See You At the Art Festival! Summer Fun and Behind-the-Scenes As An Artist
My biggest outdoor event this Summer of 2022 is on August 6th and 7th. I'll be at Art in the Park at Schouler Park in North Conway, NH. This a big fine art fair for the area, with two days of art and music. It's the signature event of the Mt. Washington Valley Arts Association, and they put on a good show. About 60 artists and craftspeople will be showing work in watercolors, oils and acrylics, photography, ceramics, sculpture, mixed media and more. If you're looking for fun things to do in North Conway, NH that weekend it is a must-see event.
I hope to see you there! But... have you ever wondered what it's like behind the scenes at this kind of awesome outdoor art festival? I thought I'd share the process, in all it's glory and mess, from the artist's view. Summer art fairs may seem like magical tent villages that spring from the earth overnight, but there is so much planning and work that goes into making them a great day for all involved. I'm gonna go long here, so buckle up, buttercup.
The planning for any one art fair that happens in, say, August probably starts the week after the previous year's fair wraps up. Organizers that coordinate them plan throughout the year to ensure that booking the location, booking artists, promoting and running the event all go without a hitch, while constantly trying to make them better than the year before. When I, as an artist, sign up for a fair it could be six months or more before the dates. With some fairs you simply register for space and pay a booth fee. For other fairs, you submit samples of your work plus a jurying fee, and a panel of judges looks over all of the artists and admits a select number to show at the fair. If you are selected, you then pay to rent booth space for all of the fair dates. This can be a pretty pricey prospect, depending on the fair. You instantly hope you'll make back your booth fee in sales during the fair.
Next comes all of the prep work to create a display booth. It's a DIY situation, and every artist has their tried and true setups. As a painter, I need walls on which to hang work, plus I should have the work to hang! I may have plenty of paintings to offer at an event, or they may all be in a gallery or on display elsewhere, so the timing can affect what I have any given month. Hopefully, I've been painting steadily throughout the year and making art I'm proud to put out on display, so that there is a cohesive body of work for folks to see, and it draws them to my booth space to take a closer look.
I also sell greeting cards of my work, so I plan ahead in having those printed, shipped to me, organized into card racks or boxed up as sets. I have to keep track of my inventory and know when it's time to order more. Before that, I had to find a good print vendor, source boxes that fit my cards, design stickers to go on the boxes, figure out the cost basis and price them out. Card racks? Had to find those, too. Fine art prints and cards are all made from good quality scanned or photographed images of my work. I scan smaller work myself and hire this process out for larger paintings. Prints get ordered way in advance and need to be put in clear plastic sleeves with backing boards and labels. In fact, labels and signage have to be made for everything! No one wants to walk into an art booth where there are no title labels, price tags, signs telling you whether it's a print or original, or any information about the artist. I spend a lot of time making labels and signs. My mail merge game is strong.
Any paintings I intend to have on display need to be properly framed and presented. This means choosing and purchasing frames, cutting archival mats for work on paper, cutting glass for the frames and assembling the work into its final, framed self. Work is then labelled, wired, photographed in the frame to show what that looks like for my website, and then carefully wrapped and packed up so it stays clean and undamaged before going to the fair. Frames get dings and dents, mats get scuffed, glass gets fingerprints - these things all seem to happen when you're not looking. If something gets damaged in transit, it's not hanging at the fair that day.
The month before an art fair is a flurry of organizing and checking things off the list. You have to bring your own pop-up tent, mesh tent walls or other upright display panels, plus tables and racks on which to display your work. None of this is provided. If it's the first fair of the year, I will often set up my tent and booth in the back yard to make sure I still know how to do it, all of the parts are there, and it is clean and ready to go. Do I know where my small folding table is? Have I laundered and ironed my tablecloth? Where is that box of hanging hooks? Is that bird poo on my tent canopy? Does my credit card reader still work? Do I have coin change? Will the tent, table, boxes of prints, cards, paintings, snacks, water, extra bubble wrap, and me all fit in my car? I'm preparing to build a tiny gallery that will exist for two days. Everything I need for that time must be ready to go.
