Saturday, July 17, 2010

dark thoughts

I've mentioned many times over the years how much I love being a part of the Palo Alto Clay and Glass Festival. It's a beautiful setting, good friends showing alongside me, and customers who are educated about art and buy work. When I first started showing at the Palo Alto Clay and Glass Festival, it was the late 90's and Palo Alto was flush with dot com cash. Palo Alto has always been a solid show but those days were very high rolling. I would always bring my best one-of-a-kind work, and it would sell. Things have been slowly shifting over the past 5 years, and I really started noticing two years ago how I was mostly selling my less expensive "standards" while my high priced, unique, one-of-a-kind work sat on the shelf. Not unexpected considering what was happening in the world, and the shifting demographic of Palo Alto itself, but for some reason I still always felt surprised. This year I planned for it, spending less time on really expensive stuff (over $400) and making some more mid-range work, in the $100-$250 range.

While it was still a very good show-- I still always sell more here than I ever have at any other show-- there were big, long periods of slowness, very unusual for Palo Alto. That left me with plenty of time to start having some very dark thoughts about the future. For the first time I started questioning my prices-- are they too high? I always put a lot of thought into how I price my work but I started picking things up and thinking "This is $175? That's an insane amount of money for this little thing!" I watched people time and time again ask about prices on stuff, nod soberly when I told them the cost, then walk away with nothing.

And there's more, of course. I think one of my biggest worries about the future of being a self-supporting artist is the changing nature in how young people-- my future customers-- are growing up and how they live now. There is little emphasis and education on art in schools while kids are driven to work their asses off on extra-curricular activities. Then, as they get older, these same kids incur huge debts in college and spend the first part of their adult lives paying off incredible loans. The contemplative life where the arts and culture can be appreciated simply does not figure into the American lifestyle as I think about what's coming in the future. I think art and culture is being set aside for the people who actually have the luxury of time, and that is the money rich. The rest of the population is expected to work harder, stay inside the home and watch television and play on the internet for entertainment, and shop Ikea if they want to express taste or style. In fact--and this is where it gets really dark--I think this whole emphasis on "design" in places like Target and Ikea is a cultural conspiracy to convince people that hand crafted art is irrelevant and out of reach. And with the way our society is changing with the lack of public funds, maybe it is becoming out of reach for everyone but money wealthy.

As I gloomed on these dark thoughts while remaining perky and friendly with people who walked into my booth, I felt like we are all on this ship sailing into a future nobody would recognize as desirable and nobody wants. But we are all so busy with the minutiae of our own lives we haven't looked up long enough to see that we are lost, our ship is falling apart, and we are about to go over some seriously steep waterfalls.


  1. Wow, I think you hit the state of our culture spot-on. I know in our local schools, when they were becoming short on funds, the first things to go were the music and art programs. Isn't that sad? The irony is that art and music are the few things I DO remember from my years of public school! Social studies, math, science...none of that stuck with me. We live in a day and age where creative thought is becoming truly stifled.

  2. Whitney - I think you're hanging out in "the bad neighborhood" to much :). Though what you
    say is true; it's a perspective. I think we are socio-economically experiencing a huge transition about how we think about our "things" and how that influences our quality of life. I don't think the world of convenience is doin it for us any longer; but it takes time to tack in a new direction.
    Every age, every era has its worry and fear of the future. I'm sure artists across time have knocked
    this conversation around a fair bit. There is always a market for excellently crafted and beautiful work.

  3. Holy crap, interesting thought on the emphasis of "design" at big box places like Target. But I disagree with you fortunately on worries about the future. I think it is just the opposite. I see a general shift of people wanting to move back to quality not quantity. Things that last. Things made in the USA. I see this in my own extended family circle in the rural midwest and while yes, the schools are starving I think what children learn at home is more important. I think that "handmade" is just starting to become popular with the masses and it will only get BETTER and more respected from here. We are at a low point right now with the disposable consumer convenience based culture but I think the winds are changing. People are becoming more eco-conscious for example. My own (rural, farmer, poor) aunt will only buy items made in the USA and avoids Walmart at all costs which is a complete 180 from just a year ago. I really have hope for the future and of course hope for our next generation as well. (Course I sell handmade wooden just think of how different my perspective is, lol)

    Thanks for this thought provoking post, I'll be thinking more about it lots I'm sure.

  4. Linda, you are correct when you remind me that my own head is the worst neighborhood.

    And in my better moments-- which I strive to make more then 50% of the time-- I agree that we are in transition which is very uncomfortable. A bumpy ride. I get impatient with doom and gloomers because I know a lot of youngsters, I'm even related to some of them, and they give me hope. But I also believe in the dark ages. I don't want them to come around again.

