I did art shows 15+ years ago but I don’t know that I learned a whole lot from those early experiences. I was young and sassy and I just went into everything like it was nothing more than a good time and that was that. This go around there’s a lot more at stake, and I’m taking it much more seriously. I also have a bit more wisdom on my side and I try to learn from other life experiences. I thought it’d be fun, and maybe useful to someone else, to list out some of the lessons I’m taking away or being reminded of during this process of selling art at festivals. Most of my thoughts seem to be universal life tips vs. something that’s specific to the art and craft festival scene, but nonetheless - here’s the list:
Do Your Laundry
Once upon a time, not that long ago, I worked for a Fortune 500 company. During my time there, I was asked to do lots of really amazing things – one of which was presenting with our CEO in a global meeting of 20,000 employees. I was super nervous about this. I had worked with the CEO enough that it wasn’t so much about being with him (although I knew I needed to be ON POINT) as it was being on camera in front of our entire company. I had rehearsed and worked with other leaders to ensure that my content was on target. My PowerPoint slides were solid. My talking points were succinct. I was good. I was ready.
On the morning of the meeting I got up and put clothes on. I guess that’s a good first step by most accounts. My problem was that I didn’t think too much about my outfit in the days leading up to the meeting. I had a loose idea of what I was going to wear and had assumed it was ready to go. I had not actually checked the status of said outfit to ensure that it was clean. The shirt that I decided to wear was sitting on top of the dryer with other items that I assumed were clean (keeping up with laundry has never been a strong skill of mine). I put the shirt on, got ready and left the house. During my 20 minute commute to the office, I started to notice that something smelled like cat pee. I couldn’t figure out what was going on. As I pulled into the parking deck, I realized that it was me who smelled like cat pee. More specifically, my shirt! I could NOT stand on a stage with the CEO of our company smelling like cat pee!
I was mortified.
As I sped back home, I had to also plan for someone else to potentially cover for me in case I didn’t make it back in time. I was panicked as the meeting was scheduled to start at 9am but thankfully I made it back with 30 minutes to spare, but it was too late. The whole cat pee experience completely flustered me. While I got my points across, I didn’t nail my presentation as much as I, and more importantly, my boss, expected me to. I did…ok. OK is not ok.
For these past shows, I planned my outfit a week in advance and ensured that they were CLEAN the day before. What I forgot on my first day of my first outdoor show was a change of clothes.
PRO TIP FOR ARTISTS: If you are doing an outdoors show and it’s 70 degrees or more, bring a change of clothes. Setting up and taking down a booth is no breezy feat. I was drenched in sweat after setting up and I forgot a change of clothes. I regretted it all day. You better believe I had it for the second day.
Know Your Tools
For me, this fell into 2 main areas - my booth (and all of the stuff in it) and my electronic payment system.
I set up and took down my booth at home twice before setting it up at a show. I took pictures of where things would go in the space and I also created an inventory list of all of the miscellaneous stuff I needed so that I could check it off as I was packing. I also packed and unpacked my car before going. This step really helped me to not feel rushed as I unpacked or packed because a) I knew I had everything thanks to my list and b) I knew that everything was going to fit and how to pack it so that it didn’t feel like I was playing a live game of Tetris.
I wish I had prepped for using my credit card reader like I had prepped for my booth. For my first show I assumed that the technology would be super easy. I assumed that the inventory would be easy to manage. I assumed wrong, but only because I didn’t take the time to get to know my reader and the software. During my first show, I was fussing with it way more than I should have. Once I spent 10 minutes exploring the app and READING THE INSTRUCTIONS, it was REALLY EASY. My sales inventory was tracked electronically for my second show which made restocking for the second day super easy. For my first show, I had to manually count everything to figure out what sold. That was not time well-spent.
Be Transparent with Your Pricing
This one probably is pretty specific to the art/craft fair community, but as a consumer nothing is more irksome than having to ask what a vendor’s pricing is. Put your pricing in a few places. Make it big. Mark all bins clearly. Make the signs visible enough so that if someone is just passing by and they glance they can see the prices. If your price point is in their range, they might stop and look. During these shows I watch people like Jane Goodall watches chimpanzees. I noticed people slowly walking by. I noticed that if they were looking but not coming in, they were more likely to do so if the pricing sheet caught their eye.
