When Terry Speer was a struggling art student in the 60s, he put himself through college by selling his prints and paintings at local art shows. In 1979, after eight years as an art professor, Speer left academia to do the show circuit full time with his wife, Deborah Banyas, a fellow artist and quilt maker.
"I had tenure and benefits," Speer recalls, "but I was miserable. I thought, 'Why am I torturing myself as a professor when I can have more fun doing this and make more money?'"
Speer hasn't looked back once. Today, he and Banyas run a homebased business selling their whimsical mixed-media sculptures at art festivals and craft shows around the country, including the recent Coconut Grove Arts Festival in Miami where they rang up sales of several thousand dollars over the three-day Presidents' Day weekend. Despite an estimated $3,000 in travel and other miscellaneous costs, Speer and Banyas ended up making a tidy profit. Then they packed up their truck and headed home to Oberlin, Ohio, where they stayed for less than a day before traveling to another show in Baltimore.
"This isn't an easy way to make a living," says Banyas, who estimates that the couple exhibits at 12 shows a year. "You've got to be willing to drive a truck and get up at four in the morning."
Still, Speer and Banyas can't see themselves doing anything else. And they're not the only ones who feel that way. Though it's impossible to know how many artists and craftspeople sell their wares full or part time at shows and festivals, their numbers appear to be growing as crowds turn out by the thousands to buy paintings, sculptures, woodwork, metalwork, glasswork and jewelry and to meet the artists and craftsmen who make them. And as Speer and Banyas have discovered, there's real money to be made. Last year, the Coconut Grove festival drew more than 150,000 visitors who purchased approximately $4 million in artwork from more than 330 exhibitors over the course of the three-day show. (Figures for this year's show were not available at press time.)
"I think it's a great opportunity for the public to connect with artists," says Lisa Remeny, a Miami artist whose painting was picked to be the official poster art of this year's Coconut Grove show. "You don't have that in a gallery where people buy from dealers."
For homebased artists and craftsmen, selling at fairs and shows provides an opportunity to ring up sales and find new customers at little cost and no overhead. Typically, shows charge just a few hundred dollars for a booth and allow artists to enjoy big markups on the work they create--profits they don't have to share with a gallery or store owner. But making money at fairs and shows isn't as easy as it seems. It requires research, planning and the ability to keep a smile on your face while standing on your feet for long hours. And that's not for everyone.
"To be successful at shows, you need to have a retail personality and that's not me," says Debra Sachs, who creates fanciful wooden canes with her partner, Marilyn Keating, at their company, The South Jersey Museum of Curiosities LLP in Gloucester City, New Jersey. Even though Sachs says she and Keating made a profit at every show they attended, the shows took them away from doing what they really loved--creating art. "We're doing public art projects now," Sachs says.
Think selling your work at shows and fairs might be for you? Follow these 10 road-tested tips to success:
1. Walk the show. Just because your Mom used to tack up your drawings on the refrigerator doesn't mean your work is professional enough for people who aren't related to you to buy it. First, attend a few shows to see if your stuff is good enough to pass muster. Some shows are juried, which means that judges review your work and select you; others are open to everyone.
It's also important to find the right venue for your work. While an indoor art show may be beyond your grasp, a craft show or Renaissance fair may fit the bill just right. You can find out a lot of information about the shows by talking to artists and craftsmen you meet there. "The best way is to ask other vendors where the best shows are," says Christopher Spelman of Wax Creations in Oceanside, New York. "They'll tell you which fairs to not even bother with."
2. Do your homework. Find out who typically attends the show, what kind of turnout you can expect and how much it will cost to exhibit there. Even though booth space typically costs just $200 to $300--the Coconut Grove festival charges $550--you need to factor in travel costs, shipping costs and the cost of a table, banner and the booth itself. And don't forget the materials costs; for jewelry or sculptures made of precious metals, those costs can add up. And depending on the city or state the show is in, you may also need a license or permit to sell there. It's best to figure out your breakeven point--that is, how many items you need to sell in order to make a profit--before you decide to pack up and go.
3. Start small. Most established artists and craftspeople sell to repeat customers who frequent the same shows every year and often collect their pieces. While you're establishing your reputation and building a following, keep your expenses to a minimum. Speer suggests renting or borrowing a booth from another artist instead of buying your own. Another option is to share a booth with another artist or craftsperson. "Don't invest a lot of money until you're sure it's going to work," he says.
4. Price it right. While cheaper work is easier to sell, you've got to sell a lot more items to cover your costs and make a profit. At the same, an artist selling $10,000 paintings may go home empty-handed. That's why many art show veterans offer a range of price points to potential customers. Biba Schutz, a New York City jewelry artist, sells her work for anywhere from $150 to $900 but offers one-of-a-kind pieces for up to $5,000. "If your material costs you $10 and you double it, you've got a $10 profit," says Schutz, who works in silver, bronze, copper and gold. "If the material costs you $200 and you double that, it's $400. You need to sell less to make those numbers."
5. Bring your credit card machine. Credit cards are the common currency of shows and fairs, and if you don't accept them, you're going to lose sales to vendors who do. You also face the risks of dealing with bounced checks from strangers who may be hard to track down after the show. Especially if you're selling work priced in the hundreds of dollars, credit cards are a must. To find out more about obtaining merchant credit, see our "Resources" section.
6. Don't go it alone. While shows can be exciting and profitable, they can also be physically and emotionally exhausting. That's why it's important to bring along someone to help you work the booth and deal with customers. This will also give you a chance to get up and go to the bathroom and grab a hotdog or something to drink without losing sales. Spelman of Wax Creations works the fairs with his wife. "You need a lot of good friends and family willing to help you," he says.
7. Pack your stuff. Make sure you bring enough work to sell but not so much that you'll have to carry most of it back. Besides your artwork, you'll also need to pack your booth, several chairs, a small table, a calculator, a credit card machine, bags for customers to carry your products home in and any brochures or marketing materials you might have.
8. Put your best foot forward. People like to see a craftsperson creating artwork in his booth, not just selling it. While this isn't always possible, it's a crowd-pleasing idea that works well for jewelry makers, woodworkers, quilters and other craftspeople. At the very least, make sure your display table is clean and attractive and that your products are well displayed with prices clearly marked. Some artists, like jewelry maker Schutz, string lights in their booths and display color photos of their work to spice things up a bit.
9. Build a mailing list. Shows are a great way to develop your customer database. Try putting a fishbowl on your table and offering people a chance to win a piece of artwork in return for giving you their contact information or business cards. Giving away promotional items with your company's name and logo works, too. This way, you can send out postcards inviting prospects to your next show. Don't forget to collect e-mail addresses, too! It's a lot cheaper to send out 100 e-mail messages than it is to pay for paper and postage. "I have some customers who've bought from me every year for 10 years," Schutz says. "These days, I send more e-mails than postcards, and with my wholesale customers, I actually call them."
10. Count your money. Before you move on to the next show, sit down and figure out how much you made on the last one. For example, if you spend $1,000 on this show, did you make $1,000 back? Remember, we're talking about profits, not sales! Don't forget to include the cost of your materials, the booth space, travel, shipping and cleanup. This kind of breakeven analysis will help you figure out if you should exhibit at the same show next year.
Don't be disappointed if you don't make a fortune your first time out--or ever. Except for artists like Speer and Banyas, who sell exclusively through shows and fairs, most artists and craftspeople also sell through galleries, wholesalers, the Internet and other marketing channels. "My best year ever I made $18,000," says Spelman of Wax Creations, who does most of his business at parties and events. "I'd consider making $2,000 in a weekend to be a success. Some people live off these shows; other people use it to market their business."