Here are some tips and observations from selling show space in fine art trade shows for nearly two decades. From 1988 through 2003, I attended more than 150 fine art and home furnishing shows. I’d be lying if I said I did not miss the glory days of ArtExpo New York in the Jacob Javits Center, or Decor Expo Atlanta in the Georgia World Congress Center
While I exhibited at a few of them, primarily, I was there to mix and mingle with all my customers and as many other industry figures that I could encounter. At a typical show, I would visit the booths and showrooms of 100 -150 exhibitors. That’s a lot of shoe leather, talking and observing. I did my best to take it all in and learn everything I saw.
Today, I pass along some of the collected wisdom, practical advice and observations from decades of experience. Here is a mix of suggestions, no-nos, and opinions that I believe can help you be more successful selling art at shows. Some of this advice may seem rudimentary, but I include nevertheless because I too often encountered examples of things that ought to be common sense.
Some shows give you pipe and drape, and you can rent walls. Others give you hard walls as part of the booth. Whatever you get, you have to make the best of it to make the best look to help you sell art at shows.
A quick aside on buying booth space:
Booth space is nearly always negotiable. Unless the promoter has a killer sold-out show, they have wiggle room. Whether it is on the the booth costs, associated costs such as drayage, or electrical, booth location, or promotional extras, you should work to make sure you get the best deal for you. You can drive a hard bargain without being a jerk. Learn to be insistent and persistent. The squeaky wheel does get the grease. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
You have just a few seconds to give an impression of your work and yourself. Your booth needs to look like you care about your work and you came to do business and take the opportunity to be there seriously. That doesn’t mean you can’t have a fun time and be jovial, just make sure your booth look as professional as it can.
For many, the best thing you can do is set up the booth in advance at home, then give it the white glove look and make improvements. Don’t tell me you can’t do better. I refuse to accept that answer. Kick it up a notch or two.
The amount of stuff you have in your booth is critical. How many times have you seen a booth that looks like a poorly run flea market? You know the kind that has stuff crammed into every space. You cannot impress potential buyer this way. If you wonder why you are not getting the best price for your work and this in any way resembles how you set up your booth, you have a partial answer.
The reverse problem is the booth looks empty. That begs the question of what’s going on here? Unless it is the last hours of a successful show and you are clearing inventory to avoid shipping it home, you want your booth to be well stocked, and organized. Give thought to how you present your work. Is there a flow to what the viewer is seeing? Or, are they finding a jumble of things that make it hard for them to connect with your work?
You have to keep thinking about your buyers. Put yourself in their shoes. They know nothing about you. They are being bombarded with sensory overload. Seeing so much work in one place. All kinds of people wandering around. Often entertainment and music playing. You are attempting to break through the noise and clutter they are experiencing. Finding an eye-pleasing, well-organized space is almost like a respite from the chaos around them. Think of your booth as a resort. Make it an inviting place for shoppers.
Your ambiance will, of course, vary with the type of art you have, who you are, and what vibe you want to give. Selling serene landscapes is one environment, selling images of hot chicks on hot motorcycles is another. Cater to your crowd, but keep it classy and organized no matter what the motif and message you are sending.
You may have the talent and interest to create art in a bunch of genres. While this is a blessing for your creative self, it is a massive curse for the businessperson in you that has to run the show and get paid for the effort. You cannot be all things to all people.
You went to the great expense of buying the booth space, creating the art to fill it, preparing for and traveling to the show, and more. Don’t blow it by setting a booth that looks like the art was made by 12 different people. Settle in on what are your best images within a genre and mine that mother lode. You can always come back another time, or go to another show and display that polar opposite side of your creativity.
A word of caution here. I would sometimes sell ad space or show space to an artist or publisher, and when I first got to see their work, I was astounded. It was not why you might think. It was because all the work looked similar. I know I just told you to have cohesiveness and clarity. That does not mean loading your booth with 100 originals of the same subject, or in the same palette.
In graphic design, white or negative space is critical. I mentioned how clutter is a show killer, so is lack of access to a booth. One of the worst things you can do is put a table in the front of your booth. NEVER do that. It sends a strong visual message that you are attempting to create a barrier between the buyer and you.
You want an inviting environment as much as possible. Blocking the entry is a terrible idea. I realize there is a delicate balance between wanting to have enough product to display and keeping the amount of negative space to an appealing amount. I would tend to push it towards more space. Just a tad more than makes you comfortable is likely to have the exact opposite effect on potential buyers.
These are generalities because art sizes are all over the place from tiny pieces of jewelry to massive pieces of chainsawed sculpture and everything in between. If you keep the perspective of your visitor enjoyment and visual pleasure, you will tend to make the right decision more often.
How you look affects your potential buyer’s assessment of you and your art. It also affects your self-confidence and esteem. You want to look professional. It sends a message to the buyer that you care about yourself and your art. You don’t have to dress to the nines. Some shows are outdoors in weather from hot and dry to wet and cold. You should be wearing attire appropriate for the venue. It should be comfortable to help you stay in the moment during those long show hours.
What you are wearing should be fresh, not wrinkled, old or tattered. It’s all part of the same thing, which is the booth visitor experience. Within a few brief seconds, they are already making assumptions about you, your booth and your art. Your clothing and personal appearance art part of that quick assessment.
Besides wearing appropriate attire, you should make sure your appearance is as good as it can be. Your hair is neatly combed or brushed. You don’t have food sticking in your teeth. The whole idea is to look successful. Confidence begets confidence. People naturally gravitate to those who appear successful and confident. Whether you feel internally like you are confident is not the issue. It is about outwardly portraying confidence. Just showing high confidence helps you sell more art.
Have you become bitter, cynical or lazy about putting out effort to sell art at shows? Don’t feel alone; there are many people just like you. If this is you, and you know if it is, then you have to face up to the fact that your attitude is feeding a vicious cycle.
I can tell you countless times where I would see someone in a booth, usually in the far corner, or even behind the booth in a personal space, acting bored out of their skulls. Wow! That encouraged me to want to engage them. Many times, I would come in with a chipper, cheerful attitude hoping some of it would wear off on them. Sadly, it often had the opposite effect of making the sullen more sullen.
If your dog just died, or your spouse just ran off with your best friend, you have a legitimate reason for your gloomy outlook. Short of some personal disaster, you owe it to yourself to shake off the bad ‘tude and get with the program. Put it in perspective. You are only there at the show for few hours out of your life. You have made a significant investment in time, money, product and effort to be there. Take some deep breaths. Listen to some happy music. I don’t know about you, but I can’t help but feel sunny and positive when I listen to Blue Sky by The Allman Brothers.
While you may not have control over the circumstances that have put you in a foul mood, you have full control over how you choose to react to those circumstances. Your mind over matter power is off the charts. Learning how to put your negative feelings in check and work towards presenting a confident, if not happy demeanor, makes your art shine. It makes you more interesting. It will sell more art.
As the subject line suggests, there are more parts to this saga on how to sell more art at shows. The next installment is at this link: