RESPECT YOUR COLLECTORS Part 2

This article was originally published for Fine Art Views.
I forgot to republish this on MY blog!! My bad.

Respect Your Collectors Part 2
by Luann Udell on 12/23/2010 9:56:04 AM

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 (fiber & 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….”

Don’t leave your early collectors behind.

Sometimes artists, in their haste to “get big”, blow off the very people who helped them get there in the first place.

In my first article in this series, I explained how I was introduced to the joys of collecting original works of art. Today I’ll show how—and why–you must honor those early supporters of your work.

In educating me how to find ‘real art’, my friend pointed out a rich source of original art in my own backyard—the prestigious Ann Arbor art fairs. These fairs are a series of 3-4 fine art and craft shows (depending on how you count them) that take place concurrently on the campus and in the town streets.

Taking my friend’s advice, I visited the shows that year with new intention—not to just be amazed and entertained by the beautiful work, but with an eye to actually owning some of it.

I was no longer an ordinary browser or casual shopper. I was an art collector! I had money in my pocket, an open heart and a passion to learn. It was a heady feeling.

There was one artist whose work I fell in love with. I spent quite a bit of time in her booth talking to her, and admiring her work. We talked about the inspiration for her charming motifs, the materials she used to create the enchanting details I loved, her lovely, delicate use of color.

She had work in a range of sizes, but she’d already sold all the pieces in my price range. “I’m just so excited, this has been a GREAT show for me!” she exclaimed. “I’m definitely coming back next year, and I’ll have lots more smaller pieces, too—they’re selling like hot cakes!”

I was pleased that someone so likeable, whose work I really liked, was having so much success. In my budding connoisseur-like mind, it confirmed my instinct to support her art. She didn’t take layaway, and this was before most artists took credit cards. But she assured me there would be ample opportunity to own one of her pieces the following year.

For that entire year, I set aside money, enough to acquire one of her smaller pieces. I kept her postcard on my bulletin board where I could look at it every day. I circled the dates for the next art fair show on my calendar.

When the happy day came, I sought her out. I had my hard-earned money in my hot little hands, all ready to buy something. I was determined to leave her booth with something this time.

To my dismay, things had changed.

Her work was bigger, for one thing. It was bigger. Much much bigger. And consequently, much more expensive, too. Not a single piece was less than several thousand dollars.

It was different. The small, intimate, intricately detailed work was gone. Strong, bold, monochromatic abstract work had replaced it.

Something else was changed, too. Her attitude.

The gushing, friendly, warm, enthusiastic emerging artist I’d met the year before was gone.

Apparently she’d been ‘discovered’. She’d had a great year, sales-wise. She’d juried into several prestigious exhibitions. She now had a following.

She was, indeed, a successful artist—one whose success had evidently gone to her head. Because she was also haughty, disdainful, and dismissive, to the point of rudeness.

She didn’t remember me. I didn’t expect her to—I knew she’d talked to hundreds, if not thousands of people in the past year. But she wasn’t apologetic (as in,“I’m sorry I don’t remember you, I meet so many people–but please refresh my memory…”) Her attitude was, “Why should I remember you?! You didn’t buy anything!”

She was scornful about her former work. “Yeah, I’m way past that stage now. I marked it down and got rid of it. I’m into this work now.” Her tone almost seemed to say, “Get over it!” She didn’t care to explain it, either. You either got it—and bought it—or she didn’t have time for you.

I inquired about smaller works. She practically sniffed. She said she couldn’t be bothered with making small pieces anymore. It was much more lucrative to make bigger pieces, and charge more.

Someone else entered the booth, someone who could obviously be taken more seriously as a prospective buyer. She turned her whole attention to them. I left her booth, crestfallen.

I kept my postcard of that artist for many years. I kept track of her progress as best I could (pre-internet days.) I’m not sure why. Maybe I was hoping for a glimpse of that sweet, more accessible, more grateful young woman I’d admired so much before. Artists change, their art changes—I got that. Maybe I was just hoping her next sea-change would be for the better.

In time, though, the memories of that last day I saw her, overshadowed the first. I tossed the card. I’ve all but forgotten her name.

At the time, I was bewildered. Now that I’m an artist, too, I can sympathize…a little.

I’m not always crazy about my older work. But I respect the fact that I loved it when I was making it, and that people that bought it, liked it, too.

I know there is more money to be made with the wall-sized fiber work. I know that I couldn’t afford my work! But I know there is worth in my smaller work, too.

I know I can’t support myself just on sales of $25 necklaces. But sometimes, when things were really tight, it was those same inexpensive items that kept the cash flow going.

I know many of those people purchased work back then for less than my wholesale prices now. Still, it was their hard-earned money, and they chose to spend it on my work.

As far as my collectors go, I appreciate what they ALL did. They all loved the work. They all believed in me. They all wanted to support my efforts. They bought something because they loved it, and they wanted it, and they felt it was worth it.

I may forget their names, but I am astonished and delighted that they have not forgotten mine. When they share a story about their piece, or even bring some of those ‘ancient works’ back in for repair or a redesign, I make a point of thanking them for collecting me from the beginning.

They are the people who helped me get where I am today. And I will never forget them for that.

