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Myths That Hold Us Back

by Carolyn Henderson on 5/2/2016 8:11:21 AM

This article is by Carolyn Henderson, the managing half of Steve Henderson Fine Art. A regular contributing writer for FineArtViews, Carolyn’s alter ego, This Woman Writes, publishes lifestyle articles in online and in print newspapers and on her blog site. The co-owner of Steve Henderson Fine Art with her painter husband Steve, Carolyn is the author of Grammar Despair: Quick simple solutions to problems like, “Do I say him and me or he and I?” and the money saving book, Live Happily on Less.


Many years ago, we participated in an art festival that was celebrating its 20-30-40-something year. It was well-known, prestigious, and, we were assured, a winning opportunity simply because it was so well-known and prestigious.


Confident declarations of guaranteed success aside, we agreed only when festival management offered us a risk-free deal: if we didn’t clear the price of the booth, we didn’t have to pay.


Okay, we said. It’s worth a try.


And it was an educational experience.


We did manage to clear the price of the booth with a buck or two beyond, resulting in our travel, food, and hotel being covered, but that’s it. There’s no kind way of putting it than to say that the show was a disappointment, and it wasn’t worth returning to.


“You’re just impatient!” festival coordinators told us. “When it comes to shows, you have to come back year after year, and after the fifth year or so, collectors get to know you and they start buying. Don’t give up so soon!”




During the multiple days of the show, we found ourselves wandering around the festival area -- one, so that it would look like there were people wandering around the festival area and two, so that we didn’t stand for hours in the booth, desperately trying to get the attention of the few bona fide wanderers there were in the festival area. (As a side note, considering how long the event had been in existence, it was surprising how little it was aggressively and efficiently publicized. Those people who did come through were regulars from years past, and they were pretty much focused on grabbing cheap art at the evening auctions.)


In the course of our wanderings, we stumbled upon an artist who had been attending the festival for most of its 20-30-40 year existence. Every time we saw him he was sitting on a folding chair, watching the world go by.


“How’s it going?” we asked.


“Miserable,” he replied. “No one’s buying.”


“But you’ve been coming here for 20-30-40 years,” we replied, remembering what the festival coordinators had told us. “Don’t people seek you out because they recognize your name?”


“No,” he replied. “That’s a myth. I’ve talked to people this year that I’ve seen year after year after year, and they’re not buying. Sales have been down for years.”


As I say, it was an educational experience.


Artists are told many things, by many people, to encourage them to participate in a show, purchase  a magazine ad, enter a contest, or invest in a marketing program guaranteed (sort of) to catapult them to success. So encouraging and persuasive are the people pressuring the artist, that we forget they are essentially salespeople, whose primary purpose is to fill up booths, collect entry fees, keep their publication afloat, or sell their product -- and they look to artists as a source of money.


And while they would be happy to see you, or me, or Bob, sell a painting, this is not really paramount: what they really need is a bunch of somebodies -- you, me, and Bob -- writing them checks so that their event, publication, or product makes it.


Yes, this is cynical, and it doesn’t say much about human nature, but we operate under a lot of myths in our society, and the reason that the myths keep making it is because people keep buying into them: they believe the political candidate; they trust that the bond money will be efficiently used; they take the pills the doctor recommends, even though he’s admittedly not quite sure what’s wrong with them; they follow the steps of the millionaire guru’s book and are surprised when, nine months later, they are no closer to being millionaires than they were before.


We’re too trusting, too willing to accept what we’re confidently told without shooting back,


“Where’s the proof? Where are your records from last year’s show, who sold what, and how much did the artists make?”


(As a side note: I just received a Call to Artists letter from a show that, after years of slowly dying, took seriously the complaints and suggestions of its artist participants and made a series different, imaginative decisions -- “We are listening to YOU, the artists,” it said, and actually seems to be doing so. Something like this, we can support -- but something like this only began to happen because artists were pulling out. A team effort means just that -- everyone has a chance to play, and win, and we all shoot to win together.)


The reason it’s important to dispel myths -- not only those we face as artists but in all areas of our lives -- is because we will look for results based upon our belief in the truth of what we’re told. If what we’re told is a myth, then there’s no reason to waste time chasing it, expecting success from an area, or a method, that is not designed to give it.


From our personal business perspective, it saves us time, money, and energy not following myths, so we can take that same time, money, and energy to pursue ideas and opportunities that, though they may or may not work, are at least based on more than sales talk. Dispelling some of these myths is the focus of the next series of articles.


Join me next time for -- “Find Your Style and Stick with It!” Sigh . . .



