How to Sell at Art Fairs with Ilana Vardy
Art fairs are one of the premier ways for galleries as well as artists to advance their agendas and broaden their audiences from local or regional favorites to national or international players. Fairs provide unique opportunities for galleries everywhere to come together and strut their best stuff to art world notables who count-- museums, galleries, dealers, collectors, curators, agents, consultants, critics and the like. There are plenty of ways for galleries to enhance their reputations to be sure, but the face-to-face gallery-to-gallery buyer-to-seller curator-to-collector convocation of a major art fair is tough to top. By the way, for you artists who show at art fairs or do open studios, art festivals or any other direct selling or showing of your art, much of what you're about to read applies to you too. As you are about to discover, selling your art successfully at fairs or anywhere else is an art in and of itself.
When it comes to visual art, hardly anything beats firsthand viewings, in-person conversations with knowledgeable professionals and accomplished artists, and informed assessments from those in the know-- all of which happen in a big way at major art fairs. With a top fair typically attracting 20,000-40,000 or more international art fans, exhibitors can easily see more potential clients in several days than they do at their galleries in a year. The upshot? Art fairs are indispensable for anyone who aspires to play the art game at the highest levels, as opportunities for advancement abound.
But for a participating gallery or artist, taking full advantage all an art fair can offer is more complicated than simply filling the booth with art and waiting for something to happen. Believe it or not, having a successful art fair depends at least as much on endurance, attitude and advance planning as it does on the logistics of the fair itself. Galleries or artists new to fairs often don't understand their responsibilities in this regard. They think all they have to do is set up their booths, sit there, and leave the rest to the promoters and throngs of visitors when in truth, they're the ones who had better engage the public-- not the other way around.
Even more important than the gallery as entity is the gallery owner and staff, the potential true stars of the show. According to Ilana Vardy who has directed art fairs for nearly twenty years including Art Chicago, Art Miami, Art DC and Chicago Contemporary and Classic, fairgoers gravitate toward dealers who are thrilled to be there and who demonstrate passion about what they're doing. So that's rule #1-- gallery owners and staff have to be good with the public in order to make an art fair work. No art sells itself; someone has to step up and sell it, and being entertaining in the process certainly doesn't hurt. Your skin may be crawling at the thought, but that's the way it is, love it or leave it. Certain gallery owners just plain don't belong at art fairs, Vardy says, because they're so miserable while there. They absolutely hate every minute of it, and you know what? When the public senses a gallery owner would rather be somewhere else than manning the booth, they'll avoid that booth in droves. Fairgoers appreciate warm welcomes and affable banter. It's that simple and no more complicated.
According to Vardy, people are less intimidated around art fairs than they are at individual galleries. They feel like they can approach anybody in any booth and ask whatever they want. So dealers and staff have to be involved, excited, present, and prepared to answer boatloads of questions-- often the same questions, and often uninformed-- over and over and over again; they can't just sit there and ignore people or lose patience. That's the way the game gets played in art fair land and how galleries get new clients. Prospective buyers who aren't familiar with particular galleries, for instance, but who like what they see, may well whip out their wallets and BUT ONLY after they've been engaged and seduced by the gallerists.
Several additional quick pointers for exhibitors:
* Never prejudge based on the way someone looks. Anyone can turn out to be a buyer.
* One of the worst things an exhibitor can do is to sit in their booth preoccupied with their phones, computers or anything else other than paying attention to visitors. Nobody talks to dealers who look like they're not interested in talking.
* Attitude and endurance are everything (and that goes for the fair organizers too). Participants have to be involved with the process from beginning to end in order to make a fair successful. Sure, those long hours are grueling, but the event only lasts a few days-- a quick intense sprint, not a marathon. Keeping that in mind makes the ordeal much more bearable.
First-time exhibitors should be aware that repetition is an important part of art fair protocol. Galleries usually have to exhibit at a particular fair at least three years or so in order to get a footing and attract significant numbers of potential buyers. Serious collectors appreciate repeat appearances because not only does being there year after year contribute to building trust, but it also differentiates established committed galleries from here-today-gone-tomorrow dabblers. The truth is that many buyers are reluctant to spend big bucks with galleries they don't know or have never heard of, no matter how scintillating the art, so every consecutive fair appearance increases the probability of selling more art.
Be aware, though, that art fairs are not only about making immediate sales. One of the primary reasons to exhibit at fairs is to observe and interact with other galleries and network with fellow professionals. Many galleries, says Ilana Vardy, go through entire fairs without ever meeting their neighbors-- not even those next to them or across the aisle. Knowing what colleagues are up to not only contributes to a gallery owner's knowledge base and overview of the art world, but cultivating relationships with fellow dealers can ultimately lead to joint shows, sales, cross-promotion of artists, and much more.
