Selling Your Art Work

2019 has been an interesting year and we are only in June! A few unexpected / unplanned opportunities presented themselves with surprising results (good and bad), so as Surrey Artists’ Open Studios draws to a close this seems like a good time to chat about the pros and cons of trying to make a living from handmade textiles and to reflect on what went well and not so well.

As some of you may know, I gave up the day job 18 months ago to focus on felt-making full time. I knew the first few years would be financially hard so I saved diligently before taking that leap into the unknown. I am really glad I did, it is really tough trying to earn a living from textile art.

Contemporary Textiles Fair

The major benefit of no longer working for an employer is that I can be very flexible and consider opportunities that previously would have required me to sacrifice some of my annual leave allowance. One such opportunity was the Contemporary Textiles Fair in Teddington. This is a well known (in the UK at least), annual event, that generally gets good write ups, this combined with a business mentor encouraging me to take my one-of-a-kind products and bespoke commissions to “high end” fairs meant I was less anxious than perhaps I should have been about covering the £220 stand fee.

While I enjoyed the show, it was incredibly well organised and I met lots of really lovely textile enthusiasts, I didn’t sell enough work to cover the stand fee, and when you factor in the 3 days I spent at the show and the fuel travelling back and forth each day I made quite a substantial loss. Sadly, most of the other artists sharing my aisle reported the same. That said, I know some artists have been attending this event for years and are happy with their sales but I do worry that CTF will not continue for much longer if so few of the exhibitors are making a profit. Perhaps I should adopt the view of the stall-holder opposite my stand, she felt the stand fee was a reasonable price for the exposure / marketing opportunity. Personally I think a magazine advert would be better use of my time and money, what do you think?

The 3x Rule

Personally I use the 3x rule to decide if a show is worth doing again, if my total sales are at least 3x the value of the table / stall fee + travel and accommodation costs (if applicable), I will look to repeat the same event. Those sales should include commissions from people who saw your work but contacted you after the event too.

If my takings are less than 2x the table fee, I have effectively given up all the time I spent making what I sold and the cost of the materials, not to mention the hours spent setting up and manning the event to the organisers for free. That may be acceptable if you are just selling as a hobby but if it is your main source of income, it is utterly unsustainable.

How do you decide if you will repeat a fair or event again? Have you taken part in a show where you had poor sales but still returned the following year? Did you fair any better?

How do you decide which fairs and events to take part in?

Local Exhibitions

In April I entered a piece into a local exhibition, up until now I have always shied away from exhibitions and galleries that charge a significant commission. In part because I worry that if I increase my prices to cover the commission no-one will part with that much money but also because if it doesn’t sell during the exhibition I feel obliged to keep it on sale at the inflated price. Galleries understandably don’t like it if you have similar (or the same piece) for sale in your own shop for half the price that they are charging. This means I will only consider entering pieces into exhibitions that are truly one-of–a-kind. AppART was a good choice for me, the exhibition site is less than 10 miles away and the commission fees were 35% plus a £10 hanging fee.

Tropical Reef by Teri Berry

I entered my Tropical Reef hanging that some of you might recognise from earlier posts, and it sold! 🙂 What’s more, the lady who bought it found me in the Open Studios brochure and paid me a visit, how lovely is that! 🙂

This is one event I will definitely apply to again next year, I am already percolating ideas for felt sculptures to submit.

Working Outside the Box

Sometimes opportunities present themselves where the WIIFM* isn’t immediately obvious or you do something for fun or charity not expecting any reward.

A good example of this is a local art group (Pirbright Art Club) I joined a few months ago, I enjoy painting and drawing and while I don’t think I am good enough to make a living from it (60% of what I paint goes in the recycling or is cut up to make greetings cards) it has become my hobby now my other hobby (felt-making) has become my day job 🙂

When I joined I thought I might make a few friends and pick up some painting tips but was asked if my felt dragons, could be included in a dragon-themed exhibition, I had no idea when I made them that this event was on the cards. How is that for serendipity in action?!

Petunia – the Flowery Sea Dragon
Bunsen – the Flame-throwing Dragon

No sales came from this exhibition but I did gain some more exposure, it was free to enter and Bunsen and Petunia had a fun day out together 🙂

Open Studio Events

I wrote a post on hosting an open studio event last year, I will not repeat the tips from that post but you can read it here if you are interested. This year I tried some new approaches, in particular, studio trails.

This is where a group of artists who live geographically close to each other (the closer the better, walking distance is ideal but not always possible) get together to create a trail map. They then encourage their visitors to visit the other studios on the map, including yours, a “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” sort of arrangement.

