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
"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
"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
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
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."