Resources for Native Artists

Artist Statement Basics

By Erin Genia, Communication Consultant, Longhouse Education and Cultural Center

Why Write an Artist Statement?

Artist statements are fundamental components of your work within the world of art. Why? Artist Statements give the viewer some background on the work, you as the artist, and why you created the piece. A quality piece of artwork will always pique the interest of viewers on its own. However, providing an artist’s statement for your work grounds the piece in the context you provide.

If you are submitting your work to a museum or gallery show, for a grant or other opportunity, a written artist’s statement will likely be required. A good piece of artwork raises many questions – the viewers will inevitably want to know more about the work and you as the artist. A quality artist statement will help do just that.

What are the Elements of a Strong Artist’s Statement?

An artist statement can be about a single work of art, a body of work, or about you as an artist and why or how you make your artistic decisions. An artist statement of high quality will introduce the viewer – in as few words as possible – to the thought processes, themes or cultural context the work was created in. For example, if the artist statement describes a basket you have woven, you may want to discuss the method you chose, the patterns or style of weaving, material used and why these elements are important to the finished work. If your piece tells a story, or if there is a story behind the creation of your piece, you can tell it in a concise manner in your artist statement. If the work involved research, you can talk about your methods and your findings. If your biographical information is meaningful to the work, include it. An artist statement gives you the opportunity to clarify artistic choices, such as colors, shapes, textures, methods you have used, etc., and discuss why they are important.

Questions to Consider

You may want to consider some of the questions below when writing your artist statement. Some questions may, or may not, apply to the work.

  • What inspired you to create the work?
  • Why or how did you choose the title of the work?
  • What medium(s) did you use and why?
  • How did you get started in your medium?
  • Who influences your work?
  • How did you determine the size or scale of the work?

 

Selling at Festivals: Controlling the Message You Send People About Your Art

By Laura Grabhorn, Assistant Director, Longhouse Education and Cultural Center

It can be both rewarding and challenging to do direct sales with the public. One the one hand you get immediate feedback about your work. On the other hand, you may not cover your investment with sales. Shoppers walk past your booth and may not stop at all, or look briefly and keep going. What are the reasons customers do this? And how can you encourage them to stop at your booth?  

Potential customers may like your art work, but they may not see it in a way that allows them to appreciate it. So you have to think about how you display your art to catch the eye of people who might be looking at identical tent after tent. As you can see in the photos below, with customers walking about, it may take a determined shopper several pass through visits before they stop at your booth.

Large markets, including pow wows, both outdoors and indoors, provide a good draw for potential customers but it also can overwhelm shoppers with too much choice. How do you make your space one of the places people visit?

Visit with Other Artist Vendors

No matter how experienced a person is, walking around the festival to visit other booths, and visiting other markets always provide an opportunity to think about your own strategies in new ways. Make note of what appeals to you, and what draws your attention. What made you stay at some booths? What made you walk past others? Pay attention to how an artist arranges their space. Some stand behind a table with their items placed out between themselves and the customers. Others move tables around, and add their own tables and invite you into their shop. Even within those two choices, people offer a variety of ways to encourage customers to take a closer look at their art.

Works can be easily viewed all at once, or draw you in to discover pieces that couldn’t be seen clearly from the walk way. The booth can be sparsely stocked, fully stocked with varying points to rest your eyes, or so full of works that you feel overwhelmed by the display. How the work is displayed is one element of what makes an artist successful at festivals. As you can see, the three artists above have found a variety of ways to show their works.

What is the Formula?

Everyone displays their works differently. The idea is to let buyers discover pieces, rather than seeing everything you have in one glance. Successful artists provide varying levels for 3-D items and create interest by creating a space that feels like a tiny store, rather than simply laying works flat on a table or putting everything in a flip file.  Obviously people will always do some of that, but it’s good to vary the height and the way people will find the works you have to offer.

Some artists invest a small fortune in professional portable walls, gallery lights, racks, and display cases.  They invest in fabric walls that can be set up and broken down at festivals with lights, shelving systems, bins and even pedestals. Such a system can send the message that your art work is serious and merits the fair prices you are asking, not because people notice the walls, lights and pedestals, but because these things make your work stand out and look great. A website that sells these displays especially for artists who sell at festivals is ProPanels: http://www.propanels.com/.

