What We Lost
Post Hoc Fallacy
I subscribe to Seth Godin’s blog. He may be an expert on marketing, but a lot of his posts also offer incredible insights into how to have a life well-lived.
Yesterday’s post was no exception. I was gonna skip it, because the title was odd. “Abnormal” did not sound like a good fit for my day.
And yet, it was exactly what I needed to read:
“Are you hesitant about this new idea because it’s a risky, problematic, defective idea…
or because it’s simply different than you’re used to?
If your current normal is exactly what you need, then different isn’t worth exploring. For the rest of us, it’s worth figuring out where our discomfort with the new idea is coming from.”
I’ve been writing for the online art marketing newsletter, Fine Art Views for many years now. At first, I focused more on marketing, salesmenship, display and lighting at fine craft shows, etc.
But more and more, as I struggled with my own role as an artist in this modern world, I shared deeper thoughts and musings: What it’s like to be a woman in the art world. (Kinda scary, sometimes!) What it’s like when you realize your sales aren’t great, and it’s really hard to figure out how to change that. (Do you quit? Or do you keep on? What’s the point??) What do you say when someone insults your work? (Snappy comeback at their expense? Or something so deep and embracing, it challenges them to look again?)
I write mostly what I’ve learned along the way, the powerful things others have taught me, and how to be a force for good in the universe.
I try to tread carefully on posts I know may trigger critical comments, and use humor often. Most of the comments complain my articles are too long. (To be fair, they complain all the FAV articles are too long, but especially mine. I started finding the word count and adding “7 minute read”, so that people who don’t have seven minutes could pass.)
But nothing stops a truly negative person. I actually did a series called “Haters Gonna Hate”, about how we cannot possible please everyone with our work and how to move on to focus on the people who do…..
And almost every article drew a comment (or three) complaining about me using the word “hate”. Because….I kid you not….they hated it.
I am always happy to engage in a discussion, because that benefits everyone in the end.
But over the last few years, I’ve gotten some toxic comments that were so out-of-line, they took my breath away. And although every writer on the site gets slammed from time to time, I seemed to get more. (I seriously think it’s because for a few years, I was the sole female writer in a historically male-dominated art world.)
I’ve learned not to slam back. (Not my usual style anyway.) I’ve tried to explain why my reality may not be theirs, and that’s okay. (Though the commenter usually thinks THEIR reality is the “real one”.) I always wait until the pain and frustration softens, so I can respond with my highest, best self.
And now, my editor has agreed to move the weekday my articles are published, so they can monitor those toxic posts better. (I chose Saturdays, but because the editorial staff is not available on weekends, I had to sit with that poison for two more days before they could be deleted.)
So back to Seth’s blog post yesterday.
I think this is why I get such blowback from some of my columns.
I’m sharing something so different from the traditional definition of “artist”, the way an artist measures their success, and including those who don’t even consider themselves a “real artist”, it is
People accuse me of misreading the term “triggering”.
But I think that’s exactly what happens. What I’m writing about is a different thing from what they believe is “true.” So they find it problematic, defective, instulting….instead of just “different.”
I love it when people sit with the “different”, and reconsider their assumptions and definitions about “real art” and “real artists”.
It means I did it right.
I’m comfortable exploring the “different”. I don’t need to change because they aren’t.
I’ve always said, from the very beginning of my art career, “My art isn’t for everyone.” I can sit with that.
And I also know my writing is not for everyone, and I can sit with that, too.
No one is forced to buy my art, nor read my writing. (In fact, even now, if you hate reading this, you can…..delete it! (Takes a second, and poof, it’s gone!)
But here’s who I write for.
People who struggle constantly with, “Am I good enough?”
People who work hard on their art, their art skills, their marketing, their social media, and still can’t rely on good sales.
People who wonder what the point of making art is, if no one wants to buy it.
People who think they’re doing it wrong.
People who think everyone else is doing it right.
People who don’t see other artists like them in the world.
People whose social circle constantly diminish or demean their choice of subject, medium, color palette, style, etc.
And of course, people who want advice on selling, marketing, customer service, display, etc. etc. etc.
I always preface or end with the statement, “If what you’re doing works for you, don’t change it!!”
And yet, although, of course, I always think I’m right (I’m human!!!) I also recognize the power of emotional and social growth. The power of changing my mind. Seeing the life lessons and tiny gifts in the hard times. Crossing the path of people who DO know better than I, and who share their hard-earned insights with people like me.
