What you need to know about the
Art Show Circuit - FAQ
Tips before you start
The goal for doing Art Shows is making
money, not gaining exposure as an artist. There are better, easier
ways to gain exposure than by doing the art show circuit.
Get a professional photographer who is
doing art shows successfully to review your portfolio to determine
if you have enough sellable work. Don’t just get your family and
Find your niche. Why should a customer
buy your photos instead of someone else’s? What sets you apart from the
- Q - What do you sell the most of? A – the bread and butter at the
art shows are the smaller matted prints. 8x10 prints matted to 11x14,
11x14 prints matted to 16x20, and 16x20 prints matted to 22x28. Stick
to standard sizes so customers can easily frame it themselves. 24x30
prints and larger sell at lower volume, but at higher profit margins.
(Sell maybe 1 or 2 framed big ones per show.)
- You may not sell a ton of large prints, but you need them for your
display to get attention. Put BIG prints of your most
colorful work in front, in a prominent position. No drab shots.
- Always use colored mats for sales. Suede and textured mats sell
very well. Colored mats outsell plain white 10 to 1. Use the mat to
complement the print. In general, use a mat color darker than the
print, because your eye is naturally drawn to brighter colors. (Gallery
display may be a different story. They may require you to use white
- Presentation is everything. Make sure you have a clean, sharp, very
professional looking display.
- Don’t undercut prices too much. Price competitively. Psychology of
sales shows that customers think lower priced artwork is lower quality.
Customers will pay higher prices for artwork because they think it is
better. But make sure your display looks professional enough to command
the higher prices.
- Be enthusiastic about your pictures. Have a selling point. Chat
with potential customers and tell them the story about how you got the
shot, and the process you used to make the print.
- 98% of your customers are interested in buying bin prints. They are
just looking for a pretty picture to hang on the wall and match their
furniture and drapes.
- 2% of your customers are collectors who are interested in very
particular photos and/or print processes.
- Be honest to buyers. Use full disclosure about how you made your
prints, including any alterations to the raw image. Create a handout to
explain your print process for people who are interested. (Don’t sell
inkjet prints unless you tell the customer upfront.) Some patrons might
try to engage you and/or antagonize you about the validity of your work,
just to see how you react and see if you are lying. If you are always
upfront about your processes and give full disclosure about your work,
then you won’t get in trouble down the road with upset or angry
- Posters don’t sell. Don’t bother printing any up.
- Put prices on or near all prints – people don’t like to ask for
prices. Also, don’t just give the price for that one print. Customers
may not realize that they could buy the same photo in another size.
Make up a chart of prices for Photo Only, Matted, and Framed for all
- Mounting and matting – For the smaller bin prints, the process you
use is not as important. You can usually go with the method that’s
easiest and cheapest for you. However, you have to be more careful for
prints 16x20 and larger. No hinge or spray mounting. Don’t use foam
core for mounting in Colorado – it warps over time. Mount on gator
board or 4-ply instead.
- Frame your show pieces with the cheapest glass for transport. (It’s
not uncommon for the glass to break on the way to/from a show, so this
will minimize the cost for you.) Offer glass upgrades for your customer
orders and show them a sample display. In most cases they will upgrade
- When shipping expensive framed prints, don’t attempt to do this
yourself. To be insured, they need to be professionally packed with
double boxes and padding in between layers. Use PakMail or UPS and
charge the customer the actual cost.
- Q – Do you sell better on the road vs. at home? (Consider market
saturation vs. recognition of landmarks.) A - This is not really a
factor. It depends more on which Art Shows you decide to attend and
knowing your audience. Stick to the shows that sell.
- Q – Which sell better, iconic prints or original subject matter? A
– This doesn’t make much difference either. Photographers may be tired
of seeing the same postcard prints from popular iconic locations, but
these sell well with customers who want to remember their vacations to
these photo spots. However, original subject matter may inspire them to
take new trip!
Art Shows generally give a 10’x10’ space for your setup.
- Cheapest option - EZUp tent ~$200. Can be found at Sam’s Club or
Costco in season. Or
http://ezup.com . The nylon of the tent will last about a year,
depending on frequency of usage. Especially in Colorado, the harsh sun
damages the plastic test coating and it becomes less waterproof.
Bring extra tarps to cover photos in case of storms!
- More robust tent –
- Most professional tent – Trimline.
http://flourish.com $775 minimum for basic setup, then add
awning, stabilizer bars, and a carry bag = ~$1200. The Trimline was
recommended by Tony L. and Dave R. because it is more modular, easier to
carry, breaks down smaller, and has more setup configuration options
than the Crafthut. It also has a skylight and 4 zippered walls built in
- You will need lots of extra weight to hold your tent down – 300 lbs.
minimum, but this is not enough for strong wind! Suggestions: you can
buy large plastic water jugs from Wal-Mart. They weigh 50 lbs full.
