Creating On Speculation

Howard Lewin

Welcome to the most competitive marketplace in the world, the business of selling your art. There are many people who make a hard won but substantial living by selling their work. It seems that the hardest thing for most artists to learn is how to sell their work. Selling is not an easy task, especially for the artist who has devoted much labor, substantial resources, and love by the pound in the creative process and can't understand why the public isn't in love with the work as well. It is as if by some "twixt of fickledom" your work should suddenly be in demand; not only that, but command high prices!

Reality is that art is not a requirement for life, and the public does not often sacrifice necessities for works that are truly luxuries. There is a lesson here, in that necessities can often be made artistic. To the artist, each piece is special, original, one of a kind. To the buyer, it has to fit a particular decor, a special place, or it is just another piece of art in a collection. All of us who wish to make a living selling our work must follow some simple guidelines. I wish to share them with you.

It is a big mistake to expect the public to pay for your education. I often hear artists say that it has taken them years to master their skills, and while this is true, it is really an investment in yourself, which gives you a skill that provides an avenue for expression. We are more than willing to pay a good mechanic to keep our car running, provided we can find one, because we need our car! We are willing to pay our doctor whatever he wants, or so it seems, because he keeps us alive. I could run through a long list of other things we are more than willing, however reluctantly, to pay for, because they are necessities or at least we deem them to be so. There is, however, one way that you can use the sales of your work to pay for your education. Amortize the total cost on a yearly basis, divide that by the number of pieces you create per year, and add that to the sales price. Eventually you will repay yourself for the cost of your education.

Don't expect the public to pay for your inefficiency. They will not pay for your learning curve. If you want to earn $20.00 per hour and it takes you 3 hours to do something, your piece must sell for $60.00 plus materials. Simple? However if someone else can do the exact same thing in one hour and wants $20.00 per hour, they will sell theirs at $20.00 plus materials. Guess who is going to sell more work, and that is what it is all about; making it and selling it. This applies to all that you do. You must continually learn and upgrade your skills, as well as develop new tools to implement your ideas. Standing still will eventually cost you dearly. You must continue to one-up the competition.

It is imperative that you have the most diversified product line that you are capable of creating. Trying to sell a single concept or type of item is not going to generate a lot of sales. To sell, the artist must fill as many niches as possible, whether it is painting, furniture, craft, wood turning or whatever, the broader the range both in price and scope, the better the chance for sales. When someone has come into your booth or sees your work in a gallery, variety most often creates a sale. Simply because you are filling a number of needs, tastes, and ideas. Besides this, doesn't it get kind of boring doing the same thing all the time?

Pricing your work is strictly a function of the costs of production and profit. You must calculate your overhead, i.e., the cost of space, utilities, tools, materials, labor, etc. These are the costs of doing business. Add a small percentage for profit (about 20%), and this becomes your wholesale price; the price that you have to get to make a living. This wholesale price is what you sell at to galleries and other retail outlets.

I do not believe in pricing my work at what I am guessing the market will bear because pretty soon it will not bear it. Overpricing your work paints you into a corner from which there is no easy escape. There is an exception to this rule. If you find that the demand for your work far exceeds your ability to produce it, then a price increase may be justified. Remember that sales are very sensitive to price increases. I would rather have a one year backlog than none at all, so be very careful.

Your time is valuable, and it must be accounted for. It is a cost that must be included in your production pricing. I often hear, especially from retired people, that they don't have to charge much for their work because they don't need the money, have plenty of time, will have a tax problem, and after all, it is just for fun, isn't it? Ergo, let's just give our stuff away. I don't understand this attitude. Anyone can be successful if he/she is willing to give their work away. (Boy! That was some show. I sold out!) Never mind that I did not pay for my expenses. There is only one true measure of your skill and creativity, and that is the price someone is willing to pay to own a part of it. Now if you are willing to go through life never knowing if you are truly in the running, by all means continue to give it away.

Certainly as artists we are geared to pleasing the public. This is our gratification, the praise we receive for our work. Without praise and positive feedback we slowly fade away, lose our confidence, and gradually cease our creative efforts, for fear of not receiving the adulation we must have to prosper. We are trapped by this need to please and our only measuring stick is the price people are willing to pay to own our work.

Please note, most all of our work is based on speculation. We hope that what we are doing will be pleasing to someone, and that sooner or later some person will purchase the piece. I heard a remark recently that really confused me. This person said, "I am not going to do any more shows this year." When I asked why, I was told, "I am tired of making things that people like and will buy, and not what I like to make." There is no doubt that creative people must like what they are doing and what they make, but it is just as necessary to make things that sell so that we can continue to do the other things.

All of us have experienced the creation of something just awful, and did not quite know what to do with it. (I often give such pieces to my relatives.) It is surprising to me that some of these items have sold very well, and some of the things that I thought were just really hot are still on my shelves. This reinforces my belief in the fact that "The perception of perfection is perfectly clear to everyone else." The point of all of this is that no matter how bad you feel something is, you have an investment in it and you can't hide it or throw it away. Sell it! Someone out there will truly love it.

