The Artist’s Guide to Surviving Outdoor Festivals

 It’s that time again – time to pack up months of artwork and hit the road. It’s festival time! I am a survivor of many an outdoor arts festival, and am glad to say that they are part of my past, not my present. For me, they were days and weeks of preparation that allowed me in a single day to make less money than I paid the babysitter that watched my kids so I could sit out in the scorching sun all day being eaten by bugs.

Maybe you are one of those die hard souls that does festivals year after year, in which case I love you but there may be a 12 step program in your future. But if you are someone just starting out, let me provide you with some food for thought before you hit that “sign me up” button.

Blue flags flying at an outdoor festival

Blue flags flying at an outdoor festival

1.       Weather. The weather is not your friend. It will never be your friend. It will never, ever be 72 degrees with a very light breeze under partly cloudy skies with a 0% chance of rain. Forgettaboutit. It will either be the hottest day on record or the coldest day on record for that day in history. What that means for you is that you should plan to wear layers of clothes and pack a vat of sunscreen. Bring a hat!

2.       Precipitation. Speaking of weather, you should also anticipate in advance what you will do should that 20% chance of afternoon showers turn into a deluge of Biblical proportions. I have found myself ankle deep in rushing water while it rained sideways on what was, moments earlier, a typical scorching summer day. Every piece of art you display needs to be off the ground and either encased in plastic or have the ability to be encased in plastic at a moment’s notice. Everything should also be able to withstand hurricane force winds. Hot tip: No one comes back after the deluge, and all those people you let huddle in your tent will leave you without buying anything, so you may as well pack it up if and when the rain subsides.

3.       Fees. Unless the festival happens in your back yard, you can bet on a lot of costs. There is the cost to register for the festival, the cost to travel to the festival [gas], the cost to stay overnight if the festival is too far to drive and return in a day or lasts for more than a day [lodging], and the cost to eat while you are there [festival food is exorbitantly expensive]. Calculate that out and figure out how many pieces you need to sell in order to just cover costs.

4.       Home support. Who will watch the kids/cats/dogs while you are away? If you are lucky enough to have parents who actually enjoy being grandparents and are willing to watch your kids for free, then you are the luckiest person on the planet and never, ever take that for granted. However, if you have to hire someone to watch your precious darlings, or you have to kennel the family pets for three days, then you need to calculate that into the cost of your festival project.

5.       Booths. They don’t just happen. You need an easy up tent at the very least. You need tables with bins or display walls, and you need a chair for yourself and whoever is going with you. You will probably want to have a cooler of something because hydration is important. Table cloths to dress up your tables or curtains for your display walls. A sign or two would be good so you can identify yourself. Planning to put it all into your Honda Civic? Think again. By the time you add in all that artwork [oh yeah], you need something the size of an urban assault vehicle to get you there and back.

6.       Bugs. Mosquitos and spiders and flies, oh my! If you build it, they will come, usually in swarms. Distracting for you, and murder on the potential buyer with two cranky kids in tow. Bring something you feel safe about putting on your body that will at the same time deter those flying fiends eager to feed on your milky flesh. You are a captive audience, my friend, and they can smell it. Be prepared.

7.       Sanitary wipes. Just trust me on this.

8.       Exposure. Yes, you think that the exposure you receive from being at the outdoor festival will lead to bigger and better things. Not likely. Gallery owners do not spend their Saturdays strolling around an arts festival in the blazing heat in search of the next great undiscovered artist [you]. Gallery owners are drinking their coffee in the climate controlled confines of the nearest Starbucks while looking at pictures of their grandkids on their iPhones. If you want a gallery owner to “discover” you, you should take up drawing portraits of people in your local Starbucks instead of doing the festival thing. 

9.       Help. You cannot do this alone. You really need someone there with you who can watch things while you go to stand in line at the port-a-john or to watch your stuff while you fetch your vehicle, if you are lucky enough to be able to get it near your booth. Not to mention the set-up and break down of all your stuff, for which you need help. Do not make the mistake of thinking you can rely on the kindness of strangers.

Colorful Handwoven scarves at an outdoor art festival

Colorful Handwoven scarves at an outdoor art festival

10.    Packing material. People expect a bag, and no, not one from the grocery store. A clean, fresh bag. If you are selling ceramics or glass, then they also expect packing material. You will need lots of that.

11.    Art. There is a reason why art is so far down the list. There is so much involved in just getting ready for the display part that you might forget that art is the reason you are going to this bleeding festival in the first place. Art needs to have labels with your name, and with prices. You should have all this prepared in advance. Then you will need to pack everything in a way that it won’t get damaged. So add in paper and bubble wrap and boxes. You should not pack anything in a too heavy box, because you are guaranteed to have to schlep all your stuff a pretty long way, especially if you happen to arrive late and/or decide to leave early. Are you calculating all this into the price of your artwork?

12.    Ego. Finally, how are you going to feel when you, a serious artist who is going to elevate the very nature of the festival experience by your mere presence, are placed between the old woman selling time-out dolls and the old woman selling baby booties and hats crocheted out of polyester yarn bought by the pound at the WalMart down the street? How are you going to feel when they sell more than you do? Like a lot more. Enough to take the entire family and all their kinfolk to that everything chicken fried country buffet after church. That can be a bitter pill to swallow. Is your work really the kind of thing people go to festivals and buy? Do you have things at a lot of different price points? Take a good, hard look at these things before you decide to hit the commit button.

So if, after all this, you want to go do an arts festival, by all means go for it. Go forth joyfully, engage people, make friends, and may all your wishes come true. Just be careful what you wish for.