TIMES CHANGE. Do We Have To??

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

 

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Sometimes, we don’t need stories.

Last week, I traveled to the East Coast to see my daughter and her husband and their new home in Washington, D.C. While I was there, I had an interesting conversation about art with her.

Robin actually worked with me for over a decade in my show booth, doing a 9-day local retail craft show, and a major wholesale fine craft show on the East Coast. She started as my booth assistant: Helping with set-up, processing sales (which allowed me to be “The Artist”), etc.

She was involved in the drama club in high school as a member of the stage crew, so she soon did my lighting set-up, too. She was quiet by nature, and a keen observer. She saw many of the clues that indicated a display or floor layout needed to be tweaked. And as she grew more confident, she became an excellent salesperson, too.

These show opportunities gave her exposure to “handmade”, too, and she came to value it highly. Over the years, she bought (or we traded for) glasswork, pottery, photography, jewelry, and she now has her own “handmade” pursuits.

She continues to shop for “handmade” even now. But she shops very differently than my generation does!

She mostly buys on Etsy.

And she does not care about the story.

When she told me this, I was shocked. Every time we drove for an hour up to the 9-day retail show, I would put in a cassette (and then the CD) of Bruce Baker’s tips on displaying and selling. Over the years, I almost memorized the content, and so did my kids.

At one marketing education event in which I sat on a panel with Bruce, I had to bring my 8-year-old son with me at the last minute. Doug sat patiently in the back row with snacks and a book. When Bruce did his presentation, he said, “When you introduce yourself to someone coming into your booth, you need to avoid pressuring them. There’s one little word that will turn the whole dynamic around. Anybody know that word?”

Of course, I knew the word. But no one else in the room did. The silence went on until I finally said, “Doug knows the word.”

All eyes turned to little Doug in the back row, and Bruce said, “Doug?”

And Doug confidently replied, “IF!”

As in, not “CAN I help you?”, which will almost always be responded to with, “No thanks, just looking” but “IF I can help you, just let me know…” which will almost always be responded to with, “Thank you!” and opens a conversation when the person is ready.

So after listening to all those presentations on story, and because my story is so personal, and powerful, how could Robin not care about the story???

It turns out she and her husband are self-described “geeks and nerds”, fully into the gaming world and its heroes. Though she still has all her artwork from “the old days”, their little home is now also filled with sweet and funny meme art: Godzilla posters, Star Trek “Next Generation” artwork, and little toys from their childhood.

“I just don’t care about the story, Mama!” she exclaimed. “If I like something, I just buy it!”

Ruh-roh…..

Now, on one hand, my daughter is probably not your customer. They don’t have the money to afford more than $100, and their taste does not tend to landscapes, bowls of fruit and wine, or rusty trucks.

But handmade is important to them. She prefers NOT to shop at Target’s, but has many “favorites” on Etsy, and visits them often. (She also purchases handmade watercolors on Etsy to create her own work.)

They collect work that reflects their interests, their lifestyle choices, and their pocketbook.

And they will continue to do that, presumably for the rest of their lives.

So in a time where there are more working artists in the world than ever, throughout history, in a time where many of us started out 20, 30, even 40 or 50 years ago and we are gradually losing our patrons to downsizing, changes in lifestyle and even, sadly, death, in a time where “Ire fortiter quo nemo ante iit” [1] is an important detail in a print, how do we grow a new audience?

I’m not suggesting you start painting Data and Geordi in their Holodeck Sherlock Holmes adventures. There are plenty of people who still love landscapes, partly because our brains are hardwired to appreciate a landscape. It’s welded into our DNA from the time of our need to scan horizons constantly, looking for danger, for the morning light, for foraging for food. We will always want images of people we love, and so portraits will always be a “thing”. Still lifes always catch our eye, depending on whether they depict the components that speak to us.

And I am not suggesting we all stop telling our story.

When we fear our work isn’t good enough anymore because sales are slow, remember that not only, have our collectors dwindled, more importantly times change. In fact, yesterday I saw a trendy new jewelry design that echoes the minimalist aesthetic in the marketplace when I first started making jewelry in the early 1990’s. (A time I do not wish to return to. Oh well.)

And I say loud and clear, do not lower your prices! Especially if you’ve already sold items in the same series at the higher price. It sends a terrible message to the people who literally and figuratively invested in us. And it makes our pricing strategy seem random and reactive.

And here is the deepest hope:

Once people learn to treasure “handmade” over “mass-produced”, they never leave it behind.

