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Context

A long time ago, while I was working at a local theatre company, the artistic director told us he had finally cast a role that was difficult to fill. He had found a singer who was performing in a bar downtown, and that night I went to hear her sing. Seeing Sybil sing in that bar that night was heartbreaking.

Sybil is an extraordinarily gifted singer and that night I watched her without blinking. She was arrestingly charismatic and she had a rich, dramatic voice with an amazing range. I knew that with us, in our show, she was going to bring the house down every night for thousands of people who would be paying hefty admission prices, but that night no one was watching her and no one was listening. She was background music for people who wanted to drink, laugh, and socialize.

In our theatre, audiences respected Sybil. They honoured her talent with their attention and stood shouting their admiration for her at the end of every show, but in the bar, she was invisible.

In 2007, in Washington DC, a violinist dressed in a t-shirt, jeans, high tops, and a Washington Capitals baseball cap busked in the L’Enfant Metro Station. He played six pieces from the classical repertoire and, for the most part, passers-by ignored him.

The previous night, that same busker had sold out the Boston Symphonic Hall at $100 a ticket. His name is Joshua Bell. He is recognized as one of the world’s foremost violinists and, that day in the subway, he was playing his Gibson ex Huberman that was handcrafted in 1713 by Stradivari. You can see his performance on YouTube (search “Joshua Bell in subway”).

The perception of greatness is assisted by context, and this is a very important lesson to remember as you consider where to exhibit your work. Depending on what you seek from exhibiting – respect, fulfillment, sales, or a combination of these rewards – where you exhibit your work will affect how it is perceived. Consider these stories when you are searching for opportunities to show.

I have just completed my first “1-on-1” consultation with an artist, brokered through Emily Carr University of Art and Design’s Continuing Studies Department. This is new to me but it is an excellent service. Instructors (like me) can be hired by the hour to consult with you about your career; depending on the nature of the questions you have about your career, you can choose whom to consult from the entire Continuing Studies faculty.

During this first consultation for ecuad, I mentioned statistics from the Metro Vancouver market indicate that the majority of visual art sales occur when there is a relationship between the artist and the consumer. Furthermore, we discussed the vital role narrative plays in art sales. In response to that information, the artist has decided to write and show a handwritten letter addressed to the viewer/buyer beside each work she shows. In other words, each piece will have its own artistic statement.

I think this is a very interesting idea if the letters are brief, personal and are honest (not forced or market speak). If they are well written, it could feel like reading a diary and that will certainly make the artist a lot more “present” for her show’s visitors, even if she is not there physically to meet them. Well done, her letters will bring warmth, life and intimacy to her exhibition; they may provide an intimate and welcoming context for her work.

“HelenMakesMoney” is the online identity of someone with whom I engaged in a friendly debate online. She had enjoyed a long-standing relationship with a gallery but her sales had flat-lined. Although it took courage to leave her gallery, she followed her (Italian) instincts and discovered an ideal venue (context) for her sales – she used her own home.
Helen moved all her furniture out of the main floor of her home and she cooked pasta instead of providing hors d’oevres on the two nights of her in-home show and sale. Her friends helped with sales and as servers and, in the warm and personal atmosphere she created, she earned herself almost 400% more than her average annual sales during the last three years with her gallery. There were more sales and no commissions.

Now, twice a year, Helen cooks a huge classic Italian dinner for two weekend nights and invites all her friends and their friends to her home exhibition and her sales continue to earn far more than her years when she was represented.

Post Script: If you enjoy the nature of my columns, please consider a visit to my Visual Arts Marketing Blog (visualartmerchandising.blogspot.ca) where you can find more ideas to consider, resources and links pertinent to the advancement of a professional visual arts career. Whereas there is a lot of professional development information for visual artists online, my blog provides (relatively rare) information in the Canadian context.

Chris Tyrell Loranger is the author of Artist Survival Skills and Making It!, an arts writer and educator. His popular opinion pieces have appeared in our newsletter since its first issue in 1986. Visit his website, www.christyrell.ca or his art marketing blog http://visualartmerchandising.blogspot.ca, to learn more.

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