Art Fair Burnout

by Carolyn Edlund

Years ago when I had my studio business, I planned an ambitious schedule of retail shows and fairs. One day I did something I’d never done before.

 

shoppers at art fair

 

On a Saturday morning in August, when driving to yet another fair (somewhere in Pennsylvania), I did something I was not particularly proud of. I stared at the field where all the artists were checking in and setting up. I realized just how exhausted I was, then turned my van around and simply drove away.

I spent the weekend with my family instead.

It was my first and only time being a no-show for a promoter without advance cancellation, but it marked a seminal moment in my small business. I had “art show burnout” and had to take stock of what I was doing.  I’d scheduled twenty retail fairs that year. What was I thinking?

Since then, I’ve talked with many artists who feel they are constantly on the road, traveling from fair to festival to art show for their living. Making the most of the “high season” and working endlessly. Traveling to a show on Thursday or Friday. Setting up, working the show, breaking down and driving home on Sunday night, to unpack on Monday and then have Tuesday and Wednesday to do studio work before packing it up and doing the same thing all over again. They begin to look for alternatives.

For me, it was a decision to increase my wholesale business and stay in the studio instead. These days, online commerce might be your venue of choice. Perhaps you want to solicit more commissions, license your work, or pursue other avenues.

Creating that balance between working, family, and having a life is essential to our mental and physical health, and thus the health of our businesses. Diversifying your efforts to sell your work not only helps that balance, but it provides other sources of income when weather wrecks a weekend show or you don’t get juried in this time around.

Have you had “art show burnout”? Did you make other choices? What would you recommend to other artists facing this problem?

 

Comments

  1. I sure do share your thoughts. There is only so much we can do– we need to protect our creativity– or life and what called us to share our art in the first place. I personally am trying to be more careful with my time. It helps to focus on no more than 1-3 goals or less during seasons and to make a rule of sort to live by so that you do have permission to say “no — that’s not what I need to accomplish this goal”. We need to make sure there is a piece of the pie in that work to renew us.

  2. Another very helpful article. Although I have yet to commit to doing art fairs, this article has given me food for thought. I have thought about selling at art fairs, but somewhere in me there was a voice saying, hmmm, not now, maybe later, you have enough going on at home to keep you busy. But, after reading this, I think, I will, but only a seasonal or local fair in a town I feel good about going to, for starters. I felt the righter’s frustrations and hope that s/he will resolve what’s best for her. Since I have no experience in this matter, I hope others will give more comment that we all can learn from. Thanks.

    • Meeting the public through retail fairs is actually a great way to know your customer, and also what your bestsellers are. But a crazy show schedule can be too much of a good thing!

  3. I’ve been doing shows full-time (at least 20-30 per year) for the last 11 years…and really feel the burnout. Trying to figure out the wholesale biz; marketing to stores…

  4. Just starting my art show season this year! Hopefully it will be at least a few years before I get burnt out. Keeping my fingers crossed to get juried in at least half the shows I am applying to.

  5. Christine says:

    I ALWAYS learn something from your posts, Carolyn, and remain VERY HAPPY that our paths have crossed! Happy Creating!! CARPÉ DIEM!!! 😀

  6. Carolyn, et al,

    I am just getting ready to start up the Art and Craft show circuit. I am retiring from my previous job soon (I’m 58) and have always wanted to do it. I am somewhat worried though about the comments and “burnout” experienced by so many vendors that I have read lately. I know the amount of disposable income that families have for such purchases has dropped in the last few years, and I am wondering just how much effort (both real and mental) I want to invest. Thanks for your comments, and I will take baby steps and see at what point I have enough experience and/or refined perspective to continue the plunge or re-direct my efforts.

  7. PS – I am somewhat optimistic with the “Buy local, buy small business” efforts I have seen around recently . . .

  8. Having grown up in the area of the granddaddy War Eagle Craft Fair and all the offspring, actually manning booths during the craft make it take it era during monsoons and mud slides…I never wanted to set up my custom framed pastels and watercolors (glass) outdoors. Besides, if it Is not raining, it is hot and dusty! Fine art fairs never kicked off here…and the ones who tried had big rental fees or sales percentage kickbacks. AND you didn’t mention the prep before and unpacking after, and how tired you will be. Too tired to do much studio work, that’s for sure.

    • Vicki, you are right, I didn’t talk about the prep and unpacking – which is exhausting! Sometimes I just left my car packed …..

  9. I finally made a huge decision this year and sold my tent! For me it was too much work for not enough money…I think jewelry and pottery do much better at fairs than fine art. I wasn’t even doing many at all but it was SO much work and I was totally exhausted for days after and just felt it wasn’t the right direction after 6 years.

    • Kathryn, I think quite a few artists are doing just that, and that the number of shows will diminish. But that’s a good thing – it culls the weaker events and allows the better shows to thrive. Even though a lot of sales are going online these days, there will always be room for the “personal touch” where the artist meets their collectors.

  10. This describes me right now. This year I’m only going to apply to about 4 shows as opposed to my long list in the past. Balance is important.

  11. For years, I dragged my products to shows and it is heavy stuff. I also used to make concrete benches and most of my things were very heavy. Load up 2000 pounds on Friday, leave at 4am Saturday, unload 2000 lbs of product and set up display, stand on concrete all day and try to smile, break down display and reload at least 1000 lbs, drive home and unpack it from the van. Did I get burned out? Absolutely! I remember unloading once with snow up to my knees and dragging things to my booth clear across the park in 100 degree heat and almost passing out. I am a small woman and was in my late 50’s.

