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Questions You Don't Have to Answer: A Question From an Art Teacher

by Luann Udell on 1/19/2012 9:30:56 AM

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.


My last article in this series created another question. 


I said that in my humble experience, most people who demand a detailed, in-depth explanation of my techniques aren’t actually customers—they’re either fellow artists, or teachers. 


I didn’t intend to insult or dishonor teachers.  Almost everyone in my family (both on my side and my husband’s side) is a teacher.  Aunts, parents, sisters, brothers. I’ve been a teacher.  Good teachers are worth their weight in gold, and I am grateful for them. 


I’ve met lots of teachers during shows.  Some have provided me amazing opportunities to share and talk about my work.  Sometimes I even get paid!  Sometimes they’ve shared information, suggested good books, or linked me up with other resources.


But there are a few bad apples in the bunch.  And it may have sounded like I had it in for teachers.  Then a reader, who is an artist and an art teacher, wrote to ask more about the topic. 


IS it rude for her, a teacher, to ask artists about their techniques?  After all, as an artist, she is naturally curious and inquisitive about other artists’ methods and techniques.  And, as an art teacher, sharing these techniques with her students helps groom a new generation of potential artists, and art collectors. 


She asks, “How can I be a better art viewer and appreciator without offending my fellow artists?”


I have to say, anyone who expresses concerns about being a noodge, probably isn’t one.  So rest assured, Amy, you are probably a very nice teacher to talk to!  But to answer your questions…..


There’s nothing wrong with curiosity, inquiry, and appreciation for others’ work and techniques.  Often teachers are a-brim with same, and that’s why I said they tend to be the folks that ask lots of questions.  I love it when people marvel about the detail in my work, my color choices, and my display. 


Some people, though, go too far. And that will feel differently for different people.


Here are a few of my guidelines.  But I can only speak for myself, and I hope others will chime in with their own ‘parameters of respect.’


First, I would say BE UPFRONT ABOUT YOUR INTENTIONS.  If you will not be making a purchase, because of your budget or whatever, make that clear.  If you are only asking out of curiosity, or to do educational research, let me know.  It’s exasperating to think someone is a hot prospect, or a potential collector, only to discover half an hour later that the person has no intention of buying anything—especially if I’ve passed up a chance to sell to someone else who came in.  (Of course, it’s also my responsibility to ‘qualify’ you as a potential customer.  That’s why, in the last article, I suggest we ASK our inquisitive customers why all the questions.)


Second, BE AWARE AND BE RESPECTFUL.  No two artists are alike, after all.  Just pay attention to the signals you get as you ask. 


Some people are highly offended if you even ask a simple question.  I once angered a craftsperson by asking if his painted sculptures were wood or tin.  He was so offended, he turned his back on me and walked away.  (And I wanted to BUY one!  Go figure….)  That’s one extreme.


Other people are happy to talk your ear off about their work.  I once offered to write an artist statement for a wood worker.  He sent me pages and pages and pages of information about his technique, and dozens of photographs.  After page two, my head was swimming.  He was happy to tell anyone and everyone, everything about this work.


Most of us are somewhere in the middle—willing to share to a certain extent, if our arms aren’t being twisted.  If someone is sharing, but they seem agitated, understand it may be because they are uncomfortable, but they aren’t sure how to say no, or how to keep it short. 


Next, understand that I DO NOT ‘OWE’ YOU AN EXPLANATION.


You are free to ask me questions.  And I am free to decide what I want to share, when, and how much.  I promise to be courteous and friendly, and I will always give you something, as I promised in my last article—an overview, a book you can read or a class you can take, depending on your need.  And depending how courteous YOU are.  :^D


Please, BE RESPECTFUL OF MY TIME.  At least wait for a slow spell in my booth.   If my booth is busy, then please respect the fact that I am at that show to sell my work.  Please don’t interrupt a sale (and yes, some people have done that!)  Follow my lead.  If I wax eloquent, fine.  If I suggest you contact me after the show, then respect the fact that it works better for me that way. 


