BEHIND THE BIGGEST QUESTION OF THEM ALL

This post by Luann Udell was first published on Fine Art Views, a blog about making, marketing, and selling art.

Luann Udell is a regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years,             Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

You, too, can deeply connect people to your art.

In my last Fine Art Views article from April 7, 2016, THE BIGGEST QUESTION OF THEM ALL“The Biggest Question of Them All”, I talked about how to uncover what the true ‘objection’ is to a prospective customer who wants your work. In response, one reader said:

“As I read the article I was struck by how your questions to people (and trying to figure out what their objections may be) really reflect a deeply sensitive way of viewing things. Particularly the bit about how we feel about our bodies and why we choose to wear certain things. My working theory so far has to do with the work that you make. It’s so personal to begin with and carries quite a bit of meaning with it already. I suspect you are automatically set up from the get go with a deeper (and different) way of needing to connect to buyers. (And I am not suggesting that a different media such as a beautiful and traditional painting isn’t deep but only that it perhaps needs another type of connection.) Hope this makes a little sense!”

YES, the comment makes perfect sense! BUT –

Recognize that this push-back (“Great idea, but it won’t work for me!”) is a natural reaction to being introduced to a different way of doing things.

We immediately believe the strategy is unique to the presenter, that it can’t be transferred to our situation. (I’ve done it, we’ve all done it, you may be doing it right now!)

BUT though not all of my solutions and thoughts will relate to your unique situation, there are always interesting parallels you can explore, experiment with, and eventually apply to yours.

And so YES, jewelry can be an ‘easier’ sell – BUT not always. Let’s explore some the pushback claiming my work is ‘too different’ to mine for ideas:

  • Pricing/Affordability: YES, I may have a wider range of price points than most 2D artists, and a lower ‘entry’ price.

BUT 2D artists have these options, too. Cards and prints (lower price points), smaller work, unframed work, older work.

Conversely, jewelers who work with gold and precious gems certainly have a higher overhead than most 2D artists (not just materials, but overhead and insurance.) And yet many have built a thriving audience for their work.

  • Demand: YES, much of my work can indeed feel like a more personal product (they intend to wear it, after all!) and therefore easier to sell.

BUT If you think YOUR chosen medium has lots of competition, let me tell you: In my world, jewelry is the single most competitive category, in stores, at fairs, and online. My aesthetic, and my work, actually appeal to a much smaller audience than most other jewelers. (I’m not even gonna go there with my 2D work and 3D work! Its audience is EVEN SMALLER.)

  • Comfort level: YES, People may feel more at ease buying home décor, decorative objects, and jewelry rather than art.

BUT 2D artists can create a comfort level, too. Painting/drawing, throughout history and our culture, is a readily-accepted and popular way to decorate and personalize our spaces, both personal and professional, public and private. When you say “art”, 2D work is the near-automatic response. It’s what we all think of as ‘real art’. Your reputation precedes you!

AND, one of our roles, as artists, is to advocate for the power that art has in our lives, over mass-produced tchotchkes and mass-produced reproductions. To stress why real art is important, especially with new collectors. To share how timeless it is, not only through our history, but is long-lasting appeal. Much more cost effective than that popular little whatzit that will be off-trend in a few years. How it speaks to us on a deeper level, how integral it is to our human nature, because it speaks to us in a way that actually bypasses our ‘thinking brain’, going directly to the ‘feeling brain’—just like music, like dance, like stories and books and movies, and other creative acts.

  • Connection: YES, how I make my work, how I display my work, how I interact with potential customers, etc. is very personal.

BUT 2D artists also have that potential for connection. Your potential customer will pre-select themselves for connection to YOUR work, too. It starts with initial attraction: They see something they like and come into your booth. If you are at an opening reception, or your work is in a gallery, they gazed at YOUR work longer than anyone else’s. That’s an opening, a place for you to start that conversation.

AND though I’ve worked hard to create powerful emotional connections between my work and my audience, it wasn’t always that way, it wasn’t easy, and it took time.

I have almost two more articles included here, on how to connect, and how not to DISCONNECT. (I see it all the time.) But I’ll save those for now.

In the meantime, let’s assume the world is a big place, and there’s a big enough audience for ALL of us:

Will you share some of the connecting strategies that have worked for YOU?

THE BIGGEST QUESTION OF THEM ALL

The scariest question to ask a potential customer is also one of the most powerful.

Today’s column at Fine Art Views may help you close that big sale.

I was talking with several people who worked for decades in fine art galleries. We talked about the process, describing the entire process as a dance—an excellent metaphor!

We “start the music” when someone first encounters our work—our body of work, our display and presentation of our work. We “ask the customer to dance” by briefly (BRIEFLY, people!) introducing our work. We wait for them to say yes, when, after looking at your work, they give you permission to talk to them more about it. Last, there’s the actual dancing part, the give and take of sharing your story, engaging their response, and responding to their story in ways that form a powerful connection between you, them, and your work.

I don’t know what to call the last part, when we’re supposed to “ask for the sale.” That’s the most important—yet hardest part–of the sales process for many of us (including myself!)

That’s also where the dance metaphor stumbles a bit. However, it may help to understand that the dance isn’t actually over yet.

Usually, I don’t have to ask for the sale. People either love a piece, and buy it. Or they hesitate.

That hesitation is a powerful moment. Something is holding them back.

I’ve learned that trying to guess what it, is usually doesn’t work. I tend to instinctively think it’s about the price, even after I’ve explained my process (**time consuming**).

I’m surprised how often that’s not true. How do I know?

I ask them.

So simple. Yet it took me a few years to actually have the courage for this simple little question: What’s holding you back?

I ask quietly, gently. Often, the things that ‘hold people back’ are things they are hesitant to say out loud. It could be personal. It could be something they feel is ‘silly’ or ‘unsophisticated’ (though it’s still powerful.) It could be something they’ve never had to say out loud before. Whatever it is, many people—most people!—will usually keep it to themselves, rather than volunteer it.

And they won’t make that purchase unless you can address their concerns.

Over the years, I’ve heard surprising reasons why people are hesitating about purchasing my work. And what’s really surprising is, how easy it is to address those concerns.

Some are worried that the work won’t “go” with their color scheme.

Some are worried the jewelry won’t look good on them. (We human beings often have so many issues about our bodies, we often say no to something we absolutely love because we’re afraid we’ll ‘look stupid’ in it.)

Some people are nervous, because they aren’t usually attracted to things like I make.

Some people worry about my fiber work ‘getting dusty’ and being ‘too hard to keep clean’.

Of course, sometimes price is indeed an issue.

The important thing here is, if you don’t really know why the person is hesitating, it is almost impossible to propose a solution or resolution. And almost every obstacle has its resolution.

To the person who worried the large wall piece would clash with their heirloom woven rug, I first I asked her about the room-sized rug’s pattern and color. Then I showed them how my color schemes actually go well with many other colors, including theirs. And then, the clincher: I let them take it home. (I asked them if it were okay if I wrote up the purchase as a credit card charge. If, after a week, they decided it wasn’t the right piece, they could return it for a full refund. If they decided to keep it, I would put the charge through, saving them a return trip to complete the transaction.) They agreed, and the sale was made. (On their way out of my booth, they whispered, “I don’t think I’m going to be bringing this back!” We both laughed. But I still waited for the agreed-upon date before I ran the charge.)

For the person who worried how my jewelry would look on them, I have two strategies:

First, I turn to the other shoppers in my booth, and ask their opinion. I have to say, I’ve never had anyone say anything negative! (After all, if the other shoppers are avidly looking at my work, I’m pretty sure they like it.) The dynamic here is powerful. The group comes together, and encourages the shopper’s choice.

If the person has an enthusiastic friend, I ask their opinion. (Silent, cranky friends can be trickier—tread carefully! Make sure they’re on board before asking them.)

Second, I tell them my favorite story about a dear friend. She loves my work, but is self-conscious about her weight and her short neck. (I’ve told her we all have the same number of bones in our necks, but no one believes me.) She fell in love with a new earring design, very long dangly earrings, and immediately put them on. “But Ruth, I exclaimed, “you hate long earrings!” To which she responded, “Shut up, I’m taking these!” It always gets a laugh, and almost always, a sale.

To the person who is anxious about why they like something they’ve never seen before, we talk about what brought them into my booth, or my studio. If it’s a memory or a yearning, we talk about that. If it’s unknown to them, I talk about some of the themes behind my work—the push-pull of what it is to be human, of wanting to belong and wanting to be an individual, of a modern material (polymer clay) evoking prehistoric artifacts. It gives them permission to simply allow a work of art to speak to them, something many people have never experienced before.

To the person who worries about “dusty fabric”, I share my struggle to keep everybody happy: I started framing my fiber pieces under glass, in shadowbox frames, and how then people complained they wouldn’t be able to touch it. It gets a laugh, and then a discussion over whether they’d be happier with a framed piece, or if they prefer a ‘touchable’ piece.

(Bonus: Didn’t make it into the FAV article…. Unspoken obstacles to selling your 2-D art might include: The frame (they don’t like it), the lack of a frame (what do they do with it??), the price (which includes expensive framing), and probably a host of other factors I’m not familiar with. Simply being aware of the possibilities, and being ready with work-arounds might help seal the deal.)

Price is the easiest to manage. I offer to show them similar, less expensive options. If they stick with their first choice, I describe my unique layaway plan. (Prewritten checks or credit card slips, to be deposited/run through on a mutually agreed-upon schedule. Which often results in them saying, “Oh, I’ll just take it, and take care of the credit payments myself!”)

Trust. Connection. Information. Choices. Integrity. Gentle humor (at my expense, never theirs!) Convenience. All of these are responses that can overcome almost every objective.

But before any of this can come together, you have to ask:

What’s holding you back?

SCHOOL HORSE LESSONS

There’s a reason you may have to work so hard to be successful.

This is a blast from the past, an article I wrote…geez, nine years ago!
This is for Gary.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

I learned another great consequence that comes from having to work so hard to get your business off the ground.

You learn to overapply yourself.

I was talking to my vet a few days ago. She noticed the mat of loose hair on my lower calves and ankles and exclaimed, “You’ve been riding!” (It’s shedding season, and that’s the part of my leg that makes contact with the horse below the saddle.)

She assailed me with questions about where I was riding, how long I’d been at it. I told how I’d torn my knee about three years ago, wreaking further havoc on an old injury. Faced with another daunting year of pain, physical therapy and starting all over with martial arts, I’d promised myself I would take up riding as a reward.

I told her what I learned from the riding school’s horse that first year.

Now, “school horse” is a term any rider will recognize, even people who hardly ever ride at all. These are the older horses who get farmed out to every new rider. They are usually bored, stubborn and set in their ways. They know you have NO IDEA what you’re doing, and they take complete advantage of that.

One day, in utter frustration with my assigned horse, I expressed my feelings to my instructor.

She said, “Chance may not be the very best horse in the world, but right now he is the very best horse for YOU. You are recovering from major knee surgery, and he is SAFE.”

She thought a moment and added, “And Chance already knows everything he needs to know. YOU’RE the one who needs to learn how to tell him CLEARLY what you want.”

I knew she was right. And what she told me that day has inspired me many times since then–how, similarly, as artists, we must learn to signal our full intention in our work and in our lives to get what we truly want.

I shared that with my vet, and she said she thought that was very wise.

“I’ll tell you something else that’s good about those old school horses!” she said. “You REALLY learn to ride.”

Her family couldn’t afford a horse when she was young, but she had many opportunities to ride–and she did. She had a throroughly rounded little boat of a pony called Bubble Dancer who had a mind of her own when it came to riding.

Donna had to work really hard to get much of a ride from this old girl, but boy, did she learn to ride!

The day came when she was competing in the ring with the pony, and only she and one other girl was left.

The other girl had a beautiful little “push button” horse–beautifully trained and cooperative. All this girl had to do was lightly signal what she wanted and the horse quickly obliged.

The two girls went back and forth, putting their ponies through all their paces. The judges could not decide.

Finally they said, “Switch horses!”

Donna burst out laughing. “And there I was on the beautiful little push-button horse, putting her through all her paces and marveling at the feeling, and there was Susie, flailing and yanking and kicking on my stubborn little Bubble Dancer!”

Donna won.

I think of the people that success has come too easily to, or too quickly. When hard times came, many didn’t know how to work that new, stubborn pony. They’ve gotten used to the “push button” horse, the one that works no matter how many mistakes they make.

If you’ve had to work hard at your art or your business for awhile, then you’re learning something more valuable. You’ve learned to do the work. You’ve learned to be consistent with your efforts. You’ve learned how much you can accomplish if you really set your mind to it.

