Beginners, unite! Consign your way to success.

Every year, new art galleries and crafts shops open. Often, they’re launched on a shoestring. They need consigned items to sell.

Every year, new artists and crafters decide that this is the year they’re going to launch their careers. They need places to show their artwork.

New shops and new artists can help each other. But, since both parties are beginners, it’s important to consider a few important points.

First, can you afford to consign your work? If you need income this week, you’ll do better if you can find a shop to buy your work, outright.

On the other hand, it can be brilliant business strategy to consign your art in a shop that becomes a local (or tourist) favorite.

Consignment works like this: You provide artwork for the gallery or shop. When it sells, you get part of the selling price, and the shop gets the rest. It’s not unusual to see a 30-70 split (the shop keeps 30%) or a 70-30 split (the shop keeps 70%).  The latter should probably be avoided.

In a perfect world, the split is about 50/50. After all, you’ve put time, materials, skill, and originality into your work. The shop is showcasing your work, providing valuable wall, floor or counter space for it.

Consignment can be great, ho-hum, or a nightmare. There are many factors.

QUALITY and QUANTITY

Are the shop’s standards high enough? Your art can shine in a setting with a good mix. However, if visitors take one look at most of the art and say, “Ick,” they may never even see your work.

Likewise, if the shop can’t find enough good artists and it’s obviously half-empty, that drives away customers. At the very least, they want a shop or gallery that provides a wonderful browsing experience.

However, if the shop owner does business with a collection of great artists, you can be in fabulous company… and build your reputation while you increase your income.

Visit your markets regularly and be sure that your work is shown in the best possible light.

PAYDAYS and PRICING

How soon will you be paid? If you aren’t paid within 30 days after the work sells, you may want to look for better opportunities.

Who is setting the prices, and are they in the correct range? If you’re new and the shop owner is as well, consider getting a second opinion about the prices. Items won’t sell if they’re priced too high or too low. (From my experience, items are generally underpriced. If your art isn’t selling, try a higher price for two weeks and see if that helps.)

SUPPLY and DEMAND

In the past, I’ve worked with multiple consignment shops and galleries each summer. Some of them will succeed and some will fail. However, a few will sell my work so rapidly, I may have to phase out the less successful shops, just to meet demand.

Even though I’ve supplied galleries and shops for many years, I still can’t predict which items and which shops will be successful.

It’s important to be on good terms with the shops you deal with.  Open communications — and flexibility — are vital.

INSURANCE

Discuss risks with the shop owner.

If there’s a fire, or the sprinkler system dumps water on everything in the shop, or if your work is stolen, what happens? Either you or the shop owner (or both) should have insurance, or be willing to cover the risks.

The shop owner may want you to carry insurance, as well. For example, if you’re making children’s toys, be sure you have liability coverage. It could be a shock — and a huge expense — if you have to recall 200 wibbly-wobbly toys because the manufacturer recalled the plastic eyes that you used.

(That said, those kinds of disasters are rare. Insurance can turn disasters into speed bumps instead of career stoppers.)

FLEXIBILITY

Although I wholesale some of my crafts to shops, I like to work with at least 50% consignment galleries each summer. (That’s my favorite tourist season in New England.)

The reason is simple: I love the flexibility of working on consignment.

If I get tired of making a particular item, I can simply discuss alternative products with the shop owner.

If a line of products doesn’t sell, I can take it back and place it in another market where it will sell. And, I can put different items in the shop where they collected dust. Everyone wins!

If I’ve committed to a shop and delivering the art is more trouble (or expense) than I expected, I can renegotiate terms.

A LITTLE OF THIS, A LITTLE OF THAT

Generally, I wholesale enough crafts to cover my basic expenses. After that, I focus on consignment shops and galleries. I negotiate good commissions, I work closely with new shop owners, and we all have fun.

I work primarily with seasonal shops and galleries… stores that open in June and close when the tourists go home. I work all winter, building my inventory, and then I can take most of the summer off. Most of my ‘work’ in the summer involves visiting my favorite tourist areas, checking on shops, and delivering products. Then, I go to the beach. Or the mountains.

