20 Things I Learned Doing My First Outdoor Art Festival

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About a month and a half ago now, I participated in my very first outdoor art festival, Elmhurst’s Art in the Parks. Being in an outdoor show was something that I always wanted to do “someday”, but I never quite figured out how to go about it. The whole thing seemed a little overwhelming, from having enough art to actually display, to finding a tent, to what to charge, to the fear that no one would buy anything from me. “Someday” remained on the horizon.

The universe likes to nudge me along in funny ways (like this story about how I ended up in the Rise and Shine show). My friend Annie is a massage therapist who works in downtown Elmhurst, and a while back she asked me if I wanted to hang a couple of my prints up at her office. Well, it turns out that the organizer of Art in the Parks is one of her clients, who saw me work there! I got an email from her one day asking if I would like to participate, and it seems like just the “in” I’d been looking for. I responded with an enthusiastic YES (!!!), and sent in my application.

Like any newbie, I had a LOT to learn. There was a lot of trial and error, research, shopping, and of course, time spend creating. It was a fantastic experience, and I would love to do it again.



Here are some of the things I learned:

1. Don’t underestimate the cost of framing and matting.

I have a really nice mat cutter that I bought on clearance at my local art supply store, but I just didn’t have enough time for all of the measuring and cutting required to do it myself (plus the very likely chance that I would screw up my math and end up wasting mat board.) I ended up going through matboardsplus.com, and the convenience of being able to purchase the mats, cellophane bags and backing in a convenient little kit to me was well worth the extra cost.

2. A 10 x 10 feet tent is a LOT of wall space. Much more than you probably realize.

Gather up all of your artwork and practice hanging it up to find out how much space is actually take up. Don’t rely on trying to visualize it. Chances are it will end up filling a lot less that you think.

3. You need a dolly. Let me repeat…YOU NEED A DOLLY.

Tents are relatively heavy. Framed painting are incredibly heavy when you’re hauling several of them. Your tent weights are ridiculously heavy. Your booth space may be very far away from the spot you have to unload your car. I don’t own a dolly so I borrowed a two wheel stand up one from a co-worker. It was a colossal help, but a four wheeled flat one would have been even better.

4. Practice packing up your car. Then unload it and practice packing it up again.

I had literally enough space left in my car for ME. Just me. Not one single other thing. I ended up needing to bring my kids to the show on the second day, and thankfully my sister was there to give them a ride home, otherwise I literally would not have been able to fit them in after loading up everything to take home. It took me three or four tries to be able to Tetris- everything into my little Chevy HHR, which still has a LOT more trunk room than a regular car. If you have an SUV or a trailer you might not have this issue, but chances are space is at a premium. It’s also probably not a bad idea to take pictures of the load-in setup so that you know what worked when it’s time to pack it all up and go home. You’ll be tired, and not in the mood to have to figure it out all over again.


5. Practice setting up your tent . Multiple times. In different weather conditions.

Did I practice setting up my tent before the show? Yes. Did it go up beautifully in my backyard? Yes. Did it go up beautifully the second time at the show. NO. Did I struggle and fight with it and have to ask my more experienced neighbor to help me? YES. Thankfully my neighbor was awesome. If she wasn’t I would have really been in trouble.

6. Weights are no joke. Do not even think about skimping out on your weights.

We had beautiful weather. Absolutely gorgeous. According to everyone who had exhibited the year before, we were increditbly fortunate because the previous year it had been cold, windy, and artists were struggling to keep their tents from blowing away.

I spent a decent amount and got a really nice set of weights, but I also saw a ton of people who made theirs out of PVC pipes and concrete. There are all kinds of great DIY solutions for things if you have the time (I wish I did….I didn’t). It never occurred to me before the show to get also get ratchet clips and spiral corkscrew stakes in addition to my weights. I will be getting them for my next show, Would you want a rouge tent blowing into your space and decimating your booth and thousands of dollars worth of your work? No? Well no one else does either.

7. Help is invaluable.

I fully planned on doing the show by myself, but looking back I would have been really struggling without my sister there to help out.I set up by myself of Friday night, but just having someone there on Saturday and Sunday for moral support, coffee runs, bathroom breaks, and helping me break down the tent in the pouring rain was something that I was beyond grateful for.

8. Keep your head up. Even if your first day is slow, all hope is not lost.

I sold two items my first day. TWO. I was slightly mortified, even though my other neighbor reported that things were really slow for her too. My second day was fantastic. I don’t know why, maybe people were just scoping out what was available on the first day and then actually buying the second. Whatever it was, business was hopping, and it taught me to expect the unexpected.



9. Do not say “thank you” when someone says they like your work.

What now? Crazy talk right? But hear me out…This was an interesting tip my neighbor gave me. She seemed to be an art fair pro (when I asked how many shows she did every year she told me thirty) and she suggested that when people give a compliment, do NOT say thank you. She said to tell them something about the peice, a story about why you made it, a description of the materials, or even show them a similar peice of the same style. She explained that when you simply say “thank you” they feel like they’ve paid you a compliment, done their good deed for the day, and now they’re free to move on. So don’t let the conversation die at “thanks.” Engage them. Get them talking. Save the “thank you” for after your purchase.