You’ve learned to make the hard phone calls. You’ve learned to persevere even when it gets really, really hard. You’ve learned to make your intentions so clear, so strong, there is no mistaking what you want and where you’re going.

The next time you’re envying the artist who’s achieved what seems like easy, instant success, remember the school horse lesson.

And remember, maybe they HAVE ridden the school horse. And now they’re just making it LOOK like an easy ride.

READING THE OBITS

 

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Will future archeologists see my work as true artifacts? Clever fakes? Or even know them for the introspective artwork they are? 10,000 years from now, who will know the makings of our hands? And who will know the mysteries of our hearts?

I wrote this post almost nine years ago. Still true.

May 20, 2007

I’ve arrived at that age where I read the obituaries in the paper each day. (Actually, I started years ago but it seems more age-appropriate now.)

After checking in with the important stuff (Is it anyone I know? Were they younger or older than me??) I glance through the rest of the article for clues about who they were.

This person left behind a huge family of grieving loved ones. This one outlived many others. This one founded an industrial dynasty. This one traveled the world for the love of adventure. This one worked tirelessly to help her fellow man. This one was an Elk, or a Moose, or a veteran. This one was an advocate for animals, for children, for the earth. This one wrote a book, made a movie, sang in their church choir. This one made toys for his grandchildren. And this one always had fresh-baked cookies and a seat at the table for those in need of a warm heart and a sympathetic ear.

Real lives, all. None for us to judge. We know too little, in the end, for that.

There is a strong central theme running through each one.

The desire for them to be remembered.

It got me thinking this morning:

Remembered for what?

We cannot ultimately control how we will be remembered. If we leave behind an impressive legacy, or enough loved ones, we may have a slightly better chance.

Even then, for how long? A few years? A few generations, if we’re lucky to have mattered that much to some? For centuries, if we are a Mozart, or a queen, or a tragic hero?

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that we cannot always control the outcome of our actions in our lives. Some of the most noble actions have led to the most dreadful outcomes and vice versa.

Even the most evil act in the world may someday generate some good. Israel, the United Nations and the lifework of Elie Wiesel (“Too remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all…”) are but a few legacies of the Holocaust.

If we cannot control the outcome, how do we decide what is worth doing?

All we can do is live our best intention, and make it manifest in our everyday lives.

The older I get, the more I realize how hard this is to do on all fronts–my personal life, my professional life, in my art and writing. I am really good at some intentions and frankly awful at others. And sometimes my failures are more outstanding than my successes, as my critics love to tell me.

In the end, the words I wrote for my aunt’s funeral sum it up the best for me. I scribbled them on a scrap of paper that morning, and it was lost in the shuffle on the way back home.

I said that all lives, great and small are precious.

That in the end, even small and quiet lives can touch the hearts of many others in ways we cannot foresee or fathom.

I remember saying that our days are surely numbered, and none of us knows the number of our days.

We can only live each one with as much passion, as much wonder, as much love, as much forgiveness, and as much courage as we can muster.

Because the world can be a harsh and frightening place, and it needs that from us. It needs our passion, and compassion. It needs our open heart.

It needs the very best from us. Our very best effort to make it a little brighter, a little better not only for our loved ones, but for everyone.

Even quiet lives and little acts of courage and kindness can have repercussions we cannot ever imagine Because the diary of Anne Frank is a legacy of the Holocaust, too.

For me, part of my very best effort means my art.

I realize my confusion and unhappiness has been because I could not see what its place is in the world. I’ve been doing my best to make sure it’s as “big” as it can be.

But then I have to let it go. I have to let it go out into the world and let it be what it is.

That is as it should be. It’s as much my child as my own flesh and blood. And like my children, I want it to shine as brightly as it can.

Like my children I must fight fiercely to protect it when it is vulnerable, and always out of love.

And like my children, it will ultimately find its own place in the world, beyond my expectations and intentions.

I cannot “control” what effect it has, or what it will mean to others, or even whether I will be remembered for it after I am gone. Just as I have no right to control how my children will craft their own lives, nor who they will marry, or how they will make their living in the world.

And like my children, I see more and more that this is a mystery to be embraced–not “handled.” There can be joy is in doing my best–then letting go of the outcome.

And trusting that even tiny actions of encouragement, acts of good intention, acts of creation, might leave their mark in the world long afte I and my work am forgotten.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Let go.