There's a problem with the art market

There's a problem for local and independent artists striving to make a living, and it is going unnoticed, what could it be?

Support Local Artists
Support Local Artists

 

The answer is deeply hidden but it's also hidden in plain sight. The problem is that not enough people are taking a gamble on buying art from local and independent artists. Sure there are some very successful websites who support local and independent artists, but lurking beneath the services are a myriad of large companies who ply their wares, undercutting those local and independent artists who just haven't got access to mega-advertising and promotional budgets, but whose work you will be missing because they appear so far down the search results that no one ever notices their masterpiece. It's not because they don't have talent, it's because in general algorithms used by search engines and corporate sales pages favour two categories, best sellers, and most popular.

I totally get it, I really do. If I ran an online service I would want to put the best sellers at the top, it's a tactic that supermarkets use when they place their highest profit items at eye level. But it's a real catch 22 situation for those who are undiscovered. Invest the profit you haven't as yet made in running adverts on social media, or work really hard to promote your work in the hope that someone will eventually find your art.

Now this sounds a little like sour grapes, it's not, I frequently find myself near the top of the results and sales are steady, I'm not retiring any time soon from the profit, but there are so many artists who are struggling. There are of course the artists who have been selling through certain websites for years and they often appear in the search results at a higher rank, usually because they promote everything they do, gain likes, receive comments on their work, and the algorithm occasionally bumps them up. But for many, a top spot will never happen without sales, and you can't get sales if you can't afford to pay for advertising.

There is another reason too, there are so many new artists joining the print on demand sites and sometimes, I need to be frank here, their 200 products ranging from key rings to t-shirts fill the recent additions search results and being frank once again, their very poorly cropped and misspelled phrase is in all honesty oppressing the single masterpiece that has been relegated to page 25 of the search results.

Art is subjective, but this week I found over 300 key rings that featured the same word "Muther" (probably meaning Mother), all with a different colour plain background, and the font was comic sans in black. There's the other problem, the market is flooding, and I can't believe anyone would think that comic sans is a good font choice. The market is flooding with people who think that art is easy. It's not.

But there are so many talented artists who actually produce great art, take really great photographs, and yet you've probably never heard of them. In fact I would take their work over an original Van Gogh for aesthetic and artistic appeal, and when they eventually do get discovered, I will be celebrating owning an early original.

But there are other reasons too. A certain craft and handmade website has many large companies selling goods that are in fact handmade. Handmade in a sweatshop, the latter bit fails to get mentioned. The prices though are really good, and they sell the items in large quantities. Suddenly we need a new word to describe the goods, ManyHandMade or underhand made. But some of these specialist handmade sites have also changed their terms and conditions and are moving away from solely handmade, allowing the flood gates to open to organisations who wish to sell goods that look handmade (perhaps in some cases are), but are actually mass produced. When I see the exact same item for sale from three different sellers, each proclaiming the goods are handmade, I sit for a while slightly confused.

Handmade and local
Handmade and Local

 

But just what does handmade really mean, and why should we pay a little bit more? It's tempting when you see a bargain to make the purchase, I'm guilty of this. I once purchased a toaster that looked like a Dualit. Except it wasn't a Dualit, but it did two things really well. Firstly it burned every piece of bread and turned it into an unrecognisable form regardless of the setting, even when it was switched off. Secondly it tested my smoke alarms for me every day, I never once in the week that I used it had to press the red test button on the alarm. The same company also made batteries, I managed to get through 17 of them during that week.

Of course it wasn't handmade, it couldn't have been because if it had been tested it would have burned down the factory. Also I refuse to believe that something so bad could have been made by hand, it had to have been made by something similar to Microsoft's recent AI experiment that went a bit wrong on Twitter. That thing was trying to kill me and take my house. The toaster, not the AI.

Many of the reasons cited by my clients when asked about their views on handmade goods were actually varied. Some suggested that they felt that real handmade crafts were far too expensive, others suggested that they could get a mass produced item much cheaper, and others felt that if something was wrong with the item, they had no redress from the seller. Those who supported handmade crafts and artwork generally felt that none of the above applied, and in many cases the quality was much better, the prices were cheaper, and ethically and morally it made sense.

Whenever I have spoken to my customers, many have switched to buying from print on demand sites and away from chain store artwork in part due to quality, in part because the designs in the chains are always similar, usually a reworked Mondrian, the Brooklyn Bridge, or a stock image photo, and in part because they get a 30-day money back guarantee that allows them to try out the art in their homes with very little risk. Interestingly, some customers suggested that chain prints generally come in three sizes, small, medium, and large. Generally walls in regular homes don’t have uniformity.

