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The Arts

Marketing art

BDCCs Lewis: Business acumen as important as talent for success

BRATTLEBORO—Business may be the orphan child of art.

The stereotype of an artist is someone who is out of touch with how money works. The reality is that these days, every artist also has to be an entrepreneur. And an entrepreneur is a business owner. And a business owner needs a marketing plan.

“A good marketing and business planning is essential for any business owner, including artists,” said Sonia Rae of the Vermont Arts Council.

“It pays back in time and effort. Every artist has to find a balance between creating art and marketing. A lot of artists find useful to carve out a chunk of time every week or month to just focus on business planning.

“Then you spend some time focusing on artwork and some on business marketing, not trying to do both at the same time,” Rae said.

Marketing art is an important topic in the Brattleboro area, which attracts all kinds of creative people, including artists, writers, musicians, photographers, performers and craftspeople.

“It’s an interesting place,” said Jeffrey Lewis, the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Development Corp. “Brattleboro is diverse, sufficiently sophisticated and also a little scruffy, so it will attract makers. But it does not necessarily attract buyers. The challenge is not finding makers, but finding buyers.”

Lewis is a businessman who came to Brattleboro after retiring as a senior executive with in Maryland, but his office is full of his own nature photographs and his wife’s decorative quilts.

 BDCC, a private, nonprofit economic development organization that according to its website “serves as a catalyst for industrial and commercial growth in Windham County.”  While it spends a lot of time trying to attract manufacturing to the area, it also is a large artists’ landlord.

That’s because it owns and runs Cotton Mill Hill, a “business incubator” that many artists find attractive because of its low-cost rental space.

Among the creative talents working there are the dancers of Luminz, glassblower Randi Solin, wood inlay artist T. Breeze Verdant, ceramacist Natalie Blake, the musicians of the Vermont Jazz Center, and the performers of the New England Center for Circus Arts.

The recession has been “some kind of painful” for artists, Lewis said.

“It was interesting to see who had the intestinal fortitude to get through the hard times,” he said. “We thought we’d lose a significant number of artists at Cotton Mill. We lost a few, but we’re pretty darned impressed by the number who survived. And Lord knows, I don’t know how they did it.”

Shift in attitudes

The recession isn’t over, but a cautious Lewis thinks that financially, things are slowly loosening up.

“We’re seeing a shift in the artists’ moods and attitudes,” he said. “They’re driven largely by changes in what they’re seeing amongst their buyers.”

“They’re sensing some different buying behavior, a willingness to buy,” Lewis said. “That doesn’t mean they’ve seen cash. It doesn’t mean they’ve necessarily sold more stuff. But they’re seeing a better attitude."

There are several levels of markets, Lewis said. The first is close to home.

“You have your local craftsmakers — say, knitters,” Lewis said. “They may sell stuff at farmers markets. It’s a semi-hobby. They’re good enough to sell stuff, but not good enough to reach out of Brattleboro.”

Then, he said, “there’s another knitter just like her in Keene, N.H. and another in Northampton, Mass. These people can find a little market, but not a big market."

At the high end are the artists and craftspeople who live and work in the area but have national reputations. As examples, Lewis mentioned the painter Wolf Kahn, the violin-maker Doug Cox, and Solin.

“People who are that good saw some impact from the recession, but less impact that others, and they are recovering sooner,” Lewis said.

“They have a broader reach in distribution and they see recovery sooner because the folks with money will buy quality first,” he added.

And artists, he said, should ask some fundamental questions.

“With an arts economy, the question with people who are making lots of pieces, manufacturing one-offs, is where are they in the quality spectrum? Are they competitive with other, similar things? Are you buying this instead of someone else’s piece?"

Quality is the sacred cow of art town conversations.

“Quality is a very hard discussion to have,” Lewis said. “Exactly how good are we as a community? It’s wonderful if you put out a book, but is it any good? How do you honor the activity without embracing the product? At some point, the product has to stand on its own.”

After an artist finds a market, how does he or she get the work there?