If anything, the “maker movement” has made handmade even more desirable. And the boundaries of what “real art” and “real craft” is, is being expanded exponentially. (Folks who get stuck in “real art is only oil painting” and such were never my potential customers in the first place. And collectors of the multi-million dollar Impressionist artwork sold for record prices at prestigious auctions were never my customer base. People who snort at “craft beer” and “artisanal food” may be right, but the customer base for those don’t care what WE think. I got over it. You can, too!)

My daughter still wants something of beauty that came from another person’s hands, and heart, especially when she started to make and sell her own work. As she browsed for an urn for the ashes of her stillborn child, she became frustrated with the same ol’ sale ol’ look of them. Nothing felt personal enough, or fit the emotion of the event. When I suggested that a good friend who works with wood might make something especially for her, she lit up. (She found a maker on Etsy who resonated with her.)

This box will be in their home forever, and every time they see it, it will bring a bit of solace amid the sorrow. They may not know, or care to know, the story of the maker. But it holds their own story of this time, and that’s what matters.

The potential of this younger audience is huge. Yes, trends have changed, and money will be an issue, for awhile. But when they have the money, they will up their game for the artwork and handcrafts that “speak” to them.

I’ve experienced this first-hand in my old A Street studio. One last-minute shopper bought a small framed bear artifact collage for his wife. He thought it was a guinea pig! Rather than be offended, I simply said it was a bear, just so they wouldn’t feel misled, and he said, “It looks enough like a guinea pig, she’ll love it!” And so I made a few hundred dollars in a five minute transaction.

I saw another artist’s work at a gallery, who paints still lifes of vintage children’s toys. Their work was excellent, but sales were slow. What would I suggest to them about marketing?

Approach the toy manufacturers who produced those toys, to see if their corporate offices are interested. Find stores that sell high-end baby and children’s products, to display and sell them. Children’s hospitals and wards might be onboard for artwork and/or murals. Tag images of the toys, manufacturers, etc. online with whatever would attract this age group, new parents, and young homeowners. Lower their budget threshold by offering reasonably priced repros, or offering smaller works, or larger original work without frames. (It’s not forever, just until your new audience grows enough to tolerate your higher priced work.) Seek out galleries that attract a younger audience, OR the new grandparent market. (Grandparents are my age, and they probably have more disposable income!) There are probably lots of other potential venues, and I hope you’ll share the strategies that have worked for you.

There are younger visitors who do feel the powerful story in my work, and they enjoy hearing mine. They are also grateful that in addition to my shrines, which can be priced in the thousands, I have smaller original works for less than $100. And they buy them.

I’m still processing this, just like you. I don’t have any sure-fire solutions to help rebuild an audience that has dwindled.

Right now, I make what I find meaningful and beautiful. I try to offer a range of work that can meet most budgets. I keep the quality in the work, refusing to “dumb it down” or use inferior materials to make it.

I have signage in my studio that tell stories, not just for those who would rather read it than listen to me tell it, but also so I don’t “force” my story on those who may not need it to make their purchasing decision. (Yes, there are ways to tell! Hint: It’s what they ask us about our work when they are ready to talk to us.)

I have found an audience, steadily, through my work and my writing. It still serves them, and new ones will emerge. I just have to keep making it, keep marketing it, make it accessible online for those who can’t meet me in person, and easy to buy for those who prefer not to engage. I’m fortunate my artifacts are safe for youngsters to touch and hold, too. Asking a child if they would like to hold a bear or a horse (and waiting while they seriously ponder their choices, which is a hoot!) doesn’t end in a sale. But it opens a doorway to experiencing art for the whole family, and has produced beautiful stories down the road. (This one is my favorite!)

So let’s open our hearts, and our minds, to these changes which time will bring.

There are many ways for our work to become a part of someone else’s story, someone else’s world, someone else’s journey.

Keep hope in your heart, and be open to new possibilities. And be patient with yourself, as we all navigate these new waters.

Art is part of us, no matter what it is, no matter where, or how, or when we find it. Online markets can be just as powerful as in-person encounters, if not more. (Many in this age group never even think about going to traditional art galleries. Yet.)

And I will hope ALL of our art, mine, and yours, will be “found”, someday, by the people who will love it and enjoy it for the rest of their lives.

Rethink on the Reboot

Sometimes a “major change” is simply many tiny changes in outlook.

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I have to admit, simply HOLDING something I’ve created is often enough to reconnect me.

For everyone who wrote me asking why I’m walking away from my art and writing, let me reassure you, I’m not!!!!!

am at what my dear hubby calls “an inflection point”. I’d never heard of that before, except as a math term. But one dictionary describes it as

  1. 1.
    MATHEMATICS
    a point of a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs.
  2. 2.
    US
    (in business) a time of significant change in a situation; a turning point.