CONTRACTS ARE THE KEY

Consignment shops and galleries can be a great way to launch your arts and crafts career. You can reduce the stress on both sides, by having a clear agreement with each shop owner.

Start with a standard contract, and modify it to suit your needs.

Here are some sample contracts, online:

Sample Artist-Gallery Consignment Agreement, from Michael Dunn

Sample Consignment Agreement for Artists, from Mark Henson

Consignment Agreement Contract – free sample

Some “worst case” advice, from attorney Richard Stim: Consigning Your Arts and Crafts

RECOMMENDED READING

It’s smart to consult books about consignment art sales and artist-gallery consignment contracts. The following are two of the best.

Business and Legal Forms for Crafts

The Artist-Gallery Partnership

Choosing an unjuried show

Potter at a wheelHow do you choose a ‘good’ art show or crafts fair when you’re a beginner?  A few simple cues can help you, plus one reliable source.

The first cue is the quality of promotion.  Does this fair have an online presence, and does their site look professional.  (If not, tell them about my book, Sites that Soar!)

Do they advertise in local newspapers and magazines, or even in national ones?

If it’s a small show–perhaps a fund-raiser for a school or church–many crafters ask if they’ll have a food concession.  If the show is professionally catered, it generally marks a well-run show.

Another cue is the sponsorship.  If it’s an annual show put on by a town, there may be tremendous pride in how well the show is run.  That’s a plus.  If it’s a first-time effort by a youth group, it may be great, or it may be a lesson for everyone involved.

Check the show’s policy about vendors leaving early.  Empty tables discourage shoppers.  If the show lets vendors leave early without a penalty, the show can deteriorate pretty quickly.  Many top shows declare that any vendor who leaves early will not be accepted for future shows.  That sounds harsh, but it can be necessary.

If the show or fair is an annual event, the most reliable sources of information are other artists and crafters.  Ask them.  Online forums are useful, but–even better–ask people at other shows.

Ask your customers.  “What other shows and fairs do you like?” can be a conversation-starter, and provide insights into what shoppers are looking for… as well as a list of worthwhile shows.

When the day is winding down, ask other vendors, too.  Sometimes, your direct competition won’t chat with you, but crafters in other fields will.  Ask them which shows they really like.

If you’re considering one show in particular, ask about it.  Talk with several people so you hear a variety of opinions.

While you’re asking, get tips about preparing for that show.  For example, are extension cords vital?  Is there a parking area near the door for vendors to unload their cars and vans?  Do the sponsors provide chairs or should you bring your own?  (Is a pillow a good idea if their chairs are plain metal folding chairs?)  Will most booths be merchandise on a tablecloth, or will some vendors set up impressive, professional-looking displays?

Take notes.  After a show, you’re likely to be tired and forget at least some of what you learned.

Also, jot down notes from the show you were just at.  What worked and what didn’t?

When you plan your schedule next year, your notes–about past shows and prospective ones–can help you make better decisions.

Keys to successful art shows: Have fun

Art fairs and art shows can be great or totally boring. What makes the difference? You do.

Many artists don’t like to hear that, but it’s true.

When I was a Guest at Dragon*Con 2007, I visited the”Walk of Fame” to see a few friends and buy some autographed photos.

One of the busiest booths in the room belonged to James and Oliver Phelps, who portray the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter movies. In fact, fans were waiting in a line that went fromtheir booth to the door on the opposite side of the hall.

That line was so huge, it was so difficult to walk across the room to get to other booths. Several other celebrities weren’t happy… and weren’t selling many photos. They saw themselves as competing with the Phelps brothers.

What not to do

I approached one celebrity in the room, whose photo was on my “must buy” list.

I said hello. He looked at me somewhat sourly, and didn’t say anything. Well, that could be part of his marketing, since his onscreen character is scathingly sarcastic at times.

I asked for an autographed photo and paid for it. “Are you having fun?” I asked.

“As much fun as you can have sitting in a chair all day,” he replied with some annoyance.