Choosing which venue to sell under is also a difficult choice. Most galleries will only take work on consignment, at least until you are well enough known to make selling your work more certain. Generally, galleries mark up your wholesale price 50%. A few make it a 60/40 split. It has been my experience that they earn it. Getting into a gallery seems to frustrate a lot of artists. I generally refuse to send slides. Slides lie and owners really don't know what they are looking at. Slides are very expensive. I favor sending actual pieces. UPS can send most of my work cheaper than I can produce the slides. If the work is acceptable, they keep it and try to sell it. If not, they return it. Closer to home I take the pieces in for a close look. Rarely have I been turned down. I know galleries that refuse to look at the real thing. I took some pieces into a gallery that I thought might be interested, and the owner turned her head away, saying, "I don't want to see. I only look at slides." Too bad for her. I want to be in galleries that are looking for the latest and neatest stuff. If their policies are not open minded, neither are they, and will not be around long. The gallery business is tough and merciless. It is a wise owner who sometimes breaks his own rules.

I don't mean to infer that slides are not important. They most certainly are. You should maintain a photo portfolio of your work. Every show that you apply for will require a good set of photos or slides. Your best chance of getting in is to have excellent photography. Additionally, any magazine advertisement requires professional quality photos. Many galleries have brochures printed that require excellent transparencies. There are a host of reasons why good photos are required. This is certainly an area of expertise that all of us must sooner or later develop. No pun intended.

Consignment means that you are paid if and when each piece is sold. Some galleries will pay for your work up front if you provide them with some kind of discount and agree to rotate work that doesn't sell. This gives them a better shot at selling your work, and that is the name of the game. If your work becomes well known and the demand is high, most galleries will purchase your pieces outright, because the risk is slight that it won't sell.

So, let's work out how this relates to actual income. Let's say that you require a gross income of $50,000 per year. Let's further assume that each gallery can comfortably sell $2,000 worth of your work per year. Now, since you get half of the retail price, or $1,000 per store per year, that means that you have to be represented in 50 galleries across the nation! It's really simple, isn't it? Each gallery will require a sampling of your work, about 10 pieces. That's an inventory of 500 units, and you haven't sold anything yet! Furthermore, trying to keep track of all of it can be a real nightmare. You had better be computer oriented and competent. Making sure all of the galleries pay on time and don't go out of business can really add technicolor to your dreams.

I think that the most important considerations are to find galleries that like your work, are willing to promote it and you, have been in business awhile, and generally approach things in an open and businesslike manner.

Another route for sales is the art or craft show. In Southern California there are at least two shows a week. Some are good and some are horrid, but all will teach you how to sell. Feedback is instant. You will know exactly what will and what won't sell. You will also find out at what price things will sell for. It seems that most shoppers will pick up your most expensive piece, look at the price and exclaim "how beautiful" it is, hurriedly put it down, and literally run away. The price scared them away, and no amount of reassurance that you have lesser priced items will woo them back. They are still running. After observing this phenomenon at several shows, I finally put all of the most expensive items on a separate display shelf off to the side and slightly in back of the main display. Now buyers work their way from the least expensive towards the most expensive and are not as intimidated by price, because they can see the wide range that I offer.

Dealing with the public is difficult. They always want to know how long it took you to do something, and "how ever did you do that? Is that really wood? Will it break if I drop it? What can you use this for?" etc. One sweet young thing turned to her Paul Bunyanesque husband and asked, "Honey, how did he do that?" His response nearly knocked me over, I was laughing so hard. "Well," he said, "He has this great big press and he just puts a piece of wood into it and pushes a button and the machine goes kachonk and out comes a bowl." At another show a lady spent at least an hour looking at my work from some distance away, and then came charging into my booth demanding to know my secret. "What secret?" I asked. "You know very well what I mean" she said. I was totally at a loss, but she insisted that I tell her. Finally she asked, "How do you glaze your pottery to look like wood?" After nearly every art/craft show, I swear that I will only deal with galleries.

In addition to dealing directly with the public, (I do it because generally it gives me a chance to hear their reactions to my work. It tells me if I am on the right path.) there are other problems, i.e. travel time, set up time, show fees, local business licenses and taxes, time away from your studio and family. These costs must be included in your show pricing, otherwise you will not have a profitable show. You cannot afford to sell wholesale at most shows, especially if you are in competition with galleries and stores in the same neighborhood. They do not look kindly upon an artist who is underselling them. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Show schedules can be brutal, especially if you travel far and do many shows. I know many artists who carry a 30 shows per year schedule. This is truly a killer routine, and is in the heroic category. It is a lifestyle that they have chosen and they seem to thrive on it. I personally will only do shows that I can drive to in about 6 hours, and only 6 or so a year.

That means the rest of my sales are generated by galleries. I am very lucky because my wife has been in charge of all gallery sales. She is the one who contacts interesting prospects (not all galleries are interesting prospects), schleps pieces for approval, talks with the owners, selects the right pieces for each gallery, makes arrangements for delivery and then delivers them, and afterwards brings them back. It is approaching a full time job. It is important to recognize that it is impossible for an artist to both create the work and do a proper job of selling it, especially on the scale required to make a "good living". The time required is truly of a magnitude that would substantially impinge upon your ability to produce and leave time to create new things and develop new ideas.

Copy Right Howard Lewin 1994 All Rights Reserved