That’s what it feels like. A “change” is coming, but I don’t know what it is.

What I do know is, my story hasn’t changed.  I’m not done telling that story! And so my art itself, and my propensity for writing about my art (and what I’ve learned from making it), will not change.

I got lost in trying to pinpoint what was going to change. Stuck in trying to figure that out, because sitting with that has been hard.

Because when we choose not to move forward until we’re sure what that looks like, we lock ourselves into the present while fearing the future. (Perfectionism, thy name is “Luann”….!!)

I had fallen so low in my self-esteem in this flux state that I broke my own rule about giving away my work.

I don’t give my work away to people who expect it to be free, or those who demand I give it to them.

Such a simple rule, and I broke it. To the tune of agreeing to do free work worth thousands of dollars. And to be grateful to the person who said I should do it.

No worries, I walked it back! I’m only out $200, and I consider that a lesson I will never have to learn again. I hope!

I was in the middle of a health crisis (not life-threatening, but life-style threatening), a state of physical and emotional exhaustion, a state of living with uncertainty so long, I couldn’t see the gifts I already have: A home, a family, a loving partner, my health in general, the beauty of the California landscape and seascape, my studio, etc. I’ve been focusing on how close we are to losing many of these gifts, obsessed with security, and my struggle to control our future. (Ha!! Good luck with that, human!)

So I made a few more bad decisions.

But I also made some very, very good decisions.

Like reaching out to family, good friends, old friends, new friends, readers, supporters.

I reached out, and found people who listened, deeply.

I overcame my main worry, that I only reach out when I need help, others will  judge me on my own selfishness (“She only calls when she’s stuck!”)–and found they were genuinely happy to help. Not only that, I found everyone was going through similar stuff, themselves. And they welcomed my help/feedback/support! (“Reciprocity” is a word that’s been resonating with me lately, and I was delighted to engage in it.)

They walked me back from the next bad decisions I’d made. And although I’ve been in a deep funk about who I am, they’ve been holding the memory of who I am, when I’m at my best.

And even better, they shared how much they love and respect me even when I’m at my worst. 

Which gets me to where I am today: Tiny steps forward, and for the first time in months (many months!), holding a tiny bit of hope.

How I got there in a few hours yesterday is what I want to share with you today.

There’s an online class offered by Yale University, and anyone can take it if you can cough up $40. (And if you can’t, there are grants available!)

It’s called The Science of Well-Being, a class based on brain science and scientific evidence, developed and taught by Laurie Santos. It’s been in the news since the course wen’t online in March. It’s quickly become Yale’s most popular course.

The short story is, we don’t really know what we want. We don’t really know what will make us happy. And if we don’t understand what really will, or won’t, make us happy, then our pursuits in life won’t result in happiness.

The first video talked about “A ‘Good’ Job”. When you ask people what they want from a job, it’s often things like “a big salary” and “opportunities to advance”, and “prestige”, etc.

But it turns out those can be misleading goals that don’t necessarily make us happy in the long run. Yes, a livable income is important. But not at the expense of other goals that will actually improve how we feel about life. Like work that appeals to our strengths and values, work that challenges us in a good way, work that provides us opportunities to be “in the zone” or what is now called a “flow” state.

So how do we do that? How do we identify those unique strengths, our important values? How do we learn to nurture them those strengths and values? Because doing so will nurture us, will increase our sense of well-being and happiness.

This isn’t the old 90’s thing about “follow your bliss and the money will follow.” It’s more evidence-based, and doable. This class shows what works, and how to do it right.

After a few hours of work yesterday, I read something that gave me a glimmer of hope that I, too, can figure this out.

One evaluation survey showed that after taking the course, and implementing the (very simple) exercises, almost every student showed an average 30% increase in their sense of happiness.  That’s nice.

But what blew my socks off was this statistic:

On average, every single student also reported a 70% DECREASE in depression.

Think about that.

We all know there’s no such thing as “happy all the time”, or a life filled with constant joy. I think we all shy away from anything that promises that. After all, I’m following my passion in life, and I still struggle with insecurity, a sense of not-doing-it-right, not being able to even pay for my studio rent with my art, and not being able to pay for much of anything from my writing. (A friend was gob-smacked when I told her how little I am paid for my one paid writing gig. And that’s just “the new normal” for free-lance writers.)

So “being happier” was something I’m always a little suspicious of.

And I already know some of the more obvious, popluar goals, like “make more money”, won’t fix everything–especially if I sacrifice integrity and what makes my work powerful. I know fame and celebrity can be a shadow goal, and potentially a self-destructive pursuit.

