(As published on www.artsburlington.ca, March 29, 2016)
By Kathy Marlene Bailey
Do you sometimes feel like you are beating your head on a brick wall when you plan on selling artwork? Where are those buyers, who are they and what do they want anyway?
Oh, those elusive buyers! You would think, after pouring your heart and soul into your artwork, and doing a perfect job of expressing what was so important, the world would instantly “get it” and have to get it!
Not so, evidently. It shouldn’t be that hard. Just one person has to come along that not only loves it as much as you do, but they love it enough to buy it! But where oh where is that person? Rarely is that person milling about galleries, art shows or art fairs, that is for sure, as any professional artist would attest.
Event, after event, after event, it happens. You plan to sell quite a bit. Your body of work is the best ever. You are in love with every piece. You have read all kinds of stuff on marketing and taken marketing courses. You have attended “the business of art” workshops. You are totally organized down to every last detail. Ready, waiting, poised, relaxed, and ready to share your heart of heart of why you did the artwork, and your all-important process. All ducks in a row. All people attending the event, including you, have a lovely time! Then, at about 4:30, the cold truth starts to creep in. Not a sale. Not one. Or, maybe you have sold a card. Maybe you sold a painting. Any way you slice it - you are out of the ballpark for financial success compared to anyone on minimum wage. Cold Hard Truth.
Sure, lots of those people seem to enjoy the art. Lots stand for periods of time marveling and verbalizing how incredible it is. But when it comes to tipping the scale and turning that enjoyment and appreciation into the act of buying, the vast majority of those in these crowds do not weigh in. It seems that at an art event of any kind, average art sales would be zero to two paintings per artist. Fine craft would be higher and modestly viable. Virtually all professional art income is meager. These dedicated souls make the art. Perfection is achieved. So are long hours, study and execution of flawless marketing. Why no sales? Almost no art market - that is why. Look at your friends’ walls, while they diddle with their iPhones. The walls will show you; there will be NO ART THERE, almost assuredly. Today’s market is exceedingly small.
“These times” are particularly poor for artists. They have been since the big stock market crash of 2008. It was lean before then. Clearly, the number of buyers has gone way down since. But…. there are still a few out there! Who is left?
Somewhat by chance, one day a while ago, I met three. I was attending the “Art In Action Studio Tour” here in Burlington, Ontario. While at an artist’s studio, I struck up conversation with a group of three patrons wielding bags of treasures, purchased at the tour. They told me that they regularly buy art. I knew that as an art journalist, I had struck gold. If only they would agree to be interviewed, surely, three real, live art buyers could shed some light, for all of us who trudge along this tricky path of professional art. Robin Cooke, Alex Kucharski and Joe Henriques, ALL agreed to be interviewed. My understanding of this market and its elusive buyer has now increased. This was far from a complete survey of art buyers, but it certainly was an interesting and insightful one from the three buyers I found. By the way, to add a bit of context, I will say that Alex is married to Joe, and Alex is also a sister to Robin.
When I first sat down to talk to Alex, I asked her what motivates her to buy art. She jumped on the answer: “NO REASON! It just grabs me! I cannot explain it – you need it spiritually. You can feel it; it connects. It would be a very shallow existence without art - art and nature and art….”. Alex seemed to - and needed to - react to art on a deep and primal level. This primal connection occurance was common to Joe and Robin as well. Although Robin was more hooked into a specific genre (Realism), and it sounded like Alex and Joe were quite eclectic in their tastes, not one buyer was eclectic in their motivations; all three made an instant emotional bond with the work, which drove the motivation to buy.
Robin said to me: “ I know immediately if I want it. There is absolutely no hemming or hawing. If I have to think about it, it’s no good. It is 100% emotional. It has to talk to me. I have to see something I like. Price doesn’t matter.
Summarizing, Joe told me, “Artwork speaks to me in several ways. I know it is not for the sake of investment. There is no commercial attraction to buying art. It is exclusively because it appeals to me. I enjoy my artwork everyday. It is eye candy all over my walls. I remember when I bought this piece called “The Curious Cow”. It was just this cow looking out, from a group of cows. I don’t know why, but I just had to have it. The reason is - and was - completely beyond me. I just had to have it.
Money did not seem to enter into the equation with anyone. Craftsmanship, pattern, composition, aesthetic, message, subject matter and stories that they could personally identify with all might weigh in.
So could connection to the artist. Alex noted that she loved striking a cord with the featured artist at openings and usually ended up enjoying meeting the other artists there just as much. These buyers had a favourite gallery, where they were on a first name basis with all the artists and staff. These were relationships that Alex savoured.
