The Table Has Been Turned Artist Starts to Learn What It is Like To Plan an Art Fair

February 2024, by Scott Obernberger

After decades of making pottery like this to sell at art fairs, Scott Obernberger is learning what it is like to plan an art fair.
Photos courtesy of Scott Obernberger

How many shows have you done as a traveling artist? What have you learned from those shows about things that work and things that do not?  

Have you ever wondered what I would do differently if I were to run a show? Each of us has engaged in these thoughts, but most of us never actually have to put the shoe on the other foot.  

Our experiences are one-sided, and while it is easy to arm-chair quarterback and say, “I’d do this differently,” we rarely know the back story on why certain things happen.  

So, this is the year when my table gets turned. My town has decided to put together its first (hopefully annual) art fair, and I get to be one of the people in charge.  

What all goes into putting together a successful art fair? This month, I explore what goes into organizing an art fair from scratch — may heaven help us!  

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’  

You start with a desire to put together a great show that considers, as the primary focus, what artists need and want. But wait, you also must produce something that appeals to customers and residents, so they come out, have fun, and hopefully make lots of purchases to keep your artists happy.  

But wait, you need to work with city officials and civic leaders to make sure you do not violate any ordinances and to get them excited about the idea and supportive of the goal. But wait even more, you need to work with the heads of different city departments — police, fire and emergency, and public works so all the logistics and safety requirements are satisfied.  

My point in all of this is that, before any of us as artists get too quick to judge show promoters about what they should or should not have done, we need to consider all the different people, departments, and agencies promoters must work with and get the support of just to make our opportunity to participate in an art fair happen.  

So much happens behind the scenes months, if not years in advance. It affects all those trivial things that we might (and I am very guilty of this) so cavalierly say, “Well I would have . . .”  

Show promoters must be everything — logistics experts, diplomats, marketing experts, meteorologists, salespeople, prognosticators, and counselors. It is not easy trying to make sure everyone is satisfied, and all the bases are covered.  

Mistakes are bound to be made, and everyone does things differently. The first lesson I have learned is that, as an artist, I need to be more patient and trust there must be a reason why a promoter settled on a particular course of action.  

Promoters and organizers do not have an easy job. The next time you do an art fair, make a point of thanking them for hosting it, because we rarely think about all the challenging work they do to give us an opportunity.  

Authority Song  

Our first task was to find a wonderful place to host the show and make sure the local ordinances would not make things more difficult. Having a great working relationship with your municipality and local government is extremely important.  

Here in Jefferson, Wisconsin, we have an incredible city government, and I am not just saying that. We looked at the ordinances and determined the city’s “transient merchant license” made things more difficult by requiring each vendor to apply for a license. The ordinance was intended to monitor door-to-door salespeople, but it was overbroad.  

We approached the city and explained our concerns and problems. We proposed an alternative. While glad I no longer practice law, I must admit the education comes in handy from time to time. The city and its leaders agreed with us and changed the ordinance to remove the burden.  

The next issue was where to host the show — a park or right through the center of town? We opted for right down Main Street in the downtown.  

This required getting the city council’s approval, collaborating with the police chief and emergency services to make sure areas could still be accessible in the event of a crisis, and getting approval from the Department of Transportation for a temporary street closure. Again, thanks to being an incredibly helpful city, all these issues were resolved — including the creation of a plan for re-routing traffic for the day.  

Now that we have a legally friendly environment and a space to use, what comes next? It is getting over the hurdle of selling artists on taking a risk on a first-year show. 

Leap of Faith  

Most artists are a bit skeptical about participating in a brand-new art show. We like to know that the tires have been kicked and the car has made it around the block a few times before we take the chance and make the purchase.  

Why is that so? It is because time is a precious, limited resource, and we can only go to so many shows. Energy is limited and, as someone in his 50s (not sure where all that time went!), I can only muster the strength to do a certain number of shows. We need to make a living and want to know customers will attend and be in a buying mood.  

So, how do we make a new show desirable to artists, so they take that risk? Here is where having artists run the show is a huge plus.  

Our Main Street Association has partnered not just with the city, but with the Arts Alliance of Greater Jefferson, to develop an approach that maximizes the opportunities for artists to be successful.  

We are raising money so approximately 80% of the money we take in for the show goes toward advertising. By promoting the show as extensively as possible and highlighting our proximity to major cities like Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, as well as Rockford in Illinois, we hope to get over that hurdle of getting customers for the show.  

We also realized we needed to come up with something catchy and quirky to get people’s attention. As the town that has “Goat Island” in the middle of the river, which runs through our downtown, and as the home of “Goat Fest” — yes, we have a festival that includes the “running of the goats” — we can do quirky.  

What is the first thing people see when they read about an art fair? The name. Producing a memorable name is the first important thing when marketing.  

Jefferson Art Fair? No, not unique. So, we thought about it and realized we have a dam right in the middle of downtown. And thus “Jefferson’s Best Dam Art Fair” was born.  

It is different, memorable, and marketable. And that is most important when you are the new kid on the block.  

By trying to address what artists’ major concerns are about attending a new show — ease of participating, marketing of the show, and proximity to large population centers — we hope to get over that initial skepticism and convince artists to take a leap of faith.  

Everybody Wants to Rule the World  

Establishing rules for the show itself is the easiest part. So many promoters have created the basics that you can pirate many of them since all shows usually use them.  

Mark off spaces for each artist. Figure out load-in procedures that maximize artists’ ability to get their work and gear to their space as easily as possible.  

Learn from weather disasters of the past to create strict safety rules. Include rules about what can be sold and displayed.  

Have rules about what can be submitted for the jury process and what information is included in the application. Make sure there are rules for volunteers, food vendors, and for teardown and load-out. Hmm, perhaps it is not so easy.  

This was another lesson for me as an artist. Show promoters are not making rules up just because they want control.  

It is quite the contrary. They realize so much is outside of their control that they need to try to foresee the future.  

Rules are established to try to control what can be controlled and limit some disasters that could occur. Rules are usually created to make the art show experience as safe and successful as possible for the artists and customers.  

The next time I think about grumbling about a particular rule, I will think twice. There is a good reason for it.  

Makin’ Plans  

I have not even started talking about marketing, outreach to artists, how to set up a jury panel, and half a dozen other things and I am already at the end of my space! I guess we will have to save that for next time.  

Just remember, as you start to put together your show schedule for the year, think about all the hard work and effort show planners, promoters, and organizers are doing for you. Be grateful for them and their efforts.  

It is not as easy as it looks. It only looks easy if they have done an excellent job of working out all the kinks, so you do not have to worry about them. Good luck and have a few great months! 

Scott Obernberger runs Twice Baked Pottery in Jefferson, Wisconsin. The former attorney discusses his creative journey and the lessons he learns along the way in this column for Sunshine Artist. Learn more about Scott and his business at