This is one part in an ongoing case study we’ll be doing around the art business of emerging artist, Chandra Rae. Chandra started selling her art in mid-2016 and is in the middle of learning how to most effectively grow her audience and sell her artwork.
In this ongoing case study, we’ll be running experiments and bringing you the real-world results along with insights you can use in your own business. We’ll explore things like growing an Instagram following, building an email list, optimizing an artist website, selling at festivals, selling online, wholesaling, licensing, getting gallery representation, getting commission work, and more.
We woke up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning and loaded up the car with a newly purchased festival tent, two large folding tables, crates full of artwork, and all the extra decorum for Chandra’s tent display.
This was Chandra’s first time as a vendor at an art festival and we wanted to arrive early with plenty of time to work on the booth setup before throngs of people started showing up at the Sevier Park Arts Festival. Her nerves were understandably a bit high. We talked about the outcome of this first festival not being as important as the learning experience, but showing work publicly is always a vulnerable thing and, naturally, she wanted the festival to be successful.
Not only did we learn valuable lessons from this first festival, but Chandra also sold a lot of art- way more than we expected. Below I’ll share what worked, what didn’t, what we want to try in the future, and how you can use this for your own art business.
Art Festival Preparation
Chandra applied and was accepted to the Sevier Park Art Festival in February with 3 months to prepare. As often happens, day jobs and life led to procrastination. Two weeks before the festival she purchased her tent for a couple hundred dollars, along with folding tables, a free-standing metal backdrop to hang her prints, wooden crates, and a large swath of fabric to create a “Chandra Rae Artistry” backdrop. She didn’t have an infinite budget to make her booth, but we knew an aesthetically beautiful booth would be important (more on that later).
Chandra also created and ordered a few hundred beautiful, new business cards from Moo with her artwork on one side and all of her contact info on the other.
A week before the art festival, she began to review her print inventory and started the process of making prints of the 18 pieces she was going to sell at the festival. This looked like long hours and late nights sitting on the living room floor waiting for print jobs to finish, stuffing plastic covers with prints, backing, and contact info cards, and printing out her new temporary tattoo products.
Chandra created an organized inventory management Google Sheet where she can track the levels of all of her prints. She set up her Square Point of Sale app and itemized each of the prints she would be selling at the festival, which would give her the ability to see exactly which artworks were most popular.
Chandra knew the festival would be a time when many people would be visiting her website, so she made some necessary updates. She added new artworks, her new temporary tattoos, and updated her logo. She also posted a few times on Instagram and her Facebook Page to share the excitement and let fans and friends know she would be showing her work at the festival.
Last but not least, we also made an email list signup sheet to have in her booth. This proved to be very important.
- Make a list of everything you need to get done to prepare for the festival and a plan for executing each part. Start early and break it into chunks. Waiting until the last minute is not only stressful, but also makes it more likely you forget something important.
- Prepare a system to take credit card payments at the festival and organize it so you can keep track of your inventory. The more itemized you make your payment system the more data you’ll get on which pieces are selling and which aren’t (more on this later). Square is one of the best and easiest services to use.
- Give buyers and fans a business card. Throughout the day of the festival, Chandra had a dozen or so people who either wanted to buy a piece online or wanted to commission her to create a piece for them. She was able to give all of these interested people a business card, so they could contact her at a later date. She also included a small piece of paper with each of her prints with her website, Instagram, and contact info. These were nearly all first-time buyers, so this was a way they could remember her name, be reminded to follow her on social media, and check out more work on her website.
- Have some way for people to sign up for your email list and ask if they want to. Hundreds of people walked in and out of Chandra’s booth commenting on how much they loved her work (even those who didn’t buy). By having an email sign up sheet she is now able to keep the relationship going with dozens of people. Without it, they likely would have been gone forever. It doesn’t matter if it’s a paper sheet or an iPad, but have some way for people to sign up to hear more from you. Beyond that, bring this up in conversation before people leave your booth. This is something we wish we would have done better. Everyone we asked said “yes”, but we could have been more intentional and probably gotten more potential fans signed up.
Art Festival Booth Setup
We learned very quickly that some parts of selling at a festival are outside of your control. The two most obvious “uncontrollables” at Chandra’s first festival were booth location and the weather.
