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Art Business

Should Emerging Artists Sell Their Work at Art Fairs?

Art Fairs are as diverse as artistic mediums these days. With fairs ranging from featuring artists with non-traditional arts backgrounds (Outsider Art Fair) to a focus on photography (AIPAD) and prints (Art on Paper), there is seemingly an art fair to fit any number of collecting tastes. Additionally, there are even art fairs focused directly on recruiting artists to show their own work, such as the newly-minted The Other Art Fair, Clio Art Fair and more. As a result, emerging artists are becoming active participants in the art fair ecosystem, bolstered by increasing opportunities for independent artists that wish to represent their own work. In turn, independent visual artists are afforded opportunities for sales and building networks.

While some more established art fairs, such as UNTITLED, demand that artists be represented by brick-and-mortar galleries, emerging artists who have created collectives or online galleries can more easily leverage their existing networks to produce their own booths at art fairs internationally. With different art fairs offering varying price points, and further options to pool money in order to share booths with fellow artists, the environment is ripe for artists ready to take the plunge and show their own work at an art fair.

Before you dive in, we’ve looked into the pros and cons of selling work directly at art fairs. From measuring the administrative work involved to frank conversations around marketing and sales, there are several factors to consider before moving forward with selling at an art fair. Does your chosen art fair fit your goals? Do you feel confident that other exhibitors’ work will be of comparative quality? Will visitor footprint be significant enough to produce sales leads? We take an in-depth look at these topics when weighing whether and where to show your artwork at art fairs.

emerging artist
Before you decide to participate in an art fair, do some research to determine whether your target audience will be attending.

Learning Art Fairs: Location, Timing, and Goals

Art fairs tend to happen in clusters around pivotal flashpoints on the art market calendar, whether it’s focused around Miami Art Week in early December, The Armory Show New York in early March or the Frieze Art Fairs in New York and London. Independent artists seriously considering selling their work at art fairs need to approach this endeavor from a business standpoint, with a firm understanding of the market. The most important question to ask yourself? Who is your target buyer, and will they be present at this fair? Does your artwork sell for reasonable prices?

You may be focusing on a design fair or an affordable, lower-price point art fair. If you work exclusively in one medium, you would be better served by finding out where buyers for those works flock and examining your options for exhibiting there. Make sure whichever art fair you choose to exhibit with is well timed, occurring when you are likely to see the highest volume of visitors. As an example, a fair that happens in the summer months near New York City may see higher foot traffic and sales if it takes place in the Hamptons rather than in Manhattan. It’s important to know your audience’s habits and to identify the place and time that works best to see more chances to close a sale.

Next, identify your end goals when approaching art fairs. Are you looking for greater exposure as an artist, or are you looking for a higher sales volume? While a single fair can manage both, if you are prioritizing one goal over the other you may be encouraged to reconsider the final fair you choose based on which priority holds more sway.

Emerging artist Ida Ivanka Kubler weighed these same exact choices before showing her work with an artist-run initiative at a previous art fair. Kubler noted the immediate benefits of showing her work with the art fair. “Communicating with potential clients and sensing their passion for art yields positive energy…it’s rewarding for artists to hear how fascinated people are with [the] art.” While potentially draining for more introverted independent artists, there is a direct and immediate payoff from bringing your work toat art fairs: instant feedback. Unlike gallerists, independent artists are also best equipped to discuss the genesis of the artwork with potential collectors; this action results in a direct sense of the passion the artist has for creating their work, which often closes a sale with an interested buyer. According to Kubler, this impact can lead to immediate and future results.. “[Some] people buy years after [when] the image of a certain artwork stays with them,” she notes.

The Pros: Greater Profits and Creative Control for Independent Artists

You’ve identified your ideal art fairs, nailed down exhibition dates and exhibitor fees, and you are approved and ready to go. What are some of the pros you can expect from self-representation at the art fair? From the very beginning, you have greater creative control by determining how your work is installed within the space. When exhibiting with a dealer, the booth design is their prerogative, but when exhibiting yourself – even in a collective of other emerging artists – you have greater creative control in displaying your artwork to its best advantage. Use what you know about your work to truly let the exhibition design sell your work for you, and show your works in their best light. Literally – set up a lighting design that accents the works on view, and you will attract more visitors to your booth.

Turning foot traffic into sales deliverables is a matter of engaging and identifying what visitors are looking for at art fairs. Bring extra work in different sizes to show to buyers looking to purchase work on a different scale. Have business cards ready for buyers who need to walk around the fair and return later for a work.

The best part of showing your own work at art fairs? You keep all sales profits for yourself, a greater impetus to engage potential buyers and to have resources at your disposal to give collectors exactly what they are looking for at art fairs. You’ll be able to connect the collector to your practice directly, to provide insights into how collectors can hang works in their home or accentuate their current collection with your work. This combined advantage of having greater creative control of how your work is shown, along with greater profit incentives, goes a long way toward a convincing argument for exhibiting your own work at art fairs.

emerging artist
Exhibiting at the fair as a collective will help offset the costs of participation.

The Cons: Reduced Time for Creativity

Take a closer look at producing an exhibitor stall for an art fair. What is involved in the process and – most importantly – do you have time to add these duties to your workload and also still have the bandwidth to produce artworks for the fair? From wall labels and shipping to marketing outreach and installation, hours of blood, sweat, and tears will go into setting up and managing the art fair booth. Emerging artists pursuing these opportunities need to make sure they’re aware of the drain on time and resources. Do you feel confident that you have the ability to see everything through from beginning to end, while also dedicating time to art-making? Kubler noted of selling at art fairs has impacted her time adversely. “It takes me away from actually producing new art, [and] all the organization takes a long time.”

There will also be expenses involved, other than just the booth fee. If you secure your own booth but have other drains on your time and will be unable to staff the booth yourself, you’ll need to hire an assistant for the duration of the fair – which, frankly, you should anticipate doing anyway at art fairs since when multiple buyers will likely be admiring your work. Being prepared for the time and effort it will require to adequately run your own booth will go a long way in yielding results at art fairs.

Have you chosen to work with an artist-driven fair? While this yields its own advantages – namely, that the fair will focus more resources on advertising on behalf of their independent artists/sellers – it’s important to keep an eye on quality. Who is curating the fair? What have past iterations of the fair looked like? By feeling confident that other exhibitors are showing work that matches your own level of quality, you can be reassured that the types of collectors who are seeking your work will be attending the fair.

Exhibiting at art fairs is a significant investment of time and resources, so making sure you feel confident as you plunge ahead with selling your work is key. Examine which art fairs have reached the milestones you hope to achieve: If your selected art fairs work with emerging artists that exhibit high-quality artworks and have proven sales numbers, then you might just be ready to move ahead.  


About the author

Audra Lambert

Audra Lambert is a curator, arts marketing consultant and editor.


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