Reflections On Diving Into Art Shows

“Artists, by nature, are gamblers. Gambling is a dangerous habit. But whenever you make art, you’re always gambling. You’re rolling the dice on the slim odds that your investment of time, energy, and resources now might pay off later in a big way – that somebody might buy your work, and that you might become successful.”

Elizabeth Gilbert’s friend as quoted in Big Magic (pg. 105)

Leading up to this year, I had wanted to start selling my photography at art shows for quite some time. I had always admired artists who did this. Throughout 2018, I got lots of positive comments/compliments on my photography, and late in the year I finally decided I was at a point in life where it was a good time to give it a shot. I wasn’t sure if I would ever be able to make a living off it, but with all the compliments I had received, I figured I would be able to make some sales at shows. Now that I have four shows under my belt, and have a little bit of a break until my next one, I figured I would put together a post with some thoughts/lessons based on my brief experience so far.

One of the lessons I learned pretty quickly was that a lot of work had to be done before I could even start applying to art shows. Most of the shows (if not all of the shows) I was interested in required a picture of my booth layout. This meant I almost had to get to the point of being able to do a show before I could even apply to a show. So even though I started making prints in mid/late March, I didn’t start applying to shows until early May.  

This led to the second lesson: show applications are usually due a few months before the actual show. This meant that the shows I was applying to in the May/June timeframe were in September/October/November. So between all the work before even applying and then the time between the application and the show, it took several months from “starting” until my first show. Granted, there may be shows you can get into quickly. I was able to get into a show in July last minute, although it wasn’t the ideal show. So be ready to put in a lot of time, effort, and money before you can even start applying to most juried shows, and then some more time until the shows actually happen. 

Once you start doing shows, be prepared for lots of learning and inefficiency the first few shows. Kudos to you if you can figure everything out right off the bat. But for me, between packing my truck, packaging items, setting up, the best tent layout, tearing down, etc., there was lots of trial and error in how to do things best. It took until my 4th show before I felt like I had a good handle on how best to set up, my tent layout, how to tear down, and pack the truck. And that was with some work outside of shows as well. 

Last big lesson: compliments don’t equal sales, and rejection is a given. If I got $1 for every person who said my work was beautiful, or something along those lines, I wouldn’t have to sell any of my art. And yet I have sold very little art my first four shows. It could be that people are just trying to be nice. But I think it’s more along the lines that it’s just hard to sell art. There are obviously lots of things that go into this, but don’t think that because people are complimenting your art you will get into every show you apply to and that it will be easy to sell it.

And yet, despite the slow start and difficulties, and points of wondering why I’m doing this, I’m not giving up yet. There are some great things about doing the shows. I have really enjoyed getting to meet and chat with the people who come through my booth, as well as other artists at the shows. Being fairly shy and an introvert, I don’t have much of a social life, and the shows are one of my ways to be social. It has been fun visiting with others who have connections to the mountains, and seeing the reactions to and explaining to people the why behind my fire hydrant photos. Despite not doing well with sales up to this point, there has been lots of good learning so far, so that has been a positive I could take away from the shows. And finally, I’m of the opinion that it can’t hurt to get my art out in front of more people. 

Also, one other thing I want to point out. If you do decide to start selling your art at shows, don’t think you have to give up everything else and be fully devoted to making art and selling it. I have not experienced this myself, but some people apparently frown upon not being “fully devoted” to your art. However, if you were to give up everything else, not have any source of other income, and then not do well at shows, it could become very stressful in a hurry. I have a full time job, and I consider fine art photographer to be my side gig. It takes so much stress out of it knowing I have another source of income, and I don’t have to count on sales at art shows. Does that mean I’m not going to try as hard? I don’t think so. I would still like to do it full time someday. But until I get to that point, I have a lot less stress, which for me makes it much more enjoyable. As Elizabeth Gilbert put it:

I held on to those other sources of income for so long because I never wanted to burden my writing with the responsibility of paying for my life. I knew better than to ask this of my writing, because over the years, I have watched so many other people murder their creativity by demanding that their art pay the bills. I’ve seen artists drive themselves broke and crazy because of this insistence that they are not legitimate creators unless they can exclusively live off their creativity. And when their creativity fails them (meaning: doesn’t pay the rent), they descend into resentment, anxiety, or even bankruptcy. Worst of all, they often quit creating at all.

(Big Magic, pgs. 152-153)

So, in conclusion, being an artist selling work at art shows isn’t as glorious as most people probably think. Sure, there are some people who do well with it, but based on my experience and talking with other artists, I think that’s the minority. There is a lot of work and time that goes into the shows, and often not the payoff that the artists would like. If you’re thinking about giving art shows a try, be prepared for a challenge, but there is also a deep satisfaction in pursuing something you’re passionate about. 

No way was I going to give up on my work simply because it wasn’t “working”. That wasn’t the point of it. The rewards could not come from the external results – I knew that. The rewards had to come from the joy of puzzling out the work itself, and from the private awareness I held that I had chosen a devotional path and I was being true to it. If someday I got lucky enough to be paid for my work, that would be great, but in the meantime, money could always come from other places. There are so many ways in this world to make a good enough living, and I tried lots of them, and I always got by well enough. I was happy. I was a total nobody, and I was happy.

(Big Magic, pg. 113)

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