“But isn’t this great, with so many fans and such great costumes to look at?”

“I suppose so,” he sighed.

I wished him a good day and walked off.

Figuring that I should give him a second chance, I returned to his booth the next day. His demeanor hadn’t changed, and no one was buying his photos.

What to do, instead

Throughout the convention, I kept hearing about Marc Singer. People raved & raved about him, talked about what a great person he is, how they’d have to see what he’s doing in films and on TV, and so on.

Why? It’s simple: He greeted people with a smile. Even though his booth was in a hard-to-find corner, he stepped out from behind the table, shook hands with people and cheerfully posed for photos. He clearly cares about the fans. (He’s an excellent artist as well.)

Even on the train to the airport, I was still overhearing conversations about how great Marc Singer is. With over a hundred big-name movie celebs in attendance, that says a lot.

How this applies to you

When I have a space at an art show or an arts & crafts fair, I sell the most–and win the most awards at the show–when I set up an easel or a work area… and work.

I position myself so that visitors can see what I’m working on, but they also see me in profile as I work. (In other words, I don’t turn my back to them.)

I chat with people as they walk by. I shake hands. I hand them a flyer or some freebie that has my website info on it, and a list of galleries and shops that feature my work. If I’m teaching, I mention my next gig. (Art shows are about PR as much as sales.) And, I continue to work.

People like to be able to say, “I bought her art, and I saw her working on something new. It was so interesting to see…”

You don’t have to create art at the show or fair. However, do something (smile, hand out something free…) that makes it easy for guests to interact with you.

In other words…

People buy your art, not just because it’s “pretty” or “interesting,” but because of the energy that’s in it. As an artist, you need to convey that energy personally, as well. That’s what confirms the importance of owning your art and having it in their home or workplace.

Put great, attractive energy into your art, and into how you present yourself.

The quality of your energy–and how accessible it is to others–is key. Decide to have a great time, no matter what, when you’re at an art fair or show. That’s what Marc Singer did.

No matter how frantic you are to sell, don’t get “needy” about it. (Needy people don’t get dates and don’t remain in relationships for very long. It’s the same in every context: That “needy” energy isn’t attractive. It’s a sucking black hole rather than an effusive and dazzling energy that people want to take home.)

Treat an art fair or show as if it’s a party and you’re there to meet very cool people. Be the life of the party, and you’ll win fans and customers.

” Your needs will be met once you can find a way of projecting energy and fulfilling someone else’s need.” — Stuart Wilde

“Making art is a lot about just seeing what happens if you put some energy into something.” — Kiki Smith

“In the end it all comes down to enthusiasm.” — Stuart Wilde

Be friendly at shows

It’s important to be friendly when you have a booth at an art show, a crafts fair, or any art-type festival.

Often, owners of new art galleries visit shows like this, to spot new talent. You may be invited to participate in an upcoming gallery show, or find a similar opportunity to “move up” to galleries.

Here’s how it works for me:

I’m painfully shy in real life. Oh, with enough preparation, I’m fine in front of an audience. But, one-on-one such as fairs & festivals… I tend to stammer and blush a lot.

Don’t just stand there, do something!

I set up my portable easel or create a work space at my table. I casually work on some art. That helps me to dilute the focus. When someone approaches, I’m less self-conscious; we’ll usually be discussing my art, not me, personally.

Curiosity–wanting to see what I’m doing–also attracts people to my booth. Because my attention seems primarily on my work, visitors feel less “stared at”, too.

I look up regularly and smile, even if no one is watching me. I’ll usually break the ice by saying, “Isn’t this a GREAT day!” or something. Most people agree, and we chat a little about the weather before talking about whatever I’m working on, and/or selling.

Be memorable with freebies

I usually give out freebies of some kind. Maybe it’s a simple crafts pattern… a single b&w sheet that I’ve photocopied. Maybe it’s a dish of sweets or wrapped candies, with a “take one” sign next to it.

(If you can, put your name and URL or contact info on each one. That’s smart advertising!)