In fact, THE BEST WAY TO RESPECT MY TIME IS TO PAY ME FOR IT. You get paid to teach, right?  Buy my work.  Invite me to speak to your local arts organization.  Invite me to do an artist-in-residency with your school. Take a class from me. (I love the person who suggested that in the comments section last time!)  Or at least take me out to dinner!  (Just kidding.)  (Wait, yes, at least buy me dinner!)  Refer me to a local gallery, tell your wealthy art collecting friend about me, sing my praises on Facebook.  I love making my art, but I love making money with it, too. 


I don’t mean to be harsh, but I’m gonna say this flat-out:


I DON’T OWE YOU A LESSON PLAN.  Your comment, “have you ever thought about the impact that a teacher can have on your marketing? If a child (tries) a technique (like yours), is it possible they may appreciate your process all the more and become a future collector?”  A good point.  Yes!  Some of my most appealing collectors are children, and I’ve never regretted the time I’ve spent talking with them about my work.  I agree whole-heartedly that sharing our art with young people instills them with a love and respect for art and craft. 


Just don’t assume I’m not already doing that!  :^)  I’VE ALREADY DONATED HUNDREDS OF HOURS OF MY TIME teaching and supporting young people in the arts. In fact, I have a volunteer teaching gig right now.  It takes up a lot of time, but I love it.  Um….would you like to buy something so I can purchase more supplies for them?  :^)


I want your students to have a wonderful experience with art, too.  But ultimately, that’s your job that you get paid to do—not mine.  I may be able to help you, but maybe not.  Fair enough?


In closing, when in doubt, ASK if the artist is willing to share, and if so, when/how/under what circumstances and for how much.  BE GRATEFUL when they say yes.  RESPECT them if they say no.  Try to make it WIN/WIN for all concerned. 


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Related Posts:

Questions You Don't Have to Answer: How Did You Do That?

Questions You Don't Have to Answer: How Long Did That Take You to Make?

Questions You Don't Have to Answer: Why is Your Work so Expensive?

Questions You Don't Have to Answer: Do You Have a Website?

Questions You Don't Have to Answer: Where is This Place?

Topics: advice for artists | art education | art marketing | exposure tips | FineArtViews | Luann Udell | sell art | selling art online | selling fine art online 

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Marsha Hamby Savage
This is a fantastic article. You really hit all the points that needed to be made. We as artists, need to follow what you have said... being courteous, of course is always a key ingredient.

I have had information used by a couple of fellow teachers (and students) that I had not put out there yet as my thoughts. When I did, it looked like I had copied them. It was a hard lesson to learn when you are a person that tells everything you are doing and thinking! I should have known I needed to keep it close to my chest until I had done what I "intended" or tried a new method, etc. Again, lesson learned hopefully. I am a little better at keeping my own counsel about new stuff I will be doing and trying.

Theresa Bayer
At any kind of art show, you are there to sell your work. So you are certainly entitled, especially at an art fair, to politely cut short any conversation that interrupts sales. I've stopped mid-sentence talking to fellow artists to wait on a customer at an art fair. Any colleague worth their salt will understand!

Re. technique questions, it's good to come up with a good one-liner that answers the basic question without going into too much detail. If they want details, tell them to sign up for your class or read your book, etc. Another solution would be to print up a little short paragraph about your technique if you like handing out brochures.

Other than that, don't worry. Your intentions are good. :^)

Barbara Reich
Hi Luann - I find that most artists tend to be very inquisitive. They are creative, and take notice of even the smallist details. Often it is their curiosity that makes them interested in what you are doing and not the desire to copy your technique. It's true that too many questions can make you uncomfortable and take up too much time, but MOST of the time they are respectful. Having said that, I believe it is ok to ask them questions to discover their intentions as well. Many artists do freely give back, but you are correct in saying that there is a time and place, and it is welcome and fair for and artist to derive income from speaking, teaching, and workshops. As always, be gracious. You never know what connections you might be making...or breaking.
Barb Reich

Rosemarie Adcock
I hope we are careful to not at any time give the implication that we are being bothered by an inquiry or doing someone a favor if we answer their question. One should certainly be respectful of a person's time, but beyond that, shouldn't we be gratified to know that someone cares about how we do something enough to ask us questions? By freely sharing expertise with a generous heart, don't we expect that somehow we will be rightly rewarded, either by sales or at least by a good reputation? I cannot think of an exhibition by a great painter where the technical analysis was not handled by art historians with as much importance as the paintings themselves. How many art history books do we open up and read through half of it before we come to the plates and look at the actual work? Process is important to most collectors and it is fascinating to the rest of art lovers who cannot afford to collect more than a print. I recall BB King once being asked if he minded giving autographs. (No one makes a nickel from an autograph) He said no that he waited so long for anyone to even ask that he will never grow tired of giving an autograph. I hope we also never grow tired of people's questions.

