Sometimes, we don’t need stories.
Last week, I traveled to the East Coast to see my daughter and her husband and their new home in Washington, D.C. While I was there, I had an interesting conversation about art with her.
Robin actually worked with me for over a decade in my show booth, doing a 9-day local retail craft show, and a major wholesale fine craft show on the East Coast. She started as my booth assistant: Helping with set-up, processing sales (which allowed me to be “The Artist”), etc.
She was involved in the drama club in high school as a member of the stage crew, so she soon did my lighting set-up, too. She was quiet by nature, and a keen observer. She saw many of the clues that indicated a display or floor layout needed to be tweaked. And as she grew more confident, she became an excellent salesperson, too.
These show opportunities gave her exposure to “handmade”, too, and she came to value it highly. Over the years, she bought (or we traded for) glasswork, pottery, photography, jewelry, and she now has her own “handmade” pursuits.
She continues to shop for “handmade” even now. But she shops very differently than my generation does!
She mostly buys on Etsy.
And she does not care about the story.
When she told me this, I was shocked. Every time we drove for an hour up to the 9-day retail show, I would put in a cassette (and then the CD) of Bruce Baker’s tips on displaying and selling. Over the years, I almost memorized the content, and so did my kids.
At one marketing education event in which I sat on a panel with Bruce, I had to bring my 8-year-old son with me at the last minute. Doug sat patiently in the back row with snacks and a book. When Bruce did his presentation, he said, “When you introduce yourself to someone coming into your booth, you need to avoid pressuring them. There’s one little word that will turn the whole dynamic around. Anybody know that word?”
Of course, I knew the word. But no one else in the room did. The silence went on until I finally said, “Doug knows the word.”
All eyes turned to little Doug in the back row, and Bruce said, “Doug?”
And Doug confidently replied, “IF!”
As in, not “CAN I help you?”, which will almost always be responded to with, “No thanks, just looking” but “IF I can help you, just let me know…” which will almost always be responded to with, “Thank you!” and opens a conversation when the person is ready.
So after listening to all those presentations on story, and because my story is so personal, and powerful, how could Robin not care about the story???
It turns out she and her husband are self-described “geeks and nerds”, fully into the gaming world and its heroes. Though she still has all her artwork from “the old days”, their little home is now also filled with sweet and funny meme art: Godzilla posters, Star Trek “Next Generation” artwork, and little toys from their childhood.
“I just don’t care about the story, Mama!” she exclaimed. “If I like something, I just buy it!”
Now, on one hand, my daughter is probably not your customer. They don’t have the money to afford more than $100, and their taste does not tend to landscapes, bowls of fruit and wine, or rusty trucks.
But handmade is important to them. She prefers NOT to shop at Target’s, but has many “favorites” on Etsy, and visits them often. (She also purchases handmade watercolors on Etsy to create her own work.)
They collect work that reflects their interests, their lifestyle choices, and their pocketbook.
And they will continue to do that, presumably for the rest of their lives.
So in a time where there are more working artists in the world than ever, throughout history, in a time where many of us started out 20, 30, even 40 or 50 years ago and we are gradually losing our patrons to downsizing, changes in lifestyle and even, sadly, death, in a time where “Ire fortiter quo nemo ante iit”  is an important detail in a print, how do we grow a new audience?
I’m not suggesting you start painting Data and Geordi in their Holodeck Sherlock Holmes adventures. There are plenty of people who still love landscapes, partly because our brains are hardwired to appreciate a landscape. It’s welded into our DNA from the time of our need to scan horizons constantly, looking for danger, for the morning light, for foraging for food. We will always want images of people we love, and so portraits will always be a “thing”. Still lifes always catch our eye, depending on whether they depict the components that speak to us.
And I am not suggesting we all stop telling our story.
When we fear our work isn’t good enough anymore because sales are slow, remember that not only, have our collectors dwindled, more importantly times change. In fact, yesterday I saw a trendy new jewelry design that echoes the minimalist aesthetic in the marketplace when I first started making jewelry in the early 1990’s. (A time I do not wish to return to. Oh well.)
And I say loud and clear, do not lower your prices! Especially if you’ve already sold items in the same series at the higher price. It sends a terrible message to the people who literally and figuratively invested in us. And it makes our pricing strategy seem random and reactive.
