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Selling Photography at Art Shows
This article is featured in the May 2003 Shutterbug Magazine

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Getting started

Youíve been taking pictures for years. Maybe showing your prints to friends and family members and they constantly give you positive feedback and tell you how much they love your photography. Telling you that you should be selling professionally, but where to start. Or maybe youíve visited a major art show like Coconut Grove, Ann Arbor or Cherry Creek, and have seen photographers selling their work. Youíve thought about setting up a booth in front of hundreds of thousands of people looking to purchase your photos. Art shows can provide a viable way to earn a living doing what you like best, taking pictures.

2002 Ann Arbor art fair
Ann Arbor 2002

When I first started exhibiting at art shows over 25 years ago, I would hang the images I was most proud of. Through ego gratification and lack of experience at the bigger art shows, I spent my early years doing the shows that were under an hour drive from my New York City home, mostly mall shows, and selling my favorite pictures with moderate success. Enough to enable me to quit my day job and try doing art shows full time. What I didnít realize at the time was that there was a completely different type of art show out there. An art show where you could easily make as much money or more, in two days outdoors, that you could have made in four or five days sitting in a mall reading a book and eating.

At the better art shows weíre talking about the sale of photography as a business, and in approaching it, realize that people do art shows on a very professional level for a living to support their families. The competition to jury into a show can produce some of the best photography youíve ever seen. But of course you think that you have something of value to contribute. Real photographic art that people are just waiting in line to purchase.

If youíre planning on applying to some of the better art shows, itís important to understand what other photographers are selling and how they go about displaying their work. Walk a major show and check out the competition. On a business level itís competition for the money, and on a photographic level itís competition for the space in the show.

2002 Ann Arbor art fair in the rain
Ann Arbor 2002 in the rain

Thinking about what pictures to shoot

The importance of a unified body of work
One of the first things I learned when I started doing the better art shows was that it was important to create a unified body of work for two reasons. The first so as not to confuse the potential customer. When you have people standing in your booth thinking about making a purchase, there is a point that if they havenít made up their mind they walk away. The other is the ďbooth (display) slideĒ. The application requirements of art shows are that you submit individual slides of your work (usually four or five) plus a slide of your display. The display slide will come across more professional looking if the body of work is unified.

If youíre considering the art show market seriously, youíre probably thinking about which images work well together or balance one another, and how to shoot new pictures to compliment those you already have. Iíve always compared the visual balance of a fully stocked display to the composition within a single image. The importance is easy to understand if you picture a row of 200 booths with people walking by. What is it that will make them stop and be drawn in to browse your images? Something has to grab them. One piece might be your ďshow stopperĒ but visually it will have more impact if that piece is your entire booth.

How to prepare your images for exhibiting

When starting out, the image preparation will take a lot of planning. Printing, mounting, matting and framing all have to be done on a professional level. Taking into consideration that some art shows require the photographer to do their own printing. Some art shows require the photographer to supervise the printing and some art shows donít make any such requirements at all on their applications. If youíre not going to print your own, consider two resources. The first is a lab called Fine Print that only prints quantity at wholesale prices. Itís one of the most widely used labs by photographers selling at art shows. The other consideration are digital prints by a machine called the LightJet 5000, which is used by most major service bureaus. The LightJet uses conventional photographic paper that is exposed by a computer controlled laser and processed in normal chemistry. We know of a lab called Foto 1 that does excellent work and prices their quantity LightJet prints similar to quantity machine C print prices.

Materials and labor will become a factor in your selling price, as will competition from your peers. As a generalization, you canít spend $50 to print, mat and frame a 16x20 if you plan on selling it for $100. But you can if youíre going to sell it for $300. But you canít sell it for $300 if the other photographers are selling that size for $200. The ultimate goal in the art show market is for your imagery can transcend the price barrier. To sell art to people who donít use price as a consideration. Or donít think about whether or not it matches the wallpaper or couch.

Understand that our methods and resources are based on years of preparing quantities of the same images, which keep the costs down, but weíll also recommend ways to get you started without a major investment.

The ďprint your ownĒ controversy takes a twist with the introduction of the digital darkroom, which weíll explore later.

Aside from deciding whether to print your own, some choices you will face will be whether to hinge or dry mount. Choices in regular or acid free mat board or white core mat board as a compromise. Choices whether to single or double mat. Choices in the type of frames that you use. Remember to consider the overall look of your display. A single style frame will look better than a different frame for each different photograph. But if your body of work is eclectic, than you might consider framing on a piece by piece basis.

