REASONS WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T BUY OUR ART #3: “They Know Nothing About Real Art!”

Continuing on with our examination of the reasons why “young people today” don’t buy art.
Continuing on with our examination of the reasons why “young people today” don’t buy art.

This post is by Luann Udell, 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.

REASONS WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T BUY OUR ART #3: “They Know Nothing About Real Art!”

So….whose fault is THAT?!

(8 minute read)

Continuing on with our examination of the reasons why “young people today” don’t buy art.

This reason came up over and over in the comments section to my original post in this series. “Young people don’t appreciate art!” “Young people don’t care about art, all they care about are their smartphones!” “Young people didn’t have art in school, and now they don’t even like it.” And on and on.

And my response bounces from “yes” and “no.” And “Whose fault is that?”

My daughter brought this up during my visit earlier this year. She said, “That’s not true! We still had art in school, but a lot of kids don’t anymore.”

When I thought back, I realized I myself didn’t get much art in school. In the elementary grades, it was mostly simple paper craft projects, or drawing, gluing, poster paints, etc. In fact, during my high school years, when I thought for sure I would get some “real” art training, we had a budget crisis. I got to make one clay sculpture in class, and the kiln blew up. (No, not because of me.) (I don’t think.)

My art teacher also coached women’s gym classes and later, women’s sports. (Title IX was enacted in my last year in high school. Which is why I never played sports. Because there weren’t any sports for women until it was too late for me.) Art was understandably secondary for my instructor. They did the best they could, but there certainly wasn’t much money for a new kiln, paint and brushes, nor even good quality drawing paper.

I certainly don’t remember any art history classes while I was in grade school, though I did major in art history in college.

Oddly, though, we probably studied about, oh, four women artists in those classes? Even in college? In all? And certainly no artists of color. In fact, one professor suggested those of us intending to do museum work, or other art history careers, focus on Africa because the field was almost non-existent. It was “wide open territory” for art history folks.

So even though I have wanted to be an artist since I was very young, I didn’t get to practice it, nor study it, nor even see many women who were considered “real  artists, in studies covering over 17,000 years of art history.

In fact, when my daughter was in elementary school in the ‘90’s, I was asked to volunteer and provide “artist presentations” for the school. I had just taken up the reins of my own art career, after feeling for decades I simply wasn’t “good enough”. I thought this would be fun, sharing my own experience and journey, and sharing my own work.

So I asked if I could talk about my art journey.

The response was, no, we want them to learn about real art (boy, I’m beginning to hate that modifier). So, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Michelangelo, etc.

I declined politely, saying I wasn’t interested in giving lectures on dead white European male artists. Flippant, I admit, and I apologize to those who are offended.

But it was true. Still is.

And yet, none of this—the vacuum, the lack of women in art, the lack of materials, exposure to art, the lack of a portfolio (which resulted in me not being accepted into art school at the time), none of this prevented me from appreciating art, nor did it prevent me from becoming an artist myself.

It won’t prevent young people today from that either. It may delay them, set them back, as it did me.

But if I found my own way there, they will, too.

Not only that, if there aren’t many schools focusing on art today, whose fault is that? Certainly not theirs (millennials.)

They did not vote on their school budgets, they do not create the coursework for their classes, and they don’t set the curriculum for their school years.

Our local newspaper ran an article recently about a group of artists, all volunteers, who come into schools and share their own art, their art journey, and why they are passionate about art. Because if we think millennials had a lack of art exposure, it’s even worse today.

My first thought: This is the kind of program that makes art truly “real” for young folks.

My second thought: Why aren’t more artists doing this??

Last, a triggering photo made the rounds of the internet at least twice in the last decade. It showed three girls sitting on a bench at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at their phones. As you can imagine, it set off a tsunami of comments, shaming them for being among some of the greatest artwork we’ve ever known and ignoring it.

It turned out to be something else. (I love the most popular headline: “Bette Midler asked, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ The answer was universal: nothing.”)

Their class was visiting the art museum. The girls were reading about the artists. The article continues, “The image she shared is similar to one that inspired the same debate in 2016. In it, a group of schoolchildren are tuned into their phones, backs turned to Rembrandt’s “The Night Watch” at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Critics at the time called it a “metaphor for our age.”

It was later suggested that the kids were using the museum’s app to complete a school project.

Critics at the time of “young people today” called it a “metaphor for our age.” It literally is. Ironically, though, not as the disparagers meant.

Our assumptions are just that: They are based on what we think we see, and what we think we know. We all do it.

