Three Career Concerns

July 5, 2010

Stories and Value
Stories are so important. We entertain each other with them; our values and history are celebrated in historical myths and legends and they are an extremely powerful component of effective teaching. The value of narrative for visual artists is a critical part of every course, workshop and speech I make about visual art marketing and career development.

The greatest asset available to artists for the telling of stories is the Internet. Blogging, as I have said here before, provides us with an incredible (and free!) medium in which to tell the stories of our lives and of the inspiration and making of the things we make. By keeping a creative inventory on a blog, no matter where a buyer lives, he or she can access the narrative of your work.

I tell a story in my classes that illustrates the principle rather effectively. The artist I interviewed conducted an experiment by offering the same artwork (an etching) for sale on two different websites. She provided two dramatically different stories about the piece on each site: one story was extremely poignant while the other was mundane. The piece with the compelling emotional story attached to it sold for almost double the price of the same piece that was described in cool, unemotional and technical terms.

Significant Objects (SO) is/was an experiment that provides comprehensible and creative documentation to illustrate just how valuable stories can be when we sell objects like artwork. The people involved with SO hypothesized that they could quantify the impact of stories on the marketing of objects. They conscripted an impressive roster of writers (including a favourite of mine, Jonathan Lethem) to add narrative value to items selected from a second hand store and then sold on eBay.

In their first round, they purchased $128 worth of thrift shop items and sold them for over $3,600. In round two, $134 worth of items sold on eBay for $3,992. The combined resale prices were between 2700% and 2860% higher than the combined cost prices. Money raised from the sale of the objects went to the writers. More information is available on the experiments website: Click on “The Experiment” to get an overview of their process and a detailed analysis of their conclusions.

The point of this exercise is that very often buyers of art (especially those who do not buy art often) want to have something to say about the work they buy because when they put their work on display in their homes or offices they want to have something intelligent to say in response to the compliments it generates. They value being able to respond by saying such things as, “the artist told me that …” or “the inspiration of the work is an interesting story….” Having an insightful anecdote or two to tell admirers of the purchased art provides a lot of the emotional benefit to making the purchase.

Happy Canada Day; Sad Tax Day
As of July 1st, record keeping got more complicated in BC. The next few months will see us collectively and individually adapting to the implementation of the HST. The dust will settle, but be sure to do your homework about changes to collection, reporting and rebate eligibility if you are earning over $30,000 per year from self-employment.

One sad implication of the new tax for our non-profit cultural industries was reported on Global TV on Tuesday June 1st. Whereas the labour costs of workers involved with capital construction for a corporation are HST deductible, labour costs incurred by capital projects for the non-profit sector are not.

On top of cuts to cultural funding from the provincial budget and cuts from gaming revenues, the implementation of the HST adds to the economic woes of the arts as we enter the “tweens” of this century.

Managing A Creative Career
The Cultural Human Resources Council (CHRC) was created in 1995 to strengthen the Canadian creative workforce. A shocking 21% of the cultural workforce is self-employed; self-employment in the general workforce in Canada is only 8%. The CHRC reports that 67% of visual artists self-identify as self-employed; 50% of crafts persons are self-employed.

Hence, the CHRC has developed a website to support us,, and on it they have a section called The Art of Managing Your Career. This section in particular may be very useful for people interested in beginning a career in the visual arts or seriously advancing their career. I have been meeting a lot of talented people launching creative careers as a retirement strategy who might find the Explore Your Discipline section of the Council’s website very useful.

The Art of Managing Your Career is a “resource guide for self-employed artists” that was updated in 2009. It now has many new examples included in its syllabus as well as vastly more links to pertinent websites that offer support services for the development and management of a creative career.

Also, for those who sell work overseas, there is a section called The Art of Export Marketing that is designed to assist artists who wish to export their products or services to foreign markets (a bureaucratic migraine inducer if ever there was one). This section of their website has over 200 links to help you if exporting is something you want to do.