I own two mat cutters. A Speed Mat wall mounted mat cutter which is designed for production work, and a C&H cutter which I now use as a way of sizing my mat boards. Iíve also used a company called Dixie Matting to cut my mats when I was pressed for time and had some major shows coming up. They have very reasonable prices for any size quantity mats, either single or double.

You will need a source for framing supplies. Iíve used both M&M Distributors and United Mfrs Supplies (which also sells mat board) for my supplies. There are multitudes of companies that sell frames. Just check out the advertisements in Dťcor Magazine. Iíve used a small company called Florida Frames which sells quantities of wood frames to art show exhibitors at wholesale prices. High quality Nielsen aluminum frames can be purchased from most suppliers or Nielsen style aluminum frames can be purchased from companies like Frame Fit.

I use non-glare glass on my photography. I think it makes it look better on the display so as not to reflect everything in the street in front of the booth. Itís a personal choice and doesnít work for everyone. Non glare glass costs twice what regular framing glass costs. I also back my framed photographs with fome cor which I get from my local glass distributor. Fome cor is an acid free backing and mounting board that is widely used in the framing industry. Both the fome cor and glass are much less expensive if purchased by the box, which will save you money if youíve standardized your picture and frame sizes. Some photographers base their sizes on the available materials. Because mat board and fore cor are available in 32x40 inch sheets, that 32x40 sheet can be cut to produce four 16x20ís with no waste.

Besides the framed pictures to hang on my display, I also offer unframed photographs for sale. This serves three purposes. It gives you a less expensive item to prepare and sell. It generates money, and it lets you display different images that might not have the same theme as the ones hanging on the display. The unframed photos are matted and mounted, just like their framed counterparts, and are displayed in clear bags to protect the prints while people handle them. I get my clear bags from a company called Impact Images. It is a much easier alternative to shrink wrapping. Though slightly more expensive, the time factor makes it worth the extra expense. Bags are available in all standard sizes for two-dimensional artwork and have a flap with a peel-off adhesive strip to make sealing easy. If your work is not sized conventionally, the bags can be purchased over sized and trimmed with the heat sealing wand from a shrink wrap machine. This is a good resource to know about. Even if youíre not preparing photographs to sell at art shows, these bags can be used for all your finished work to show friends and family members so as to protect from damage or fingerprints.

Applying to an Art Show

How to find an art show to apply to
Most exhibitors hear about shows from other exhibitors. Itís like a closed community. Iíve seen a lot of the same people exhibiting for over 25 years. On the other hand, itís really interesting to see new and different work being exhibited so I feel that there is always room for newcomers. Aside from the individual state art listings, there are two important resources that give you the information needed to obtain an application for specific shows and how those shows rank on a national level. The first and most important is the Art Fair Sourcebook, put together by the veteran art show photographer Greg Lawler. The book is published annually and is an expensive but necessary resource if youíre considering art shows as a profession. It lists the top 300 art shows in the country with an in-depth look at their requirements and feedback comments that have been accumulated by the author. The other is Sunshine Artist Magazine, which is the closest thing there is to a trade magazine in the art show business. There are show reports listed by state, and the rear contains a listing of art show contact information that is listed by location and date. There are also advertisements throughout the magazine for companies that sell products that are used by art show exhibitors. If youíre just beginning, a subscription to this magazine is a must read.

The first thing to consider is the application. Most art shows mail out their applications six to eight months in advance. It lists their requirements for admission and for display. It also lists the quantity of slides required, how to prepare the slides, the fees to enclose (both booth and application fee), the date it has to be postmarked by and the SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). Some applications have room for a description of your work, either generally or by slide. You canít just call up a show at the last minute and ask for a space. The show has invited a group of ďexpertsĒ to jury the submitted slides on a preset date. But donít expect feedback on your work. Currently the art shows just put your slides in your SASE with a form letter telling you that you havenít been accepted but to feel free to apply again next year. Not to disillusion you, but there are shows that Iíve been accepted to after applying to for over ten years. But those top shows maintain their reputation and the sales have made it worth while for the ten years of jury fees. If youíre serious about selling your photography at art shows as a source of income, I recommend maintaining a list of the top shows and applying to them every year. Even though itís almost like playing the lottery, if you can produce a high quality of imagery, you have a chance of being accepted at some point. Thatís how I approach the business.

