This post is by Jack White, regular contributing writer for FineArtViews. Jack has enjoyed a forty-one year career as a successful fulltime artist and author. He has written for Professional Artist Magazine for 14 years and has six art marketing books published. In 1976 Jack was named the Official Artist of Texas. He has mentored hundreds of artists around the world. Jack authored six Art Marketing books. The first, “Mystery of Making It”, describes how he taught Mikki to paint and has sold over six million dollars worth of her art. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.
It was a hot, muggy summer Monday morning in east Texas. The fog floated like a thick blanket over the piney wood road. A fellow in a sparkling new Ford sedan was stuck, driving behind an old farmer in a beat up Model A truck with a big wire chicken coop tied to the back. In those days roads were only two deep ruts the cars ran in. There was no way for the man in a three piece suit to pass the rusty truck. Most troubling to him was the farmer stopped every few hundred yards. He would jump out of the truck and beat the chicken coop with a broom. Chicken feathers flew and the birds went wild banging against the top of the wire coop. Quickly the driver would jump back in his truck, speeding away. Then, almost like he was on schedule he would stop, jump out, beat the coop and rush back to the driver’s seat, starting again.
Finally the exasperated business man was compelled to find out what the farmer was doing. The next time the truck stopped the man in the suit got out as well. “Sir, if I might ask. Why are you beating the side of that cage with your broom?"
The farmer wearing patched overalls, gruffed, “First Monday!” Without another word he rushed back to the cab and pulled off.
The next time, the man in the suit was determined to get a straight answer. When the Model A stopped, the city slicker pulled up close. With his flashy car idling, he asked, “What’s first Monday?”
The clearly irritated farmer shot back, “Today is Trade Day in Canton. Every first Monday people bring their goods to be traded and sold. In the back of this truck I have two tons of chickens, all I own. But the problem I’m facing, this is only a one ton truck. If I don’t keep half of my chickens flying, I’m busted.”
With the continued recession, I’m finding more and more artists are desperately trying to keep their chickens flying. I know the news media is saying we got out of the recession in June 2009, but no one has been able to make buyers believe the myth. Hewlett Packard recently laid off 28,000 workers. Construction has come to a standstill. An auto plant in Alabama had 2,200 people show up to apply for 800 jobs. Look at photos of job fairs - the lines go around the block. I read there are 77,000 fewer women working than two years ago. Currently we have 42 million people on food stamps. At the time of my writing this piece, 28 percent of American homeowners owe more than their homes are worth. They are said to be “underwater”. Our National debt is just a kiss under 16 trillion dollars and growing. Neither side of the aisle has the know how to cut spending. I can remember when a million dollars was considered a huge sum of money. I had a true net worth of a million dollars before I turned 36. Then I lost all of my money, so I decided to become an artist and earn some easy money. The United States lost 130 millionaires last year.
Sally Haig, a FASO reader recently said, “At my last outdoor show, I had tons of, ‘I love your work’ comments but no one was taking out their checkbook. Since 2008 there has been a serious chill on the discretionary income to buy fine art. This is a show where I used to SELL, now it’s ‘I love your work’ and they continue to walk and drink their wine. I failed to get the memo that most of the other artists had seriously cut their prices. I can’t do that to my clients who have supported me all these years. I also noticed the obvious absence of three top artists who have done well at this show. Now I know why.” Thanks, Sally, for giving me permission to quote you.
I can’t leave us on a down note. Let’s think out of the box about what we can do. I want to give you hope in what may seem like a hopeless situation. The real reason I write for FineArtViews and Professional Artist is to pass on what I’ve learned to my fellow artists. If I can spark one idea, then I’ve done well.
In past articles, I’ve covered the large numbers of top art galleries closing these last two years. There is no way of knowing how many artists - who couldn’t keep their chickens flying - gave up. Many had to find a paying job or their family wouldn’t eat. Most artists won’t tell anyone they can no longer earn enough to keep going. They think they have failed. They will do a show or fair and fib rather than admit they failed. I remember doing a miserable show in Florida. I managed to make some sales, but the guy next to me didn’t sell a thing. As we were packing to leave another artist stopped by his booth, “Ed, how did you do?”
Ed braced up, pulled on a bright smile and answered, “Better than last year.”
Artists are quick to blame others if they are not making it. They are also skilled in covering their failures. The truth is this tight economy is producing grim results for artists. I remember when anything pieced under $500 was considered an impulse buy. That number has dropped to $35.