Perhaps we all have days we dream of being so financially successful, so famous and respected, that we don’t have to worry about the tedious little things in life anymore.

But people who love our work, people who support us in so many ways—by purchasing it, by recommending it to their friends, by telling us what it means to them—these people are not the “tedious little things in life. They are part of the “big thing”. They are what got us to this wonderful place, a place where we can make the work we love and share it with the world.

Remember that, and you will always respect your collectors, large and small.

RESPECT YOUR COLLECTORS Part 1

I keep forgetting I get to reprint my articles from the Fine Art Views” website!

Respect Your Collectors Part 1
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 (fiber & 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….” You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

Real art vs. reproductions?

I want art collectors who are like me—collectors who value the ‘real’ over the ‘famous’.

The last decade has been tough on fine artists and craftspeople. I listen to their conversations about how to stay afloat during financially challenging times.

Some offer smaller pieces as an incentive for sales, or discounts to buyers. Some offer giclees and other reprints of their work. Some don’t even sell their original artwork anymore. They’ve created a secondary market for their images as prints, calendars, mugs and stationery.

There are many ways for people to create the success they desire with their art. There’s no single right way or wrong way–everybody has to find their own way.

My intention for this next series of articles is simply to share my experiences as a collector. I hope it will help inform your individual decisions about which paths to take.

I did not grow up with ‘real art’. My parents had some lovely things, but they were all “decorator prints”, nicely framed but mass produced. (Yep, Van Gogh’s sunflowers hung right over our sofa….) We didn’t know any ‘real artists’—and we would have known, because they’d be missing an ear, right? I never saw anyone throw a pot. I grew up believing that ‘real art’ was what you went to museums for.

Then I went off to college and a more urban environment. There I met someone who was much older than I was and we became friends. The relationship gave me a much-needed window into the maturity and wisdom that might be available to me, too, someday.

One of these interesting windows involved the ‘real art’ thing. I was an art history major and my decorating scheme showed that. Noting my walls covered with posters and reprints of fine art and ancient art, my friend commented that for not much more money, I could have the real thing—real paintings, art and fine craft instead of the knock-offs and mass-produced stuff available in mail-order catalogs and the big-box stores.

“But I like Van Gogh and Chinese scroll paintings and Egyptian cat sculptures and stuff!” I exclaimed. “And I can’t afford the real thing.”

He challenged my assumptions about acquiring art. In the process, he changed my life.

“Real something is always better than reproductions of anything,” he said. “Anyone can buy a print of sunflowers by Van Gogh. Having real art is always better energy, even better than reprints of great art.”

I protested that collecting art on a working student’s budget was out of the question. But he had an answer for that, too.

He encouraged me to go to little art galleries in town and to visit local art shows. “You’ll find a lot of people just starting out,” he said. “Their work won’t cost too much—not much more than three or four of your ‘real art’ posters. Or you can buy something from a gallery on time payments. Or buy real prints—wood block, linoleum, photography, whatever. They’re affordable. Buy smaller works. Buy a little less, but always buy what you love, and you won’t go wrong.”

On my next visit to his home, he showed me his own art collection. He told me about each piece and why he loved it. He told me about the artists he’d met and what they had said about their work.

I was enchanted. And intrigued. I was determined to create an environment like his sophisticated home—a home full of not just real art objects, but real experiences with artists.

I took his advice to heart. Since then, the only reprint I’ve bought in forty years was a Backstreet Boys poster for my daughter. She’s so over them now, but I plan to use it to embarrass her in front of her friends in the years ahead.

My collection of artwork is neither precious nor pretentious. Not all of it is real ‘art’ either. But all of it is ‘real’. Even a poster I own, for a faculty art show at a small school New York City, is hand drawn and colored. I found it at an antique store for a few dollars. I love it.

My rules are simple. I have to like the work, or the artist, ideally both. Some items I had to pay on for months, even years. But I’ve never regretted my purchases. In fact, I’ve grown to love and appreciate them more as time goes by.

I still remember my early purchases—a handmade leather purse; an Inuit soapstone sculpture; linoleum block prints; old paintings found in second-hand stores and at yard sales. I remember the excitement of making the payments for a coveted object, and planning for the perfect spot in my apartment to display it.

I still point out to people the backwards signature on two block prints—the artist, a professor of engineering at the university, was so naïve, he hadn’t reversed the letters in his signature. The odd little error makes his early work even more precious to me.

I am still grateful to my old friend for his excellent advice and insight. My life is richer for it. Thank you Ron, wherever you are!

I think, in some way, his gentle encouragement to ‘collect real’ also helped me eventually ‘be real’. A real artist, that is. When I get discouraged about my work, or get lost comparing myself to other, more talented artists, I remember his words. The work of my hands is my own unique, individual vision. Many people won’t care. But some people will cherish it for that. Those people are my collectors.

As my work has grown in stature and in price, I try to remember myself in those early years. When someone says they can’t afford my work, I suggest several ways they can.

I offer a layaway plan. I make work in a range of price points. Sometimes I trade or swap for their services, or their artwork.

Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. But over the years, I’ve found that most people who really want my work, find some way to have it.

And that means everything to me.

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