Monday, January 25, 2010

What It Takes

A recent (and less than complimentary) comment  from someone at a festival made me realize that most attendees have no idea what it takes for an artist to actually *be* at the festival. Which isn't surprising; after all, most of you have never applied to one, have you?  Then you're smarter than me.  :)

Here's what's involved in exhibiting at an art festival:

1. Submitting to the event:

- Filling out the application. Submitting images of your work. "Submitting images" can mean many things: 1. actual photos. 2. slides. 3. a CD of images. 4. online application and images. And you'd better have all of them on hand because each show wants something different.

Oh, and those images? For a competitive medium like jewelry, they need to be top-notch. Which, for most of us, means paying a professional for photos. That can run several hundred dollars (some of the best pros charge about $100 per image; most shows want 3-4 images to review). And even if your images are fabulous, there are so many submissions for so few jewelry spots, that many, many hopefuls will be disappointed every year.

And it's best not to submit to the same show for more than two years with the same images. Juries like to have "new" and "fresh" work to review. And if they see the same shots every year, they can think your work is "stale" and be more inclined to select someone else over you. So you'll have to pay that photographer at least every two years (some people do this every year) for new images.

Plus you have to submit a booth photo. And your booth had better look professional. Or individual. Or creative. Or...all of these things. Or...some of them. Or not. The "booth shot" is often the trickiest part of submitting to a festival. Juries are never clear on what they want from the booth shot, so we artists are left to guess. And hope. :)

- The jury fee. Most of the high end shows are juried. That means an artist will pay typically from $25 - $45 just to be reviewed by the jury. This does not guarantee that they will be accepted into the show. Nope - you pay for the privilege of just being looked at. So if an artist does 20 shows a year, assuming (on the low end) a $25 jury fee for each, that's $500, just for the jury process. Booth fees are a whole other expense.

2. The Waiting.

- After you've submitted, the waiting period begins. Often there is a space of several months between when you've submitted your application and when you will be notified about the event. If you make a living exhibiting at these events, this can be very nerve-wracking. You never know from year to year whether you'll be invited to attend. Which means you can't plan your potential income until you know one way or another. And I do mean potential income...just because you made it over all the hurdles and got yourself accepted, is no guarantee of anything...except that you will now pay, on average, anywhere from $200 to $500 for the privilege of having a space there for the duration of the show.

3. The Acceptance. Or Non-acceptance. Or Limbo - the Wait List.

- So the notification day arrives, and you are ecstatic! You've been accepted! If this is the case, you start planning ASAP. How much inventory do you need to have? Do you want or need to make changes to the booth? If so, what changes?  Do I have enough business cards, packaging, receipts, etc., etc. Of course, as previously mentioned, acceptance to a show by no means guarantees that you will make money at it! The show will bring the shoppers (at least the better ones will, and the weather is good), but it's up to YOU to make sure that your booth invites them in, and that  your product and pricing invites them to purchase.

- Or you've not been accepted. You are disappointed. You try not to take it personally, but sometimes you can't help it. The rejection is especially painful when you have exhibited at a show in the past and then are not invited to exhibit the next time. If you are a sensitive artist type (which, if you weren't, you wouldn't have applied in the first place, right?), you can start to question your validity. One rejection is one thing. A whole slew of them is another issue entirely. The tricky part about being rejected is that you will likely never know WHY. Is it your booth? Your creations? The way they were photographed? Should you quit and get a "regular" job? Should you change what you're designing? Are you still fabulous but there was just too much competition for too few spaces?

- Or you've been Wait Listed. This is a little form of hell devised to keep you bouncing from "I won't get accepted" to "I really, really hope I get accepted" to the show. Being on the wait list, as my husband likes to say, isn't a rejection. And as I like to respond, it isn't an acceptance, either. It means you didn't quite make it, but if something happens to another artist, you might be able to exhibit after all. So you have to hope that you have the opportunity...without hoping that something bad happens to the person who was previously accepted. Tricky balancing act, there.

(BTW, remember the jury fee? Well, if you submit for a show and you plan your income around selling at that show, what happens when you are not accepted? No income, of course. So many artists will "double book" (submit for more than one show on the same date), hedging their bets that they will get to show somewhere. So that $500 in jury fees can easily double to $1000 or more. And what happens if you are accepted to two shows at the same time? Well...jury fees are nonrefundable. So you will sacrifice some fees along the way, if you get accepted to two shows and then have to decline one.

4. The Actuality

- The day of the event arrives. The event starts at 10 a.m. You are there by 6 a.m. to set up. Let's not think about what time this means you actually GOT up. Maybe, if you're lucky / have a simple booth / don't have a lot of set up to do / the Universe is on your side that day,  you arrive by 8 a.m...wth all the other people who are exhibiting. Ever tried to manage 400 exhibitors who all have to be set up by 10 a.m.? I am always impressed at whatever magic the show staff works to make this happen. All those vehicles, all those artists trying to get unloaded and fit everything they've brought into a 10' x 10' space! At the same time!

