When you are in the business of producing art eventually the day will come when you make the decision to sell it. The watershed moment that opens up the alluring door to possibly making a buck along with the floodgates of white-knuckle hard work. For many years I have participated in various fairs, pop-up galleries, open studios as well as fine art gallery shows. Even though each venue is different there is always a common train of thought, at least in my mind, and it can be extremely frustrating trying to unwind this mystery: “Will this sell?” The mentality behind showing my art is that I’m going to work and my job is to sell my art. I represent my art and in turn my art represents me; so in a sense I go to work to sell myself. I get excited when I go to work because I get to talk about my art and inspirations. Of course the goal is that my infectious enthusiasm rubs off and I make some sales. No matter how it boils down, if your art has a price tag- you are in retail. It just so happens that your heart and soul is behind what you are selling and the bottom line falls on you. The artistic creations that lay before John-Q-Public embody not only your blood, sweat and tears but also your time. This past weekend I had a table at the Triton Museum of Art’s holiday gift fair and I thought that my behind-the-scenes twist would be an interesting insight into the world of what I call “Selling Yourself”.
Over the past few weeks I had put in long hours of creating small little treasures that one might want to hang up on their wall. My studio became the usual working wreck as I tinkered away at my encaustic assembly line. Not to say that I don’t enjoy sitting down at the old drawing board but there was a feeling of being one of Santa’s little elves busily pounding away with their hammer while Christmas grows steadily nearer. When the gift fair morning arrived I loaded my Honda Civic with folding tables, trunks, matted prints, a bin of miniature paintings, bits, bobbles and anything that would possibly draw people to my booth. I printed up a delightfully formatted and numbered inventory price sheet that described each piece by name, size, and cost. I was SO organized! I checked my list twice because once I’m on the road there’s no turning back. However I also have this irritating tradition with every show that I do – I forget something or another at home. As I got underway I wondered what it would be?
If you’ve ever been to a show or festival with multiple vendors you might notice that where something would draw you into one booth you might just as easily pass up someone else’s. What is it? What makes a passerby stop? What is it that makes one pull out their wallet? Well as usual I have a few thoughts on the matter. It all begins with the set up. Setting up is a science. I can easily spend 1 hour arranging tables and drapery. They’ve got to be right, there has to be a flow, they’ve got to be dynamic (mind you, I haven’t even gotten to the art yet – I’m just talking about tables…) It’s pretty hilarious really when the vendors spill into the fair with totes in hand and dollies a-rollin’, you just have to laugh at the ensuing circus of where and how to set up. After doing this for a few years I’ve let my hair down a bit and I like to people watch. Art club A: “You’re over here, no I’M over here, didn’t you bring the hangers? No, I don’t have a hammer!” Glass-blowing association B: “I thought YOU brought the price tags! Where are the tablecloths?” *crash*tinkle*shatter* Craft artist C: “Does anybody have a glue gun?!” Ahhh…the familiar hustle and bustle!
After I’ve arranged my space to perfection I began to set up my artwork which doesn’t take nearly as long. This year I introduced my mini abstract encaustic pieces alongside the usual matted prints of my whimsical animals. I made sure that each of my paintings had a small price sticker so I grabbed my price sheet out of my purse…the price sheet out of my purse…where the heck IS my price sheet? Fabulous – I remember my delightfully formatted price sheet resting neatly in my printer and there it lay. I can only describe the panic of leaving the essential price sheet at home (especially when one has 20 new small paintings of varying sizes) is similar to locking your keys in the car. After retyping my inventory price sheet on my iPad the cold sweat subsides and I finish tagging my pieces. I have a few minutes before the doors open so I visit with my neighbors. There are a lot of familiar faces throughout the museum so I distribute hugs and see what everyone else has to sell. At shows like this everybody checks out everybody else’s stuff. With vendors, it’s all about the displays “That’s a cool table! Where’d you get those lights? I like that trunk! Have you done this show before? Is that burlap?” We get ideas then steal them for next year. Soon the first few guests arrive and begin meandering through the tables, stopping here and there to pick up a piece of jewelry or handcrafted pottery. The show begins.
As more people fill the museum it gets interesting and the people watching gets better. There’s a subtle anxiousness that you can sense. For me it lasts until I write up my first receipt and hand it to my customer – my first sale! This is called “breaking the ice”. I look over to my neighbor, Frank, and he gives me a silent fist pump. I began to find my groove and started to feel like I was back in my own skin. A lot of my friends visit me at my shows so my excitement grew as the day goes on. Whenever there is a lull in the crowd I’d chat with my neighbors. Frank Krause on my left has also shown in the fair before and makes all-occasion cards from his photography. Every year we’d chat it up about our animals and enjoy each other’s company. I liked to help him organize his meticulous display of cards and I found a lovely shot of a simple cactus flower. I don’t know about everybody else but when inspiration hits me it’s like the floodgates open. I couldn’t put the photo down, I was entranced by the colors and the wheels started to turn. I got extremely excited about the photo and started to talk very quickly at Frank about how I must use it as reference. I went through the rolodex of colors in my head and at that point all he could do was laugh at me. Needless to say, the photo is now residing in my studio next to a carefully thought out collection of encaustic colors.
One medium that I have never really gotten my hands into is ceramics. The neighbor to my right, Miki of 2Frogs Ceramic Arts, had a beautiful array of organic looking teapots, serving ware and mini birdhouses. It was her first time to the gift fair and we also enjoyed visiting each other’s tables. I was especially drawn in by the subtle textured she impressed upon her creations. She uses antique embroidery to create patterns and I just couldn’t get enough of this. Her attention to detail made me want to pick up each of her pieces and turn it over to see what charming design was hiding underneath a cup or vase. Throughout the fair we’d joke about how many times you go back to “tweak” your display: you’ve got to adjust your table angle, move around a couple paintings, re-fan the business cards, then move everything back again to it’s original spot a couple hours later. It’s the silly little things that keep you busy thinking “Maybe if I switch it up a bit I’ll sell something”. The matted prints must be moved from the left side of the table to the right and placed at a 35 degree angle facing towards the door then arranged alphabetically according to title. The small encaustic abstract should be jauntily placed near the forefront of the display. Perhaps I don’t have enough hand-made signs? Uh oh…here comes a customer – look casual! Like I said before, hilarious.
I can’t figure out the rhyme or reason as to why what sells. If sales are low I’ll hear the excuse “It’s the economy” and it really irks me. You know, it’s been “the economy” for how many years now? If someone wants to buy a piece they’ll buy it and if they don’t then they won’t. It’s one thing to create a body of work with the intention of selling but I guarantee you that it will eat you alive if you start dissecting your art thinking about what will make it sell. Eventually you lose more and more of the raw creative process and that will show in your work. I know that at times I’ll get myself caught up in a vicious circle thinking that very question. Whenever I prepare for a show I do take some considerations into account. For this particular holiday gift fair I know that I am going to display artwork that is in a specific size and price range. I think that people might be shopping for gifts so I keep the size smaller and the price lower. I want my art to be easy to buy. When I’m creating the work I consider how much time I put into each piece because time is money. It’s not worth it if I pour hours into a piece and then I put on a price tag of $30. This seriously undercuts the value of my time and I should either re-assess the creative process or save that piece for a different show. Selling yourself is a business and balancing act. It’s something that I am faced with everyday. Past weekends like this remind me of how much I enjoy sharing my love of art with others. And yes, it always feels a little sweeter when the art ends up on someone else’s walls.