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Art Festivals: Pros and Cons for Artists

There are pros and cons to participating in art festivals.

As an artist, I’m sure you’ve attended art festivals and thought, “Maybe I should sell my work at one of these things?” But then, you may have felt discouraged because you weren’t sure what all is involved or how to get started. With several years of experience under my belt, I can say that art festivals have provided me with many opportunities to make money doing what I love. But let me be honest with you, art festivals are not right for everyone. A great show will put you on “cloud nine” but a bad show will send you crashing back to Earth – hard. Yes, there are a lot of risks, hard work and emotional stress that come with festivals but there’s also the potential for great rewards. Let’s quickly look at a few pros and cons so you can decide if the art festival life is the one for you.

First, the good news (Pros):

  • Potential for a great profit in a short amount of time: Personally, I’ve found that festivals are a great way to sell many art pieces in a short time frame. Retail can be slow and agonizing. Galleries are intimidating and selective. Online sales can be confusing if you’re not tech-savvy or have a good understanding of digital marketing avenues. When a popular festival full of potential customers presents itself, I’ll jump on the opportunity because I know I can (usually) make a great profit in one weekend. For me, a great profit is a couple of thousand dollars. Some shows have brought in even more but there have been times when I made a LOT less…even negative numbers.

  • Exposure to a lot of people: Most of my experience has been in the Atlanta area where the more established festivals can have upwards of 200,000 in attendance. That’s a lot of potential exposure which is great for several reasons:

    • Grow your email list: Your email list is VERY important. This allows you to continue reaching out to potential customers beyond that one show. They may not be ready to purchase from you during the festival, but with a little e-mail nurturing, they are likely to consider your work in the future.

    • Line-up commissions: Most of my commissions have come from people that I met during a festival. Often, they see one of my paintings but want something similar in a different size or color scheme. Why, of course, I’m happy to customize!

    • Networking: I’ve met shop owners who wanted to carry my artwork in their stores. It’s possible to meet interior designers and influencers. Or, you may even inspire someone, like a high school art student curious about your process.

  • Meet other artists: You’re surrounded by other artists - get to know them! This is your chance to swap valuable show information like finding out their favorite events and which shows they avoid at all costs. You can also exchange marketing ideas, display tips and other resources. I encourage you to meet other artists in your specific medium as well. It’s ideal to hear about experiences from someone who’s selling a similar product.

  • First-hand feedback: Okay, some may not consider this a “pro,” but I do. Festivals give me a chance to gauge peoples’ reactions to new artwork, see which pieces get attention and which ones get ignored. I also get to see emotional reactions or hear personal stories that connect customers with my work. Yes, you could hear negative feedback too but use constructive critiques as an opportunity to grow.

And Now, the Bad News (Cons):

  • The large upfront investment and non-refundable expenses: In addition to purchasing a tent and your show display, there are usually several upfront expenses for each show. Most likely you’ll have to float these expenses for several months before you see any return on your investment. And, if it’s a bad show, you may even lose money. The main thing to note is that some of these fees are non-refundable so you’re truly gambling with each festival registration. Here are some of the typical show-related fees that you can expect:

    • Application fee: The fee to apply to a festival usually ranges between $20 - $40 for each entry. This fee covers the festival’s administrative costs and is non-refundable, even if you're not accepted to the event.

    • Booth fee: A booth for a small festival typically starts around $150-$200 for a single 10 x 10 spot and goes up to $450 for larger shows. Highly ranked, national-level shows may have booth fees in the $500 - $750 range. Keep in mind, this fee only covers the space, not any of your display. Most festivals offer a full refund or partial refund until a certain cut-off date. Also, refunds are NOT issued in the event of bad weather. READ THE REFUND POLICY CAREFULLY.

    • Special rentals: You may need to rent a U-haul if your personal vehicle is too small. Is the festival out of town? Be sure to include hotel and gas in your show costs too.

  • Festivals are a LOT of work: There’s a lot of pre-show preparation like creating inventory and advertising the show to customers. During the show, there’s the set-up (sometimes in the early morning), long show hours and then packing it all up when it’s over.

  • Things can go wrong: Your most prized art pieces are exposed to the elements:

    • Artwork or equipment could get damaged: I’ve seen a gust of wind send a beautiful display of pottery crashing down. That same gust of wind flipped over my table and put a giant rip through my painting.

    • The weather: As I mentioned earlier, festivals are usually rain or shine events with no refunds. If it looks like you’re in for a rainy weekend, you’ll need to weigh your options and decide if it’s worth your time and the risk to your artwork.

  • Inconsistent Income: Art festivals are fickle beasts!

    • They usually take place at certain times of the year: In the Atlanta area, festivals start-up in early April and go through mid-November. It’s simply too hot (for me!) to sit outside in the summer heat and I certainly don’t do the cold. That means there are several months when I’m forced to find other outlets to sell my work.

    • Will you get in? You never know from year to year if you’ll be accepted back into the same show. Each year there may be a different jury and a different applicant pool, so there are no guarantees.

    • Sales differ from year to year – You can have spectacular sales at a festival one year and slow sales the next year at the same event. No festival is ever a “safe bet.” Your booth could be placed in an unfavorable location or there could be other outside factors affecting attendance.

Now that you’ve had the chance to evaluate a few pros and cons, it should be easier to decide if you want to pursue the art festival route for your business. If you would like to give the festival route a shot, then I’m sure you have even more questions like, “How much does a display cost?”, “How do I find festivals and apply for them?” and “How do I handle sales during a show?” Well, I’ve got that covered (and much more!) in my “Art Festival Crash Course” e-book. At around 50 pages, it’s meant to be a quick read of the essential information you’ll need to get started. I get quite candid (and even embarrass myself a little) in hopes that it reduces your learning curve. I've partnered with Don't Forget the Ranch, a marketing and PR firm for artists to offer this resource. Take a peek at the introduction and table of contents to see what it’s all about.

Now that you have a better understanding of the pros and cons, how do you feel about pursuing art festivals? Leave your questions or comments for me and I'll help you sort things out.

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