A reader saw my story on Meryl Streep (we have so much in common!) She commented she has overcome her inner critic from time to time, had some success—and then encounters failure. In one case, resulting in a large financial loss. It stopped her dead in her tracks. How, she asks, do you buffer failure? Is it a sign that we’re heading down the wrong path?
Buffer failure? Embrace it!
No, I’m not crazy. I hate failure as much as the next person. It doesn’t feel good, it doesn’t look good, and it usually doesn’t smell very good, either.
But I’ve learned to call it something else. It is now a “life learning experience.” Or “an experiment.” A “calculated risk.” Or “an opportunity/possibility that has been tried, and simply did not pan out.”
Whatever you called it, you met it, you got through it, and now you have a precious gift. You can decide what you learned from it. And what you learn from it is entirely up to you.
We hear all those stories about Edison trying and discarding 423 different materials before he found one that could successfully be used as a filament in his electric light bulbs. Supposedly, he would say, “I didn’t fail—I found 423 things that didn’t work!” In reality, I doubt he was that chipper at trial #218. I’m sure he had some choice words.
But the important thing to remember is, it wasn’t a failure. It was a process. He didn’t take each failure as a “sign” he should not continue. He took it as a challenge, an opportunity to explore new possibilities.
There’s a book I read awhile back, title escapes me. A collection of stories as told by assorted famous people, on their failures. Yep. Every single one of them had failed somewhere, along their road to success. You don’t take on risk without encountering failure at some point. Not one person achieved their dream by accepting failure. Every single one of them walked around it, climbed over it, punched through it, ignored it, learned from it or changed it into a victory.
Look, these people aren’t really smarter, more beautiful, more creative, more talented, more anything than you or me. They’re people. Real people. They’re just incredibly persistent. Their common denominator was once they knew what their heart’s desire was, they kept after it. Just like me and Meryl, talkin’ down that buzzy whiney voice and doin’ the work.
It’s not easy. And it doesn’t come naturally, at least not to me. I’ve had to work at not giving up. And I’ve had to work at growing a new attitude about “failure.”
I don’t put it in terms at “what did I do wrong?” I think “What did I do well? And how could I do better? What did I learn? And do I have to do that same thing again to learn that particular lesson? Or is it okay to move on to try something else?”
My first few small town craft shows were “failures.” It would have been so easy to get discouraged. Fortunately, I was committed to making what I loved, not making what would sell at a church craft fair. I realized my work was not the bargain gift item one expects to find at such a show. Although, oddly, after every show, someone would call me and buy one of my very expensive pieces (around $125 at the time.) The lesson I learned was to find a better venue for my work.
I’m still recovering from a more recent, bigger “failure.” I tried a new summer wholesale show, traditionally more of a gift market. I not only did the show, I redid my booth—new floors, new walls, new lighting. I even took a larger booth space. I did the work—did two pre-show, advertising, updated my catalog, sent out my newsletter to customers and hot prospects, created new products. I set up my booth, put on my professional artist clothes, and went to work.
I wrote enough new orders to cover some of my expenses, but not the major improvements I’d made. And many of those new accounts, because the economy still sagged, ended up modifying their orders downwards as the months went by.
Did I fail? To be honest, it sure felt like it at the time!
A fellow exhibitor at the show asked me how I did, and I started to list all the pluses from the show. He cut me short and said, “Why don’t you just be honest and admit it sucked?!” I didn’t know what to say. Was I being a Pollyanna?
To help me put it in perspective, another friend in the biz said, “Is money the only measure of your success?”
Wow. I had to think about that. Yes, I eventually want to be financially successful with my art and business, and I consistently act and plan accordingly. But I also evaluate my progress by other standards. Money is an important measure, but not the only one.
I took a reasonable risk—to introduce my work to a new audience and to try a new booth design/layout.
What did I do well? The pre-show preparations were excellent, the booth was great. The improvements were pricey but they are a long-term investment in my business.
Everyone loved the work, so I know it’s viable. Most of my press kits were taken from the media room—always a good sign! I picked up a dozen new accounts. I made valuable connections, including an editor at a highly respected trade magazine who was fascinated by my work. The new director of an arts foundation, referred to me by a mutual friend, found me, lined me up for a show and has proven to be a source of valuable experience and information about my targeted market. My booth neighbor was curating her first show at the museum where she works, and invited me to exhibit in their first high-end craft show. A favor for a friend at the show with equipment problems netted me his lovely glasswork in return. My daughter, assisting me for the first time, bought a faux-leopard skin cowboy hat from another exhibitor—oh my!), met the charming teenage sons of another exhibitor, and was in seventh heaven.
We had a great time.
And how could I do better? I honestly can’t think of a single thing I could have done better.
What was under my control, and what was not?
Sad to say, the economy is not under my control.
In hindsight, would I have skipped the show? Well, I’m not sure. I think I would have done it, and perhaps triaged the booth improvements. But maybe not. Doing the show forced me to make those improvements, and though it would have been nice to recoup their expense with that show, I know I eventually will.
What did I learn? I learned that something awful can happen, and it was okay. I survived. No one got hurt, no one died.
I’ve weathered my first truly bad show, and lived to tell the tale. I didn’t accept it as a sign my dream was unattainable. I kept the good stuff, I examined the bad stuff, then tossed it. Dug in and got back to work. In August, I did another show, made some slight adjustments to my business model (took more custom orders, learned a new technique for closing high-end sales) and did my best retail show ever.
Buffer failure? No. You don’t get anywhere with that approach. Sometimes the manure life deals you is fertilizer for your garden to come.
*Update for today: I am so glad I found this article today! I’ve been feeling like a failure lately, in so many ways. Which just goes to show you, it will always, always be with us.
But we get to decide, whether we give in, give up, go away…
Or can we choose to simply keep trying.
Because I still love what I do, even though I make even less money at it than I did all those years ago.
Because I can still do it.
Because I want to keep making art. Because I have to do the work of my heart.
It’s who I am. And who I want to be in the world.
Everybody loves a bargain, right?
That’s why we artists buy our supply in bulk, so we get those volume discounts. And back in the recession of 2008, all kinds of businesses, desperate for income, offered discounts to their customers.
Should artists offer discounts??
It depends. And mostly it depends on how, when, and why you offer them.
Me? The one and only time I ever offered a discount (during that same recession), it backfired. It turns out the customer asked for one, “just because” they’d read that Macy’s was offering discounts. And it turns out they just “threw it out there”, and would have bought the artwork at full price. IF only I hadn’t been feeling desperate and said, “Sure!” Oy vey.
If you believe that discounts work for you, no argument here. Just some clarity about the downside, and suggestions for actions that might work better.
- Is cheaper always better? If it’s really “all about the price”, then trust me, your potential customer can find something similar for less. And when they do, they won’t be back. The measure of our work is how well-made it is, how much skill goes into it, and how unique it is. The story behind it, YOUR story, your personal vision. If it’s something anyone can make, there’s someone who does/will, and then it really is all about the price. And if you say it’s worth $100, but you’re willing to take $80, then what is it really worth?? Know the value of the work you do.
- Can you afford to offer a discount? When we figure our actual cost in creating a work of art, we think about the cost-of-goods-sold: Our materials, our tools, etc. Most artists also factor in time, which makes sense. Except maybe it takes YOU ten hours to paint that piece, and another artist can do it in two hours. And if that other artist has a long history of followers and sales, maybe they have repeat customers who have truly earned a reward now and then. (More suggestions about this below.) And if they support themselves with their work, have to pay for a studio space, the cost of participating in events, exhibitions, shows, etc. the prices will of course be higher. Take into account the amount of money from sales that you’ll pay income taxes on, too.
- Are your prices already too low? When I first set prices for my work, I wasn’t in any galleries or stores. My prices actually reflected my wholesale price. Once I was represented by galleries, I realized that I would get only 50%-60% of my retail price. So my prices went up. Because….
- Are you respecting your galleries? Galleries are a powerful way to get our work in front of potential customers who can’t come to our studios. This means we have to respect galleries for what they do for us. If we discount prices in our studio, and a gallery finds out, that could be the end of your relationship with them. Galleries, on the other hand, and with your permission, could offer their faithful customers a discount. Some even offer to take it out of their own commission. Make sure you let them know if this is acceptable, and definitely let them know if it isn’t! Even they do take it out of their profit. Again, what’s the message here? “We’re so desperate to sell this artist’s work, we’ll cut our losses!” Ouch.
- Will a discount help me close the sale? Maybe. Tempting, right? Let’s talk about WHO gets a discount first. I would advise not offering one to a new customer. First, it’s not fair to your loyal customers, especially those who have collected your work for years. And yes, they might find out! I’ve found that people who get a bargain love to brag about it. And with social media marketing so popular now, your loyal customer might very well come across that post. The trust and integrity we’ve worked so hard to build is gone in an instant. If anyone deserves a discount, it’s our repeat customers!
- Do discounts work? I believe they can help us make small gains in sales when we are starting out, when all our customers are new. But it kinda goes against what our work stands for: Handmade, artisan-made, implies our work reflects skill, quality, and integrity (ours)–not something you can find at a dollar store, where items are mass-produced, often in countries that don’t pay makers well, and are discounted once the shelves have to be cleared.. Discounts can work against our “brand” as someone who creates a unique body of work.
- But I believe discounts work! Okay. But BE PREPARED. First, before you offer a discount, check with them what they’re looking for. My first (and last) discount, I offered 25%. (I was desperate.) Turns out they were hoping for 10%. Whoops. Second, factor discounts into your pricing. Always make sure you will still make a profit, even with a discount offer. It’s like “free shipping”. It feels less expensive, but you actually factored the shipping cost into your price, right?
- But what about loyal, repeat customers? Two thoughts on that: First, I’ve learned the hard way that even a stated “one-time discount” offer registers as “forever” to our customers. “But last year you gave me a 10% discount!” “Your ad said 25% off!” (Yep, that was 6 months ago…) Instead/second, offer another incentive: If you have prints or cards featuring your work, offer those instead. Or offer smaller work to the purchase that can be added with a discount. (Smaller means a smaller amount of money ceded, or it could be a one-off you are ready to pass on to a worthy person anyway.) Or a coupon for a manageable amount to use on their next purchase. (Again, even a “one-time” coupon will register as “forever.” It’s just a human thing…) Offer a one-off, stand-alone workm a direction you experimented with, but decided not to pursue. For one new collector, I offered to come to their home and talk about the piece for a small gathering of their friends. (It closed the deal, but they didn’t take me up on it.) I have a fellow artist who borrowed my car to deliver larger works to their customers. (Only twice, I have a boxy car, and they came to my rescue several times in difficult situations at my old studio. I’m glad to repay their kindness by helping them offer an incentive to a customer!)
- Is it really about the price? It’s common to assume that when a potential customer is hesitant about purchasing our work, it’s about the price. That’s when some of us jump to a conclusion, and offer a discount. But over the years, I’ve found that isn’t so. If someone is obviously interested in an item, I’ve shared the story, I’ve answered there questions, and they’re still hesitant, I’ve learned to as this simple question: What’s holding you back? Turns out it’s something totally different: “Will it go with the new rug in my living room?” “Can I fit it in my car?” “I want it, but my budget is short this month–will they accept a layaway?” Easy solutions to address!
- How a challenge can work even better than a discount. When someone asks if you can discount a work of art, try this highly effective counteroffer: “No, but if….”
Examples: “No, I’m sorry, I can’t do that. This work represents a lot of time, skill, and care. It’s a high-quality piece that will bring you joy for a lifetime, and no one else does anything quite like I do. But if you purchase it today, I’ll give you a free copy of a magazine that did an article on me and this very piece!”
“No, I don’t discount my work. But if you decide to take it today, I’ll be happy to give a free artist presentation to your coworkers/friends and family/favorite club/guild/association.”
“No, this is one of my best pieces, and it’s fairly-priced. But if you take it home today, I’ll hold your credit card information for a week while you decide. If you return it within a week, no charge. And if you don’t return it, I’ll process that charge on (date).” The woman I offered this to? I wrapped it up, gave her all the postcards, story cards, etc. I include with a sale, and gave her the bag. And as she left, she whispered, “I don’t think this is coming back!” It didn’t. (I still waited a week, though!)
