Whenever we do art shows we are always hearing about the best shows across the country that every artist wants to be doing. In the last few years we have been so fortunate because we have been invited to participate when we have applied to these shows. Recently though we found ourselves in a situation I don't think we ever thought we would have to deal with and neither did our fellow artists. When we decide we want to participate in any art show it is an daunting effort. We start at least 6 months in advance. We send in our application along with thousands of other artists along with our application fee of between $30-60.Then we wait a few months to find out if we are one of the select few to be selected. In this case, one of the 300 for this particular show. The show I am describing is a show we have never gotten into in the past but we had heard such wonderful things, "best show ever", "unbelievable sales", "great venue'". So we were pretty excited to hear the results when we were accepted and we immediately paid our booth fee as soon as we could to insure we would get a good location at the show. The first thing we noticed was the fees were higher than in years past but we wanted to do the show so off went our $500. This was in the fall for a March show. Then in February the rumbling started. We were busy with making art and other shows but we heard the talk and we started getting concerned. This prominent show with their 300 hand selected top rated artists had decided just weeks before the show to add an additional 150 artists and expand the size of show to double the physical size to close to 2 acres with a large stage with live music, a children's area and other events. All with a $15 daily gate fee. No notice, no word to the artists, nothing.
Somehow, the show directors didn't think any of this would matter to the artists. That expanding a show so it was too big to walk around, with too many artists wouldn't somehow affect the artists who had signed a binding contract to participate in an art show with 300 artists. The last few weeks have created a hell storm of controversy in the art community. Discussions over artists rights, the needs of an art show to make money over the experience of the patron and the artist. It has been exhausting. In the end they were forced to offer refunds to the 300 who wanted them. As of they are scrambling to fill the holes made by these cancellations and still find artists for the extra 150 with only 10 days to go before the show, calling artists who never even applied. It has created bad blood between artists who stayed and those who chose to leave. The show has yet to repay any of the refunds to the artists and we are starting to worry if they will.
So what did we do? We had no presence there, no client base. So we asked for a refund and we will stay home and do our local show that weekend. We got scared frankly. I wish our fellow artists who remained the best of luck but this show should not continue past this Spring show. Their business decisions fly in the face of what it was created for. To provide an environment for people who love art to buy it from people who make art in a comfortable and equitable space.
It's been awhile since I have posted anything and frankly I have struggled to figure out what to write about. These long months of winter when we spend time mostly in the studio are fairly solitary and so the creative juices may be flowing but most of the time the feelings and thoughts we have are probably better kept to ourselves. It is hard to know if the new directions are the right ones when you feel like you are working in a bubble so we sometimes decide to do local shows here in Arizona that under normal circumstances we might night choose not to do. The demographics aren't favorable. there is a lack of enough traffic flow and the crowd is probably not looking for fine art as much as decor. We do the shows to test the waters to see if our new work gets a response and also to try to make some money during a slow part of our year.
Recently at one of these shows I had a wonderful conversation with someone that got me thinking about why people come to art shows and what they hope to find when they are looking to buy something. Let's face it, we are facing a change in the art business. Artists are lamenting that young people are not buying art and that the frequent art buyer now complains that their walls are too full or they are downsizing. Well, in my discussion with this lovely "snowbird" she spoke about the many estate sales in her community and the fact that so many elderly have children who just sell all their artwork when they die without caring about the joy they had in collecting it. Which began our conversation about how we can include our families in what we buy when we purchase fine art.
I have a wonderful lifelong friend who has stopped buying for herself and begun buying art for her children. They are in their twenties and she is not giving them the artwork yet but keeping it in her home. You see like her I think so many young people don't buy artwork not because they don't appreciate it but because 1) they can't afford it and 2) they are still very transient in their lives. So if we all bought art as investments in the art collections of our children, meaning with their input and participation, would the work continue through the family as a treasured piece to cherish and preserve? When my father died, he didn't have much and the only thing I really wanted was a painting that I looked at in our house my whole life that I knew he loved. I can still remember conversations with him about this painting and what it meant to him so having it means that I still have a piece of him somehow. We have some Korean silk paintings that Steve's father brought back from Korea for the same reason. If we talk about art with our children, even as adults then perhaps they will understand it's value when we are gone. So my friend Leslie buys the artwork with their input and displays in in their house and once her kids are established in their own place the work will go with them.
