Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Don't Be An Artist

Do you, or have you ever, called yourself “an artist?” This title, which I once coveted, is now anathema to me.

I remember when I was young wanting so very badly to be able to say legitimately that I was an artist because I thought it was the supreme profession. Nothing, I thought, could fill me with greater pride than to be an artist. But things started happening to me to deter my ambition early in my education.

My problem was academics. I was reasonably good at them—particularly with sciences—and so everyone around me, my teachers, family and friends, encouraged my academic advancement. A practical benefit of my academic success was scholarships that served to make my post-secondary education affordable, but they also forced me into an academic track increasingly focused on the sciences.

As an undergraduate college student, academic success seemed to create increasing limitations. The more I succeeded, the narrower my world seemed to become. I found myself in smaller classes, exposed to fewer students and my courses became more and more focused on biology. The trouble for me was that my success was unfulfilling.

Academic success seemed to me, as an undergrad, to be involved with nothing more than memorization and regurgitation. The quantification of learning into marks and the pressure of the competitive academic hierarchy created an unwelcome atmosphere; I craved the ambiguity and freedom of the creative courses that had disappeared from my life as a scholar. I wanted to be “an artist.”

My discontent was my secret. Everyone around me was so pleased with what I was doing I felt that I could not express my frustration. But at the end of my third year at college, I was forced to declare my dissatisfaction: I turned down an opportunity to be semi fast-tracked into a pre-med program. For the first time, out loud, I said I wanted to become an artist. The effect was as though I had said I wanted to become a cannibal.

Anyone can memorize, I thought. Anyone that had academic potential, it seemed to me at the time, could be a doctor or a lawyer if they were prepared to work hard, but being creative seemed to me to be about the nurturing of a “gift.” Learning could enhance creativity, I thought, but it could not be academically induced. I craved the opportunity to test myself in a creative environment instead of academics—creative success, I knew, would fulfill me.

Now, a career later, I teach business skills to artists at Emily Carr University and every term, in every class, I can be heard saying: “Do NOT be an artist.” (I love using what I call “the provocative tense” when I teach.)

So how have I come to abhor the title that once so inspired me? The answer is simple. The word “artist” has no meaning as a professional identifier. It is an insulting answer because it tells the asker nothing.

Research says the majority of sales by local contemporary artists are to people with whom the artist has a relationship, so visual artists with aspirations must make the absolute most of every single opportunity to establish or to further a relationship, and the question, “What do you do” affords visual artists with the opportunity to do just that. But if you answer, “I am an artist,” what is the listener to conclude? You are a dancer? A writer? An actor?

A person who is truly interested in you, a person who may become a customer, a fan or a word-of-mouth advertiser for you, learns nothing from the statement, “I am an artist;” the person is forced to ask, “What kind of artist?” Even the term, “visual artist” is lacking in enough specificity. The question, “What do you do?” is an opportunity that you should maximize. Your answer to this question should be a thoughtful and carefully crafted one.

The better answer is one that helps the asker learn more precisely about what you do. I am not advocating that you respond with a virtual advertisement or that you bore your interlocutor with too much information. What I advocate is that all visual artists have a thoughtful, meaningful answer. Consider, for example, these responses:
  • I am a (master) printmaker
  • I am a creative self-employed professional
  • I am a watercolour landscape artist
  • I am an artist that, according to the Leadington Star, is a “national treasure”
  • I am a wildlife photographer with a fine artist sensibility
  • I am a contemporary impressionist
  • I am a fine art painter and I teach technique

All these responses to the question, “What do you do,” are from my students after they have discussed the importance of a life-long professional identity. Every one of these examples is from a visual artist who, prior to our discussion, self-identified as simply “an artist.”

The issue here, is your professional identity; your “brand.” What you call yourself is a vital business decision worthy of thoughtful reflection. Your professional identity should help people understand exactly what you do. If you say, simply, that you are “an artist,” you are throwing away an opportunity.

Every time you introduce yourself to an individual, to a group, to a jury, a curator, a customer or a potential customer you have an opportunity to impress and to inform and you should use it. My advice is to not identify yourself as “an artist,” but instead, to think of a self-descriptor that is more meaningful and engaging. Reward the person who expresses interest in you with a thoughtful answer.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Always Interesting: John Baldessari

YouTube film about him, narrated by Tom Waites, here.