There are a lot of things artists are doing to keep their chickens flying. I know one artist who lives in the country. She started raising several varieties of big gourds. She paints wildlife images on her gourds. Eagles are her best seller. In truth, her gourds are selling better than her oils paintings. She told me the landscape part of her oils was not very strong but I know her wildlife is super. Now with the gourds, she has no background to deal with. She found a way to keep her chickens flying.
Jane, an artist I’ve helped for a dozen years, wrote last winter to tell us she could no longer make it selling her paintings. She said, “Jack, in order to keep my chickens flying, I started making jewelry. I’m now in about twenty retail stores with my wearable art.” I know some of you will say she sold out. I think she is a heroine. She has a disabled husband and three school aged children. Jane found a way to continue to make sure her kids stayed in school and her husband could have his medication. To me, she is a screaming success.
Keeping the chickens flying means you will find a way to make it. The old farmer took the risk to haul double the amount his truck would carry. He knew he would have to keep half of the chickens in the air. It’s sorta like us juggling our budget to make ends meet. You are facing two choices, give up or find a way to keep your chickens flying.
I heard from one artist who read Mystery of Making IT. I’ll call him Tom. He had been struggling to keep his chickens flying selling acrylic paintings. The book gave him an idea. He remembered an old building with slate shingles. After a little research he learned the city was going to demolish the building, because the structure had become a danger. Tom asked the city if he could take some of the shingles. Since he lived in a small town, he was given permission to take all he wanted. He began painting old houses on the slate shingles. Tom told me his first test was a small outdoor show in the nearby town. To his amazement he sold out. He priced them at $25. I told him to raise his prices a tad for the next show. Again, he sold out with prices of $38. So I suggested he try $49. I could hardly wait to hear. That night after he got home from another community show Tom emailed. His subject read, “Jack, I didn’t sell out!”
I gulped. Maybe I had pushed the envelope too high. Then, I read his email. “Yep, one didn’t sell. I can’t wait to try these at the big show I booked in Chicago. Thanks, Jack, for teaching me how to keep my chickens flying.” The last time I got an email, Tom told me he was having no problem keeping his chickens flying. He was searching the Internet for another old slate roof building. He was running out of shingles. I suggested looking into buying new ones just in case.
I’ll call this artist Chuck, he also read Mystery of Making IT. Chuck was doing very high detailed oils. He could only paint one piece a month and his skills were not finished enough for him to demand the prices needed to keep his chickens flying. He got the idea to try painting outhouses on cedar shingles. He painted one and two-hole outhouses with half moon and stars on the doors. I kinda cringed until he told me how many he was selling at shows. I know this is sure to cause some concern among the art snobs reading this column. But take into consideration, Chuck is having a ball selling his privy shingles and is earning a nice income. Isn’t that what all of us want? I will doubt your honesty if you say you don’t care if your work sells. Best of all was the motto across the front of his tent, “I’m number one at painting number twos.”
Sandy did large, free flowing full-sheet watercolors. I loved her work. Naturally, I tried to get her to switch to acrylics on canvas, but she was hooked on her medium. We chatted on and off for two or three years. She enjoyed some success and then the economy crashed. I got a long email asking what she should do. My first response was for her to paint some smaller pieces. She was immediately eliminating a lot of potential clients because they had no room for huge pieces. Sandy was still young, strong and in good health. I asked what she thought about doing shows and festivals. She didn’t answer for a few weeks. Then I received an email. In her subject line Sandy wrote, “I know how to keep my chickens flying.” She explained going to Sam’s Club where she purchased a few dozen beefy white tees. Switching to acrylics, she began painting scenes on those tees. She juried into a local show and sold out the first day. She put up blank tees and took commissions. At the end of the show, she had over twenty commissions to do. “Jack I can’t think you enough for getting me to think out of the box. I love doing these tees. Last week, I was shopping and saw a lady wearing one of my shirts. My heart almost stopped.” Her joy told me she was going to make it.
Teddy was earning over $70,000 a year selling his magnificent oils before 2009. Two years ago, he began teaching art classes, selling on eBay, doing murals and faux painting residential walls. He has made the switch to keep his chickens flying and his kids in a private school. I admire his ‘can do’ attitude.
According to the money experts, we can expect many more months of this weak economy. The Wall Street Journal thinks the economy will become tighter before loosening up. Do what you have to do to keep your chickens in the air until the market comes back. Don’t be concerned what others will think. All that matters is God, your family and you. I’m betting you can make it.