For a gallery/store: “No, my prices accurately reflect the value of my work, in time and materials. But if you place your order today, I’ll rearrange my shipping schedule to accomodate your upcoming gallery event.”
The last reason I rarely offer discounts (and usually only on older pieces that have ‘aged out’ of my collection)? Because I felt like I wasn’t respecting my own artwork. If I can’t respect what I do, why do I think others should?
Do you discount your work? How? When? And for whom? Share in the comments, I’d love to hear your strategy!
If you found this article helpful, let me know! And share it with others you think would find it useful, too.
Bear has a powerful story for you today!
It takes time to build a following, especially with your first open studio event. Be patient. Persevere. And don’t give up so soon!
I’m trying not to bury the lede today, so let me get this right out there, now.
Art events aren’t about making money TODAY.
In fact, even as I read her creation story, I realize this is just the person who can validate my message today:
It takes time to build a following.
Back in New Hampshire, I joined my first open studio tour. I already had an audience from doing the League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair, and both events with the same art organization. It covered all of New Hampshire (which is a pretty small state!) but I was sure it would be a great event.
The first year, I had ZERO visitors. None. Nada.
I was disheartened, but it only cost $95 to participate (no catalog like Sonoma County’s Art at the Source and Art Trails, which is the biggest cost for these events.)
I had a second tour in the fall, with another org. Same. Hmmm….what was I doing wrong??
The second year with the League tour, I had one visitor. A (very stoned) young man who just happened to be walking by and saw my open studio sign. He was delightful to talk with, we had a rich conversation, and I hope I encouraged him to follow his own creative path.
Did I quit? Nope. And here’s why I’m glad I didn’t:
Every year after that, with every open studio event (including a new tour, and a tour another artist and I started for our own city), my studio was packed. I eventually made as much income from two open studio tours and the League Fair, as I had doing 3 national wholesale and retail shows across the country. Which, btw, costs thousands of dollars to participate in, plus shipping my inventory, my booth, traveling to those events, and staying in hotels, etc.
When I look back, I understand why my first two years were slow. New Hampshire is a small state, but I was the only participant in the southwest section of the state. Once more artists in my area starting joining, my visitor numbers grew.
When people finally realized how interesting my stuidio was, they didn’t want to miss a chance to see it again, and again.
Even those first two “empty” years had value: They made me clean my studio!
I also learned why some people don’t come to our studio and gallery events:
- They look too “special”. I was talking to an editor of our (then) local newspaper one day. (We met as parents waiting on the playground for our elementary school kids to get out of school.) I started talking about an upcoming local gallery exhibit featuring my work, and he exclaimed, “You mean ANYONE can go to those events?? I thought only collectors could attend!” (I assured him we did not check IDs at the door. He attended (t)his very first gallery event and had a terrific time!)
- Promote only one event at a time. Urgency is a powerful motivator for people to visit our event. My first mistake was sending out a postcard with three different art events I was in, trying to save money on postage. No one came to any of them. My editor for a magazine I was writing for at the time exclaimed, “No! Every musician knows you only promote ONE event at a time!” (He’s a musician!) He explains that people’s minds reason thusly: “Oh, this looks interesting! But I have to do X this weekend, so I’ll go to the next one.” The next event pops up, and they say, “Oh rats, I was gonna go for a bike ride this weekend. I’ll just go NEXT weekend.” And the last weekend goes by, and they go, “Rats, I forgot! Oh well, maybe next year.”
- My work is out-of-the-box, and it takes TIME for people to see who I am, and the value of what I do. I’ve never fit into boxes, not even “mixed media” (which actually means different kinds of PAINT in 2d work.) People new to my work are often confused, until I share that all my media are combined by the same STORY.
- You just don’t like open studios, and it shows. You got mad at the stupid question, you didn’t meet people where they are, you don’t really like having people in your studio.
Reasons why the cost of joining an open studio tour shouldn’t hold you back, especially for Art at the Source and Sonoma County Art Trails. (They’re pricey, but the catalogs are fabulous. I still have the one from our visit to California a year before we decided to move here in 2014.):
- Your entry fee is the cost of ONE quarter-page ad in a magazine that might hang around for a month, or even a week. That catalog is a year-round keeper. That’s quite the affordable advertising/marketing budget!
- Know that art events aren’t about making money TODAY. It breaks my heart when I encourage people to participate in such an event, and then they walk away because not many people came. Or they didn’t make any sales. Or they believe it’s not worth the time and effort.
We need to see open studio events as an important, powerful step in growing an audience for our work. Our studio, our sacred, creative space, is where people meet their art heroes: Us!
In our online culture today, we see “influencers” as the new normal. These are the folks who are famous, who want to be famous, who achieved fame through a confluence of factors, sometimes carefully calculated, sometimes random. They have hundreds, thousands, millions of followers.
And if we’re honest, we secretly hope we can be just like them.
It’s only when I dig deeper into my own yearnings of being famous, rich with the proceeds of my work, that I realize I don’t actually want that!
I want to be seen as someone who has a different view of their place in the world. Someone who shares their work, their experience, their insights, with honesty and integrity.
Someone who, as hard as it can feel sometimes, knows at heart that it’s not about having an audience. It’s about having a voice.
It’s easy to get lost in the ropey jungle of who is a “real” artist. It’s even worse when we get lost in the definition of who is a “successful artist”.
What is the measure of our success?
If an oil painting can sell for $10,000, am I a failure if I only make a couple hundred dollars with a necklace that took me almost the same amount of time to make, using handmade and expensive materials? (No, it’s no one’s fault (certainly not mine!) that some art media are considered more valuable than others.)
If I get an invitation to join a new gallery run by someone who loves my work, but my sales are still modest, is that not worth very much? (Yes, it’s worth it. Just the words this new gallery owner shared with me: “People who don’t really know that much about art, don’t think your work is “real art”. But the people who do? They are totally intrigued and amazed by your work!” This made my year!)
If someone’s heart is lifted because my studio, and my engagement with them, and my encouragement inspires them to take up their creative work again, is there a price tag on that? (No. It’s priceless!)
If a customer with not so much money takes a decade to buy even a minor piece, was that work the wait? (Yes! It means my work matters to them, enough that they stay determined to own a piece someday.)
If only a few people come to our event, that’s still a start.
If they signed up for your email alerts, that means they want to come back.
If they want to come back, they may bring a friend with them next time.
If they come back again, they really enjoy your studio, your art, and YOU.
If they keep coming back, they will either buy a piece eventually, or buy a piece for a friend who will love it. And maybe both of them will come back to buy more.
Some of our fans will share their experience on social media. This is the most important “advertising” of all. Because anyone can buy an ad. But we can’t buy praise and enthusiasm. Testimonials, online reviews like Yelp, etc. reflect not just our artistic skills, but also our connectivity with our clients, visitors, buyers, etc.
One artist in last year’s open studio tour was reluctant to try again. I really, really wish I’d reached out to them this year. There were work-arounds to their issues that could have been solved. Perhaps simply having their own event could have resolved some of their issues, too. Oh well. Maybe next year.
But here’s my biggest, best reasons I will continue to do open studios, even if I never make another dime from them:
My visitors are a powerful, in-person, in the moment reminder of how fortunate I am.
I have a lovely space to make my work. I am very fortunate!
I have learned so much from making my work, and sharing it with the world, regardless of how much I actually make from it. I’m a better person for it.
I love what I do, from writing stuff like this for you today (and getting clear in my own head!), to making thank-you pearl earrings for the people who work at homeless shelters and those who rescue wild birds and opossums. Do I make money doing this? Nope. Not a cent. (And when I once whined about how nobody ever thanks me for doing this, my wise daughter who works in a similar “care” field said, “Mama, trust me on this. They ARE grateful, grateful that you see what they do, how hard it is, and they are glad you ‘see’ them. You don’t need a thank-you.” Her point was, the more overloaded and overwhelmed they are with their work, the less bandwidth they have to even write a thank-you note. Lesson learned!)
So approach your open studio event with an open heart, and no expectation of “instant sucess”.
Embrace what it brings you, no matter how small. Keep notes on the insights, the comments that lift your heart, the interactions that were gratifying and powerful.
Know that even sharing your space with a visitor can make a huge difference in their life, even if we can never know for sure.
And consider expanding your own unique version of “success” in life.
HOLY COW!! I randomly opened up an old RadioUserland post the other day, and found these two articles! I’d totally forgotten about them… More insights, more encouragement for YOU (and me today.) Dealing With Failure and Be Careful What You Wish For!
If you’d like to read more about this line of thinking, check here: https://luannudell.wordpress.com/category/what-is-the-measure-of-your-success/
If you enjoyed this article, or have questions or comments, let me know!
And if you know someone who needs a little encouragement in life, send this to them!
(Originally published on Fine Art Views. Based on helping a friend enhance their show experience, but much of it applies to our open studio conversations, too!)
This article has tips on how to engage visitors, how NOT to engage visitors, and how to make clear what is and isn’t for sale (and why).
A fellow craftsperson asked for my help awhile back. They’d had a few bad shows back-to-back. Something was lacking, but they didn’t know what.
I asked to see a picture of their space and they sent me some pics. Right away, I saw some things that could be changed that would make their booth more attractive and functional.
We set up part of their booth in my driveway to experiment with layout. We talked about how to greet people when they enter your booth. How to create—and support—an environment that lets people browse and shop comfortably. How to display work so people can immediately see what you do and what you’re selling. How to tell people what they’re looking at. How to streamline and integrate your display so people “get” your message.
My friend is an outgoing person who’s comfortable in their space. They’re savvy about marketing and serious about their business. Even so, there were a few things in their approach that tend to shut down the sales process quickly.
Worse, these are actions most artists think they’re supposed to do.
I have an advantage, in a way. My personality type almost equally balanced between introvert and extrovert. Being too isolated too long drives me bonkers. But being too outgoing too long sometimes drains my battery. I need downtime to recharge. The advantage? I’m very aware when I’m in my please-don’t-bug-me stage, and when I’m in my “you-are-my-new-best-friend!” phase. And I’m also very aware of what bugs me in both of those modes.
As artists in our sales mode, we think we’re supposed to greet everyone immediately and fervently. We think we’ll bond by complimenting a visitor’s clothing or jewelry. We try to connect by commenting on the weather, the show or some other small talk. We want people to know about our product, whether it’s a landscape painting, a turned wood bowl or button earrings. And so we jump right in and tell them all about it.
And then, when they do ask us a question, we make a joke so that we’ll really set them at ease. And often, the joke is at their expense.
All of this sets my teeth on edge. Especially when I’m in my quiet mode.
Remember this: We are not here to make a bunch of new friends.
I don’t mean this to sound clinical or cold. I say it so we understand how we can act in ways that support what we’re really in this event for.
We’re here so people can see, and buy, our artwork.
If they become good friends and passionate collectors in the process, that’s wonderful. But until they decide that’s the relationship they want, all small talk is just that—small talk—that interferes with what they came to the show to do….
The main reason people go to art fairs, craft shows, and open studios, is to shop, in all its phases and levels. They may actively shop. They may say they’re “just looking”—until the find the thing that they just can’t pass by. They want to browse, and look, and admire, or decide they’re not interested, and leave without interference. They may decide they like our work, and us, which is perfect! They will be back, whether they make a purchase or not, today or later.
If they show interest, that’s the start of a connection. Then we’re here to build and strengthen that connection. If we succeed in creating a strong connection—whether it’s through name-branding, quality, value, shared ideals, common purpose, magnetic personality, whatever—then an exchange is made: Their hard-earned money for our well-made artwork.
My point (and I do have one, to quote Ellen) is that you do not want to interrupt their shopping process with meaningless chatter. You do not want to interrupt the shopping process with questions that have nothing to do with their shopping. You do not want to interrupt the shopping process with a question they can answer “no” to. (The biggie? “May I help you?” “No, thanks, just looking.” Bing! You’re nullified.)
