I think that today I will dig in a little deeper into what I did at that very first art show, and what made it so successful. So, first of all, I was 22 when I did this show, so I didn’t have a lot of world experience. I didn’t know how to price to profit, I didn’t know how to brand myself, I didn’t even know how to file my own taxes yet, so we have to take this with a grain of salt.
Back in those days, Etsy was still young. The handmade movement was small and unsaturated, and Lowbrow art was still finding its foothold in the Ann Arbor art scene. It was just after the Bush administration, and there was a resurgence of hope, and of people talking about politics in a positive way. I lived in one of the most liberal leftist areas in the country, and my artwork was well received in that community.
The first show I was in was Venus Rising, which was an all-women art show. Run by women, designed by women, funded by women, and all the exhibitors and performers were women. It was a pretty amazing experience.
When I applied for the show I didn’t have anything prepared, so call this a first art show prep list. Firstly, I sent in the best pieces that I had at the time, and I sent in enough pieces to fill the total number of pieces allowed in the show, which was 4 pieces. I finished the final piece that I was submitting the day of the submissions deadline. (Unfortunately, that is pretty normal for me.)
So here’s the list of what needs to be done before your first art show. Feel free to print this off and use it for yourself.
- Completely fill the submissions list. If they say you can have up to 4 pieces in the show, submit 4 different pieces into the show. That is 4 chances for you to get accepted. You may not get all of them into the show, but you may get 2 of them, and that is two pieces that you may be able to sell and get out of your house. Because I promise you, when you start doing this all the time, you will have way too damned much art of your own cluttering up your home.
- Print out a copy of the contract and study the crap out of it. I print out my copy and start by highlighting anything that I don’t understand. And then I google those things that I don’t understand. If there is anything in the contract that I’m confused about, or I don’t want to agree to, I will give the person putting on the show a call or shoot them an email. Either route is fine, but this step needs to get done early in the process so that you have time to get an answer from the person putting the show on before the deadline.
- Think about the theme, prep the artwork, and start to hype. At this point, you know what you are submitting. You don’t know whether you’ve gotten in or not, but you know that you have a solid piece. At this point I will usually start talking about it on social media, but I won’t say what show I’m applying for yet, because if I don’t get in I don’t want anyone deciding to send hate mail or anything to the organizer. My art is weird, and doesn’t work for everyone. That’s okay. Your followers will like it anyway, and they will tell you so.
- You’ve been accepted, now what? Well. Now it’s time to really get to work. If you really have NOTHING for your table, here is my checklist that I bring with me to every show that I do. I highly recommend printing it and keeping it in your cash box. Save it and keep it for next time.
- What are the most important things to have for an art table? Get prints made. Seriously. But don’t go overboard. I made 75 of each of my pieces and I STILL have prints left from back then. Get, like, 10 of each one. Get some cheap mats on ebay, put them into a plastic sleeve and call it done. Don’t go nuts trying to come up with a hundred different things. Make prints of the things that you think are worth it. Also, get them in a couple of sizes. 8×11 and postcard sized is where I started and they have served me very well over the years. I sell prints for $10/3 for $25 and Postcards for $3 or 3 for $5. These will absolutely be your mainstay.
- PACE YOURSELF! It is very easy to freak out and start buying a million things for your first show. Don’t do it. You will do fine. Start with a few small things, and don’t put a ton of money into it. There will be plenty of opportunity for you to blow all of your cash later. For now, focus on building your foundation.
Okay, so it’s the night of the show, you’re nervous, you’re excited and you don’t know what to expect. In a perfect world, the organizers of the show have done a great job of getting people excited about the show, they have booked some performers who will be able to bring more people in, and your success at that point will actually be in your own hands. HOWEVER, the stars do not usually align in such a way that you will have that perfect storm. This is why it’s so important for you to tell your friends, family and followers that this event is happening. Even if they are only there as a show of force, as a cheering squad, they will help to turn the event into something amazing. Don’t get bogged down talking just to family. You need to be building relationships with new clients. You need to be smiling 100% of the time, making great eye contact, having conversations, and talking about your artistic process. Don’t feel weird walking up and talking to random strangers. Those strangers will soon be your friends, and hopefully some of your most loyal followers. Float from one person to the next, and make small talk with other artists there, as well. Who knows what you might learn!
So what actually made this show a success? Well, I had a positive attitude going into it, I did a lot of prep work beforehand so I felt confident that I had done everything in my power to make it a success, I had my family and friends there to help support me, and I talked to a lot of people in the industry and got to know them better. I sold a few prints, I sold one of my original paintings, and I had a really fun time. I broke even on the show, and at that point, that was all that mattered.
Tune in next week for a look at my weekly schedule and a little more understanding of what it looks like to be an artist in the daily grind. Until then, what was your first art show experience? If you haven’t done an art show before, when do you plan on getting started? What do you hope to gain from it?