They also mentioned that by buying from print on demand sites they also got to choose from a wider selection of art, and by moving away from the first page of the search results they had managed to find prints that have perhaps only sold a couple of copies at most, if at all. That essentially means that they could procure a far more exclusive collection of prints from artists who are independent, unrepresented, and who are far more passionate about what they create.

But there were also lots of other reasons why some of my clients liked handmade and print on demand from independent artists and crafters.

Having spoken to six clients in the last couple of days, all six said that local and independent artists contribute to local economies far more than the retail giants do. I realise six is a small number, but I will take a surprisingly unscientific guess, if I were to ask more, the answers would be the same or at least very similar. In fact I might run a poll in my Facebook group, The Artists Exchange.

Handmade with love
Handmade With Love

But over the course of the last twelve-months I have spoken to many people, and having asked them the question “what’s really good about buying handmade or from local and independent artists”, the answers were all positive.

So by asking one question to many people, over the course of the last twelve-months I have received so many different replies, but actually all point to one thing, handmade, local, independent, is truly great. Here are the 25-top replies:

1. Local craftsmen and women are far more ethical and in most cases utilise resources from sustainable sources.

2. Purchasing from local artists gives them a connection to the artist that they would never have if purchasing from a chain.

3. For the most part, local artists respond to emails, text messages, and are far more approachable than those represented through high-end galleries. One client actually said that they had visited five events to speak to an artist who was represented by a high-end gallery, but the artist was always far too busy on the telephone to speak to them!

4. Buying from craftspeople, and local artists is a conscious decision. People need to be more conscious of spending and realising that just because you buy from a chain, doesn’t necessarily help the artist or the local economy.

5. There is more of an exclusivity to the product or artwork. Not many pieces are made or sold.

6. The quality of handmade goods supersedes anything that is mass produced and handmade is never supplied with a coating of some noxious residue from being built next to other products.

7. I love the knowledge that I am contributing to an artist’s passion to produce quality work.

8. Giving handmade gifts is seen as being far more personal than giving someone a voucher or something that has ramped up enough air miles from its country of origin for a round the world trip.

9. Supporting local artists and crafters means that the items are generally much more diverse, fashion forward, as the artists are able to be far more responsive to current trends than large box shifting companies who plan a year in advance for next summer’s collection.

10. So many artists are undiscovered and finding the next big name is a huge part of the fun. Knowing that you discovered the next Picasso way before anyone else is a phenomenal experience.

11. One of the main reasons I buy from local and independent artists is that they are passionate about their art, and this comes through in their work.

12. It is all about supporting small local businesses that have disappeared from the high streets and communities. Supporting someone who is self-reliant on income is to be applauded.

13. You never again have to battle the crowds at IKEA on a Saturday afternoon

14. I think of it as paying in to an insurance policy that keeps local arts and crafts alive.

15. I buy because it is unique, personal, and affordable. What’s more, it not only supports an artist who pays bills just like you and me, it also supports communities. Many artists have a very strong community presence.

16. I buy from local crafts people because it is made with love and not plastic.

17. I am supporting an artist’s vision

18. I enrich my life with handmade goods, and enable an artist to follow their dreams

19. I buy from independent artists because they take time out to speak to me when I visit their events. Sometimes we even have a coffee together. My local independent artist is now a family friend.

20. It’s far more affordable to buy quality at a reasonable price, than to buy cheaply and have no reasonable life expectancy.

21. Independent artists take risks that large commercial organisations could never convince their shareholders to take.

22. Buying handmade sets a good example for our children, it teaches them that not everything has to be mass produced.

23. Handmade tells a story. The designer’s life, or the material that made it.

24. Because it embraces and celebrates a wide range of cultures and diversities

25. Because I am not only supporting someone else’s dream, I am buying in to it.

That's a lot of feedback and all of it positive about purchasing artwork and handmade crafts from local and independent artists. In general it seems that the public like to support their local artists and artisans, but much more needs to be done to make sure that those undiscovered artists can create a sustainable living for themselves, and to encourage artists and crafts people to afford to be creative.

Some of the large arts organisations do allow local artists to apply for bursaries and grants, the issue is that in almost every instance, the application process is complex. Of course the elephant in the room is that some arts organisations focus far too heavily on buying and displaying art from prominent artists and sculptures. Donations to the arts are often for the purpose of saving an historic artwork and this is important. But this begs the question, does Picasso need to be discovered?

