16 September, 2009

Like a Mouse in a Maze

Among artists there is much interest in how to set-up at art fairs. I offer this post that I originally published elsewhere, with updates.

Don't be like the artist I once saw at a noted national venue. He set up his dark booth with paintings on the walls, and cut a 6 inch by 1 foot hole in the back, and peered out at hapless patrons who stepped into his space.


If he can't see a way out, that guy won't enter your art fair booth.

That's one of the curiosities of setting up your booth's walls. Make a critical error, and kiss many of your potential viewers goodbye. Of course, your display walls can be re-arranged to suit your given site, can't they? While some do choose a static display set-up, which changeth not from show to show, I highly recommend a movable structure. The main reason is each fair offers you a different set of opportunities and challenges for your little "gallery-away-from-home".

Think like a customer at the art fair. By now you should already have shopped a number of different art fairs yourself, and focused like an army missile on your target category. For me, that's the visual art category, or 2-D.

In addition to the rule given above about the exit strategy for each customer's comfort, think about the following:
  • The average person needs fully 6 feet to walk through at the entrance to your booth. Think about your outstretched arm span as an absolute minimum entrance width. That's a big challenge when you may only have a 10 foot front. Even less if you expect rain, and have set your side walls in @ 6" -1' to protect yourself from drippage. "But I need that socko painting in front to entice people in!" you may say. Balderdash! Didn't you take your applied military sciences in school? You don't have to occupy that spot to succeed. You simply need to overwatch it! Put that bigger painting where it can entice inside of the booth. That's a better way to bring 'em in. I can still fit a 3.3' Pro Panel in the front of my booth and allow that ever-needed 6+ feet of entre for Nervous Nellie to fit through.
  • How many possible entries do you have? Some spaces provided have a potential two, three and maybe even four sides of customer access. It never ceases to amaze me that some artists resist giving full access to their potential buyers. The key reason for blocking may be to deny access to a non-retail area, such as a small alley way that boothers are using for administrative reasons, such as storage. Some admin alleyways may be quite large, and it doesn't help to channel patrons back there. The same thinking goes for passage between neighboring booths, too.

Let's stop now with these basics understood, and walk out in front of our gallery (booth). You may have already done your map reconnaissance, and considered the approaches to and lines of sight to your booth. You have, as a bare minimum, checked to see which aspect your booth faces-North (the golden direction), South (the scourge), or maybe even Southwest (sun in the hot afternoon perhaps).

Now that you're on the ground walk down the aisles and check for the direction of travel that people will likely use, and check for long sight lines. Will the neighbor have a wall there? Is there a tree in the path? Worse yet, is there a Starship Flagship Booth that will suck up all possible humanity from your aisle? Don't laugh - I just moved my location at a key fair because the aisle I have been on had one.

Orient your whole wall set-up based on direction of travel and lines of sight.

Unfortunately, you may have to react to major obstructions, like trees, columns, and even sculptures occupying the aisles. Other bothersome things include extreme sunlight, or even too much shade, lack of traffic on a backside location, food vendors, loud music venues, dusty pathways, and the ultimate bad thing: uneven ground. Is there a pathway that creates a deep rut?

Back to our bullet list of arranging our display walls.
  • Where will your one knock-'em-dead painting be? Probably on the deep wall that presents the best long distance line of sight.
  • Consider your administrative needs at an early stage, since they may be impossible to fulfill after you get your walls set. I organize a small "hootch" area behind some walls for administrative clutter. Some artists create a small box out of panels, and open the back with a hinged wall (door). Some want a podium style table that breaks down, and stores primarily cash box or check-out supplies. The main question you have to ask is what you may need to store. The worst case scenario is that you may not be able to return to your van to store the boxes that your art was stored in. (Note to fair organizers: DUH!) That can happen when your van is blocks away, you are solo and your set-up is the morning of opening. Will you have something that takes a large footprint, such as a table or cash stand?
  • Now pull out a pencil, take a sip of that coffee (if you don't drink coffee, START! You'll need the crutch as an art fair artist) and find a cardboard box lid to rough out your wall plan. Again, you may have a static look at every fair. I envy your efficiency, but I want to be reactive to any potential need. My best advice is avoid too much of the mouse maze effect. Sure, you want to maximize wall space, and want some interior walls that create interest and allow front and back displays. Be conservative, Che. Customers don't want to feel trapped in your creative vortex.
  • Sometimes it is possible to design your booth based on the fair map before you pack for the fair. I drew one up for Sausalito 2009 and executed it when I got there.
  • Think now about the engineering aspects of your wall structure. If it helps, turn your ball cap around backwards, and bite your tongue. I use the stiffeners and top bars that tie my Pro-Panels together into a cohesive and stronger arrangement. Also, tie-in the ends that intersect with the legs of your booth (even the scissor struts overhead!). I use these short bungee cords with balls (not the deadly and condemnable hooked kind).
Early in my art fair career I had the opportunity to observe the foundational set-ups that one can choose. We liked to set-up with basic exterior walls and a few interior walls. At that fair (Leavenworth, WA) we had the great opportunity to allow 360 degree customer access. The basic idea was to have entries on every side, and the usual thing was to put "L" shaped displays at the legs, but have one wall a complete 10', for the effect of a unified hanging. I remember one kind artist who saw my booth from the highway (raised above the venue a bit) and stopped to make a beeline to my booth. Talk about your good sight lines!

At that fair, one young artist decided to experiment with the counter-intuitive, and placed her tables or walls in the middle of the booth , for complete 360 access and views. It was interesting to see, and out-of-the-box behavior. The conclusion I reached was that the exterior wall design is more of an "event" or a known space that says: "I have an art show in here". People want to come into the artist's lair and get the art directly from you.


Now let that patron out of your booth, but hopefully with a framed original under the arm.

Flourish Mesh Panels
Here's a good time to have a look at art fair photography and Zapplication guru Larry Berman's web site. I direct you to his page about Selling Photography at Art Shows. I have appreciated Larry's efforts at providing help to the art fair community when it comes to applying to juries that use the Zapplication process. His site is a must see when it comes to tackling that daunting and new jury process.
Wire Grids (If you have arms "like a Dude" to heft these bad boys). Every major city has a local resource for this kind of stuff. And, the world is replete with going-out-of-business surplus events for this kind of thing. Do yourself a favor and skip this burdensome option completely, if you can.
Karl Pace & the Utah Arts Council has prepared a nifty fair checklist that I'll include here, although we're off topic a bit. It does include a list of good Western fairs (I notice that the West is sort of left out of lists prepared by East coasties). What he doesn't include, I'm almost sure, is a Dixie cup for that pull of Whiskey that many of you vagabond artists opt for at take down. Can't say I blame you, partner. It's a hard (but fun) business!


Jala Pfaff said...

Wow, Casey, thanks for all the great info. If I ever do a fair, I'll come back to this post first.

Casey Klahn said...

You are very welcome, Jala. We're not out of the woods, yet, in this economy. Whatever an artist does, I would keep the overhead down.

Martha Marshall said...

This is a great resource. I'm out of the outdoor show biz, but this is recommended reading as far as I'm concerned. You've covered it all!

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