And here is the deepest hope:
Once people learn to treasure “handmade” over “mass-produced”, they never leave it behind.
If anything, the “maker movement” has made handmade even more desirable. And the boundaries of what “real art” and “real craft” is, is being expanded exponentially. (Folks who get stuck in “real art is only oil painting” and such were never my potential customers in the first place. And collectors of the multi-million dollar Impressionist artwork sold for record prices at prestigious auctions were never my customer base. People who snort at “craft beer” and “artisanal food” may be right, but the customer base for those don’t care what WE think. I got over it. You can, too!)
My daughter still wants something of beauty that came from another person’s hands, and heart, especially when she started to make and sell her own work. As she browsed for an urn for the ashes of her stillborn child, she became frustrated with the same ol’ sale ol’ look of them. Nothing felt personal enough, or fit the emotion of the event. When I suggested that a good friend who works with wood might make something especially for her, she lit up. (She found a maker on Etsy who resonated with her.)
This box will be in their home forever, and every time they see it, it will bring a bit of solace amid the sorrow. They may not know, or care to know, the story of the maker. But it holds their own story of this time, and that’s what matters.
The potential of this younger audience is huge. Yes, trends have changed, and money will be an issue, for awhile. But when they have the money, they will up their game for the artwork and handcrafts that “speak” to them.
I’ve experienced this first-hand in my old A Street studio. One last-minute shopper bought a small framed bear artifact collage for his wife. He thought it was a guinea pig! Rather than be offended, I simply said it was a bear, just so they wouldn’t feel misled, and he said, “It looks enough like a guinea pig, she’ll love it!” And so I made a few hundred dollars in a five minute transaction.
I saw another artist’s work at a gallery, who paints still lifes of vintage children’s toys. Their work was excellent, but sales were slow. What would I suggest to them about marketing?
Approach the toy manufacturers who produced those toys, to see if their corporate offices are interested. Find stores that sell high-end baby and children’s products, to display and sell them. Children’s hospitals and wards might be onboard for artwork and/or murals. Tag images of the toys, manufacturers, etc. online with whatever would attract this age group, new parents, and young homeowners. Lower their budget threshold by offering reasonably priced repros, or offering smaller works, or larger original work without frames. (It’s not forever, just until your new audience grows enough to tolerate your higher priced work.) Seek out galleries that attract a younger audience, OR the new grandparent market. (Grandparents are my age, and they probably have more disposable income!) There are probably lots of other potential venues, and I hope you’ll share the strategies that have worked for you.
There are younger visitors who do feel the powerful story in my work, and they enjoy hearing mine. They are also grateful that in addition to my shrines, which can be priced in the thousands, I have smaller original works for less than $100. And they buy them.
I’m still processing this, just like you. I don’t have any sure-fire solutions to help rebuild an audience that has dwindled.
Right now, I make what I find meaningful and beautiful. I try to offer a range of work that can meet most budgets. I keep the quality in the work, refusing to “dumb it down” or use inferior materials to make it.
I have signage in my studio that tell stories, not just for those who would rather read it than listen to me tell it, but also so I don’t “force” my story on those who may not need it to make their purchasing decision. (Yes, there are ways to tell! Hint: It’s what they ask us about our work when they are ready to talk to us.)
I have found an audience, steadily, through my work and my writing. It still serves them, and new ones will emerge. I just have to keep making it, keep marketing it, make it accessible online for those who can’t meet me in person, and easy to buy for those who prefer not to engage. I’m fortunate my artifacts are safe for youngsters to touch and hold, too. Asking a child if they would like to hold a bear or a horse (and waiting while they seriously ponder their choices, which is a hoot!) doesn’t end in a sale. But it opens a doorway to experiencing art for the whole family, and has produced beautiful stories down the road. (This one is my favorite!)
So let’s open our hearts, and our minds, to these changes which time will bring.
There are many ways for our work to become a part of someone else’s story, someone else’s world, someone else’s journey.
Keep hope in your heart, and be open to new possibilities. And be patient with yourself, as we all navigate these new waters.
Art is part of us, no matter what it is, no matter where, or how, or when we find it. Online markets can be just as powerful as in-person encounters, if not more. (Many in this age group never even think about going to traditional art galleries. Yet.)
And I will hope ALL of our art, mine, and yours, will be “found”, someday, by the people who will love it and enjoy it for the rest of their lives.