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Getting Started: Art Fairs & Craft Shows

April 14, 2011

I apologize for not getting this post up sooner. But I wanted to think about what I was going to say. I wanted to put something together that could actually help someone. So here it goes…

Let me start off by saying I’m no expert in this area. In fact, I’ve only done one outdoor fine art fair [Starving Artists’ Show in Milwaukee, read about it here] and two indoor craft shows [Sandburg High School Holiday Craft Show and Andrew High School Spring Craft Show]. What I do know is that when I first started thinking about doing art fairs, I wished I had known someone who had done an art fair and could share their knowledge with me, even if it was just a little bit of knowledge. So that’s what I want to do for you – be a resource – and that’s why I’m writing this. I had so many questions before the first show. Some of the initial ones were which fairs should I apply to and what’s the application process like – those questions are the ones I’m going to address today.

Before I get into it, I’m going to share with you my definition of art fair and craft show. In my experience, a fine art fair is strictly that – fine art [photography, painting, illustration, sculpture, pottery, sometimes jewelry]. The crowd at these events is the most diverse – men, women, children, grandmas and grandpas. A craft show, on the other hand, tends to have a variety of homemade goods and often time a few vendors [think Pampered Chef].  For example, at my first craft show I sold illustrations [notecards, prints, recipe cards, etc.]. The woman to the left of me was selling handmade goose outfits and dog bandanas and the woman to my right was selling handmade purses. In front of me was a woman selling cake in a jar. Behind me was a man carving wood. I can’t explain it any clearer than that. If you’re a fine artist, I don’t recommend doing craft shows. However, just because I didn’t do well, doesn’t mean you won’t. If you decide to give it a go at craft shows, the one piece of advice I could give is be mindful of the time of year. If you’re around one of the popular holidays, be prepared with lots of holiday product. Now to totally confuse you all, there are indie craft shows. I have yet to do one myself but I’ve attended a few as a customer. Here in Chicago the Renegade Craft Fairs are very popular [also in Austin, Brooklyn, San Francisco, LA and London]. These are your Etsy shop owners bringing their shop goods directly to you. They tend to be younger artisans attracting a younger hipper crowd. 

So, let’s begin. You want to know which fairs you should apply to? Well, I don’t really know because we’re all different. My advice, however, is to research, research, research. I did a lot of it before applying to my first fair. I searched the web for reviews. I attended quite a few of the fairs as a customer and I recommend you do the same. Attend the type of fairs you’d see yourself in [I was looking for a fine art fair with emphasis on emerging art and artists not a fair that looked like the work came straight from a museum]. Identify the type of audience that is present at these fairs. [Is it your current audience? Your ideal audience? Not your audience at all? When you’re just starting out, your friends and family may be your only audience. In that case, you’ll want to choose a fair or show close by so they can attend.]. Observe the artists [take note of work that is similar to yours]. Then ask yourself if this is something you would enjoy [take into consideration that setting up a booth is physically demanding, that as an artist you’re on your feet all day, talking, talking, talking, answering the same questions over and over, selling, selling, selling and then doing it all over again the next day or two. I’m not trying to disillusion you. I’m just being honest.]. Talk to the artists too. [At first I thought that because I wasn’t going to be buying anything they would dismiss me. However, once I got the nerve to approach them, I found most of them were very friendly and helpful. I certainly enjoy meeting and getting to know other artists at shows. However, be mindful of when you approach artists. I did not approach them when they were in the middle of a sale or at times when their booth was filled with customers.] If you’re shy about talking directly to the artists then take a business card and send them a short email afterwards. You could also contact artists you know are successful at art fairs [maybe you follow their blogs] and ask them for advice. Hopefully, this gives you a place to start. But thorough research is the best thing you can do before filling out applications.  

There are a few other things you should address before putting pen to paper on that application. Define what your idea of success is going to be at the art fair/craft show. [At my first show, I decided I would be pleased if I at least made back what I spent on the booth and application fees. Be reasonable with yourself. You’re probably not going to be “discovered” and you’re not going to come home a millionaire]. Also, ask yourself what role exposure/feedback/networking capabilities plays. [The positive feedback I receive and the networking I am able to do at shows has certainly kept me going back].    