And so, although sometimes my words hit the wrong places in the wrong people, I will keep on writing until I can’t.
A big thank you to those who like what I write (at least most of the time) and who share your own comments and insights. You are proof that we all have something that can lift someone’s heart and encourage them to pursue their own creative work. You also show that you are a true, open spirit in the world, embracing every step of the journey. You make my heart sing!
Because the world needs our art, no matter what form it takes. Creativity of any kind is a force for light in the universe. (My Star Wars mantra!)
In this vein, if you are reading this today and like it, pass it on to someone else who might enjoy it, too.
And if someone who has your back, forwarded this to you, and you like it, you can sign up for more at my blog here.
Actually, I love turquoise. I love aqua, apatite, amazonite, every shade of bluey-greeny and greeny-blue, and everything in between. Especially green turquoise.
I love turquoise so much, I have to consciously STOP USING IT when I realize every single new piece has turquoise beads in it.
As I’m working today, I keep thinking about an artist who commented on my Fine Art Views post yesterday.
They asked for insight on how to keep their partner inspired to make art, when their partner’s work had been rejected by a gallery. They had not returned to their art-making since their rejection.
Okay, my lizard brain immediately thought, “One gallery?! You’re gonna let ONE GALLERY be the judge of your entire body of work?!”
My kinder brain understands completely. And I responded in kind. (No pun intended, but it slipped in there anyway.) Rejection is always hard, even when we know not everyone will love our work.
But here’s a story of how ridiculous that is, to let ONE GALLERY, one person, determine whether your work is “good enough”.
A few years into my jewelry-making, I approached several area stores to carry my work, and a few said yes.
Less than a year later, one gallery manager called me to pick up my work. “It just doesn’t sell!” they exclaimed. And as I looked at the display, surprise! I could see instantly why it wasn’t.
It was on a bottom shelf, about six inches above the floor. Nobody could even SEE it.
I’d already suspected my work wasn’t going to work with this venue. When I first brought my work in, they examined every piece. They would heave a sigh, and shake their head as they moved an item into the “no” pile. (Which was about half my work.) It was obvious they found much of my work “lacking”.
And obviously, to ensure their assessment of my work was “right”, they made sure it wasn’t even in the line of sight of any would-be collectors.
Fortunately, a good friend gave me clarity on this manager, and encouraged me to take my work elsewhere, which I did.
If I had let that person shut me down, I would not be here today, encouraging you to look past the nay-sayers (some of whom may actually be intimidated by our work!)
A few years later, I approached another store, not a fine craft gallery, but a store where I was sure my horse jewelry would well.
This manager LOVED my work, as did their sales associates, and happily picked out a nice selection. Until….
They came across one necklace with turquoise accent beads.
“Ugh! I HATE turquoise!!”, they exclaimed, and set it aside for me to take back home.
I was baffled. Surely this person, a well-respected businessperson in our community, understood that THEY might hate turquoise, but a lot of their customers would love it.
Nope. So I gathered up those “rejects” and saved them for another gallery at another time.
What’s my point here?
I’ll say it again, what an old craft friend, Tim Christensen, told me years ago:
“Gallery owners are just customers with stores!”
Does every customer love all our work? Nope.
Does every customer love all our designs, and color schemes? Nope.
Does every customer appreciate our pricing, the value of our work? Nope.
Customers come and go, visitors look and leave. Some people love my horses, some love my bears, and some people prefer my more abstract, non-figural work. And a very few love all of it, and a lot of people are totally baffled, and leave within a few minutes of entering my space, be it my studio, a show, or a gallery.
Not everyone will love our art.
And neither do the galleries we hope might carry our work.
Some are….contradictory…no? Some don’t make sense, and some make perfect sense.
Gallery owners are people, just like you and me. Some of them are secure in their own work, and embrace ours. Some are envious, and look for ways to take us down. Some love our work, but know their customers won’t. Some aren’t fond of our work, but they know it will sell. There are a million reasons why they say yes, and a million reasons why they say no.
My deepest hope for you today is to consider these stories when your work is deemed “not right” for whatever gallery you’re dealing with.
I hope you understand that one “no”, or two, or even a hundred, doesn’t necessarily mean the world does not want your art.
Yes, maybe you’re not quite ready for gallery representation. (Did you bring in a sample of everything you do, which can come across as a lack of focus, or a lack of a cohesive body of work?) Yes, maybe you need to improve your skills. (Did you apply to a major show after one year of painting classes?) Yes, maybe you didn’t do your research and you’ve approached a gallery that focuses on abstracts, with your realistic landscapes. Yes, maybe you are kinda difficult to deal with, full of smugness about your work. (Some galleries will still take you on, if they’re sure they can sell your work. But why make it harder for them to decide to take you on??)
