Evolution of an Art Fair Booth

[singlepic id=194 w=460 h=350 float=] It's getting to be that time of year again. It's officially Spring, although it will NOT quit snowing here in Spokane. We just broke the all-time annual snowfall record here. Yesterday. Joy. All the more reason to start thinking about summer!

Over the next 2-1/2 weeks I will be getting the last of my art fair jury notifications (I would say which, but I don't want to jinx them!) And, I just ordered a 5' x 10' extension for my tent. While this probably guarantees that I will not score any 10' x 15' outdoor spaces, it at least gives me an excuse to set up my stuff out in the back yard in what has become my new Rite of Spring. Setting up my display in the yard is a ridiculous amount of work, but it gets me in the right frame of mind for the coming months, works out the bugs, and helps me look like I know what I'm doing again when I get to my first real setup day.

People often ask whether artists own the tents and display things we use at art fairs. Oh, yes we do. Usually several times over, in fact. I don't think there is an artist alive who has an art fair setup and isn't constantly fiddling with it. It can always be easier to set up, lighter to carry, better looking, etc., etc. But it's getting started that can get really interesting.

It's not as if anyone can just run down to Costco and pick up a professional tent  and some nice carpet-covered display walls. Most of the time artists have to be in a few fairs before they even find out what those things are called, who makes them and where to buy them. A few artists do the research first, buy nice professional equipment at the beginning of their art fair career (probably taking out a loan to do so) and as a result spend a lot less time and money in the long run.

The vast majority probably do what I did. That is, invent their own homemade display system, spend the absolute minimum money (and maximum time) on a display at the outset, then spend that amount five times over in improvements until finally giving up and buying the nice professional display. While not an economically advisable approach, it's not without its entertainment value. If you are mildly nuts, anyway. Just for fun, here's the story of my own booth...

Year one: First ever art fair, my local show. They don't require a booth slide for the jury. While this makes it easier to enter, it also guarantees that I will still be building my display until the actual day of show setup. I bought an inexpensive Caravan canopy from Costco, and Paul and I designed knock-down walls made of wooden frames and plastic mesh walls with canvas covers. I make a canvas cover for a heavy steel shelving unit which becomes my desk, and light the art with [singlepic id=195 w=320 h=240 float=left] hardware-store clamp lights. It was such a pain to set up that we decided to transport the walls the morning of the show without knocking them down first, and almost ruined them in the process. Two hours before the show opened Paul ran to get woodscrews for a temporary fix. Meanwhile, artists passing by my booth commented that the walls were pretty, but they would never hold art without collapsing. We finished setup about a minute before the show opened. The first night we realized we had no way to close up the tent, which came with three cheap sides attached with velcro. My parents brought down a tarp. That week I ordered four zippered sides for the tent, at a cost twice that of the initial tent purchase. At the first rainfall, the tent leaked

Year two, part one: I tried to build my own awning to keep the sun from steaming up the glass in my frames, and keep the rain out of the tent. The first awning, made of PVC and nylon fabric, is a dismal failure and must be taken down 1/2 hour after the first rain starts. Two redesigns and probably $200 later, I have a working awning made from copper pipe and the old tent sides. It attaches to the canopy with custom zippers sewn on by me. I also began a new annual tradition of waterproofing my tent and sealing the seams, and devised a system to tighten the tent onto the frame to prevent water from pooling on the canopy.

Year two, part two: the first major revision. We had become absolutely sick of setting up the beautiful wooden walls. Also, I had started doing larger work and the display space was very limited. I refashioned the upright back walls so that rather than standing alone, they would hang from the tent frame. This saved several [singlepic id=196 w=320 h=240 float=left] steps in setup and gave me a little more wall space. The four-sided upright display, by this time nicknamed "The Beast" for its enjoyable setup procedure, remained part of the display. The new walls were so easy they made The Beast seem even more difficult to assemble. The lights were also replaced with a cheap modified track light set from Home Depot. The new track lights attach to the cross-bracing in the center of the tent and look much better. However, I spent way too much time warning tall people not to burn their heads on the halogen bulbs.

Year three: Propanels! My third year at shows was my first year at Bellevue, held in a covered parking garage where tents are unnecessary and ceiling height is restricted. Since my display and lights hung from my tent frame, I still needed to set up the framework in my space. I spent a good deal of time figuring out how to remove the upright post from the center of the framework to keep within the height restriction. When we arrived at the show the artists on both sides of us [singlepic id=192 w=320 h=240 float=left] had already set up and gone, and we barely squeaked the tent frame into the space without destroying it and the setups to each side of us. This was also my first year at Sausalito, where the tents are provided and once again we must somehow squeeze my tent's framework into the space provided. Sick of stressing over the tent-frame-hanging-wall setup, I broke down and bought used Propanels from an artist at Sun Valley. Although I would have loved to use them at Sausalito, we had no way to get the huge walls home from the show, and had to store them until we could return for them in the fall. Also, I replaced all my curtains for a more polished look.

Year four: More Propanels. When I bought them at Sun Valley, the show director commented that she would hate to see my booth lose its character. I took this as a challenge and started designing a system to make my Propanels look like my old walls: wooden top rails and faux-wood "baseboards" to hide storage, cords and tent hardware behind the display. After picking up my walls in the fall I made some easy, velcro-on baseboard by staining woodgrain-printed contact paper to [singlepic id=193 w=320 h=240 float=left] [singlepic id=197 w=320 h=240 float=left] match my wooden trim. I finished enough to do a booth shot then in the spring built the rest. On an unseasonably warm day all the adhesives on my contact-paper baseboards melted and they fell apart. I started over, making an entirely new set out of tan naugahyde brushed with poly stain. They attached with velcro, which I had to sew on by hand. I finished building and staining the rest of the top rails, and oh yeah, built a new desk out of wood. I also had to buy more Propanels to round out my setup. Before Bellevue, I replaced the track lights with a set of professional display lights that cost more than my original tent plus zippered walls. And I bought an expensive professional tent with expensive custom awnings. Oh, and I bought a cargo trailer to haul the Propanels. Nothing major.

Which brings us to year five: the bigger setup. With my new oils I need more display space, thus the extension tent. I'm sure this will mean more fiddling with walls. But then I am DONE! Seriously! What else could I possibly need to do?

Yeah, good luck with that...

Want more? Read Evolution of an Art Fair Booth Part 2 and Part 3.