Art Fair Catastrophe 101: Advice from a Newbie


Yesterday I was a vendor in the 36th Annual Sun Prairie Taste of the Arts Fair. It was my very first experience as an exhibiting artist and I was incredibly nervous from the moment I dropped off my  application to exhibit. Can I really do this? Should I really do this? How much money am I going to have to spend to get a booth pulled together? Do I have enough art to display? And the real source of all my anxiety, Is my art good enough? 

When I received my artist packet in the mail, it contained a list of rules (including the requirement of having a 10lb. fire extinguisher in every booth), my booth assignment (#137) and a map of the layout. There are 140 booths total on the map. My location is adjacent to a drive that connects two parking lots. The city Chamber of Commerce is organizing the fair and they claim they've had 4-5000 attendees at this fair in recent years. I'm pretty sure their advertising budget was $28, because I saw ONE sign in town this week, and High school graduation was the night before, which means lots of grad parties on the same day as the fair. I'm feeling very skeptical about attendance but I don't want to be a pessimist, so I hope for the best.

Last week the weather people were having a really great time changing the forecast every 4 hours, from scattered rain, all-day thunderstorms, scattered sun, temps in the low 70's, temps in the mid 80's...seriously, how is a girl supposed to make critical decisions when she doesn't know if there will or will not be water pouring from the sky? On the afternoon before the fair, the forecast was actually looking pretty decent but they were saying there could still be some showers in the area during the load-in.

So, Friday afternoon I packed everything that couldn't get wet into my Explorer. That meant A LOT of stuff had to go in my car. Framed paintings were in a giant plastic bin and the canvas paintings were in another large bin, but there was no way I could put the lids on the bins, so they weren't weather-proof at all. I also had two large boxes of the pieces that were matted and in plastic envelope-y things, also not technically weather-proof, so add them to the car. By the time I added in the display materials (including a cool, antique wood ironing board) and other essentials, I had played a pretty decent game of Tetris to get it all in there. My plan was to load the trailer in the morning with the grid wall, tent weights, tent and table, and off I'd go. 6:30 a.m. arrival was my goal.

Up by 5:30, dressed, partially caffeinated and ready to load the trailer, I walked into the garage, pushed the button for the door to go up. It went up an inch and then back down. So I pushed it again. It went up an inch and then back down. Repeat. REpeat. REPEAT!!!! I go grab my husband, I'm starting to sweat a bit, he pushes the button and gets the same result. REPEAT. Oh. My. God. Is this really happening? We do the next logical thing, pull on that rope that hangs down from the opener, the one that's supposed to disengage the mechanical opener and let you lift the door manually. Simple. 

No it is not.

The door doesn't budge.

Now I'm in full hot-flash mode, husband is staring at the door with his hand under his chin. What. Is. Happening? "Looks like the spring is broken. That door is not going to open". 

Kill me now, please.

Son #2, who is up and ready to go, runs upstairs to get son #1 out of bed and we quickly and carefully empty my vehicle of it's content, but it all has to come out of the partially open passenger doors because the back hatch can't open without banging into the closed garage door. It is now past the time I was planning on arriving at the fair and I am quickly watching my set-up time go down the drain. We transfer all my crap to a smaller SUV that is thankfully parked on the other side of the broken garage door, along with the trailer that still has to be filled with stuff that is, you guessed it, in the garage. 


Truthfully, I'm pretty much losing my shit at this point. No one is moving as fast as I think they should be even though they are really moving as fast as they can. Not my best mom moment, not my best happily married moment, either. Thank the Universe I have very, very understandable family members who know me well enough...The other true bright spot in the story to this point is that it is NOT raining. If it had been, I think I might have headed straight back to bed.

So, we finally arrive at the park with a full trailer and a full (back-up) vehicle. There are lots of tents already going up, lots of hustle bustle, many very focused artists scurrying around. I find my spot in the grass, my art fair mentor and lifesaver, KJ, shows up on time and the five of us, somehow, get it all set up and ready with at least 12 minutes to spare. Miracle. 

The rest of the day is a bit of a hot, sticky blur. My lovely booth neighbors were VERY disappointed in the attendance and many artists barely made back the booth fee in sales, some didn't sell anything the whole day. I really felt bad for all of them. That was my worst fear, before I knew a garage door could break on your most important morning. As for my sales, I honestly did better than I expected, due entirely to the fact that I have some truly amazing friends who showed up to support me by purchasing art for their homes. If I only count the art I sold to complete strangers, I also didn't earn back my booth fee, but I most certainly earned the most in pure experience. Here is a list of the "what I learned":

  1. Park outside the garage. 
  2. Get up an hour earlier just to be sure (fill in the blank)
  3. Don't get frustrated when your booth neighbors use your spot to throw all of their crap before you arrive. It happens.
  4. Art Fair organizers should NOT LET PEOPLE DRIVE CARS THROUGH AN ART FAIR ALL DAY LONG. They make road block signs for a reason.
  5. Don't wear that cute skirt with the cute attachable purse-thing. You look really fat in it.
  6. Also, leggings are really hot. Temperature hot, I mean.
  7. Just say no to the straw cowboy hat. It doesn't look as good as it used to and it made you really hot and then your hair was icky.
  8. People are really, really nice.
  9. No one asks if you have a fire extinguisher in your booth.
  10. I have the most amazing friends in the world. Some even travelled a great distance to support me on a day when they certainly had other very important things on their minds.
  11. My art is good enough.
  12. I made smart purchases for my booth set-up that should last me until I decide I want to quit or do more.
  13. I really am a badass in the making.
  14. Listen to KJ when she tells you to eat, even if it is her juice that looks like the inside of a diaper. One street taco doesn't get you through an entire art fair day.
  15. The Square reader thing is smarter than I am. Thankfully.
  16. Zip ties.
  17. My family will never understand how much I love them.