Maybe they just don’t like turquoise.
Sometimes, we don’t need stories.
Last week, I traveled to the East Coast to see my daughter and her husband and their new home in Washington, D.C. While I was there, I had an interesting conversation about art with her.
Robin actually worked with me for over a decade in my show booth, doing a 9-day local retail craft show, and a major wholesale fine craft show on the East Coast. She started as my booth assistant: Helping with set-up, processing sales (which allowed me to be “The Artist”), etc.
She was involved in the drama club in high school as a member of the stage crew, so she soon did my lighting set-up, too. She was quiet by nature, and a keen observer. She saw many of the clues that indicated a display or floor layout needed to be tweaked. And as she grew more confident, she became an excellent salesperson, too.
These show opportunities gave her exposure to “handmade”, too, and she came to value it highly. Over the years, she bought (or we traded for) glasswork, pottery, photography, jewelry, and she now has her own “handmade” pursuits.
She continues to shop for “handmade” even now. But she shops very differently than my generation does!
She mostly buys on Etsy.
And she does not care about the story.
When she told me this, I was shocked. Every time we drove for an hour up to the 9-day retail show, I would put in a cassette (and then the CD) of Bruce Baker’s tips on displaying and selling. Over the years, I almost memorized the content, and so did my kids.
At one marketing education event in which I sat on a panel with Bruce, I had to bring my 8-year-old son with me at the last minute. Doug sat patiently in the back row with snacks and a book. When Bruce did his presentation, he said, “When you introduce yourself to someone coming into your booth, you need to avoid pressuring them. There’s one little word that will turn the whole dynamic around. Anybody know that word?”
Of course, I knew the word. But no one else in the room did. The silence went on until I finally said, “Doug knows the word.”
All eyes turned to little Doug in the back row, and Bruce said, “Doug?”
And Doug confidently replied, “IF!”
As in, not “CAN I help you?”, which will almost always be responded to with, “No thanks, just looking” but “IF I can help you, just let me know…” which will almost always be responded to with, “Thank you!” and opens a conversation when the person is ready.
So after listening to all those presentations on story, and because my story is so personal, and powerful, how could Robin not care about the story???
It turns out she and her husband are self-described “geeks and nerds”, fully into the gaming world and its heroes. Though she still has all her artwork from “the old days”, their little home is now also filled with sweet and funny meme art: Godzilla posters, Star Trek “Next Generation” artwork, and little toys from their childhood.
“I just don’t care about the story, Mama!” she exclaimed. “If I like something, I just buy it!”
Now, on one hand, my daughter is probably not your customer. They don’t have the money to afford more than $100, and their taste does not tend to landscapes, bowls of fruit and wine, or rusty trucks.
But handmade is important to them. She prefers NOT to shop at Target’s, but has many “favorites” on Etsy, and visits them often. (She also purchases handmade watercolors on Etsy to create her own work.)
They collect work that reflects their interests, their lifestyle choices, and their pocketbook.
And they will continue to do that, presumably for the rest of their lives.
So in a time where there are more working artists in the world than ever, throughout history, in a time where many of us started out 20, 30, even 40 or 50 years ago and we are gradually losing our patrons to downsizing, changes in lifestyle and even, sadly, death, in a time where “Ire fortiter quo nemo ante iit”  is an important detail in a print, how do we grow a new audience?
I’m not suggesting you start painting Data and Geordi in their Holodeck Sherlock Holmes adventures. There are plenty of people who still love landscapes, partly because our brains are hardwired to appreciate a landscape. It’s welded into our DNA from the time of our need to scan horizons constantly, looking for danger, for the morning light, for foraging for food. We will always want images of people we love, and so portraits will always be a “thing”. Still lifes always catch our eye, depending on whether they depict the components that speak to us.
And I am not suggesting we all stop telling our story.
When we fear our work isn’t good enough anymore because sales are slow, remember that not only, have our collectors dwindled, more importantly times change. In fact, yesterday I saw a trendy new jewelry design that echoes the minimalist aesthetic in the marketplace when I first started making jewelry in the early 1990’s. (A time I do not wish to return to. Oh well.)
