters, VICE, Hyperallergic, Univision, and more.