Angry Artist Alley: Set it up, Break it down


Personally this is one of the more frustrating topics to deal with. And you have to realize, I’ve been doing this for over a decade, and I’m STILL not that great at it. It’s most likely that I keep changing my table to fit what I sell, but it gets worse every time. Still, a good topic to know since doing it well gives you brownie points. So what’s the topic?

Setting up your table, and breaking it down.

Composition wise, that’s up to you. Usually whatever you stick vertical on your table is what catches the viewer’s eyes, and what’s flat down on the table is what they see when they walk up to your table. It’s good to have a higher balance of vertical things than horizontal. People have pipes, people have wire racks, people have photo backdrops, just get creative.

note: There might be height restrictions because stuff do occasionally fall down. 

another note: Don’t laugh at someone if their stand falls down. It happens a lot more often than you think it does, and setting up any stand that tall is very tedious.

One VERY important skill you need to know is how to set up your table and break it down efficiently, TIME WISE. If you’re late to a convention or you only have five minutes to set up, you better make the best of your time. I take public transit, so I am often set at the very last ten minutes before the convention opens, sometimes I’m even late to the convention entirely so I need to speed it up. When you take public transit to practically every convention you go to, many buses don’t begin really early in the morning, and it can take over an hour just to arrive.

note: There are conventions where you will lose your table if you don’t sign up twenty minutes, sometimes an hour prior. When that is considered, it’s called ‘forfeiting your table’ and you usually don’t get a refund on it. YOU BETTER MAKE SURE YOU CAN MAKE IT.

What’s so great about setting it up fast and breaking it down fast?

Artists and artist helpers get the special priority of walking in that room at least an hour before any convention people come in. That means there’s no crowding, you get the very first peek at everyone’s work, AND you can talk to some artists before you know they’re going to get busy. If you break down quickly, you can do the same (but those artists might have left by then or are about to leave so you can’t hang too much). Artist alley in the same room as dealer’s hall? SCORE.

By speeding the process, it gives you a few more minutes of brownie time with the other artists. Of course, if they’re late then it’s not good either. You can also scan the entire vicinity to see where the ‘good artists’ are to check competition or navigate certain customers to your other friends who may have tables elsewhere. Another important thing is trying to figure out where the bathroom is early so later you don’t get lost finding it and wasting time (trust me, this is VERY helpful). And when you pack up early, it really helps the people who are locking up the room and stuff, because they’re pretty much standing there waiting for you to finish.

 Practice doing it somewhere else

  1. Find a 6″x2″ area (that’s usually the norm for the tables, although some cons have bigger ones).  It’s good if it’s a table area, but you can always just use the floor. Conventions often say 6″x4″ but that usually means about two feet of that room is actually where your chair will be sitting. Don’t be deceived!
  2. Time yourself on how long you take setting up. DON’T RUSH THIS PART. Just do it like you’d normally do. This will gauge how long/short your setup time should be as well as how you might set up certain things on your table as well as not cluttering stuff all over the place. It may also determine what things you should set up first, in case customers are already walking in.
  3. Time yourself on how long you take BREAKING IT DOWN. Most cons give you an hour at most to break down. It’s wise to take less than half an hour so you can leave earlier and do you last-minute talking to the artists you most likely did not talk much to because you were at your own table. If it’s taking too long, you might consider doing it the night before (many conventions offer a late-night setup time to make it easier for the next day)
  4. Repeat after you figure it out. Depending on what you sell, it will take longer. Just try and keep it under thirty minutes if you can. Over, and over. In the middle of the day, at night. It’s not a thing you do one time and assume you are awesome at it.

If they can stacked, fold them: If you plan to have prints standing side by side from each other and they’re the same size, you can put them in plastic mylar bags and fold them in a zig-zag accordion. When you just take it out to hang, unfold the accordion–no need to individually tape them all down!

Pre-make it before you make it: If you have a stand-alone sign, or the objects on your table are most definitely not going to move anywhere, you can pre-make the stand so you don’t have to constantly tape stuff on it. This is especially true for buttons: just pin them all on a piece of cloth or tape them on a board and never have to touch that thing again. It saves a LOT of time and effort.

Left, right, up, down: It’s good to know exactly where you want stuff to be BEFORE you stare at that blank table. Prints go on left, buttons go on right, etc. Sometimes just putting separate objects/prints in different bags/binders to distinguish groups will help. I have a separate binder for the prints I hang up so it doesn’t get mixed with the other things

Peek A Boo!: Even if you have a LOT of stuff at your table, make sure to leave a nice space so people can see where you are! You can’t buy a print if you can’t talk to anyone, right? If you’re hiding in the back, that’s no good. Remember, the more stuff you’re going to sell, the bigger the table setup will be. This is when people start stacking vertically with pvc pipes  or photo backdrops.

People walking in already? Show them something: This happens to me a lot lately because public transit can only bring me so far. When customers are walking in the room and you’re just starting to set up, find something you have that can easily be put out that they can see. So if you’re in the middle of setting it up at least people can see what you do.

Staying more than a day? Leave it there: I used to be really cautious about this, but it really saves time for the next day. Also, nowadays they have a setup time where you can go and set it up the day before the convention actually begins to save time. Just remember, ALWAYS bring your cash box and your prized belongings when you leave. Prints can be left untouched, and always leave some business cards on the table. If you’re selling stickers or buttons, only leave the minimum number on the table top, and if you’re nervous about someone stealing it, position the stuff flat on the table and pull your tablecloth over the artwork so it covers everything. Another reason why there’s a designated time for breakdown is that when everyone is done breaking down at that time, they lock the room up.

If you’re late, consider putting up certain items before another: If you’re late, but know some of your setup can be put up very quickly, go for that first. For example, your portfolio binder can be put on the table, or your sticker/button stand, while you are setting up your prints in the back. At least people walking by can see *something*.

Rules that should be followed

There are rules set by conventions, and although some sound absurd a number of times it’s actually not the convention’s policy but the hotel or building policies. Sometimes there are zero tolerance policies that are strictly enforced. If you have questions about the rules, then ask the person in charge. Don’t just start flaming on your facebook about how strict the rules are if you 1) paid money for the table, and 2) signed the contract for artist alley saying you already agree to the policy and rules.

Size, width, and height: Yes, everyone gets a designated spot. Yes sometimes there are height requirements. That is because when you have a super high stand, and it falls over a kid, you want to minimize damage and you don’t want to start any problems with the roof top. And no one hates table hoggers that take up other people’s’ spots or put a bunch of stuff forward from the table. That includes a musician sitting in front of the table.

No wall, table, or chair climbing: Doing so has a chance of falling down and getting an injury. If possible, ask staff people or some artists next to you for help. Make sure not to bother them if they’re in the middle of setup, but if they’re sitting there and need help or ask you if you need any help, might as well get some extra hands. The proper way to set up is to prepare everything that needs to be hung on top, and then with the help of a partner or nearby artist, both of you prop it up and secure it in one shot. The wrong way is to set up the vertical stand, get on a chair, and tape each piece one by one.

Pinning stuff or tape on the wall: Conventions borrow a public space. So it is not their property, thus, you cannot screw with it in any way. Tape might leave residue or even damage the walls in some way. Poking holes through the wall is no good either.

Set Up and Break Down: The convention only rents out rooms at certain times. Lagging the time by taking forever to break down is really un-cool. Staff people are waiting for you to finish packing so they can finish their job and eat.

table setup

My table layout around me from Kraken Con 2014.
Left: Magical Mangaka, Right: me