Testing the Waters
FineArtViews Newsletter|Saturday, March 2, 2019|Issue 3407
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.
LET ME COUNT THE WAYS: Why Didn’t That Gallery Take My Work??
By Luann Udell
Remember, gallery owners are just customers with stores.
Years ago, I wrote an article listing all the reasons why a gallery might not accept your work. Well. Not all the reasons. Because I think more are being born every minute….
Why did I do this? Because at some point in our art career, when we approach a gallery, we will probably face rejection. And when that happens, we struggle to figure out why.
Many of us will blame the gallery. Some of us will blame ourselves. A very few of us might have the courage to actually ask the gallery. (They may or may not give you an honest answer, but it’s worth a try!)
1. Your work isn’t up to snuff.
2. Your work is really good, but not their preferred medium.
3. Your work doesn’t fit in with their current inventory.
4. Your work looks too much like work in their current inventory.
5. Your work is overpriced.
6. Your work is under-priced
7. Your work is fine, and well-priced, but will not appeal to their clientele.
8. They like your work, but they don’t like you.
9. They like you, but they don’t like your work.
10. They don’t like you or your work.
11. They can tell you don’t like them.
12. They’re having a really bad day.
13. You’re having a bad day, and it shows.
14. You dropped in unannounced, and rudely assumed they would drop everything to look at your work. (There are ways to drop in and not rudely make such an assumption, but you have to have your script ready.)
15. You are too meek when it comes to talking about your work.
16. You are too arrogant when it comes to talking about your work.
17. You try to establish your creds by dissing their other artists.
18. Your color palette is too dull.
19. Your color palette is too shocking.
20. You’re already in every other gallery in town.
21. You don’t have an established reputation, and they only take the same artists.
22. Your work is all over the map-not a cohesive body of work.
23. Your work is all the same-no variety.
24. You are high-maintenance. (I have watched this in action, and it is truly off-putting!)
25. They can tell you expect them to handle everything, from sales to marketing and everything in-
between. So you don’t have to do anything to grow and connect with an audience.
26. They aren’t doing well, and they may even be closing up shop soon.
27. They aren’t dealing with their artists honestly, and they know your partner is a lawyer.
28. Your work is controversial.
29. Your work is technically good, but has no soul.
30. They know nothing about your medium.
31. They hate your medium.
32. They love your medium, but they are only looking for X medium.
33. They love your medium, but they already carry too many works in it.
34. They love your medium, but they don’t love you.
35. They know your work is already carried by their biggest competitor.
36. They don’t take local artists.
37. They only carry local artists.
38. They used to carry your work because you used to be a local artist, and then you moved away, and all their customers want to know why they’re carrying an artist on the other side of the country.
39. Your work is too fragile-breaks easily, can’t be packed or shipped, etc.
40. Your work is too big.
41. Your work is too small, too easy to shoplift.
42. Your work is too hard to display-too big, too heavy, has lots of loose parts, etc.
43. Your work is too trendy.
44. Your work is passe.
45. Your work is craft, not “fine craft”.
46. Your work is fine craft, not art.
47. Your work is art, not craft. (Yup, I was disqualified for this once!)
48. Are you sensing a pattern here?
There are as many reasons why a gallery won’t take your work as there are stars in the sky. Or at least as many reasons as there are galleries.
Do some of these reasons sound familiar?
They should. Many of these reasons are the same reasons our potential customers don’t/won’t buy our work.
We often imbue gallery owners/managers with more power than our customers.
In fact, they may have more expertise, more experience, more clout. They may be fair, and kind, and compassionate, too. But they are still just human beings, like us, prone to prejudices, errors in judgment, egomania, and even envy. In fact, a fellow artist told me years ago:
“Galleries are just customers with stores.”
I have heard many variations on these reasons in my art career. When I first started approaching galleries, I was pretty fearless. I was starting in the middle of nowhere, and figured any progress would get me somewhere. I didn’t offend easily, and I quickly saw that a gallery’s refusal was not to be taken personally. (I think I sensed the “customers with stores” thing already. But then, I forgot.)
Every encounter with a gallery was a learning experience. I realized when someone seemed mean, it was more about them than me. My work may or may not be “good enough”, etc. But the bottom line was, it just wasn’t right for them, period.
