10 things I’ve learned about art shows

Like many people, pre-Christmas is a busy time for me. My busy time extends to my art business as well, since it’s when I attend the most art shows and sales. I always learn something new from selling my art directly to the public, and 2012 was no different.

Here are the 10 things I learned this year that help contribute to a successful art show.

LINDA COTE-2012 Booth w Video

Tell people who you are.

It seems pretty basic, but an art booth needs to tell the story of you. If you don’t have a sign, or business cards, or anything that identifies your name or the type of art you are selling, you’re missing an important first impression. Sometimes, art speaks for itself.  But, remember you are competing for the attention of someone waking by, and you need to encourage them to stop. For the first time this year, I integrated a video of me printmaking into my booth. It certainly stopped people, but it also opened the door to many conversations. (It even sold some art!)


My banner tells what I do, and where I’m based. A photo of me identifies me as the artist in the booth. (And, these can be purchased for under $30.)

Are you a local? Make it known.

People love buying from an artist in their town. Tell people, but better yet – refer to the last point – put it on the banner and your cards. When I added my location to my marketing materials, people would exclaim, “Oh, you’re from here!” and often started to follow my artwork because we had a local connection in common. When I attend shows outside my home town, I’m not shy about saying why I am connected to the city I am showing in. (Perhaps I grew up there, or studied there.)

LINDA COTE-Demo & name tagWear a name tag.

Are you getting the “signage theme”? My theory is: “tell them, and then tell them again”. A marketer I follow named Scott Ginsberg writes and speaks on approachability and branding and has been wearing a name tag 24/7 for over 4,400 days and counting. He says it’s transformed his business – and his life. You can read more at his website. You may not want to wear a name tag around the clock, but at an art show, it’s important. Even with a name tag, I often get asked tentatively, “Are you the artist?” A name tag makes it easy for people to approach you.

Display signage that connects the dots for people.

LINDA COTE-Hostess GiftOK, one more, and then I will be quiet about the signs. Do you take Visa/MasterCard? Want to share that your art is hand-made? Have a product that does something unique? Some people can be very shy about asking questions. I’ve seen artists display the coolest functional art pieces, but if people don’t have any idea what it’s for, customers may be afraid to ask a “dumb question” when speaking directly with the artist. If it’s a unique butter dish, tell them. If it’s a rock-shaped ceramic masterpiece that is also a salt shaker, tell them. Make it easy for people by putting out a sign. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

Also, if you have a great gift idea for your product, don’t be shy about saying it. I sell hand-printed wooden ornaments, and I hang one on a wine bottle with a sign that says “Host/Hostess Gifts”. Or, depending on the time of year, I place a sign near the ornaments that says “Looking for a gift for teacher?” You’re not just offering a product, you’re offering a solution to their gift quandary.

Tell the back story.

When the artist is present, people want to know how it’s made, or what your inspiration is, or how you started on this path. Printmaking is not a mainstream art form, so it requires a lot of explanation. I always have a story to tell.

Recently, I was in a show beside Land and Sea Collectibles, a company that sells fossils, minerals and crystals. But, that was not the half of it. What they really sold was the sexy story behind the objects: how they had their own leasehold where they dug their fossils; how the owner came to be a paleontologist; how they tumble the $5 bags of smooth stones for three months in a machine in their garage. They made it fun and interesting and they had a very brisk business that weekend. Their enthusiasm was contagious, and customers came away feeling like they had learned something, and met a really neat couple. Don’t forget: the story is a powerful thing.

Make payment easy, and bring receipts.

For people who’ve not met me before, or seen my art, a purchase can be an impulse buy. If you are cash-only, you can lose a sale. Today, with android and iPhone technology, taking credit cards is super easy, and cheap. My credit card swiper attaches to my iPhone’s jack, and the bank who provides the service has no monthly fee, no monthly minimum and charges only 2.75% per transaction. If you don’t use it, you don’t pay. If you do need it, it’s covered.

My sales have increased on this business addition alone. My credit card provider provides an email receipt, but don’t forget that those who pay cash sometimes need a receipt when they buy art for their employees or company, and want to write it off as a business expense.