But, I try always to give my visitors something. It brings them into the booth, and they leave with a smile. I’ve been amazed at how many remember me for that, years later, and come back to buy something as a “thank you.”

I’ve tried professional arts/crafts festival circuit, and–especially for beginners–I recommend smaller fairs instead. I prefer the less expensive shows & fairs; at them, I can relax more. It’s not much cash out of my pocket if I don’t sell anything, and–worst case–if I create art all day, I’ve accomplished a lot.

Also, at the less expensive venues, my booth has a chance of shining in the crowd. I always work on looking professional, whether it’s a small fair in a church hall or a glitzy festival show.

At smaller fairs, the other vendors are among my best customers, too, so it’s good to be friendly. Yes, I suppose that we’re competing for the customers’ dollars. I never see it that way, myself, and I try never to act that way.

And finally, it’s vital to have items at the lower price range for people on a tight budget. Or, for people who’ve never bought original art or crafts before, and won’t fully appreciate an item’s value until it’s been displayed in their homes for awhile.

Plan to make the day fun for people who pause at your booth or display. You’ll go home with a bigger smile, and perhaps more money in your wallet as well.

Sell your art locally

woman at easelOne of the most successful ways that I’ve sold my art has been through local businesses, using the community art association as a liaison. If your goal is gallery representation, local sales can build your reputation and add credibility to your resume. And, your income from local sales can exceed what you earn with some galleries.

First, find nearby art associations and join some

Most communities have an art association of some kind. You’ll find them listed in the yellow pages of your local phone book, and sometimes online. Look in categories such as “Clubs”, “Associations”, and so on.

These groups are usually a mix of professionals and eager amateurs. At their (usually monthly) meetings, I’ve seen everything from gorgeous, $10K watercolors to crocheted dolls in unnatural colors & fibers. No two groups are the same.

Art associations sponsor regular–at least annual–gallery shows in their own meeting place or in a town hall or library meeting room. They often have at least one outdoor art show, at which you can display your art and perhaps demonstrate your techniques. Most art associations also have some juried shows and at least one or two annual shows that are open to all members, regardless of expertise.

Art association meetings include regular demonstrations (of art technique) by artists who usually sell some art to the members while they’re there. This can be a good outlet if you want to do demos; start by creating a form letter that you’ll send to every art association in the phone book. When the demo is announced, make sure that the publicity mentions that you’ll have art for sale, too. The art association takes a commission based on how much you sell, and everyone goes home happy.

Then, the art association helps you display your art locally

Many art associations have working relationships with local businesses, especially restaurants, bookstores, beauty salons, and banks… anyone with blank wall space that wants an “art show” to generate interest. (They use this to attract visitors and for press releases, publicity, etc., themselves.) Libraries are less likely to be able to offer work for sale, but it depends upon the local laws.

The best way that I’ve seen this work, is if the sales go through the art association. That is, there is a business card (for the art association) next to each piece of art, with a price noted and how to contact the art association for more info. Of course, this should be something better than voicemail; someone needs to be on hand to answer the phone. A member who works at home is good for this job. (The art association can have a single phone number, and use Call Forwarding to whomever is manning the phones that day/week.)

Art associations handle merchant accounts and credit card sales, too

The art association makes the sale, and has a merchant account at a bank to accept credit cards. The art association takes a percentage of the sales, usually about 20%. At the end of the month, the association issues a check to everyone whose art sold that month.

If you don’t have a local art association, start one. If you are in an art association that doesn’t have this kind of relationship with local businesses, bring it up at the next business meeting and get it started.

Yes, there are issues to sort out, including how the art is insured, if it’s protected from damage (especially in restaurants, smoky halls, and beauty salons) and so on. You can check with other art associations and see how they handle it; generally, I don’t fret about this too much, but some artists do. I’ve had small pieces stolen from shows, but never anything that was taken off the wall. (That said, it can happen, so never show your valuable art in a setting that makes you nervous.)

Anyway, that’s the general idea… really just the tip of the iceberg. I hope this helps!