Am I offended when a visitor doesn’t buy my work? Or criticizes it?
To the first, absolutely not. Not everyone is our customer. We all know that, and yet, it can still feel daunting.
The latter, yes, it’s offensive. But again, someone who feels compelled to complain to me about my work is revealing more about who they are. I can choose to pick that up and carry that anger, that embarrassment. Or I can choose to let it go, and find my true “next” customer.
These reasons are similar for group shows, too. A curator might want variety in every single piece in the show. In which case, if your work looks too much like what they’ve already accepted, they may not accept it.
But if they are creating a cohesive show with light-colored contemporary pottery, and your work is pit-fired and dark-colored, you might not get in.
I share these “reasons why” not to discourage you, but to encourage you.
I want you to persevere with the work of your heart. I want you to make the work that only you can make.
I want you to tell the story with your art that only you can tell.
I want you to make the work that brings you joy, and creates a powerful place for you to be in the world.
Not every person is our customer (yep, I’m saying it again!) and not every gallery is our gallery.
Every minute we spend being angry, hurt, disenfranchised by someone else’s opinion of us, our work, our medium, is a minute wasted.
We could use that time and energy to find our real customers, including the “ones with stores.”
I know that’s easy to say. Disappointment is the curse of all creatives. Books get rejected, Oscars are awarded to the “safe” choices, artists are passed over. I get it.
Just remember that we are dealing with fellow human beings. Some are wise and loving and respectful and evolved. Others? Not so much. We all have our preferences, especially petty ones!
Here’s my last example: When I approached my first gallery, a non-profit, there were two managers. One oversaw the fine craft area, the other the fine art area. Being a fiber artist, I approached the fine craft person with my wall hangings first.
I was roundly rejected as having “an immature design aesthetic” and “an illogical composition style.” They went on for quite a while, lamenting the fact that I would never have a “real” art career. They suggested I make smaller pieces and sell them as pins. (I am not making this up.)
Well, this is certainly small enough to be a pin!
I was baffled, but feeling too strong to feel threatened. It was obvious this person had issues, and I knew there was something about my work that threw them off. I thanked her and left with my work.
A few months later, our town of Keene had its annual “art walk.” Participating business venues exhibited the work of local artists in their windows for a week. A very popular and fun event!
A friend told me afterwards that a very well-known (okay, famous!) artist, who was a friend of hers, saw my work while they were perusing the event. He stopped in his tracks when he saw my work. He said something amazing I can’t remember (more on this later), something to the effect that he loved it, it was fresh, it was different, it was unique, it was powerful, and it was beautiful.
Anya said, “You don’t think the design aesthetic is immature?” (His response was literal “wtf”, and he was baffled until she shared how my work had been received a few months earlier. His next response? “Wtf is wrong with them?!” The venue, not me.)
Cut to a couple years later. My fiber work had appeared in several exhibitions at the same facility, and the art manager asked me to become one of their permanent exhibitors.
A few days later, as I walked through the craft gallery with my work, that very same person who’d rejected me roundly ran up to me, saying, “I want to talk with you! Those are craft, not art! I want to carry those in my section!”
I told her politely I was there by invitation, but appreciated her enthusiasm. And kept walking to the art manager’s office.
No, my work wasn’t significantly different-same style, same techniques, same colorways, same artifacts. The only difference was, I believe, my work was becoming better known.
My point is, we are hard-wired to pay attention to bad stuff. “Bad stuff” implies a threat, danger, and so we instinctively tune in to it to keep ourselves safe. (Which is why, as I suggested above, all these years later, I can remember the mean things that person said, and can’t quite remember the lovely things that famous artist said.)
If we let this dominate our lives, if we pay too much attention to those who would take us down, we will let them–help them–crush our spirit.
Try not to agonize about the gallery that didn’t work out. Try not to take it personally when someone else wins that prize. Let go of the people who don’t appreciate our art, or our medium, or our subject matter, or anything else people gritch about.
Yes, it’s good to keep in mind we can always do better with our artwork. Our art biz has an arc similar to life. As we know better, we strive to do better, and be better. It’s the same with our art.
