LEARNING TO FLY Part 4b: Trust and Verify

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”.

And yet….

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.

 

 

ALMOST FAMOUS

Years ago, I ran into major star at an event. (We were in line for refreshments.) This was someone whose music influenced me deeply ever since my early college years, and I’ve followed them faithfully ever since–20 years at the time, almost 50 now.

I told them that. Even as I struggled to express how much they meant to me, I could see “that face”:

“Yeah, okay. I’m tired. I hear this all the time. I get it. Thank you. But I just want to get my effin’ drink here, in peace!”

They didn’t say that. But the numb expression on their exausted face was clear. I felt awful.

And I felt awful after I did it again recently.

I had an opportunity to meet a star. Another REAL star. A famous person. I got to go backstage, and meet them. And foolishly, instead of just saying “hello” and moving on, I once again tried to tell them how much their work means to me.

And I could tell, once again, how much I bored with my little story.

Again, this person was gracious. I am not complaining. I was embarrassed I’d done it again.

They’d just completed a performance. They get hundreds of those backstage visits a year. They were already exhausted, after working the stage for hours.

And here comes a perfect stranger who hopes to “connect” at the worst possible time. What if every person, the hundreds of thousands of people who love their work, did that? “I know you, you don’t know me, I think you’re wonderful, do you “see” me????”

I have a confession to make…

The older I get, the harder it is to remember, and recognize, my own fans/customers.

This is embarrassing, because…Well, it’s obvious, isn’t it? You made the time to visit my studio/website/show, you had the sense of purpose to collect a piece, your purchase helps me stay in business so I can continue making, and our conversation lifted my heart.

So when I see you again, and you have to remind me who you are and what we talked so passionately about, I want to sink into the floor.

Most people are understanding. “Why should you remember me?? I was one of hundreds who visited your studio that day! Don’t worry about it.”

But I always remember that first “star” encounter, and cringe. The second encounter was totally on me.

Where am I going with this?

It’s about a creative person’s “dream”, our desire for fame, the need for proof that the world loves what we do.

I realize I don’t really want to be “famous” anymore. I wouldn’t be good at it.

Trust me, it’s not because I’m “more evolved” than these starry folks. They have talent, they’ve worked hard to get it out into the world, and I celebrate every measure of success they achieve. They work hard to be gracious and appreciative of their audience, even when it means putting on a happy face when they are drained and exhausted.

I just realize I would not be nearly as gracious as they are if I were in their shoes.

Do I love what I do? Yes. Do I want my work out in the world? Yes! Do I want my work to be seen, and admired, and respected, and loved? YES!! Am I grateful for the people who let me know, especially when they love it enough to actually buy it? OH GOD YES.

But I also believe my work has a purpose in the world. I feel compelled to connect with my followers, my visitors, my collectors. I’m honored when my work, our conversations, inspire them, heal them, encourage them on their own creative journies.

I can only do that when the encounters are “small”. Personal. Intimate (spiritually.) Enjoyable. I know I would not handle fame nearly as well.

It’s not a “be careful what you wish for, you might get it” thing.

It’s know what you really want, instead of what our celebrity-driven, limelight-lit world tells us what we should want.

Summed up beautifully, and with humor, in my all-time favorite cartoon  (Sally Forth) by Francesco Marciuliano.

 

 

 

THE NUMBERS GAME

Seth Godin wrote a wonderfully succinct article today on why you need to look past the numbers when you evaluate your success.

A few days ago, the hosts of a Itty Biz explained why you shouldn’t worry about people unsubscribing from your blog. (Short story: Your message is never going to appeal to everybody, but it will always appeal to somebody.

Years ago, I did the nation’s largest wholesale craft show. When the economy tanked, so did my sales. (Actually, things tanked for everybody. Not just me. Not just other craftspeople. I need to remember it’s not always about me…..bigtime.)

At one particular show, I was counting up the things that had gone well: I picked up a prestigious gallery a customer introduced me to. A well-respected craft publishing company tapped me to do freelance work for them. And so on. A veteran exhibitor sneered, “Yeah, but how much MONEY did you make? That’s what counts! Quit putting a fluffy happy face on it.” Deflated, I confessed to the show manager that I must be a flop. She said, “Is money the only measure of your success?”

Hmmmmm….. Good question.

Money is important. Sales are important. Customers are important.

Paying your mortgage, putting food on the table, being able to care for those who depend on your are important. Not being in debt is important.

But they aren’t important because “I have more than you” or because “You’re not as famous as I am” or “He’s more important because his bank balance is bigger.”

We all have a place in the world.

The best work of our heart has a place in the world.

Sometimes, the smallest gesture of human kindness can change the world.

True courage is pursuing your dreams, doing the work, getting the work of your creative spirit, out into the world.

True faith is believing it is worthwhile, even if you cannot see where the ripples go or how far they travel.

Numbers are good. But only when you understand they are only an imperfect measure of something much, much deeper, bigger, more mysterious and profound:

The impact of our words, our actions, our art, on the world.

The framed work continues to grow in popularity.  (And I love making them!)
The framed work continues to grow in popularity. (And I love making them!)