While the trail worked to some extent, I had about a dozen visitors who said they were following the trail, I think the biggest benefit is from networking with other local artists rather than an increase in visitor numbers. This is already starting to present teaching and exhibition opportunities that I would not have been aware of without my new network of fellow artists.

I offered a few teaching sessions during the days when my studio space was closed to the public, strangely everyone wanted to make a nuno-felted scarf on the same day, I could have filled this class several times over but only had space for 2 students. Sarah and Pene were the quickest to book their spots and both did remarkably well with what is quite an advanced technique, Sarah had never made felt before!

Sarah chose a geometric pattern
Close up of the gorgeous colours in Sarah’s scarf
While Pene was inspired by the jewel-like colours in a Tiffany lampshade

Of course Bunsen and Petunia stole the show, although only one gentleman was brave enough to try Bunsen on while Petunia kept a watchful eye on her friend from the windowsill….

This was only my second year of taking part in Open Studios and it was even more successful this year; this event is definitely going in the diary for next summer!

What is your experience of selling face to face? Do you have any tips to share? How do you choose which fairs and events to take part in?

It’s only 6 months to Christmas…… 😉

*WIIFM – What’s in it for me?

7 comments

  1. So pleased to hear that Tropical Reef sold!

    With fairs it’s not just the stand fee but, as you say, the travelling and the man-hours for the duration of the fair. £220 is a staggering fee but add that to your time and travelling and the cost is very high – so an advert in the right place may be better.

    Open Studios is great because the cost is low but the enjoyment and possible financial gain is high and it’s a good way to enrol new students.

    The right gallery is worthwhile for the exposure you get to your art. The commission seems high until you take into account the costs the gallery has to meet i.e. shop and staffing costs.
    Also, in the UK, a gallery would have to add VAT (value added tax) which bumps up the price of the art on sale.

    Useful contact often comes in the most surprising ways, so the more you ‘put yourself about’ the more ‘luck’ you’ll have.

    Your new hobby will benefit your old hobby that’s now your job. Everything’s connected. And when you work for yourself it can feel isolating so joining the art group has more than one advantage.

    It’s been an adventurous 18 months and we wish you good fortune as you continue your journey.

    1. Thank you ladies, I was delighted when I heard Tropical Reef had found its forever home but a little sad I won’t be able to go look at it for a cheery boost whenever I want one.

      I didn’t mean to imply that galleries are fleecing artists, I totally agree that most galleries are struggling too but its not an easy decision to start to exhibit with galleries. It is funny you mention VAT, most galleries do not add it to the price the purchaser pays but they do charge it to the artist, it is typically 20% of whatever their fee was, so if their commission is 50% (that seems to be quite common these days) on a £100 artwork, the buyer pays £100 but the artist only receives £40 (50% of £100 = £50 plus VAT at 20% (20% of £50 = £10) totals £60). I would have to double my retail price just to earn minimum wage. But then you have to balance that against the increased exposure a gallery exhibition will bring. It is a tough call to make.

  2. Congratulations Teri for living your dream and selling your tropical piece! As Lyn mentioned, your second hobby will be useful for your felt business. Although, I think you have a great sense of design and color. Since I don’t sell, I’m not much help. But I think it’s a matter of finding the right market and buyer. I’m sure you’ll do well! Best to you and your business!

    Btw, the masks are fab!

    1. Thank you Marilyn 🙂 Watch this space, the next piece is not a mask as such but will be a life-size lion’s head….

  3. You brought up some very interesting points in this post Teri. When I launched my business I soon came to the realisation that I wouldn’t be able to make a living from selling my work in galleries and at craft fairs. What I do find is that attending events as an exhibitor (often for free as you are considered a “draw” and are not selling) and meeting the public face to face I do pick up commissions and bookings for workshops so in that respect it pays me to do it. I know I wouldn’t get the same response from an advert.
    I like the idea of the Open Studio although I’m not aware of such a group in my area at the moment. It’s something I ought to discuss with other local crafters to see if we can get it started. In fact you’ve spurred me on and I’m going to make a few calls right now.
    Good luck with future events….I know you will make it work!

    1. Thank you Karen, I agree, meeting customers face-to-face is far preferable to an advert, you can’t really build trust or a relationship through an advert but then selling via Etsy has similar pitfalls (which is why I always include a hand-written note with every purchase). I have seen a few fairs where they ask you to demonstrate next to your stall but unless I enlist the aid of a helper I don’t see how I could make that work, trying to demo while people are trying to buy really needs to people manning the stand. So far I haven’t seen any fairs asking for just demonstrators.
      Definitely look into open studios (I think most counties host them annually) if you have the space to host one, they really are a very effective way of getting to meet people interested in your work without having to give up days to man a stall.

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