The examples below are from the ProPanels website: 

Affordability

What if you don’t have a lot of money for booth displays?  FASO.com has articles by different artists on topics related to marketing. There are some great examples of DIY ideas that display work in unique and inexpensive ways at an art fair without investing thousands of dollars. The link: http://faso.com/fineartviews/20870/art-display-systems-for-art-festivals.

This is an example from the article of an artist using barn boards with pegs that the work rests upon.  The barn boards are secured to the tent frame at the top.

Bobbie Bush (Chehalis) is a weaver who specializes in miniatures and other small pieces. She puts some of the works at different levels, and has a combination of jewelry displays, bins and mats that she uses to provide a backdrop to her work. Even though the items are small, she draws attention to them by using small pedestals set atop a cattail mat that contrasts with her table covering. The mat is “framed” by the placement of other less expensive, but colorful pieces. Notice how your eye is drawn to the necklaces to the left.

Connecting with the Customer

While the first thing any patron will notice is the work itself, forming some connection to the artist might be what inspires them to purchase it. The very best way to do that is through personal connection, or talking with customers about your work and answering their questions about the pieces, your body of work, or even who you are. Artists can’t speak with everyone all at once and so having some printed information about you and your work is helpful as well.  Buyers want to feel great about having purchased your work and having it in their home. How you interact with them, the expressions on your face, the public’s perception of your approachability all play a role—even if you do not directly talk with the customer. 

Artist Biography and Other Take Away Paper

Providing an artist biography with each piece is an excellent way to provide the written information. The term “biography” might make your artistic eyes glaze over, but think about it as a way to personally be in control over the most important things someone should know about you as the artist. Many artists have a photo of themselves at the start of a short 100-200 word biography. If you are enrolled in your tribal nation, be sure to say that in the way that people from your nation customarily identify themselves. That might include the official name of the tribe, your clan, family, region, etc. Talk about what compels you to do your art and the ideas you like to explore. You can state how long you have been an artist or how long you have been a professional artist, or if you come from a long line of artists. Looking at other artist’s biographies is also enlightening.

It is also a good idea to have postcards, and/or business cards on hand that have your name, a short description of what you sell and a way for people to contact you. If you use social media, or a website, it would be great to include that information and how they can find you, or follow you in case they want to purchase more art.

Printed material that has a cohesive message about you and your artwork communicates to the customer that you are professional and will be easy to do business with. Consider having an image of your artwork on the materials, or some portion of a signature piece you’ve created. Use that graphic on the business cards, postcards, letterhead and to brand your presence on social media and/or your website.

Range of Prices

Consider having different price points for customers. In a busy schedule, it likely is already hard to find the time you need to make the art work you love to make. If you are nervous about covering gas, booth fees, meals and even lodging, selling your appropriately priced work, then you can consider having smaller pieces that will be inviting to people who have $50.00 or less to spend. It isn’t unusual for artists to bring their high end works to a show to draw people in, but the bread and butter for the day might be from something else they make. What that means to you and how you incorporate it to maintain your artistic integrity will be different than it will be for the artist in the next booth over.

One Maori weaver we know makes paper out of her bits and pieces of weaving materials. The paper is often incorporated into her fine art exhibitions. Another artist from the Northwest, makes small fired clay pins in addition to offering his sculptural works. A mother/daughter artist team makes a variety of sewn objects and small beaded objects in addition to their more complex works. Many artists apply images of their original works onto clothing. Not everyone can afford your best works. With some customers, offering smaller objects could be a way to build a future customer who can buy the bigger works.

What Intimidates Customers

It can be useful to think about what motivates customers. Customer behavior could very well be motivated by personal insecurities. Some common concerns shoppers may have include the following:

Appearing Unaware

People who come to art festivals or galleries can include collectors who are deeply familiar with art forms, or artists who practice a particular kind of art and have deep knowledge of how the work is produced. On the other hand, customers can include people who are new to appreciating art and they may have no information on how you produced your work, or how you may have prepped materials. They may be new to looking at art in general. They want to learn more, but don’t want to seem like they don’t know much.  They may be new to your type of art. Or they are nervous about paying a lot for work, or even don’t have the money to buy the work they want.