Our work appeals to so many young couples who love the work but can't really afford it and I wish their families knew that buying them fine art would be such a nice gift. For many people what they put in their homes is just decoration. If it lasts a few years and ends up in a garage sale may not matter.Yet if we treat that time when we are out looking at artwork together as a special time to share how the works makes us feel with our family maybe the work can become something more. So much time has been spent in creating so much of the work at the art shows we are at, and the moments that are shared between the creator and the buyer who takes a piece home can be very special. From our standpoint, we hear stories about how an image reminds someone of a special time or place, a memory of someone special. Talking with someone about what it meant for us to make that piece of art starts a bond between us, a bond that many times lasts for years. Sharing that experience with your children at whatever age they are will help continue the tradition of supporting the arts and preserving the appreciation of the tradition of handcrafted work.
There was a time not so very long ago when we were all very excited about a new website called Etsy that had just been started. It was going to showcase the entrepreneurial spirit of the creative soul. The early days featured handmade soaps, quilts,clothing,artwork and jewelry in very small quantities.For the brave who were willing to add their work online it felt like you were sharing your creations with your friends. People ate it up. Suddenly owning something handmade or original took on a special quality. Heck even Oprah thought it was cool. Small independent artisans found a home to share their work on a national level and sales took off. For some of us though we were pretty skeptical of the whole thing and we waited a bit to see what it was all going to be but for many an entire new industry was born.
Then 2008 happened and suddenly people discovered that you could put anything on Etsy and sell it. For the artisans who actually really made their work an alarm went up. Surely Etsy was going to police this right? As the years went on the foreign distributors flooded the site and it began to look less and less like the handmade channel it started out to be. Sites like Regretsy popped up to draw attention to the mess it had become.
Still so many of us hung in there sharing our work, mostly because it was an affordable way to share out work. About a year ago we began to slowly move away from the site leaving only greeting cards and a few older pieces on there. I guess we just didn't want to believe that the site was worth letting go of since we had always managed to find new customers along the way. Then the notice arrived today.
It was really a simple message but it said so much. Basically Etsy let us know that starting now they don't care how goods arrive on their site. Nope, you can have someone else make your stuff. You can get it in any country you want, doesn't matter. Essentially handmade is all over. So for us Etsy is all over. We struggle every day to explain to people that everything we make is made by hand. Every stencil is cut by hand. Every color is printed by hand. Handmade means a lot to us.
It should mean something to the people who visit Etsy and we hope they will come to our website to find us. Or maybe Etsy will change their minds.
Unlike a painter, each of the pieces in our booth takes at least a month to create and will take years to sell out. So many times at a show Steve and I will look at the booth of a fellow artist as he/she sells a large painting that we know may have taken as little as a week to create and wonder if we should rethink the medium of printmaking. One unlikely benefit for us however is that we spend a lot of time with our work. They take on a special connection as we spend every week explaining their meaning each week on the road. Many of the pieces come from photographs that we take during our travels or they could come from a composite of images that Steve has collected over time. However, every once in awhile there are certain pictures that have a special meaning to us. They come from a place of deeper meaning and they reflect a part of our lives that is marked in time. Recently we sold out of a such a piece of special significance and it seemed like a good time to share the life cycle of one of these pieces so I give you: The Life of "The Cherry Thief".
Anyone who has ever had to move during a traumatic time in their lives can attest there are always sights and sounds that connect us to those times. It can be the music that we listened to, the food we had to eat, the sight of the buildings around us. No matter how old we get we can still close our eyes and see, hear, or smell the very thing that reminds us of that time. Leaving the desert Southwest and moving to Seattle was probably one of those times for our children.