Join Me: Metchosin Summer School

I am excited to be part of the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts this year at Pearson College. This summer festival of learning and networking expects over four hundred artists to attend the forty-five workshops on offer. My workshop is on July 7th and it is a long one: 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. If you or an artist you know wants an intensive career boost, please let them know about this opportunity.

Summer Art Fairs

An email from Betty C. asks: “My gallery sales are down and I’ve been wondering about doing something I have never wanted to do: participate in a local art ‘festival’ for lack of a better word. It is part sale, part summer fair, and I have always thought these kind of events were inappropriate for me. But I need to increase my sales. Any tips about what to expect or how to maximize my experience?”
After decades of teaching, blogging and writing about the business of the visual arts, I am lucky to have a very large mailing list that is now an excellent resource for me. The artists on my list provide me with rich insights into many aspects of a visual arts career that are outside my experience. In response to forwarding Bettys’ email, within twenty-four hours I received a lot of tips:
  • Keep a 3-ring binder of images of your other work—sold and unsold. I have gotten commissions for images this way. Also, people like to look through it.
  •  Keep your table or booth really simple and clean. Keep back-up inventory in your car and get it when you need it. Too much looks messy, uninviting and unprofessional.
  •  Don’t be afraid of stock piling work. I had a nice clean, professional-looking table at a fair last year, but the guy beside me recently sold his work like crazy, unframed and unmated off a table.
  •  I use a Digital Photo frame on my table. It features a slide show of most of my work.
  •  I get far greater interest in my booth if I am working while I am at the fair/sale. People ask me questions and stay longer and often that can lead to a sale. Besides, I am more comfortable painting than just standing there watching them and making them feel uncomfortable.
  • I just read about “square.” It's a system that lets you accept credit cards with your smart phone. (http://www.squareup.com)
  • A fellow painter told me to leave a couple of spaces empty to make it look like I had sales and apparently it makes people think they should “buy now.” Instead, I decided to put a “sold” sticker on a couple of pieces and then someone came up to me and asked, “Do you have another one like that sold one?” I didn’t know what to do!
  • Have LOTS of promotional material ready - with your website on everything and hand it to everyone who will take it. 
Set up an easel and at least look as though you’re creating. 
Be ready with your stories...the longer folks are engaged and looking at your work the more likely they'll buy. 

  • Have an extra folding stool (or two) for a person to use while deciding which of several paintings to buy and be ready to rearrange things so they can focus on those paintings.
  • Smile CONSTANTLY even if you haven't sold a single thing; you can never know which visitor might go home and contact you later!
  •   This year I am teaming up with two other artists with whom I get along and who are using very different styles or media. We can give each other break and we are better at promoting each other than ourselves.
  •   Be prepared to be tough with organizers. I got a lousy location assigned to me and I was resentful given that I registered early and paid the same fee as everyone else. I asked how I came to be where I was and did not like the explanation. I HATED being a [expletive deleted], but it got me a better location. And thank goodness I was there early enough to become aware of the problem in time to fix it.
  • Try not to respond to any compliment by saying, “Thank you”. It ends the conversation. Instead, ask them a question or lead them into a discussion you think they might enjoy. Don’t say, ”Thank you,” until they leave or buy.
  • A note about proper behavior at these events. My biggest gripe is often other artists. When I am at an event like this, I am there to sell, not talk to other artists. When other artists engage me, I give them my card and ask them to contact me later because I want to catch the eye, mind and ears of my customers.
  • (This was forwarded to me from an unidentified blog.) “I go with my husband and young daughter, we’re a small family and don’t always have a sitter for her. We work together, setting up, taking down and established a rule that only one person at a time in the booth and no eating inside the booth.”
  • Sometimes people ask you the dumbest questions imaginable. You have to remember to always take the high road with every response. I often reply simply and politely, and then ask if its their first time at an art fair and if I can answer any questions they might have about choosing art. That may not lead to a sale, but I get them on my mailing list and who knows what will happen down the line.