But the promise I could be less unhappy? Significantly less unhappy?? Bring it on!

That tiny ray of hope, the realization that things really could be better, inside, with a shift in perspective, was enough to raise my spirits.

And the way that happens–aligning key character traits and values with my life mission–is already giving me a wee bit of clarity of what that “inflection point” might be.

As always, I’ll keep you posted on my progress.

And in the meantime, I hope you check out the course, especially if you are also struggling with what would really make you happy!

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE REALLY GREAT SHOW THAT WASN’T: Thoughts on Getting Over It and Moving On

My biggest local show to date was last weekend. I’m still recovering. Physically, emotionally, spiritually.

I set up my very professional-looking booth. Those of you who read my sad tale of woe about my pedestal base covers can see that, by staying organized and clean, the lack of covers was not an issue.

Quickest set-up ever, and it looked good!
Quickest set-up ever, and it looked good!
very professional-looking booth.

My display was also clean and simple.

Focus was on jewelry, and featured only my new Ancient Oceans series.
Focus was on jewelry, and featured only my new Ancient Oceans series.

I brought ONE wall hanging, just to give people context for my work. And at the last minute, used these felt pieces as accent pieces. These are from a collaboration I did years ago with another fiber artist. She did the felt, I did all the little artifacts.

These went BEAUTIFULLY with the white/neutral theme of the Ancient Oceans line!
These went BEAUTIFULLY with the white/neutral theme of the Ancient Oceans line!

I had a new cool outfit, on loan from my Santa Rosa buddy Patricia Reilly (also a jewelry artist, who is teaching me to sew my own linen duds!)

Being clueless about outdoor shows, I would have baked to a crisp, if a fellow exhibitor hadn’t noticed and asked one of the show support staff to grab an umbrella for me. (It went right in between my two cases, was exactly the right size and color, and looked great!)

So what went wrong?

Other competing events meant fewer people attending. Those who did attend, were not buying. (It was mostly about the food, the wine, and the music–dancing!!) And I was right behind the band stage. (GREAT music, but also very loud.)

As always, there were small moments of brightness, and gifts. A few people were captivated, and they were invited to my next open studio. The show was extremely inexpensive to do, so I didn’t lose much money. (Fee was $50 and a 20% commission on sales. I sold two inexpensive pairs of earrings, and made $84. You do the math.) Several friends showed up to brighten my day and model my jewelry.

Michele Bottaro, rockin' my Shaman Horse necklace!
Michele Bottaro, rockin’ my Shaman Horse necklace!

So what could I have done better?

Well, for one thing, in my eagerness to get my biz rebooted here in Northern California, I broke my first rule about shows:

Visit the show before doing the show.
Talk to the vendors. Ask about sales and audience-building. How long have they been doing the show? Does it work for them? What are their strongest price points?

Check out the products. Apparently painted baseball caps are a thing. Google it. It’s not awful per se, but I can’t compete with a $15 product.

Look at the crowd. Is there energy? (And not just from the music and food.) Are they actually buying? If so, what? Painted baseball caps??

Of course, I’ve visited shows that looked great, and by the following year (when I do it), something has changed. The economy, the layout, the venue. ANY of these changes can result in the phenomenon known as the first-year show. I’ve learned the hard way never to do a brand-new show.

Listen to your gut. There was a strange dynamic between the person who personally asked me to do the show (and followed up with me several times) and me. I try not to smack-talk people in my industry, so I’ll just say, that dynamic continued throughout the show. It’s hard enough to do shows without weird, slightly-hostile interchanges that go on and on and on. I honestly don’t know what I did to bring that out, but I also don’t care. I won’t be working with that person again, so it’s a non-issue.

The last thing will sound swell-headed, and I apologize in advance for that. But I’m getting the sense that, when you and your work reach a certain level of originality, quality, appeal, recognition, as mine has (sorry!! sorry!!), it’s to a gallery’s/promoter’s advantage to have you in that show–even if it’s not really a good fit for you. And I fall for it every time.

Sometimes I do want to support that person, give them a chance, go out on a limb for them. As I said, there is often an upside to doing a show that can’t be measured in sales and money. And of course, sometimes it’s anybody’s guess what show will be good for you, and what ones won’t.

But the older I get, the harder it is to do these shows, especially when, over and over and over again, it’s clear to me that the magic happens in my studio, and only rarely anywhere else. (The League of NH Craftsmen’s Annual Fair was the only exception, and it took years to get traction there, too.)

And of course, most folks will tell you it’s necessary to keep doing that bad show show that doesn’t work for you for three- to -five years, to build a following. That hasn’t worked for me, and apparently it often doesn’t for others, either, as this excellent article at Fine Art Views by Carolyn Henderson explains so thoroughly. (SO glad it’s not just me!)

