Digging Deeper

Thanks everyone for the response to my posting a week ago titled, Bone to Pick. I have had more time to reflect and think about current topics related to Art show rules, promoters, and the art market in general. My own opinions on what constitutes art and how it could be bought and sold seem to defer from the current reality, somewhat. Today, I can say that I am an artist. I am an artist using the broadest definition of the term, because I create things which cause emotion, or an expression. In the beginning, I created things merely for my own personal enjoyment. I created images that I wanted to look at. Upon viewing my creations, the inevitable thought follows: Maybe, someone else would like to experience these images too. I wonder if I could sell something to them. And so began my journey to explore the change from merely a hobbyist to a professional artist. A journey, when shared by others, forms the foundation for whole communities such as what we have here at AFI. 

For many years, I sat on the sidelines and observed that journey from my armchair. I read countless reviews on various shows around the country. I watched as new artists shared images of their latest work, seeking opinions and validation. I have listened to Larry give expert tips on jurying and photography. I laughed endlessly along with Nels as he entertained us with his tequila reports and show reviews on his quest for "Moola." I was dismayed when postings appeared from disillusioned souls throwing in the towel after one too many zeros. As in many areas of life, there are few guarantees of success. I witnessed different artists come and go, here and abroad. During my oil painting days, I dipped my toes in the water sporadically, but was largely unsuccessful in my attempts to break into larger well known venues. My own disillusionment was buoyed by my confidence in knowing that I had never actually quit my day job. I had a roof over my head, therefore in my mind, I could work on my art at a leisurely pace. To those of you who do this full time, without any guaranties, I truly applaud you. I think about the coronavirus and its impact on the art market, and the world at large. Though I am a part-timer, the desire to sell my art continues.

As I think back over the wealth of information presented over the years, I am struck by the changes that have occurred as the art festival industry evolved. The old stories from those who started in the 70's or 80's, selling art from the back of vans in the park. The dichotomy from that to the present day with whole city blocks shut down, thousands of applicants, juries, and $500 or more booth fees, is astounding. Over the years, as the U.S. population exploded from 200 million in the early 1970’s to 330 million today, things slowly changed. The number of would-be artists grew by leaps and bounds, far greater than the number of available event slots on the calendar. Shows then grew larger and more numerous because they had an endless supply of applicants clamoring to compete for the few available slots. Because the festivals were not directly dependent on the sales turnout, they had less interest in ensuring that turnout and buyer quality be maintained, than they would’ve if their income was directly tied to patron numbers. Today, some notable shows report a high turnout, upwards of 100,000 attendees. Interestingly, higher festival attendance numbers do not always seem to be clearly linked with higher sales. Many city dwellers will show up because it's "something to do", or a chance to walk the dog. As salaries have failed to keep pace with the cost of housing throughout the country, a large portion of the populace now has a much lower disposable income (if any) than before. Where previously someone would've been open to spending more on an original oil painting, they are now relegated to picking through the print bin. Various artist feedback in recent years speaks to a significant percentage of artists who fail to sell enough at a given event to sustain a meager lifestyle, let alone cover their expenses or even the booth fee. This translates into a strange disconnect between the high number of art festival events currently running throughout the year (before covid), and the seemingly endless supply of would-be artist applicants. 

Consider this, many art shows charged booth fees around $100 (Inflation adjusted $200) in the early 1990’s. Today many shows charge $350-800, say $500 average, excluding the low and high tiers. This represents a booth fee increase of 150%. At the same time, promoters have increased the number of artists, with many shows now in the 200-300 range. In an earlier show where someone might’ve been the only landscape watercolorist, they now have four landscape watercolorists to fight over the limited potential customers. At the same time buying power has not kept pace with living costs. According to U.S. Govt statistics average median household income in 1990 was $28,838 (inflation adjusted $59,497). In 2020, the average household income is $68,400. Ponder that for a minute. In 30 years, our average measurement of buying power has increased 15%, yet at the same time a home valued at $100,000 (Inf Adj) now costs $300,000, or monthly apartment rent was $700 (Infl Adj) and is now $1200 per month. The ripple effect means that younger generations are staying at home longer and older adults are sharing living space with others to cut costs. For those who can still go it alone, something must be cut out of the monthly budget to pay for these increases including: savings, entertainment, vacations, and of course art.

Art buying habits may be changing as well, possibly reflecting a greater societal shift in attitudes about art. Younger generations are raised with little appreciation for artistic culture other than music or movies. (An exception can be made for fans of art related to various fantasy or movie franchises, e.g. Star Wars, Marvel, etc.) Indeed, so detached are a majority of people from the art world, that for most, the only connection they have to art is when a major news story hits the twitter feed such as 'Banksy mysteriously painted the side of a building' or 'Another Monet sold for $16 million in a Sotheby's auction.'  The digital age helped to accelerate this shift in public interest toward social media, tv, smartphones, and video games and away from books, art, theater, and other classic endeavors. Will future generations seek to gain a greater appreciation for art, reversing the trend? This is unknown, but there are possibilities.

