I sip the Adagio English Breakfast tea (gifted to me by Dave's parents) in a cup I got at last year's (and the last) American Made wholesale show in Washington DC, and I think ahead to next year as a glass artist, a business owner, a beekeeper, a gardener, a spinner, a weaver, a jeweler, a wanna-be potter, a home maker, and someone who is perennially overweight and out of shape. That sentence and the scope it encompasses are so great that my mind boggles. Today it will be enough to contemplate the first two: the glass artist and the business owner. What to do in 2017? How to navigate the changed landscape and the treacherous reefs ahead?
The biggest change for 2017 is that I am now in Austin, and my primary creative partner, Todd, is in Atlanta. Additionally in Atlanta is my studio support network of Dee and Brian. Not-quite-half my studio is also in Atlanta, and the other half is one eighth usable, three eighths a higgledy-piggledy mess, and a smidge unfinished. Another big change is that normally I would be frantically preparing for my big show of the year right now, but I don't have a show scheduled for this year so instead I sip my rapidly-cooling tea and try to figure out how to proceed.
I could just go on a hunt for the apple tv remotes that have gotten lost in the couch cushions and forget all about pesky marketing, materials-sourcing, website development, and balancing the books for 2016. Or I could go clean the kitchen, sweep out the fireplace, put away the gift wrap, do laundry, or curl up with a good book and a hot, fresh, cup of tea and revel in the utter silence of a house without contractors. But no, I am not a quitter or an avoider. I am a head-on reinventor. So how am I going to reinvent and drive my business this year?
Wholesale shows. The original lure of doing wholesale shows was that they would bring in reorders. After 11 years of doing them I can say that I could count the number of spontaneous reorders from galleries in that time on two hands. It's not a spontaneous order from a gallery if I have to contact them and nudge them into placing an order. I don't need the high dollar, physical, and mental energy cost of a wholesale show if I also have to make a nudge. Maybe I am just soured on the whole wholesale show experience. I didn't have success at the Gift Markets either in Atlanta or Dallas (I never tried New York), but maybe it's because I didn't give them enough chance by doing them for several years. Unfortunately they cost too much to keep trying, hoping to build up a clientele from them. I also can't compete in price with the mass-produced imported items which are also offered at those venues.
The alternative to Gift Shows, the Fine American Craft Shows, went through a nasty little war that ended with the dissolution of one (the better one to my mind), and the sale of the other to Emerald Expositions Jewelry Group. There is a third which has one wholesale/retail show, but the wholesale component is reputed to be insignificant to the participating artists. That condition may change however, based on the happenings with the other two shows. Personally, I'm interested to see how the evolution of the one that was sold one turns out (interested like I might be to watch a boa constrictor devour a mouse, or a tarantula wasp parasitize its host). In any case, my gut feeling is that the $6,000+ I would spend to do a wholesale show could be better spent on other things.
Retail shows. Is it time to get back to a balanced mixed of wholesale and retail sales? I have already applied for an 11-day show next December here in Austin that I have wanted to do for over 15 years, the Armadillo Christmas Bazaar. It's a show that's 41 years old and there are at least two artists still doing it that have done it for 40 years. I couldn't afford to do it if I had to come in from out of state (the main reason I am not doing the One of a Kind Show in Chicago anymore), but now that I live here again it becomes doable. It's a beast though: a marathon show that runs 10 am to 10 pm everyday with live music playing the whole time. Art shows with live music are always a tricky proposition as they can be sensorily overwhelming and extra exhausting depending on the music and how close your booth is to it. I leave myself in the hands of Karma for this one. If I get in or not, I can and will see the silver lining.
But what about more? Should I consider doing more local Austin shows or shows local to where I am at different parts of the year? What shows are even still open for application? Then there's the whole indoor vs. outdoor show thing. It's been a loooong time since I did an outdoor show. I would need to replace the canopy for my Lightdome tent and completely redesign my display fixtures for my current work. And what work would I sell? Mine? Mine with Todd? Mine with Bill (the steel stands)?