Sure the artwork is usually then displayed to the public, but there are so many arts organisations who seem to focus on historic works. Would it be better to also encourage undiscovered living artists to enter the art world? If we had more of these organisations committing to local artists, easier access to public spaces for undiscovered artists, we might not only encourage local artisans to get more involved, we might also start seeing new artistic styles emerge. It's not that those new artistic styles aren't available already, it's just that nobody has yet found them because they reside in the middle of the back end of a search engine.

Whilst I also take on board that people visit galleries to see historic pieces, I do think that we are currently in a time frame where in the future we will not be able to give the current era a definition such as we did with the Renaissance period, the mannerism period (1527–1580) and the Baroque period, (1600–1750). The period we seem to be in today will most likely end up being remembered as the IKEA period. We are just not discovering great art, and when we do, it tends to be from similar provenance.

The reason I say that is because when we do discover an artist, it's usually through high profile events, and I really believe that for the majority of artists who work locally and don't have gallery representation, these events are just too far out of reach. Galleries tend to favour artists who have a portfolio that has some significant sales already, and yes the art may be at times edgy, but it's also generally safe. Safe in that there is a sales history and with enough hype it will turn a buck.

Galleries should do much more to promote local artists. Surely it would be in their interests to ensure that new and fresh art keeps entering the market? The exception to this is the local art galleries usually found in small towns, but large high profile galleries, they're just too local/independent/undiscovered, artist unfriendly. Any art gallery should have a corporate social responsibility to encourage new artists.

Whilst there are many local galleries doing what they can, they are also the ones taking the risks. They need multiple sales each week to survive, they often allow unknown artists to display their works, but they are competing with the large chain stores when it comes to selling prints.

So what's the answer?

Art is a complex world. As an artist, it is often difficult to promote your work and actually have any time left to create more work. Many local artists have to work a day job to make ends meet, so time is even more of a premium. Many new artists simply either give up when they don't sell their work, or are resigned to the fact that what they do may always be an hobby that might or might not eventually pay a little back.

The art world needs to be simplified. Access to bursaries and grants should be simplified, and where galleries support local and independent artists who feed into the local economy, they should be given tax breaks.

Print on Demand services need to be smarter. Creating new sections of their websites that will feature those artists who produce quality work, but are yet to make a sale, or offer an alternative search option that displays only the work of relatively new artists. Those who have been selling for a year maybe and who have sold at least three items. The POD sites should not necessarily promote the artist, they are after all a service that prints and supplies the art you make, but they should do more to help in terms of giving advice.

Artists themselves should help other artists. Too often there seems to be a reluctance from artists to encourage new artists. A mentorship from an experienced and fellow artist can be worth its weight in gold.

Social Media giants should help local businesses as well as artists, if the business or artist then becomes successful I'm reasonably sure they would then start paying for advertising once they can afford it.

Coffee shops are the hangouts of artists. Walk in to any coffee shop in a large city and at least one customer will be an artist, many more customers will like art, so rather than hang motivational quotes to get you to enjoy the day by buying another flat white with caramel syrup, these highly public spaces could be utilised to support local artisans in the local community. Given that some coffee chains pay little corporate tax, it makes sense on every level. A study carried out by American Express in the UK concluded that for every £1 spent with a small to medium sized business, 63p stayed within the local economy. When £1 was spent in larger businesses, only 40p stayed in the local economy. If the coffee giants shirk their tax obligations then surely they could support the local economy better by allowing a little space for the local artist.

Maybe we could see hotel chains using local art instead of the same print that is in every other hotel in the country. A room in a hotel chain should have consistency when it comes to giving customers a good experience and a good nights sleep, but why on earth do I need to see a print of the same blurred ball in every hotel from the same chain in every city? Occasionally it would be nice to see a landscape of the local area, or even a splash of colour that is different from the hotel you last stayed in. It's not that it would be more expensive, I'm sure buying 50 or 100 prints from a local artist will work out cheaper than buying 50 or 100 corporate prints. It would certainly add interest to the room, and it doesn't have to be a Matisse.

I wrote about corporate art a week or so ago. This week I have been in back to back meetings in London and I noticed that the art on the walls was either originals from famous artists, or more commonly, corporate art that all looked the same. It's like there was a production run in the city and everyone got the same deal. Two offices looked exactly the same, same artwork, but two very different organisations. Not one of these businesses displayed anything remotely local.