In 1997, I was promoted and transferred in my job to Seattle from a small independent office in Flagstaff, AZ. My children had been living on 3 acres in the mountains with farm animals, a massive garden, and wide open skies. They were 9 and 11. For the first year we had rented a house in the middle of the suburbs of Seattle, surrounded by lots of houses. The first month it poured rain every day. There were lots of other kids around but they were still in school and so in the beginning our children were anything but happy. There was one glimmer of hope. The house had a tiny yard with fruit trees! My son was fascinated. Are there going to really be cherries in our backyard? Oh yes, we assured him, give it time but there would be cherries. It became his mission to watch the trees. Everyday the same question, the same response. As the cherries ripened his excitement grew. The other trees showed the promise of fruit but the cherries... Well, you all can guess the outcome of the story as the pesky crows had also been watching the trees as well and the day the cherries were ready, Nic woke up to see the cherries all gone.
"The Cherry Thief "was created to memorialize the moment and made it's debut later that year. At the time Steve only did a few shows in the summer locally so he only sold a few pieces in the beginning. This piece turned out to be significant because it also was the first bird piece and began a series of successful wildlife pieces to come. Over the years as more wildlife work came along "The Cherry Thief" always stayed popular. It seemed to spark a feeling in people about a similar experience they might have had with crows. Ironically in recent years we began to see images of crows with cherries in various art forms at the many shows we do. We have even had people ask us if all the artists are doing the same thing for a reason.
We get asked a lot about how long it takes for a piece to sell out and it really varies. These days we make very small editions and so it will not take as long as it did with "The Cherry Thief" where we made 40. This piece sold slowly but steadily until this past year and then it went a little crazy. We were asked last year to be included in an exhibition at the Portland International Airport on Printmaking. "The Cherry Thief" was there and we got calls constantly about it, selling quite a few of them. Like a lot of our pieces, there are times they just take off and everyone wants them. For that we are grateful.
So it is ironic that a few weeks ago we closed the chapter on "The Cherry Thief". We still have one framed one and my heart says we should keep it. We left Seattle to move back to Arizona this year and closed that chapter too. Maybe we should sent the artwork to Nic. Then he will always remember the day the crow stole his cherries.
(Steve is trying his hand at the blog this time so here goes)
Well, twelve art festivals and thousands of miles later one thing remains the same...I have know idea what to expect from one show to the next. While most shows have been pretty consistent, I still get amazed when I hear people in our booth say "the economy must really be hurting you guys..." and the next person comes in and buys several pieces at a time and always asking if we have anything larger!? The last few shows, it seemed to be the norm as a couple of our neighbors were selling very large canvas' and sculptures
for $2,500. to $15,000....all weekend long.
We don't have anything in those price ranges, for a couple of reasons. One being that we don't have really large pieces and everything is printed in limited editions....multiple originals for lack of a better description. I actually had a lady in Texas who wanted to buy the entire edition of a new piece so no one else would have it! While we have never had that happen, we would have considered it but, in the end her husband talked her out of it, common sense prevailed .
As, a print maker I suppose I could create larger pieces but that would require a major investment in frames, fabric, and larger substrates to print on....not mention a larger studio and work surface. The other ideas, were a triptych or simply work on a Mono print. Not impossible, just something to think about this winter. ..
We do a lot of shows with many artists that we see all year long. Some artists sell small inexpensive items and they have to sell a lot of things to make a lot of money but then we have friends that only have to sell one or two things and can have a $10-20,000 show. For us we are really in the middle. We sell original artwork but its not in the thousands of dollars so we don't attract the high dollar customer that can come in and essentially buy our whole booth. What we do have are moments of joy at selling young couples their first piece of original art. It has happened so often that a few years ago we decided to start a payment plan so that more young people could start buying original works of art instead of reproductions. The payment plan has led us to some wonderful encounters with people and recently we were fortunate to be able to be part of a great surprise.