Tie ropes to these and attach to the top of the tent frame. Another
idea: Buy some 4” PVC pipe at Home Depot and fill it with cement to
create 60 lb. weights. Insert a large hook and hang one on each corner
of your tent. If a storm or strong wind blows in, grab onto your tent,
or else it could take off on you, like a hang glider!
- Cheapest option – Grid mesh ~$400 for a small booth.
- Most professional -- ProPanels are the most professional display
panels available (read: not cheap.)
http://propanels.com $110 per wall x 9 walls (needed) + 2 extra
walls = ~$1200.
- Table with a nice looking tablecloth. Dark colors are best, but
choose a material that will stay clean and not pick up too much fuzz.
Try using a bedsheet, because this usually costs much less than a
tablecloth, but looks pretty much the same.
- Chair. A high, director type chair works well.
- Display bins. Avoid cheap plastic bins, unless you decorate them
nicely. Try wooden bins, or wicker baskets with a cloth-lined
interior. Look at
http://artessentials.com for clear acrylic bins.
- Lights. Always get electricity if the show offers it. If offered,
the show usually gives 500W. Buy 4 halogen track light sets.
They are sold with three 50W
halogen bulbs per set = 12 bulbs. (But you may max out at 10 bulbs with
the power limitations.) $45 + $10 for the adaptor = $55. You still
need to purchase the bulbs separately.
- Hangers for lights.
- Bring leveling blocks or boards to fill in potholes or uneven
- Be prepared for torrential rain. Elevate everything in your tent on
2x4s or crates, to protect from falling rain or seeping water.
- If you want to offer different types of glass for framing, bring a
- Make a sign explaining your policy for misbehaved children.
“Warning to Parents – You break, you buy!”
- Banner. Print a professional banner on a large tarp. Make the
banner large and distinctive, so that returning customers can find you
again later. (In a sea of white tents, booths all start to look the
same after a while…) Try SignsByTomorrow or
- Packaging. Buy clear plastic bags to put sold prints in. Customers
walking around the show with their purchase gives you free advertising.
You can use a roll of clear garbage bags.
- Cash box. Either find a place to hide the cash box, or keep it with
you at all times. Hide it under the table. Don’t walk away from it --
it can disappear in a fraction of a second.
- Credit card processing materials (more on this later).
- Manual sales receipts. Buy a special note pad for this.
- An address book for customers who want to join your mailing list.
- Business cards and fliers.
- Artist statement/ biography.
For transporting inventory to shows, a heavy-duty dolly cart is
recommended, $75 at Sam’s Club. (Remember, it might be a long way from
your parking spot to your tent setup.) Protect large framed pictures
with cardboard and foam padding. Small prints should go in sturdy
protective boxes. (Tony uses aluminum boxes from Sam’s Club that are
rubberized inside, although you may not be able to find these now.)
- Q – How much stock should I bring? A – You have around 6’ x 30’ =
180 ft2 usable wall
space to cover. Bring 12-15 framed killer images. They
should be at least 16x20, but larger is better. You don’t need much
extra inventory -- the large pieces don’t sell at a very high volume.
Put your best work at eye level. Put your most colorful pieces out
front. If you can’t do big, do bright colors.
- Don’t display any mediocre images. Be your own worst critic. If
you hang up a picture that’s not so good just to take up some space,
people have a knack for singling out the bad one and remembering it!
- Then bring your bin prints. When starting out, have two matted
8x10s and two matted 11x14s of each large image on display. Later, when
you have a better idea of what sells well, carry 5 of each for the bins,
and add some 16x20s as well. Try
http://whcc.com for making prints. (Make sure you calibrate your
monitor first.) Costco also does an excellent job on prints up to
12”x18” (Tony’s recommendation).
Choosing Art Shows
- One of the best things you can do is to spend your first year
visiting all potential shows you might want to enter. This will tell
you about your competition, the venue, the crowd, and the overall feel
of the show. Ask how to get on that show’s mailing list while you’re
- Fine Art specific shows (as opposed to town festivals) make the best
money in return for your time and investment.
- Stay away from craft shows (where lots of people are looking for $5
items), flea markets, and carnivals with beer gardens. People coming to
these shows are looking for cheap items or entertainment, not art.
- In Colorado, a good Art Show should make ~ $1000 a day. Some nicer
examples are the Estes Park and Breckenridge Art Shows, which can
average $4 – 7k in a weekend. Cripple Creek wasn’t too bad in their
experience either, at $3k for the weekend.
- If an Art Show makes less than $1000 a day, you should consider
skipping this one next time. Usually Tony gives a show more than one
chance, though. Events out of your control can play a part in a bad
turnout, like bad weather or another competing event going on that
- Big shows like Cherry Creek ($30-45k in 3 days) or Sausalito, CA
($48 – 52k in 3 days) are awesome if you can get into them.
