January 12, 2019
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.
LEARNING TO FLY Part 4b: Trust and Verify
Instruments can be faulty, so have a back-up and verification process!
In last week’s article Learning to Fly: Trust Your Instruments! we talked about how trusting our senses over our instruments can prove disastrous. Today, I’ll share why it’s important to make sure our instruments are accurate!
My pilot friend clarified his point about instruments vs. our senses: “Every instrument has a function. And every instrument has a back-up instrument.
There is an instrument that creates an “artificial horizon”, that accurately reflects where the real horizon, is so we don’t have to rely on our unreliable senses—for example if fog, smoke, clouds, or snow obscures our view. There are instruments that measure our climbing and our descent accurately, so we don’t misjudge the runway below. There are instruments that show the actual angle of our turns. And a compass for confirming our true direction. The famous “Bermuda Triangle” airplane disaster, Flight 9, when five Navy bombers were lost at sea, probably arose from a squadron leader not trusting his own compass over his eyes. (He literally misidentified which set of Keys they were flying over.)
So if your gut, your instincts, tell you not to trust your instruments (NOT your senses, which can easily be fooled), you should always check your back-up instruments. Some instruments even have a third set of back-ups!
And if the back-up instruments verify something is wrong, turn off the one that’s wonky.
Hence, trust and verify.
So how do we trust and verify in the art world? Let’s start with marketing and advertising.
Years ago, a quote that made the rounds of the art/fine craft world was, “I know only have of my advertising actually works. Trouble is, I don’t know WHICH half!!”
So true. Back in the day, where every single aspect of advertising and marketing costs big bucks, it was still really hard to assess WHO actually saw your message, and WHO actually responded positively to it.
So we just paid for ads where everyone else did, and hoped for the best. We bought mailing lists to target our intended audience, refined by zip code, income level, etc.) We spent money on postcards and postage, and kept our fingers crossed.
Today is different. We can do so much of our own marketing and advertising online, and pay far fewer fees for it, too. We can use “free” online tools (Google analytics, the stats on Etsy, the email analytics that come with FASO’s email newsletter app, etc.) Email analytics can even tell us who actually opened our emails.
But the best way to really know how our customers find us is to ask them.
It’s a hassle, and if not done carefully, our query can come across as annoying to our studio visitors. But at least it’s not as invasive as asking them their income level! And their response is golden.
At my last open studio event, participants were asked to check in with our visitors, and ask a series of questions. (I suggested that, especially in areas where multiple artists were, we not ALL ask them ALL the questions. That would be annoying!)
During a wrap-up meeting, the sponsoring organization’s marketing committee gave a report on all the marketing venues they’d used, and those used by individual artists.
Despite ads in local and regional newspapers, magazines, guides, radio spots, and signage, it turned out single biggest source was….the tour’s buyers guide! It’s essentially a catalog that featured images and information on each participating artist.
And the catalog didn’t rate highest by just a few percentage points. It rocked
In fact, most of the participation fees collected go toward the catalog production. Ironically, there are many potential participants who choose NOT to do this event, precisely because they believe it’s too expensive. (Almost $500.) I like to point out to these folks that this is about the cost of a quarter-page ad in any other print medium, whether it runs for a day, a week, or a month (as in a monthly magazine.)
The tour catalog? They stick around for at least a year, until the next one comes out. When my hubby and I made a trip out here in 2012, before we even knew we would end up moving here, I picked up one of those catalogs. It blew me away.
I still have it, and newer editions. I still refer to them from time to time. I still hand out extras to studio visitors, too. (Although the tour information has a past-due date, most of the artist information sticks. In fact, I’m encouraging the organization indicate which artists are open year-round to the public, by chance or by appointment.)
So even though that event may seem expensive, a look at the numbers will verify that it more than pays for itself in the end. It brings hundreds of visitors or more, over two weekends. Divide that $475 by twelve months and you get a ridiculously affordable marketing strategy.
And, of course, if we’re smart about signing visitors up for our email newsletter, for our own events and workshops, we benefit for the years ahead, too.
What about galleries? That’s an easy one, too. It’s simple to identify a certain gallery as “the gallery” we’d like to get into. Hearing about another artist’s success there, or knowing the reputations of its artists, it’s easy to assume it will be a great gallery for us, too.
But do a little digging. Sometimes, only a few artists are doing well. The others are window-dressing. In a co-op gallery, some members are great at selling, but others, perhaps, not so much. Perhaps they focus on their “winner artists” over you, and your work goes into the dark corner in the back.
Or their not really doing as good a job at marketing your work as you would. I know one gallery that looks great. Every artist that visits wants in.