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Before You Do This Again, Ask How It Went the Last Time

Topics: advice for artists | art and culture | art and psychology | art and society | Art Business | art fairs | art marketing | Carolyn Henderson | FineArtViews | sell art | selling art online | selling fine art online | social networking | support local art 

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Mark Brockman
We learn by doing, good or bad. Some shows exist to make money off the artist. Some galleries charge artists to show their work. Each of us neads to weigh the costs and returns. Sometimes, like in your case Carolyn, we have to try to know. We have all done it one way or another. It's a shame that many try, intentionally or not, to take advantage of artists who want to be successful. Artists need to be smart, do research. Still things can happen no matter how careful one is. Been there, done that.

Pamela Beer

Thanks for publishing this. We all need to hear this and understand that the only way to sell art is for us to learn to do this ourselves. And it's hard.

Gallery owners tell us about a person who came in and looked at our work and that they will come back and buy it. This rarely happens. Gallery owners are in it to make money and that is ok, but most want artists who do a lot of their own promotion. And I suppose in this economy and the changes to brick and mortar businesses, it is likely the only way for galleries to stay afloat. it's a business. We all should get that.

Art walks and festivals are costly in terms of fees and the effort to hang one's work. I know some artist that sell their art this way, but I think it is exhausting and rare to make much of an income. Art Fairs where people go to actually buy art may be the better route. Booth fees and entry fees can be a tad daunting, however.

And don't get me started on the proverbial art and wine walk. People rarely buy art at such events. I believe they come for the food and the wine. When I did this, the business owners told me that I must return year after year for people to get to know me. I don't believe it.

Juried shows that screen applicants for gallery representation contracts have recently popped up in my area this year. The fees are not cheap and the gallery rakes in a ton of income and only a handful are selected for a show and only one gets a contract with the gallery.

So all that said, an artist has to promote herself. Period.

Regina H
Hello Carolyn,
Thank you for such an important reminder, to always
ask or at least inquire about how succesful the
artists were at these events. We definitely have to be
our own advocates, especially since the fees are so high
for these festivals.... We need great results as artists
for it to be worth our efforts...

Harley Bartlett
Bingo! Right on the money! Nothing wrong with calculated risk.
But, too often the agenda has nothing to do with the desires or needs of the artist and the artist's business. And, an artist must put their business cap on when evaluating situations such as what you've covered. Unfortunately, too many of us allow our egos to get in the way.

Ernie Kleven
Thank you Carolyn. I so admire you for your honest comments such as you make in this blog. I have heard similar stories for the last ten years and I recently gave up on art fairs unless they are in my neighborhood. Art sales generally have been in the dumps beginning with the downturn of the housing market. At least that's when I first began attending them. Everyone was complaining then and telling me that I should have been there last year. And then there's beaut for a slow Sunday morning, "Oh just wait till after church!" Yeah, right! It's a sad state of affairs and the only out I see is simply "doing my own thing" right here, relying on whatever creative ingenuity I possess and then persevering. Test, observe, and adjust makes the most sense to me.

Jim Serrett
I had always thought that they should pay us to be there, really we are the attraction. And being asked to paint a demo is rather demoralizing. Never been to concert, recital or any other type of performance, that they paid us to play?

Mark Brockman
Jim brings up a good point. I may not remember this correctly but I read where a restaurant was advertising for musicians to play, for free. You get exposure that way, the ad said. Then a musician posted an ad in protest where he said he needed a restaurant to cater his musical event, for free. The restraint would get exposure.

I've been asked to show in places, like restaurants, 'you'll get exposure'. No. You are free decoration. Artist beware.

Luann Udell
I wrote a lengthy post cheering you for this, and offering my own wise insights, but it ended up in a glitch and disappeared.

So in short, KUDOS, Carolyn, for a spot-on article.

Sometimes shows have carried gifts that weren't expressed in sales--good contacts, new opportunities, intrigued lookers who eventually made it to my studio and gave me traction.

But as a good friend says years ago, "You may learn much and benefit from a bad show, but you don't need to do that show again to get it again. Move on." Amen, sister.

Bonita Mosley
Thank you, Carolyn , for your insightful thoughts. I'm a retired art teacher, who has funded most of my painting costs from my teaching income. That income is gone. As I begin on the road to creating income for my paintings, I find myself very susceptible to the "myth" industry.
Just yesterday I attended a large, highly reputable outdoor art festival. I noticed that the artists weren't selling enough to cover their expenses. Some people were walking with bags containing small art prints, jewelry, and some pottery. Maybe they pick up the larger art works later, I don't know.
So, is investing in small art prints the path to some income? I have just returned from the print shop where I had my 20"x30" painting digitized for future printing. Now I'm down $50 and the prints aren't even made yet. But I do have about 36 paintings that are of good quality and would make nice prints. Am I falling for one of the one of those myths if I continue to invest in prints?

How about investing in an online gallery and the fees for that? Is it really worth it. I really need the income to keep producing my art work. Well, I'd paint in mud if I have to! But I can't afford to waste time and money on myths. So, I'm happy you're on it and I can't wait to
see you uncover more truth!
Blessings, Bonita


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