Some Winter Observations

January 1, 2013

In December, this column discussed the importance of narrative to customers when they buy art. Thank you to everyone who wrote to me about that article, and because so many of you wrote in agreement, I would like to provide you with another take on the subject.

I have mentioned before that one assignment that I give to my students of professional development at Emily Carr University is to define “the function of display.” Most students miss the mark with their submissions. Instead of defining the “function” of display, they tend to describe the objects they have on display, but in doing so they tend to reference many strong emotions to the objects they display in their narratives.

In the class following the assignment, we talk about their wrong answers because they reveal how everyone has strong emotional attachments to the things that they display in their homes and offices. By having my students “see” the important role “display” has in our most personal spaces, they understand better that narrative – and especially strong emotional narrative – is how we choose what to display. When my students hear all the stories about travel souvenirs, family heirlooms, things made by children or devoted friends and the like (the wrong answers), it reinforces my message about how important narrative and emotion are to art sales.

Like choosing art, choosing clothing can involve both practical and aesthetic considerations so to help my students understand the function of display, I ask them to tell me about the function of clothing. The answers are quick and forthcoming – it functions to protect us from the environment, to reflect our tribal memberships, to keep our bodies secret, to establish real or false status, etc., they say. So then I ask: “Why was defining the function of the display harder than describing the function of clothing?”

When we return to a consideration of their “wrong” answers about display, they learn that the function of display is revealed in the subtext of their narratives. They discover that their items on display decorate, stimulate, provoke, enhance, reveal, distort and/or remind. By understanding the vital role display plays in our lives, you realize that the creative products you are trying to sell must compete with items of incredible significance.

So the next time you are selling work, remember your customers need an emotional connection in order to buy your work. How you provide that can make or break a career.

Final note: A reminder to visit the remarkably interesting website for more valuable insight on how narrative increases the value of an object.

I was shocked by a recent call for proposals issued by the Vancouver Airport Authority and YVR Art Foundation for designs for street banners to be installed at the airport. Entrants had to submit a design based on flight plus an essay on the work and its relationship to the theme. The “winner” (their word) would receive $500, but entrants are also required to surrender “worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, royalty-free, fully paid up, sub-licensable right to exercise all copyright, publicity and database rights, and moral rights in and to the artwork.”

Entrance to the banner competition was limited to First Nations artists and I could not believe these terms given contemporary professional standards of calls for entry for public art competitions. I called a member of the YVR Art Foundation board of directors and wrote to airport staff to express my concern and sincerely hope that Anne Murray, Vice President, Community and Environmental Affairs was being honest when she said that such a call would not happen again.

When seemingly progressive commissioners of public art such as the Vancouver Airport Authority can err so significantly in the methodology of a public art commission, visual artists are reminded that the terms and conditions of public art calls must be carefully considered. Artists must know their rights and defend them, and sometimes that may mean passing on participating in a call for entry that violates the artist’s rights.

When I was young, my understanding of sophistication was heavily vested in the appreciation of the unique. I saw the history of art and the decorative arts as a story of unique voices with masterful skills. What was valuable and important to me was made by hand in a style distinctive to its creator, and I see these values disappearing.

Today, particularly during my walks downtown, I believe I see younger generations very comfortable with mechanical reproductions. Plus, I believe I see a lot of self-made work serving as decoration reflecting an increasing social obsession with the self.

These observations make me concerned about the future of the market for the original and the hand made, especially in a society cutting arts programs from the public school system and the funding of public arts programmers in community facilities.

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, or his art marketing blog, to learn more.