Monday, May 18, 2009

Outdoor Art Show Advice, part 1- Tent / Canopy

Booth set-ups, canopies, panels, banners, signage, print bins, tables.... it's getting to be that time of year again, isn't it?
For a lot of artists, the end of Spring/beginning of Summer marks the start of Outdoor Art Festival season!

There are so many helpful tidbits of information and advice that I learned through experience (good and bad!) or talking to artists at shows. I want to share them with anyone who's thinking about doing outdoor shows, and those of you who've already applied gotten into some shows this summer.... and you're excited but nervous, wondering what the hell you've gotten yourself into!! (And from other artists I've talked to, that was always the initial feeling!)

For the next couple of weeks on my blog (alongside my 30 Bugs in 30 Days series!) I'll address some of the biggest questions I see over and over again in Etsy forums and WetCanvas forums (and coincidentally, the very same questions I had before my first big show).

I've also created a Squidoo page (I guess they call it a 'lens' there) that isn't as in-depth as these articles will be, but I'm sharing some links to tents, panels, supplies, and other goodies!

If you've got a specific question, please leave a comment on my blog, or ask me! :) I'll be happy to help or at least point you in (hopefully) the right direction.

Today's post starts at the very beginning (a very good place to start, as Fräulein Maria will tell you) the first thing you'll need for outdoor art shows...
Your canopy/tent.
(I use the term tent, because a tent implies that it has walls and if you're investing in a tent for more than one show, you had better plan on having walls!) The standard size is 10' x 10'. I'd strongly suggest a white tent because many shows actually require white tents. A colored tent can be dark inside and cast a colored tint onto your artwork. You can add color in other ways, but we'll get to that in another post.

My first and foremost piece of advice (no matter WHICH tent you choose, this applies) and I can't emphasize it enough so I'll make it really, really big so you don't miss it:

You will save yourself a lot of money

(and, yes, it's also ecofriendly to buy used)!

There are a zillion tents out there, which one is the best? Like most things, it depends on who you ask.

A lot of people will tell you if you're just starting out, to go with a standard pop-up-style tent (AKA "EZ-up," which is actually a brand name and has become sort of like "Kleenex," used universally for all pop-up tents) for your first tent.

Different Tent Styles....

Left: Pop-Up (EZups, etc.),
Right: Dome Style (TrimLine, Craft Hut, Light Dome, etc.)

Pop-Up Style Pros:

* Not huge & easy to transport: Doesn't take up too much precious cargo space (you WILL be surprised how quickly you can fill a vehicle!).
* Light weight (relatively speaking): can be carried a short distance without too much of a hassle
* Easy to set up: You can set it up by yourself in about 10 minutes. Even little teeny tiny personnel like myself can handle it.
* Cheap: These start around $100 (shop around) if you find a great sale and don't have to pay shipping (and will be even cheaper if you find a used one).

Sounds good! Why isn't everyone using these!? Because of the
Pop-Up Style Cons:
* Not made to last forever: It might need to be replaced in a couple of years. I've talked to some artists who have used these tents for many years but it turns out they've been pretty lucky and had amazing weather at each and every show.
* Light weight: These can easily become a giant, dangerous, almost-guaranteed-to-get-someone-sued flying and flailing metal octopus if not weighted/tied down properly on a windy/stormy day. Almost every experienced artist who does outdoor shows has a story about "that one show where a storm came through and this guy's tent went flying and landed up in a tree after blowing across the entire festival and wiping out people and expensive sculptures in its path of destruction". I've used a pop-up on a windy day, but you have to REALLY weigh it down (see further down in this post).
* Limited weather proofing: Some pop-ups are coated with waterproofing, but I've been told that after one or two good rains that waterproofing is gone. There are ways to help make them more waterproof, but these aren't guaranteed- they just help. The water can also tend to pool up in the corners of the tent roof if the roof sags which may cause your tent to collapse. I've seen this at a show and it's absolutely awful, because not only will your art be ruined, but possibly the art of the artist(s) next to you.... which adds insult (and $$$ expense) to injury.
* Some might consider these too heavy. They're 50 lbs easily (some go up to 60 or 70 lbs) and are all one piece, so there is no disassembly to make them lighter. Weight is good, but if you've got to carry it for a while or you have a bad back, it's not fun.

