THE THING ABOUT OPEN STUDIOS: Art Events Aren’t About Making Money TODAY

Luann Udell shared how art events are about laying the groundwork for potential collectors
Luann Udell shared how art events are about laying the groundwork for potential collectors

If money is your only measure of success, you may be missing out on the longer game…

I learned years ago that even a “bad” art event has its value. I had to learn that the hard way, by having a lot of poor sales at shows, exhibitions, fairs, open studios, even high-end fine craft shows across the country.

It started when I first did small local art fairs and craft shows. I never did well enough to go back, if my work wasn’t a good fit with other vendors.

But at each show I would a) have one good sale that paid all my expenses, b) made connections that grew, and c) always got a good tip, insight, experience, that convinced me not to give up.*

I began to realize it took time for folks to “get” my work. It wasn’t painting, it wasn’t pottery. It didn’t fit into any “box”. Almost every visitor did, and said, the same thing. They would stop, come in my space, and gaze at my work for several minutes. When they were ready to talk, they all said a version of the same thing:

“I’ve never seen anything like it, and it’s absolutely beautiful.”

So the work was good enough to pull people in, but different enough that they had to really think about it. I realized I was laying groundwork for something bigger, and better, down the road.

It kept me going, and eventually, I leaped into bigger, juried shows. Those people began to show up for other events: Open studios, art tours, art walks, etc. Gradually, my audience grew. I started doing wholesale fine craft shows, and was juried into a major fine craft show (retail) that same year. I did both shows for years and a couple of open studio events.  My audience grew every year, until I left for California in 2014.

I’m still relearning those same lessons over and over.

Last month, I joined another open studio tour, as the guest of another artist. Attendance was good, but sales were not.

It would have been easy to feel sorry for myself. Heck, I didn’t even get that many newsletter sign-ups.

But I realized I had accomplished my main goal: Introducing my work to a brand new audience. I had rich conversations with amazing people, who I know will come back. Only few dozen people signed up for my email newsletter during the event. But I gave out a ton of business cards and postcards, which paid off.

When I checked in after the event, I found a LOT of people had signed up online. (I think they wanted to see more, and liked what they found!) And I had the rare opportunity to get to know my host artist, and their other two guest artists, better. They are all remarkable people! (We drank a lot of Prosecco at the end of each day.)  (A LOT of Prosecco!)

 A few days ago, I was at the kick-off meeting for this year’s Sonoma County Art Trails open studio event, (Both tours are under the same umbrella organization, but focus on different areas in our large county.)

I was sitting at a table with the new manager of this particular 35-year-old tour. I mentioned that I had few sales at the other open studio tour the week before, not even covering my entry fees, but I was satisfied with it, all-in-all.

Then the new manager said the magic words that summarize this entire article into seven truth-filled words:

“Art events aren’t about making money TODAY.”

Perfect! “I’m gonna write about that!” I exclaimed as I scribbled her words down before I could forget them.

Maybe my very own experience of making something positive out of the ordinary made me realize this early on. How to share the essence of this with others in seven words? Thank you, Tenae Stewart!

Art events are about introducing our work to an audience, especially if it’s a new audience. It’s about inviting our visitors and attendees into our world. Open studios are especially powerful, because they see our work and our environment in full. (Well. It’s a little less messy, but I never get my studio perfectly clean anyway. Artistic mess, people!)

It’s like what a friend told me once, at my old studio space, when I complained about how few people actually came by my studio on an average day. They replied, “It’s not who comes by, it’s who comes BACK.”  And as I look back, I see that the most amazing people DID come by, often when I wasn’t there. But my studio’s sidewalk window let them see a sample of my work, and they did indeed come back.

Now I’m on a crusade, encouraging artists who, for many reasons, don’t like open studios. They may believe their studio is not interesting/too small/too messy/not “professional enough” to open to the public. They may have tried it once, then gave up because it wasn’t worth it.

It’s hard to gear up for an event we didn’t have much success with. But there are events we need to give a second, or even third chance for.

I share my own experiences, how very small open studios tours back in New Hampshire grew from one visitor my first year, to scads of visitors during the second year, who didn’t buy anything, to folks who came in droves the third year—and bought enough to rival my sales from major shows. (And I didn’t have to drive anywhere or set up a booth!)

I share how powerful it’s been to give people permission “go deep” in my making space. I share how I give them the chance to look while making myself easily available for their questions: (“Hi, I’m Luann, and I make all the artifacts that look like carved bone and ivory. It’s okay to touch my work and pick things up. And if you have any questions, I’ll be right over here!”) Rather than saying, “No thanks, just looking”, people say, “Oh, THANK YOU!!!!” and dive in. When they’re ready to talk, they ask their question, and the conversation begins.

I recently encouraged another artist in my new building to open their studio during our first major event here. They made the usual disclaimers: Their studio is too small, it’s too messy, they don’t have a body of work yet, they’ve never sold a painting, etc. etc.)

I told them their small space might encourage some visitors to realize they don’t need a huge room to do their own creative work, just a spot they don’t have to clear for dinner. They will love looking at that work in progress. It will captivate them, with the photos, preliminary studies, the rough sketches, and the work-in-progress. They will love the subject. Best of all, this artist is comfortable talking to people. They are full of energy and enthusiasm without being overbearing, and visitors will love that.

