This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft. She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer. She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art. She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...." You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
Don’t let your cheaper work devalue your finest work. More papas, few babies.
Fourth in a series on how to think about your true collectors.
I have a friend who’s been in the fine craft biz for over twenty years. He’s in the very best shows. He’s an astute businessman as well as a talented artist. The first time he came to my open studio, he shared an insight I’d never considered before:
Offering too much lower-priced work to attract a wider audience can actually diminish your value for serious collectors.
Human nature being what it is, people won’t think your cheaper work is “a bargain”. They’ll perceive your higher end work as “overpriced.”
I favor the “papa/mama/babies” model in my display. I show one high-end piece—my biggest and best work of the year. That’s the ‘papa’ piece. I’ll add in three to five mid-range pieces—things that echo the same spirit and flavor but in the $150-$500 range. These are the ‘mama’ pieces. Then I fill in with a large selection of items under $150, down to $25. These are the ‘babies’.
The theory is that the ‘papa’ piece is the attention-getting show-stopper. It rarely sells, but acts as a major draw. Well-heeled and confident collectors will then readily purchase the ‘mama’ pieces. People with smaller budgets, or who are unsure of their choices, will load up on the smaller ‘baby’ pieces.
It works pretty well in stores and galleries, where stores have to appeal to a wide range of customers and sizes of pocketbooks. But is it the right model for an open studio, or a booth at a show? What are the pros and cons?
My friend believes that mixing our high-end and our low-end work sends a bad message to our serious collectors. It signals confusion on the part of the artist, a lack of focus and intent.
Someone who’s thinking about buying a $5,000 or $10,000 piece from you does not want to see a $50 pair of earrings next to that piece. Their thinking? “Why should I invest five figures in you, when I can have a piece of you for $50?” Or worse….”If this piece is only $50, then that $5,000 piece must be overpriced!”
Eliminate the “babies”?? It’s a hard concept to embrace when times are tough. Sometimes those $50 sales were all that kept me afloat. It’s tempting to stay with the safer strategy of ‘something for everyone’.
But building a business model that relies on the sale of lots of $50 has its drawbacks, too.
The biggest drawback? It’s soul-numbing.
This is not conjecture. I’ve been there. You focus totally on what sells. It becomes all about the “small”: Small in price, small in stature, small in risk.
Soon you feel your creative self and artistic vision getting small, too.
How to proceed?
Offer fewer “babies”.
In an open studio recently, I simply didn’t have time to set out lots of lower-priced work. The “mamas” took the place of the “babies”. I sold more “mamas” than ever!
Consider your venues, and these economic times.
In the past, I could easily do the ‘all papa’ strategy at the tried-and-true big shows in my industry. The shows had the great reputation and reliable attendance, and targeted the right demographic, for those big, wonderful works. Money flowed more freely and people loved the attention that came from their spectacular purchases.
Things are different now. Show attendance is down. People hesitate to flaunt their money when their friends are hurting. They’re cautious about what they invest in. Buyers are more comfortable buying on the internet now. It’s secure and the selection is limitless. It’s also more discreet. No need to reveal just how much money they spent on that new piece of art.
When money is tight and sales are slow, maintain your confidence in your work. Focus on keeping your technique sharp. Be patient. You still need face time with collectors to build a relationship. But give them more opportunities online to buy.
Separate the lines and market them differently.
If, like me, you simply love to make those smaller, lower-priced items, go ahead! But do consider marketing them differently, or using a different venue for them. I have one line of jewelry that’s decidedly out-of-sync with my “ancient art” aesthetic. I now market that under a totally different business name.
What is the highest and best use of your time and talent?
I still keep a few smaller, less expensive items available. But I’ve slowly raised the bar by raising the prices on them. I’m asking my collectors for a bigger commitment to own one of my pieces. I’d rather sell one $250 item than ten $25 items.
Interestingly, when I look back at my sales over the last 15 years, I’m not selling more items. I’m selling more expensive items. The demand has remained constant but there’s less resistance to my prices. The energy is better, too. People don’t buy my work because ‘it’s a deal’. They buy it because they love it and they see it as worthy of owning.
By valuing my time and my skill, I’ve encouraged others to have respect for my work.
YOUR audience is self-selected; that works in your favor!
A store or gallery has to appeal to anyone who walks by. They don’t care which artist’s work sells, as long as the customer buys something.
As an artist, I have a style, an aesthetic and a story that connects people to my work. If the buyer wants to buy my work, I have more leverage.
Is the “just papas, a few mamas, no babies” approach for everyone? Of course not. Have I embraced it 100%? Nope. But I’m inching my way there.
And let me be clear: This is me in my “business hat” talking.
I’d never disdain someone who loved my work but cannot afford a few thousand, or even a few hundred dollars, to invest. I love my ‘smaller’ collectors. I’m just as grateful for them as I am for my ‘bigger’ collectors.
My prices aren’t arbitrary. I’m confident they reflect the skill, time and passion necessary to create each piece. In fact, many collectors start small and then move on to more expensive pieces.
I would never twist a collector’s arm to buy more than they are comfortable with. I’m honored when someone chooses to spend their hard-earned money on my work. I love it when customers come back the year after they invest in a major piece and tell me how much joy it’s giving them.
Ask your true collectors to step up to the plate and commit to you. The worst they can say is ‘no’.
And it’s wonderful when they say ‘yes’.