“It’s little celebrated — and often isn’t appreciated — how complicated it is to get product to market,” Lewis said. “It has to do with not just selling, but with getting the right price, finding a distribution channel, negotiating a deal, making sure the work is sold to someone who can actually appreciate it and take care of it, and making sure you stay in contact with buyers and they know how to find you.”

The rules of distribution apply to everybody, whether they make a car or a high-end piece of art. One problem with being an artist in the Brattleboro area is that distribution is limited.

“If you’re building an arts economy, you have to have buyers, and there are not enough buyers here,” Lewis said.

A lot of makers

What if Brattleboro could hire an arts “czar” — say, a person with experience selling art in the big cities who could market Brattleboro to the world?

“It’s unlikely you’d develop an agent culture here,” Lewis said. “There are not enough buyers here. Agents need to be located where the buyers are. The galleries are in New York and Boston and Santa Fe. That’s where you find the people who buy the stuff. And that’s where the agents have to be.”

As a photographer married to a quilter, Lewis has wrestled with all these issues personally.

“My wife is at home right now making a quilt, because she likes to make stuff,” Lewis said. “When all the beds and the quilt stands are filled up, she’ll have to find another place to sell.”

“There’s a lot of competition,” he said. “For example, there are a lot of hundred dollar quilts out there from China. If you want a piece of art that you can also put on your bed, it’s a different buyer from someone who just wants to keep warm.”

It’s the same with his photographs, he said: “When the walls are covered at home and here in the office, we’ll have to find a market."

That means devoting time to the business end of art.

“It means we have to go to half a dozen pretty big craft fairs,” Lewis said. “And there’s competition in that, too. The distribution channels are clogged with product. There are a lot of makers, a lot of people who want to be artists and make money from it.”

“You’ve got to go through jury shows and fight with agents to say, ‘Take mine and not theirs,’” Lewis said. “And that’s when artists enter the business world.”

The business of art

The business of art is hard, said Greg Worden, who runs Vermont Artisan Designs, a contemporary arts and craft gallery that features everything from wedding rings to furniture to fine paintings and sculpture. Located on Main Street in Brattleboro, Worden has been marketing art to tourists and area residents for 23 years.

“It certainly isn’t easy,” Worden said. “We have to be very selective in what we carry. We have an in-house jury that people submit their work to. The jury considers considers quality and price, whether we have similar things, whether it fits in with what we have. It goes from there.”

For seven years, the store has had an upstairs gallery for paintings, sculpture and photography. “We change those shows every month,” he said.

Even for a gallery, marketing is difficult.

“You can sell on the Internet, but then you have to advertise wherever you are on the Internet,” Worden said. “It’s pretty hard to be found. Here in Brattleboro, we have many places to advertise — maybe too many. There are newspapers and magazine and radio and television. We have to be selective."

Artists may have to find their way to the markets in the big cities by themselves, but over the years, Brattleboro has developed a strong gallery community to help them sell at home.

Gallery in the Woods on Main Street features “visionary art, Surrealist art, world folk art and fine craft,” as its website notes.

The Artist’s Loft showcases the oil landscapes and portraits, original fine art prints and watercolor paintings of its owner, New England artist William H. Hays; to keep the money flowing in, it’s also a small bed and breakfast.

The Catherine Dianich Gallery, on the street level of the Hooker-Dunham building, features cutting-edge contemporary painting and sculpture.

The Vermont Center for Photography on Flat Street specializes in fine art photography.

In West Brattleboro, the C.X. Silver Gallery shows Asian and international art; one Sunday a month it offers a dim sum breakfast.

And on the first Friday of every month comes Gallery Walk, where most of the stores on Main Street turn into galleries.

“If there’s a wall, you can probably convince a store owner to hang your painting,” said Jerry Goldberg, the executive director of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your wall,’” Goldberg said. “Businesses are generally quite supportive of helping the artist to display their wares. That’s probably the thing we do best.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #55 (Wednesday, June 23, 2010).

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