Should I Sell My Work at Street Fairs?

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As a prank in 2014, Banksy had a New York street vendor sell his works for $60 each. Only $420 was made on works worth over $160,000.
As a prank in 2014, Banksy had a New York street vendor sell his works for $60 each. Only $420 was made on works worth over $160,000.

Dear BURNAWAY,
I’m a painter and I’m not represented by a gallery yet, so I have a question for you. Should I participate in community art fairs and art festivals? I feel like there might be a stigma attached to this, but right now it seems better than not showing my work at all. Could you help me decide?
Thanks,
Fair-ly Uncertain


Dear Fair-ly,
I’m glad you wrote in with this question, as it’s a really good and complex one. But before we delve into to your query, I just want to point out that I love your use of the word “yet” in that first sentence. “I’m not yet represented by a gallery yet.” Way to keep those posi vibes flowing, sugar bun! That’s the kind of spirit we like to see around these parts. Plus, it also gives me a clue to where you want to go in your career, which factors into this whole discussion.
The topic of art fairs and festivals is a tricky one, but it’s truly all about perspective. If running the fair/festival circuit is how you want to make your bread and butter in the art business, it’s a totally viable option. However, if your end goal is to be represented by a fine art gallery, and you want your work to be considered in the more conceptual, academic, museum-caliber art world, you may want to reconsider renting that booth.
There are some key difference between art sold at festivals and art sold in galleries, and they largely exist around price point. If you want to sell smaller, cheaper works in a higher quantity, festivals are a good venue. However, if you’re looking to paint big and sell works at a higher price point, you want to focus on finding representation through a gallery who has long-standing relationships with major collectors.

The Atlanta Arts Festival in Piedmont Park.
The annual Atlanta Arts Festival in Piedmont Park.

Is that to say that serious art collectors don’t buy paintings at community art events? Not necessarily, but it’s not the typical demographic. At art fairs, you’re marketing your work to the general public. For an emerging artist, this can be a golden opportunity to get your name out there and make a little cash. If you are primarily concerned with ground-level visibility and letting the world know you make art, sure! Sign up for some local fairs. But you’ll need to be able sense when you need to move on, because if you get stuck in that world, it could potentially be damaging to your reputation as gallery artist.
Another suggestion I’d like to make, is that if you do participate in some community art festivals, leave them off your professional resume or CV, especially if you’re using it to submit to galleries or exhibitions. Participating in an art fair doesn’t really count for much professionally speaking, as it’s pretty much a pay-to-play event. Even though most art festivals are “curated” to some degree, meaning not just anyone can be approved for a booth, those numbers aren’t competitive enough to speak to your glowing, shining, remarkable talent that we all know you have.
So, if you’re really gunning to be a gallery-represented artist, I’d recommend trying to steer clear of participating in too many community art festivals. But if you want to sell your work in that capacity—meaning you want the income from selling a higher quantity of small, affordable works that aren’t necessarily museum-bound—that’s fine too! Go for it. There’s room for everyone here. What it really comes down to are your needs and your personal goals.
Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is cofounder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.