And last, I said, “Bruce Baker once said, “To regular folks, artists are the people who ran away to join the circus!” Other people wonder and dream about doing their own creative work. To see someone actually doing that work is powerful medicine for all of us in our torn and tattered world.

Open studios aren’t for every artist. Some galleries restrict their artists from participating in them, perhaps for fear they will lose sales, or the work will be undersold. (If you are represented in stores or galleries, NEVER undercut your gallery prices.)

Some artists have privacy or safety issues. (Ask a friend to keep you company, and safe, or ask another artist to participate with you.)

Some see them as too much work. (Me? It’s like having company for dinner, it forces you to clean up a couple times a year!)

Bottom line, art events are essentially about connection: You with your potential audience, them with you, and with your work. Sales certainly help! But know that sales usually follow after laying the groundwork for a mutually-respectful and satisfying relationship.

Don’t worry about the sales you didn’t make today. You’re laying the groundwork for something bigger, tomorrow!

 

p.s. If you know someone who would like this article, pass it on!

p.p.s. If someone shared this article with you, and you enjoyed it, sign up for more like this here: https://luannudell.wordpress.com/

CATCHING YOU UP On My Fine Art Views Columns

Once again, I’ve neglected to post links to my columns at Fine Art Views, an art marketing blog. So I’m putting all the links since April 24, 2014, here in one place.
David Letterman counts down from 10. Me? I have a lot of catching up to do.
Pace yourselves!

21) April 24, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE MOVE: It Gets Easier
Insights gained while preparing for a life-changing cross-country move.

20) May 8, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE OPEN STUDIO: Send Me A Postcard!
Advice on how to build your mailing list.

19) May 22, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE OPEN STUDIO: My Customer Base Isn’t Local!
Dispelling some of the myths surrounding open studios.

18) June 5, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE OPEN STUDIO: People Around Here Don’t Buy Art
You know who says this? EVERYBODY says this!!! Hint: It’s not true.

17) June 19, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE OPEN STUDIO: For Heaven’s Sake, Accept Credit Cards!!
It’s easier than ever to take credit cards, and it WILL increase your sales. Here’s how.

16) July 3, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE OPEN STUDIO: Timely Time Payment Plan
Trust me, this tip is worth its weight in gold.

15) July 17, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE OPEN STUDIO: Don’t Say No!
When you and your studio say “NO”, your customers will say “NO” right back.

14) July 31, 2014
TEACHING 101
Tips for improving your teaching skills.

13) August 14, 2014
TEACHING 101: It Gets Better If You Try
You tell your students to practice, right? You should, too!

12) August 28, 2014
TEACHING 101: Crabby Students Part 1
Encountering the difficult personalities in your class.

11) September 11, 2014 MY BIRTHDAY!!!
TEACHING 101: Crabby Students Part 2
Managing the difficult personalities in your classs.

10) September 25, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE MOVE: It’s Not as Hard as You Think
Most of the things you’re afraid of, aren’t going to happen.

9) October 9, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE MOVE: Settling In, Getting Centered
Things I wish I’d thought of before the actual move….

8) October 23, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE MOVE: You Can’t Get There From Here
We need a plan to help us get where we want to go. But as our needs change, the way we get there changes, too.

7) November 6, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE MOVE: I am Blind (er….Lame) and My Dog is Dead
When the blues hit you, mix it with a little green to make turquoise!

6) November 20, 2014
WHEN THANK YOU ISN’T ENOUGH
When you get a compliment from a customer, don’t stop with “thank you.” Turn it into a conversation.

5) December 18, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE MOVE: California Dreamin’
It turns out my heart knew we were California-bound before my head did.

4) January 1, 2015
YOU ALREADY KNOW WHAT TO DO
Time for some tough love!

3) January 15, 2015
BIG EFFIN’ FENCES
What you make, how you make it, and why you make it, matters. Don’t let anyone talk you out of that.

2) January 29, 2015
300
Who’s missing from the history of art?? Everybody but dead European white guys. Let’s change that.

1) February 12, 2014
LESSONS FROM THE MOVE: Hard, Harder, Hardest
When you realize it’s not gonna really be over for a looooooong time…..

WHAT’S YOUR EXCUSE? Lessons From the Open Studio

Only in my studio can you see the largest collection of beaver-chewed-sticks in NH...maybe the world!!
Only in my studio can you see the largest collection of beaver-chewed-sticks in NH…maybe the world!! (This is just a small sample….)

I’ve heard every excuse in the book on why you don’t want to have an open studio. I’ve used a few of them myself!

But most of them aren’t very good excuses.

So here’s the first in a series of responses to your favorite excuse. Check out my response to “I don’t have a local audience!”, at my bi-weekly column at Fine Art Views.

And if you’re open to it, there will be plenty more to come! Enjoy.

Related posts:
“Be An Art Hero”
Open the Door to Your Studio & Your Heart for The Crafts Report.

More beautiful sticks in my studio. Aren't they amazing?!
More beautiful sticks in my studio. Aren’t they amazing?!