Thoughts on the Festival season and the busy-ness of art…

Firstly, in the interests of full disclosure, I confess that I haven’t done many Arts festivals in my career. Only a couple of them actually, and so I am no authority on the subject; most of my work has been through gallery showings. However, as a current member of the Carrollton Artists Guild and a working artist for most of my life, and the spouse of an arts administrator, I have been in and around art festivals for many, many years, and so have some perspectives on this business of art. I am thinking about this in particular this morning as my email alerts and FB posts are being filled by announcements for festivals, calls for artists at festivals, notices of artist friends at a festival in the region, as well as the arrival of our customary gorgeous spring into summer weather that demands outside activities- especially for the pale hibernating studio artist who has been avoiding the cold and rain for so many of the previous months. I also follow some artists on Instagram and most of them have gone from posting in-studio pictures to in-my-booth pictures with the usual tag “come see me!” It got me ruminating about how the system of making and delivering art to people has changed over the years, and that is what this entry is concerned with today. Again, this is no authoritative polemic, or insightful ‘how to’ guide for the novice, it is just a jumping off point for some discussion. I have composed my ideas in the form of ‘pitfalls and traps for artists’ with my usual eye to equal parts humor and truth, so if nothing else, I hope it’s entertaining. Please feel free to comment either on our FB page or here, as suits you best. Here goes…