Meaningless chatter? Trust me, almost anything you’re going to ask a browser is something they’ve heard in every single booth-or-studio before they got to yours. When I’m shopping, I hate to be interrupted to answer questions like, “So, are you from this area?” Or “Are you looking for anything special?” Or “Did you see these widgets over here? I just started making these last week!” Or “How are you enjoying the show-0r-tour?”
When I’m shopping, I want to focus on looking, not chatting about meaningless stuff.
When the shoe is on the other foot, it’s obvious to me this tactic isn’t productive. When I’m selling at a show or in my studio, I’ve noticed that if I comment on a person’s shirt or purse, the ensuing conversation is all about their shirt. Or their purse. If I ask them how they’re enjoying the show, then we talk about the show. Ditto the weather. Like my friend, you may say things like this in an honest attempt to show people that you are likeable and personable. But it simply comes across as annoying at best, or self-serving, distracting and insincere at worst.
When people enter your booth, give them a moment to settle. I read recently that when we go through an entrance or a door, our brains do a “data dump” of where we’ve come from, to make room for new information in our new location. (Hence, the endless comedy of going to a room to look for something, and forgetting what we’re looking for.)
I think this happens to people coming into your booth space. Something about your work or display pulls people in from the aisle, your image in that catalog drew them in, or they simply stop at every booth or studio to investigate. They need a few seconds to grasp what they’re looking at. Give them a few beat to settle, then greet them.
I do not stand staring at them as they enter. I try to have simple little tasks to work on—making price tags, dusting frames, restocking some items. I look up and smile, and greet them simply. “Hi, I’m Luann, and this is my work (spreading my hand). (One or two sentence summary about your work. More on this later!) If you have any questions, just let me know, I’m just making up some tags.” The pressure is off. You are available, but not hovering over them. They don’t have to answer dumb questions. They don’t have to chit-chat. They don’t have to listen to a full-blown sales pitch.
They can just look. Yay!!
Some people take a quick look, decide my work is not for them, and leave. Others stay. If you let them, they’ll settle in for a good long look.
There’s a point, too, where it feels right to say quietly, “It’s okay to touch.” People are always surprised—and delighted—to hear this. They always say, “Thank you!” and start picking pieces up. *(see below for funny story about touching.)
How do I know when it’s time to start my sales piece?
When they ask me a question.
When they ask me a question, they are giving me permission to talk to them. From there on, I follow their lead. If you relax into yourself, and watch, you can tell who needs a quiet voice and gentle questions. You can tell who’s hungry for more information and camaraderie. You respond with bigger energy to outgoing people, and quiet energy to reserved people.
It’s a delicate dance.
Remember that whenever you talk to someone in your booth, other people are listening. They may even prefer to get your information “second-hand”, without having to actively talk themselves.
The last big no-no: Please do NOT make a joke at your customer’s expense. Yes, you will say that your punch line (“How long does it take me to make that?” “It took me 30 years to make that!”) gets a laugh every time. I’m here to tell you, your visitor is probably laughing out of embarrassment. You’ve made a joke at their expense. If you make a joke about anything that makes the person feel stupid, or defensive, or flat-footed, you have created a disconnect. Even a small disconnect is not good. And it may be very difficult to repair it. If other people in your booth are listening, it’s even worse. Because they won’t want to volunteer to be the butt of your joke, either.
Here’s one example: My friend makes many of her own “cake stands” to display her pieces. But one of them was a gift from her mother, and one of them held her own wedding cake. Sometimes people ask to buy them. Her response? “Sure! This one is $25, this one is $500, and this one is $1,000.” They went on to explain that the second and third one aren’t really for sale.
They’ve created a situation where the customer knows that’s a ridiculous answer—why would a cake stand cost $1,000??–but has no idea what’s going on. They sense they’re being set up, and sure enough, they are. They may laugh with relief, they may laugh because it’s funny. But for a moment, they felt stupid and on the outside.
Why would you want to make your customer feel that way?
I suggested they turn that whole scene around. It’s simple enough: Label the one that’s for sale, and label the two that aren’t as NFS (Not For Sale). If people ask why those two aren’t for sale, tell them the story first: “This one I made, this one is a gift from my mother, etc.” THEN tell them the punch line: “So I like to say, this one is $25, this one is $500….” That way, your customer is in on the joke—not the butt of it. You still get to be funny, but not at their expense.
So is it okay to make small talk?
When it’s not busy in our booth, you’re bored stiff, the person seems open to chatting and apparently—or obviously—is not interested in our work. Even then, it can backfire. I wrote a whole series of articles about how to get some people out of your booth. (It’s a Kindle book, too!) One of them was about the non-purchasing customer who wants to be your new best friend and talk your ear off.
When is it okay to ask them how they’re enjoying the event? As you’re wrapping up their purchase, when you’re getting their contact information, as you process their sale. “Are you from this area?” because if they are, you can ask if you add them to your mailing list (for open studio catalogs), their email address (so you can alert them to future events, sales, classes, etc.) and if they aren’t, they might be interested in making future purchases from your website (email newsletter.)
I leave a sign-up sheet out, with the same info, and with business cards and postcards they can take, too.
When is it okay to ask them how they feel about the weather? I have no idea. Maybe if it’s raining and you are selling umbrellas?
When YOU are visiting a booth or studio, when YOU are browsing or shopping, what are YOUR pet peeves? Maybe we can find ways to turn them around to our advantage when we’re the vendors!
*I used to have a sign that said “Please touch” or “It’s okay to touch”. One visitor was obviously intrigued with my work, but kept their hands behind their back. I said, “It’s okay to pick that item up” and they said, “Oh NO, the sign says ‘Don’t touch’!” Too funny! But that’s when I realized we’re all so used to NOT being allowed to touch, that people glanced at that sign, saw ‘touch’ and assumed it was yet another “hands off” sign. It made me kinda sad. But it also encouraged me to TELL people it was okay. That was even more effective and powerful. Lesson learned!
(Disclaimer: You may not agree with my take on this subject. No worries, do what works for you! But do consider this approach if you want your artist statement to stand out from the crowd.)
I’ve written a lot about artist statements. A LOT.
This is one of my favorites.
OK, like a parent asked to choose their favorite child, I love ’em all! They all have a nugget of truth. But this one combines my frustration with most artists’s statements, the lack of creativity, the banality, the focus on materials and process over our story, yadda yadda yadda.
I know this is a huge homework assignment. But at least one of these articles could get you to reconsider taking on the “traditional” artist statement.
And again, check out ArtyBollocks.com for starters. It will prove that “arty” “pretentious” “obscure” artist statements are ridiculous, I hope. Here’s another fun site if your creative work takes a different form: The New Age Bullshit Generator
You may be tempted to use a template to create an artist statement. It may feel safe, and easy. And if it gets you started, okay then. But as a friend told me years ago, “You cannot fill in the blanks with passion.” (Wherever you are in the world, thank you Nicci Walker!)
You may be tempted to use hoity-toity words and phrases, (aka “artspeak”) like other famous artists. But this article on the down side of IAE (International Art English) is terrific at uncovering the very (pretentious) aspects that could alienate our potential audience. (My hat’s off to you, too, Carol Ober!)
Avoid anything that reeks of complacency:
“I love color”. Um….who doesn’t love color??
“I am drawn to light and color”. Um…even worse? How can anyone capture an image of anything without light? (More on this to follow….)
“I am inspired by nature…” Um. So is every single landscape painter ever. And probably 95% of the rest of the world.
“I explore form and composition…” Just stop right there. Every painting has forms, shapes, lines in it.
I could go on, but it drives me nuts. These are just a few sentences that most artists believe makes them “unique”. But they’re just the opposite. They sound like every other artist on the planet. Case in point: I could say this about my art, and I’m willing to bet that my work looks nothing like yours.
When artists list the “famous artists” they’ve studied with, I want to pull my hair. All it means is, you had enough money to pay their fees. I get that really popular famous artists can be very selective about who gets into their classes. But I also know that a “famous artist” in one part of the world may be totally unknown in another part. When I moved to California in 2014, I knew only two artists in Sonoma County. Actually, in all of California. And neither of them are painters. (Okay, Jane Garabaldi and Marge Margulies, and only because we were all in the same gallery in New England.) (And yes, they are both stellar at their work!)
An artist statement is not the place to brag about your art degrees, your reputation, to explain your how-to process in-depth.
It’s about sharing something about you, and your work, that will make your visitors want to go back and look at your artwork again.
JoAnne Russo, a highly-acclaimed Vermont basketmaker, was the first person to share this insight with me. I was already doing that, but this made it clear why we cannot afford to muck up this important piece of paper. Because even if our work doesn’t blow them away, our artist statement can.
Here’s my best example: At an art exhibit years ago, I saw what I thought was an awful work of art. Crumpled foil, squished fabric. WTF?? I thought.
Then I read their artist statement, and I almost cried.
It was made by a woman who had been a talented painter for most of her life. Now, in her final years, she had lost her sight and could no longer paint.
But in her heart, she still wanted to “make”. She still wanted to share the things that fascinated her. She was still an artist, even though vast changes had to be made in how she created it.
So she worked with interesting bits of materials with great texture, arranging them in ways that literally and figuratively “felt right”, and urged people to touch them.
OMG. OMG. She wanted to still have her voice in the world. And even going blind was not going to stop her.
Yes. I went back and looked at her work again.
Instead of seeing someone who had no idea how to make “real art”, I saw someone with so much courage, so strong in their heart, that even losing their superpower–a great painter–shewhat believed she still had something to share with the world.
My next example was an artist statement I wrote for a woodworker the year before we moved to California. Here’s my rant about that experience.
The part I wrote that they didn’t value?
Like people, trees respond to what happens to hem. What they live through creates their character. Sunlight and soil, ice and wind…all these things leave their unique mark on the inside. I work wood’s diverse color, grain, and texture, patiently and meticulously, to real the “inside story”. And like people, the story hidden beneath the bark is beautiful, unique, and forever astonishing.
In fact, just read that article if you’re short on time and don’t have the bandwidth right now to go deeper. (And to be fair, that person did include that part in their statement. I didn’t know until a few years later, when their work was featured in a magazine.
Yes, your process is important. But keep it simple.
Yes, your education helped you get to where you are today. I get it.
Yes, art degrees mean you were serious about your work from an early age. Good on you! But not all of us had that privilege or option.
The most powerful story we can tell about our work is why it matters. To US.
It could have been a life-long passion, or it could have been a treasure we buried out of perceived necessity. Until we realized how vital it was to our soul.
Be willing to go deep, to share who you really are, and how your art helped you discover what really matters to you.
Trust me. And trust yourself: If you’re doing it right, they will want to see more of your artwork, your studio, and you.
Questions? Comments? Bring ’em on! I’ll do my best to answer them.
(No snark, please. Feel free to gritch on your own platform, okay?)
In my previous article, I shared why I don’t serve food or drinks anymore at my open studio events. Now I’ll share a story about a visitor who seemed to only show up for the food.
This person is…well, a little different from most of my studio visitors. They always arrive early, are very quiet, and spend a lot of time looking at my work. When I engage them in conversation, they talk in a very loud voice. I would use the term “on the spectrum”, except a spectrum is a true range of all colors, attributes, etc. So technically, we’re all on the sprectrum somewhere. (Thanks to commedian Matt Ruby for this wonderful insight!)
They’ve attended every art event involving open studios I’ve been in, in several different locations, all walkable.
And almost everyone on all the open studio events I’ve been on, is very familiar with them. The general impression is, this person only shows up to take advantage of the free food and drinks.
And yet they always show up at my events, too, knowing there won’t be the “free lunch” thing. They sign up for my emails and give their snail mail address for catalogs, every single time, too.
Obviously, they don’t want to be left out.
Once, out of curiosity, I asked them what their creative work was.
I got the usual reply: “Oh, I’m not creative.”
That’s a conversation-opener for me. Because all humans have a creative gene, and there are many ways to be creative, if we lift those very narrow boundaries about who is-or-isn’t-a-real-artist.
We talked a little more. (It wasn’t busy, I had time to explore who this person really is.) They said they’d taken an art class, they’d made a painting, which they loved, and they wanted to be an artist, too. I told her I’d love to see their piece, and to bring it the next time they came to my open studio.
To my surprise, a few months later, they did!