And I say loud and clear, do not lower your prices! Especially if you’ve already sold items in the same series at the higher price. It sends a terrible message to the people who literally and figuratively invested in us. And it makes our pricing strategy seem random and reactive.
And here is the deepest hope:
Once people learn to treasure “handmade” over “mass-produced”, they never leave it behind.
If anything, the “maker movement” has made handmade even more desirable. And the boundaries of what “real art” and “real craft” is, is being expanded exponentially. (Folks who get stuck in “real art is only oil painting” and such were never my potential customers in the first place. And collectors of the multi-million dollar Impressionist artwork sold for record prices at prestigious auctions were never my customer base. People who snort at “craft beer” and “artisanal food” may be right, but the customer base for those don’t care what WE think. I got over it. You can, too!)
My daughter still wants something of beauty that came from another person’s hands, and heart, especially when she started to make and sell her own work. As she browsed for an urn for the ashes of her stillborn child, she became frustrated with the same ol’ sale ol’ look of them. Nothing felt personal enough, or fit the emotion of the event. When I suggested that a good friend who works with wood might make something especially for her, she lit up. (She found a maker on Etsy who resonated with her.)
This box will be in their home forever, and every time they see it, it will bring a bit of solace amid the sorrow. They may not know, or care to know, the story of the maker. But it holds their own story of this time, and that’s what matters.
The potential of this younger audience is huge. Yes, trends have changed, and money will be an issue, for awhile. But when they have the money, they will up their game for the artwork and handcrafts that “speak” to them.
I’ve experienced this first-hand in my old A Street studio. One last-minute shopper bought a small framed bear artifact collage for his wife. He thought it was a guinea pig! Rather than be offended, I simply said it was a bear, just so they wouldn’t feel misled, and he said, “It looks enough like a guinea pig, she’ll love it!” And so I made a few hundred dollars in a five minute transaction.
I saw another artist’s work at a gallery, who paints still lifes of vintage children’s toys. Their work was excellent, but sales were slow. What would I suggest to them about marketing?
Approach the toy manufacturers who produced those toys, to see if their corporate offices are interested. Find stores that sell high-end baby and children’s products, to display and sell them. Children’s hospitals and wards might be onboard for artwork and/or murals. Tag images of the toys, manufacturers, etc. online with whatever would attract this age group, new parents, and young homeowners. Lower their budget threshold by offering reasonably priced repros, or offering smaller works, or larger original work without frames. (It’s not forever, just until your new audience grows enough to tolerate your higher priced work.) Seek out galleries that attract a younger audience, OR the new grandparent market. (Grandparents are my age, and they probably have more disposable income!) There are probably lots of other potential venues, and I hope you’ll share the strategies that have worked for you.
There are younger visitors who do feel the powerful story in my work, and they enjoy hearing mine. They are also grateful that in addition to my shrines, which can be priced in the thousands, I have smaller original works for less than $100. And they buy them.
I’m still processing this, just like you. I don’t have any sure-fire solutions to help rebuild an audience that has dwindled.
Right now, I make what I find meaningful and beautiful. I try to offer a range of work that can meet most budgets. I keep the quality in the work, refusing to “dumb it down” or use inferior materials to make it.
I have signage in my studio that tell stories, not just for those who would rather read it than listen to me tell it, but also so I don’t “force” my story on those who may not need it to make their purchasing decision. (Yes, there are ways to tell! Hint: It’s what they ask us about our work when they are ready to talk to us.)
I have found an audience, steadily, through my work and my writing. It still serves them, and new ones will emerge. I just have to keep making it, keep marketing it, make it accessible online for those who can’t meet me in person, and easy to buy for those who prefer not to engage. I’m fortunate my artifacts are safe for youngsters to touch and hold, too. Asking a child if they would like to hold a bear or a horse (and waiting while they seriously ponder their choices, which is a hoot!) doesn’t end in a sale. But it opens a doorway to experiencing art for the whole family, and has produced beautiful stories down the road. (This one is my favorite!)
So let’s open our hearts, and our minds, to these changes which time will bring.
There are many ways for our work to become a part of someone else’s story, someone else’s world, someone else’s journey.
Keep hope in your heart, and be open to new possibilities. And be patient with yourself, as we all navigate these new waters.
Art is part of us, no matter what it is, no matter where, or how, or when we find it. Online markets can be just as powerful as in-person encounters, if not more. (Many in this age group never even think about going to traditional art galleries. Yet.)
And I will hope ALL of our art, mine, and yours, will be “found”, someday, by the people who will love it and enjoy it for the rest of their lives.