My Busy, Busy Life
by Luann Udell
This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine, a monthly business resource for the crafts professional, where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (infiber and art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”
As modern day artists, we are blessed to have access to all kinds of information about how to make, exhibit, market and sell our art. Art books, art galleries, art magazines, art blogs, art consultants, art reviewers, all give us excellent inspiration, advice, venues and opportunities. The internet puts all this information right at our fingertips and speeds up the entire research process.
Just in case we still have trouble, we don’t have to look far for help. Today in my e-mailbox I have at least a dozen offers from different internet gurus selling their services to help me market my business in all kinds of ways.
The one that caught my eye this morning was about getting things done. Today’s topic was making decisions. Faced with so many opportunities and possibilities, we often still find ourselves paralyzed and unable to move forward. The key, this particular guru claimed, is not enough information.
Hmmmmm, I thought. Not enough information? Or…too much?
Years ago, I was one of those people who researched my budding art career to the max. I was like a sponge, soaking up everything I could get my hands on, any information that could tell me how to stay inspired; how to find galleries to represent me; how to get my work published.
This approach is effective, too. Sometimes you play the numbers—apply to enough exhibitions, for example, and even if you only get into one or two a year, it will quickly add up to an impressive resume. Or you can fine-tune your approach—vetting galleries thoroughly before applying to them, targeting specific jury members or show curators, etc.
As I look back on this busy, busy time, I think I also wanted to be taken seriously as an artist. To me, that meant treating my art as a business, with success attained by achieving measurable goals on a regular basis.
I was such a go-getter, I frightened my peer groups. I was fierce in my pursuit of success.
I was also totally stressed, determined not to let a single opportunity slip by me. I got up early and left my work late, trying to cram 24 hours of business into 12, every single day. Keeping track of all the potential exhibits, shows, galleries and other opportunities was job enough for two or three people–not just a single artist who also had to make the actual artwork.
Then the bottom fell out of the handcraft marketplace. And all my determination and energy, my organizational skills and my beautiful work, suddenly they were getting me nowhere.
I kept trying the same old things, working even harder. I kept trying to figure out what to do next, as if the effects of a recession meant I was “doing something wrong.” Eventually I realized I was throwing good money after bad, as the old reliable venues continued to worsen and fall away completely. A good wholesale show can net enough sales to carry you over a year. A bad one, at $5,000 a pop in fees and expenses, can drive you quickly in bankruptcy.
I was left with a handful of galleries, no more big shows, a dwindling customer base, and a huge mountain of business debt.
So. In a culture where money is the coin of the realm, where money is often the easiest measure of our success….
What does it mean when nobody is buying our art?
It can feel like either your work is no good, or that nobody wants it, or both.
To survive as an artist, I had to change something–fast!
I had to do some deep thinking about WHY I made art, and WHO I was making it for. I had to find a way to stay the course, even when it seemed like the world did not want or need my art.
I realized, finally, that maybe it seemed like the world didn’t want my art–today.
But I needed to make it.
So I let my focus drift. I stopped looking for the “one big thing” or “the next really great show” that would make me successful. I began to see “success” in a very different way. This will be different for everyone, of course. I’m still on that journey, too, so don’t ask too many pointed questions yet! :^)
I grew grateful for the people who still wanted it, even when it was hard for them to buy it. I realized I was learning a lot about myself in the process of making art. I began to share that with people, in my booth at shows, on my blog—and people responded to that.
I began to soften my focus. I even let go of the money thing. I quit pounding on doors. I stopped adding shows to my schedule and even dropped some major ones. I fell off the advertising bandwagon, simply alerting my current customer base when I was doing a show or having an open studio.
I became more comfortable with NOT KNOWING. Not knowing what to do next. Not knowing how much money I could expect to make from any venue or show. Not knowing what where this will all lead.
Instead of looking for the next “big thing”, I focused on making the next $100, slowly chipping away at my business debt.
And a funny thing happened.
My work slowly, but steadily, began to sell again.
Even as galleries cut back on their inventory, others clamored for it. Even as some shut down, others opened. Customers who had not made a purchase in years, suddenly needed a piece of my jewelry or fiber art in their lives. Internet sales picked up.
Within a year I was able to pay down my debt, and have enough money left over to take me through the upcoming year.
Why? I’m not sure. Something of the passion I put into my work, and the place it has in my life, was resonating with other people who wanted the same thing. A reason not to DO, but to BE. Telling that story and letting people respond.
I’d love to say I figured out that this new kind of relationships were key to this new business/life model. But I didn’t. It just happened when I quit struggling so hard. It happened when I let go of controlling everything so well.
I just fell into it by wanted something deeper than simple monetary success. By being open to a different opportunity. And that has started me down a whole other kind of journey with my art.
In fact, during my open studio last week, a customer said something wonderful about my work, how highly personal and original it is. I said, “Yes, when I first started out, I knew not everyone would want my work. And I still know not everyone needs it….” Before I could say any more, she raised a finger and said, “They don’t know they need it….YET.”
Oh, and the example given in the highly-focused email I got today? It was about managing your email. Yep. An entire article on how to manage all that stuff in your inbox.
Me? I think I’ll just let the in box sit for awhile. And go make something beautiful today.
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