The festival booths lined both sides of a street and a park pathway stretching about ¾ of a mile. Most people entered from the same end of the street and the organizers assigned Chandra’s booth almost at the very opposite end of the main entry. The potential problem with this is that a percentage of people didn’t make it all the way to the end of the line and some of those who did likely had “booth fatigue” after seeing so many different vendors. For this particular event, there was no option to choose your booth location but we learned that for events that do allow you to choose location (or pay for a premium spot) that it might be worth it.
Chandra’s booth placement was also on a downward slope, which meant that things wanted to slide and topple off the tables. This was made worse by the fact that it was a windy day with huge gusts coming through every 10 minutes to blow prints off of tables, knock over frames, and generally create all sorts of irritating destruction.
After the first hour of this annoyance, we used a mixture of zip ties and clothing pins to do our best to solve the wind problem. And we used different objects to block the sliding caused by the sloped hillside. While, these weren’t things we could control, we figured out a temporary workaround and we know in the future to make our booth plans with these possibilities in mind.
Booth aesthetic was something Chandra took very seriously. She spent plenty of hours researching on Pinterest and other online channels to see what other artists were doing with their booths. She wrote down what she liked and didn’t like and planned her booth accordingly.
We had a couple of meetings with a fellow visual artist based in Nashville (Ben Griffith– he’s great, check him out here!) who has been making a living for the past two years almost solely from selling at festivals and markets. He gave us all sorts of practical booth advice that, as newcomers to the festival world, we never would have thought of.
At a festival, there’s an overwhelming amount of sights and sounds and other vendors filling up people’s attention span. People are usually walking down a row with booths on both sides leaving 3-5 seconds for your booth catch their attention. Knowing this, we were as mindful as possible about making Chandra’s booth as eye-catching and appealing as possible to a passerby.
Chandra made a large, handmade “Chandra Rae Artistry” banner as the booth’s backdrop. We used colorful table-cloths that matched well with Chandra’s artwork. We used twine and clothing pins to hang her 11×14 prints where they could be seen prominently as people approached.
Using clothes hangers we hung 10 prints on a standing metal grate. At first, we placed this inside the booth in a way that people could only see it at the last minute or if they came in to browse. After the first hour, we moved it out the front of the booth and positioned it so the artworks were facing people as they walked up. In a similar way, we stood up one of her most appealing artworks in a frame on one of the tables so it would catch people’s eye from outside the booth. Both of these changes, seemed to have a big effect on the number of people entering the booth (and, ultimately, buying).
We also set it up so just before people walked past the booth the last thing they would see was a cork board and basket full of Chandra’s new temporary tattoos. These are a unique and fun product that no one else at the art festival was selling. It was very common throughout the day for people to be about to pass by, see the tattoos, stop to take a look, and then decide to come in and check out the rest of Chandra’s artwork.
Booth setup and aesthetic will be something we continue to invest in over the coming months– it’s importance for a successful festival day can’t be overstated.
- Don’t let the “uncontrollables” drive you crazy, find solutions to things you can, and make a list of what you can do better next time. You don’t even think of many potential problems until they happen, so when they do make the most of it and find a way to make it easier next time.
- Talk to other artists who have had success at festivals and markets. There are so many artists who participate in festivals and create art full-time. It’s possible. And these artists have a lot of valuable insights they’re willing to share. Our conversations with Ben helped us do things well in Chandra’s first art festival that we never would have considered.
- Be strategic about your booth setup and aesthetic. Your booth represents you and your art. Make sure your booth’s aesthetic is doing justice to the quality of artwork you produce. Beyond representing your brand, be strategic about how your booth setup can catch the eye of people passing by. Put yourself in their eyeballs. What do they see when they’re passing? Not everyone will be interested in your art. The key is making sure everyone who would be interested in your art, is given a chance to be intrigued within the first 3-5 seconds of seeing your booth. Experiment with your booth setup and think about how you can stand out from the thousands of other things happening that can steal people’s attention.
Communicating with Art Festival Buyers
Chandra and I were intentional about sitting back a bit in the booth and giving people space, which was also an insight we got from Ben. We sat about 5 feet back from the front of the booth in our chairs. When people entered the booth, one of us would stand up nonchalantly and ask how they were doing. We noticed this seemed to work well and make people feel comfortable to keep browsing and know we were available to ask questions.