Take all the energy generated by disappointment and failure, and channel it right back into the work of your heart.
And I hope, someday, you, too, get a chance to prove your detractors dead wrong!
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Sometimes a “major change” is simply many tiny changes in outlook.
For everyone who wrote me asking why I’m walking away from my art and writing, let me reassure you, I’m not!!!!!
I 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.MATHEMATICSa point of a curve at which a change in the direction of curvature occurs.
- 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!
This post was originally published May 30, 2004, on a now-defunct blog-hosting site. This slightly edited version is dedicated to Rhonda K. Hageman, who read it when it first appeared on DurableGoods/Radio Userland. Thank you, Rhonda!!
Still timely. So enjoy!
A topic came up this week on a small private e-mail list I host. The list started as a way for artists to learn how to get their work in front of a larger audience than friends and family, by exploring ways to sell, publish and exhibit their artwork.
Some have found the process daunting. Perhaps they had difficulties selling their work as it was, then started producing work they thought would sell better. Or well-meaning people made discouraging remarks or suggestions that just didn’t feel right.
I’ve never advocated making anything just because you think it will sell. I realized from the get-go that this process will whisk you away from your core vision (making the work that is in you and pleases you) and sends you scuttling down the path of trying to please others. No can do, says this girl.
The thing is, so many times, when I hear artists have decided not to explore ways to sell their work, it’s for all the wrong reasons. They don’t get enough money, they find the quality of the work degenerates, the sales are disappointing, and the whole process doesn’t make them feel very good, nor creative, nor successful.
Part of the reason this happens is we misunderstand what selling our art can really mean. In fact, many people associate “selling art” as “selling out”.
I have found the complete opposite is true when I sell my work.
I make the most beautiful work I can envision. Someone else appreciates the work I have made. I tell them the story behind the work. A connection is made. An exchange is made—usually their money for my work (or, if you prefer, the fruit of their labor for the fruit of my labor.) Hopefully, both parties are pleased with the transaction.
That’s all. That’s it. That’s what selling my art means to me. No value judgments, no demeaning transactions, no loss of my artistic vision, no selling out.
Lately, though, I’ve come to see another dimension, just as rich (no pun intended) to this transaction. ..
And that is the power my art has on others even after the sales transaction.
The last few weeks I’ve received half a dozen e-mails, postcards and letters from people who have bought my work, or seen it in a magazine, or read what I wrote on 9/11.
Apparently, the impact of my work on their lives has continued long after I sold them the piece.
One woman wrote to tell me how much she enjoys looking at her wall hanging every day when she works at her computer. Another wrote to say how much she loved hers—and that it even inspired her to revisit her own interest in fiber art. She is now creating her own unique pieces, revitalized by our discussion on art and life and my passion for my work. She now appreciates my handwork even more, if that is possible, she wrote. (You can see this incredible letter from Kathleen Faraone here.) (N.B. I had forgotten all about this, until I found it just now–April 20, 2018! Kathleen, wherever you are now, from the bottom of my heart, thank you for your powerful words!)
And that is the magic of selling/exhibiting/publishing your work. Not just the excitement of being able to generate some cash flow, perhaps even a livable income (which is pretty darned exciting!) But seeing how what you create working from your heart, seeing it start its own journey of inspiring hope, creativity, and passion in others.
That is something I did not expect when I started my journey of making my art accessible to a larger audience. It is something I could not predict nor control. It’s just another affirmation that I am doing the right thing and on my true path.
So before you sell yourself—and your art—short (or decide not to sell at all), consider this: Selling your art can be a good thing. A very good thing.
It is a process, and sometimes a long process. As the saying goes, “It took me twenty years to become an overnight success!” Most small business consultants say it takes at least five years for a business to get established. Most people only plan for a year or two at most. Many artists give up after one bad show or one dismal gallery experience.
The secret to success with your art?
Stay with it.
Keep on making the work you are passionate about. Then look for its market.
Ask for help, but don’t assume what someone else says about your work is automatically true. Experiment. Adjust. Tweak. Sometimes small changes in format, size or presentation can make huge differences. But these need not be fundamental changes in what your art is. You should still be able to work with total commitment to your inner voice.