- You're set up and ready for the show to start. It's hot. Or it's cold. Or it's raining. Or it's windy. One of the most difficult things about exhibiting at outside festivals is that the weather can change in an instant.

-Rain is not good because: 1. It often drives the shoppers away. 2. The nicer and more expensive your booth display, the more likely it is not going to mix well with water. 3. It's no fun to be out in the pouring rain in a temporary (and possibly leaking, if it rains hard enough) structure.

- Wind is not good because: 1. It can be devastating, plain and simple. If you work in glass, and a good gust catches your tent or display, you can have thousands of dollars' worth of work (not to mention all the time invested in it) crash to the ground in seconds. Ditto for ceramicists. Even if your creations are less fragile, you still can lose your booth entirely (don't doubt it - anyone who has been on the show circuit for a while has seen, or experienced, an entire tent lifting off the ground and blowing away, or has seen the aftermath of a wind-destroyed tent). Even if none of that happens, the wind can cause such havoc that customers don't want to stick around.

- Heat is not good - though better than wind or rain - because: 1. While warm sunny weather can work to your advantage, if you happen to have been assigned a shadeless spot for your booth, and it's 90+ degrees for 5 straight hours, you are going to be very miserable. Spending several hours in the blazing sun can result in sunburns, heat exhaustion, dehydration. Why not stay inside the tent? Often the tent will get so warm / humid that you can't stand to be in there, even though it's the only shade you have. Not to mention that if you're sweltering inside your  tent, shoppers aren't going to hang around for long.

5. The Moving On

- The show is over. You made your necessary income, or you didn't. Either way, everyone is going home. One thing I haven't mentioned is the physicality of exhibiting at shows. That 10' x 10' tent? It' s not exactly featherweight (otherwise it might blow away in the wind). Those weights on each corner, to help keep it stable? They're 40 pounds each. But they can feel like twice that during load-out. All the tables / cases / signage / display items / walls and wall hangings / floor / the actual creations you's quite a bit to haul around. You possibly are still sore and tired from setting up. You've been on your feet for 10 or more hours for two (or more) days in a row. Now you're taking it all down again. If you're lucky, you can get your vehicle close to your tent to load out. More likely, you'd better bring a hand truck because you don't want to be carrying those heavy loads too far.

- You get home, unload, reorganize, and start the process all over again for the next show. Depending on your schedule (and how many shows have accepted you), that could be next month, next week, or in two days...

So...any of you ready to board the festival train?? Hm. No takers? Can't say I blame you. Just try not to dismiss what we do so easily the next time you see us that you know what it takes to have gotten us there.  :)


  1. Jillie - awesome article! It actually helped me a bunch to know what to expect. We are still checking out the shows around here, so I don't know how many of them are juried. Reading your article was a big help because it allows me to kind of steel myself for the worst case scenarios.

    You are right about the wind. I saw a painter's booth crash down in the wind in Monterey, CA. He had a lot of glass covering his work and it was a horrible mess. We all just stopped walking and started helping him pick up as much as we could. There wasn't anything we could say to him to express the depth of sorry we felt for what happened to him. Massive losses! And it couldn't be blamed on his booth or actions either because his booth was actually very well-thought out and actually looked sturdier than many of the others. I suspect it was just an unlucky spot.

    Thanks again.

  2. Glad it's helpful. Shows can be tough, but also very rewarding. Feel free to ask any questions you have (now or later), and I can't wait to hear about your first show...hopefully later this year!

  3. So true! Thanks for putting this together. It deserves to be printed and handed out to festival goers (jk) :)

  4. This is such a great post - I have only been exhibiting for 3 years and I have either experienced or seen everything you have posted here! No matter how you slice it, even if you sell well at every show, craft and art shows are very hard work. I have to share that when I get to load out I am like a maniac - I just want to get home or back to the hotel. And jewelry is particularly hard because every piece has to be put back gently and safely and there are so many of them.

    On a positive note, I do find meeting the public at shows very helpful. The feedback on my work is invaluable and if I can manage to do a good job breaking the ice - as opposed to making them nervous with my desperate need to sell something - I can really learn about how people shop and what of my work really works. Its hard to get that feedback any other way.

  5. Haha Alicia! Flyers at the gate when the shoppers come in. :)

    Wovenstones, I know, right?! I am crazy at load out too - good show or not, I want it to be OVAH.
    It is good to have those "feel the love" moments, though, connecting with people who really enjoy our work. I wouldn't trade that part for anything.