The wife of one of these couples who had bought from us before and loved the work called me to ask if she could buy one of our newest pieces for her husband and together we arranged a plan not only for paying for the piece but to bring it to the art show where they come to see us each year that was a few months away. When the day came she arrived with her husband and he walked into our booth and asked if we still had this new piece and I said " Yes, we do" and showed it to him already wrapped up. He said, "Oh too bad somebody bought it, someday..." and I said" Okay, "Today, its yours". He said " Oh yeah, right". To which we all said. "Really, it's yours". His look was priceless. He had no idea and was just thrilled.
To be able to be part of the surprise and to know that we could help Tracy make this possible made us very happy and really makes us feel so luck y to do what we get to do in our lives now.
It has been awhile since I have posted anything and I have been struggling to decide how to approach the subject of Sunday art buyers. It has always amused me when someone asks for a discount because it is Sunday. For us each day is another opportunity to sell our work and it is never the last day for us. Our lives frankly don't include a day off very often and over the past two years I think we sometimes don't even know what day it is. I wonder sometimes what people really think when they see us at the shows. Do they understand what it takes for us to be there? Most of the time to be at any show requires a process that begins a good six months before. We are spending money early on just to apply to all the shows we do. Then we begin the anxious wait to hear if we are invited to a show or not. There are great shows that we simply can't ever get into and there are shows that even though we feel good about participating that we still must do the dance.There are a few months of the year when all we do is apply,wait and then have to pay for booth fees. It is a never ending job application and it is always a nerve-wracking time for us.
Once we are accepted and have paid the fees we still have to figure out how to get there and where we can stay that won't cut into our expenses too badly. We have friends who simply sleep in their vans but we have never gone that route. Just before the show we spend at least a full day packing up the van, always trying to guess what pieces will appeal at each show. Do we bring birds this time? Do we have a corner booth so we can display more? Then in many cases we start driving, and driving for days to get to the location of the show. We eat frugally and sleep in the least expensive hotels we can find. Once we arrive we may have to set up our booth in the dark of night,early in the morning or in the middle of a hot and windy day. We spend hours setting everything up, ever cautious about the weather.
By the time most people see us at a show we have already incurred a great deal of expense and we put our bright and shiny personalities to work to greet , to explain, and sometimes to discuss why we don't bargain. This is our living, it is not a hobby and every dollar we make goes into producing work, arranging travel and just plain living. We chose this life for many reasons and we are happy living it. The best friends anyone could hope for are usually only a few booths away at any show and we get to meet a lot of very wonderful people.
By the end of the show on Sunday, our work just begins. We have to tear everything down and pack up the van. If we are lucky we are heading to another show in a few days or we prepare for a long drive home. We are thankful for everything that happened over the past few days, even when it's not successful. For us it is just another day and we just get into the groove of what we have to do next. It can be a challenging life at times but it is our life and we are responsible for our successes and our failures. We wouldn't change a thing.
We go to so many shows and sometimes we find ourselves drawn to certain customers that become friends and a bright spot every year when we visit a given city. Dale was one of those people. Every year when we would do the Utah Arts festival we knew that he would be one of the first people we would see and that his beautiful smile and zest for life would set us up for a great weekend. The Utah Arts Festival is a grueling show. It is four days long and it goes from noon to 11 pm. We work hard but it also has provided us with some truly wonderful moments with some very special people. Dale was in a class all his own. He came all four days and he came for the music as much as for the art. Since I love music so much and I reluctantly could never go hear most of it, I seemed to live vicariously through our moments with Dale and his wife Karen. They bought art from us the first year and yet they never missed visiting with us every year after. They saw us throughout the show but we knew they would be the first and the last people we would spend time with during the show. It meant a lot to us, probably more than either of them knew.
This past June, they came as usual but this time Karen took us aside and told us that it was going to be Dale's 60th birthday and to surprise him she wanted to buy him "Beach Patrol", the raven which he had been looking at for years. It would be a surprise and we worked with her to get it to her without his knowledge. We couldn't wait for September to come so that we could hear his reaction to his present. We had no idea that this time we would hear news that would set us back for quite awhile.
