Elizabeth Berrien · World Class Wire Sculpture and Illustration · (707)445-4931 · THE FAIRS - Market research for Fun & Profit
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- Art Marketing 101
- Gallery Diplomacy
- Fair Fun & Profit
- How Long It Took
- Pratfall Avoidance
- Start on Shoestring
- Working at Home





THE FAIRS: Market Research for Fun & Profit
(c) Elizabeth Berrien 1992

Whether you're a rookie potter or a seasoned watercolorist, the occasional art fair or craft show will give you plenty of fresh insight on improving of your work and its presentation. Here's an introduction for folks gearing up for their first fair, and a refresher course for those who've semiÄretired from the scene but might do well to reconsider fairs for purposes of Research & Recreation.


First, Find Your Fair: your local art centers, Chamber of Commerce, and fairgrounds should have ample leads, as will your fellow artists. Remember, flea markets are a no-no unless you're a practicing sadomasochist and enjoy arguing that you're work's not really substandard trash. Since first-time fairs are often shakedown cruises in which the organizers may not be so organized, veteran artists look for established events like "Seventh Annual Warthog Festival".

Once you've found a few likely fairs, get their application forms. Usually these list show fees, setup & takedown schedules, and basic ground rules. Inspect all your information; if you have any questions, don't feel shy about asking for clarifications. To be as prepared as possible, here are some of the things you'll want to know beforehand:

How big is your booth space? Is it indoors or outdoors? On dirt, cement or grass?
How early do you have to arrive and get set up? How late will you need to stay?
If it's a two-day event, does everything need to come down overnight?
Is power, lighting, shade, tables, chairs, or curtains provided?
How close to your booth space can you park for loading & unloading?
Is security provided? In what form?
Can you share and/or split a single or double booth with another artist?
What kinds of art & crafts predominate here? How many artists in your medium?
In past fairs, what price range and art type has done best?
What promotion will be done: posters? flyers? TV and/or radio spots?
What other public draw will tie in: live entertainment? festival? good food?
Does the public have to pay to get in?


The object of gathering Fair Information isn't to argue or negotiate changes, but to create a composite picture of what the show's elements add up to. You pays your ticket and takes your chances, but professionals develop the best strategy for making the most of a given set of circumstances. For your first couple fairs, your focus should not be on the money you might make, but on improving your act so you do better at future shows. Pricing, of course, will be a factor; if you're lucky enough to have goods to offer in the Impulse-Buy-to-Moderate range, you're likely to make expenses the first time out. If your prices are more imposing, you may get a couple lucky Windfall Sales, but should think more in terms of Product Research and making a display that generates substantial follow-up sales after the fair is over. You should wade into ANY show, be it fair or gallery exhibit, with a cash sales expectation of Zero; that way anything you happen to make is Gravy. As a professional, you assess the show itself as an experience upon which you intend to build your future & expand your resume.


Uncle Social lends an acronym denoting The Romance of the Stage: KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid). Attend some fairs as a "tourist", researching booths with an eye to factors like sturdiness and durability (in high wind areas, sandbags or guy wires are an integral design element, and booths must be able to withstand being bumped into by the occasional Aimless Toddler), Ease of Assembly, sun/rain resistance, and Overall Elegance of Design, which when analyzed may surprise you in that the most professional looking booths will have LESS on display: maybe two or three exquisite showpieces anchoring clumped arrangements of more affordable "Bread & Butters". Most artists are happy to talk about what does and doesn't work with their booth, & what they might do different if they had it all to do over again. Take notes.

Here are some things I pack for a fair: Sunscreen, hat and shades; business cards; singlesheet Mercenary Handouts, which bear an image of my work, information on how & why I make it, and how-to-reach-me info; Guest Book, to build the Mailing List; Day Book, for interesting inspirations or transactions and sketching prospective commission concepts; portfolio; a tiny skirted table, to hold the above and hide drek under; a tall chair, to make me more approachable (people aren't comfortable stooping way down to talk). Miscellaneous hardware (picture wire, duct tape, scissors, hammer and staplegun, etc) to fix inevitable Small Things Falling Apart at the Seams (including yours truly). Several yards Unbleached Muslin, to unify and camouflage a host of visual impossibilities. And, to save my back and mental faculties, Sturdy Hand-Truck to transport it all from the parking lot to the booth (did I forget something? oh yeah, the artwork and something to hang it on...)


SLEEP the night before the show: you're about to do a 12-hour day, so you must be fresh. Show up on time, with everything you need to set up your booth. Take along a thermos of coffee and a book, in case you have wait in the predawn mists for Mgmt to show up two hours late to assign everyone spaces, expecting you to hustle doubletime to be ready by Opening Time. Brace for Craft Show Harpies, bleakly hissing "expensive... expensive..." avert your eyes and they will go away.

When the public arrives, put away the book and behave as if you're Just Delighted to be confined for ten hours to a 10 ft square booth. (Hiding Behind a Book is tempting, but deters folks from approaching and interrupting you to buy something). As the Great Unwashed arrives to swarm over your display, you may garner a certain amount of friendly comments; the challenge is to maintain cheerful professional aplomb in the face of caustic and/or provocative cracks. Bear in mind that every show has its hecklers. Some wisecrack to impress companions they hope know even less about art than they do; others are what I categorize and dismiss as social cripples, who have somehow attained adulthood without acquiring rudimentary social skills and courtesy. Keeping it all in perspective makes it easier to shrug off intended offense and keep the ears open for genuinely constructive criticism.

If you seek truly unvarnished criticism, hide behind your booth or pretend to be a part of the crowd. What you want is a) which of you Grand Creative Concepts simply isn't getting across as intended, b) what aspects of your art DO affect people, and should be further explored and enlarged upon and c) how your price range is coming across. Big corporations spend millions of dollars doing market research to get this kind of information, but it's all yours for the cost of the entry fee to a fair. And if you happen to make some sales in the process, Wotta Deal!

To combat Fair Fatigue, pack sandwiches and iced tea, too; talking dehydrates you fast. Move around a lot. Get a friend to sit the booth so you can stretch your legs and brain. Better, arrange to share a booth with an artist whose work complements your own so you can take turns exploring & hobnobbing with the other artists. Bring along Works in Progress, both to educate your public on all the work and thought involved and to give you something to play with so you don't keep sneaking after that Book.

As a final note, if you're an artist who outgrew fairs as the quality of your work (and therefore your price range) increased to the extent that you no longer see fairs as worth the entry fees and bother, rethink the equation. There have been times when I've responded politely to a fair organizer's invitation by saying I frankly didn't envision selling anything at a one-day event. Guess what? Sometimes they came back and offered to pay ME, as a Demonstrating Artist. (WOW! Guest of Honor at the Yuba City Prune Festival! Fame at Last!) So keep your options open, and revisit the longÄlost camaraderie of a sunburnt day among your gypsy compadres.

This article was first published in the news letter of the Ink People Center for the Arts in the 1990's.

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World Class Wire Sculpture · Elizabeth Berrien (707) 445-4931 · email wireladye@yahoo.com

Content and images © 1968-2010 Elizabeth Berrien. All rights reserved. · Updated Aug 10, 2010 · this page valid HTML 4.01

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