If the average consumer is less knowledgeable or or less appreciative of art than before, then perhaps we need to begin looking for other avenues to connect with them. If people are balking at paying $4000 for an original piece, or $1000, or even $200 then perhaps the very nature of how people consume art should be questioned. Consider the example of the late Thomas Kinkade. Most of us are familiar with his lengthy series of Dickensian village scenes portraying cobblestone streets, cozy cottages, and glowing warm lights. His work was harshly critiqued and largely dismissed by the modern art establishment. And yet, he became a millionaire over the course of his career. How? He was an expert at marketing along with painting. He created a series of yearly calendars featuring his works, which were a major hit with middle-aged women. My mother had several. Then came the desk planners, snow-globes, figurines, jigsaw puzzles, and more. The paintings themselves were dismissed by educators, gallerists, and critics as kitschy, lacking emotion, and repetitive. Their opinions were meaningless to Kinkade, as he built a massive loyal following which remains to this day, years after his death. A following, consisting of everyday, regular people who don’t necessarily have the budget for a $2000 original, but they want to enjoy the art. For $12.95 they can enjoy 12 different paintings every month and at the end of the year, they have to buy another one. And another one. Kinkade new this. A low cost piece of wall art, that anyone can afford, and expires every year, requiring a new purchase. I don’t know of anyone who wouldn’t call Thomas Kinkade a success on some level. He created what he loved and made a lot of money doing it. Something we’re all trying to do.

There are lessons we can glean from studying artists like Kinkade. There are all kinds of individuals in the world from all walks of life. Everyone has unique tastes, desires, motivations, and preferences. Further, everyone who has a mind to appreciate art, may not enjoy it the same way as we would assume. Sure, we would like everyone to buy our original paintings, unique sculptures, or extra large silver metallic prints, but the economics clearly will not support that. There are hundreds or thousands of people walking through a typical art show. They look around, but they keep walking. They may stop and look at all the items on the wall, but after a quick glance at the 3 or 4 digit price tag, they make a hasty exit. Alert artists see this and point out the small “print bin” off to the side hoping to snag a sale on a $25 lithograph. The bin is usually picked over and frequently missing smaller versions of the best works hanging on the wall. A lost customer. It is time we open ourselves to truly exploring our artistic marketing potential. It is time we stop allowing art show directors and rule-makers to limit our ability to branch out to new avenues. A comment was made that posters, puzzles, greeting cards, etc are not appropriate for art shows. I strongly disagree. If you want to provide other ways to market your own art, it should be your business, no one else's. If a young teenager really likes my painting, but doesn’t have $800 for the original or $150 for a print, I want to sell them a $15 Iphone case with my art proudly emblazoned on the back.

At some point in the past, someone decided that the freedoms associated with hocking art outside should be restricted to mimicking that of a miniature gallery, and selling anything else would be to pollute the meaning and purity of the art form or something like that, whatever that means. Have you ever been to an art museum that did not have a gift shop? I can't think of one. Gift shop sales can account for a significant portion of the total bottomline. They also offer an opportunity for regular joes to take home a memento of their visit. On a recent (before Covid) visit to Walt Disney World in Orlando, I was amazed to see that every single ride now has its own individual and distinct gift shop. Space Mountain has a space-themed gift shop. Haunted Mansion has a spooky gift shop. The significance of this cannot be overstated. Disney is using targeted marketing to sell to its patrons. The art purists would say, if you want to sell tchotchkes and tshirts, then go open a store doing just that. Never-mind that opening up a brick-and-mortar represents a serious financial risk and requires a large capital investment. Selling things in the open air on public land should be open to all and is commensurate with the financial situation most Americans find themselves today. I am reminded this whole business of modern outdoor art festivals in America took root, very informally, with a few guys from the back of a van in a park.

The writing may be on the wall. Many folks on here have commented that artists in the festival circuit are aging. Newer younger artists seem to be fewer and farther between. Sure, there are more and more artists applying to shows, but many of these are older folks who’ve changed careers or retired and are giving it a try. Many artists are reporting average yearly sales are down year over year. It is becoming increasingly difficult to sustain a decent lifestyle as a festival artist, or as a gallery artist too for that matter. It is my thought through all of this, that other possibilities do exist to generate income and hopefully sustain this lifestyle for years to come. The coronavirus has had a devastating effect on the world economies and the art market in particular. The festival circuit was brought to a complete standstill. It is my hope that all of us will be able to regroup and continue on in 2021. Let us continue the discussion. Ideas?


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  • Great observations and very well presented. 

  • If the art world doesn't work out for you, I think you could have a great future as a "Best Selling" author. Very well written with some valid points.

    • Thanks Larry! The mere thought of writing made me cringe in high school. The events of the last 10 years seem to have elicited a change though, as I push past old boundaries. You may be on to something...

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