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!

 

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LEARNING TO FLY Part 3: What Rudyard Kipling Said

Learning to Fly Part 3: What Rudyard Kipling Said

by Luann Udell

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for Bold Brush Fine Art Views. 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.
Stay calm, stay focused, stay dedicated … and carry on.

In my first two article in this series, I introduced the concept of the checklist (NOT a to-do list, as many people read it, but periodic ‘checking-in’ with your goals, your creative process and marketing plan, to make sure they align and you haven’t dropped a ball); and the concept of a co-pilot (your support team.)

Today we’ll consider the next critical concept: What to do when things go horribly wrong.

In talking to several small plane pilots over the years, I’ve learned that most plane accidents (outside of terrorism and acts of God) are due to pilot error. A pilot may fly a big, flashy plane that ‘looks good’, but it’s over-powered or tricky to fly, in relation to the pilot’s skill level. Or they ignore bad weather conditions and other obvious dangers, in their over-confidence.

My friend Bob’s next story was about a small plane crash that made big headlines on the East coast in 1999. I’d read much about the weather conditions at the time, and made a judgment about the pilot. Researching this article, I see many others made the same assumptions, and judged harshly. But again, my friend corrected me.

“He actually did everything right,” he said. “The weather conditions were manageable, he was familiar with the route, he did the right things. He went into a spiral, and he’d been trained what to do. What threw him off when the plane began to spiral, his passengers panicked. In the audio tapes of the flight, you can hear them screaming in the background. And then, distracted, he panicked, too.That’s when he followed his instincts instead of his training-and crashed.”

Panic.

Most artists don’t have to figure ‘death by making art’ into their decisions, thank goodness! But how many of us have had those frantic moments-days–years-of snap judgments about our art careers?

“I finally got that solo show, and nobody bought anything!”

“I got into that prestigious gallery, and nothing is selling!”

“I created this whole new body of work, and nobody likes it!”“I’ve been working like a dog to market on Facebook and Instagram, and I don’t have any likes’!”

“I finally put up an online store, and nobody’s buying anything!”

“I (put your latest step forward here), and (insert the measure of success you didn’t meet)!”

Let’s get more general: “No one in this area appreciates fine art/fine craft!”

Let’s get even more horrific⦠“This world economy sucks!! No one buys art anymore!”

We do our best work, the work of our heart, and we still aren’t rich/famous/collected/published/whatever-your-measure-of-success-you’ve-set-for-yourself.

Even worse, we look around and see people who are successful. They make tons of money (or at least earn a living), they’re famous (they’re in the news all the time), they’re talented (they win all the awards), they’re good at marketing (their work appears in the best galleries and the best homes, etc.

It’s easy to assume they’re doing it right. Which means YOU must be doing it wrong.

And we panic.

We decide we’ll paint what so-and-so paints, or we’ll paint like so-and-so paints, we’ll try to get into the same galleries, use the same hashtags, we’ll write an artist statement just like theirs, we’ll dice and slice and chop up our process, and in the process, lose our vision, our way, our very creative self.

And that makes it even worse, because then we don’t even know who we are anymore.

When I consult with an artist about their artist statement, my first question to them is, “Why do you do what you do?” (And you already know, if they exclaim, “I just love color/light/landscapes/the interstices between the tensions generated from both explicit and implicit layers”, I know I’m gonna be holding some feet to the fire. Because these well-meaning people, people who were attracted to art, and make the art they make, have looked around them, been distracted by what others are doing, and have lost their way. They begin to question everything they do, and how they do it, trying to find out what they’re doing wrong.

And yet, when I push a little, many (if not most of them) are not painting just for the money, or for the fame. There is something in them that is unique, something that is precious and beautiful, extremely human and poignant, that represents who they are in the world.

I believe we make art because of this unique ‘us’, because we yearn to make a mark in the world, perhaps even something that will survive us when we’re gone.

Sometimes this results in success, especially if we can articulate what that ‘something is’, so that other people can connect with it. Sometimes it simply results in a new respect and gratitude for what we do, regardless of how others regard it. Sometimes it drives all our actions in the world, creating those damn ripples in the great lake that we can’t see, but have to believe in. (You know, the ones I’m always writing about.

And sometimes, it is simply the story we tell ourselves, so we can create meaning in a vast and overwhelming universe.

So when the panic and the self-doubt hit, take a moment. Or a day, or a week, or even a year. Contemplate. Reflect. Reach out to your support group, or your wise person in your life.

Cross-check for fear and doubt. Hold them up to the light of the fire inside you, and see what is revealed.

Your homework for the day (should you choose to accept itâ¦Hey, you’re a grown-up now! You get to say ‘no’!) is to reread Rudyard
Kipling’s rousing poem, “If”…. Which begins with

“If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too….

And ends with

“….Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, And – which is more – you’ll be a Man my son!”

And for extra credit, reread Philip Larson’s controversial last line his beautiful poem, “An Arundel Tomb”….

“…The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.”

The sentiment is not simple. It means that, whether the tomb represented a true love store, or a medieval burial marker convention,what we see is love…

Because in our hearts, we want it to be true.

I have been with many people near the end of their life, and I never heard them talk about their fame or fortune, their achievements or their honors.

They talked about memories; loved ones (those gone before and those who will be left behind); sorrow; regret; gratitude; and forgiveness.

My advice to you, as an artist, and as an artist who may sometimes panic about your place in the world:

Simply do the best you can, as you can.

Create the work YOU care about, right now.

Do better, and be better, as possible. Leave as little as possible in regret.

And grow as much joy as you can, today, with your art.