They were a little nervous about showing it to me. If I had to make up a story about that, it would be that they know they are ‘different’, they know people aren’t eager to engage with them, and they might be worried I would go into full art critic mode. But I didn’t.
Of course it was amateur-ish, something I would have done in high school. (I loved to doodle and draw, (still do!) but realistic drawing and painting are not my thing.) But it wasn’t horrible, either. It was simply someone’s first attempt at making art, no better and no worse than my first attempt to paint, or yours.
I could also tell it was very dear to them.
I praised the aspects that drew my attention, and encouraged them to pursue this. I suggested they get an inexpensive frame for it. “You can hang it on a wall and see it every day,” I said. “And I hope it inspires you to keep making stuff. We all get better when we keep making, that’s how we all get better at it.” If art classes were inconvenient or too expensive, they could also start by getting some instructive books from the library. Or simply start sketching what they see every day: Trees. Flowers. Birds. People. Pets. Finding what catches their eye, and play with it.
They left with a very happy heart.
The next time they came up in conversation with my fellow open studio group, when it got to the part where “it’s all about the food”, I shared my experience. Yes, obviously they really enjoy the food!
But they are also yearning to do what those of us with studios do, with our own hunger: To make something we love. To make something so often, so regularly, that we get good at it. And when we’re ready, to find a way to share it with others.
That’s what they want, too. And that’s why they show up at all our open studios:
We are their art heroes.
It’s human to make assumptions about people. It’s normal to be uneasy about someone whose behaviors aren’t “normal”. It’s good to be cautious when engaging with someone whose problems/issues seem unusual, and to disengage with someone whose behavior is threatening. Trust your instincts.
And yet, a previous studio visitor’s ramped-up emotions taught me a valuable lesson in what it is to be human. How even a teensy bit of compassion, of being willing to go a little deeper, can create, at the very least, a tiny miracle (which is often just a “change in perception”, as a good friend once told me) can help us make the world a (slightly) better place for everyone.
I haven’t seen the hungry visitor since the pandemic shutdowns. I hope they are okay.
I hope they were encouraged by our conversation. I hope they continue to take a class or two (if they can afford it), or get those library how-to book loaners if they can’t.
I hope they know that regardless of their talent (or lack of it), their skills (same), it’s okay to pursue what they love, what they admire in other artists, and simply do it.
I hope they come back some day.
Because I hope with all my heart that they’re still trying, yearning, hoping to be a “real artist”…
Just like all their art heroes they visit.
Not all of our visitors are art collectors. Not all of our visitors can afford our work, even if they love it. And there are many different reasons our visitors are attracted to our studio in the first place. For many, like this person, there’s a yearning in them they don’t understand, that they don’t believe is worth pursuing, because they aren’t good enough.
Consciously or unconsciously, they come to us for hope.
For some reason, I thought of two articles I wrote years ago as I wrote this one. I have no idea why, except one of them is called Hungry Art (as this person was ‘hungry’ for seeing art, and hopefully making their own.) And the other one popped up as I searched for that one (thank you, Karen Cooper!) as someone I don’t even know found one of my articles helpful when they hit a slippery spot. That article is called Sipping From the Fire Hose. So there we have the cure for hunger, and the power of drinks.
And the powerful reminder that when we share our art, our words, our creativity with the world, it will meet someone who needs to hear it, right where they are, that day.
I’m reading an excellent book, THE RULES OF RUTHLESSNESS; GETTING AHEAD IN BUSINESS WHEN BEING GOOD ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH. It’s a collection of essays, every one of which is hitting a nerve with me this week.One essay talked about the importance of choosing the right kind of friends—friends who inspire you, support you, encourage you in your successes, because in your success they see their own possibility for achievement.
The wrong friends will resent you as you realize your dreams, and they will say things that are intended to hurt you. They feel they cannot achieve what you have and will pull you back. They desire equality at all costs, so they will do and say things intended to break your stride.
I’ve been thinking about this for a long time because there have been some amazing people in my life who fell away as I became more successful achieving my professional goals. I recognized their jealousy and frustration finally, but was baffled. In my mind, they were all light years ahead of me in experience, talent, wisdom or resources. Yet as I began pulling forward, they began to hold back. Some actually went so far as to try to trip me!
What was the crucial difference that kept me moving ahead but let them derail themselves so easily?
I believe it was the fear of being humiliated if they failed.
I read another article by Martha Beck about the fear of humiliation. (Should have noted the article at the time, this might be the one I’m talking about, but she writes about this a lot.) It’s a powerful force in our human psyche, more powerful than most of us ever think about. Remember that dream about showing up at a public event and realizing you’ve forgotten to put on a shirt? That’s a big time humiliation dream.
Fear of humiliation is the major component in fear of failure. We don’t want to look like an idiot in front of other people, so we don’t take risks, we don’t take chances, we don’t push ourselves. We don’t mind screwing up in private, but boy, we sure don’t want an audience.
I know this is true, because I’ve had people say to my face they could never admit in public that they made a mistake, like I have occasionally in articles I’ve written or speeches I’ve given. They didn’t congratulate me on figuring out a major goof in how I publicized an event. They didn’t thank me for sharing the information so they could avoid the same goof. They said they were amazed I would admit to making a mistake, in public.
It occurred to me that maybe I have a high threshold for humiliation…?
Nah, that’s not it. I lie awake at night reliving my failures and inadequacies as often as anyone. Sometimes more! I’m just as afraid of being exposed as an idiot as anybody.
It seems, though, that it simply doesn’t stop me as often as most other people.
If I had to point to a reason, I’d say I have a teensy wee bit more awareness that the fear of humiliation is somewhat temporary, that we are destined to slog through it at some point in our lives anyway because we can’t avoid EVERY situation where we could be humiliated. Since we can’t avoid it all, we might as well at least choose the circumstances. And I’d rather choose circumstances that involve taking chances with living my dream—being an artist—than ordinary everyday run-of-the-mill humiliation.
Mix in an ability to laugh at yourself occasionally, and the ability to learn from mistakes (instead of running and hiding) and you have a powerful recipe for success. If you can write about it or talk about it in a way that makes OTHER people laugh, too, but also get them to realize that you didn’t die, you just goofed up, then you can teach people how they can do it, too.
Remember the shirtless scene in the movie ROMY AND MICHELLE’S HIGH SCHOOL REUNION? In a shirtless dream sequence (which is the major clue that it IS a dream), klutzy and wacky Michelle accepts an award for being the most blazing success in her class. She gives a lovely little speech and ends by brushing off the shirtless thing with a breezy, “Oh, and I forgot to put my shirt on this morning.” The crowed breaks into wild applause.
I wish I could be as breezy with my fear. I’m not.
But I have a little bit of courage when it comes to acting on my dreams despite my fears.
And so can you.
(P.S. And I just realized I misspelled “high” in high school” in the RU version! Owning up so you can see it didn’t ruin my art career, nor detract much from my purpose.) 🙂
This article originally appeared on my blog five years ago, but I’ve updated it with more examples of where my decisions came from.
I had an open studio last weekend (5 years ago), a community art event that’s very popular in our neighborhood.
I spent the week before clearing clutter, arranging and pricing new work,dusting (I decided to call it ‘patina’ instead), in preparation. True to form, I was also making new work up to the day before. I get my best ideas with the pressure of a deadline!
There are two things I did/didn’t do that may astound you.
I DON’T offer refreshments for visitors in my studio.
I DO provide small gifts for children, and encourage them (and other visitors) to touch my work.
You may be astounded. Most artists/craftspeople I talk to, do exactly the opposite. They hope to entice visitors with snacks, coffee, even wine.
The welcoming-kids part stops many artists in their tracks. In fact, when I wrote a series of columns and an ebook about keeping your workspace/selling space holy, one artist actually asked me specifically how to keep kids out of their booth.
First, the food thing.
I quit offering food, drinks, and especially alcohol, in my open studio events because I don’t need to anymore.
It can be an ice-breaker, especially for bored husbands who usually show up with hands in pockets or schlepping their wife’s/partner’s purchases. But there are better ways to break the ice.
And food can be a distraction. In fact, it got to the point at events in my old studio location where the only real reason people came was to eat and drink.
An example that proves my case? My husband and I attended such an open studio event there after I left. In one large studio was a big exhibit of artwork. In the middle of the room was a table filled with wine and food (chips, dip, etc.), with some stools tucked under the table. My husband promptly pulled out a stool, sat down at the table, and proceeded to tuck in a huge amount of chips and dip. He completely misread the room on that one. (I pulled him away and explained it wasn’t like sitting at the bar of a restaurant witha bowl of chips.) (In his defense, he was hungry!)
Also, there can be negative aspects to serving alcohol at a public event, especially if people are driving afterwards. I don’t know the liquor laws in Sonoma County. But artist Caren Catterall, who co-chaired with me on the mentoring committee at Art At The Source in 2021, mentioned that serving alcohol is not recommended, due to potential liability issues. She’s good at this stuff, so I encourage you to follow her advice.
As for food in open studios, for years I prepared a feast of snacky thingies, coffee, tea, etc. for guests. But people rarely partook of any of it. So a few hours of food prep did result in lots of great left-overs for my family, but otherwise served no real purpose. Because….I found a better way to engage visitors.
Instead, I tell them it’s okay to touch my art work. It has the same appeal, permission to relax and explore, and it works. And no more visitors who are only into the wine, and nothing else. (JON!!)
So why do I welcome kids in my art space?
Because it is an act of generosity, compassion, good will, and education. And it’s the best gift I can offer visitors with kids, especially those who are new to my work.
First, welcoming kids means you are also welcoming their parents, or grandparents. Few places accomodate kids. Find a way to do that, and you’ll earn the undying gratitude of their accompanying grown-ups.
Second, being open to kids lets the grown-ups actually shop. If not today, then when the kids are older.
Third, the peace of mind you create in your space expands to all your booth/studio visitors. When others hear you giving permission to engage, they relax, too.
Finally, the education bit. Parents are often the younger crowd we wish we could attract, and their kids are also future collectors. By removing the pressure of “don’t touch!” and “hands off!”, and “no kids!”, we create a unique opportunity to talk deeply with all visitors about our work.
I cannot tell you how many creative people tell me that “people don’t appreciate fine art/fine craft” anymore. Or how “schools don’t teach that appreciation to young people anymore.”
I’m baffled by this. When did “regular people” ever appreciate fine craft or art?? Especially our currently very narrow definition of it!
I know this from personal experience. I didn’t know any artists or craftspeople growing up. I never saw any books about it, nor art exhibitions, nor even art museums, until I went away to college.
When were we ever taught it in school? Art in elementary/middle school was drawing with pencils and crayons, and paper mache, and construction paper galore. Even in high school, the art room kiln broke when we fired our first clay creations. There was never any money in the budget for real paints and brushes, and the art teachers simply didn’t have the time/bandwidth/resources for anything beyond the bare minimum instruction. (One teacher was also the only coach for all women’s sports –volleyball, softball, and basketball–and was only hired my junior or senior year. With all the games, training, after-school stuff, when would they ever have time to dig deeper into art?) When the school budget was cut, art and music were the first things to go. (Not sports, though.) I’m sure things today aren’t much better, as home ec (aka, “basic life skills”) and vocational trades programs go the way of the mastodon.
Second, We’re actually in a period of incredible exposure to handmade crafts, handwork, and fine art. People can easily find all kinds of creative work, in stores, in stores with galleries, online. Instagram feels made for creative work! It’s as easy to buy a handmade item or a work of art online as it is to buy a hammer or a box of hot chocolate mix.
So who will teach and inspire the art-makers of the future? Who will share the vision, and encourage the connection for the art collectors and art admirers of tomorrow?
When we engage people with our work, we share something powerful. Inspiration, artistic vision, professional goals, our process, our materials (and why we choose them) are ways to educate (gently), connect (authentically), and encourage our audience to buy and collect handmade. People are genuinely hungry for this.
I get that not all work is touchable, or safe for young ones to handle. I’m fortunate that my artifacts are sturdy. In fact, their touchability is a strong selling point, too. But we’re creative people. We should be able to come up with ideas that could work.