Okay, you’ve done your research and you’ve narrow it down to a handle of fairs you’d like to apply to, now what? Once I selected a handful of shows that fit my criteria, I looked into their guidelines for applying. Most art shows make applications available [via web or mail] six to eight months in advance [Others may make applications available two to three months in advance. It depends. Be diligent on application deadlines.] The application lists the show’s requirements for admission and for display. It also lists the number of slides required [usually four or five slides of your work; for craft shows, they sometimes require you to submit a photo of you completing the craft], how to prepare the slides [cd, etc.], the required fees [application and booth], the deadline [date the application has to be postmarked by] and SASE [a self addressed stamped envelope so they can send you a decision letter and return your slides]. Some applications require a description of your work. Filling out applications is time consuming especially if you’ve never done it before. Be prepared with all of the necessary materials, and don’t wait until the last day.    

Ultimately I chose to apply to the Starving Artists Show [I recommend applying to two or three fairs in case you don’t get accepted into one. You don’t want to miss out on an entire season because you put “all your eggs into one basket,” in a manner of speaking.]. A few things that helped me make my decision were that SAS had an excellent reputation as a fine arts show, that it was a one day fair [I figured as a newbie one day would be plenty] with emphasis on emerging art and artists with a diverse audience and that the application did not require a photo of the booth setup [After all I was a beginner and didn’t have a booth much less a photo of it. I figured I would buy the necessary items if I got accepted]. I’ll be honest here, I don’t have any advice to give on what you should you do if you don’t have a photo of your booth setup other than apply to a show that doesn’t require one like I did [At SAS I made sure to take photos of my booth and now I have them to submit with applications that require it; click here for fun photos of booth setups]. I must warn you that I’ve seen applications that say they strongly discourage fabricating booth images so proceed at your own risk.

A few other things I want to make you aware of. Getting involved in art fairs is EXPENSIVE and you have to be willing to make an investment if you want to A) be taken seriously and B) be successful. Would you as a customer be attracted to a booth that was haphazardly put together? Of course not. You’re a beginner, but you don’t necessarily want to stand out as one. So think about it before applying to shows. Over the past year, I’ve invested in a new printer, a canopy, display structures, display bins, framing materials, packaging materials and lots of other miscellaneous items. Also, art fairs [and craft shows] are an overwhelming experience from start to finish. It really takes a lot of physical and mental energy to take part in a show, but it also can be very rewarding.  

Please know that there are additional choices for everything I’ve recommended. What worked or didn’t work for me may be the opposite for you. Us artists are independent by nature and tend to do things our own way. You have to weigh the information I’ve given you according to your own personality, your goals and your art.

If you get nothing else out of this post then at least hear this. If you choose to apply to an art fair, craft show, etc. [or anything that could reject you and your art], I admire your courage and vulnerability. To be a part of this world, we must be thick skinned and persistent. I wish you the best of luck!

I’ll be posting more tips for art fairs/craft shows soon! Leave your questions, comments, stories in the comments section below [or email me!].


9 Comments leave one →
  1. April 14, 2011 2:07 pm

    This is an awesome post, Kate, so helpful for people just getting started in the craft show biz!

  2. April 15, 2011 8:05 am

    This is great, Kate. It’s so informative. Getting started is definitely overwhelming and exciting. It really is important to know which shows are best suited for your products, while at the same time presenting your company in a unique way so it stands out in the crowd. Thanks for sharing.

    Your booth looks beautiful.


  3. April 25, 2011 7:33 am

    I love this post. Thanks so much for sharing all of this information and your experiences. I’ve done a few craft fairs with friends, but never really with just my own work. I’ve been thinking about applying to some, so this has particular resonance for me right now. And I agree with Elmarie, your booth looks fantastic!

  4. February 27, 2012 3:53 pm

    Thanks for this great information! I am wondering what you did about payment–are you set up for credit card processing, and if not did you find that most shoppers were prepared to pay cash given the nature of the event?

    • July 13, 2012 11:20 am

      The items I was selling were between $5 and $20 so most people were willing to pay in cash. However, have you ever heard of the Square? It’s a tool that connects to your cell phone and allows you to accept credit cards. I have one now and it’s really simple to use. Hope this helps! Sorry for the delay in response.

  5. September 30, 2015 10:52 am

    Hi Kate, Can you tell me how to make your display board please, they are so nice and versatile.

    • September 30, 2015 3:35 pm

      Peg board and piano hinges purchased from Home Depot. It’s really easy to transport since it folds up!


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