10. Have something that people can take away.

I created coloring pages from one of my designs and set them up on a table up front with a jar full of colored pencils. This got a lot of kids to stop at my table, and where kids stop, parents stop. Plus, while the kids wanted to stand and color, the parents spent more time looking around my booth. Plus the coloring sheets had my logo and website printed in the corner. Win-win.

11. A friend advised that normally you sell a lot more prints than originals.

I found this to be true. Knowing that ahead of time, I made sure to have a large selecion of prints in different sizes and price points.

However, the one thing you do NOT have prints of will be the thing catching peoples eyes. I finished my bee painting about a week before the show and didn’t have time to photograph it and make prints of it. Guess what everyone asked for prints of? BEES! If this happens to you be smarter than I was, take their email addresses to that you can email them when the prints become available! I wish I had.



12. Wall hanging options are numersous. And confusing. And expensive.

When  realized that tents do not come with walls, I panicked. Especially if you sell paintings or other wall art, you need to figure out a way to hang those up. You will see everything out there to DIY walls made of wood or pipes, to ultra expensive (but super classy looking) prop panels that cost more than my tent. This blog post has some great options for you to consider. After a TON of research, I ended up purchaging grid walls from amazon. I couldn’t afford to get them for the whole tent, so I set them up in two corners. Not only do you have to factor in what you can afford, you have to factor in what will fit into your car. Again, my Chevy HHR is roomy, but by no measure gigantic.

13. Suncreen. Self Explainatory.

If you are of pasty white Eastern European descent like me, sunscreen is not a bad idea. Even in early May. Even if the shade. Lesson learned.

14. It will probably cost more than you first anticipate.

Between the tent purchase, hardware for the walls, prints, tent weights, matting, framing, business cards, signage and other miscellanous supplies like storage tubs, double sided tape, display binds, tablecloths, etc. I spent quite a bit of money. Of course, some of these purchases (like the tent and weights) are a one-time thing that I won’t have to worry about the second time around. Sure, if I do another fair I’ll have to have more prints made, but I still have some leftover to start off with. Plus, I got a good grasp of what people seemed to gravitate to after this show, and now I know what images I’ll get the most prints made of the next time.



15. Zip ties are your friend.

They are cheap. They are easy to use. Even if you think you have absolutely no use for zip ties, buy some anyway. I used them to attach things that were falling down, secure tent flaps that were blowing away, plenty of other things. Want to hear a secret? When I was packing up my tent and loading up the car in the pouring rain the shoulder strap on my sundress broke. I approached my sister holding the dress in place with one hand and begging for help trying not to flash everyone, and guess what she used to secure it? You best believe a zip tie.

16. Get a credit card reader or you’ll be missing out.

I used one that Etsy sent to me for free. I also advice that you practice using it beforehand. My first customer of the day on Sunday and largest purchase of the weekend bought FOUR prints from me using her credit card. That’s a nice sale that I could have missed out on.

17. There will be something obvious that you still forget. I forgot bags.

Not many people asked for them or cared, until it started sprinkling on Sunday afternoon and my customer was worried about protecting her print from the rain. Luckily I had a spare grocery bag that I could give her. My prints were all nicely packages in plastic, but when it rains people will want to feel that their purchase is safe. Plus, if you get plain bags and stamp them with your logo it’s free advertising for YOU. Next time I will be remembering them, at least for smaller-sized purchases.

18. Not every awesome idea is going to work out.

I got the idea of creating a QR code for linking to my Facebook page from a Pinterst post. I found a website to create QR codes and created a sign offering 10% off the day’s purchase if you liked megandowntherabbithole on Facebook. I thought it was an awesome idea. Not one person used it.

19. There is a LOT of work to do. You don’t have to have every single thing your THINK you need to do your first time around.

There will be tons of people will bigger, better, more elaborate displays and tents than you. That’s ok. Dive in anyway. On Friday night when I was loading in, as I unpacked rubbermaid tubs from my little car and lugged them across the park in a little moving dolly that I had to borrow, I was INCREDIBLY intimidated as I watched giant trucks pull up and teams of people proceed to unload and throw up their tents in a matter of minutes. I had to remind myself that they probably had years of show experience under their belts, and that every time I take part in another show I will learn something new. I also reminded myself that what I accomplished with my little tent, I did outside of having a full time office job, a part time teaching job, two kids at home, and a partner who works different hours and days of the week than I do. I accomplished what I did with a lot of my plate and very little free time, and even though other peoples set ups were unbelievable, that doesn’t mean mine is bad. Several experienced artists I talked to just smiled and told me “we’ve all been there.”



20. It is a wonderful experience.

I loved it. I cannot wait to do it again. After starting small thing year, I made a list of all the local art fairs that happen every summer. I’m going to visit as many of them as I can this year so that I know which fairs seem to get a lot of visitors, and I know which fairs I would like to apply for next year. Of course, next year the weather could be terrible and traffic could be low, but at least I have somewhat of an idea weather or not my application fee is being well spent.

Are you an art fair pro? A newbie like me? Do you have any advice or comments to bring to the table? Did I miss anything?