How can you help people who might be intimidated feel more confident? What were the questions you had about your medium when you were just starting out? What is special about the way you produce your pieces? What is unique about your artistic message? How much do you charge for your work? Think of ways you can incorporate some of this information in your printed materials, or your booth information. Consider making it easier for potential patrons to understand the answers to questions they may have, but might be shy about asking you. Maybe even having a friendly sign that invites people to ask you questions about your art.

A story: I was looking at all of the wonderful and rightfully expensive works offered by artists at the Alaskan Federation of Natives conference. The works were largely produced with materials difficult to hunt or collect and included significant amounts of time to process before the final work was created.  There was hardly anything I could afford. I happened upon an artist whose button robes and vests I admired. She also offered smaller objects that incorporated some of the elements used in the larger works. The smaller pieces were also pricey, but something I could purchase from this artist. The artist was looking down and didn’t seem to notice me, until I picked up the smaller item. “Those are for the tourists.” That’s all the artist had to say. I put them back and didn’t buy a thing.

The message: If I bought the affordable work, I was a tourist, maybe a tourist who didn’t know any better. In truth, I knew the value of the work this artist produced and I admired it but I couldn’t buy anything else she had or any of the work by other artists at the event.

Everyone who comes to a festival has a certain amount of money that they are willing to spend, either at that festival or on artwork for the month or even the year. Maybe they came to this festival specifically to make that rare purchase. If none of your works has any indication of the price, customers may be reluctant to engage you in a conversation about what you charge. They may assume that the price is really high and so they decide right away the work is out of their reach. They may actually be worried about hurting your feelings if they cannot afford your work and walk away. This might be really difficult to believe because every artist also has the opposite experience when customers challenge the price you have, or try to bargain with you for a lower cost using unpleasant tactics. Posted prices might encourage some and deflect the bargainer too.

Speaking of pricing, you will want to make it easy for someone to purchase work from you.  Customers who have a variety of ways that they can pay for work may be more willing to look through your work.  There are a variety of ways to take credit cards now and not require an expensive arrangement with a bank. Artist Bob Strin has a lot of information he is willing to share with artists about selling at markets and he has an excellent section on credit cards http://www.bobestrin.com/artshow.html. He talks about www.propay.com, www.paypal.com, www.squareup.com. Paypal has a card reader for smart phones as does square up. Propay offers card readers and also devices that you can use with your phone.

Someone who works at The Evergreen State College asked if we had any more of “those posters we gave away” at an event. I mentally ran through the various posters we had and asked him if it might be one of those. He then described a limited edition print we had at one time. I said “oh you mean the print we gave away that big event.” He vigorously nodded and said “yes, that poster."

Prints can be very confusing for customers. There are different kinds of print-making and many people don’t understand all the terms, or why one process is more expensive than another. Many people will not know the difference between a giclée and a monotype. Many people don’t know that print-making is art and really do believe it is like printing posters and not “serious” like, say, painting. So when someone calls your prints “posters” you’ll want to find a gentle way to help them understand what you do.

With work like weaving, some customers may not be familiar with the labor and art involved in gathering and preparing materials, the preparation and use of natural dyes or if a type of material used is rare. If you collect your own materials you may want to include photos in your booth that show you out collecting cedar bark, digging up spruce root, or prepping any number of the materials you use. The photos are good conversation starters and may remind customers about what artists do before they even start working on an art piece. If you are a textile weaver who hand spins yarns, and/or hand dyes them you very much want to make that information known.

Artists who help customers understand their art work, and help people feel good about the purchase, help to build a loyal customer for future purchases. Writing about your artwork helps you refine your creative message and even direction. It also increases your professional presentation and even the value of your work. While it may not always be apparent, customers notice you and your work. For artists it can feel like a whole separate career to consider things like display, written materials, and pricing, but it really is part of the same process by getting at why you create your unique art. See the Evergreen Longhouse website for more information at Evergreen.edu/Longhouse for more information about our art programs.