There are though, so many things that an independent artist can and should do to increase sales. If you read my archived posts you will find a wealth of information that will support your quest to become a discovered and successful artist.

The important things that you need to learn early on are covered in depth, but you will want to make sure that you promote your work. Promotion is also covered in earlier blog posts and it's a subject that cannot be underestimated. Tell everyone you know that you are an artist!

The best piece of advice I can give to any artist is to stop doing stuff for free! You have a talent and if you were a mechanic or a lawyer or a chef, ask yourself the question, would I work for free?

Very occasionally there may be a good reason to carry out the odd piece of work and not charge, but this should be an exception and never ever the norm. Importantly, never do every piece of work for free because that will be a commercial disaster and honestly it won't get you noticed other than as being an artist who people come to when they haven't got a budget.

It's also wrong as a buyer of art to expect an artist to work for free. Yes some may need experience, but if you like the art then you really should expect to pay to cover the expenses of the artist, at the minimum. My creations can take anywhere between a couple of hours and 70-hours of work, ask a lawyer or a plumber to give you that much work for free, you might find that they look at you rather blankly. Artists are a really odd bunch because they have materials to buy, bills to pay, and when they eventually get featured in a gallery they pay around 50% of the sale price to the gallery owner. I say odd because I can't for the life of me think that lawyers and other professionals will have outlays, especially bills. Why are artists any different?

I say this because I have fallen into this in the past. In my experience the persons (multiple) wanted a commission to be created. They provided no initial specification, then they decided on a theme, colours, layout but then asked constantly for so many changes to be made that I ended up creating those particular commissions at least four times each. Each time they saw the final design, they became an art expert and wanted more additions. I know people like what they like but honestly sometimes less is more, but if they're getting it for free it's surprising just how many also want some added value even if the first completed piece was in all honesty, the best.

I made a few conscious (at the time) decisions to produce some free art, but have come to realise over time that undervaluing your artwork doesn't do you any favours, it also doesn't help other artists, and if you only take away one piece of advice from this post, this is it. Those who find and like your art will buy it, and even if you are not confident in your ability as an artist (some of the greatest artists have moments of thinking they're not so good), remember that art is subjective. If you like it, someone else will too.

But importantly, art buyers do need to encourage local and independent artists and handmade crafters by buying their works, and paying fairly for the privilege of owning the art. A misconception from some customers is that artists are either starving or wealthy. For the most part they are starving. Breaking in to the industry is difficult and it can be expensive. Even popular print on demand artists often only make as little as $5 - $10 on a print sale, maybe $50 if the print is huge and the buyer also purchases a mat and frame, maybe $2.50 on other items such as throw pillows, but when they may only be selling one or two of each print per year if they're lucky, it's not necessarily going to cover all of their initial costs.

It does mean though that any artist who carries on continuing to produce art in the knowledge that in all likelihood isn't going to sell, is most certainly a very committed individual who loves art. Those are the artists we need to support, unless they use comic sans as a font. If you do buy a piece of art that you love, think about donating a little extra to the artist through PayPal, because some POD sites pay the artist much less than the prices I have just mentioned.

If you are an established artist, offer some support to the undiscovered. There's nothing more rewarding that to see someone succeed knowing that you mentored or helped them achieve their dreams in some way.

So this week I am pledging my support to any initiative that helps to support local and independent artists. I will be using the hashtag #SupportLocalArtists in relevant social media posts, and I will be visiting at least one local gallery this weekend.

Support local artists
#SUPPORTLOCALARTISTS

 

I will also be continuing to create the content for the Artists Exchange page on this blog which supports my Facebook group of the same name, and I will be sharing independent artists and artisans work on my Facebook page at https://Facebook.com/beechhousemedia

If you are a local independent artist or handmade crafter who would like to be featured please do get in touch. All I need is a link to your art, a short bio, a little about what inspires you, and I will promote you on here and within my two Facebook groups, unless you insist on using Comic Sans, then you're on your own.

If you are a gallery and would like to feature some of these local and independent artists and handmade crafters, then please let me know and I will make sure that over 3,000 members of my two Facebook groups, and the readers of this blog are aware that you support what they do.

Remember to use the hashtag #SupportLocalArtists too. Let's see if we can actually get this little campaign trending on the web!

In my next blog I will be exploring the age old question of just how should I price my art. See you soon!

 

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