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.
Today I met some friends for coffee. All of us are artists, and we’d recently been part of a local art tour.
One of our members made short videos of the artists in their studios. One video in particular came up, where an artist is asked how long it takes her to make her art. I commented that she never should have answered that question, especially the way she did.
For me, it was a no-brainer. But the others questioned me, though they agreed they always get that question. And they always, always hate it when they asked.
“Easy,” I said. “Don’t answer it!”
But why not?
In the case of that particular artist, she makes very large work. She stands in front of one such piece as she works. She answers the (edited out question) by saying, “It takes me about three hours to do one of these.”
Now, right or wrong, here’s what your customers will do. They’ll take the selling price (let’s pick a dollar amount out of thin air - $600) and divide it by the time the artist said it takes to make (three hours). They’ll come up with an hourly rate of $200 an hour.
You may tell people that doesn’t include the cost of acquiring your materials, or prepping, or finishing (frames, framing supplies) or the time schlepping your work to and from shows and exhibitions. It doesn’t include the time and money you spent on educating yourself, nor the time you spent and energy perfecting your craft. It probably doesn’t include the time and energy you spend on applying to shows, marketing, doing paperwork, or cleaning your studio.
And if you have gallery representation, you’re actually only netting half that amount.
Nope, they won’t hear that. They may nod their head, but they’re still thinking, “$200 an hour...that’s $400,000 a year!!”
They see you working quickly to make something, and getting top dollar for it—perhaps more than they make in a week.
And they may instinctively decide your prices are picked out of a hat. They may conclude you’re a pretty pricey investment, to boot.
“So how do we answer that question??” both my friends exclaimed.
First of all, understand what role this question actually plays in the sales process:
The question doesn’t mean what you think it means.
You’re in your booth, or studio, and a potential customer enters. You greet them, let them know it’s your work and you’re happy to answer any questions.
Then a good salesperson leaves them alone to immerse themselves in your work.
They’ve been acknowledged, they know you’re available to help them, and that they are free to browse and look in peace. Then, they’ll do one of two things:
They decide the work is not for them, they’ll say ‘thank you!’ and leave your space.
Or they’ll give you permission to talk to them more about your work.
And that permission--the first thing out of their mouth--is usually in the form of a question. Often, in fact, a ‘dumb question’.
In fact, many times, it’s that question about how long it takes you to make your work.
Now, ‘not answering’ doesn’t mean you stand in stony silence. It simply means you can start talking about your work, and engaging them, without actually tallying up all the steps it takes to make your work.
And responding with sarcasm or even a joke will shut the process down in a second.
Here’s a better way. In that particular artist’s case, I may have responded something like this:
“That’s a great question!” (You do not have to say you get asked that question 20 times a day.) “And it’s also hard to answer.”
Now you can focus on whatever you’d found is a selling point for your work.
If time really is a factor, and that impresses customers, use it. My artifacts take many production steps to make. I describe that process, using lots of hand motions to illustrate. I end up with, “I counted up all the steps once, and it was something like 38 production steps…” (pause) “…and then I start to actually shape the animal.” At this point, people usually gasp.
I explain why they have the shapes and markings they do; how I fire, sand and polish them; how I use a scrimshaw technique to bring up the detail, etc.
By this time, time is obviously not a big factor in the price. Most people are astounded at the attention to detail I’ve described.
But I don’t stop there. It’s time to take the conversation to another level:
“But it’s not really about how I make these artifacts. It’s why I make them look this way. I want them to look like ancient artifacts, something that was carved 10,000 years ago by an unknown artist. I like to imagine her wearing this on a leather cord, or giving it to someone she loved to wear. I like to imagine that that person wore it every day; that it was worn smooth by the touch of their hand. And when they died, it was buried with them as a prized possession—until someone excavated it thousands of years later, with tender care and reverence. And now we can look at it, and wonder about the life of that ancient artist.”
If I were a 2-D artist asked this question, I’d do the same thing. Acknowledge the question. Expand on the answer in a way that makes my work more precious and unique. And share the true and powerful story behind your choice of technique, or presentation, or subject matter. Share whatever will connect your audience, emotionally and spiritually, with your work.
Now, what about those people who really do want to know exactly how you do what you do? The ones who really want to know what brand of paint you use, and what temperature I bake the clay at, and what ingredients you use in your glazes? Yes, there are a few who persevere even after I’ve done the passionate-but-deflection thing.
In fifteen years of actively selling my work, I’ve found that most of those people who only want to know the ‘how’ are: 1) other artists, usually in my media; and 2) school teachers looking for a project to do in school.
Only a handful of ‘real’ customers ever wanted that kind of detail, and then only after they’ve purchased the work. (They want to be able to tell their friends something about your work.)
So the next time you’re asked, “How long does it take you to make one of these?” ….
Be prepared. Think ahead of ways to answer that showcase your work in its highest light.
Don’t think it’s about keeping a calendar (or in that artist’s case, a stopwatch) to answer the question. Don’t even give people a way to figure out (even incorrectly) how much you make an hour.
Don’t exaggerate, either. If you imply it takes months to make a piece and you’re only asking $125, you’ll be perceived as either nuts or independently wealthy. When people ask how I can charge such a reasonable price for such labor-intensive work, I explain I make things in batches—like Christmas cookies—so I can work more efficiently but still give individual attention to each piece.
Use the question to guide their attention back to the piece they’re looking at when they asked it. (“But unlike cookies, I shape each one, one at a time”, and show them how each one is different.)
Remember, you don’t have to answer every question at face value. Know that people are looking for a reason to validate why they are attracted to your work. Give them that good reason and watch your sales soar.