Qualification is extremely competitive, and in some cases (like Cherry
Creek) landscapes may be frowned upon.
- Gated or fee art shows can be very good, because only serious buyers
are in attendance.
are some very helpful books you can buy as a guide to the Art Shows.
The Art Fair Source Book by Greg Lawler is very detailed and
extremely helpful. $180, but worth every penny. He sells a nationwide
edition, and local version. Try the Western States edition.
- Colorado Artist Tour sells a $10 guide to the local shows.
http://ColoradoArtistTour.com It lists most major shows in CO, and
gives you 90% of the application forms for CO shows.
- In general, when trying to choose a show to attend, look for the
words “Fine Art” in the title, and avoid anything with the word
“Crafts”, but this is not an ironclad rule. (There are a few notable
exceptions to this rule in CO.) Ask other photographers for their
opinions, and consult the Art Fair Source Book for great descriptions.
- Q – How much of a factor is competition from other photographers in
a Fine Art show? A – This really varies, depending on the show. A
gated/ fee show has more competition from other photographers, but you
can still get a large sales volume because the fee weeds out
non-buyers. Here is where it helps to have a niche that makes you stand
out from the others.
Most art shows have a jury process you have to pass to gain
entrance to the show. You must submit 4 slides for review – 3 examples of
your work and 1 booth setup shot. The jury is usually a diverse panel of
artists and show organizers from different backgrounds. Warning – Some
jury members do not consider landscape photography “original art.” They
have a tendency to lump all landscape photographers into the same
category. For example, using slides to judge the work places large format
photographers on the same playing field as 35mm – it is hard to tell the
difference in image resolution on a slide. They charge a jury fee of
$20-30, or sometimes as much as $50. Apply for the show 3-6 months in
- Slides of your work – Send a duplicate of the original image. Don’t
take a photo of a framed print. Don’t show matting or a frame in the
slide. Choose colorful representatives of your work.
- Booth shot – For the jury’s blind evaluation, your name should not
be anywhere in the shot. Take a picture of your booth setup. Make sure
you take down your banner first, and no people are in the shot. The
primary objective is to make your booth setup look as professional,
clean, and sharp as possible. Get rid of anything in your shot that
looks cheap, cheesy, or bad. Don’t show plastic bins. You could use
wooden bins, or just leave them out of the picture entirely. Some
juries frown on grid walls – they always prefer ProPanels. Shoot the
photo in the morning of an overcast day, before a show starts. Or setup
the booth in your backyard. Try to minimize the glare on the framed
display items. If you don’t have a booth, borrow one. Never go without
one for your booth shot. However, you shouldn’t bait and switch,
either. For example, don’t jury for a show with a top-of-the-line setup
with borrowed ProPanels, and then arrive the day of the show with grid
walls. It is OK to alter small things for your booth shot, like hiding
your bins, but don’t make huge, obvious switches.
- Q – Can two artists share a booth for a juried art show? A –
Sometimes, but then both entrants need to pass the jury
selection, so it actually makes it harder to get in.
Day of show
- Artist must be at the Art Show 100% of the time.
- Setup – Shows usually have specific setup guidelines and timelines
you should follow. Don’t bother trying to pull your vehicle up to your
booth area to unload. Even if you can get your vehicle back there, it
may take 2 hours to get it out again when you’re done unloading. Just
figure on carting your inventory from the parking lot on a dolly cart.
This usually ends up going faster, anyway.
- Teardown – Usually this is a free-for-all with no official
guidelines. Most shows discourage early teardown and will possibly
refuse your entry into next year’s show if you do so. Be aware of the
guidelines for each show.
Business Side of Things
Get a Website:
Having a website is good for repeat or follow up business. It is not
good for first time business because people cannot see the quality of your
photo first hand. Treat a website as a sample portfolio of your work, and
as a communication tool so customers can follow what you’re up to. Not
too many orders are received directly from a website, unless the customer
already knows you or has seen your work in person. 98% of the time in
photo sales, a purchase is an impulse buy and the customer wants to walk
away with a print in their hands.
Helpful tip: If a person keeps coming back throughout the day to look
at a photo over and over again, trying to decide whether to buy, don’t
tell them at that point that you have a website. Then, they will leave
“to think about it” and not come back! It is better to wait until after
they purchase something, and then hand them a business card to encourage
Print Up Business Cards:
Print up colorful business cards with your name and website URL on
them. It is also highly recommended to put one of your signature photos
http://96eddie.com will print 5000 professional looking cards +
shipping for $120. A cheaper route to take is
http://vistaprint.com but they put their own logo on your cards as
http://elance.com you can let people bid on printing jobs you want
done, including business cards, letterhead, color handouts and fliers.