  1. Your tent probably sucks: Now I don’t mean to throw shade at any of the professionals in my sphere, but before I entered the festival market and got to know so many pro’s within it I had no idea the furor over something as simple as a tent. I use one of those inexpensive sorts suited for tailgating when I do facepainting, but upgraded to a pricier one with the excuse that it was partly for use at my wedding reception; oh, the ignorance of youth! I have since discovered that all one has to do in order to truly become disheartened about one’s tent and display, is to go to a well populated festival and walk around for a few minutes. Each display went from ‘effective’ to ‘practical’ to ‘stunning’ and finally to the most envious level, ‘ ingenious!’, assuring me that my quaint little tent was insufficient. It was like the poor country cousin finding himself in the ritzy private school, his patchy overalls, albeit clean, but clearly without the bespoke design of his fellows. One such display I saw in Greenville was a self contained gallery, towed behind a truck, I assume, with finished wood surfaces, generous lighting, and bits of furniture. There might have even been a friendly dog lounging in the corner, because why not? You can just imagine the viewer exclaiming ‘Oh look Bob, this display shows us just how the art will look in our own home if we lived in a quaint Colorado mountain cabin with a schnauzer named Pickles! Let’s buy 8!” Galleries offer a different set of issues, that I finally mastered no thanks to my undergrad experience, but most of that system just doesn’t transfer to an outdoor festival. I think that the search for the perfect tent and display will not be unlike the search for the perfect mate, and that took me nearly 40 years to accomplish, so I am optimistic, but not especially hopeful. Based on that record I will be somewhere in my 80’s when the perfect display is achieved and by that time, well…
  2. The more things chanWHOOPS, they just changed again: I am showing my age by saying so but when I was in school we didn’t talk about websites or blog pages we talked about hard copies of resumes and copies of articles and, dare I say it, ‘slides’. When I carried my work to a photographer in Atlanta known as Reese Birdwhistle (I am NOT making that up) I thought myself very cutting edge, especially when he offered to make me a CD of the images for digital purposes! I didn’t even own a computer at the time, so I don’t know what I was thinking I would do with it, but I still have it should there ever be a need for those pictures. They cost me the king’s ransom of $150 which, for a server and starving artist paying rent in Cabbagetown,  was a LOT of money. But I told myself it was worth it, and it was; I got my first professional representation out of those pictures. However, within the year, they were obsolete, replaced by the efficiency of the ever cheaper digital cameras and all of the image correcting software that many people had, starting a sort of digital arms race that has only slowed of late as we have reached a sort of computer age plateau. Before it was simply ‘do you have slides?”, then it was ‘do you have larger form glass slides?”, then ‘digital images on CD?”, then “digital images via email?”, then ‘digital images via email or a link to your website?”, and so forth, and frankly I couldn’t keep up. Even as I say that I am sure that somewhere, someone has figured out a way to beam images of their work directly into the cerebral cortex of the festival committee or gallery director, complete with taste and smell, and once I figure that out I will be left with the next issue, which is…
  3. You probably don’t have enough stuff: There’s a double edged sword in art, which is – you must sell in order to be able to produce, but you must ‘have’ in order to enter the market place. In other words, you can’t make a show with one painting, and you can’t fund the creation of a collection on the sale of nothing. The most successful festival artists resolve this dilemma in a number of ways, but all of them generally have one thing in common – regular working hours within part of the year set aside for production, versus another part for travel and sales. It makes good sense, but I have yet to strike the balance myself, probably because I came from an academic environment that placed emphasis more on the qualities of the individual work and not the quantities. The truth is you must be able to do both, but an essay on how dismally my undergrad experience prepared me for the professional milieu will have to wait for another time. So many considerations go into how a series is produced I cannot contain them all, as they differ based on media, but in my case an excess of curiosity has always been my Achilles heel. I love a new process, a new media, a new idea, and this doesn’t lend itself to the consistency demanded of a body of work representing the ‘brand’ that is the professional profile. Having plenty of time is as much an enemy as having no time at all, because the central issue is the same: what do you want to make and how many do you need? But once you have the studio, the stability of the home and work life, and the precious time, there remains the next issue…
  4. You’re not a good salesman: I have a good friend named Tara who has had more careers than most of us have shoes. She has been a model, an actress (her B rated horror flick is HUGE in Japan I hear), every job in a restaurant except the chef, a massage therapist, a graphic designer, faux finisher, muralist, house renovator/flipper, studio artist and mother, and I’m probably forgetting one or two. But aside from an obvious excess of energy and sources of a little capitol here and there, her greatest strength is her ability to talk to strangers in a manner so friendly, and so effortless, that within minutes of meeting someone the two are chatting away like a couple of college buddies. There seems to be no artifice, no empty small talk, no need to dissemble, and soon after someone is writing a check and buying whatever she is selling at full price. You can’t help it! I on the other hand have to go through a self coaching session with my ego and concoct some sort of character who I will ‘be’ in order to engage with a buyer and do the one thing I hate most, which is to ‘sell’ myself and my work. Collectors, I find, want to feel that their purchase is somehow meant for them, even though that is a ridiculous notion, and I can’t help but encourage the sentiment if it means a sale, and this sometimes leaves me feeling a little dirty, like a 3 card monte on a corner. The leap from unsure and insecure is therefore the most difficult hurdle I think, which leads me to the optimistic conclusion I have reached, only in the past few years…
  5. Your best is not only good enough, it is miraculous: I tell my students in college classes that I prefer finished work to perfect work, which is to say, turn something in that satisfies the assignment rather than risk finishing late or not at all in pursuit of an unachievable perfection. I can only grade what I have after all, and after saying it so many times I finally listened to myself. I then realized that my internal dialogue was just that, mine, and did not constitute some universal dialogue experienced by everyone who looks at my work. Not only that, I considered how many people walked into my space and looked at my work and said some form of ‘I can’t draw, or paint, or make, like that”, which helped me realize that the act of making things, of putting yourself through the ringer of learning, struggling to find time, space and resources, of setting aside other goals and needs to afford the effort, is itself a courageous act. Let history or the Gods decide what is best later on, it’s not my concern. For now just getting the work done, enjoying the solitude and the exploration, and then taking advantage of this new creative economy to put yourself out there in a way so many cannot or will not, is more than enough. I’m happy with it, and look forward to it now as I haven’t before, and I hope you do as well.

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