So you’ve applied to an art show and been accepted. Congrats! Now it’s time to take your art on the road and make a splash. How do you get going? Here are a few things I wish I’d known when I first started out.
Show Me the Money
The fun usually starts with an outlay of sweat and treasure. You gotta spend money to make money. These days you have a lot of choice when approaching your investment:
1) Buy New, Pay Top Dollar
Everything you could ever want can be purchased. It’s amazing. If you’ve got the cash, your tent, panels, pedestals, and other display items can be clean and of the best quality. This can certainly make a good impression! But depending on what you’re showing be ready to shell out $10–20,000.
2) Cut Costs by Buying Used
Google “used artist show display” and see what you get. Artists are always upgrading displays or cycling in and out of the show circuit. You could find a seriously good buy. Ebay and artist swap sites often have items of interest. I sold my first set of panels for something like 30 cents on the dollar when I changed my display.
3) Build It Yourself
You say you’re handy with a hammer and you have a bunch of hollow-core doors in the backyard? Sure! Some of the very best displays I’ve seen were home-grown; but they have to complement your pieces. If you’re selling upcycled art, bringing the funk can be a great choice. But if you’re hoping for a classy vibe, you can shoot yourself in the foot.
You can also mix and match. My booth is a chimera of purchased and hand-built display items. So without further ado, let’s dive down on the basic display items you’ll need.
First and foremost is a 10′ x 10′ tent, the standard size for a single booth. Here are a few of the more common types and suppliers I see at the art shows:
- An EZ-Up type tent (scissor set up) is fairly inexpensive but not all of them are waterproof and they are very lightweight. I’ve seen them collapse and take off in inclement weather. Similar designs are made by KD Canopy and Caravan. I know a couple of jewelers who love their Caravan; they’ve been using it for years without any issues. Like the EZ-up it pulls apart and folds up in an scissor style. Their show set-up and tear down time is greatly reduced because of its simplicity.
- Creative Energies, carries a couple of designs. I decided years ago to purchase the Light Dome. My first show I used an EZ-up and once was enough. After talking with other artists at the show I picked the Light Dome since it seemed a nice compromise of sturdiness and lightness. The frame is constructed of aluminum tubing rather than steel. There are a lot of options on their website for awnings, height extensions, stabilizing bars as a few examples.
- Another favorite among the artists is made by Flourish. They sell the Trimline Canopy, which has a hoop top rather than a dome. This design gives it a more spacious feel with a higher ceiling. The frame is made of galvanized steel pipe — very sturdy, but heavier to carry. The rafters are PVC, which flex into the hoop shape. It’s a very nice tent, but a bit more work to set up. It, like the Light Dome, has a lot of additional options available.
She’s So Heavy
The weather can get pretty dicey at outdoor shows. Without planning you can lose your tent and everything in it. We’ve seen tents cartwheeling down Santa Monica Boulevard and mangled in Reston.
Exhibitors at the La Quinta Arts Festival are required to hammer 3′ pieces of rebar into the ground and attach them to each tent leg with hose clamps.
No matter how sturdy your tent is, you need weights on every corner. The minimum weight required by most shows is 40 pounds at each corner. This is where you will see all sorts of designs created by the artists.
I went to the junkyard and had them cut 40-pound sections of solid steel stock. I then welded a couple of 1/2″ nuts on and attached screw eyebolts.
I then attach them to the top of the tent at each corner with straps, as recommended by Creative Energies. That way the tent top doesn’t rip off in high winds (which happened to us before we adopted this system!) and holds the tent down evenly. I also keep additional 25-pound weights that I add to the configuration when things look particularly nasty.
Better safe than sorry!
Once the tent is up and secure it’s time to design the interior. The goal is to make the space professional, welcoming, and easy to navigate. It’s my portable gallery.
Because each show layout is unique, it seems I need to come up with a new design for my booth each time. Analyze the space: consider traffic flow, direction of natural light, potential storage area, and where you’ll sit and conduct business.
And because I typically have at least one large sculpture to show I need to think about sculpture locations. What gets showcased and how is a never-ending issue for 3D and 2D artists.
Every artist has their own unique system, but a lot of us define our space with portable walls. I use the Propanel system by MD Enterprises. These are very popular display panels. They come in a variety of sizes and colors, and are designed to fit the needs of a 10 x 10 tent or larger. The panels require hardware to connect them to each other and the tent. MD Enterprises has a lot of accessories for show setup. I also use their collapsible pedestals and desks.
The 2D folks have their hangers and such, the jewelers have their display cases — everyone has their unique system. Look around and see what works for you. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve explained to other artists about how we secure our shelf system.
Ask! Most people are happy to share wisdom.
And on the subject of defining space, I often put down an indoor/outdoor rug when I am showing on a solid surface. Some artists use the interlocking flooring tiles to create a sense of space and give the clients a nice surface to stand on.
I find it difficult to use because of my pedestals. And while they can be a pain when it rains, floor coverings are a great way to turn a little patch of parking lot into your personalized gallery.
Comfy show chairs are important. Some experts say you should never sit down in your booth, but I don’t think they’ve ever done an art show.
Most artists use something like a tall a director’s chair that raises them to more easily talk to patrons. These can be comfortable or a bit of a trial to sit in for long. One popular manufacturer is Totally Bamboo, which sells a line called Hollywood Chairs. You can find this type through numerous outlets, like Amazon. They’re comfortable, but spendy and a little on the heavy side.
I found something similar that has an aluminum frame and little side fold-out table. There are quite a few choices; you can have fun doing some online searching.
And the rest:
- Step stools are a must unless you are very tall, which I am not.
- A UV blocking patio umbrella or awning is handy if there’s room for it and it’s not too windy.
- A tool box with the basics is another good idea. You never know when you’re going to need that duct tape, pliers, screwdrivers, headlamp, utility knife, Band-Aids, wire cutters, and rags. (You’ll be popular with your neighbors, too!)
- Have some small towels in case of rain.
- If you use electrical, carry an exterior grade extension cord.
There are of course a zillion other little items that I haven’t mentioned. This is where your own personal needs and preferences come into play.
As you participate in more art shows you’ll discover what works best for your display and personal comfort. It can be a bit overwhelming in the beginning; once you develop a system it becomes a lot easier.
Consider starting off with the basics and work your way into more complex set-up as you collect information from your show neighbors.
Good luck and have a great time!