The truth about art festivals

I am thrilled to be in the beginning stages of my first commissioned linocut. It is so new, however, that my gradated blue rectangles aren’t ready for blog exposure. My other big project — the Fourth Street Festival of the Arts and Crafts — is coming up soon on Labor Day. So in honor of the festival I thought I would answer some of the most common questions I get about art festivals. Keep in mind that there are always exceptions, and these insights are from my own experience as a festival participant, a festival juror, and local festival committee member.
Who chooses which artists participate?
If the event says it is a juried art fair, then submissions are chosen by a jury. Most festivals use an on-line service called ZAPP, where images of the artist’s work and a picture of the artist’s booth are uploaded. Jurors only see the images — no names or other identifiers are allowed — so it is hoped that the process can be without favoritism. Jurors see artwork by category (i.e. jewelry, ceramics) and give each submission a numerical score.
The festival then uses these raw scores to develop their list of invitees. They keep in mind how many of each type of medium they would like to have. There are usually many more jewelers, ceramicists and photographers than there are say, printmakers. They want to make sure the festival has a good variety of offerings.
Being a juror can be a tough job. Some festivals do live jurying — where the jurors look at the images together for a brief time and then submit scores. I did this for the Broad Ripple Art Fair one year, and it was exhausting to look at so much art! Other festivals allow jurors to score on-line over a period of time from any location.


My first booth shot came from an early January mock set-up in my church hall.
Where do all those white tents come from?

Artists provide their own white tents. A booth shot is usually required for entries, so there is a bit of a cart before the horse problem when an artist is just beginning to enter festivals. Higher quality tents like Light Dome or Trim Line can run a few thousand dollars, and an EZ-Up can be purchased at Walmart for about $100. Sadly, in this case you get what you pay for, and for me, any water leaking in meant ruined work. I have a Light Dome which is fabulous.
Artists set up these tents the day before, and sometimes the day of the show. Corner weights of at least 40 lbs each are a necessity, especially in the midwest during the summer. Artists must also consider how to display their artwork. For 2-D folks, this means some kind of panel system. 3-D has tables, glass cases…the reality is that you are setting up a nomadic art gallery.
Do the artists actually make all this work?
Showing all artist-made work is the ultimate goal of art festivals. Many organizers go to great lengths to ensure that what is being sold has been created by an individual or perhaps a creative team. They want to avoid having what is called “buy-sell” — items that are mass produced (usually overseas) and then sold fraudulently as handmade. The problem comes when a buy-sell group is set up and the fair begins. It then becomes difficult to ask them to leave and tear down their booth while the festival is happening.
I always have a photo of me working in the studio to prove that I created all of my linocuts.
The best way to tell if the art you are seeing is handmade is to talk to the artist. Artists (with a few exceptions) like to talk with people about their process and inspirations. Plus conversation makes 8 to 10 hour days go by faster. An artist might not want to give you all of their artistic secrets, but if they are intentionally vague, you should be suspicious.
What happens in bad weather?
Festivals proceed rain or shine for the most part. Bad weather has followed me personally for the few years I have done festivals. Searing heat means all people really want to do is find a frozen beverage and some shade — no buying art! Gentle steady rain brings out the true shoppers, complete with rubber rain boots. But severe weather — rain and thunderstorms — can be a real problem.
My first art festival came complete with straight line winds that tossed un-weighted EZ-ups about like toys. Take a look at the 2011 Columbus (OH) Art Festival. (Caution! — salty language as this is a live video from a person’s cellphone.) At some point, no tent is going to stand up to severe weather. Then all artists can do is zip up their tents and head inside a building.

Why would artists choose to do art fairs?
The biggest goal for many artists is to get “eyeballs on their work,” and art fair can do this. The shear number of people attending a festival is multiplicatively greater than at a Friday night art opening. Many of these people come because they like to buy art.

But doing a festival is a complete crap-shoot, entailing a fair amount of physical effort and financial risk. The booth fee can run from $250 up to $1000. If it is an out of town show, the artist must figure in food and lodging, plus gas. And have a vehicle to haul everything.

I only do a few art fairs, mostly within driving distance of my home. They are a great way to meet people who might not go to art galleries. They are also the perfect way to practice talking about art.

Art festivals are a lot like gambling — or as my psychologist husband would describe it, a variable reward system. Many times you have bad weather, or poor sales, or both! But there will be that one time that you sold a big piece or won a prize. It is those occurrences that seem to stick best in your memory, especially in the winter when the applications open for the next spring and summer.


Sometimes you win! This is me at the Broad Ripple Art Fair several years ago when I won first place.

So the next time you visit an art festival (maybe the Fourth Street Festival in Bloomington, IN) be sure to say hello to the artist, ask them about their work and thank them for bringing their portable tent gallery to your city. (Maybe buy something!) You will make their day.

P.S. The Fourth Street Festival runs on Labor Day weekend in downtown Bloomington, IN.

Saturday, September 5th from 10am – 6pm
Sunday, September 6th from 10am – 5pm

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