Unfortunately, assumptions are just that: Assumptions. Assumptions like these can be toxic. They don’t build bridges, they don’t fix our sales, they won’t do anything except keep us in a place of righteous indignation.

I get it. I do. My sales have gone downhill, and continue. When we are dispirited, when we despair about art sales, when it feels like the world doesn’t want our art, it’s normal to blame the world.

The problem is, that will be apparent if we meet younger people with that expectation, that assumption, in our hearts. Yes, people can tell when you disrespect them.

And it won’t change a darned thing to help our sales.

It simply makes us feel better. “It isn’t our fault!” we tell ourselves.

Of course it’s not our fault. But it isn’t theirs, either.

And frankly, how many people our age hang that kind of art in our homes anyway? The “real art” of the great masters.

Very few. The only way we could (since most museum art is donated by wealthy patrons, who originally bought at auction for millions of dollars), as most of us can’t afford those originals, are reproductions.

The only pieces of art in my childhood home were a pair of reproductions of Chinese art, and a reproduction of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Original art was not an option (where would we have found it?) nor affordable, and not actually valued anyway. (They did have one still life a friend painted, because they wanted to support her efforts, though they also seems a little lukewarm about it. Like they’d done a “nice thing” for her. At least it was cheap!)

I loved those works, though. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I learned (from a much older friend) that original art can bring just as much (if not more) joy than a reproduction, and often for not much more money. “Original” in the sense of going to local galleries and art fairs, and buying from a living, breathing artist whose work I loved. It was the beginning of my art collecting, and I know it will never completely stop until I do. (More on reproductions in the series ahead.)

My question today for you is, how do you connect “young people today” with your art?

Does it deal with topics they find relevant? (They are very big on climate change, for example.)

If it’s a “souvenir” of their travels, do you offer affordable prints? Or smaller works? (One person shared this last week, that many younger people DO seek mementos of their visits this way.)

If you do see them captivated by one of your works, do you proceed to lecture them about it?

Or do you ask them what drew them to it, and respond to what’s speaking to them. Do you engage them to explore who THEY are before you expound on who YOU are? (Actually, this is useful for ALL artists.)

If art is no longer taught in your school district, what can you do about that?

Are you creating opportunities to volunteer in schools, in local art classes, in local youth art organizations? There are quite a few here in Sonoma County, they are always welcome in my studios, and I’ve learned a lot by interacting with them.

Do you offer classes to a wide variety of age groups? I overheard a young artist talking to one of their even younger students a few months ago through the wall that separates our studios. I was fascinated by how animated their conversation was, how encouraging the artist was, how enthused their student was. Thought-provoking!

Do you have other ideas and suggestions for sharing our love of art with a newer, younger audience? Please add it in the comments section. It will help us all!

As always, if you enjoyed this series, you can find more in the Fine Art View archives share it with your friends and family. You can also send it to someone else who might find it happened. And if you received this from someone else and like it, sign up for like this at my blog.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

11 thoughts on “REASONS WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T BUY OUR ART #3: “They Know Nothing About Real Art!””

  1. My answer is four-fold.

    I grew up in DC and in the summers and school holidays, Mother would pin two car tokens to my blouse and make me a sack lunch and I’d take a bus and a streetcar to the National Mall and go museum-ing. I LOVED the National Gallery of Art. When my daughter came along, and I’d go back home for a visit, I’d take her to those museums. She’s been the the National Gallery of Art as many times as she’s been to Natural History and Air and Space. I took her to the art museums in Dallas and Fort Worth, too, near our current home. She grew to love museums and visits them on her own whenever she and her husband travel. So, home grown Art Appreciation. I took her best friend with us, BTW, to local art museums. And to DC museums once when the friend traveled with us.

    When my daughter was school age, I used to take my collection of Pueblo pottery to her middle school and volunteer teach about it. Especially my collection of Storytellers, little statues of grandmothers/grandfathers piled with grandchildren, telling the stories.

    I was also lucky enough to be good friends with a middle school art teacher. I am a haiku poet and when she was teaching about Japanese art, I helped her teach about haiku also. She ended up winning a huge award from the Haiku Society of America.

