Lessons from selling my photography at art festivals
After a decade of selling my work at art festivals, I’ve found that in addition to the money I’ve made, I’ve also received valuable lessons for both my career and my life.
This article is mainly aimed at anyone interested in showing their work at festivals. I hope my experiences and insights will prove useful.
Realize that it is a business
I remember going to an arts festival in Aspen, Colorado a few years ago. As I was setting up my booth and getting ready for the weekend, a man came up to me and asked a few questions, such as how much money I expected to make and how long the festival was going on. Later I wish I had taken more time to answer in more detail, because I got the distinct feeling that the source of his questions was the illusion that artists at art festivals are there to kill, and that was easy money. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. And while I’ve had some pretty lucrative arts festivals, I’ve also had my share of duds, which unfortunately turned out to be at this particular festival. But as I was setting up my festival booth in the hot July sun, I didn’t bother to let him know the reality – that this end of the day or weekend endeavor is much more than just camping out in a park and seeing you , what is happening.
For example, maybe I could have started by telling him that, of course, there were some expenses to be paid before I made any profit. First up is the booth fee for renting this 10×10 piece of lawn in the park, which in this case was $ 500.
Plus, for me this was an out of town show in a more affluent part of the state, so my food and accommodation costs were way higher than usual. Then there were the gasoline and maintenance costs for my SUV, which I use to haul my trailer full of prints and an exhibition booth over a mountain pass to this place.
With all of this, I couldn’t expect to be in the black until I made my first $ 1,000. And not a cent of that $ 1,000 is guaranteed. In fact, I did poorly at this particular festival and didn’t make all of my money, so the whole experience was a slightly expensive, hard-working vacation in one of the nicer areas of the state.
Oh, yeah, and that booth and the walls that I put up? Over $ 2,000 has been invested in all of this.
Attending art festivals has helped me realize that selling my art in a meaningful way is a business. Before doing my first, I started my business as an LLC, got insurance, and then started paying sales tax. Before I was just someone joking around with it and occasionally selling some work in a coffee shop or small gallery show, but now I was an LLC.
Find out who your customer is
This was very valuable to my business. Standing by my booth at an arts festival for two or three days chatting to people was a great way to find out which pictures are going down the most and why. This firsthand experience helped me narrow down my offerings and it helped me refine my marketing efforts because I know a little about who my best customers are, z interests may be, where they live, etc. You never can knowing for sure who will and won’t buy your work, but it’s great to have a starting point.
Create an email list
This is another benefit of business marketing. Over time, I’ve made a list of people who enjoy my work and love to see new pictures and hear about trips I’ve been on or what festivals I’m going to visit next. Having a good email list is the backbone of any art establishment, and festivals are something that helped get it off the ground.
Another benefit to building an email list is that sometimes when the print sales just aren’t there I can at least walk away knowing that I’ve added several people to my email list and fan base . That’s one of the things that can pay off in the future.
Not all shows are created equal
As I said, this particular festival was a dud for me, meaning a small number of sales that were nowhere near enough to make up for the expenses. But the next one was much better. I’ve found it to be a balancing act over the years. I try to find shows where art patrons are willing and able to spend some money, and yet I don’t have to spend an arm or leg just to be there.
I’ve done shows that look like they should be fabulous on paper, like the ones in Aspen, and I don’t have much to show off. I’ve made others that were much smaller and in less posh areas and I’ve done great, especially considering the fact that I had smaller expenses to make a profit. For me, a small, well-organized show with just a few other photographers is almost always better than a large, well-known show with more landscape photographers than you can shake a stick.
Don’t be afraid of competition
One thing I learned early on, especially when trying to get into the more lucrative shows, was that there are a lot of talented photographers out there. Much. It was easy to see some of the other photographers at shows, some of whom had great large double booths with huge prints and felt a little intimidated. Over time I’ve just accepted that this is just a reality of this type of work. I also try to learn from people who may be further than me and trust that I will find my market if my work is different from theirs.
Finding your style is crucial
That leads to the next point. Finding your style is so important. This is how you find a market for your photography and stand out from the competition. Just like the virtual world, the world of personal art exhibitions is full of really good work. Developing your own style is crucial to stand out from the crowd. This is one that I am still learning and is likely to be a lifelong lesson.
Don’t waste time comparing yourself to others
This ties in with the last point. When chatting with other artists, it’s easy to get discouraged when they are having a great show and I am not. It’s a mental trap that I’ve fallen into many times and it’s never fun. But when I can adopt the mindset that the only person I compete with is myself, what others do becomes much less important. And I’ve also learned that everyone, at least every now and then, has a show where everything just clicks for them and it looks like all of their best customers are there. Conversely, we’ve all had shows where it looks like nothing is going right and nothing is selling. âThis too will passâ was a good sentence to remember.
Eliminate negative self-talk
I don’t know how many shows I’ve done where I hear my internal negative dialogue start somewhere, often on a Sunday afternoon that I haven’t made a lot of money up to that point. Things like, “What are you doing this for,” “You should just sell everything and stop doing these stupid activities,” or “Other people are so much better than you and you’ll never be good enough to do anything.” These are just a few of the things that go through my head. But I’ve learned that my fate can change instantly. I can’t count the number of times, shortly after this negative dialogue, someone shows up in my head and buys a large piece, which suddenly puts me in the black. And while this has happened a few times before, it’s still hard not to dump myself in the dump and develop a shitty attitude. But I am learning that it only takes one person at the right time to change things. So why bother with the negative self-talk?
Collaborate with others
This has been very valuable to me both in running arts festivals and in my photography career in general. I think when I first started I was a lot more inclined to look at other photographers with a bit of contempt. But over time, I’ve learned that in some ways they are soul mates. Not everyone spends much of their free time photographing landscapes, and even fewer people take this work and put it at art shows to try to sell it. There’s a certain camaraderie there, of course, and some of the other photographers I’ve met at shows have become friends. I learned a lot from some of them.
Another plus point of working with other artists, regardless of the medium, is that I have learned which shows to promote and, conversely, which ones to avoid. Other artists who do more full-time festivals than I do often have valuable insights into this.
So there you have it. These are just some of the things I came across and learned in trying to sell my work directly to the public at art exhibitions. If you’re someone just starting out, or considering getting started, I hope this insight is valuable, or at least provides a reality check before you dive in.