I have several. I keep a box of shiny, pretty beads on hand. l ask young ones to pick one, and then offer to make a necklace for them, using inexpensive cording and slip knots.
I keep some samples of animal artifacts on hand, too. I’ll ask a youngster if they’d like to hold a bear or a horse (or a bird or a fish). They’re so unnerved, they’re usually speechless, but also intrigued! I let them hold the animal while their parents look around, and retrieve it when they leave. Parents are so grateful!
I freely hand out business cards with images of my work on them, or old show postcards. Again, a well-appreciated gift, and also a reminder of their visit to my space.
Touch is such a compelling instinct for all humans, not just young ones. So much so that I encourage you to try this: If your work is too delicate to touch) having a sample of your work on hand that is touchable, even for grown-ups: A sample of the handmade paper you work with for people to stroke, or a piece of the roving you turn into handspun yarn. For fine 2D art, perhaps a scrap of paper with a bright daub of paint on it, or the experimental work you made to figure out color mixes, cut up into pieces for them use as a book mark.
Let them look at some of your tools, or raw materials: Old paintbrushes. Samples of the wood you carve. A printing block. (Remember Rik Olson’s shadowbox display, with samples of his materials, tools, and a little work-in-progress? Brilliant!)
At the very least, try business cards featuring images of your work. Moo is an online printing company that offers small business cards. They cost more than other brands (watch for their sales!), but you can customize them to the point where you can order 100 cards with 100 different images of your work. So cool to say to a child, “Would you like a picture of a bunny, or a bird?”!
It’s worth brainstorming about how other art and craft media could be presented in small samples or even inexpensive “gifts” to kids. I’d love to hear your current strategies, ideas, and suggestions in the comment section!
I’m posting a pic from my friend Melinda LaBarge. She made these lovelies for young visitors to her booth! Send your pics, and I’ll add them!
A mentoring committee cohort reminded me today that it’s good to get the more immediate prep stuff for open studios out there early. Good point, Caren! Check out Caren Catterall’s artwork, it’s amazing and she has good stories, too.
Valerie Adams and Caren both have experience with mentoring, both created action sheets, and I’m using some of their suggestions, insights, agendas to fill in the blanks. (Thank you both! I don’t need to reinvent the wheel…!)
First, legal stuff. Collecting sales tax (for state and city/town taxes), a business license (for the same reason), insurance.
I was spoiled in New Hampshire. No state income tax, and no sales tax. (I still apologize to people when I have to add sales tax to their purchase, and that bewilders them.)
There are two official/legal business documents I had to acquire, both through government agencies, and hence not always intuitive. But I got through it, and you will, too. Most important was a business license. I’m fortunate to live in an actual city, so this was relatively easy to find and navigate: A Santa Rosa business tax certificate. To find yours, just Google “business license” or “seller’s permit” etc. and your city and state. Your search engine will understand what you’re looking for and get you to the right place. Things are pricey in California, and yet a business license here is only $25, and gets renewed annually. There’s an add-on tax for your sales, but it’s not daunting, and it has a cap. And that $25 covers your taxes up to $25,000. (So for me, nothing to worry about. Dang. The plus side of not being a ‘financially successful artist’….)
The two open studio events I participate in requre a local permit to be prominently displayed. I mean, not in your display space, but somewhere people can easily see it. Just like your return policy and custom orders terms.
California also requires a business license from the California Board of Equalization. It’s a little more complicated but not fatal. The reason you need both is because both state and city collect sales taxes on purchases, so you need to report your sales to both. Again, if you forget where this link is, a simple Google search will get you where you need to go.
OR, just ask someone who’s in the same area, and/or in the same biz, or same kind of biz (self-employed, free-lancer, entrepeneur, etc.) for advice about how to get started.
What sales are taxed, and which ones aren’t, is still a puzzler for me, and anyone who has expertise on this, please share your suggestions in the comments. If they fit the bill and you are okay with this, I’ll edit this article to include your advice!
Basically, if my work is sold in a gallery or store, then the sales tax has already been collected. I only need to report that income as…well, taxable income.
In our studios, we need to add up every sale, of course. But one error I made early on was adding the TOTAL dollar amount paid. Later, I realized I was computing tax on the sales tax! In my area, I was adding a little less than 10% in sales tax, so a $200 purchase was actually rung up as $220. I was paying a tax of $22 on an item I’d added $20 tax to.
That $2 isn’t much. But if you’re selling artwork for $10,000, it’s a big difference!
I figured out that multiplying $220 x 91% got me close to the actual taxable amount of $200 again. But going forward, it’s a heckuva lot easier to keep a tally of the actual price of what was sold before adding tax. (Have I confused you? Join the club.)
Next, insurance. I discovered early on that our home insurance covered the studio in our hourse back in New Hampshire, and the same company’s rental insurance covers my studio outside my home. Check your policy, too. If it’s not covered, ask your mentor (for our two open studio tour events) or another artist in your area what they do.
Coincidentally, I found an email about this very issue from a craft business magazine (Handmade Business, formerly known as The Crafts Report) that I used to write for: Handmade Artisan Insurance The rate seems a little high, but it’s been awhile since I’ve needed extra insurance. Also, these policies cover an entire year, including off-site events (art and craft fairs, for example.) If you don’t intend to open your studio year round (say, by appointment) or don’t do shows, etc., then you might find affordable policies where you only pay for one event. Not my field of expertise, though, and again, the internet is your friend for finding information. Let me Google that for you
As I shared in a previous article about signage, to protect yourself from unethical customers, we must also post our terms of service: What we accept in payment (checks, cash, credit cards) and how we will process thos payments (PayPal, Square, Venmo, etc.) We need a sign prominently displayed on the conditions of our layaway plan, custom orders, and our return policy.
Last, whether or not our studio space is legally “wheelchair accessible” can get confusing. When my studio was at South A Street in downtown Santa Rosa, I simply asked the owner of the coffee shop next to me if my space was accessible. There were no steps, and the door was wide enough for a wheelchair. But he said no, because the floor rugs could jam a wheel, and there was a slight bump in the doorway. Yes, most people could get through (and did!) but technically, I couldn’t claim it as legally accessible. That’s about all I know about this subject, so share your experience and research on this if you can, okay? It’s safer for us to share this if a prospective visitor checks in with us, than to raise their expectations, and then disappoint them if there are barriers we didn’t recognize.
Also, be aware that there are a handful of people who make it a full-time business to seek out businesses that are not technically compliant, and sue the pants off them. My understanding is, unless we have store hours, we don’t have to meet this demand. (Don’t take my word for it, this will take time to research!) But it makes it even more important that we stick to actual legal requirements in describing our accessability.
Whew, I’m done with this part! Fine print, legalities, none of this is my forte, and just researching this stuff enough to share it with you today has drained my batteries. But I hope it’s enough to get you started, and in time to get it all nailed down before your event.
Remember, ask your friends, your fellow artists, other people in your building (the ones who are artists/creatives) for more details.
And also remember, as cumbersome and confusing as some of these requirements might feel, once you get it done, renewing all these legal documents is easy-peasey.
Last, again, if you have strong experience with these topics, and/or professional experience, feel free to share that here! I will bow to your bigger experience and be grateful.
And a P.S. after the “last”…if you find these articles helpful, please pass on a link to them to anyone that mind find them useful, too. And sign up for my newsletter to make sure you don’t miss a single one!
In my last article, I shared how we can respond positively to “stupid questions” (which aren’t actually stupid, but conversation openers.) I also shared how signs can help with that.
Today’s post is brief. (Quit cheering, please!) 😀
There are signs that are important to protect us from being taken advantage of.
This involves whether or not you take credit cards (and which ones you don’t accept), checks, and/or cash.
Repairs? It’s usually a simple process for me, it reassures new customers they can trust me to do the right thing, and it restores their faith in humanity.
You need your seller’s permit/business license prominently placed, too, if your city requires one. This is new to me in California, as the state I’ved in and built my biz in for almost 30 years did not collect sales tax nor income tax. (I was spoiled!) I still apologize to customers for charging them sales tax. (They are baffled until I explain. And I have to stop apologizing for that.)
Most important: You need a sign that states clearly what your return policy is. Also your commission/special order policy, and the deposit, if required.
Fortunately, I didn’t have to learn this the hard way. A fellow artist shared a story with me years ago, about a customer who ordered a ton of his work in his studio. Literally, a sale that easily represented a month’s worth of show orders, a year of studio sales. They payed in full, and he shipped the items. He was ecstatic!
Then, a month later, they said they didn’t want them anymore, returned every single item, and demanded a refund.
Turns out they’d had a huge upscale event, and wanted his work to impress their guests. Once the party was over, they didn’t need the fancy artwork anymore.
And because his return policy wasn’t publicly visible, he had no legal grounds for refusing their returns.
He urged all of us to post our return policies, at shows and in our studios. Lesson learned!
Mine says I accept returned works within 10 days of purchase (or received, if it’s shipped), with credit toward their next purchase. It sits where everyone can see it, as soon as they enter my studio.
Special orders and commissions required a 25% non-refundable deposit, and includes one remake. I’ve only had one customer ever challenge that, almost 20 years ago and they kept hinted their partner was a lawyer as a veiled threat. I was actually glad to refund their money because a) I hadn’t even started it yet, a week later; b) I never wanted to deal with them again; c) the bs involved in a legal case was simply not worth it to me.
Most customers are simply people who love your work enough to buy it. But the very few who lack integrity can wreak havoc if we aren’t prepared.
Protect yourself from the users and abusers.
In my last article, The Stupid Question, I explained how actually treating this as a stupid question hurts our connection to our visitors. Today I share some suggestions to answer them better!
Some common questions for me:
“What are these made of?” My response is usually intuitively based. I’ll mention the polymer clay, but especially when I started out, when I simply said, “They’re polymer clay!”, most people would put the item back down. (It was not considered a legitimate “art material” back in the day. And back in the day, a lot of media were not considered “real art materials”, as this article shows: SUPPORT YOUR MEDIUM: Other People Are Listening!
First, it’s more powerful to share WHY you use your medium-of-choice. I’m not a painter, but the one time I tried, I realized I would never paint with acrylics. They set too fast, and I tend to rework and make adjustments every step of the way in my making process. I couldn’t keep up with the drying time of acrylics. You’ve also either deliberately or instinctively chosen a medium that works for you.
So instead, share that: What is it about your chosen medium that fits your process, your style, even your personality?
What are the benefits of your medium? Mine is that, unlike ivory and bone, no animals are harmed by my process. (That’s been a pretty powerful detail for my visitors and customers!)
And though most of the materials available to creatives today are often ranked in terms of “quality”, after you read the above article, I hope you’ll see that that isn’t really relative anymore.
“How long does it take you to make this?” Aha! The one we all get! (DO NOT SAY, IT’S TAKEN ME 30 YEARS TO MAKE THAT!) In my case, I ask if they are familiar with making puff pastry or Samauri sword making. Always gets a chuckle without insulting them, and almost everyone is familiar with one or the other. I compare those layering processes with my faux ivory process, which involves mixing the colors, conditioning the clay, creating multiple layers, ending up with a block of layered faux ivory clay. And say, “And THEN I start shaping my artifacts.” This is almost always followed by a gasp of how complicated this process is. I follow up with how I fire them, how I use a scrimshaw technique to bring out the details, how I sand and buff them to a shine.
Not one person has ever noticed that I never say exactly how long that takes me.
You can do something similar. Explain what catches your eye when you decide to paint a landscape, what you try to capture in a portrait, what your aesthetic is in your glass/pottery/wood work, etc. How you capture that in your work, what the steps are in your process, etc.
“Do you actually do any work in here??” I get asked that a lot! Including my most recent open studio event, when I was literally sitting at a table working to finish an item that had to be delivered to a gallery the next day.
I don’t know why people ask this. Is it because my “creative mess” is out there? Or because during open studios, I try to set out 90% of my work, so it looks like there’s nowhere for me to actually work? Is it because even on ordinary days, it kinda looks like a gallery, or store? (I hear that a lot, too.)
Here’s what I’ve forgotten: When we get asked a specific question a lot, one good way to explore it is to ask the person why they ask! That’s my goal for my next open studio. To laugh and say this:
“Yes, I do ALL my work in here! I get asked that question a lot. May I ask what made you ask?”