Talk to People
I belong to a few online forums where artists exchange information and experiences with each other. I was devouring any and all opinions prior to my first show and one of the tips that stuck with me was talk to folks. An artist suggested that you talk about yourself, your art, your process, your inspirations. That might work awesome for him, but based on my experiences so far I have found that it’s MUCH more valuable to ask the customers about themselves. What are they looking for? What do they do? Are they considering a gift? Who is it for? This opens conversation and it allows you as a seller to find the opportunity.
I didn’t realize it until this past weekend, but I already knew this lesson. This is sales 101 and something I had on lock in my days of working at an advertising agency. Not only did it help me sell prints or cards on the spot, but it also helped me to identify potential commission opportunities. There are two such opportunities that I’m super excited about. You can bet that I’ll be employing my sales skills to follow-up and hopefully “close” these deals.
I also talked to my neighbors which for me, was worth the price of the show all by itself. I have seriously been craving “shop talk” and it’s so fun to hear how other folks approach their business, what inspires them, where they sell and what lessons they’ve learned along the way. You can also get free snacks and beer out it if you are lucky. I seriously had the best neighbors at the Candler Park Show.
Know that you won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s perfectly fine.
This last one can be a tough pill to swallow, but it’s vital. I had to get very real with myself before I started going to shows. My art is not for everyone. I know this and I’ve had to get comfortable with it. I would bet that most artists have to remind themselves of this from time to time.
I’m just starting out, which means it’s going to take a little time to find my people. I don’t know where they all are. I found a bunch last weekend and it was glorious. I ran out of business cards on the first day and that made me super happy. People willingly signed up for my newsletter. Lots of people bought cards or prints. Those are my people. I want to find more of those people.
As I was giving myself pep talks on this topic, I again drew upon my advertising agency days. I once had a client that I didn’t love and our main contact didn’t love me. Our personalities just weren’t a fit. Unbeknownst to either of us, we both went to my boss on the same day and asked that the team lead (me) be changed on the account. The agency found someone to take over my responsibilities and the customer went on to work with another team in a much more productive way. I went on to work with other customers that I absolutely loved and did work that energized me. The same is true with art. I can’t force anyone to like me or my style. They either do or they don’t and that’s ok because the truth is, I don’t like all of the art that’s in the world either.
I was proud of myself during this last show as I felt I was really comfortable with this lesson. I was sandwiched between two seasoned and talented makers. One made gorgeous jewelry and the other made awesome t-shirts. Both had attended this show in the past and both had pretty steady traffic to their booths and both had repeat customers. My booth did not have steady traffic. I had little bursts. If I had not gotten comfortable with the idea of my art not being for everyone, I’m sure I would have had pity parties and panic attacks during those slow times. Instead, I thought about the customers who I had already found. I thought about our conversations. I thought about what they bought, other pieces they commented on and how I could find more people like them. I also trusted that more people WOULD SHOW UP, and guess what? They did.
If you are just starting - don’t waste one ounce of energy on the people who don’t get you. Focus on the people who DO get you. Focus on your art, your craft, your ideas and how you’ll achieve your next goal. Focusing on the negative or the people who don’t get you doesn’t get you anywhere, and when you are working for yourself or starting a new business - focusing on the positive and the goals in front of you is what will get you to that next place in life. You also can’t compare yourself to others. That’s a whole different lesson though, and one I still haven’t mastered.
Last but not least, keep your supporters close.
My wife has a crazy work schedule and it’s super rare for her to have a weekend off or time to attend a festival. She was able to come down and see me in action on Sunday. Her support has been infallible and I was just so utterly thrilled that she was able to come down for a little bit. This was one of my favorite moments of the weekend. I wouldn’t be doing this without her.
If you are an artist reading this, what are some of the things you’ve learned along the way? I’d love to know.