Exhibitions and shows · Lessons learnt

9 lessons I learnt from doing my first art fair

At the end of July I took the exciting step of having a stand at an art fair. The thought of art fairs has always been a bit scary to me – having to pay money for a stand with no guarantee of making it back, and even worse having to stand in front of your work all weekend and watch people looking at it or hearing what they think about it…pretty frightening in my book. Now I’m not exactly a stranger to art fairs and their ways as for about 5 years I was on the committee of the British printmaking festival Printfest, and had visited many others. So this year I decided to go for it, and worked on the basis that no matter what happened I would learn something. And indeed I did. So here are my 9 lessons I learnt from doing my first art fair.

1. To make a stand that catches people’s eye

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So the art fair I went to was a lovely place, full of kind and friendly artists. Art fairs are a great place to build your network, I had lots of interesting conversations and found out so much useful information. However, it would be naive of me not to acknowledge that at it’s most basic an art fair is a market place. You’ve not only invested time and money into creating your work, but you have the costs of the stand, travel and any other products you’ve had printed or made for the event. And everyone is in the same boat, all 40 of you. Rather then feel competitive, the best thing you can do is try to make your stand catch people’s eye.

For me that meant first looking at how my stand related to the rest of the room, and making sure that my strongest pictures were directly in the line of sight from the doorway. I chose to have a primarily blue colour palette for the work and products I was selling (and because I’m really into blue at the moment). I also decided only to exhibit original artworks in a similar style and the same medium. While I understand the argument that by having lots of styles or subjects on offer as you may appeal to more people, I am in the early stages on building up my business and I wanted my stand to have a clear, coherent message about my work.

I realised props can also make a big difference to how easily people can see things from afar. I used a picture shelf to display my postcards so they were visible before you reached my stand, and also propped an example of each of my greetings cards up rather then having them flat on the table. I used a small shelving unit to present a few of each of my products like my cushions, notebooks and bags, and kept the rest in the storage room to avoid my little stand seeming overcluttered. Finally I brought in a high stool – like a breakfast bar chair – to use as my seat. This was really good as it had space to store my till box underneath. Also when sitting I was at the level of the customers rather then really low down, and when standing I could use it as a little table. I will definitely be taking it again next time.

Next time I’ll probably take a slightly different approach and make sure I utilise every bit of the wall space available as this is precious. I’ll also bring a lot more original work then I need but plan it so various things are the same sizes, as I spent a lot of time panicking about how rubbish my carefully designed stand would look if I sold something!

2. To display contact information clearly

I think that having a stand at an art fair is valuable in several ways. One of course is to sell your work. But since I knew this is often quite difficult, I wanted to view having my stand as primarily about finding people who might be interested in my work. Many art fairs will have a sign with your name on, but I think one of the best things you can do I think is to bring your own with your name (or the name of your company) and your website on it. Have business cards on hand to give out, but also have your contact details clearly displayed somewhere as well. I didn’t do this and regretted it, as I can easily remember the websites on the two people opposite, who printed them in a big font and displayed them under their name. Another thing I wish I had done was to make something to go along with this information describing my medium as ‘Handmade papercuts’. It would have saved me having to tell so many people that they were made by hand and not by a laser-cutter!

3. To offer a variety of different publicity materials

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If you imagine that your stand is a chance to meet and talk to people directly about your work, you realise what a brilliant publicity opportunity it is. So many other ways to passively promote your work to the world like Facebook, Instagram and other social media sites may only catch someone’s attention for a second, whereas at a fair you can talk to people for 10 minutes about your work and what you do! When you have a small stand it can feel a bit frustrating if someone talks to you for ages and then walks away empty handed, but then all you need to do is make sure they have something in their hand – your card! The way I see it, they may not have bought your work this time, but they might put your card up and one day they might end up getting back in touch with you again. For this art fair I made a new set of square business cards at Moo.com, which I loved because you can print lots of different designs at the same time. This doesn’t only give people a chance to pick their favourite, but it also gave me an indication of what was more popular. I also had a free promotional postcard left over from my last exhibition, and a small framed biography which included my website address. Finally, I had a mailing list form that people could sign up to, and I encouraged them to do so by offering a free print in a prize draw if they joined my mailing list. Before the fair opened I had a twinge of worry it was all a bit too self-promotional, but so many people walked away with my business card over the weekend I feel I did the right thing.

4. To prepare my presentation

I spend so much time thinking and talking about my work it didn’t even occur to me that it might be sensible to prepare what I would say to people! But as the weekend went on I realised that I only got a few valuable minutes of people’s time, and that I should use it well. I guess at the beginning I probably seemed enthusiastic but also slightly insecure or hesitant for fear of seeming arrogant. However I realised that although I wanted to be genuine and myself, it was also important to get across the points I wanted to make about my art, and to do that with confidence. Really you’re giving a hundred little presentations in all those friendly conversations, and in another context I’d never go to a presentation without preparing it.

Next time I’ll just write a list of main things I think are important to share about what inspires me, my technique and what I hope to do next. I’d also jot down some questions I could ask people as conversation starters such as ‘Do you make art?’, ‘What’s your favourite medium?’, or ‘Have you worked with papercutting before?’, as often people will wait for you to speak first and then happily engage in conversation with you (of course, if they seem like they don’t want to talk and just want to look then quickly and politely retreat!)

