Art Receptions & The Red Dot

Art receptions are like watching Wild Kingdom.  Once you pick out the lions, the gazelles, the hyenas and the vultures, receptions become an entertaining social comedy.  There is an integral element in this group dynamic…so simple yet so infamous, like the Pink Panther.  It is the sought-after and elusive “Red Dot“.  When you’re walking through a gallery and you see that little circle of color next to a carefully printed name plate what do you do?  First off, you look at the price tag.  You do this discreetly of course, you pretend that you’re reading their artist statement or whatever but really, how much was this piece?  Who bought it?  I mean really, who has that kind of money to spend on art?  Do you look a little harder at this piece compared to a non-red-dotted piece?  Of course you do.  Why did they buy this one and not that one?

It is the ultimate artistic status symbol.

The red-dot most commonly makes it’s debut at gallery art receptions.  Art receptions are really quite hilarious and I suggest taking a step back and people watch the next time you go to one.  It does not matter if the reception is in a posh downtown San Francisco venue or at a local co-op gallery.  There are a medley of characters that show up to these things.  Aside from the general public I like to categorize them into these groups:  the artists, the critics, the significant others, the patrons, and my personal favorite:  the grazers.

There is a wide variety of artist personalities but I will focus on my favorite two types:  the “pay attention to me” and the “don’t pay attention to me (but still pay attention to me because I am just so mysteriously aloof)”.  You can usually pick these people out because they will either look like they are way too happy or they are just plain bored.  The “pay attention to me” artist will wear a put together outfit that will look hot in any art review photo.  I fall into this category because I love the spotlight and when I smile the spotlight reflects off my teeth and blinds whoever I’m talking to.  The aloof artist is also easily recognized.  Looking like they rolled out of bed an hour earlier, their casual attire states that they are too good to dress up for their own show.  The latter of these two personalities have a jaded bouquet of poor communication skills.  My favorite part about them is their vague descriptions of why he or she painted a particular piece and that if you can’t understand it then you’re just wasting everyone’s time.

The critic definitely looks like he doesn’t want to be there.  If you see someone standing in front of your piece with a notebook in their hand and a camera STOP the conversation with whoever it is you are talking to and get the gallery manager to introduce you.  It would be taboo if you just sauntered up and introduced yourself – you simply must have a formal introduction, that way you don’t look like an ass.  The critic could care less if you were inspired by the ephemeral artistic juxtaposition of complementary colors that embodies the ideology behind the loss of your pet lizard.  He/she has five more of these things to get to and they are in and out like a fart in the wind.

There will always be significant others hanging out.  Usually they find each other and make a little support group.  This is a pretty funny troop to come across because the friends and family of the artists tell it like it is.  “Oh God, HOW many times have you hung that piece?  Don’t you have anything new?”  The significant other is lucky if they find a bench or chair to sit on ’cause they’re in it for the long haul.  Usually playing with their phone, they can be found in a quiet spot carrying various jackets, purses and handbags.  They are an important support system for the artist.  They will politely finish conversations with complete strangers because the artist had to wander off somewhere.  They are the entourage, they refill the wine, they are the designated driver.

Patrons are more than just people with money.  The key to being a patron is that you actually spend your money.  This person may come to the reception for the art, they might show up for the attention.  After a minute of conversation it is easy to tell which is which.  People will easily mistake themselves for patrons just because they’re dressed nicely and they bought a piece of original art once in 1995.  No, these are called “grazers” (more on them later).  There is a common stereotype that patrons look like bejeweled, uptown folks with feathered hair wearing sunglasses indoors.  This might be the case for some but patrons can be sneaky and look just like ordinary people.  They might talk to the artist, they might not give a rat’s ass why the artist painted what they did.  If they’re interested in a piece they’ll be casual and bum bum BUM…buy it!  And a red dot goes up on the wall.  The red dot adds an interesting energy to an art show.  Watch when this happens – what do people do?  People might stand in front of the piece a few seconds longer.  Like a drop of blood in the shark tank, there will be a buzz.

Grazers love to get in on this action because these people have an opinion on whatever the heck it is they are looking at.  Grazers are fake patrons who talk about money and art and make a scene but never pull out their wallets.  Grazers fall into two types:  the alcoholic and the rich alcoholic.  I call them “grazers” because they come to art shows to drink bad wine and eat free ors ‘derves.  Usually the grazers will mill around the open bar and make conversation with the poor soul who is pouring. “Hmm…this is a Carte Blanche Chateau 45′?  It tastes more like a 46’ if you ask me…”  I will warn you – do not get trapped in a conversation with this personality.  If I am at a reception and I get pulled into this black hole I will use my significant other as a sacrificial lamb if he is near by.   “Have you met my husband…?”  Walk away.  Often times they will have a vocabulary like a walking thesaurus.  The best case scenario is that two walking thesauruses find each other and latch onto one another.   Artist grazers are by far the best to eavesdrop.  I would like to conclude this post with an example of what you might hear:

A:  “Have you seen the latest piece from blah blah blah?  I cannot understand the ephemeral use of the opposing color palette in this particular composition.” (A stuffs Ritz cracker with cheese in mouth)
B:  “Ephemerally speaking, I find a greater offense to be the unbalanced gridlock of negative space.  I mean, my eye is drawn way of course.  Red please.” (B hands glass to bartender)
A:  (chomp chomp chomp)  “But you can’t ignore the nonconformist triadic use of Alizarin Crimson.  I would have composed this with more of an ephemera of Permanent Alizarin Crimson.  I’ll have the white.”  (A hands glass to bartender)
B:  “This is just so temporal.  I mean, the transient nature of the golden means throws this completely off balance, from an ephemeral point of view of course.  Do you have any blush?”  (bartender shakes their head “no”)
A:  “Of course from an ephemeral point of view, duh.  Can you just pour a little red and white together in one cup?”
The gallery manager walks by and puts a red dot next to the name plate.  He/she politely smiles and walks back into the din of people.
B:  “This wine is really good, it tastes more like a Carte Blanche Chateau 46′ though.”
A:  “Totally.”

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Selling Yourself

Triton gift fairWhen 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!

Triton-gift-fair-4After 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.

Cactus Flower by Frank Krause

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.

Triton-gift-fair-pottery
Miki’s ceramic pottery – 2Frogs Ceramic Arts

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.

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