  5. I have those dark thoughts too! I don't want to be too negative, but here in the UK, you don't even have to go to places like Ikea - any normal supermarket (which used to only sell food) now sells mass produced cheap ceramic items. Thankfully there will always be those who understand that what they are buying from us is hand made art, but the majority of people... bleh, too depressing.

  6. Right now, there are folks who do appreciate and want to buy art, but just can't afford it and therefore settle for Target and Ikea out of necessity or don't purchase luxury items at all. Until our country puts a tariff on foreign made, produced, and imported products (even American foreign made products), that will remain as it is. I don't think it's that folks don't appreciate hand made it's just they can't afford it. The cost of necessities of life, food, clothing, utilities, medical care, have risen and the salaries have not.

    As far schools, reading, writing and arithmetic have been historically considered necessities and art, music and cultural activites as luxuries, this just reflects the state of the economy, not the wants or desire of public.

    Unfortunately the pendulum is in a swing which isn't what we can control nor what we are used to, the only question is how far will the pendulum swing this time.

  7. interesting post. i've never done a market, but i think the concept pf drifting into these kinds of dark thoughts is what is putting me off being so open to people's reactions right there in front of me! it's a thing of strength to create art and sell it yourself just like that!
    to have to face the changes head on.
    fingers crossed for the future :)

  8. Ah but don't you remember, oh fair and talented Ms. Smith, that by choosing to create Meaningful Art, you are, by Nature, choosing to swim against powerful currents of shallow indifference and swirling ignorance? Have you forgotten how such opposing force has made you as strong as you are? Breathe, beautiful one, and make Art that screams your defiance!

    It works for me! :)

  9. There is definitely some truth to
    your conclusions; also the NY Time
    of late has been declaring that the
    really wealthy individual has started
    to cut back on discretionary shopping. (The market for higher
    end, one-of-a-kind work.)

    This is an older crowd, perhaps,
    more dependent on market returns
    (which have really fallen of late).

  10. I just returned from a very disappointing show in an area full of commercial/national chain stores. The amount of compliments and kindness from customers was ample but the sales were not. I just broke even. However most of these people had h&m and urban outfitter shopping bags in hand. I had one girl tell me she had not bought the urban outfitters coasters after seeing mine. Unfortunately your blog rings true. I have felt the same wave.

    But I do agree with the statement that the people who want to buy art just don't have the money to do so. Therefore when they do buy art its limited. The market is definitely changing and has been the past few years.

  11. WOA girl,
    What about etsy, the craft movement, farmers markets, buying local. I am encouraged these days about people understanding how wonderful one of a kind, hand-made items are (especially after they try to make them and they understand what it takes to make something truly well). Money's tight. I think we are part of a positive movement ...maybe not too terribly profitable but important all the same. You, my dear are a star among the star fish ...sometimes a hard place to be especially when you are very smart as well as very talented.
    You need to come up here and have a cocktail!

  12. I'm not about to dismiss the handmade, craft, and local movements that are happening out there. I'm proud to be a part of participating in that important zeitgeist. As Phaedrus' Ghost so elegantly put it, I do what I do to battle the dark forces that exist, it's all of our jobs as creatives to take on that battle. I get worn out and dragged down by it sometimes, too. I can't ignore what I see, I'm just not the rosy glasses girl!

  13. Whitney - I hear you. I relate about seeing things vividly and when you do that you have to see it "ALL" get what I mean, it's lurking around, just don't 'hang out with it too much'.

    thanks for keeping it real around here...

  14. Maybe its better to think that we're at a crossroads there are plenty of people who want to go to cheap shops and buy a mug for very little money. But there are still people out there who want to buy handmade.

    When my Dad was a craft potter the internet wasn't around it was much more difficult to make a living. Now we can reach around the world.

  15. I could not agree more that it is easier today to sell with the internet-- which brings up a host of other problems we can talk about some other time!-- but I feel very lucky that I can reach out to people around the world with my work.

  16. One more thought that I have had about those buyers at the "high end"
    of the purchasing scale.

    10 or 15 years ago we did not have the wide array of techie gadgets that we have now; many of them are
    very well-designed objects, and I
    think that a great deal of cash
    is being re-directed from the handmade object-they seem to sell very well when they are introduced,
    in spite of their high prices!

  17. I think you're right about a lot of stuff. The world is always changing and art is always changing with it. I do see a lot of hope in that hand made objects are becoming much more appealing to a lot of people, and more accessible through the internet.
    I think that people are blaming the economy and saying that we can't shop ethically because it costs too much, while at the same time patronizing corporations that are the root of the problem. Many people are seeing this contradiction and looking for more meaningful purchases.
    I just hope to one day have a house full of handcrafted objects and have the time to even build more of my own stuff. I dunno man, I'm happy and sad at the same time.