This is an excellent strategy to get an answer I’ve only been making assumptions about. And as you can see, our assumptions can dump both us and our visitors into a bad place. When I get more insight into this particular one, I’ll come back and add it to this.
“Where do you get your ideas?” This is your chance to talk about what inspires and intrigues you, what draws you to a certain subject, or certain body of work. For many of us, it’s closely related to our creation story. (Mine is!)
“Where do you get your materials from?” Mine are wide and varied, but even if you use a single medium, you can share a) why you use the brand you prefer; b) you can share your favorite art supply source (especially local ones, who will appreciate that!); c) if they’re eclectic and unusual, share how you got drawn into that medium, and (again) why. If it’s wood, for example, what are your favorites? Why? Is it the characteristics of a specific tree? The history of the tree? One woodworker asked me for assistance years ago for their artist statement. They were focused on the process. Way too focused. But as we dug deeper, they shared the resilience of wood, how even damaged trees (by fire, insects, etc.) still have beauty. A metaphor for the human condition, I told him, sharing some suggestions, and encouraged them to use it in their artist statement. (It was published in a magazine years ago, and it still moves me to tears when I read it.)
Also, if a person is interested in your work and materials, this might also indicate they’d be interested in classes. And when you ask if they’d like to hear about the classes you offer, that’s the perfect time to find out where they’re from, and to get their email/snail mail address. (See how much easier it is to get this information once they’ve started to engage with you more deeply?)
Signs are wonderful! They anwer questions, engage introverts, and help us multistask with visitors.
Again, if the questions get tiresome, and/or you have too many people in your studio to explain over and over, signage is your best friend. Some people actually prefer reading more information about you and your work. But if you’re engaged deeply with someone, say, wrapping up their purchase, etc. you can always point a person with a question to your sign that answers it. They’ll appreciate it.
I have signs about my stick collection, my fabric collection, the boxes I use in my shrine series, my inspiration and ideas, my artist statement, the stories behind each of my animal artifacts, and more. They add a whole nother layer of exploration in my studio.
They can do the same for you.
If you’d like to dig deeper into questions and signs, here are some articles that might be of interest: Questions You Don’t Have to Answer (Lots of goodies in there!)
Feel free to share the questions you get, especially the ones you struggle with. There are so many ways to turn them around! And other people might have the exact strategy that works for you. The power of sharing….
(I wrote this way back in 2007! It appeared on Fine Art Views, an online art marketing newsletter I wrote for, for over a decade. It’s still the most most powerful bit of advice I can give ANYONE who wants people to connect with their work. OH, and there were some terrific comments that completely validated my position on this, if you want to check them out.)
It’s smart to be nice.
What do I mean by that?
Well, if you’ve ever hung out with a group of craftspeople who do shows, or participated in an on-line forum discussion about shows, you’ll recognize an all-to-common topic:
The stupid things our visitors say.
It’s always a hot topic, and the posts will often outnumber any other thread in the forum. Except, of course, the one on the difference between art and craft. (A word to the wise: Don’t go there!)
It’s true, of course–people will say the oddest things in your booth, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. They may say baffling comments, sometimes verging on the insulting.
I always held back from sharing. Because I have a guilty secret.
First, because people rarely said things I thought were stupid or insulting–just lucky, I guess. Or maybe I it was the quality of shows I was doing. Remember, I quit doing those small retail shows early on.
Second, I myself was fairly new to the craft world. I didn’t know any professional craftspeople when I started out, nor any artists. I figured people weren’t saying anything out of the ordinary, or anything I wouldn’t say under the same circumstances.
In fact, that’s my third point.
I’m one of those stupid customers.
There have been times when I’ve been in an artist’s booth and asked that same “stupid question”–only I knew I didn’t mean it to be stupid, or offensive. I knew I liked the work and honestly wanted to know more about it, or the artist.
I can tell I’ve asked “the stupid question” because I get the heaved sigh, the eyes rolling heavenward, or just as bad, the smart ass retort that makes me feel like an idiot.
My most embarrassing memory is standing awestruck in an artist’s booth at a fancy high-end retail show, just blown away by this artist’s work. I couldn’t tell what it was made of. I didn’t want to touch it–it looked special, and no touching, right? And there wasn’t a single sign or card in the entire booth explaining his process or technique. (I guess the art was doing that “speak for itself” thing….)
The artist was standing with their arms folded glaring at us. I said, “These are beautiful! Are they painted tin or wood?”
They glared at me in silence, and then THEY TURNED THEIR BACK ON ME!
I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t figure out what the heck I’d said that had made them so angry. Embarrassed and frustrated, I left the booth.
So when those long lists of “stupid comments” come up, I keep quiet. Because obviously, I was one of those “stupid people” they were all making fun of. And I didn’t like it, because something didn’t feel right.
Years later, I was vindicated
I learned this insight from Bruce Baker, who used to travel the country doing seminars on sales and selling for artists and craftspeople. He explained the whole dynamic of “letting people land” in your booth–they come in, take a look around, and settle in to shop. You give them a minute to catch their breath, greet them quickly, let them know you are available if they need you (“IF I can help you, just let me know.”
And then back off.
You leave them alone. They shop. You remain available but busy, not hovering, not following. Not deeply busy so they hesitate to approach you. Just….available. Doing something minimal, like dusting, making price tags, sorting your paintbrushes, etc.
Then comes that magic moment when they decide it’s okay for you to talk to them. They will give you a signal.
That’s your cue to start talking about the work.
Unfortunately, many, many creatives blow this opportunity wide open. They will take this cue and misinterpret it. They will respond with sarcasm, or anger, or indignation, or badly-placed humor.
Because that cue is often “the stupid question.”
Did you see it in my own example? I liked the work enough to stay in the artist’s booth. I looked at everything in there. I finally made up my mind to engage the artist.
I asked them a question. I wanted to meet them, to talk to them. I hoped they’d share some insights about their work with me. Maybe they’d even convince me I had to have one! Maybe there was a really cool one at just the right price that could go home with me….
Instead, they let me know he didn’t even want to look at me anymore, let alone talk to me. Because my question offended them!
Now maybe they’d heard that same question a thousand times already. Maybe they paints on some rare rain forest wood and was insulted I thought it was cheap tin. Maybe they paint on recycled tin roofs from their childhood farm and was insulted I thought it was cheap wood. Maybe it was some intricate intaglio process and they were insulted I thought it was paint.
I dunno. But now I’ll never know. And I don’t really care.
Because they missed their opportunity to answer my question (or NOT answer my question, as the case may be) in a way that would have started the sales process.
They could have have sent me off with a painted sculpture, a new balance on my Visa card, and added a new collector to their mailing list.
Instead, they dumped me in a puddle of their anger and my embarrassment. And I’ve never felt the slightest interest in their work since. (I don’t want that energy in my home, no matter how talented or famous the artist is.)
For all I know, I have been the subject of their own “stupid customer” stories.
But I have my revenge. I get to make fun of them today. Here.
Another common “stupid question”: “How long did it take you to make this?” Some artists get annoyed, thinking, “Oh, they just want to know how much I make an hour!” No, maybe it intrigues them, maybe it’s something they’ve thought about exploring themselves (classes, folks!) Even the “funny” reply, “It’s taken me 30 years to make that!” is still a joke at our visitor’s expense. Ha ha! Yeah, no.
So the next time that topic comes up, think twice before getting caught up in that “stupid customer” thing. It doesn’t serve you, and it doesn’t serve your art.
Think hard before asking for a “snappy comeback” for those “stupid questions.” You’re going to feel good for awhile. But your bank account is going to feel lighter.
Me? I have permission from Bruce to be nice.
And I’m gonna use it to the hilt!
Next article: How to respond to those “stupid questions”.
(This article includes elements of a post in my GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD series, “Leave Me Alone!”) (Actually, read “LEAVE ME ALONE” first, I’d forgotten this incident. But it fully explains all my frustrations about how we’re “supposed” to interact with visitors and potential customers.)
I know plenty of talented, experienced, act-like-adults artists who have strong opinions on how we should greet visitors to our studio, and how to talk with them.
Frankly, because of my own personal experience as a shopper/browser/highly-evolved hunter-gatherer, at stores, at fairs, at open studios, their suggestions make me want to scream. (But maybe not you, so go with what works for you, okay? The people who made them said it worked for them, so it may resonate with you as well.)
When I enter a store, especially one I’ve never been in before, the last question I want to hear 2 seconds after entering is, “May I help you?” Or, “Are you looking for something special today?”
I’m sure you hear this all the time, too. And what do you say in response? I’m betting it’s some version of, “No thanks, just looking.”
But even other questions can be annoying, or perplexing. One suggestion was, “Have you seen some good art today?”
Sounds okay, right?
Me? When someone has been interested in my work enough to come to MY studio, why on earth would I get them started talking about someone ELSE’S studio??
I asked the person about this and they said it worked for them. So if it appeals to you, go with it.
But here’s the thing. Now imagine that you’re at a show with hundreds of other exhibitors, or part of an open studio tour with the same. And every time you enter someone’s studio, they ask something similar. Even something as neutral as “How’s your day going?” gets frustrating after you’ve heard it twelve times in a day. (I hear silent screaming. Let me give you a minute. Okay!)
Other suggestions are similar, but all of them are, in one word, a distraction. Making idle chit-chat is not why they came to see us. (YES, we need to ask them where they’re from, or how they heard about us, and especially if they’d like to sign up for our newsletter/event notifications. But wait until you have a stronger connection with them first. Wait until they’ve explored a bit first. Why? Keep reading!)
When people enter a new space–a store, a show booth, a studio–they need a few seconds to land. They look in (at a booth) or around (in a store or studio) and figure out if it’s where they want to be. Give them those few seconds, before you pelt them with questions. (See examples below)
Bruce framed this approach as eliminating pressure. Visitors, customers, shoppers, don’t like pressure. Pressure can break every connection that is formed in those precious few seconds.
If we ask them that question about other people’s studios, about how their day is going, where they’re from, etc. please know that probably every other artist on the tour has asked them something similar.
If we ask them if they are looking for something in particular, or if they need help, or if they have any questions (they just got here!!), even why they chose to come to your studio, remember: These are either pointless questions, or coming too soon. They will say, “No thank you, just looking.”
If you were a store, they would look, and leave.
Instead, greet/welcome them. Introduce yourself and your work in one or two sententences. “Hi, I’m Luann, welcome! My work is inspired by prehistoric cave art. I make all my own artifacts that look like ivory, bone, shell, and stone.” Make a list of what you’d like to say, practice it so it feels second-nature, and keep it short.
I add, “It’s okay to touch things, pick them up, open drawers. Make yourself at home….”
Here comes the magical part. In his seminars, Bruce says there is one little word that turns everything around:
“….and if you have any questions, just let me know.”
If. IF. IF.
A powerful little word that turns that whole dynamic around.
It allows that maybe they won’t have questions, and that’s okay. It allows them to determine how they’re going to spend their time in our space. Signage can give them information that lets them go deeper into the “how” and the “why” behind our work. (More on signage coming up next!)
It removes the pressue.
They will say, “Thank you!” With enthusiasm. And they will dig in. (In a good way.)
Now, some visitors are out-going, and they pepper you with questions. Great!
Some visitors just want to look around first. Great! In fact, I use lots of signs in my studio, so people who aren’t ready, aren’t eager to talk with me, can still get answers to their questions. And if there’s someone asking me questions, everyone else will listen to my responses.
People are going to ask a lot of questions, and the simplest ones are about the “how”, the “where”, and the “what”. Be prepared! What is your process? What are your materials? Where do you get them? Where did you learn how to do this? and so on.
Over time, you’ll see a pattern of common questions. For me, it’s “What are these made of??” I don’t mind answering the same questions over and over, but some artists do. If that’s you, write up a succinct description of your process and inspiration, print them out, and frame them for visitors to read. (I use these frames, which are less than $4 each, but you can find them in smaller quantities, or split the pack with other artists if you don’t need 6 or 12.)