In fact, most of the time, when I see an artist or craftsperson who is not having much success, it’s because they’ve “dumbed down” their work, made it more cheaply, made it more mundane. They doubt their ability to astonish, so they set their sights lower. They end up aiming too low.
Make your best work. Make sure as many people as possible see it.
Then you will never have to worry about “selling out.”
Because your heart and soul are not for sale.
They can only be given, with love and joy.
I was going to write about a discussion with a friend about his dirty house. But when I picked up the Sunday magazine that comes with our local paper, I came across some amazing statements by Meryl Streep that caused me to bump the dump story.
In the talk with my friend, he told me how immobilized with anxiety and self-doubt he felt each day. I’m a natural born people fixer-upper (much to the annoyance of my friends), so I jumped right in with suggestions that have worked for me. He kept saying, “You don’t understand, you don’t understand” until finally, in frustration, I told him my deepest, darkest secret:
I wake up every morning with a sense of dread about how hopelessly inadequate I am to achieve my goals, and I go to bed every night ever mindful of….how does the Lord’s Prayer go? “We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone the things we ought to have done.” Well, that sums up the beginning and end of my day quite well.
My friend was astounded. He said, “But you’re always so upbeat and you’re always busy with your artwork and always doing stuff….” He paused and said, “And I know you’re telling the truth, because you know the old saying, ‘You can’t bullshit a bullshitter?’ I’m in the pits, and I can tell you’ve been there, too. So how did you turn it around?”
It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life, spiritually. I simply stopped listening to the little voices that told me how how futile it all was.
Note that I said I didn’t stop hearing the voices. I said I stopped listening to them.
It came about through a long, slow process. It wasn’t any one thing. It was a series of books, a smattering of important people, teachers, who showed up in my life at just the right time. It was the birth of my oldest child. It was a workshop I took. It was trying to spiritually accomodate the violent murder of an elderly neighbor 20 years ago. It was a physical injury that tied up my body for almost a year. It was a brush with cancer (a very light brush, but frightening at the time.)
We often dream that when we figure everything out, when we realize our perfect vision for ourselves, everything else will fall into place, too. When we get the right job, when we meet the right life partner, when we get our dream home, when we find the perfect little black dress, (when we reach the perfect size for that little black dress!) the perfect lipstick, whatever, that we will finally silence those little voices that always tell us what is wrong. (Please note I’m not talking about the little voice telling you about real danger. I’m talking about that little voice that tells you you will never be good enough, fortunate enough, strong enough, talented enough, blah blah blah. The inner critic.) When we still hear that little voice, we may panic. Dang! It’s still there! Where did I go wrong??
One of my most precious insights, almost miraculous in my eyes, is that it is possible to act in a powerful way even if your little voice says you have no power. You hear that familiar little rant in the morning–“You didn’t fill that order, you didn’t win that award, you didn’t get into that show and you never will!”
Then I get up and do it anyway.
Everything I have accomplished in the last five years–and it’s a lot!–I’ve done in spite of that little voice. I don’t pretend to say that I have deeper resources than other people, and I would never even pretend to say that all mental health can be achieved by just saying no to those voices. I am saying it is an act of will to act in spite of my voices, and I feel blessed to have found that out. I now realize there is no place I can get to where I will not hear them. But now I don’t let them stop me from getting where I want to go. They can whine all they want, I’m going there anyway.
So what do Meryl Streep and I have in common? In an interview with Ken Burns that appeared in USA WEEKEND today, KB asks Meryl if she will always act. And she answers
“Oh, I always think I’m going to give up. You get the cold feet. You think, ‘Why would anyone want to see me again in a movie? And I don’t know how to act anyway, so why am I doing this? I don’thave to do this.’ It is something I confront at the beginning of everything. I have to start out with nothing each time.”
KB: And reinvent the wheel.
MS: “And reinvent the wheel. It’s very hard. It’s very, very hard….”
There you have it. The article notes that Streep has been nominated for 12 Academy Awards, tying Katherine Hepburn’s record. She’s actually won two Oscars. And that her work ethic is legendary.
And every time she takes on a new challenge, she hears the same little voices I do!
I wonder what she says to her little voices…..?