Learnings of an Art Fair Virgin

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

art fairs in Denmark
The view down the row inside "Boksen" at HCA Golf

After a couple of free shows in public spaces where I’d gotten some positive feedback, I figured the next step on my creep up the art ladder was to have a crack at exhibiting my work at an art fair. Like switching from playing poker with buttons to real money, it was time to dip my toes into the art market to see if I was going to float or swim. I'll elaborate a bit on some tips I picked up shortly, but first a quick overview of Danish art fairs...

Art fairs in Denmark come in roughly 3 flavours based loosely on difficulty of entry for artists, and as always with art, a subjective projection of higher artwork quality/desirability as decided by established collectors, juries/censors and galleries.

Most accessible to artists and most affordable to the general public are a style of art fairs typically held outside the main cities. Examples are Lys Over Lolland, Eventyrlig Kunst and Hillerød Kunstdage. They host artists who hire a smallish stand either individually or as a pair of artists, or alternatively compete for censor approval to exhibit for free and then give a percentage of sales to the hosts. Some of the stands at Everntyrlig Kunst, which was my first art fair, were occupied by a combination of a painter and a sculptor or craftsperson so that both the walls and the floor space were used. These stands were quite a draw and stood out seeming to invite people in to interact with both art forms.

Danish Art Fairs
Kunst for Alle's Copenhagen Hall hosting 150 artists and galleries

The 'big city and not gallery-controlled' Danish art fairs are composed of the ‘Kunst for Alle’ fairs which host 45 and 150 artists in Aarhus and Copenhagen respectively as well as Nørhalne in North Jylland with around 70 participating amateur and professional artists. Entry for artists is relatively fierce and a good deal more expensive in the case of the Kunst for Alle exhibitions with stands starting around 10,000 DKK for three days. Arguably, the cost can be offset by a greater level of prestige, opportunity and volume of buyers that these fairs offer if you have something that people want.

The most international, and hardest to enter art fairs include two in Copenhagen, CHART and CODE, as well as the well-respected ART HERNING in the middle of Jylland and NORTH Kunstmesse in Aalborg. The general tendency in this more gallery-led type of fair is towards the unabashedly contemporary with a leaning towards the abstract. If you like paintings of tallships in heavy gilt frames, you’re looking in the wrong place, although high craftsmanship, figurative paintings and more representational forms of art are starting to creep into the Danish art scene. The internet is slowly breaking the ice age of same-y abstract expressionism or monotone grit in Denmark, which at least for me with my creative preferences, is a breath of fresh air.

But now back to my world as a minnow in the paint water. Here’s a few things I picked up on from watching customers at my first art fair as well as other artists with more art fair experience…

Customer engagement and personal distance. The Danes are generally not the most outgoing bunch until warmed up a bit and like a bit of personal distance, so observations on your culture’s sales style preferences should be tuned for. That said, I reckon standing outside a smaller booth to let people freely move in and out works well in most settings to give people relaxed browsing space. It’s quite self-evident whether people are passing through with a cursory glance at a few pictures, or if they feel drawn in by something and would like to know more about the painting, process or you as an artist. I’m lucky that my paintings are quite varied so I’m not parroting myself too often with the same handful of comments. This helps me keep it fresh and authentic and I can sense passers-by trying to pick up on what I'm saying if they're on the shy side.

Consistency of offering and learning your market’s tastes. Next time I do a fair, I will reduce the number of categories or themes running through my work. I wanted to put up a variety of styles, colour themes and sizes thinking that people would be drawn to what they like, and that I would gain feedback on what works or doesn’t. I did get some feedback for future direction, but it would have helped to have my surreal stuff on one side and my realism/plein air stuff on the other. At least in Denmark, I will eliminate portraits for the time being as I sense that people want commissioned pictures or themselves or their pets, not strangers. Realist landscapes sell well in the UK, US, Russia and Mediterranean markets, but I’ve yet to see many non-abstracted landscapes here that aren't gthering dust in charity shops, so maybe a category to put on the back burner for now.

Pimping up the space. I could see other artists brought plants, tables and chairs which complemented their art and made things homely. I had one small table with me which tested the Tardis-abilities of my girlfriend's Fiat 500 with the canvases along as well, but I wish I’d brought a rug and a plant to cosy things up a bit.

Allowing free movement of customers. As measured earlier, I stood outside my stand watching in to gauge if someone was a potential customer and give them space to take their time. Make sure to keep tables and chairs to the sides to allow people to move freely, and if you share the space with someone displaying items standing on the floor space, make a ‘path’ through the display that prevents items being overlooked or worse, knocked over.

Tidiness. Some artists tend towards to the chaotic. I might be one of them :) Make sure to have the car nearby to stash things you don’t have room for, bring a small cupboard, or have a tall, shallow print browsing stand you can hide extra works and gubbins behind.

James Bell kunstner
Symmetrical but illogical: My first setup before I rearranged to group themes, types and sizes together

Products at different price points. The people who bought originals were 35+. However, I saw at my last exhibition that kids and people in their twenties are also drawn to what I’m making. Give them a chance to take a piece home by making prints at an affordable price. Throw one in half price or free if you like the person and have them looking forward to next year! I went all out on quality of print and paper and it paid off with people taking home half the prints I came with. Once you’ve spent so much time and effort making the originals, it’s really a no-brainer to make prints. I even met a ten-year old who used his pocket money on a print! Offer some pre-framed as you are saving some people the perceived hassle of going out shopping for a frame.

Looking like an artist – and leveraging your quirks or gimmick. People are buying somewhat into you as a person as well as your art. I’m a Brit and grew up on weird music, so this weekend, a flat cap, band t-shirt and blazer just to smarten things up, bit worked well to play up my ‘type’. Looking around, I could see artists leveraging their gimmick by having paint on their clothes and shoes, wearing dungarees, or looking like a tea-leaf reader with a wooden caravan out back. It’s not the office, it’s not the gym – it’s art!

Business cards and free postcards. I neglected business cards and free postcards in favour of pointing people towards my Instagram or facebook page in the fair’s brochure. It probably didn’t cause too much harm, but in hindsight, a full colour business card or postcard is a little piece of free art in its own right which people can pin to their fridge or corkboard. Psychologically, by giving something away for free, there's also a greater chance of playing to our inbuilt sense of reciprocity and encouraging someone to engage in a purchase.

Focusing on volume when starting out to build a fanbase. Looking around at my paintings I know how many hours of blood, sweat and tears went into each. However, at an early stage, they’re still better off in someone’s hands and being shown to their friends and family than going home with you to collect dust until their next outing. One of the experienced artists at the show, Per Hillo, advised to ‘almost give things away’ when starting out to get yourself established and start building a name for yourself.

Standing back to watch and begin to know your customers. I’m quite lucky because my paintings require serious customers to lean in to begin to catch the details. This is when I know they might like to chat a bit. My demographic, perhaps unsurprisingly, seem to reflect some of the qualities I see in myself and I imagine this might be the same for other artists. If you can imagine sitting down for a coffee with the person, there's a good chance you can build good rapport and make a sale.

A table or cupboard that is high enough to write on whilst standing. I brought a small side table as dictated by the dimensions of Italian cars, but would have liked to have brought something at least belly-button-high for sweets, business cards and an email sign-up form within easy reach.

Spare bits and pieces. Bring extra tape, scissors, blu-tak, string, drawing pins, masking tape etc. to secure, fix, hang, hide, wrap things. Bring cheap blankets or old sheets to offer some protection to canvases in transit.

4-way plug in case there aren’t enough power points for your phone, computer, portable heater, holographic salesperson etc…

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