But the money they take on commissions goes right into the owner’s pocket. Not into marketing or advertising for the gallery itself, or doing the other things that would get your work into the public eye. Your work is just a cash cow to them. You wanna buy an ad, they say? Pay for it yourself!
Now, most galleries are more professional than that, and they do take on the work of marketing for all their artists. But understand that person who cares the most about selling your work is Y*O*U. Don’t assume you can sign on with a gallery and kick back. Remember, it’s a partnership.
Sometimes, we stay with a prestigious gallery even when it doesn’t really work for us anymore. Or the sales aren’t really better than those at smaller, less well-known galleries. There are all kinds of reasons for that, too. Check your inventory and sales record. If you have twice the inventory or more at one place, but your work sells better at that more modest place, consider providing the smaller place with more inventory.
Of course, there is a prestige factor in being part of a prestigious gallery—if you can afford having inventory there that won’t necessarily be sold very quickly. I’m willing to do this, and maybe you are, too. I’d rather have my work on display at a nice gallery than sitting in my already overcrowded studio!
In fact, when I ask new visitors how they’ve heard of my work, often it’s because they saw it at a local gallery. So even if our sales numbers aren’t spectacular at that gallery, if it’s bringing new collectors to see you in person, that’s worth it.
Last, what do your instruments tell you about your work?
I have several lines of jewelry besides my artifact work. Some I love very much, but they aren’t nearly as popular. They are very different from my artifact series, but they are also unusual, and they are fun to make. But the cold hard truth is, they don’t sell well. Should I keep making them?
My numbers say no. My senses? There’s nothing wrong with them. What am I doing wrong? Why should I even bother making them??
My gut? They’re fun to make, and unique. But I have a very small space. So these items may compete visually with the rest of my work. Find the right venue, and maybe they will work better. Respect the items enough to raise my prices, and see what happens.
So I did, this season. They are now carried by a local gallery that carries a wide variety of items, not just fine art and fine craft. Plus, the folks who work there, love them. They featured them this holiday season, focusing on their gift-giving potential.
And guess what? The instrument—my consignment check—proved it!
Last, sometimes we use our biggest “instrument”—sales—to prove to ourselves whether we are successful or not. Yes, sales figures are an excellent instrument. But it’s not the only one.
Sometimes poor sales are not a reflection of the validity of our work, it’s something else. When my sales dip during said open studio event, I was sure I was “doing it wrong”. Guess what again? Everybody experienced a dip that year in attendance, which also correlated to sales. Oh, there were a few people who did great. But overall, everyone was sure it was “just them”, and it wasn’t. It could have been any number of random factors. Again, the wrap-up meeting revealed an unusual blip in one area that (art students required to visit participants’ studios as a class assignment) that bumped the numbers up for that location. Good to know!
Also, art is considered a luxury in today’s world. Why buy the work of an artist for $5,000 when you can get a lovely framed print at Target’s for under $100? Yes, there are collectors, and there are people who don’t care about original work. They are often not the same audience. But we can change that! We can offer a selection of smaller, affordable work for new collectors.
It’s our job, as artists, to “normalize” what art is, to make it accessible, and entice these folks on board.
How do I know this? Years ago, an experienced marketer in our small artist group show suggested we target a few dozen prominent people in town, and personally invite them to the opening. I invited our local newspaper editor, who I only knew as a fellow parent, waiting to pick up our kids after school. He came to our opening, and he was amazed! He said, “I never go to these, I thought they were only for collectors!” He didn’t realize that “ordinary people” can attend, meet the artists, and perhaps even purchase artwork.
But because most view art as a luxury, when the news gets rough, and things get hard, most people, collectors and casual visitors alike, hunker down. When the stock market falls, sales drop. If we invade Iraq, sales plummet.
Taking that personally makes us feel it’s us again, that we are not good enough. Checking in with other artists can help. It’s not a reflection on us. It’s a natural human instinct to “get safe”.
Sometimes, after hard times, people actually shop more. They get tired of hunkering down, they get tired of being afraid. This is what happened months after the wildfires that hit my community last year. Everyone hunkered down.
But slowly, they realized that they needed art in their life to help create a “happy place”, even in their temporary/new home, and in their hearts.
Maybe they need a beautiful new painting to look at every day, or a lovely new glazed vase for flowers, or a little horse amulet to hold in their hand and caress.
And there we are, just waiting for them to realize that we have exactly what they need to feel better.
If we’ve taken the “false” readings of the attendance and sales “instruments” to decide we aren’t good artists, or that we’re not “successful artists”, then we’ve let those false instrument readings beat us down and toss us out. When actually, we–and the world-need our work more than ever.
So trust your instruments.
Know what you’re “measuring”.
But check and verify them—and your assumption–for the real truth, too.