And am I really at a place in my life where I want to start a new course all over again? Let's be honest. To really be successful at weekend retail shows you can't just do one or two a year. That's how you make pocket money, and that pocket money comes at the cost of killing yourself. Unless you're lucky enough to get to set-up the day before the show starts, you get up at the crack of dawn having loaded everything in your vehicle the night before, drive to the show to wait in line to load in and set-up, stressing that you won't be ready when the show starts. After you've lugged everything to your booth location you wrestle with figuring out how to set up the tent, race to put out and price all the work, and then spend 2-3 days smiling and chatting with random strangers interspersed with infrequent potty breaks and cold sandwiches and snacks. At the end of it all is a hurried break-down of the tent--including the requisite pinched fingers--and pack-up of the work, followed by a mad dash to get your car in line for load-out before midnight and the drive home. To make retail shows worthwhile you can't just do one every so often; you would need to do them regularly and often so that you could take advantage of being packed and going straight from one to the next without the need to unpack and repack.
The show warriors, the artists who make a living by doing weekend retail shows, don't do a couple of shows a year, and they don't wing it. They have spent years honing their schedule and streamlining their processes for maximal return and minimal fatigue and cost. They have built a circuit where they are known, and their presence is anticipated by an established customer base every year. Show warriors know before ever arriving at a show where to get in line for load-in and how to make it go more smoothly. They know where their booth is located, how best to set-up their tent at the site, and have equipment to get everything speedily from the vehicle to the site. They also know where to park their vehicle for the day or the show. They know where to stay and where to eat. Routine is the show artist's friend. The rhythm and process that come from repetition make everything go more smoothly and less strenuously to keep fatigue to a minimum. Energy is saved to handle a few new things instead of a continual barrage of them. This familiarity with venue and event extends to the actual flow of the show and break-down, leaving the artist able to move through it without much thought or effort, sparing their attention for unexpected things like bad weather, near-by construction affecting the event, or traffic accidents.
I am not just blowing smoke out of my hat spouting all this stuff about show warriors. I remember building my own routines and rhythms over years of doing the Buyer's Market show in Philadelphia. I now believe that it was the anticipated effort of having to establish new routines that upset so many artists and buyers when the show moved from Philly to DC. It wasn't just that people don't like change, it was the wisdom and foresight that acknowledged how much more the show would cost in terms of energy and effort as we had to learn new processes and create new location-specific routines. In the end, the cost was just too much for the both the artists and the buyers and the show died.
It would take me 2-3 years to suss out which weekend shows worked for me based on revenue, timing, and location. It would take 2-3 years to build up a strong clientele at new shows. I had a reminder of that truth this year when I got two calls from people who had seen my work at the One of a Kind Show in Chicago in previous years who were disappointed not to see me this year. It would probably also take 2-3 years to develop packing, load-in/set-up, sales, and break-down/load-out processes that wouldn't break me. In short, if I wanted to do weekend shows and earn more than just pocket money, I would need to become a show warrior which would mean extended time away from my home and family--or dragging some portion of them along with me... We all give a collective shudder at the prospect. I'm not up for either option. And I'd need a camper or an RV. Dave's not up for any of those options. Glad we could work through that one here and save me the expense of replacing my Lightdome canopy. No weekend art fairs unless I decide to do them with the goal and expectation of pocket money or some other reward.
The Internet. Much has changed in the world of fine craft since the 1980's and early1990's. Before the Internet, people bought art and craft at galleries or art festivals. The perception--and it was mostly true--was that you could buy directly from the artist for half what you'd pay a gallery, and the artist would get all the money with none of it going to the money-grubbing gallery. The last bit was complete codswallop of course, but that's a subject for a different post on the value of galleries to an artist... Although that post might also have a bit more nostalgia than reality in it today too.
Artists communicated new work to their gallery customers with printed catalogs ranging from expensive, glossy, and professionally printed to run-off-at-the-copy-shop and stapled together by hand. They sent postcards and mailed out newsletters detailing new work. Artists who did retail shows kept mailing lists and sent out postcards to the people who bought their work at craft fairs telling them when they'd be back in the area doing another show.
Enter the Internet with Etsy, Wholesalecrafts.com, and a host of others. Welcome to email and websites and newsletter-generating services. Heck, welcome to digital photos instead of prints and slides (remember when applying to exhibit at a show meant sending them slides of your work?!?). Gallery owners--and retail customers--can browse on-line catalogs and watch videos of artists in their studios as they sip coffee. They can read the message, see the brand, catch the excitement all from their couches, and, with a quick click and a tap, they can send credit card numbers winging through the wires to purchase their heart's desire. All that without talking to anyone. There are many artists who have successfully moved (or started) their businesses online, and there is a lot to be said for that model in terms of minimizing physical effort, travel (time away from family), and cost (just saving the money from two $6,000 shows a year is a whole lot of Internet seed money).