This may all seem horrible and contrived, but I have to remind myself that these are techniques I used with teaching at the beginning to help me stay focused on what I needed to achieve with the lesson/ workshop while also being friendly and avoiding awkwardness. The more you do it the easier it becomes until it’s a natural process, I am just much more shy and awkward about my papercutting then I was about making giant puppets!

5. To help people to visualise my working process

I think helping people to visualise your working process is really important, especially if you work in a medium that people tend to be less familiar with. Some of the visitors to my stand had never seen a papercut before, and I got a lot of questions about whether I had made them on a laser-cutter. I brought in a half finished papercut, and this was useful but obviously it wasn’t the environment to bring in a surgical scalpel and show people my art in action.

In future I think I’ll make a timelapse video of myself creating a papercut, and have that displayed on an i-pad (or something similar that I can afford to buy!) If you don’t have the budget or feel comfortable using digital technology you could always just photograph your process in stages and print this out to use in your display. It really helps to have something to refer to when describing how you make your work, and I can imagine it could be used for printmaking and lots of crafts too.

6. To look for opportunities to promote other things I do

People may not leave with one of your pictures off the wall, but I tried to think of all the things I could do to promote the other areas of my work such as my Etsy shop and teaching. I noticed that lots of people are interested in papercutting as an art form they would like to try themselves, so I made sure I’d organised a date and venue for a papercutting workshop before the fair. I handed out flyers for this on my stand, and I had lots of people take them. Obviously this only works if the fair is local to you, but you could always have a blog with tutorials or  even offer online courses that people can sign up to from anywhere!

7. To connect with other artists

It can be such a hectic, busy experience doing an art fair, and you might find you are stuck to your stand all weekend. However, it’s such a great opportunity to meet other artists and learn about collectives and opportunities, as well as just make new friends. I didn’t plan this at all, so in the end my friend was kind enough to man my stand for a bit so I could see what else was on display. Next time I’ll ask someone to cover me for at least half an hour each day (obviously I’ll repay them in favours and cake) – but it lets you meet the other artists and sit down and have a lunch break (really important!). I had other artists add me on Facebook after the fair, and I made sure to added their Facebook pages and instagram account too.

8. To document my display

If like me you are sharing your experiences on social media and through blogging then it’s really important to document your display well. I was feeling tired after the set up (mostly due to going to bed at 3am!) and I was too busy during open hours, so I only remembered to take a photo or two. I really regret this, as I wish I had taken a series of images from lots of different angles that I could have used on my website and this post. It’s also really good as a reminder of how you set things up that you can then refer to next time. Also it’s really hard if you are a bit camera shy like me, but it’s a good idea to get someone to take some photos of you with your work…luckily my friend did that for me because I didn’t think about this at all (big thank you to Kate Kirkwood for these photos!)

9. To see it as an investment into my business

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I’ve sort of already said this, but once I stopped worrying about selling work and started seeing it as an investment into publicising my work and getting it out there, I felt like I couldn’t really lose. Obviously art fairs are expensive, so I would recommend researching the fair before you apply and ideally trying to visit beforehand to make sure its appropriate to your work. It could be disheartening and make you lose confidence in what you’re doing if the audience just isn’t right for your work, and no one wants to lose money. But as this was my first art fair I felt like the learning experience and the chance to show people my work was the most valuable aspect of the weekend.

Phew, that was a long post. I hope it was useful to some of you are who are considering doing your first art fair, and if you have any other suggestions please leave them in the comments below. Good luck!

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8 thoughts on “9 lessons I learnt from doing my first art fair

  1. These lessons learned are great. One day I hope to show as well. I hope I will remember your suggestions. Thanks Ellie. – Rosi

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    1. Thank you for your comment Rosi. It is a big and sometimes intimidating step, but it’s also really inspiring as so many people will give you positive feedback on your work. Sometimes being an artist can be a bit lonely, and even in an exhibition you rarely speak to the visitors, so it’s a nice way of sharing your work which is a bit more social. Good luck in your work!

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    1. I’m glad you found it of use David! I agree, I’ve always seen art fairs as quite expensive, but I think being on the committee of one helped me to realise all the time, work and money that goes into organising them, including the set up and promotion of the event. For me, I think they are something I can afford to do locally, as when you add the travel and accommodation it all adds up. But then, if you think about how much it would cost to have an add in a local magazine, the cost of a stand seems pretty reasonable 🙂

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  2. Such a good article. Very informative, insightful and easy to read. And having seen your beautiful stand in the flesh, and spoken to you, I can certainly vouch for the comments you make here!

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  3. well done thats so good of you to share your ideas i have donemany art fairs which are often expenisve but think the best hot tip i can give back is that you look so positive and excited about your work whatever is happening and makegood friends with the other artists as they all support each other well done and i hope you have good feed back sometimes it comes years later love jenny -turtill.com

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  4. Wow! !!!
    I’m going to exhibit at new Artist fair in London next September and you’re post is so helpful. I’ll make an effort to cover most of your points.

    Daddo

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