In an increasing number of cases, art fair participation becomes an integral part of a gallery's advertising and marketing budget because a fair provides a superb platform for national and international hobnobbing and PR. For example, if a gallery lands a new gallery exhibit or museum show for one of their artists because of who they meet and get along famously with at an art fair, even though they may sell nothing, that makes it a pretty successful fair. So exhibitors should never judge an outcome based on sales alone or focus solely on selling to the exclusion of all else. The monetary benefits often come later.
Most importantly, galleries should have realistic expectations. They shouldn't necessarily bank on huge profits, but rather on strengthening relationships and meeting plenty of interesting people, including potential buyers and collectors, some of whom may take weeks or even months after a fair is over before deciding to buy. Focusing efforts on making slow and steady progress is far better than a strike-it-rich strategy or plan, and frees up galleries to pursue associations and alliances that have the potential to play out profitably over time.
Knowing how to work the crowds at an art fair is important, but so is booth design and strategy. To begin with, less is generally more. In other words, a well-curated booth tends to have plenty of white space, strong work, and presents a cohesive selection of art and artists where every piece is there for a reason, hopefully contributing to an overall impact that is greater than the sum of the individual works. A unified presentation is essential. When a gallery is able to effectively explain how everything fits together, the chances increase that if people like what they see and hear, they'll want to know more. Keeping it simple, direct and easy to understand-- visually as well as verbally-- is key. There's plenty of time to get deep and complicated with anyone who wants to know more, but wisdom dictates resisting that urge unless asked. It's rarely productive for gallery personnel to leave potential buyers in the dust of with overly complicated explanations.
Now it's time to get strategic. Before a fair opens, exhibiting galleries should make sure their websites and social media pages are completely and totally up to date. You can bet that anyone who visits a gallery's booth for the first time and likes what they see will go online and read all about them before making any further moves, particularly financial ones. Along with making sure their online profile is current, they should keep the fan base on top of what they're doing by posting about the upcoming fair and the art they'll be bringing. Spice up the feed with posts and images of prepping for the fair, setting up the booth, what the local surroundings are like, and so on. In addition to being ready for first-time visitors, they should also do their best to make followers who can't come feel like they're there.
As for the booth itself, at the opening or entrance or the point where fairgoers first make eye contact as they walk the aisles, a gallery should present an artwork that's dramatic, impactful, and will get people into the space. This "standout" art should be chosen specifically to attract NEW visitors, not those who already know the gallery. A gallery's core clientele will show up regardless of what's on display so they should not waste precious acreage worrying about the regulars. It's new business that counts.
For example, let's say a gallery specializes in artists who aren't that well-known, somewhat out of the mainstream, or subtle and not all that impressive from a visual perspective. It's important to bring that art to the fair, of course, but it's at least as important to feature at least one piece of art that slows people down, makes them stop and stare-- one that appeals to a wider range of interests, and gets fairgoers into the booth. It doesn't even have to be that salable, but it should definitely be eye-catching. An art fair is a competition of sorts, with every participating gallery competing with the next for traffic, visitors, and especially buyers.
Ilana Vardy notes that a gallery can always introduce potential new clients to their specialties later, once they're in the booth, and that's the key-- getting them into the booth in the first place. And if getting them there involves showing art that's somewhat over the top or maybe not even a gallery specialty, so be it. After all, that's why galleries exhibit at art fairs-- to attract new customers in addition to reconnecting with old ones, and making that happen means making the booth compelling. Get too esoteric or crammed up with art that has no cohesive or coherent visual impact at first glance and people who aren't already fans will walk right by.
Speaking of bad booth design, some galleries think if they show a little bit of everything, they'll maximize their chances of making sales. But what happens is usually the opposite. A booth hung floor to ceiling with everything a gallery represents looks more like a flea market or secondhand store than an art gallery, and not only confuses viewers, but the clutter also tends to devalue the art from an aesthetic perspective. Galleries that want to bring a wide selection should build closet spaces into their booths and keep the stock there. Clean walls and open floor space are most conducive to selling art. Too much art is a visual assault, confuses and overwhelms people, and tends to scare them away.
In addition to carefully planning the interior of their booth, a gallery must also be aware of the overall layout of the fair and of their positioning in that fair as a whole. They have to know where the majority of the traffic will be coming from and establish a site line, based on the depth and length of the booth, of what wall or floor space people will see first. That's where the most significant impactful art goes and where the easy-access main entrance to the booth should be. This art should have its own walls or pedestals, be positioned to be seen by the maximum amount of traffic, and be what people see first as they approach the booth (and the sooner they see it, the better). Plus there should be no doubt in anyone's mind which gallery that art belongs to.
There is so much visual stimulation at a fair, a gallery has to do everything possible to carve out their territory, dramatize their space, and persuade people to come inside. Ilana Varney even suggests that a gallery build a scale model of their booth in advance of the fair and experiment with positioning various works of art to see how they'll look-- similar to an architectural model. She adds that one thing a gallery should never do is close themselves off or make access difficult. Fairgoers tend to avoid booths when they have to work to get in or feel like they might be trapped once inside.
