Convention Art Shows: Is It Worth It?

By Hal Aetus

I just returned from Midwest Furfest (MFF) where I had a tremendously good time. I displayed pieces in the art show as I’ve done every year at this and other venues since 2013. Depending on how you look at it, I did pretty well. I realize that other budding artists are considering entering shows too but have questions about the costs and benefits so I’m going to pick this subject apart here and hopefully answer your burning questions of how furry con art shows work and whether they’re right for you.

Why Furry Con Art Shows?

First let’s talk about why you might want to enter an art show. For one, there’s exposure of your art to a broader audience. When we, as artists, post our pieces on different art sites, we immediately broaden our exposure beyond just friends but we are also limited to those that frequent the site, those that “follow” us on the site, and those that search for specific tags that are associated with our pieces. This works great for staying in touch with loyal followers but it can be a slow way to build a list of followers, particularly if your art portrays subjects that are off the beaten path. Think on it: Do you tend to listen to the same playlist of music most of the time? Similarly do you tend to mostly look at art produced by the artists you watch on art sites? We’re all pretty busy so we don’t necessarily go to far out of our way to find new artists and just stick to what we know will deliver. It can be very tough to be appreciated in a venue where other better-known artists have already captured most of the attention. That’s the magic of an art show: It levels the playing field. There’s no ranking by upvotes or other measures of popularity. There’s no filtering by tags or subject either. Your art will be just as prominent as the guy with 10k followers next to you. You will both be exposed to the same diverse flow of viewers coming through.

Another reason is profit at minimal cost. Most art shows have no entrance fees and if they do, they’re very reasonable for most any level of artist (MFF charged $10 per 2’x6′ grid panel in 2018). Of course, your art has to sell to make a profit so you should display your most popular pieces, as identified by viewer feedback on your online art galleries. If you don’t quite have enough to fill the spaces, you can sprinkle in a few others that you think are good but just not hitting the right target audience yet. As I said above, you’ll be reaching a more diverse audience than what you access in online galleries.

To enter an art show, you’ll typically want to attend the con. Some cons will require up-front registration first so you’ll have to be serious about attending the con already. By the way, I don’t recommend attending a con JUST for selling in the art show. Although you can sell some stuff, it’s rare that you’ll make a huge profit so it really can’t be justified only from the standpoint of selling art in an art show. Some cons do offer the ability to submit art by mail but may require you to have an attendee that acts as your “agent” for picking up art or money at the end of the show.

Preparing for an Art Show

You’ll typically have to apply to enter a show weeks to months in advance though some will take last minute entries on a waiting list basis (or immediately if not full– just no guarantees). There will be a page on the con website that explains the process and provides an online form to fill out. Someone will screen your art using examples you share or a gallery link you provide. They’re looking to make sure that the theme of your art is consistent with the theme of the show (e.g., furry art shows will want to hang pieces involving animals or nature, anthropomorphic or not). They will also make sure that the art shows some minimal level of quality and experience. New artists tend to think poorly of their work as they compare it to others but trust me– if you’re getting favorable responses online then it’s probably better than you think and perfectly acceptable for an art show. Part of the application will also involve choosing how much space you’ll need. A good rule of thumb is that a 2’x6′ grid panel can hang about six 8.5″x11″ prints that are matted to 12″x14″ outer dimensions. You can cram more in but you don’t want your art to look too crowded.

Then you have to get your works together. If you’re going to display prints, you’ll want to save yourself stress and get those printed well in advance. There’s a variety of printing options and some are better than others. My favorite print provider has been Sixth Leaf Clover. They respond quick to queries, provide good customer service, the quality is excellent, and prices are reasonable. You can also opt to use local printing services (e.g., FedEx Office) but in my experience they do not cater to artists. They’re great for copies and printing business graphics or stationary, but not trained in tweaking color, brightness, contrast to make your art look good plus you’ll likely deal with a different person each time. You can also print them yourself but, I’m getting off track here. Perhaps in a future article I’ll write a blog on digital art reproduction. For now, suffice it to say that you’ll need to get your stuff printed in high quality it’s best to get it done well in advance so you don’t have to compromise at the last minute.

Using mat boxes for shipping pieces

Should you mat or frame your art? Yes. Matting is perfect for prints. If you have original pieces, I’d suggest framing too. In either case, the perceived value is much improved. I’d be careful about very heavy or cumbersome frames only because many potential buyers will be travelling by air. As an alternative, you could offer shipping or transport packaging but you’ll want to clearly specify this when you hang your art. Frames and mats should be ready to hang. If you choose your mats carefully, they will come with backing boards and a clear plastic bag to slip them into for display (these mats from Amazon.com are an example). You can also purchase adhesive hangers such as these that you can stick on at home so when you get to the show, you’re all ready to go.

A few days or so before the con, at the latest, you’ll want to go back to the show’s website (sometimes emails from art show staff will contain a special link) and enter in all the pieces you will be displaying. Get this done BEFORE you get there and print your check-in sheet. It’s not the end of the world if you have to do it at the con but I guarantee you it will cost you 10 times as much time and headache to deal with it there. Also, if there’s an option for “Quick Sale,” I recommend selecting this if you really don’t want to transport the pieces home with you. The way it works is that if there are no bids on an item by a certain point in time (typically Saturday afternoon), your pieces can be immediately purchased for a different price than your minimum bid. This can be higher or lower than your minimum bid– it just depends on how badly you want to sell it. I show digital prints so their individual value is not as high as say an original painting. In my case, I let them go cheaper than my minimum bid (say $10 for quick sale vs. $15 minimum bid). At MFF this came in very handy as I sold eight prints on quick sale– that’s $80 I probably would’ve lost otherwise. There’s no right or wrong answer here but just know how Quick Sale works and that it’s basically there to save you from lugging art home.

