Evolution comes into play even in the world of art. We have all seen it happen. The culling of the herd. Only the fit survive. Evolve or perish.
Most times we would be talking about critique in a situation like this, the Principals and Elements of Design – talent and Awen. Though today, having been asked by fellow artists and gallery owners, I am going to address the issue from an economic standpoint.
Our patrons are wise. Yes, we all have stories about THAT person who walks into the gallery or booth who just NEEDS to be bitch-slapped. But overall the consumer – the end user to use crass economic terms, has also had to become lean, mean and street-wise when buying art. They care about the work they purchase – investment or collection, whatever grace drives their patronage. If we have done our part in the education, going beyond the silly notion that “my work should sell itself”, the consumer of art is going to be on their toes and ready to buy.
Just back from our local art in the park, which we enjoy doing even though we are otherwise a wholesale studio, I had an opportunity to observe patrons in their natural environment – on the hunt. The first distinction was immediately clear. Almost like a queue, patron and consumer split and went their separate ways as they entered the park. Training my sites to follow the consumers, I allowed the patrons to do their thing knowing they would be just fine. I would talk to them as they entered our booth.
Now, what I am about to say is going to sound harsh. But it is the reality of real world critique and something every artist needs must face. The next distinction was made within 5-10 minutes after the consumers’ entrance into the park. After stopping at the first jewelry booth and taking a quick look, I watched consumer after consumer look up from this particular artist’s assembled-from-catalog jewelry and look down the line of booths in the park and here is what happened time and again…
If the consumer was looking for cheap jewelry, uncaring of uniqueness or quality, they spent just enough time at each successive assembly artist’s booth down the line to assess price. If the consumer was looking for uniqueness and or quality, they skipped booths until they came to an artist’s booth which caught their eye.
#1 If you are an assembly artist – buying components from a catalog and assembling jewelry whether in your own style or taste, from a design book or from something you have seen on tv or the movies you have two choices. Use the cheapest components you can find in order to compete for the average consumer who is looking for what can essentially be qualified as “disposable jewelry” or use quality components which will help set you apart and build a reputation for well-made jewelry. The consumer gets what they pay for.
#2 If you are an assembly artist, up your game. You do not have to be a metalsmith or jeweler to create uniqueness and quality. Scribble designs on a napkin, doodle them in the margin of that catalog, but contact another artist in your area and have them make unique components for you. Most artists who are set up to create product lines are also set up to efficiently and cost-effectively create components – they are already doing it for their own lines. This way, your components are your designs and will make you stand out in a crowd.
#3 Presentation, education and perceived quality – marketing – is everything. We can be so very snobbish sometimes, I admit it. But if you have survived the past decade, paying the bills with your artwork, you know from real world critique that your artwork most sincerely does NOT sell itself. Jewelry is tiny by comparison with other forms of art. Successful Jewelers and Metalsmiths know they need large signs and photographs to stand out in a crowd. We need our work in a contextual format – on mannequins and in photo posters to draw people into the gallery or booth. Quality cannot be assessed much beyond arm’s length. And the Story sells – the history of a technique, the inspiration for a work, the iconography of a design. An artist’s story gives meaning, purpose and desirability to their work.
The economy of being an artist demands we pay attention to so many things. If someone ever told you being an artist was easy, they deserve a sock in the eye. In order to survive, artists of our time must evolve to also be business persons. “Starving Artist”, while so often a reality, does not have to be a destiny however.
Quality matters. “Perceived Quality” is the economic and artistic concept which makes a patron or consumer willing to pay your price. Quality and Price therefore become relative. Using lower cost materials affects both price and quality – often meaning more sales but also demanding more sales in order to pay the bills. Here is the kicker though. Using higher cost materials not only raises the quality of your work but raises perceived quality and allows for a higher profit margin. This is a “bottom line” strategy which hugely effects your “top line” efforts and thus increases your bottom line profits. In other economic words, your cost of goods sold (CGS), though higher, increase the perceived quality of your product and draws more customers (Top Line), which increases both chance and rate of sales and therefore contributes to a higher profit (Bottom Line) margin. Quality = Profit.
Yet all of this is moot if you do not market your work. Quality is perceived with the patron and consumers’ senses – sight, touch, sound, taste, smell and yes, soul. But much of quality can be invisible or unperceivable. Unless a patron whirls your necklace around their head or tries to tear it apart, they are not going to perceive the quality difference between fishing line and 49-strand tigertail – however they might if they try it on. Unless you take a few moments to educate, they may not perceive the quality difference between a handmade and a machine-made component. Price, propaganda and marketing over the ages have taught patrons and consumers alike that platinum is better than gold is better than silver is better than copper is better than pewter is better than potmetal. Balderdash. Rarity aside, quality, artistry and craftsmanship are far more important reasons to justify price and it takes interaction with the consumer to bring about evolution of thought and patronage.
Evidence. In economic terms, marketing trends. One of the fastest growing economic trends being tracked right now is that of the “millennial” age category. Economic facts show that the Millennials are already a bigger market share than the Baby Boomers. And while the Millennials are often stereotyped as having short attention spans due to current technology trends, they are also showing economic trends of a return to “taste driven spending”. In another very important word, quality. Though it sometimes seems “spending money” is almost a dead concept these days Millennials are most often choosing to spend their money on quality over quantity. Rather than spending their disposable income on 10 cheap necklaces, they are buying one necklace of quality, which has a story to connect them to the artist and gives them a truer expression of Self.
So if you seem stuck in a rut, or wonder why other artists sell more, consider evolution. Take the next steps as an artist to increase quality, visible or invisible. While it can be that 15% extra effort which makes the difference between patronage of your work and eating Ramen, it is also about Awen. Our creative souls love to be stretched and challenged and your pocketbook will thank you.