Youíve been accepted into an art show

Larry Berman's art show booth
My booth from 2001

Canopies, display racks, bins for unframed and your vehicle
Remember that I suggested walking a major show to see what itís all about? Have you noticed that all the booths had similar professional looking canopies? The first impression is that theyíre supplied by the show, but thatís not the case. All the show provides you with is 100 square feet of display space. Outdoor booth spaces are usually a uniform 10 x 10 foot (or over) and those commercially made canopies are exactly that size. If your first starting out and donít want the initial expense, check with the show and see if they can recommend a company that rents 10 x 10 canopies. The drawback is that those rental units are either too flimsy or too dark inside. I use a canopy called the Craft Hut from Newtonís Mobile Canvas. It seems to be the sturdiest canopy on the market. Itís reasonably priced at approximately $700 but be prepared to spend more. I also have numerous options for it. One reason I chose that company was that they were willing to work with me in letting me customize the canopy for my needs. Besides the standard options like air vents and zippered awnings, I also have skylights built into the roof along the sides to light up the walls, instead of the standard skylight in the center. Iím selling photographs that hang on the walls, not jewelry in display cases in the center of the booth.

The walls of your booth that the photos hang on are not part of the canopy. There is additional cost here to either purchase commercially made ďdisplay racksĒ, or to make your own. Armstrong manufactures the most professional looking racks. They are 6.5 feet tall and connect together to form a stable display within your booth. Having a friend who is a welder, I use homemade racks made from Ĺ inch electrical conduit and turkey wire that has a 1x2-inch grid. Then I had professional covers made so visually you canít tell that I didnít purchase them. I also connect the racks together and to the corner uprights of the canopy (using heavy-duty cable ties) to give it additional stability. As an alternative, there are a few companies that make fabric walls that roll up for storage and hang from the frame within the most popular canopies. This has mixed blessings. The convenience of storage and lighter weight verses the lack of stability if in a windy situation and lack of flexibility in how you set your booth up. Another thing to consider is that they need the canopy frame to hang which is a fixed 10x10. If you are planning to do any indoor shows, the spaces are not always 10x10. You might have an 8x10 or 8x12 foot space and be unable to set up your canopy frame, therefore no walls to hang your photography.

Gary San Pietro's art show booth
Gary San Pietro uses this non commercial canopy and display

A chair is also an important piece of display equipment. Something comfortable, that you can sit in for hours and tall enough that you donít have to get up to speak to everyone that asks you questions. The chair can also double as a worktable with a board across the arm rests. I also use a homemade desk 12x15 inches by 42 inches high with a series of shelves to hold my sales materials. Credit card machine, notebook, clear bags that I put the customers purchases in.

I mentioned the weather and the importance of a sturdy canopy. A few things Iíve always carried are the swivel dog leash stakes (from any supermarket or pet store) and rope pieces to anchor into the ground. In the street I use a screw gun and dry wall screws. I used to carry weights made from PVC tubing filled with concrete until my display took the brunt of an 70 mile per hour thunderstorm wind and lifted over 10 feet off the ground before collapsing onto itself, with concrete weights in each corner. I still carry one weight for those shows that I have a corner booth. If on a corner, I try to leave the outer side partially open for people to see in, or walk through into my booth. That leaves the corner upright unsupported by the racks that usually connect to it so I attach a weight to help.

Display bins to show your unframed work need to be carefully planned out in design and size. Since youíre only dealing with a 10x10 foot space, and expect thousands of people to see your work, you need to design the booth interior to your best advantage. Iíve designed my own display bins, and have purchased commercial bins that Iíve customized. Most art shows donít let you pull your bin out in front because it obstructs traffic. My display bins are all only 12 inches deep to maximize the interior booth space. Even the bin for my larger 22x28 matted photos is only 12 inches deep.

Art Show van
The box on the roof holds my display racks

So now you have a garage full of boxes of framed photographs and a display to hang them on to sell. How do you get them to the art show? I use 25 sheet mat board boxes to transport my framed photographs. If you donít own a van or have a friend who does, your only option is to rent one. If youíre serious about pursuing the art show market as a career, eventually youíll end up purchasing a dedicated vehicle for your new business. Mostly everyone doing art shows either owns an extended van or a 10 foot high cube van the size of a UPS truck. The first time you leave something important at home, youíll see the need for owning a dedicated vehicle. I never unpack my van between shows and only replace the inventory that has sold.

