Art Markets — The Good, The Bad and the Money

Did you know that a lot of artists, crafters and makers lose money at art fairs and markets? When I first started showing my work a few years back I had read that one way to generate revenue from the things I created was to exhibit and sell my wares at art fairs and markets. I signed up for a few and paid fees and took care to create a good display for my tables and booths. I was very disappointed when after a few events I had very little to show in terms of sales. Most times I was barely breaking even. I started to get frustrated and disappointed and began doubting that my work was any good. Then I started chatting with my fellow artists and artisans about their experiences. After speaking with them, I realized that a few were making money at these events but others were not.

I focused on who was making money and what they were doing right because naturally I wished to be like them and make money, too. What I found to be the common denominator between these individuals was that they already had an audience that knew and trusted them. These loyal fans would would be the ones that would consistently appear at the fairs to see what new products they had and to buy their work. I also found that it took a lot of time and effort for these people to build their following. Many had been displaying their work for years at other markets or online. These sellers knew who their audience was and they continue to hone their products and advertising to continually cater to them.

I then also started chatting with the exhibitors who like me who were not making as many sales. That also gave me valuable insight. A few of these sellers were also doing the art and craft fair circuit for a couple years and never really made any decent money yet. So why did they bother? They were networking with their fellow artists and introducing themselves to the public and using the markets to build awareness for their work which can take time. They told me that the continued to do the art market scene because they were either testing new products or trying to find their own niche. So, their goals were not sales but marketing, they often did not expect to make money at these events, but were prepared to lose money instead.

So which market is best?

Well, the real question is which market will attract the audience is best for you or your product/service? Continuing to display my work at markets and continuing to chat with my fellow exhibitors, I found that it also takes time to know which markets will suit. Are my wares the kind that the people who frequent this market like? Do my items fit the theme of the market? So which, out of the many out there should you apply for? A lot of the time, you can have a look at the market’s website to see if there is a theme to their event and that may give you a clue as to who their visitors might be. The location of the event may also be a good clue. You may also contact the fair organizers and simply ask. Another thing you may want to try is to find out which other artists will be displaying their art at the fair and see if their work is similar to yours. But often you won’t really know until after you sign up and test it our for yourself.

Other things you may wish to consider when choosing an art market to join:
⁃ Some markets are better organized and advertised than others. How did you find out about the event? If you see adverts all over the place, it is a good indication that the market itself will be successful in at least having many visitors attend.
⁃ Will the location have a lot of foot traffic and is it easy to get to? If the market is at a location that is not easily accessible it may deter all but the most eager visitors to attend. This may be a positive or a negative depending on whether the attendees are the kind that like your work or not.
⁃ Some markets charge the visitors an entrance fee. Like location, an entrance fee may deter many visitors from attending but those who do pay the fee are more serious about the market and may be more willing to buy from you if your products suit the fair.
⁃ With Covid many markets have gone virtual, will a virtual market suit you as well as a live one and vice versa? Although there are many benefits to a virtual market, one of the biggest considerations is whether your work shows well digitally. Some art just does not display as well when not seen live, so this is something to be aware of.

Some not so great things to be prepared for

Art Fairs can be tiring. An extrovert will love it, an introvert can be overwhelmed by all the people you’ll have to deal with from attendees to organizers to fellow exhibitors. I am the latter and often need a lot of time recover my energy from events like these. Also, it is a lot of work to rep for. You need to put in the application (and some application processes are more difficult than others depending on how popular the market is), you need to pay the fees if any, and you need to them get your stuff ready. Not only will you need to get your inventory in order but also your marketing materials like business cards and signage. You’ll need an attractive display and a merchandising plan. You’ll need consider your table/tent, consider if you need a payment merchant like Square to take credit cards, you need to make sure you have something packed to eat or have someone there to help you set up and tear down or relieve you for bathroom breaks. Plus transport to and from the event. You’ll need to advertise in prep for the market via your newsletter and social media…

Another thing to note is that not all fair experiences may be positive. People can sometimes criticize your work or are just plain rude. Not just market visitors but other artists too who may feel threatened by you. Organizers may be busy and feeling harassed and not get you the help or answers to your questions and sometimes do not deliver things they have promised. Be prepared for that. And, be prepared to lose money rather than make it especially when you are starting out.

On the positive side…

Being an artist can be lonesome, many work alone in a studio so being in the midst of like-minded friendly people (despite some of the obnoxious ones as mentioned above majority are good sorts) at an art market is not a bad way to spend a few hours. One of the best things about the events is also seeing what other creative minds and skilled hands have created. One can be inspired by the tremendous talent out there, and this is a space where you can see your peers’ work for yourself.

Art Fairs are a great learning experience. One can gain so much info from fellow artists, the people who have visit your booth and the event organizers, too. I have found out what markets suited my work and which markets to avoid. I have tested and developed better products due to the info I have collected. I have improved my displays and have learned to ask better questions to get better insights for my business. It’s a great place to network, make friends and build community. And you get to know your niche a bit better with each event.

If you are new to art fairs, it may be prudent to view them as a marketing expense. Be positive and make sure you use your time wisely at the event. Be flexible and learn from the people you talk to. Make connections whether they are your customers or not and whether they buy from you or not. And if you make any sales, that’s a bonus.

Visual Artist and Art Instructor