The more experienced artists who have decided to make a long term investment in their tent tend to go with a dome-style heavy and very waterproof canvas tent. There are lots of manufacturers you'll hear over and over (click these for their price & website): Craft-Hut, LightDome & Finale, TrimLine, ShowOff. So which of these is the best? Everyone who has one will probably tell you that theirs is the best. Artists decide on which one to get based on different things- weight, price, customization, expansion opportunity, etc. Each dome-tent artist with whom I've spoken has told me they're absolutely waterproof, and if that's your main concern, you'd be safe with any of these... But do your research.

Dome Style Tent Pros:
* Waterproof. Most will come with a patching kit if you get a rip, or a simple duct tape repair will do in an emergency.
* Heavy: You'll still have to weigh it down, but it's sturdy and won't appear to be doing a spontaneous rendition of The Elaine dance on a windy day.
* Sound and sturdy design: The roof is shaped in a way that rain (or SNOW) won't collect on the top, and the legs of these are made from very, very heavy aluminum or steel (depending on the model you choose) and won't collapse under the weight if anything did start to pool up on top.
* Comes apart into many pieces: If the one-piece EZ-up is a little heavy for you to lug around, you can break this down into light pieces to carry. You'll make 5 trips carrying light loads, rather than one trip with a heavier load.
* These are so sturdy, a lot of artists see it as insurance for their work. You're almost guaranteed to have no worries of collapse or weather problems if you've got one of these.

Dome Style Tent Cons:
* NOT cheap! This is probably the main reason why every artist isn't using one of these. But, you get what you pay for. Some full-time outdoor show (a show every weekend almost all year) artists have been using these in rain, wind, and snow for over 10 years!
* Comes apart into many pieces: Takes about 30 minutes to assemble, after you've gotten the hang of it. Your first few times might take close to an hour- which is fine if you're not in a hurry. This is the other aversion artists have to these tents, as the set up seems too complicated. The first set up can be confusing, but after that you'll be fine.
* Bigger pieces & more of them + thicker tent walls = takes up more real estate in transport.

Here are some great posts with information about different tents and things to consider- these should help in your decision making process!

Weighting Your Tent....

No matter which style of tent you choose, the most important thing you need to do to your tent: Weigh it down! (Most tents come with stakes, but I've never used them- I don't trust them.) There are many different ways to do this, and at least 50 lbs per tent leg is recommended if there is any chance of wind or storms! This is also something I can't emphasize enough- you can't have too much weight holding your tent down and better safe than sorry. If having to manage 50 lbs by yourself sounds daunting, you can use multiple weights to add up to the 50 lbs...

- Freeweights. These are what I use. My pop-up has feet on the bottom of the legs, and my freeweights (weight plates) are the kind designed for use with a bar. I insert the foot through the hole and then rest the weight on the foot and tie the tent to the weight. On a nice day, I just use 25 lbs on each leg. If the weather is questionable, I use more. You can also use dumbbells, many times I've seen tent legs tied to 25 lb dumbbells (for 50 lbs, cross the dumbbells over one another and tie the whole works together and then tie to the tent).
- 5 gallon buckets. You can fill these with sand and set them beside your tent legs and tie the tent to the bucket, or actually set the tent leg in the bucket (and tie the tent to the bucket). If you're doing a show on the beach, this is really convenient- you can grab sand right there and dump it out easily at the end of the show. When I participated at a very windy show at the beach, I put a 25 lb weight into a 5 gallon bucket, put the leg of my tent into the bucket, tied the tent leg to the weight, then piled sand into the bucket on top of the weight. It also rained, which added more weight to the bucket. It was very sturdy! You probably don't have to buy buckets- if you know anyone who has a pool, chances are they've got some of these buckets around from chlorine. If not, post an ad on your local community website,,, or ask friends and family. Keep an eye on these though, because at crowded shows I've seen them used as an ashtray- which is not only kind of gross, but actually presents a fire hazard if a cigarette isn't completely out.
- Cement & PVC pipe. I have seen these at shows too, and these probably look the nicest of the different weights. I have no experience with them myself, but I see them all the time, so they must be reliable. You can make these yourself. If making single 40-50 lb weights for each leg is too heavy, make two smaller 25 lb weights for each leg.

Here is a GREAT blog with step-by-step instructions!

And another- Check out her booth, these weights are hardly even noticable:

Another great website with weight advice:

If you just can't get enough of the tent weight info:

Weather-Proofing Pop-Ups....

