For Woodland Art Fair exhibitors, the details matter: tents, credit card readers, batteries

Photographer John Snell with some of his photographs to be sold at this weekend's Woodland Art Fair. It will be Snell's 16th year of having a booth at the art fair, which runs Aug. 16 and 17 in the park on East High Street.
Photographer John Snell with some of his photographs to be sold at this weekend's Woodland Art Fair. It will be Snell's 16th year of having a booth at the art fair, which runs Aug. 16 and 17 in the park on East High Street. Herald-Leader

Preparing for his first time exhibiting at the Woodland Art Fair, Georgetown artist J. Daniel Graham has a familiar feeling.

"It's nerve-wracking; it's exciting. It's like you're going on a first date," Graham says from his studio at Georgetown College. "You want it to happen, but you don't know what's going to happen."

It's not exactly as if you go put up a folding table and stick some prices on your stuff to exhibit at the Woodland Art Fair. There are more than 200 artists exhibiting, many of whom spend a good chunk of the year traveling around the region or even the nation showing and selling their wares.

"Presentation of your work in a setting like this is very, very important," says Brian Turner of Cricket Press, which will present at Woodland for the second year. "You really have to decide if this is something you want to do and if you want to do it on a regular basis."

Cricket Press came into Woodland having sold at other fairs and even at events on the periphery of Woodland. But Brian Turner says he and his wife and Cricket Press co-owner, Sara Turner, "walked away each day wondering, 'What just happened?' We had never had that type of response. It felt like we had been run over by a truck, but in a good way."

As the presenter of the Woodland Art Fair, Lexington Art League officials deal with seasoned Woodland veterans who have shown and sold at the 39-year-old fair for years, or even decades, and newcomers who might not know what they are getting themselves into.

"It's like setting up a little business for the weekend, and there's a lot you don't understand until you go through it," says Lexington Art League curator Becky Alley. "We encourage them to talk to other artists who have done it, to get their advice and perspective."

Major concerns include what types of tents to buy and how to price work. But then there are some things a festival neophyte might not have thought of.

"Be prepared to talk to a lot of people," says Kelly Karbowicz, events and community engagement coordinator for the Art League. "You have to be on all day. We recommend starting with coffee."

In the age of mobile credit-card reading services such as Square, she also recommends extra cellphone batteries: "If you lose your phone, you can't make sales," at least on plastic.

"One of the first things I was told was be prepared to take credit cards, so we have taken credit cards since the beginning," says photographer John Snell, who will exhibit at Woodland for the 16th consecutive year.

Snell learned his share of lessons over the years since he hit the festival circuit, at his busiest point showing at nearly a couple dozen fests a year.

"The first tent I had was an Easy Up tent, which I called 'easy down tents' because they were easily blown down in windstorms and rain," Snell says.

That made every day a backbreaking exercise in packing up his wares at night to store them in a safe place and setting up the next morning.

He eventually invested in a Light Dome tent, which is sturdy enough to leave overnight. Woodland, like most festivals, employs security to watch the festival grounds all night.

Now Snell has two tents for the two booths he rents at Woodland, and he says he thinks about how to set out his display so customers will move through comfortably. He says it's an investment of several thousand dollars to put together a professional display on par with other Woodland exhibitors.

"It's pretty obvious who the old pros are," at the festival's set-up and break-down, Karbowicz says.

The Art League is in its second year of actively recruiting new exhibitors through its Big Tent program, which brought in Cricket Press and three other artists last year, and is bringing in Graham and three others this year.

"It's a lot for artists to do fairs; it's scary," Alley says. "So we set up this system to give artists a perspective on whether the payoff is worth the investment."

Artists are invited to exhibit for only one year as Big Tent artists. If they choose to come back, they have to go through the jury process and pay standard application and exhibition fees. Of last year's invitees, Cricket Press and Elizabeth Foley applied to return and were accepted.

It was one of the press's biggest events ever and introduced it to a broader audience, Brian Turner says.

And even after years exhibiting, Snell says, he had his best Woodland and best festival experience overall at last year's event. And he still learns new things, not all related to being on site.

He regularly posts photos to his Facebook page, and if a picture gets a lot of likes, such as a recent sunset photo from Red River Gorge, he will make sure to have prints available in several sizes.

"If a lot of people 'like' it, I figure there will probably be some people that want to buy it.

For Graham, it's all a new experience. But he has been packing up work and getting ready to take it out to the park.

"My hope is to have a good experience and enjoy it," he says. "We'll see how it goes."

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