Even more powerful is sharing your creation story, the moment you chose to live your life and make your art with intention is the heart of everything you do, write, and say. Here’s an article about how to find your creation story, and here, and why they matter.
You assignment is to do some deep thinking about you and your artwork. Then come up with a couple sentences to introduce yourself and your work.
Be ready for all the questions you’ll get, and direct people to your signage if you’re out of steam or simply engaged with another visitor in the moment.
The next article is about what people will do when they are ready for you to talk to them. And the danger of misinterpreting their intentions, which can blow you both out of the water. Stay tuned!
Questions? Comments? Happy to hear ’em! Remember, if you have a question, someone else probably does, too. So you’re not only helping me do better, you’re helping someone else!
A little segue into a PSA today….(and updated to include links to some resource here in Sonoma County/California. Pretty sure ALL states have something similar!)
NOT ALL HOMELESS PEOPLE
There are homeless people all around us, and around the world.
We all have strong opinions about this population, mostly negative, sometimes justified, of course. And yet…
If only we could change our viewpoint. If only we could see this population having ONLY one thing in common: No place to live.
Because my premise is, “Not all homeless people…”
First, I believe our biggest anger against homeless people is our way of protecting ourselves. Blaming the victim(s) is a way of distancing ourself from what happened to them. “I would NEVER do xyz!” “That would NEVER happen to me!” We blame them for their situation, because none of us want to believe it could happen to us. Or because, deep down, we know it COULD happen to us. Many women (including myself!) fear becoming a “bag lady”. If we lose our partner, or our job, or don’t have enough money saved, well, we could be one step away losing our home, too. And then we’ll be “one of those people.”
We are all one step away from a cancer diagnosis, one step away from losing a loved one, one step away from being scammed out of savings, of relapsing into addiction, a car accident, a tornado, hurricane, or wildfire, or any other major life tragedies. If it hasn’t happened yet, welp, yeah, maybe we’ve been careful, cautious, prudent.
But maybe we’ve just been lucky.
So first….Not All Homeless people.
Not all homeless people are drug addicts or alcoholics, although drugs and alcohol might well be how some of them mitigate the pain of sleeping on sidewalks, in the rain and cold. Not all homeless people live with mental illness, though for sure it’s harder to get help when your resources are so limited. Not all homeless people are thieves. Not all homeless people are violent. Not all homeless people are alike.
In fact, this population is widely diverse.
Out of curiosity, I checked out some statistics about homeless people. Turns out that, before Covid-19, homeless numbers had dropped by a third between 2015-2020. But Covid reversed all those gains due to illness/death, job losses, evictions, etc. Only 20% of homeless people are “chronically homeless”. The other subgroups are significantly tied to race, gender, and income. Homeless people are disproportionately Black, brown, and LGBTQ.
Statistics also show that most health issues (mental health, addiction) cannot be addressed successfully without getting people off the streets and into homes, FIRST.
We may still disagree about who deserves our help. But here are some ideas through that barrier:
Are you an alcoholic, hopefully in recovery? Or do you have a friend or family member who struggles with this? Consider helping programs with support groups this population could benefit from. (Lots of resources out there, dig a little and find one that resonates with you.)
Are you a veteran, or have a friend/family member in the military? Consider donating or volunteering with vet services to assist this population. (These people already get the most support, but there still big holes in the net.)
Are you a person of color, or do you have a friend/family member whose struggles are harder because of that? Consider contributing to organizations who offer support for this population.
Do you identify as LGBTQ? Or have family members/friends who do, who you care about? You may be very familiar with the difficulties they’ve faced in life. Consider working with organizations that offer outreach these people.
Do you have teens? We were all teens once! Did you struggle as a teen? Consider donating or volunteering your skills with SAY/Social Advocates for Youth, which offers services and some housing for young adults, especially those who aged out of foster care, or (as above) were kicked out of their homes for being gay, trans, etc.
Do you have small children? Were you, or do you know, a parent who is single/divorced who struggles with child care, etc.? Consider donating or volunteering for The Living Room which offers day services for homeless moms with kids.
Do you love dogs? The Samuel Jones Hall, the largest homeless shelter in Northern California, accepts clients with dogs. This is critical, because accepting services often means having to give up your beloved dog. You can donate dog food, grooming stuff, etc. to this shelter.
Do you have compassion for any homeless person who wants to do better, get better, have better? I just found an article in our local paper about two women, formerly homeless themselves, who took over three thrift shops that went out of business due to Covid-19 protocols. ((I won’t go into that story because there’s still a lot of dust settling… from the previous owners.) Intrepid Stores not only hire homeless people, they help them move forward in all kinds of ways. The work they do is amazing. (We forget, for example, that most employers require a HOME ADDRESS when hiring new people. Guess who doesn’t even HAS a home? Yup. Homeless people.)
In fact, this is the biggest reason why homeless people resist shelter services:
They lose the power of their choices. (This is also why some senior citizens resist being placed in nursing homes. You are SAFE. But you cede control of your life, from what you eat to when you pee, for that safety.) Some shelters only serve men, some only serve women, which means partners have to separate, for example.
Even many homeless people who do enter a shelter may still have to vacate during the day. So shelters are a first step, but still a difficult one.
I believe that the harder we work to see the at-risk groups, to see the individuals in this population, the more compassion we can hold for people who did not choose to be homeless, the more we can focus on helping them move forward in life.
Because when we chose love and engagement instead of hatred and fear, we are all better for it. When we choose to see individuals, we can truly help make the world a better place.
If learning to see the actual groups, the real individuals, who need our help, and if our stepping up to the plate could rehome up to 80% of this group, that would be amazing progress, right?
Let’s try it. Use one of your skills, a little money, maybe just your time and compassion, to pick a group you can identify with. And help them take one little…GIANT…step forward.
If you thought this article was helpful, there’s even more in this post on my blog:
Continuing with the series of how to create the best experience for our open studio visitors. ***With an update for Art at the Source artists who are hosting/hosted outside their studio.***
Arranging our artwork can be complicated. Those folks who do one medium are the lucky ones! 2D people need walls/bins/an easel display or two. Jewelers use cases, 3D people need pedestals/shelves, etc. Me? I do all three, so my display can feel overwhelming. But I also have a special advantage.
Let’s start with 2D artwork. I’ve seen experienced 2D mixed-media artists arrange their paintings by medium: All the oils in one spot, all the acrylics in another, all the watercolors, etc.
The issue I have with this is, I doubt our visitors/customers/potential customers wake up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll buy a watercolor today!” Now, for sure they might say, “I think I’m ready to buy Sally Baker’s watercolors today.” (Because Sally’s watercolors are unique and stunning.) And yes, some well-experienced collectors may only collect oils, or acrylics, etc. But most of our visitors just want to see our work, especially if they’ve never seen it in person, or are already familiar with it and want to see our work, our workspace, and/or US.
The second reason this may not work well is from my personal experience. A new-to-the-biz gallery owner I knew opened a gorgeous gallery in a major city near me. They had excellent artists, and the work was displayed beautifully except for one thing: It was all arranged, not just by medium, but by each artist’s work.
That meant all the work of one potter was in one spot. All the work of one jeweler was in another spot, and so on. In a store like Corrick’s in downtown Santa Rosa, this can work, for two reasons: First, people can wander from artist to artist easily, and sometimes two people’s work are combined in a way that makes us appreciate both. Pottery on handmade tables, for example.
In this gallery, the space was more linear in set-up. As I entered the store, I realized I was not there for pottery, nor jewelry that day. It was easy to dash by the first pottery display, then dash by the jewelry, etc. In short, it was way too easy to dismiss and eliminate what I was NOT shopping for that day.
So even if you do have a client who is only interested in oils, they may unconsciously totally ignore the acrilics wall–and miss the work that might truly speak to them.
So from the very beginning, (and because I work in 2D, 3D, jewelry, fiber, polymer clay) I’ve mixed and matched my work. There will be a wall hanging hung above a tall stand holding one of my shaman necklaces, with smaller works–smaller necklaces, earrings, etc. arranged around them. Every arrangement is unique, and visitors will look at them longer because it’s harder to simply eliminate them easily.
***Update for Art at the Source artists. This tour allows artists without studios, or studios that aren’t easily open to the public, to join a host artist at that artist’s studio or place. So obviously, mixing it up may not work for anybody, let alone everybody!
But even here is an interesting opportunity for them. What if…
Every artist contributes one piece to a single display. Instead of a visitor thinking, “Nope, not interested in glass today!” or “I only want to visit X’s space”, there could be an integrated display that demonstrates how these cordinated examples of several artist’s work would look in a home. “Oh, look how wonderful that glass tray looks with that painting!” Or “I never thought of grouping my art collection like that!”
Years ago, I shared my studio space with a friend who did a beautiful portrait of my daughter wearing one of my big shaman necklaces. I think she made it after our open studio collaboration. But if I were in that same place now, I could display that portrait with a display of that necklace, together. I’m pretty sure everyone would see both of those works of art with more appreciation, not only of my friend’s skill, but of my own work as well.***
Another technique that works well, especially for works in one medium, is called “Papa, Mama, Babies”. This is where your biggest, priciest piece (the Papa) is the center of the display, one item. It will command attention from anywhere in the room! Around it (whether on a wall, a tabletop, a case) are several slightly smaller, slightly less expensive pieces (the Mamas). Last are a bigger assortment of very small, very affordable pieces–the Babies.
Your longtop or experienced collectors might go for the Papa, of course. Or it may take years to sell, if it’s out of most people’s price range. But it’s doing its job! It shows what you are capable of, your “go big” moment. The Mamas will attract people with a smaller budget, perhaps to fill in for a collection of your work they already have at home.
The Babies? They are for your potential new customers, or people on a budget, people who are new to buying art, and people who are avid collectors but have no more wall/tabletop space in their homes, either because they already have a lot of art, or they’ve downsized. (That’s me on both counts!) For some artists, this can also include a packaged set of cards with our artwork. (Package them in lots of 4, 5, or 6. Don’t let people get away with buying one card.) (In a nice way, of course!) Plus the more cards your visitors buy, the more likely they are to share them with friends. Who will also be introduced to your art.
Another approach is to prioritize you latest, newest body of work, especially if you are slowly or quickly moving away from the regular work, and exploring something new. An abrupt change in our work can disorient people who have followed us for years. (I have a story about that!) Introducing that change gradually can avoid the shock value of the new. (Not always necessary, of course, but the shock in my story link above could have been avoided.)
Another aspect of our work display…. the power of touch.
I’m fortunate in that my art media are durable and touchable. In fact, I encourage people to pick things up, open drawers, and try jewelry on in my studio. Touch is an important human feature. It’s our very nature to want to touch what is intriguing, beautiful, what speaks to us.
Unfortunately, many artist work in media that can’t be touched: Paintings, photography, etc. Or they are too fragile (delicate glass work) or valuable (expensive jewelry), etc.
If this is you, consider proving a little display of what CAN be touched, or examined more closely. Again, one of my favorite displays at Corrick’s art gallery is a little tray showing the tools and materials artist Rik Olson uses for his woodcut prints. It’s educational, and interesting. I’ve never been to his studio, but I hope he has a similar (or even bigger) interactive display there! And back to Sally Baker, she has several wonderful, enticing displays of the lovely salt shakers, dishes, and vases she uses as subjects in her work.
If you do fiber work, consider putting some samples of what you make or use: Strips of wool for rug-hooking, the yarn you’ve spun and braided yourself, a display of the wood you use from a “raw” stump, to slices, to a shaped piece, to a polished/burnished piece. Anything that can be safely handled or simply touched, and also shows the stages of your work process.
One more idea for display, which I got from checking out other artists’ websites: The work is arranged by subject matter: florals, still lifes, animals, portraits, landscapes. (This makes much more sense to me than by medium.) In my home, I set up my collection of 2D work by subject: New England in fall; horses; nature and wildlife; etc., and sometimes by color.
All of these suggestions are not written in stone, and of course, as artists, you should always use what works for YOU. (My ONLY deadfast rule is, no artwork on, or even near the floor. Nobody was to bend over to see your work, it could easily be accidentally kicked by a visitor’s foot, or even trip them, and it sends an unconscious message that you don’t value it yourself.)