Which are the good Art Shows?

The following is a rough guide for the best art shows (more shows and links will be added as I have the time). Coconut Grove Arts Festival, Winter Park Art Show (Orlando), Oklahoma City Festival of the Arts, Old Town Art Show (Chicago), 57th Street (Chicago), Boston Mills Art Show (Peninsula Ohio), Cherry Creek Art Show (Denver), Madison On the Square (Wisconsin), Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts (State College PA), Ann Arbor (four shows to choose from), Uptown (Minneapolis) Art Show, Longs Park Art Show (Lancaster PA), The Plaza (Kansas City), Saint Louis Art Festival (Clayton MO), Des Moines Art Festival.

Some additional tips

Our Recommendations Ė Are based on personal use and educated decisions learned from years of experience. But understand that there are additional choices for everything weíve recommended. Artists are independent by nature and tend to do things their own way.

Web Site Promotion - Use your web site URL as your business name on your booth sign. Weíve found from experience that our web site clients get a substantial increase in traffic after art shows if they promote their web sites properly. We also have additional promotional tips for art show exhibitors on our web site. Your art show viewers are your biggest online customers.

Contacting People Interested in your Photography - We recommend collecting e-mail addresses of interested people in two ways. One is an e-mail collection form on your web site. Another is an e-mail collection form you have in your booth. The best way is to maintain a database of customer information so you can send out a broadcast e-mail when. We use a program called World Merge for the PC or Max Bulk Mailer for the MAC to send out broadcast e-mail to interested people on a somewhat regular basis. Be aware that we've encountered a 40% bounce rate from collected e-mail addresses due to various reasons like people moving or changing their ISP. Some artists collect street addresses and send out postcards also. Modern Postcard offers good service and reasonable prices and will use your own artwork on the postcards.

Security - Leaving your work overnight in a secure canopy like the Craft Hut is something Iíve been doing for years. Think of it this way. Your artwork has much less value to others than it does to you. Donít use a moneybox. Use something that you can wear unobtrusively or use your pockets. Iíve never left any money in my booth overnight other than about $5.00 in change.

Credit Cards Ė Taking credit cards increases your sales. Taking American Express increases your high dollar sales. People who carry American Express cards will look for the sign in your booth before inquiring about a purchase. When I started taking AmEx, my sales immediately jumped. And I had been taking Mastercard and Visa for years. Contact us if you need to take credit cards and your bank wonít let you open a merchant account. We may have a few resources for you. Personally I use the Nurit 2070 wireless credit card machine which Iíve owned for about six years. There are newer, smaller and more versatile machines available now.

Weather - Carry a weather radio. They only cost about $25 at Radio Shack and it will serve you well for years notifying you of impending weather conditions that can damage your display. Carry a few oversized white tarps and spring clips to fasten them to your display as needed. A towel can also help if your work gets wet. Iíve also had custom clear Craft Hut sides made so I can close up my booth in a heavy rain and still let people look at my work but not drip water on it.

Lights Ė Iíve always carried a small box of six small clip-on lights and extension cords for emergencies. You never know when youíll be under a tree on an overcast day and the person next to you might have a generator. Or the food vendor nearby offers to share his electricity. As a matter of fact, before I sold my cube van, I carried a silent Honda 600-watt generator for just those occasions. For shows that I know will provide electric, I carry a 10 foot light bar and track lights for a classier looking presentation.

Transporting Your Photographs Ė As I previously stated, I use 25 sheet mat board boxes to transport my photographs. The boxes are 32x40x2 inches deep and can be easily cut down if needed. Most framed pieces will fit in that space and aluminum frames can fit two in a box back to back. Make sure to ask for the box when ordering mat board. If youíre ordering larger quantities, ask for it to be packed in 25 sheet boxes so it can be shipped UPS. Iíve also purchased large quantities of empty mat board boxes so I donít have to worry about running out.

So, given the extent of the information weíve made available to you, if you decide to give it a try, be sure to stop by Larry Bermanís or Chris Maherís photography booth and say hello. Chris can also be found in his wife Annette Morrin's booth helping sell her jewelry.

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