Thursday, May 21, 2009

Professional Artist (It's NOT an oxymoron)

Yeah, I know - I don't really call myself an artist. I'm a designer, though I like to think of what I do as "art jewelry", since "costume" jewelry doesn't really fit, and "bridge" jewelry is a term that really no one (except maybe department store buyers) understands, and "fine" jewelry - which certainly can be a misnomer - usually brings to mind platinum and things like diamonds, opals, etc....not really the type of jewelry I make.

But anyway, I digress. Even though I tend to reserve the term "artist" for what I call Capital A Art - meaning 2D and sculpture - everyone I know, from show promoters, to gallery owners, to designers, uses that term. And not always in a positive sense. "Those artists are so flaky; it's hard for me to get a hold of them!". "Those artists don't understand that I have to make a living too, and can't accept everyone's work in my store". "This artist committed to me and now they've canceled at the last minute, leaving a big gap in my show" (or worse, a trunk show with no artist in sight...).

And many of these comments are justified. Most art schools don't teach anything about how to make a living from one's art; how to practice the *Business* side of Art. There are few classes or seminars available to artisans to teach them how to survive by marketing and selling one's art. In certain circles, it's not "cool" to be businesslike about one's art.

But art and commerce *can* coexist; at least in my opinion they can. I know most creative folks don't like - okay, we intensely dislike - the business end of our business. Paperwork. Selling (you mean, actually having to *talk* to people about our work??). Marketing. Advertising. Pricing. All topics that make most artisans and designers throw up their hands and shudder.

Unfortunately, that approach won't carry a business too far. If the paperwork gets ignored, fines and penalties (not to mention a lot of stress about the growing paper piles!) can result. If the work doesn't get advertised or marketed, no one knows about it, and so they can't buy it. If the work doesn't get sold - well, I'd like to see the case studies on businesses that succeeded without any revenues. Even the most beautiful, original work will typically not sell itself. If the pricing is out of whack - either on the low or the high end - the work will not sell, and all you'll do is make lovely things that just clutter up your home or studio.

Is it hard to be a professional artist? Not really; many times it simply involves basic etiquette. Treating others as you would like to be treated. For retail shows, this includes greeting your customers, not pressuring or "hard selling" them, but rather sharing information about your work, thanking them for their purchase, etc. etc. It also includes unloading quickly and moving your vehicle so the next exhibitor can get to their space to set up in a timely manner. It includes not playing loud music in your booth, or denigrating someone else's work, or taking more than your alloted booth space. And professional behvior should be extended to ALL of your customers, both retail and wholesale. For example:

I exhibited at a festival this weekend, and my husband went strolling the booths on Sunday afternoon. He said he heard at least *three* jewelry exhibitors telling customers, "my work is in galleries, but it's double the price because they mark it up so much. So you're really getting 50 (25, 15) percent off if you buy it directly from me". I told him I'd have asked, "How do your galleries feel about you undercutting them with customers?" Because that's essentially what's being done. And if YOU had that artist's merchandise in your store, and you found out that they were selling the work for less, would you want to do business with them again? I suspect not.

This is an example of what I mean by being professional. Don't undermine your long term relationships in order to make a quick buck. If you are going to sell at retail AND at wholesale, you must keep your prices consistent (and I realize that each gallery may have a different markup, but that's another discussion). A gallery may order and reorder from you for years, if you work consistently sells, so why risk the potential revenue of that relationship for one small retail sale (or even one large one)? I realize that we have to pay bills and put food on the table *now*, as well as in the future, but a professional artist will have planned for both (a nudge to those of you without business plans!), and act accordingly.

I once had my work consigned in a shop where the owner was frustrated because a few artists kept coming in and taking their work out of the shop - leaving large gaps in her inventory and display - every time they had a retail show. The owner asked me if it would be unreasonable to expect the artists to leave their work with her for a period of time, say three months, so she didn't always look like she couldn't fill the shop. I told her it was absolutely reasonable of her to expect that she would carry the work for an established time period. If the artist can't produce enough work to fill the shop's needs AND their own retail needs, then they need to cut out one of those sales venues. I know some of you may not like to hear that, but it's part of being a professional. You don't take on committments that you can't fulfill. Or at least, you try *really* hard not to. I recognize that sometimes you get blindsided, and even the best laid plans go to waste occasionally. But planning your production abilities *is* necessary to eliminate, or at least minimize, leaving promises unfulfilled.

Often artists are hurt by rejection from a store or gallery that they really wanted to have carrying their work. I understand that - we've all been there, and we're all likely to be there again - but it's critical to remember that the rejection isn't personal. It's about whether the owner / buyer thinks the work will sell. And if the owner takes on your work and it doesn't sell, is that really the kind of relationship you want? Your work sitting in a store gathering dust, with the owner unhappy that her space could be put to better use, and in the meantime, you might be selling it to another, more appropriate store, or maybe selling it yourself. As long as the owner or buyer isn't outright nasty in their rejection of your work, listen to what they have to say and learn from it. Ask questions. Ask if you can return in three (or six, whatever) months. Tailor your work to fit their demographic, as long as that still suits your personal style and what you want to create.

I have had both kind, and very unkind, rejections. The unkind ones are never fun, but we manage to move past them and try other options. The kind ones are often helpful, once we get over that initial sting. I have had some owners say to me, "Your work is beautiful, but X just doesn't sell in our store. If you start making Y, please come back and see us". Okay. Now I can decide if I will enjoy making Y and if so, I can go back with some Y later on, and see what happens. Or I can decide, "I would *hate* making Y", and continue to look for other locations to sell my X.

You can lessen the rejections by doing your homework up front. Check out potential locations carefully. Will your creations work with the items already there? Will your work add something that might be missing? Are your prices in line with their prices? Are your prices a little higher, and maybe the store is ready to push the price points up a little and try your work? If you work, and your prices, seem like a good fit, then make the call, and ask for the appointment. If not, move on to the next option. Remember, it's not about you or your work. It's about business. If the store is full of work that doesn't sell, how long do you think they'll be around? Owners want longevity as much as we want it for them, so don't waste your time trying to convince someone to take your work if they can't sell it.

If you get the appointment, remember that this is not the time to be your "out there" creative self. Certainly you don't have to get all buttoned-up corporate now, but you need to be able to present your work, and your pricing, in a solid, not flighty manner. Have your work priced appropriately, have your contract ready if you are doing consignment, or your terms ready if you are doing wholesale. Don't expect the owner or buyer to figure this out for you - it's a sure sign of someone who is not a professional. Present your work in an orderly manner, and listen to what the owner has to say. Take it on the chin if they don't want to purchase (or consign), if they do want your work, be happy, yet keep that professional demeanor. You can do the dance of joy later. *s*

If you are not able to be as professional as you'd like in certain areas, then you'll need to partner with someone who can. Whether that's a rep, or a spouse, or a business partner, find someone who can be strong where you are weaker, leaving you to your own strengths. If that means hiring an administrative assistant for your paperwork, then so be it. If it means using a CPA because, really, who the heck else understands the tax laws? - then do it. If it means hiring a PR firm, because you just don't have time to do your own PR (or time to figure out how it really works - IMO PR is one of the great mysteries of the Universe), then when you can afford to do so, have at it. Don't be afraid to ask for (or pay for!) help, as finances permit. Play to your strengths and you'll be amazed at how smoothly things will flow, and how much less stress you'll have. If you can't be professional enough in a certain area, hire someone who can. But in the meantime, make sure that you are the most "professional artist" out there. It's easier than you think.

Original post date: 10/18/05

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