LINDA COTE-Show bagsWrap your art in beautiful packaging.

One of my good friends and fellow organizers of a yearly art show says, “If you’re selling someone a valuable, beautiful piece of art, please don’t put it in a recycled plastic grocery bag.”

Show your customer you care about your art – and them – by making your containers beautiful, too. I hand-print my own paper bags (a natural for a printmaker) and the added bonus is that others see my logo walking around the show. Nothing like free advertising to tell people: “I bought something neat over there.”

Get customers to your website or social media site.

Although my website is on my business cards, I make a point of telling people about the kind of information they’ll find when they visit my website, blog or social media sites. For example, if a parent with children stops by, I tell them about an instructional blog I have that explains how to do printmaking at home with their kids.

If someone’s admiring my print of “Dave” the sheep I point them to the blog that tells the story of this print. It’s a way I can add value for those visiting me at my booth, but also provides another way for them to connect with me and my art.

Demonstrate the creation of your art.

LNIDA COTE-art demoSometimes art shows go over two or three days, and there are lulls where there is not a lot for an artist to do. If you have the type of art you can bring to show people how you make something, this can be a great draw to your booth, while also giving you something to do.

Although printmaking with inks is a very messy art – and not super-conducive to live demos at an art show – I create my base art by carving a block, and those watching truly get that it’s hand-made, but also understand my process better. I’ve seen painters creating small canvases, jewellers making earrings, and potters finishing (grinding) the bottom of their pieces at their booths. It’s another way for people to ask questions about your art.

LINDA COTE-Demo printing

Here I am demonstrating printmaking at an open studio event in my art studio.

Success is seeing the big picture.

We all love to share our art with the world, and there’s nothing better than having great sales at a show. But, I’ve seen many artists give up on a show because their sales were lower than they had expected. I do get it. It’s so disappointing after all the work that goes into a show. But, I have had countless opportunities beyond sales at an art show. I’ve been picked up by galleries, invited into other sales, and met some amazing people who now correspond with me or share their passion for art. And, connecting with other artists at a sale is an amazing way to build your community.

Selling direct to customers at an art sale is just one way I send my art out into the world (I also sell through galleries and my studio). But, I love the buzz of a great art show, and the collective effort it takes to get the whole thing off the ground. And the best of all – the connections it brings. Here’s other blogs I’ve written that talk about this process.

Happy holidays, all!

LINDA COTE-Summer tent

My tent before I realized: I need a bigger banner! (Always learning!)


15 responses to “10 things I’ve learned about art shows

  1. This is a great post, Linda. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I belong to a local community art group and I’m going to print this out to share with them too. A lot of them are not on the internet and wouldn’t have the chance to read something so informative and useful. Thanks!

  2. Thanks for sharing your experience and tips; very useful, especially regarding wearing a name tags and having nice bags. I haven’t done a show/stall for a long time, but I will definitely bear this all in mind if I do one this year. Happy New Year!

    • Thanks, Joan. I appreciate your comments…especially nice to hear from the “browser”side of the shows. It looks one way from inside the booth, but great to get feedback from those we are trying to engage! Thanks for reading, as always!

  3. Great post Linda. Just reading some older posts as I bead.
    I was wondering if you could email me which bank does the iphone credit card transactions. I stopped doing credit cards 4 or 5 years ago because of the monthly fees, but what you wrote about sounds reasonable.

    • Hi Deb, I sure will send you an email with that information. I’ll do that tomorrow! It is much easier (and cheaper) than it used to be to use credit cards on mobile devices. Glad you enjoyed this post. (What are you beading?)

      • Hi Linda,
        I will really appreciate the info, thanks for doing that for me.

        I’m beading a piece I call “Prairie Dawn”. Eco-dyed silk, beaded sun rising over fields…..I’ve given in, I’m doing Alberta (and enjoying it). The biggest fields are maybe 4 sq. inches and I swear it is taking me longer to bead the fields than it takes a farmer to put in a crop. I am keeping in the spirit of things with a steady flow of Corb Lund playing as I work.

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