If you decide to use a pop-up tent, there are definitely ways to make it last a long time and survive in storms.
Again, weight is important. These really DO fly away if not weighed down!
You'll also need:

Hula-Hoops or Swimming-Noodles. I'm not kidding! These are essential to prevent water from pooling in the corners of the tent roof. The corners of the pop-ups tend to sag, and when it rains, water will collect up there. During a show, sometimes people use a stick, broom, or their fist to poke the corners up and empty the water- but please make sure if you do this, it isn't going to splash onto customers or your artist neighbors' tents! If you have hula-hoops or swimming noodles, you can wedge them between the metal tent structure and the roof to create tension in the canopy material so the water will fall off and prevent the problem. (If you're unsure, someone at the show can probably show you how.) Look for these at a thrift store or the dollar store. You might be able to find some for free on freecycle or craigslist- post an ad and see what happens.

Our friend, The Artsy Crafter has a post about this and even a helpful photo! Check it out!

Plastic Drop-cloths and Clamps. The pop-ups aren't the most waterproof, so this will definitely help when you've got a really rainy weekend. To completely cover the top of your tent, you'll need a drop cloth larger than 10' x 10' so that plenty of plastic hangs down over the sides of the canopy and directs the rain down and away from your art. If you need to, buy several clear plastic drop cloths and attach them together (before the show!!) with clear packing tape. As you're putting up your tent, you can throw this over the roof and as your tent goes up, your drop cloth will already be in place. You can pull the sides and center it after your tent is in position. Clamp the drop cloth down along the tent structure. I know this sounds like it will look terrible, but surprisingly it's actually not that noticable. I had to do this at the Neptune show last year, and I was afraid it was going to look dreadful and make my tent stick out like a sore thumb- but my tent easily blended in with everyone else's, and when it comes to rain possibly destroying your entire inventory, you gotta do what you gotta do!!
You can also take plastic drop cloths and hang them along the sides of your tent with the clamps. Just be sure that your roof plastic hangs OVER these and not under, or it will direct the rain flow right into your booth.

Clamps attaching the drop cloth to the tent-
There are still small areas where the rain can collect, but if you've got tension on the plastic, it should be minimal.

So while weather proofing a pop-up isn't easy or even guaranteed, it can be done. Mine has lasted me longer than most artists I talked to who had them, because I've taken a lot of precautions with it.

Waterproofing Spray:
SpareGus on Etsy recommends this as another good way to waterproof your tent: Spray the whole thing down with the waterproofing spray used on hiking boots and outdoor gear.
She says, "Basically, you would use it like you would on your gear - set it up, spray it liberally, and let it dry...make sure you've got nice weather when you do this, drying takes at least 24 hours. Most cans tell you to apply another coat after a couple days, but we have noticed that you really don't need to do that until after it's been rained on a bit...especially since doing a whole ez up, with sides, can take nearly a full can. Worth it, though, to keep everything dry. :)
Glad I could help!"

Other Resources....
Where to look for used tents:
Do a search in your area and if you live within a couple hours of other cities, do a search in those areas as well. It's worth it (to me) to drive a couple hours and save a few hundred bucks!!
Try searching for these terms & combinations of them:
"Canopy, Art Show, Display, Tent, Craft-Hut, TrimLine, Booth, EZup"
If you don't see one, post a Wanted ad! Lots of people hate taking the time to type up and place an ad. If they've got a tent sitting in their garage and see your ad, they'll probably contact you!

Freecycle (I doubt you'd find a tent for free but maybe some parts?):
ProPanels Trading Post- this is more for panels but I've seen tents here too:
Amazon- they have new products, but sometimes you can find used there too:
The Wet Canvas Swap Shop:


Amithigirl said...

Samantha, thank you for the links to my blog, I appreciate it. Feel free to use any info on my blog. After all, sharing is what it is all about:):)

Doris Sturm said...

What an informative Blog, Samantha, it makes me tired just reading about all of the things one has to do in an art show. I could never manage all that by myself, which is why I purchased a Market Umbrella that I can manage alone...but then, I am not displaying paintings either.

I hope it will never rain when I'm outside, but if it does, I'll just have to pack it in.

Thanks for all those useful links, too. That blog looks like you did a lot of research. Thank you!

Lisa said...

wow this is really informative!! awesome, thanks

fishprincessdesigns said...

Great post!

I've been thinking about getting a canopy.

Austin Modern said...

If you are doing a show where it may rain and the ground you are on is dirt/mud, roofing shingles make for a very sturdy floor, it keeps your ground level and helps with mud.

There is one spring show held in pastures and if it rains, it's a guarantee that half the booths will be ankle deep in thick pudding-like mud. The only dealers not crying are the ones with roofing shingles.
Cedar chips and hay works (sort of) as well.