But we should also remember that most of our visitors are open-minded and perhaps even a little impulsive about what speaks to them. Oils vs. acrylic, art vs. craft, earth clay vs. polymer clay may (unnecessarily) create divides among artists. But it rarely divides our customers.
Last, let’s talk how much cleaning we should do in our studios.
Mine is always a hot mess. But people love it! I’ve learned to clear enough of my workspaces so it’s not a) dangerous; b) frightening; c) taking up too much space.
But mostly, people love seeing my tools, my materials, my fabric collection, my drawers of artifacts waiting for their special placement in a new piece.
In fact, the biggest reason, IMHO, that new people visit our studios is that they’ve seen something that intrigues them in our work, online, in the preview exhibit, or in a gallery. They want to find out more, about us, our work, our process, even our space. That can also mean showing them a bit of our process (a work in progress, perhaps), a bit of our creative mess (my tools, equipment, extra display items are visible on a higher shelf), our materials (perhaps your paints, brushes, study pieces, etc. would be fun for visitors to see.)
We don’t have to look like a gallery! We just have to make our space look authentic.
When I mentored new artists last year for Art at the Source, each one had concerns about their space. Fortunately, I was able to actually visit their studios at the time. The person who worried her space was too small? That tiny space would encourage and inspire people who didn’t think they had the space for their own studio, perhaps inspire them to rethink their options.
To the person who needed to set up their display in their homes? I helped them remove the distractions (other people’s artwork, etc.), to make clear what was for sale and what wasn’t, and to reposition some furniture so people would avoid the deadends or crowded corners mentioned in my previous article, Make Your Studio Safe for Visitors.
The person who restaged her livelihood workspace for art display? I encouraged their to share a work-in-progress to share her process, and signage to encourage their visitors to “go deeper” because of their powerful story about their work. (More on signage coming soon!)
Our job as artists isn’t just about selling our work. When we share not just our artwork, but our studio, we encourage other people to take up the work of their heart, too. We set a wonderful example that will keep making the world a better place for all of us.
Stay tuned for the next article in this series! How to Talk With Visitors.
(This article is adapted from my series GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD, #3 Alice’s Tiny Doors. Also #2 Let Me In! I was going to add more….Okay, there are TONS of stuff about layout in that series, check it out! All the information that can apply to open studios AND show booths.)
Before I forget, an excellent book by Paco Underhill, WHY WE BUY: The Science of Shopping is a game-changer. Underhill actually watched people shopping, caught moments when people stopped, turned around, put an item down, you name it. And then they figured out WHY those people didn’t/wouldn’t make that purchase. It’s an easy read, it’s a quick read, and it’s worth its weight in gold. Grab a copy asap!
Back to open studio stuff. When setting up or adapting your work space for visitors, make sure it is a) safe; b) accessible; and c) accommodating. And by ‘safe’ and ‘accessible’, consider not only the obvious dangers, but what triggers the unconscious human behaviors that are meant to keep us safe, but may disrupt our visitors’ looking/shopping.
- Keep your floor safe for visitors.
- If you have rugs, check that there are no curled-up edges or corners people might trip on.
- Don’t let electrical cords trip people. If some have to cross a visitor’s path, check out covers for those cords. They still have a trip factor, but they’re easier to see, won’t pull down whatever the cord is attached to if someone DOES trip (as a trippy cord might), and flatter covers will obviously work better than ones that are high highly-“domed” or angled.
- Unplug any power equipment you use that could be dangerous for visitors: saws, sanders, buffers, etc. Most people wouldn’t dream of deliberately turning them on, but I learned my lesson after an absent-minded visitor turned on my Foredam buffer out of curiosity. (No one was hurt, thank goodness!) If you have tools, chemicals, etc. that are sharp/dangerous, but you are okay with people seeing them, just put them out of reach, especially if children are present.
- Watch for slippery places: Spilled drinks, grease, etc. Be ready to clean them up quickly if they occur.
- See #3.2 below about what can escape our notice if we’re not paying attention, or if a visitor is deeply absorbed with looking at our work.
- Do a safety check. Remember that lights get hot (although with new LED lighting, this is less of a danger nowadays.) Make sure any halogen lighting you use will not make any contact with fabrics, flammables, nor customers.
- Don’t put your artwork, or anything not important to your display, on the floor except that rug, for many reasons:
- What you put on the floor looks like you don’t treasure it.
- People’s feet stick out from their bodies. That’s why our kitchens have toe-kicks. Anything below waist-level might not ‘register’ in our brains, which is why we often trip or hit a table with splayed-legs. (I’m CONSTANTLY hitting my knees walking around our bed, because the footboard is too low to “register” in my unconscious brain, even though I walk around that bed EVERY SINGLE DAY.) And if people are deeply engaged with our work, they may not notice something that sticks out.
- People hate, hate, HATE bending over to look at something. And many people are at that age when even if we CAN squat down, we have to think really hard about getting back up.
- Be aware of tight spaces and dead-ends in your studio layout. This is really trickly, but once you watch people avoiding certain areas of your studio, it gets easier to catch. People unconsciously avoid areas they may feel ‘trapped’ in. They may avoid a dark section, again unconsciously. (This is why an unlit studio with dramatic lighting for your artwork is not a good idea.) Apparently this is a wonderful way for a gallery to showcase a painting that a customer is very interested in, but for general display, bad lighting and dark places will not serve your visitors.
- Beware the Butt Brush! Narrow spaces and aisles can create what Underhill refers to as “The Butt Brush”. This happens when aisles are too narrow and someone brushes someone else from behind as they attempt to pass buy. The reaction of the brushed person is profound and extreme–they immediately stop shopping. It is an especially powerful reaction in women. So by all means, if you want women to stop looking at your work and walk away, make sure they are getting brushed and bumped from behind as people scootch by. (I’ve experienced this myself and it is deeply instinctual.)
- How to avoid the “bull in the china shop” scenario. Avoid any display or setup in your space that could be unstable, fragile, easily knocked over, etc. If people touch a pair of earrings and the display stand falls over, it will freak them out. If they lean on a jewelry case and it rocks, it will freak them out. If a branch holding Christmas ornaments is sticking out and snags their shirt as they walk by, it freaks them out. Especially if it causes damage.
- Guide people subtly with your display layout, and use visual cues to move them through your space. Arrange your work so that one display leads to the next. Signage, dashes of color in a neutral display, lighting, work angled in interesting ways–all of these are so much more conducive to shopping than narrow paths and rigid layouts. (More on display in the next article!)
- Make it clear what’s for sale, and what isn’t. (You can check out GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD #10: Mystery Product for more details.) Short story: This is harder to do in a studio, because it’s not like a booth or shop that’s dedicated to selling. It’s also our workspace, our creative space, our inspirational place. It holds our supplies, our tools, our work-in-progress, the bowls of fruit and china we stage to create a still life, etc. I make little signs out of pieces of matboard that say, “For Display Only” on any items that aren’t for sale. NFS for “Not For Sale” works, too. Not everything has to be priced, of course, but price tags do help letting visitors know what’s definitely for sale.
I’m gonna give you a break and stop here. We never get it all right the first time, but use every opportunity to take note of where trouble spots (and troubling spots) are as people move around your space.
Did I miss something? Send your questions, if you have one, someone else needs to know, too!
Stay tuned for my next article on setting up our art display! Arrange Your Art There are some pros and cons to the traditional thinking about this, you get to choose which one resonates with YOU.
When I stepped up to the plate with my art, I was an eager beaver student. I started with small local art fairs, but within a few years, I did the the wholesale fine craft show circuit (introducing my work to gallery owners, publications, etc.), then moved up to a large retail show (the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Annual Fair, arguably the oldest art show in the nation), and then a few high-end shows.
I did years of shows before I did open studio events! But doing shows taught me a lot: How to display my work, how to price my work, how to greet customers, how to process sales, etc.
Within a few years of doing open studio tours, I dropped all my big shows (except for the Craftsmen’s Fair) and focused on those in-person studio visitors.
Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about this, too. This series will walk you through the basics, the fine points, what I’ve learned from other artists, what I’ve learned from seminars led by Bruce Baker, visitors, and loyal customers. (Yes, your customers can be fonts of wisdom, too!)
Now, most of us want to be “real artists”. What does that mean? Well, we need an art degree, a resume, a list of galleries that represent our work, a list of exhibitions we’ve participated in, a (e)mail list of customers, press releases and publications (books, magazines, newspapers, etc.) that have featured our work. Oh, and the awards we’ve won, and prices that reflect the popularity of our work. And a successful open studio event is one where we had a ton of sales.
Everything about those assumptions is wrong.
You do not need an art degree to be a “real artist”. (I don’t have one.) You don’t need a resume. (I had one, but I don’t maintain it anymore.) I still have some galleries back on the East Coast that carry my work, and I’m in several here in Sonoma County. (I hope to find more, but that’s not my main goal for now.) I’ve won awards, but I don’t care so much about winning anymore. I’ve been featured in newspapers, magazines, books, etc., but I don’t pursue that so much, either. The common advice I see everywhere about how to greet and engage customers has never worked for me. And the money? It’s ranged from pretty good to pretty dismal, as 9/ll, the recession of 2008, moving to the West Coast, etc. etc. have all taken their toll.
Ask me if I care. (You’re right! The answer is “nope”.)
The single most important thing a “real artist” can do is:
Make the work of their heart.
Tell their story.
Share their art with the world.
Money is great! But the truth is, not very many people make a living from their artwork/creative work. Yes, sometimes they’re not ‘doing it right’, but this is also a time in history where people in my age group (YES, BOOMERS!) are the biggest demographic in our country. (We probably outnumber our customers.)
And the research I did for a series of articles for Fine Art Views a few years ago, about why millennials don’t by our art, was truly educational for me. Tastes have changed, our collectors’ homes may be already filled with art (mine is!) younger folks may be just starting families, careers, etc. and not have the budget for our work, yadda yadda yadda ad nauseum.
So we may be competing for BUYERS.
But there is no limit on building our AUDIENCE.
And eventually, some folks in our audience will become buyers.
I tend to be wordy (ahem), but Tenae Stewart, who worked at Sebastopol Center for the Arts a few years ago, told me shared seven little words with me that summarized this entire series:
Art events aren’t about making money TODAY.
This has been my entire art career, in seven words. The reasons doing shows was hard is, my work is out of the box. (Some people even tell me to my face it’s not “real art”. Okay. But I don’t care.) It takes awhile for people to figure out what they’re looking at, why it calls to them.
Some people look, and walk away.
Others? They lean in.
And if don’t screw up my interactions with them, they will come back. They will bring a friend. They will sign up for my blog/newsletters. They will find something new and interesting every single time they come to my studio. Someday, they’ll buy a piece. And some people will keep on collecting our work, year after year.
And the biggest reason why open studios are such powerful audience-builders?
Because our studios, our sacred creative spaces, are where the magic happens.
As Bruce Baker said in a seminar years ago, “To regular people, artists are the ones who ran away to join the circus!”
We are outliers, out-of-the-box people. We took a risk to do what we do, not like taking a job where we know what we’re supposed to do, and getting a paycheck (and benefits) for it. We followed our dream, and made it real.
I believe we all have a creative force within us, but the magical myth of “real artists” still intrigues the rest of the world.
And for those people who didn’t find the encouragement to follow their heart, who don’t believe they’re ‘good enough’, who don’t think they have enough room to have a real maker space, who believe some people are simply born with talent and others (themselves!) aren’t….
Our studios can inspire them to take up their own creative journey.
If you want a head start before this series begins, check out my series on creating a successful booth environment in this series, GOOD BOOTHS GONE BAD. Booths are harder for us than an open studio, because we have to get the parts together, schlep it across town (or, as I did, across the country), set it up, wait for people to find us, realize we left a critical thing back home, break it all down and pack it up, and schlep home again.
Open studios? It’s like getting your house ready for a party! A lot of work, but not nearly as hard as big shows.
So take a peek at that series, check in to see the latest posts, and if you have questions, send ’em to me! I’ll either let you know the anwers are coming, or I’ll write some new ones.
Either way, don’t panic. You got this. I’ve got your back
Stay tuned for my next article in this series!