Saturday, May 25, 2013
Notes from the Other Side of the Counter: Part 9: It Takes Two to Tango...
9. It Takes Two to Tango.
One of the most common problems that I see in regards to a fledgling relationship is that once an artist lands a spot in the gallery, they dump their work on them and abandon it until it is time to collect their check. While this can definitely work for some arrangements, what I usually see is that there's an initial burst of interest in the work and then it drops off or plateaus. The best relationships of this type don't simply end with the initial transaction, but are in a sense a collaboration between the gallery and the artist. The artist must take an active stance in continuing to promote their work.
If you already have a group of established customers from when you were selling your work independently, let them know where to find your work. Celebrate the fact that you have a new working relationship! If you have been selling online, sometimes your customers will enjoy being able to see a bigger selection in person and will make a point to swing by if they're in the area. We had a group of people who were on their way from Michigan to Washington DC make a specific detour to stop by the store and see an artist's work in person.
It makes my stomach drop when an artist sends work and it's piled in a box without any indication of what anything is. Be organized. Not only will it help your own records, but it'll also help the shop owner to manage your work better. It'll also save them time in trying to figure out what it is. I also encourage artists to enclose an inventory list of what they are sending. (Enclose two copies and have whoever receives the work to sign a copy and send it back for your records.) Ask the shop if they want you to label the pieces yourself or have them label them. If you label the pieces yourself, it is good to include a SKU. A SKU is a "Stock Keeping Unit" and helps the shop keep track of the product, price, and quantity. It doesn't have to be fancy or be a bar code, but sometimes it's as simple as the initials of the the artist, a letter identifying what kind of piece it is, and the number that corresponds to how many were sent. Sometimes an artist will include the shop initials as well to differentiate different accounts and include a date. For instance, if Jane Doe sent 12 necklaces to the Jewelry You Wear Emporium in 2009, the SKU for the seventh of the necklaces might have a code that looks like: JYWEJD09N7. Even if they want to label the work, write it on the bag or a temporary tag when you send in your work.
While I'm on the subject of sending in one's work... after I've established a relationship with an artist, I don't really care too much about the packaging an artist sends their work in. The packing material should be clean, not make a mess and not obscure the work too much, but other than that, you can save the bows, organza baggies, and wax seals for your retail customers. Some of my personal horror stories include an artist who sent envelopes of their work that they sprinkled glitter in. Even after vacuuming and wiping down everything with a wet paper towel, I am still finding specks of it years later. One jewelry artist threw 50 pairs of LOOSE earrings into a box of packing peanuts. It took me hours to sift through all the styrofoam madness and about as long to match all the pairs up. The absolute worst was when an artist sent in their work and they recycled packaging styrofoam used for frozen fish. It was summer and it smelled like the ocean had died in the box.
Not only does it help to send an inventory list, but it also helps to include promotional materials. This includes business cards, a CD with high quality images of your work and yourself, an artist bio, and if your pieces require any specialized display. Make it easy on the shop owner to promote you and your work. This is particularly helpful if this is the first time in the area that you're showing. They can use it for press releases, social media outlets and/or mailing lists. And if there is anything specialized about a certain material or technique, include information about it. The more a shop owner knows about the work, the better they're able to sell it.
Be clear about your prices. I had one artist drop off a box of pieces and say, "Price it whatever you want." It's not as easy as one would imagine to arbitrarily decide on a price. Researching how much the individual components cost and then trying to tabulate how much time, effort and skill went into a piece can take hours. Make it easy on both of you by developing a price that you want to make on each piece and suggesting it to the shop owner. Make sure to take in account that they will either add a percentage on or factor that into the final retail price. Don't end the conversation by naming a price and sticking to it. Be open to their suggestions and be flexible. They'll give you feedback on what things are going for in their store and offer up comparables. Sometimes it might surprise you and you'll discover that you're not charging enough.
Another common mistake that I see is when an artist will have work in their own shops and the prices are not congruent with the prices in the gallery. Don't compete with yourself. Customers go irate when they buy something and do a little research and find out that they could have saved money by buying it directly from the artist. I've known galleries who will drop an artist if they find out that the artist is either selling their work at the same price or less than what the shop paid for it or is offering it for. One thing that I often times recommend an artist do, if they are still selling work themselves is to create a line specifically for the store. This forces the customers to get it from the shop exclusively and prevents any ugly scenes.
Along those same lines of not competing with yourself, make sure that the creative spaces that you choose to work with aren't too close together. Many shops that are in close proximity with one another want to carry different and unique work from their neighbors and don't want to compete with their friends and fellow members of the same merchant community. Remember it's not about how many places you're represented at, but by the quality of the relationships you have. Help the galleries you work with (and yourself) by spacing things out a little.
Offer help and ask if there's anything you can do. Sometimes a shop owner will take you up on it and sometimes they'll pass. I appreciate it when an artist shows interest in promoting their work. I distinctly remember a conversation I had with an artist where I was talking about the event that I was going to through to launch the new line. She said, "I don't care what you do to promote my work. That's not my job. That's your's." Even though the quality of her work was great, I decided to pass on carrying it. One of the common misconceptions is that a gallery works for an artist OR that an artist works for a gallery. They work together.
Late one night I couldn't sleep and I tried to pass the time by watching a little TV. Somehow I ended up on a lowbrow talk show about cheating spouses. An expert on the topic said, "One of the best ways to prevent your spouse from cheating is to spend quality time with them." The rationale was that if you're around more, there's less of a chance for them to be unfaithful. It seemed like a no brainer to me and the same goes for working with a gallery. Make your presence felt. You don't have to smother a shop owner, but attending functions when you can or sending the occasional email will help keep you in the forefront of their mind and want to promote your work more. You can also send them press releases for events you're involved in, snapshots of new work you're making or send a holiday card with an update of what you're up to.
Along the same lines of making your presence felt, make sure to keep the lines of communication open. If you are hard to reach or it becomes difficult to get in touch with you, chances are the shop owner will eventually give up.
The beauty of a tango comes from when both partners are in sync and share a connection. You can go through the motions and be proficient, but sharing a mutual goal and investing time to develop your rapport will make the steps seem effortless and simply sublime.