Belgin Bozsahin: on art fairs

This article provides information for recent graduates, artists and craft-makers who are thinking of attending fairs and independent trade shows. We have asked Belgin Bozsahin a few questions on her experience of attending a number of similar events as a ceramicist who creates sculptures in porcelain. In the last few years she has exhibited at New Designers, Windsor Contemporary Art Fair, Grand Designs, Decorex International and Pulse.

Q: Is it worth booking a stand in a trade fair as soon as you graduate? What can be the pitfalls?

A: The first thing to say is that doing a detailed research about a fair before booking your space will save you precious time and money. As a student you should always visit fairs and exhibitions to understand which ones are the right ones for you and your work, in terms of both audience and price range.

Showing at a fair right after graduation depends on how confident you feel that your work at least matches the aesthetic and commercial standard. I would recommend visiting a fair before hand and talking to exhibitors as much as possible. I always find artists generous in sharing their experiences; so make sure to ask lots of questions.

I can say I learned the hard way: in one case I booked a stand in a rather prestigious fair right after graduation, assuming it would provide a good exposure for my work. I had not checked it in advance, nor spoken to anyone who had exhibited there beforehand. Even though I was offered a bursary to exhibit there, I still spent a large amount of money that certainly could have been used in more productive way.

Q: What type of specific research would you recommend an artist should do before deciding what Art/Craft Fair is suitable for their practice? 

A: I would recommend spending a good few hours in a fair; observing what type of audience visits, what kind of work is on display and what the prices are like. Also look at how and where the fair is advertised, research any statistics on attendance, and most importantly read blogs about other artists’ experiences. It would be also useful to speak to organisers to find out whether they support recent graduates and start-ups and if they offer any special price or package for them.

It is also good to try to answer questions such as: Do you see yourself showing your work there? If you do how would you display your work? Which stand would you choose? And finally technical information such as quality of lighting, construction of booths and flooring should be all noted if you are planning to attend. To save money you might need to make or borrow items such as plinths or display cabinets.

Q: What needs to be prepared well in advance of the Art Fair? What is the minimum leading time you would recommend?

A: The preparation period may vary according to the medium you use, but I would recommend at least a three month preparation time and remember to make lists! Prepare your business cards, post cards, flyers etc. Try to get the best photography you can afford for your work. Create a mailing list to send invites for the private view; send your invites 4 weeks prior to the actual date, then send a reminder after 2 weeks and a last one a week before. Keep your invite short and informative and include an image of your work.

Q: Is attending a fair expensive? What would an artist need to include in a budget? 

A: The price to exhibit at fairs varies according to the venue, size of the stand etc. Approximately, hire of a 2m square stand costs between £500-£800. This price generally does not include extras such as lighting or sockets, and as these are always necessary the price goes up quite quickly. Do speak to the organisers and find out exactly what is included in the price and how much they charge for each extra item. You will need to make a budget, including all necessary expenses. Don’t forget to include transport of your work, car parking fees and your accommodation if the fair is in a different town.

Q: What about the legalities of it? Have you got any advice on reading and signing contracts? 

A: This is a hugely important issue if you are attending a fair, and all artists should be really careful in reading contracts and terms & conditions before deciding to sign up to a fair or trade show.

Most of the time information provided will be quite long, written in small font and it will make rather a boring reading, yet IT IS CRUCIAL that it should be read thoroughly before signing it. In doubt do seek advice from your own network, your colleagues or organisations such as Artquest and Own-it.

I have two (painful) experiences that I would like to share here: The first relates to an offer that I received after registering myself for a fair and it came as part of my registration pack from the organisers. As I had never taken part in a fair before I was faced with so much information to take in, and being very busy with preparing the work I did not read the paperwork carefully. The so-called “free” offer was about being included into a global artist directory, offering me ‘global exposure’ for a year. If only I had read the small print…

A year later I received an invoice asking me to pay £1500 for the second year of advertisement and reminding me that by signing the papers I pledged to be part of a three year contract. I was quite terrified of the prospect of having to pay a total of £3000 in two years and I certainly did not have the budget to do it. To cut a long story short I managed to contact the organisers (who were based in Mexico!) and explain my situation i.e. how inexperienced I was as a new graduate and didn’t read the contract carefully etc. I think I was very lucky that they were so understanding, and that they agreed to cancel my contract with them.

My second experience relates to fact that some organisers may offer a small reduction on the fee for a stand if you agree to exhibit with them again the following year. It is usually recommended that artists should show in a particular fair for a few years in a row in order to build ones presence and establish your art or products with the audience.

I had decided I would be showing at the fair for 2 years in a row, but yet again, by not reading the contract entirely before signing it, I ended up missing out on important information. Right after the fair I was disappointed with the results. Yet to my great surprise I found out that even though there were still 10 months to go, the contract stated I had to pay the full fee even if I decided not to exhibit anymore.

Q: What happens after the fair finishes?

A: It is extremely useful to keep a contact book at your stand for people to leave their details, so that you can add them to your mailing list. It’s good practice to send a follow up message to all who showed interest in your work, containing sample images; this way you start building a mailing list to keep you audience up-to-date with your activities.

If you get a sale during a fair it is entirely up to you and your customer how to handle the exchange. If you prefer to keep the work on show until the fair is over you can:

  1. Ask them to pick it up at the end of the show
  2. Offer to send/ deliver the work after the show (in this case you may want to offer this free of charge – it is up to you)

If you customer agrees to leave the work until the show, it is wise to take the full money or at least a deposit towards the work. On one occasion I sold a work during the private view and the customer was happy to pick it up after the show. This gave me an opportunity to show my work throughout the show, which resulted for a commission on the same piece.

If you get a commission you should get all the details of the customer with the exact nature of the commission. It is good practice to send an email  after the show  detailing the commission that you agreed on. This way you get to confirm what you agreed to do and offer an opportunity for the customer to revisit his request to comment/confirm etc.
Trade shows : During a trade show there are usually no sales but you should get either orders or commissions. If you get any interest or a real order always send an email with details of what has been discussed.

Q: What are the benefits of participating in fairs?

A: So far I have mentioned mostly the pitfalls. Of course if fairs weren’t successful there wouldn’t be as many as there are and artists would not be attending them. As an artist having an interaction with the public and seeing your work being appreciated is invaluable. Sometime great inspiration and suggestions come from these interactions which may help you find new direction in your work.

Settings like fairs also are a good opportunity to talk about work. Also, preparing written information such as press releases help to ground your work and you will be able to judge if your pricing is spot on.

Networking is paramount in almost every aspect of artistic life. Fairs are a good opportunity to develop your network and client-base.

© Belgin Bozsahin

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