    I finally decided to just take my van and travel to all the small historic towns I wanted to visit, find some charming store downtown that fit my products and just walked in with a sample and asked the owner if they’d be interested. I hate selling and never thought I would do cold calls, but it worked remarkably well. I was professional with my paperwork but still allowed for small orders which are hard for the smaller stores when they have to buy in large quantities. Now when someone mentions a show I should be in I just tell them “Never again”.

  12. I suppose when something is no longer fun and you have to force your way through it it’s either time to give it a rest for a while, cut back, or give it up completely. I’m sure many love doing shows especially if they make money and enjoy working with people. But like Cindy says above you need balance especially if family is at a loss without you. Got to keep it fun no matter which way one goes.

  13. Ten years doing only a few big local shows each year, plus some exhibits. Yes, it’s exhausting, but it took many years to gain a “following.” Sales are too good to stop now.
    When the economy tanked in 2008 I thought it was over – why even bother? Lo & behold people were buying. Sales jumped dramatically. They wanted quality for their money & to support local artists.
    Internet sales have yet to surpass shows. People buy the artist as much as the art. They like the meet & greet, to hear the stories about techniques & inspirations. It can make or break a sale, or gain a commission.
    Still there are times when my husband & I ask ourselves “how long can we keep doing this?” Then we see artists in their 70’s who have been doing shows for decades & we forge ahead – at least for now.
    Very thoughtful article, Carolyn. Enjoyed your insights. Cheers to you. Wishing all the best in your endeavors.

    • Cate, I know well what you are talking about when you say that the personal touch, meeting the customers, is so important. Building your network through meeting collectors, other artists or guilds, etc. is all so important to staying current, receiving opportunities and being on the front lines. Yes, I also have seen the veteran artists content to do shows for decades. Being an artist isn’t a business you retire from – quite often, I think it is deep in our bones.

  14. Thank you for exploring ways to sell art in this newsletter. I’m about to retire, and art will be full time work instead of (after 50 years) part time. I’ve been desperately trying to add ways to sell other than just art and craft fairs. I’ve enjoyed the few that I’ve participated in, but the thought of it being my main way of selling would be to grueling to imagine.

  15. I am finding that as I get older it’s harder to set up and break down my booth. It’s physically and mentally tiring, so I have decided to do less shows and only the ones that have been the most productive. I have also decided to enter shows that have been productive for my friends. My main goal is to increase my online sales.

  16. Brian West says:

    OK Carolyn.
    When you are about to take your last breath on earth , and you think…. “I wish I had spent more time…..”
    Whatever the answer is….go do it now …..and frequently. 🙂
    Brian

    • Brian,

      I certainly won’t be saying, “I wish I had spent more time holding down my booth in a rainstorm!”

      On the other hand, fairs and festivals do have many wonderful things to recommend them. I just realized I didn’t want too much of a good thing.

      No regrets here! And I hope none for you, too~

  17. I don’t think outdoor shows and fairs make too much sense in Canada. I decided to give them up last year. I felt instantly the pressure to sell at low and very low prices. The top of everything was seeing beautiful framed oil paintings sold at $45 and $60. In my opinion, that’s ridiculous and doesn’t even cover materials. I find that people are not willing to buy normally priced items, and since I didn’t sell any prints, but only originals, my expenses for materials, framing, setting up, participation fees, eating out and other being on the road expenses exceeded the amount earned. Such fairs are probably good for artists who sell lots of inexpensive stuff, jewelry, pottery, cards, etc. I also don’t like how much we depend on the weather. If it’s rainy, very hot or very cold, the number of visitors is small. There are also way too many shows. I also noticed that such shows were very much liked by people who genuinely loved art and were attending them every year. How much of art one can buy every year even if they like it? Well, there are too many problems for me with shows, and I do not intend to participate in any this year. I will be showing my art in my own and some other galleries instead. The biggest traffic and sales for me are happening online, there’s no doubt about that.
    I have always been surprised how much energy some artists have, how patient and committed they are travelling from fair to fair, living just for the moment and exhausting themselves. I suppose, as one gets older, they see more clearly what is and what isn’t worth.

  18. I have done art shows for neigh onto 30 years, in two countries (2 languages). I thought they were past when I left California but the hands started to itch to work and the flat is small. Yes, they are exhausting and more so if one goes home calculating how to make up for the shortfall in sales. Unfortunately, for me, there does not seem to be much of an alternative. On-line has been for s _ _ _! I will probably go until I am 80 and hope e-sales improve. I do not play golf nor poker so I have to have something. Burnout at anything is a killer, not only for you but for those around you. Watch it!!!!

  19. I hear you ! The shows have been going down in both sales and quality as I see it. I have been doing shows for the last 20yrs , No matter the show sales and attendance have dropped. 2 yrs ago I did Art Expo NY and it is just a shell of what it used to be in the old days. Most of my life I have sold to the trade but even that has dropped over 50% of the Art galleries have closed their doors in the last 2 to 3 yrs. I believe that some day it will pick up but for now I do only half a dozen shows and try to stay close to home. I am not one who thinks his work is good but isn’t I have won more best in shows and have a draw full of them. My originals sell for between 1000 to 10000

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