As for identifying individual works of art, labels are critical. Says Varney, labels shouldn't be too large or compete with the art, but at the same time, should include as much information as possible-- answering all basic questions that people typically ask-- including the price. Some gallerists think that people interested in particular works of art will ask the price, but that's not necessarily true. Not everyone is comfortable asking prices; some people are afraid that asking might be seen as a commitment to buy the art, while others simply prefer to keep to themselves and not engage in price talk until they're pretty sure they want to buy and know they can afford it. The more details a gallery provides about their art up front, the better. People appreciate dealers who are generous with information rather than those who provide little or nothing in the way of details and force them to ask for everything.
Seeing as we've broached the topic of prices, Vardy warns galleries against artificially raising them for a fair so they can give discounts in case someone asks, or for any other reason. For one thing, experienced collectors know when someone's jacking up prices and will avoid those galleries (and tell their friends to avoid them as well). Pricing and selling art is not a game. If a gallery is willing to discount a certain amount, they should establish that amount with staff ahead of time, and be clear about what conditions might warrant it. They should also be able to explain clearly and concisely to any inquiries about why a price is what it is and if asked, what flexibility they may or may not have in terms of discounts. Waffling around or being vague about prices is never good. Established dealers who've been in business for years typically have only one price no matter where they show their art-- especially when they exhibit artists who are represented by multiple galleries.
Regarding sold art, galleries need to know exactly what services a fair provides in terms of packing, shipping, handling and storage, and should be prepared to discuss and explain all storage and transport options to anyone who asks. Having a sale unravel due to shipping concerns is never good. Many dealers solve the problem by taking sold art home with them and then shipping it to buyers from their galleries. Whatever the arrangements, galleries should cover the shipping costs unless buyers request special handling. They should also be prepared to deliver and install work at the homes or offices of buyers who live in the area of a fair. Being able to install art locally is a plus, not only in terms of convenience to buyers, but also because this gives the gallery a chance to get to know them better and see what else they collect... or what their friends might collect.
As for the cost of art fair participation, a gallery should know in advance approximately how much extra they'll need to spend in addition to the cost of the booth, including fees for added walls, storage areas, lighting, doors, showcases, labor, shipping, and so on. Read the fair contract in detail before signing it, and know what to expect in terms of total cash outlay. Add-ons should not come as a surprise. And don't forget to figure in travel, accommodations, food and other incidental expenses.
For you galleries thinking about exhibiting at art fairs, but who haven't yet taken the plunge, picking the right fair is essential for success and picking the wrong one can be disastrous. Many owners aren't sure which fairs are appropriate for their galleries, reports Varney, and choosing wisely takes time and research. To begin with, a gallery owner should visit whatever fair they're considering showing at before they sign on in order to see how it's run, who's in it, and what types of people attend. They can also access the list of exhibitors on the fair's website and research those galleries online. Talk to participating galleries, preferably ones who've exhibited more than once, and find out how things go. Make sure the management and organizers treat the galleries well and are sensitive to their needs. The people who run a fair have to be concerned about the welfare of their exhibitors or else the fair won't work.
Gallery owners must make sure a fair is more or less of a match with their art. They should never apply to fairs they know little or nothing about just to get in; be sure they're the right fairs first. For example, a bad match would be a cutting edge gallery setting up at a traditional fair; that simply won't work. And it's not only choosing the right fair but understanding the demographics of that fair. Who attends? Who buys? Where are they from? What do they collect? How much do they typically spend? What types of galleries do really well there? What types of art sell well there? Galleries won't necessarily divulge this information, but the producers of a fair may be be able to enlighten you, especially if they've been producing the fair for a while. At the very least, they know which kinds of galleries tend to thrive and which drop out. So speak with the fair management before signing on.
Also make sure a fair is well capitalized, established, respected, well-publicized, is able to attract good numbers of buyers, has an advertising budget and is using it. Also find out in advance where and how much they plan to advertise because publicity is critical. A fair that can't get warm bodies through the door is destined to fail (as will its exhibitors).
As for getting into a fair, galleries should research the politics and application or review processes in advance, and do their best to figure out why certain exhibitors get in while others don't. Most fairs have selection committees usually consisting of peers appointed by fair organizers. Galleries should do their best to find out who's on those committees and what the application process entails in order to get a leg up on the competition. Exhibiting at an art fair is serious business and when done right can catapult a gallery from obscurity to stardom.
Ilana Vardy has directed art fairs for nearly twenty years including Art Chicago, Art Miami, Art DC, and Chicago Contemporary and Classic. She also consults with galleries and artists about various aspects of selecting and exhibiting at art fairs. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
(art by Patsy Krebs)
Need consulting or advising on the course of your art career? That's what I do. You're always welcome to email me-- Alan Bamberger-- or call 415.931.7875 and make an appointment.
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