Where do I go from here?

Taking a deep breath in. And breathe out slowly…..

I can still experiment with gallery representation, though I’m more interested in wholesaling.
I’ll focus more on this season’s First Friday events, with summer and fall’s long, bright evenings, where local art galleries and artist studios are open to the public. Next one is this Friday!
I’m already putting more energy into my updated Etsy shop. So this week I’ll be putting up all that cool new jewelrythat didn’t sell, as promised.
And I’ll have faith in my process, and give myself time to grow.

It’s always worked before, and I believe it will again.

The metaphor here are those three white felt pieces. That collaboration took place the second year I did the League Fair, 16 years ago, and I’ve never displayed them since. So it felt a little retro (as in ‘going back over old ground’) but it felt right. As does my continuing realization that I may not be starting at the beginning, but I surely am starting over

And the funniest part?

I didn’t realize the guy who sold painted baseball caps was right behind my booth. As we broke down, he asked me how the show had gone. I told him, not well.

He said, “Well, don’t give up, I’ve been doing shows for seven years now. You gotta….” and a litany of the advice I’ve given others for lo-these-past-20-years poured out.

I smiled graciously (I hope) and thanked him.

And then went over to Patty and Jim’s house for beer and Mexican salad, with locally-grown avocadoes and locally-grown artichokes for appetizers.

Beer helps.

So do good friends, and a sweet, supportive partner. Thank you, Ana, Barb, Michele, Patty, Jim, Deb, and Jon. Did I miss anybody? Lemme know!

ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE

I’ve become one of ‘those people’–people who feel sad about their art. I hat them.

I was fussing and fuming in my head this morning, about how nobody wants my artwork anymore stupid stuff, when I realized I’d become one of “those people”.

The whiney, self-absorbed, time- and energy-consuming, nobody-can-help-me, hugely annoying artist, drowning in a sea of self-pity and ennui. The people who start off any conversation, professional or personal, by heaving a soul-weary sigh and declaring…

“I feel sad about my art.”

I’ve been in several artist support groups in my art career. I’ve learned to duck and run for cover when someone takes this stance more than once. Especially if, when you offer feedback or advice, they argue with everything you say.

I hate it because I’ve always believed this is a cheat, a cop-0ut. A way of letting yourself off the hook, to shirk responsibility for getting your art out into the world.

And now I’m one of them.  Let me take a moment to search for a cartoon on the internet to illustrate my point. Got it!

Over the years, as I learned to supress my urge to kick these people became a better listener, I realized there are really two kinds of whiners:

There are those who unconsciously use the mud they’re stuck in to excuse their own inaction. Sadly (but true), nothing will work, nothing will help, no advice or suggestions will get through, until they’re ready to change it up. They may need a new creative outlet, a new way of thinking, sometimes even a new partner/lifestyle/career. But that’s their journey to make, not ours.

Others truly are aching to get out of the mud. We just haven’t been taught or shown how to do that.

And most of us, their friends, their supporters, haven’t learned how to really help.

We haven’t learned how to listen–deeply, patiently, fully.

That’s what a great support group does. No advice. No cheering up.

Instead, we listen. And ask questions. And more questions. We poke at that person, gently, until we understand better what it is they’re really asking, and what they really need.

And usually, what they really need? They either need better information, a little moral support, and/or affirmation for their creative self.

Sometimes our sense of failure is based on misconceptions. Sometimes we’ve been knocked down by a particularly rough spot in our life. Sometimes, we’ve just never actually thought about what it is we really, really, really want, in our life or for our art.

And that’s okay. In a world awash in information, it can be hard to sort out the bits that are right for us. In a world that’s always full of uncertainty, even danger, and death, it can be hard to create a space for peace and wonder and hope. In a world that measures success by our income, our celebrity, our website hits, our Facebook likes, it can be hard to know what really makes us feel whole.

I’ve been whining a lot lately. And fortunately, along with the silly (though thoughtfully offered) advice, there have been some wise listeners. too. They pointed out some thing that could save me from working at McDonald’s help me earn some kind of income in 2016, and would still be a way of teaching/sharing/giving back to my community.

So to all the sad-about-my-art people out there, I apologize. My friend Nicci once said, “When you point your finger at someone, three more are pointing back at you.”

I hope, if you really do want to not be sad anymore, you find the peeps who will help you do that. I hope you find people who care, who listen, who shine a light in front of you, so you can simply see your next step.

Til then, another Jessica Hagy illustration, to give you a better way to look at the mud.