Beyond the Booth - How Gallerists Do and Prepare for Art Fairs
If you want to get ahead in the world of art as a curator or an owner of a gallery, sooner or later you will have to face the contemporary scene’s biggest nemeses – art fairs. These events evolved into one of the premier ways for galleries to elevate their profiles in a cluster of dealers, collectors, curators, agents, critics and artists – if you are willing to play their game.
Before you start contemplating how to get attention from local and international players who attend art fairs, a small warning is in order – although art fairs can be crucial to your success, not only do they tend to be stressful and exhausting, but they can be a fatal final step for galleries if you make just a few mistakes. Well, we’re here to make sure you do it right.
As you will soon see for yourself, preparing for art fairs and selling your artworks at them is almost an art in and of itself. Even an average fair will provide you with more potential clients in several days than you could attain at your gallery in a year.
So let’s see how you can avoid some of the main pitfalls and road bumps of art fairs, and focus on the ways you can get an upper hand in these chaotic events.
Picking the Right Art Fair
Make no mistake, the main reason why galleries often fall apart due to art fairs is that these events cost a lot of money. And we mean a lot.
It’s far from a secret that the entire art world is frustrated at art fair organizers who shamelessly charge every possible thing they can come up with without keeping even remotely reasonable prices in mind. Be prepared to spend money if you want to participate and remember that, more often than not, small and mid-size galleries can only afford a single or two art fairs per year, so it’s crucial to pick the right one.
Choosing the right fair is essential for success while picking the wrong one can be disastrous, so most sensible gallery owners pick wisely. The best way to get a sense of whether an event is right for you is to visit it and see how it’s run, who’s in it and what types of people attend.
Furthermore, you should talk to participating galleries, preferably ones who’ve exhibited more than once. See how much it costs and how well-publicized the event is. You should also make sure a fair is more or less of a match with the art you plan to exhibit.
These simple investigations should provide you with a clearer picture of whether you should or should not participate at the particular fair. Be sure you want to take the plunge because, once you do, there is no going back.
Preparing the New Booths
So, you’ve decided which fair is the perfect match for your needs. Good! However, be aware that the real battle has just begun as you just dived into a pool full of equally hungry and competitive sharks.
The next step, after you took care of the expensive but straightforward stuff concerning technicalities with art fair organizers, is preparing the booth where you will be displaying your art. Know that there will be much visual stimulation at whatever fair you will be a part of, so a gallery has to do everything possible to make its space attractive and persuade people to come inside.
The booth design and strategy is one of the biggest questions you will have to deal with. The general rule most successful participants go by is that less is generally more. Judging by the average well-curated booth, you need to have plenty of white space, a good selection of works and a strategic design where every piece is there for a reason.
A unified presentation is essential, so keep it simple, direct and easy to understand. No worries, there will be a lot of time to get deep and complicated with anyone who wants to know more, but you first have to entice people into the space in order for them to ask questions.
Here are some other noteworthy pieces of advice concerning the organization of booths you may find useful: make sure that you are aware of where fairgoers first make eye contact with a booth; you want to attract new people to your artworks, so do not think too much about attracting the regulars; do not shove your most pricey artwork in the visitors’ faces, keep these in the back until inquiry.
Finally, be aware of the overall layout of the event and your positioning in that fair as a whole in order to know where the majority of the traffic will be coming from.
In Labels We Trust
We can not overstate this enough – artwork labels are essential at these events. The messy nature of art fairs means that a lot of people will look at what you’ve got on display and the labels on individual works of art must be able to answer all of their essential questions.
The labels shouldn’t be too large but should cover those basic questions that people typically ask, including the price and transport services. People appreciate dealers who are straightforward regarding information more so than ones who force them to ask for every single detail, so make sure to prepare good labels for your exhibited art.
Since we are on the topic of prices, it’s never a good idea to artificially inflate them for the duration of a fair, even if you plan on giving a discount in case someone asks. Experienced collectors know when someone’s jacking up prices and they will avoid you like plague if they notice it – and if they notice, everyone will follow their lead.
Remember that in the art world where transparency is such an issue, your reputation is all you’ve got at the end of the day, so do not blemish it just so you could get a few extra dollars.
The Importance of Charm and Effort When Dealing With the Public
Having a successful art fair campaign depends as much on attitude and endurance as it does on the logistics of the fair itself and gallery owners new to fairs often don’t understand their responsibilities in this regard. They think all they have to do is set up their booths and sit there, leaving the rest to the promoters and audiences. Contrary to such beliefs, they’re the ones who had better engage the public if they want results.
It’s like anything else, really – people tend to gravitate toward those who seem genuinely thrilled and who demonstrate a passion for what they’re doing. It’s just human nature and the way customers purchase art at fairs. Rarely is art able to sell itself – you need to step up and sell it yourself. It does not matter if you stood on your feet for the last ten hours or that you did not get a good night sleep since the fair begun, you need to bring your A game of warm welcomes and affable banter.
It’s simple yet hard to do, but you have no choice if you want to be successful. Look at it as a quick intense sprint, not a marathon – this should put the entire art fair into a much easier-to-digest perspective.
You, the dealer, need to be engaging, excited and prepared to answer boatloads of questions (often the same questions, mind you). So the golden rule is: don’t just sit there and ignore people.
Furthermore, never lose patience. The fair only lasts for a couple of days, so there’s no excuse to roll your eyes or get insulted for some reason.
Like anything else in life, persistence and repetition make perfect, and this definitely goes for art fairs as well. First-time exhibitors should be aware that they will have to exhibit at a particular fair at least three times in order to attract significant numbers of potential buyers. It’s just the nature of the game.
However, keep in mind that top-class collectors appreciate repeat appearances as these build trust and increase confidence. You will prove that you are not an overnight sensation or someone who got lucky once – instead, you will be regarded as an established name with whom one can spend big bucks without worrying about potential consequences.
Be Realistic and Keep the Eye on the Ball
Finally, make sure you have realistic expectations. There’s only so much one can do if they are participating at an art fair for the first time, so it won’t be a surprise if you do not bank huge profits. In fact, you will be lucky to just break even at your first art fair.
But, instead of focusing on financial loses, you should concentrate on positives. Think about strengthening relationships with other galleries and meeting lots of potential clients. The only real way to succeed in the art market as a dealer is to make slow and steady progress.
Art fairs are not only about making sales so do not judge their outcome based solely on how much you made. Trust us, if you did it right, you’re definitely gonna come out ahead eventually.
- Mun-Delsalle, Y. J., Apr 7, 2016, The Art Fair Boom Is Forever Changing the Way the Art Market Does Business, Forbes [Nov 20, 2017]
- Kendzulak, S., October 11, 2017, Top International Fine Art Fairs, The Balance [Nov 20, 2017]
- Horejs, J., June 22, 2016, How to Succeed at Art Shows and Festivals, Red Dot Blog [Nov 20, 2017]
- Gerlis, M., September 29, 2017, Art fair trend: storytelling, Financial Times [Nov 20, 2017]
Featured images: Art13, an International Addition to London’s Art Scene, via objectsofart.com; Picture of a Spacious Art Fair, via pinterest.com; Cologne Fine Art 2017, via gildensarts.com. All images used for illustrative purposes only.