The week before the fair includes going over the lists of things that need doing and making sure they're handled. There is lots of last-minute marketing on my part. Although the event organizers are promoting the show, I've probably been letting as many people as I can know it's happening for the last couple months. The day before is one last chance to organize. I may be piling up things to bring, making sure I have snacks, water, sunblock, comfortable shoes, something nice to wear, and I'm prepared for whatever the weather is going to be.
On day one of a two-day fair I will be up with the sun, getting coffee first, eating something to power me through the morning, packing the car, running around the house knowing I've forgotten something, and hitting the road. This year I only have to drive a little over an hour for my farthest fair, but that's driving there day one, home at the end of the day, back the next day, and home at the end of the fair. Getting to the fair location, I like to arrive about two hours before opening time.
Though it's morning, summer show days can start off hot, and there is much lugging of tents, boxes, bags, more boxes, awkwardly shaped racks, and other stuff from car to booth space; probably across a large field. Alternately, maybe it's raining or windy or freezing cold. Who knows. I always wear a "schlepping outfit" for this part of the day and change into clean clothes (assuming there's a place to do that other than a port-a-potty) before the fair opens. Then there is much wrestling with the pop-up tent to get it set up. My husband might be along for the day and helps with setting up (along with a million other things regarding the business side of my art, and I definitely could not do all of this without his assistance. Plus he puts up with me when I get hot, tired and cranky at the end of the day).
With the tent upright, everything needs to be unboxed, looked over, and hung on the tent walls in some organized fashion. This takes up the rest of the time before opening, as I move things around, make sure everything is hung straight, and give things one last dusting and cleanup. The card table goes up with a neat, tidy tablecloth, card racks and displays of small items. Labels are hung, the point-of-sale system on my phone is checked, and all of the cardboard boxes and packing materials are stuffed out of sight under the table so that they are both ready at hand, but not sitting in a messy pile in the open.
Visitors tend to start arriving before the official opening time, so I may still be setting up as folks want to stop by to look, chat or buy. That's okay - just don't expect me to be totally organized yet! I'll get there. Over the next six or seven hours I'll talk to countless people who come through to see the fair. There will be folks having a wonderful weekend summer day seeing tons of lovely art. There will be those on a mission, seeing every single booth and hunting down great treasures. And folks will seek out a few particular artists that they follow to see what they're up to. I will probably answer the same few questions dozens of times. Folks will advise me on what I should paint (no, thanks). I'll be asked to give steep discounts (um, no). But I will also have many fun, engaging, meaningful conversations with art lovers from all over and bump into people I haven't seen in ages. And some very happy collectors may go home with some of my art to put on their walls (the very best thing ever!).
If I can get anyone to "booth sit" for me, I might take a few minutes to stroll around, see what other artists are there, say hi to those I know if they're not chatting with potential collectors, and buy way too many soft pretzels from that guy whose food truck always seems to end up right next to my booth, wafting his soft pretzel smells my way all day (curse him!).
Day one wraps up, and if there is overnight security for the fair, I pretty much get to hop in the car and go home to some wine on the porch. If not, I might be packing up all of the work, leaving the rest of the tent set up and heading home an hour after closing time. When that happens, I'm back the next morning with enough time to rehang everything. Day two is filled with more interactions with fair-goers and hopefully finding homes for paintings. By the last couple of hours of the day I'll start to feel worn out from all the constant chatting with people. I'm normally just by myself in the studio, after all!
When the day finally ends, it's time to do all the packing, hauling and tent wrestling in reverse. Exhausted and probably hungry, but hopefully with fewer things to pack up, I'll pull out of the fair about an hour and half after closing time, relieved that the weekend is over, but happy about how it all turned out. There are artists who do this every weekend, all summer long, travelling to different fairs throughout the season. I'm usually in the one-or-two-fairs-per-year range and that is plenty for me! As you've read, they're a lot of work and you never know how well they'll go. But they're a good way to get work out there to a new audience. I like art fairs in small doses.
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