Speaking of lugging, if you’re travelling by air to a con, I recommend shipping your pieces ahead. It’ll save you luggage space, baggage fees, and stress worrying about TSA monkeying with your stuff. Those premade mats I mentioned above come in a nice flat box that makes a great packing box for up to 10 completed, mounted prints. In the US, UPS ground seems to be the least expensive and still gets there plenty fast (less than a week). As an example, my last box of 10 mounted prints I sent to Seattle from Milwaukee cost about $13.

At the Con

Typical Art Show Display (3 panels 2’x6′ each)

When you get to the con, check in and hang your art. This will usually be the morning of the day the art show opens (e.g., 9-12 on Friday is typical). This is sometimes a slow process, depending on the experience and organization of the art show staff and the other submitting artists. I like to get to the door a bit ahead of schedule so I’m at the front of the line. They’ll have some procedure for checking you in, verifying you are registered, and verifying the inventory that they are taking responsibility for. Art shows are careful to keep the space manned or locked up at all times and they verify that anyone entering the room is a registered attendee. Theft is rare, probably because they do take their responsibility for your art so seriously. So if the process seems a bit tedious, still be nice as you check in. Oh my Cod! The staff at furry cons are, for the most part, dedicated, hard-working individuals that don’t get enough thanks. They will be your best friends if you are patient and understanding that they are just trying to take the best care of your art as possible. Be sure to keep your paperwork from check-in just in case there’s a discrepancy at the end.

 

Hanging your art is pretty easy. The con provides all the hooks and clips for hanging but you need to have wire or other hanging devices attached to the back of your pieces. I recommend spacing your works with a couple of inches of empty space around each one so that they don’t look crowded. I like to stagger my pieces some to help them stand apart also. The art show will have a bid sheet to tape or clip next to each piece. You also have the freedom to hang your own custom signage on your display space though the cons will usually provide a basic name card with large lettering too. But a custom sign can bump up your perceived quality a notch. Be aware of lighting. If you have the option to choose your own panel locations, try to position yourself where your art will be seen by the most people and in the best lighting. Corners of rooms are usually darker and sometimes even the center of the room, if directly under overhead lights, can cast shadows. Don’t forget to hang a clip with your business cards or, better still, hang a little card holder so it’s easy to just take one.

Once your art is hung, check back periodically to keep track of how the bidding is going. Don’t be discouraged if there’s no immediate bids. Oftentimes the harder bidding happens shortly before closure of the show. Wear your con badge everywhere you go and you’ll likely have people strike up conversation with you about your pieces in the show. On the last day there will be separate hours for patrons to pick up their purchased art (typically Sunday morning) and separate hours for artists to claim their unsold works (usually the afternoon). Checks will either be given at the con or in some cases they are mailed a few weeks later. Inspect all your paperwork at the con and make sure it all adds up.

Costs and Benefits

If you are wanting to be a professional artist, I recommend keeping track of your costs and income. Don’t just “feel” like you’re doing better or worse from one con to another. Have the numbers and see clearly what works and what doesn’t. Here’s an example of how I did at MFF last weekend:

Midwest Furfest 2018 Art Show Profit/Loss
Based on 8.5″ x 11″ prints in 12 x 14 mats, no shipping to con
Printing cost (ink & paper at home) $1.47
Mat/back board/clear bag $2.40
Adhesive hanger $0.90
Total per piece $4.77
Number pieces entered 26
Space fees ($10 x 4 panels) $40.00
Show commission (10% of sales) $25.50
Total cost  $189.52
Bids $175.00
Quick Sales $80.00
 (17 pcs sold) Total Sales  $255.00
Net Profit  $65.48

Hey I stayed in the black this time! As you can see, profits are not high (and this was one of my better cons for selling art, by the way) but also consider that the art was already sitting around. I didn’t make anything new for this show, they were all relatively inexpensive prints, no originals, and I didn’t have to ship the art and incur those charges. It just hung there and got seen. I had a lot of nice comments all weekend about my art and multiple requests for commissions. It could be argued that those people already knew of my work from years of online presence but I’m pretty sure that some had genuinely learned of me for the first time from the pieces in the show. I also have the unsold prints that can be sold elsewhere.

I could reduce my costs. I have already shaved at least a buck of each print by investing in my own equipment and it had the added benefit of improving quality and customization of the prints. The equipment and ink isn’t cheap but it made sense since I typically was spending a few hundred bucks a year just on printing costs from third parties. I’m considering the next step of investing in a mat cutter which will significantly reduce costs and allow me more flexibility in mat sizes, colors, and textures. I should add too that some artists are more savvy than I in finding bargains on mats, clear bags, or hanging supplies.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that you can sell stuff at art shows, with minimum effort, while increasing your exposure to a broader audience. Remember, the art show levels the playing field so you won’t be drowned out by more popular artists. Hopefully you will pick up more patrons for commissions and viewers in your online galleries and make a few bucks while you enjoy the rest of the con.

If you liked this article, let me know with a comment below or share it on your favorite social media. Also, I welcome others to share their thoughts or their tips and tricks below. Let’s make this a helpful resource for new art show participants!

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