The Iowa Pop Art Festival at Newbo Market in Cedar Rapids is coming up this weekend, so I thought I’d take a moment to share some things I’ve learned over the years at art tabling events.
Some art fairs provide things like tents, tables, and chairs, while others will just provide a space and the rest is up to you. Find out exactly what you’ll need ahead of time, so you have plenty of time to source anything that’s not provided.
You don’t have to invest a lot of money to have a successful booth at an art fair. Many of the items you’ll need may be things you already own. Others, you may be able to borrow or rent.
If you need larger items like tents or folding tables, be sure to reach out to your networks early to see if someone can let you borrow one for free. If borrowing doesn’t work, you may be able to rent these booth essentials from local event or party supply businesses. Churches and other venue spaces may also be willing to rent out tables and tents. If you plan to go the rental route, see if you can approach the business with other participating artists for a discounted group rate. Depending on the size of the event, organizers may also be willing to assist with negotiating about rentals.
If this is your first art fair, you may not be in the habit of keeping track of inventory. Creating a spreadsheet before the event will help you keep track of your work and calculate profits. I like to print out my spreadsheet and create a tally next to each item sold. The main advantages of having an analog system to track items sold are that it’s super easy to do in the moment and if you have someone volunteer to manage your booth while you step away, they won’t need instruction on a complicated system.
You’ll want to place most print orders at least a couple of weeks in advance of the sale, especially if you’re ordering online. Lower cost items like stickers, postcards, and small prints tend to sell better than larger framed pieces at art fairs in my experience. Free stickers and/or business cards with your shop info are also great to have. If you don't get business cards printed, it's nice to at least have handwritten cards with your info available. I sometimes receive orders in my Etsy shop or via Instagram DM after art fairs, so it's important to give people a method to get in contact with you if they decide they want to buy something later.
For stickers, I tend to use StickerApp or StickerMule (basing it mostly on whether one of them is having a sale at the time.) If you click on the StickerMule link and place an order, we both get a $10 credit because they have a referral program. I am not partial to one company over the other, though; I have been happy with my orders from both companies.
I have gotten all of my giclee prints done at local print shops up to this point, but I have also heard great things about Cat Prints for online ordering. They offer high quality art prints with finishes that go beyond what I have been able to find locally. As a bonus, they support an animal rescue nonprofit.
I saw a significant boost in my sales when I first started accepting credit card payments using a Square reader and an iPad. Most people don’t carry cash these days, so it’s important to provide options. In the past couple of years, I have noticed an increasing number of customers requesting to use Venmo or CashApp. In the past, I have had both Square and Venmo open on my iPad so that I can quickly switch to the Venmo app to provide the customer with the QR code. This process didn’t seem as smooth as it could have been, so for future events, I printed out a QR code that links to my Venmo and social media.
Note that you don’t have to provide every available option. As long as you have at least one method for credit card processing or money transfer, that should be fine for nearly all customers.
This is some extra work, but it saves a lot of headaches the day of the event. Set up your booth at home in advance. This will help you visualize exactly how much space you have to work with and decide what you need to bring. You can also use this time to check whether everything has prices clearly displayed.
Make your items as visible as possible. While some people enjoy the process of flipping through inventory, others will just walk by at a distance to determine whether they want to stop. If you only have a few items, you may be able to get away with laying them all flat on the table. However, if you have a wide variety of products, you’ll need to find creative ways to make the most of the space.
Some display props I have used or seen at art fairs in the past:
This is to say that you don't have to buy specialized products for your table display. Thrift store finds and things you already have around the house can be used just as effectively as expensive displays. Especially if this is your first art fair, don't feel like everything needs to be perfect.
Use the space behind/around your table. If you have a wall behind your table, you may be able to hang some of your items (always ask the organizers for the okay if your method of hanging could alter or damage the wall. Temporary methods like low-adhesive tape may work best.)
You can also provide your own behind-the-table “wall” space with freestanding grids. I got mine on Craigslist. Alternatively, you could use clothing racks or build your own freestanding frame to hang things on.
Note that expanding beyond the table surface may not work in all situations, so please be respectful of the artists around you and make sure that shoppers can get around your booth without obstruction.
If people can’t easily find the price, they may decide not to purchase the item instead of asking. Provide easy-to-read pricing for every item.
For prints, I typically sell them in clear bags with price stickers. I also drop a business card into every bag. This is admittedly not my favorite solution, since soft plastics like these clear bags will end up in the landfill. However, this is the solution I have right now, and it’s less wasteful to use what you already have than to buy additional products just because they’re marketed as sustainable.
One other potential option I have considered is to have one display print in a plastic bag with the price and sell the rest in paper bags. I have also seen compostable options such as these, although most “compostable” bags are not backyard-compost friendly and need to be processed in a professional composting facility. Here in Iowa City, the bags could be placed in our yard waste bins. The compostable options may require the additional step of educating the customer on how to properly dispose of them. This could be achieved with a biodegradable sticker, like the ones from EcoEnclose, or writing directly on the bag. Each of these steps require additional investments of both time and money, which may not be accessible to everyone. I recommend working with what you have and making upgrades to your packaging over time. I still have plastic bags on hand, so I will continue to use them until I run out.
Little paper tents will work for small items like stickers. Simply fold a piece of paper into a triangle and write the price on it. Horizontal tents may work better than vertical tents in case you need to weigh them down on a windy day. Speaking of wind, it’s a good idea to have paper weights on hand in case you need to weigh down any of your products.
While this isn’t totally essential, it’s nice to have a sign of some kind so that people can identify your booth from a distance. This doesn’t need to be huge or fancy. If you’ll be outdoors, I recommend using corrugated plastic or wood because they’ll be durable enough to withstand rain. Corrugated plastic (aka Coroplast) is the same material used to make yard signs. You can stop by your local print shop and ask if they have any off cuts. They may be willing to give you a piece for free or charge a small fee. You can then paint the sign however you’d like and seal with a clear coat. If it’s going to be a nice day, you could also use cardboard or foamcore.
If you’d like to have a sign printed professionally, you could get something printed on coroplast or vinyl banner material. Personally, I don’t recommend this, because it’s more expensive and less environmentally friendly. By using offcuts, you’re giving material that was already destined for the landfill a purpose.
For my table, I also use a fabric sign, which I attach to the table using magnets. I thrifted some canvas fabric, dyed it, and screenprinted it. You could also paint a sign using fabric paints.
For my signs, I don't mind a handmade feel, but you could print out stencils or use image transfer techniques if you'd like a more "designed" look.
When you find a set up that you’re happy with, take a photo to reference the day of the event. You can then pack everything up in a way that makes sense for how you want your items displayed. These steps will make set up a breeze the day of the event. You may even finish quickly enough to take a stroll around the other booths before the event officially starts!
A checklist of things I bring with me:
Your organizers will communicate with you about load in times and parking.
Questions to ask event organizers ahead of time:
Hopefully this is helpful! Let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to know about art fairs.