    Finally, many school districts, including the one where I live, have STEM magnet schools. Ours has a STEAM magnet school. The A is for Art. They’ve recognized that creativity is creativity and that nerd folk are creatives, too. Like Luann’s husband, an internet visionary. Your local STEAM school is waiting for you to call and volunteer to speak about your art journey.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. What a gift to hear your own experience, Susan! The next generations will probably find their way to art that speaks to them, in their own good time, just like many of us did. But putting some of our own energy into introducing art in their lives NOW will help immensely, as you’ve clearly demonstrated. THANK YOU for the uplifting thoughts and solutions!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think there many assumptions about millennials that we have which are based on our own view of the world as it was when we were younger. When did I buy my first piece of original art? Maybe when I was in my forties. What about you? What are millennials doing? paying off school bills and rent because they cannot buy a house – where art may be bought for. Caring for families babies and elders. Working two jobs each in a partnership to cover those bills. Yes they may fit in a visit to an art event or a museum. They are watching films. Succumbing to news. Aware of climate change. In the face of all that, it is not about what they learned about art in primary or secondary school or even college. It is what they actually have time for. And those that can do – but it is not plein air work which I do. So I do not think we should be laying lack of art sales at the feet of millennials. There is a huge squeeze coming from the top from the haves that makes it real difficult for the have-a-littles to make time to appreciate art let alone purchase it.
    Regardless of that, There are a ton of artists making tons of art from mediocre to profound. It will be about getting the work out there that will be how art of this time will be bought and savored. Otherwise all that work I am personally making will turn to mulch. So my advice is get to work marketing to find your art appreciators. They are mightily distracted by life much as I was when I was their age. Show only your best and get the word out that it is there. Onward.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. SO GLAD to see your thoughful and compassionate comments, Diane! I’m grateful you responded “in kind” (literally and figuratively!), looking for connection and insight rather than fear/anger/resentment/blame. I can breathe again! :^D You’ve made my day!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I love the suggestion of asking someone what has drawn them to a work of art. I know that I am pretty hopeless at positively engaging anyone about my work, so I will keep this in mind.
    I am also witj Diane in thinking that the economic situation has more to do with lack of buyers than anything else.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Leonie, I’ve written tons of articles about how to interact gracefully with visitors. No time right now to list them all, but you can start with searching for “customer relations” on my blog. The best way to START is with several posts I’ve write about the power of one little word, and the gift of leaving people alone until they’re ready to talk. REMIND ME to look for you, if you can’t find it. Talk soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Spot on! I have a millennial son who has worked for Google for 15 years. He travels globally. He’s also a fine art photographer, w/ a published book of his work. He collects art on many of his trips. He has supported artists in Cuba, Mexico, &Japan , to name a few. However, he bypasses most galleries, with little interest in traditional work such as watercolor landscapes, florals, etc. Most of his piers collect in the same manner, with interest in fresh, different, and forward thinking creations. Nice article! Thx!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great insight, Carla, so glad you commented today! My intention with this entire series is to challenge and dispel the major assumptions surrounded “all millennials”. Your story about your son shows that people can approach art from many directions, for many reasons. There is no single form of ANY creative work on the planet that will appeal to EVERYONE. And yet, most of us can carry an interest in MANY forms of creative work. Oh, and give your son a big thumbs-up from me for pursuing his interests even with a major tech career in play. That often means making room for what’s important to us. He is doing it right!

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Wow I am feeling blessed for my background. My dad was a artist started teaching me at age 4. Every year I received art supplies for Christmas. Pastels, oils , acrylics and more. Elementary school lived in Virginia near DC and the Smithsonian museums and Art Galleries we were taken to the Art Galleries at least once a year. I fell in love with the old masters. We could buy 8 x 10 reproductions 3 for a dollar. I used my lunch money to buy them and then hung them in my room as soon as I got home. Art is high school I did clay work making a large chess set themed of wild animals. Did a mural in the office made from carpet remnants. Took etching classes from a master in the National Portrait Gallery two years. My life has always been my art. Started selling my original pattern Teddy Bears age 15 did that for 22 years. My point I guess is I have always had art and I shared it with everyone. My three kids are all artists growing up under my art show tables. One into fabric like me. One a metal smith and the other into intricate bead work. I babysat my granddaughter this week. 16 months old I brought coloring books and crayons with in 2 minutes she knew how to hold the crayon correctly and color in the lines. I share what I love with everyone. When a customer looks at my art I have to explain how it is made because I “paint” using my fabrics and sewing machine. They are drawn in by the bright colors and sometimes the simplicity. It’s when they smile , they tell me how it speaks to them I know they are getting it. And I love nothing more when they are with friends and they grab them and say you have to see this I hope children get the chance. One of the arts councils I belong to has regular after school sessions. Thank you Luann for sharing and inspiring us all

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for sharing your story today, Lori, you are not only a Fairy Godmother, sounds like you had them as part of your upbringing, too. Glad you are sharing your work with others and reaching out to el-hi students, good on you!

      Liked by 1 person

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