Dale received his art on his 60th birthday and was thrilled. One week later he died from heart failure. We sell art for a living but each and every piece we sell we give a little piece of ourselves with it. This time we lost so much because we knew what the world lost that day. Dale is dancing to great music somewhere and we feel blessed to have been a part of his life.
I think the number one question we get asked at every show is "Where are you from?" and yet in many ways it is a question that means nothing. You see we spend our lives on the road for the most part. When we come home we spend our time creating the artwork we display but the inspiration for the work itself comes from the times we spend far from the place we now call home. For many artists we get so little time to actually stay "home" that the question is always a jarring one. Home is a studio, a garage, an open space for building and creating and preparing for the next trip out the door. Does it matter in the big scheme of things where we are from or can the work speak for itself?
Many years ago we moved to Seattle because of a job transfer and now we are selling our house and planning to move back to Arizona. Will people stop buying from us in the Northwest once our address changes? Will more people buy in the Southwest when we do? Does it make the artwork look different based on where an artist is from, really? The artwork should speak for itself and it should be about how it makes the viewer feel, no matter where it is from.
Do customers want to buy "local" and if so, do they understand that most artists would starve if they only did "local" shows. We love the places we visit and at many of the shows we do, we now have customers that we genuinely are excited to see every year just to say hello. We visit many places every year and as we travel to these locations we frequent some very beautiful locations along the way. We are so fortunate to have this luxury to be able to take in such inspiration wherever we go. We aren't from Utah, Oregon, or Texas but there are images in our booth from time we have spent there.
So now that we will be from another new place, when people ask us "Where are you from?" we will answer differently but then we will look at each other, smile and know that really we are still the same people we were before we moved.
I actually began doing art shows way before Steve. In the early 1970's I used to go to art shows in California with my cousin and sell beautiful necklaces made from beads that my aunt brought back from her travels in Africa and parts of Asia. It was so simple then. We just showed up, spread out a blanket and stayed until we sold out or got tired. Everyone around us made what they sold, some of it was fine crafted and some of it was not but I don't think the idea that they didn't make it themselves was ever of question.
Over the years the idea of buying finely made original art in an outdoor setting evolved and suddenly it became more structured. There came a purpose and a sense in the community that when you went to these shows that you were seeing the best the area had to offer in the arts. We all bought white tents, white vans and learned how to take professional photographs of all of our work so that we could be compared against our peers for a chance to have a spot at these coveted venues. There were years when the community went in masses to buy work by the artists and to commune with them to understand the hours of labor that went into each and every piece on display. It was a respected and valued way to make a living.
Then the economy tanked and suddenly a few things began to change that have caused us all to stop and wonder about the future we face as more people decided to join the art show circuit. There are still incredible artists and craftsmen who have chosen to sell their work directly to the public. Yet we are now challenged at these very venues by booths full of "vendors" who sell items that they did not make themselves or they may have initially designed and have now found a way to mass produced on the cheap. The promoters of some of the shows we have historically supported no longer care if the work is original or not or even if the visitor knows that what they are looking at is actually made by the artist or not.
I spent a great many years in the corporate world in sales competing against other companies. What I always knew was that integrity in sales was the most important value I could bring to a customer. As someone who has lived in both the art and corporate world I find the situation I am witnessing these days really interesting. Do the customers we talk to every week really interested in buying from the artist who actually handmade the work or has the retail world now changed things so much that no one cares? I personally faced this challenge a few weeks ago when I bought a garment from a fellow "artist" only to find out later that she didn't make them but bought them from a wholesaler and marked them up to resell at the shows. It made me question so much about how I felt about what we do now and how I should respond to the artist in question.
As customers visiting the shows, it comes down to deciding why you are there I guess. For most people it is just a way to while away an afternoon and maybe purchase a small item to remind you of the day. For the people standing in the 10 x 10 booth spaces however it can mean a great deal more.
Bonnie Harmston works side by side with her husband Steve and travels the art show circuit with him.