Arts, Farts & Applecarts: The Truth About Art fairs - Part 2

Blog #4 by John Leben

Art fairs are a lot of work, and they are also very stressful. The work is setting up the outdoor art gallery, and the stress comes from the uncertainties of weather and the mood of the buying public. After renting the booth space, reserving a room for the weekend at a local hotel and traveling hundreds of miles to an art fair, an artist might have $2000 or more invested before selling a single item. Hopes are always high among artists before an art fair begins. We are an optimistic breed.

If severe weather hits the art fair and the public stays home (or the art fair is cancelled for safety reasons), there are no booth fee refunds and the hotel still has to be paid. All art fair artists have their own personal horror stories about those lost weekends. Marcia reminds me of some of the more memorable disasters that we survived over 20 years of exhibiting at art fairs… the tornado warning sirens going off in Columbus,… cowering in a campus building watching the wind and rain batter our tent in Ann Arbor,… sloshing through puddles up to our knees, in Winter Park, Florida,… hiding with our fellow artists in the brick rest rooms with tornado sirens blaring in Peoria. 

I especially remember one show we did in St. Louis. This was before we invested in a heavy-duty tent. After setting up the booth on a cloudy, threatening day, Marcia and I went back to our hotel and had a nice dinner as the rain and wind picked up. Early the next morning I got a phone call from the art fair. “You better get down here. Your tent has been knocked down by the storm.” We rushed to the art fair and, sure enough, the tent was all bent out of shape and lying on its side with all my art scattered around… my precious framed artwork lodged under the devastation. Volunteers from the art fair sprang into action. They showed up in force with towels and tools to dry off the artwork and help us get the tent back up. After we realized the tent was a complete loss, the committee, somehow, found another tent that we could use. With the help of about a dozen volunteers, we got our booth set up again. Lots of artwork was ruined, but a lot was saved as well, thanks to a terrific art fair committee.

There were a couple camera crews from local TV stations recording the destruction caused by the storm. We weren’t the only artists who had storm damage, but, apparently, we were the most photogenic. We were featured on several local newscasts and, over the weekend, we were the beneficiaries of a sympathetic audience. We sold lots of artwork and had our most profitable show, ever. Yes. The bad with the good…

I now have a 10x10 foot Trimline tent; a dome-style tent that is one of the best brands for withstanding foul weather. But it is expensive and very heavy. It is a beast to set up. I use 7-foot tall pro panels (carpet-covered walls) in my tent and I’ve designed and fabricated many additions to display my artwork and to keep my tent from blowing away. It typically takes me about five hours of back-breaking labor to set up my exhibit. I prefer art fairs that have an extra setup day before the art fair begins (which also adds an extra day to the hotel bill). Although no tent is impervious to bad weather, this heavy Trimline tent gives me a little peace of mind when the wind picks up.

A long time ago, when I made my living as a TV producer, I produced a documentary called “Art Fair.” It opened with scenes of artists setting up their exhibits at an art fair in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. One of the artists tells this story: 

“Two ladies were admiring all the art exhibited at the art fair. One asked ‘All this beautiful artwork. Where do you think they find the time to make all this art? The other one answers: Well, you know, they don’t work!’” 


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  • Helen Rehn on

    This was so informative. It is hard to imagine all the money that goes into setting up before you even start!

  • Hillary on

    Not to mention the heat!!!!! I can remember a few scorchers!!!! 🔥🔥🔥🔥

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