Conversations with Artists

Last Friday evening Jim and I attended our local annual art fair. From around the Midwest, painters, photographers, jewelers, woodworkers, and other artists came to display and sell their goods. Jim and I always enjoy speaking with the makers at art fairs. We get insight into their process and inspirations. We engage more fully with the art itself. This time was no exception.

A large photo of a lake in the Black Hills drew us into the booth of a talented photographer. After enjoying his photos for several minutes, I turned to the man and asked, Do you find that there is an upper limit for what people are willing to spend at an art fair venue?

He paused for a moment, and with a firm voice said, “No. I don’t find that at all. People who are willing to pay for art are just as willing to pay $3,000 as they are $300.” He went on to say everyone loves a discount, but he can discount an expensive photo by $100 or a less expensive photo by the same amount, and the buyer is just as happy either way.

“Huh. I’m a quilter and have thought a lot about selling my quilts. But it’s hard to believe anyone would pay me what they’re worth. For most people, a quilt from Kohl’s is just as good,” I told him.

“Well, they can buy pictures for their wall, too. But the people who buy wall art from Kohl’s and the people who buy from me are completely different people. Two completely different markets.”

***

Jim and I continued through the warm, muggy evening. Wandering in and out of artists’ booths, we asked one woman about a woodcut print. It was a poignant representation of a man who was with us but not… She told me an artists’ group had paired visual artists with poets. The poet she worked with had written about a brother with schizophrenia.

Another woodcut artist had more light-hearted work. One piece included the advice to keep it simple. When I commented on it, he reminded me about jazz music and how so much of the music is in the notes not played.

***

Shortly before we headed home we spotted one of my favorite artists, Meg Prange. Meg is a quilt artist who creates whimsical scenes with blind-stitch appliqué. I’ve visited with her several times over the years, and last year she presented to my local quilt guild.

I asked her how business was and she shrugged. “It’s always slow on Fridays,” she said. We chatted more about art festival sales. In order to break even an artist needs to sell enough to cover all the costs of production, as well as the marketing expenses of the fair. Booth costs, mileage, labor, accommodations and food, it adds up. Again she shrugged. “Last year I didn’t sell much of anything at this fair, but later I got a commission worth $3,300.” Being there had been valuable exposure for her.

***

Since I’ve been thinking about quilting as a business, these conversations were especially informative to me. While the typical “customer” might treat an art fair as a diversion, much like going to a museum, the artists must treat it as a business. They need to know their market and have realistic expectations for profits.

I’ll continue to ask questions about art and artists, including the business side. I may never choose to sell my quilts. But understanding both the motivations and rewards of other makers helps me understand my own, as well. Better understanding can only enhance my creative power.

***

If you’d like to read my posts on quilting as a business, you can find them here:

Quilting for Pay — The Longarm
Conversations with Artists
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 1
Price vs. Value of a Quilt, Part 2
You Should Write Patterns
“It Feels Weird Asking for Pay”
Pay for Quilters (And other Crafters and Artists)
You Should Sell Those: A Play in Three Short Scenes, With Commentary

Cotton — Where Does Your Fabric Come From?
Cotton — What Happens After Harvest?
Cotton — Weaving Fabric
Cotton — Batik Production
Cotton — Printing Designs

15 thoughts on “Conversations with Artists

  1. katechiconi

    Do you find that people who attend art fairs are there to buy *art*, and that therefore textile and fibre art displayed there is considered differently from what would otherwise be viewed as simply a bedspread or home decor item? They go expecting art, and therefore, art is what they perceive and value it accordingly. Setting expectations seems to be a key marketing tool here.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Good point. I do think that it might serve a marketing function, at least as much as directly a sales function. Even being able to sell yourself as having participated in various art fests would have some value.

      Reply
  2. jimfetig

    We need to have a conversation about branding. Brand is what the market buys. Tide vs All; Timex vs Rolex; Warhole vs Grandma Moses; and so it goes. They’ll buy quilts from a quilter as famous as Grandma Moses or who is award winning etc. What is your brand identity?

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      It’s a good question and I don’t have a good answer. I’ve started writing an answer about a dozen times and am not articulating it well. Something to think about…

      Reply
  3. jimfetig

    It’s that and more. You create a brand identity and demand for Melanie McNeil original quilts. The premium price follows. There is a process we use that leads you to that point. Here’s one of the questions: What is it exactly that makes one of your quilts standout?

    Reply
  4. snarkyquilter

    According to an acquaintance who makes fused glass landscapes, there are different levels of art fairs. They range from local more craft oriented events where all you need is the $ to rent a booth, to invitation only art shows. My acquaintance began at the former, and has now ascended to the latter. He’s been picked up by galleries and is showing at fairs much less. He says it gets pricey to take time off from his day job, and pay for a booth-food-lodging, so he’s happy to deal with galleries. And yes, he’s developed a distinctive style. My local art fair has exhibitors who range from metal lawn kitsch to fine furniture.

    Reply
    1. Melanie McNeil Post author

      Yes, I think there is a wide range, as you say. Our fair used to have a lot more lower-skilled offerings. They’ve improved over time. The artists submit an application and then are picked (or not) by a small group. It helps make sure there’s a diversity of arts, as well. As to galleries, there are pros and cons to that, as well.

      Reply
  5. zippyquilts

    I did a couple craft fairs back when I made jewelry, and generally they weren’t worth it. I sold a lot through word of mouth, though. I think the best is to place the work in a gallery where, even though you have to pay a commission, you don’t have to sit in the hot sun all day!

    Reply

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