(This ends up being cheap because of the competition for your job.)
Others suggested trying to cut a deal with the owner of a printing shop.
E.g. - trade a nice framed photo for a printing job.
Set Up Your Company:
It is recommended to set up a sole proprietorship and a trade name, or
setup a LLC. This is a lot easier, and a lot less paperwork than setting
up a corporation. Don’t setup a corporation unless you want to minimize
tax or general liability. Setting up an LLC requires a one page form to
be filed with the CO Secretary of State for $50. (This is basically like
a $50 insurance plan.) You will only need to get an Employer ID Number if
you hire employees.
Come up with a company name, and try to register an internet domain
name for it first (because usually this is the hardest step nowadays.)
Use a DNS registration service like
http://godaddy.com to search for an available URL, preferably ending
in .com. Try to make it an easy to remember URL, and avoid characters
like “.” and “-“ in the name.
Go to the Colorado Secretary of State webpage to register the trade
name in Colorado.
Copyright the name with a federal copyright.
Buy business insurance, not personal insurance. Tony uses
Country Insurance, and has $5000 coverage on the road, for $250 a year.
He does not recommend using AllState. He also recommends buying a million
dollars worth of liability insurance, because it usually is pretty cheap
to add anyway. The concern here is, if anybody gets hurt in your booth
(they cut themselves on broken glass or on the corner of a frame, or a
child falls down and smacks his head on your table) you will get
sued, so you should be prepared for this possibility.
- When selling at an art show, you have to worry about state, city,
and local taxes. Sometimes the art show will collect all taxes so you
don’t have to worry about it -- if so they will let you know.
Otherwise, you have to make sure you do this yourself. Buy a Multiple
Event License (2 year) from the Department of Revenue, and then file a
form for each art show you do. When traveling out of state for art
shows, you will need to get another Sales Tax License for that state.
(The procedure and forms are different for each state.) If you sell an
item that is to be shipped out of state, then sales taxes do not need to
be collected at all.
- Get a Retail Tax License for your company. This is for making
purchases for your company tax free, and can only be used on purchases
- You need to worry about paying Income Taxes to your state of
- For your tax deductions, you can write off company expenses like car
mileage to/from Art Shows (standard 37 cents a mile covers gas + car
wear and tear), camera gear, film, booth startup costs, art show fees,
hotels, meals, etc. Keep very detailed logs, and save all receipts.
File a Schedule E income tax form with your taxes. Your company must
claim a profit after 3 years (photo revenue vs. losses.) After 3 years,
you can only write off tax deductions less than or equal to your amount
of income. Keeping detailed logs is very important to prove to the IRS,
if audited, that you have the intent to make money, not to evade
Taking Credit Cards:
This is necessary! 90% of your sales are paid for by credit card, the
rest with cash or check. You can get set up to take credit cards through
Costco or Jackson Merchant Services (usually the cheapest rates.) They
charge a fee per transaction + a % of the sale, plus regular service
fees. Until you figure out how many credit card sales you will be doing,
the best method to use when just starting out is with the old-fashioned
manual card impression machine. This method is the cheapest, but it does
not help you detect bad or stolen cards. (You have to call in all your
purchases later via the phone line.) The next option is a wireless credit
card swipe machine, which calls in and gets authorization on the spot.
However, sometimes in remote mountain locations, you can’t pick up a
wireless signal for this… in which case you would have to call them in
later anyway. The wireless credit card swipe machines require a 5 year
contract to be signed with the service provider, so make sure you going to
stick with sales for 5 years before you commit. The company will lease
you the swipe machine equipment for 5 years. However, it is possible to
purchase a used NURIT machine on Ebay (3000 is a popular model), and get
the credit card company to reprogram it for you.
- Q – What about running and retiring a series? A -- Tony finds that
running a limited series on his prints adds value during sales. For his
prints 24x30 and larger, he limits his prints to a series of 100, and he
will retire the print at any size after 100 of the big ones have
sold. He says that this does not limit his sales, because all of these
limited series prints start at $1000, and it takes a long time to sell
100 of them. By the time you’re done with a series, you usually have
some new images that you want to add anyway, and you want to get rid of
the old ones.
- Q – If bright colors sell best, what has been your experience
selling B&W prints? A – None of the photographers at the forum had much
experience trying to sell black and white prints. Any more feedback in
this area from the online forum would be appreciated!
Other helpful resources
http://artshowphoto.com -- Larry Berman’s website discussing a range
of topics about art shows – bins, panels, tents, how to sell, jury
slides, etc. A must read for every artist.
http://groups.yahoo.com -- (Check the group: artshow_photo)
Forum on art shows, excellent live feedback with other experienced