Robin too noted that building a rapport with an artist was important to him. He said that the exchange of a piece of art was a two way emotional street. As a buyer, he wants to witness the attachment of an artist to his or her own work – how important it is to the artist. Was it dashed off, or was it lovingly prepared with great meaning to the artist? Likewise, he figures it is always reassuring for the artist to know that the art they love is being appreciated just as much by its buyer. This was an interesting concept that Robin brought to light. It could be compared to an adoption. From the buyer’s standpoint, Robin wanted to know: what kind of beginning did the artwork have? From the artist’s standpoint, an artist would wonder: what kind of role will the artwork have in its future? Will it be barely looked at, tying into some décor, or will it be treasured everyday and racked with meaning for the new owner, as was the experience in making it in the first place? The two parties are making a transaction that really has nothing to do with money. It has to do with care, emotional investment and reverence for something that goes beyond commodity and strongly into the realm of relationship - much like an adoption of a person. This artwork is no mere “thing” to either one of them.
Knowing artmaking or artmakers well also seemed to be a factor in becoming an art buyer here. Robin and Alex have an artmaking sister. And Joe himself is a part-time artist. These buyers have witnessed the investment of effort, care and talent needed in creation of art. They said this gave them profound appreciation of the gift that art is to them and society. Both Robin and Joe noted that this factor didn’t necessarily come into play with everyone exposed to artmaking. Non-buyers were sometimes just as exposed as they were, but did not seem to get the bug. They might appreciate art - a bit - in a much more limited context. They cited other members in each of their respective families that liked art enough to have a bit on the walls, but it was exclusively for decorative purposes. It did not hold a primary function in their daily lives. For Alex, Joe and Robin, the artwork they had purchased was key to their day, in a similar way to how an artist’s own work is to theirs.
Several years ago, I had a studio in the Williams Mill, in Glen Williams. One day at my studio, I was chatting with Jim Ball, who was the United Church minister in Glen Williams at the time. We were talking about the dramatic decline of churchgoing in Canada. I was expressing apprehension about the future survival of churches and prospects of faith in Canada. He volleyed a wisdom that changed my entire paradigm. He cited the major effect of social norm that used to bring the majority of Canadians to churches before the 1960’s and then said that the current churchgoers of the time were under no social pressure whatsoever to go to church. If anything, it would be the opposite. Churchgoers – all of them – were driven by their own, genuine, internal faith. There was no other agenda left. The upside to this was that a dynamic, exciting group was left. It was small, but mighty. It was completely dedicated - genuinely passionate. It had all that was needed for effectively moving forward.
When I mulled through all that Alex, Joe and Robin told me about their art-buying passion, I came to have hope for the same kind upside in the context of the art world, and for the survival of professional artists. I also came to have a profound respect for those individuals that step out and buy art. They are the few who are left of the art buyers. They have no other agendas other than passion and absolute need of the experience of living with art. Just like us. They get it.
Not that they can help it anyway. They can’t help it anymore than I can help being an artist obsessed with water and morphing shapes; I need to paint these as much as I need to eat and breath. These people need to buy art as much as they need to eat and breath. They are driven to perpetually connect to the genuine spirit that lives and manifests from an artists heart, into the conduit of the art.
I asked each of these three buyers the following question and got three different, profound answers. The question was, “ Why, other than personal satisfaction, should artists make art? What do you see as the most valuable role for art in today’s world?”
Alex Kucharski replied, “ Artists speak to something that is in us and express things that we can’t”.
Joe Henriques responded, “Art is a legacy that stays behind – a representation of emotions – the fabric of society”.
Robin Cooke answered, “Art brings a level of humanity into our increasingly sterile world.” We as a society seem to only reward better technology.”
They get it. The group is small, but completely dedicated and genuinely passionate about our art. I have a feeling that the small number of art buyers today has all that is needed for somehow providing for our sustenance - for the survival of our artmaking in Canada.
If you are looking for them, I wouldn’t recommend that you search in any ordinary “target markets”. Don’t look for a necessarily moneyed or necessarily cultured lot. It seems the agendas and social norms in the art world are gone too. Apparently, the art buyers of today reach fully into the fabric of society. Robin says everyone he knows buys art! He is an IT guy. He talks to a broad cross section of people in the bump and grind of his day. Art buyers he knows can be truck drivers, social workers, plumbers, government strategists and other IT people. The only common thread is: they get it.
I would challenge you, as artists, to get yourselves. Don’t make art that conforms to a social norm because unless you genuinely fit that norm yourself, it won’t be real. Don’t fake it or try to fit in or hurry it or make art that you think curators will like or other artists will like, or customers will like and therefore buy. Instead, make art that fits – to a tee - your own personal heart. That is something that is real and can be trusted. Always. Even in these tough times. It is what buyers, these buyers, are looking for. It is the art that connects. The elusive buyer, it seems, just wants to connect.
Kathy Marlene Bailey is member of Burlington Fine Arts Association. She is a glaze oil painter, a sculptor, writer and an art instructor at Art Gallery of Burlington, Canadore College and English Harbour Art Centre (in Newfoundland). She is represented by Christina Parker Gallery in St. John’s, NL. You can visit her website at: www.kathymarlenebailey.com.