Recently, I displayed my work at a small local nature art show. The woodland setting of the facility is perfect for this type of event. I’d done this show for several years (since it the very first one) and the attendance was usually moderate, if not at least enthusiastic. Typically I do a fair amount of business… at least enough to cover my framing costs. Then it happened… the bottom fell out of our world economy… collectors began to panic… and casual buyers dissolved into the woodwork. Everyone was cutting back… including artists and show promoters. Advertising dollars certainly don’t go as far as the once did. Postage and printing prices are still on the rise, so newsletters and fliers are often difficult to justify. The combination of all these factors have some small shows in a downward spiral from which they may not recover.
In the midst of all this turmoil, some artists (myself included) may have a weekend show go by without a single sale. When that happens, it’s hard not to question everything about a career in this chosen profession. We all have a need for validation and there’s no better way to quench it than the sale of a painting. There is also no more crushing a blow than an entire weekend show without a decent lead.
There are elements in this equation beyond our control (weather, economic climate, simultaneous events, lazy show promoters, etc.), so it makes no sense to worry about them. On the other hand, there are things very much within our control that often go ignored. EVERY ONE OF THEM need to be analyzed and addressed:
Subject matter – When we hear artists use the term “inspiration,” most often this is closely related to subject matter. As a painter, I love to paint subjects that move me. My art is a reflection of my personality… as it should be. Unfortunately, sometimes these subjects don’t overlap with what’s actually desirable in the marketplace. So there has to be some middle ground… or balance. It’s impossible to work for long without inspiration, yet there are bills to pay and food to put on the table (Otis the Wonder Dog would be very upset with me if I had to cut back on his beloved Beneful!). So we end up “prostituting” our talent at times just to promote a little cash flow… a necessary evil for all but the most successful artists.
Quality of art – This is a huge complicated can of worms and I could probably write an entire book on the subject. Briefly… with art being such a subjective market, actual “quality” is almost impossible to define. In the end, the artist can only put forth his/her best effort. And if that’s not good enough, it’s time to do the necessary work to get better. Attending workshops and getting better reference material are always a good place to start. Becoming a better artist may not show immediate financial results, but in the long run, it will energize your efforts and be evident in your finished product (at least that’s what I have to believe to push myself forward).
Gimmicks – Personally, I hate gimmicks. That being said… gimmicks sell. It’s a fact. If you’re comfortable “hiding treasures” in your paintings like a “Where’s Waldo” puzzle, fine. You’ll probably make a million dollars while I wallow in relative obscurity, but don’t expect me to acknowledge it as “fine art.” I just can’t do it. On the other hand, I’m always contemplating ways to set my work apart from the masses. There are literally hundreds of skilled painters out there and it’s difficult (if not impossible) to make your work stand out on artistic merit alone… especially with the majority of the buying public doesn’t give a hoot about artistic merit!
Pricing – In a stable market, it’s acceptable and even necessary to bump pricing structure up 5% or so annually. The problem with that is when the market tumbles and collector dollars become scarce, it’s very hard to go backward. Collectors having purchased your work in the past expect the value to increase. Reducing prices shows an inability of your work to hold/increase its value making it a less than desirable investment. Once that word gets out, it’s very hard to recover. So in a sense… you’re stuck.
Attitude – This is the biggest mistake I see artists make. You never have to ask how sales are at an art show. You only need to assess the demeanor of the artist… and a surly artist will almost NEVER sell a painting. In reality, the whole “tortured artist” thing is tiresome and will serve no other purpose than to drive people away from your work. The only thing the we can do is keep smiling and talking to people. Treat everyone that comes through the door as though they have the potential to be your most prolific collector. It’s not easy, but if people like you, they want to see you do well and are far more willing to part with hard-earned dollars.
It’s times like these when I (once again) realize just how important my collectors, fans, and supporters are. No matter what happens, I know this is my life calling and I’ll survive. Thank you all.