We were never pushy about sales, but were friendly, personable, and asked people questions about themselves. We tried to do our best to extend the conversations. For example, if someone was interested in a potential commission piece, we would talk to them about Chandra’s wall mural commissions. If someone told us they loved her wolf piece because they had an obsession with wolves, we would ask about what made them fall in love with wolves.
This will be an ongoing process of learning for us, but from the first art festival experience, we found that being friendly and not sales-y worked best.
That being said, we did get good responses from people when we prompted them to do something like sign up for the email list or take a business card. We want to be more intentional about including these things in every conversation in future festivals, whether someone pulls out their wallet or not.
- Give people space (around 5 feet) and posture yourself in a way that doesn’t pressure them, but let’s them know you’re available.
- Be friendly and helpful, not pushy.
Be intentional about getting buyers and non-buyers a business card and to sign up for your email list.
Post Festival Work
After a long, successful day at Chandra’s first festival, we were exhausted. We let ourselves sleep and then the next day went to work on making sure to gather all the data and lessons learned, as well as make sure to maximize the impact of the festival.
Chandra analyzed her sales data and logged everything in her inventory Google Sheet. This gave her a ton of insight (some surprising) into what prints and print sizes sold best. Her best selling print was the 11×14 wolf, which was not what we had initially expected. And a few pieces we assumed would be her best sellers only sold a couple.
- Chandra now knows exactly how many of each of her prints she needs to re-stock to be ready for the next show and she also knows which prints she might need to have higher numbers of for future shows.
- She gained insight into which artworks people are more drawn to. As an artist, she knows which pieces are her favorite, but when it comes to selling, it matters more what people want to buy. She can let this new insight inform which pieces she pushes to her audience in other marketing efforts and how she positions her artworks online and offline. It also gives her insight into the kinds of pieces that might make sense to create in the future based on her audience’s taste.
We also made sure to reach out to every person who was interested in a commission piece or another opportunity. We wanted to make sure these conversations and opportunities didn’t fizzle out. Now, Chandra has a few opportunities over the next couple of weeks that all came from people who didn’t actually buy her work at the festival.
We added her new email signups to her email list in MailChimp and created a new automated email series specifically for people who signed up at the show. This is important because the more personalized and relevant you can make your emails the more effective they will be. We added these new signups to a special group, which triggered this automated series of 3 emails to start.
Email #1 was a personal email from Chandra thanking signups for coming to the show and for their interest in her work. She gave them $10 off any 11×14 print bought through her website using a special discount code and let them know to expect a couple more welcome emails over the coming weeks.
We set Email #2 to send 7 days after the first email. It announces a buy one, get one free opportunity on her new tattoos, which were a big hit at the festival.
Chandra has been creating wall murals in people’s homes, businesses, etc. This is something she wants to focus on and that people get really excited about, so we’re letting them know in Email #3 that she is taking on more wall murals in the coming months. We include a few pictures of her past murals and give them a link to signup for a mural consultation. Then we let the know the welcome series is over and they can expect to get around 1 email a month in the future.
One of the most important things Chandra has done after the festival is to reflect. As any professional artist knows, it’s important to always be growing in confidence. Most of Chandra’s experience with feedback on her work and purchases have come online through her website and social media. There’s something uniquely powerful about meeting people in person who love your artwork and decide to buy it. We heard throughout the day, “Whoa that’s so amazing!” and “I love that one so much!”
It was important for Chandra to have that in-person experience as a reminder that people love her work and it has an impact. Beyond making money, this was possibly the biggest takeaway from her first art festival. She made the vulnerable step of putting her art “out there” in the real world and got to experience people’s enjoyment and excitement over her creations.
And that was invaluable.
- Take the time to analyze your sales and inventory and pay attention to the insights this offers you moving forward.
- Do any necessary followups. It’s too easy to forget to let opportunities slip away because life gets busy. Soon after each event, make sure to follow up with any potential opportunities.
Set up personalized emails (and potentially offer a discount) to the people who joined your email list at the festival. Make it as relevant and personal as possible. Give them an opportunity to buy your work or do some other action. Think about making it a series of emails over the course of a few weeks to let them get to know you better.
Reflect on what worked well, what you want to do in the future, and be proud that you “went for it”.