I agree it is best to be upfront about your intentions as an art "viewer" and not a buyer, but I do have to say that while I am an artist myself and have to deal with those kinds of questions, I also own a gallery and if nothing else, I can sense an artist at 50 paces. After I thought that, while reading this article, I pondered what exactly IS it that tells me if a human being comes into the gallery whether they are an artist or not? It has nothing to do with appearance, that's for sure. Nonetheless, I do know. And I am never wrong - so what exactly is it? Body language. Someone who is a prospective customer has distinctly different body language than someone who is an artist looking for more information, or in my case, wondering whether to ask "if you would look at my work and see if I could sell it here" - and I daresay that an artist or teacher approaching another artist with the intent of getting some information has very different body language than someone who is admiring the work and may be a prospective buyer, let's say at an art fair. Once you pay attention to the differences, it becomes as clear as day.

Esther J. Williams
Thank-you Luann for this pep talk. I was just thinking today on how consultants to large companies get paid top money just to offer ideas for branding, marketing, services, etc... In a way we act as a consultant. I for one need to value my knowledge a bit more when I get asked so many questions. I liked the idea of printing out a process statement. I also will start to offer the workshops soon.
I have a big heart, it is so easy to speak to people and want to help. But our time in a fair booth or painting in public is precious. We need to categorize the types of people coming at us or we will sink. Swim or sink, I choose to swim.

Donald Fox
As an artist and a teacher, I understand perfectly well where you're coming from. Some people may be innocently asking consuming questions while others are so caught up with their own considerations they don't think that they're being presumptive. Qualifying with a question or two as you suggest is probably the best thing we can do. I agree with Barbara that we don't know what connections we may be making or not in any encounter.

Roy Tibbits
I am the guy that talks to much!!!!!
I confessed to a collector and gallery curator that I was colour blind. Later at an art event any number of artists came up to me and wanted to see how I had marked my palette so I would know
which colours to use .
Will I never learn to be quiet and just paint.
Great article.

Donna Robillard
This was such a great article, and I thank you for sharing your insight and wisdom.

Carol Schmauder
I enjoyed this post, Luann, and feel you have brought up some very good points and given some great advice. Dealing with some of these inquisitive situations can sometimes be like walking through a mine field. What should I say, how much should I reveal, etc.

Mary Pickett
This article about questions also spurred a related issue for me. Once or twice a year, I volunteer my time at the local high school to teach the art classes (and sometimes the science classes) paper making. When I do, I feel that I am participating in my community and doing my part to make it work better. The teachers are always very grateful and complimentary. However, I have not sold any art to anyone at the school, and have had no requests for any of my art to be displayed at the school. Maybe I should suggest it. The students are always eager to see my website when I tell them I have one (I also substitute teach), and it makes me feel good to get their fresh feedback and perspectives. There may never be potential buyers there, but I would feel like I am at least showing up in a special way for the time and knowledge that I share.

Thanks for this good food for thought.

Susan Holland
Then there are the collectors of ideas...I've had them come with cameras and take pictures of my work close-up. My booth in a small town is visited and re-visited by people who are fascinated because they are making wood items in their own shops, and how did I do this? What machinery was involved. Is this carved with traditional means? No one yet has asked if I use a template, thank goodness!

I make wood bowls out of discarded wood bowls, and my designs are one of a kind. The wood people love to come and see what's new. I guess I am throwing away possible sales by sharing my enthusiasm for new discoveries in my handling of wood.

I will say, truthfully, sometimes , "I don't remember", in fact. And if I really want to keep my new secrets close to my chest, I roll my eyes myteriously and say something like "It's a secret technique," or "I'm not telling!" That is met with a smile...always... and I have let them in on the preciousness of copyright.

But it really is a compliment to be asked, actually, and I tell the viewer so.


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