Summer festival season is kicking off and art festivals will continue into the fall and through Christmas. Art festivals and craft fairs provide a unique opportunity for artists and customers to come face-to-face. It takes a lot of guts for an artist to present their work to the world, and rude customers can ruin a whole show. Even well-meaning comments can come off as insults when piled in with less pleasant experiences.
How can you know if you’re accidentally insulting an artist? Well, after five years of selling at art festivals and talking with fellow artists, I can tell you what artists love to hear, where you should tread carefully, and what you should NEVER say!
Please Do These Things:
“You have very beautiful work” or “I really love your style.”
Really any sincere compliment should be well met. Some artists might be a little sour if they’ve been getting only compliments and no sales, but if an artist responds negatively to a compliment, then they need to work on their customer service.
“I follow you on [Instagram, Facebook, etc.]”
Awesome! It’s so cool to put a face with the username! Meeting customers face-to-face is the best part of art festival so don’t be shy! Bonus points if you talk about a favorite recent post.
“Hi” and “Thank you”
Sometimes artists are nervous about greeting every customer and don’t want to seem too eager to make a sale. A simple “hello”, smile, or even a nod helps the artist know you’re friendly. Saying “thank you” when you leave the booth, even when you didn’t buy anything, is a nice way to show your appreciation to the artist for taking time to attend the festival.
Take a business card, postcard, or sign up for the email list
Artists (should) understand that not everyone is in a position to buy, but any of these actions show that you are interested in their work and will hopefully be a customer in the future.
Proceed With Caution:
“How long did this take to make?”
This may seem like a harmless question, and a go-to conversation starter, but it can make an artist go on high alert. Artists might be wary of giving an exact number because they’re waiting for you to multiply the hours given by minimum wage to come up with a value for their art. Please know that there are two things wrong with that formula:
1.) A working artist should not base their prices on minimum wage since minimum wage is not a living wage.
2.) Isolating a product to the time it takes to produce ignores the time spent learning the skill, designing the product, and maintaining business responsibilities like websites, social media accounts, shipping, and even the time spent attending the current festival. Not to mention material costs, studio rent, and more!
Artists that have had too many guests criticize their prices right after a question of time, might not be happy answering this question. Some similar, safer questions to ask are:
“How long have you been [painting, making pottery, sewing, etc.]?”
“Can you tell me about this piece?”
“What inspired this design?”
“How did you make that?”
Similar to “How long did this take to make?” too many artists have been bitten by this question. It can imply that you have some basic skills in this craft and want step-by-step instructions to recreate it when you get home. Try instead, “Can you tell me about your process?”
“I have always wanted to try [calligraphy, pottery, macrame, etc.]” or “[Drawing, embroidery, jewelry-making, etc.] looks like so much fun!”
You might be trying to create a connection with the artist and show interest in their craft, but these comments can often feel demeaning. Artists work very hard to become professionals in their field, and even though they may have started by taking a community class just like you, they went beyond that intro class and invested in their own studio and materials to develop this craft into a business. Comments like these suggest that you see their work as just a hobby. Of course an artist likes what they do, but making art to sell is a lot more involved than just spending your free time to make art for your friends and family. Try these questions instead:
“I really admire the work of [metalsmiths, sculptors, photographers, etc.]. Do you have any suggestions for someone trying to start out?”
“Do you teach any workshops?”
“I took a [pottery, knitting, needle-felting, etc.] class last year. I definitely have a newfound appreciation for the skill required”
It is always best to ask an artist for permission before taking pictures. Many artists do not allow pictures so that their work is not copied. If your intention is to copy the work at home, please reconsider. Here are some good reasons to take pictures:
“I’m thinking of getting this as a gift for my mom, can I send a picture to my sister to see what she thinks?”
“Can I take a picture and tag you on Instagram?” - bonus points for giving the artist credit!
Stop! Never Do These Things!
“Can I get a discount?” or “This is too expensive.”
Art festivals are not flea markets. Artists spend a painstaking amount of time calculating their prices, and many are still undercharging for their work! They are probably already self-conscious about their prices, and asking for a discount is an insult to their work. Remember that artists need to pay for materials, education, equipment, studio rent and utilities, website hosting, business insurance, shipping supplies, and then pay themselves for their time spent designing, producing, photographing, and marketing their work. Plus, some artists can price based on demand. It might be your first time seeing this artist’s work, but they might have a following more than happy to pay those prices. If the price doesn’t meet your perceived value, then you don’t have to buy it. However, if you are truly in love with a piece, but just can’t afford it right now, try these questions instead:
“Do you offer a payment plan?” - some artists might be willing to work out a few month payment plan with you so you can have the piece once it is paid in full.
“Do you take custom orders?” - If an artist takes custom orders, you can save towards the piece and commission them when you can afford it.
“Where else can I buy your work?” - Just like custom orders, buying online let’s you wait until you have the money to spend.
“Can I pay cash to skip the sales tax?”
No. This is straight up illegal. Professional artists have a state issued Sales Tax ID and are required by law to collect sales tax.
“This is so ugly” or “Who would like this” or “My kid could make this”
This should go without saying, but don’t insult an artist’s work while you are standing in their booth. You don’t have to like all kinds of art, but there is no reason to be so rude in front of the person who has put their heart and soul into creating. You aren’t walking around a store as an anonymous buyer. The artist can hear you, and they can definitely see you.
“Hey, [friend’s name], will you make this for me?” or “I’m gonna make this at home.”
Anything that implies that you are going to copy an artist’s work shouldn’t be said. And you shouldn’t copy for that matter, either. Obviously, no one can stop you from making a ceramic mug, or a cross stitch hoop, or a mosaic picture frame, but you should never copy an artist’s exact design.
“I’ll be back later” when you won’t be.
When an artist is having a bad show, they might be counting on all those “be back later” customers to make their sales goals for the day. When you don’t show up, it just adds insult to injury. If you’re trying to find a polite way to leave the booth, simply say, “You have very beautiful work” or a similar, sincere compliment. Even just taking a business card and smiling it better than giving false hope.
What do you think? Have you unknowingly done any of these festival fouls? Which tip did you find most helpful or surprising?
If you’re an artist and need some ideas on how to respond to these tricky questions, check out my post Artists: How to Answer Your Most Dreaded Art Festival Questions!