I remember sitting around the table with a bunch of artist friends after a long day at the Buyer's Market Show and saying, "Wouldn't it be nice not to have to do set-up, and break-down, and spend all this money?" It looks like now is my chance. So what do I need to do? First thing is to decide wholesale, retail, or both.
Wholesale on-line. I already have a customer base of all the galleries I have worked with over the past 10+ years so I wouldn't need to start from scratch for wholesale marketing. Shipping is also easier with wholesale as it's big orders--not onsey-twosies--so I wouldn't spend as much time on it dollar for dollar. Making the jump from a primarily wholesale business to a wholesale on-line business doesn't seem to need such a big investment of time either.
Retail on-line. While Etsy sounds grand, I don't think it's so easy to take an established wholesale business and turn it into an equally lucrative retail business on Etsy. It takes time, a lot of little sales, and a lot of followers/reviews to build a successful Etsy store--there's just too much competition out there to even be found on their site. So I'd probably do better with my own website and maybe Facebook. An on-line retail presence would also benefit from being paired with a year or so of doing weekend art fairs to get the word out and a market going. As we've already determined that the idea of becoming a show warrior is somewhat unattractive at my current age and place in life, I'd have to have a t-shirt graphically spelling out "I'm too old for this shit" to wear everyday to every show. So it looks like just retailing on-line is a non-starter.
Wholesale and retail on-line. Short and sweet: If I started retailing on-line, that would (rightly so) piss off my wholesale accounts so I could kiss many of them good-bye. Looks like straight wholesale on-line is the way I'll go.
I need a plan. So how to establish and grow a primarily on-line wholesale business? For my existing customers, I need to engage them electronically, and put new routines and processes into place to keep my work in front of them when they are placing orders and filling holes in inventory. I need to make my work pop for them in images as well as it does in real life. I need to make it easy for them to order, and I need to make it trivial for them to share my work and story with customers looking for special pieces to commission. Once I have all of this set-up, I need to identify ways of attracting new customers. Regular communication in the form of old-fashioned postcards, e-cards, and new work notices will need to become routine.
I need a place. There are a couple of marketplaces out there for wholesaling fine craft. I tried the one run by IndieMe (formerly Wholesalecrafts.com) for several years but was never able to make the way they designed their site work for me. It was cludgy, extremely time-consuming, and ultimately unattractive. There is another site just starting up called Best in American Made. I will give them a look, but I will not use any third-party marketplace as my primary presentation site--they are too just generic for me and the extra potential buyers are cancelled out by the extra competition. It's time for a new Siyeh Studio website with videos and text providing stories about the pieces and the studio, an on-line store (wholesale login required), an interactive map with locations of galleries that carry my work, and a blog for information about new work and artist in the gallery visits. Enter Wix.
This time I am not going to open the web design application and just start winging it. This time I am going to sit down with some paper and colored pencils and do a layout and an old fashioned table of contents. I'll also have to put on my big girl panties and splash out the bucks for a real on-line store option that will have the work viewable by everyone, but the pricing and ordering options only visible to wholesale accounts.
I need a schedule. All of these new activities that need to become routine need to be scheduled. Some of them I can tackle now, some are predicated upon others which do not exist yet, and some are part one and part the other. Take the website for example. I have images of some work. I have pieces of text that can be reused from previous sites. If I just sit down and start working on it, time will pass and it will probably never be made live. Instead, after I do my initial design, I am going to build a schedule of staged releases leading up to complete go-live so that I keep moving forward, and I have a series of incremental wins.
I need new work. Everything described so far is outside of creating the actual work. I have been very lax at that in the past few years, but luckily Todd is all about creating new work. Since he cannot be tasked with anything electronic, this seems a perfect thing for him to take ownership of in our partnership. I still need to design new glass--not difficult with all the changes in color availability occurring at Bullseye Glass--but he can take my glass pieces and make new work out of them.
I need a sandwich. Well, maybe not a sandwich, but something infinitely more tasty that involves a sort of bread, meat, and condiment-like things. There is one last piece of Dave's phenomenal Beef Wellington (rare beef tenderloin coated in butter-soaked mushroom paste, pâté de foie gras, and prosciutto and wrapped in puff pastry--there are other things in it, but those are the highlights for me) left in the fridge. I think I'll pair it with a Diet Coke (if the family has left me any) and go low-tech and sketch out a website and a plan.