WHAT IS MY WORK?
A.) an art
B.) a craft
C.) a commercial business
D.) all of the above
E.) none of the above
The title of this article is a question all of us face at some time during the year. What first comes to mind is April 15th when we do our taxes! But the reality is, the question arises lots of other times too and the problem is that there is a lot of gray area. All of us have been to a show where someone beside us is pulling “their work” out of boxes labeled “Made in China” and of course all of us also know what category to put these people into! I think we’d all agree that choice “E” is the best fit here. But other situations are not so cut and dry. That’s where the jurying process comes into play and of course those who attempt to carry out this duty are often times chastised because there are a lot of close calls.
I’ve read dozens of articles on this subject over the last few years and in each case the writer tries to make neat little packages of people’s work so that they fit into easily defined categories and so therefore can either be accepted of rejected by the individual show sponsor… it’s not quite that simple though as we’ll discuss in the next few paragraphs. Where the line is drawn… for better or worse… is up to the standards each show sponsor sets. Many times that line is redrawn several times based on the number of potential participants compared to the number of spaces available. What seemed acceptable when you had 100 applicants for 200 spaces might be completely out of the question when you have 200 applicants for 100 spaces! But before we throw the “ethics” hat into the ring and condemn those show sponsors to an eternal hell of “buy/sell”… I think it’s safe to say that almost everyone makes some sort of compromise based on economic realities and art & craft shows are no exception. For instance, I really don’t like to get up and go to work at 9:00am… but I like poverty a whole lot less! Show sponsors may not want to let marginal work into their show… but they wouldn’t be doing anyone a favor by not being able to advertise because there was no money to work with! I’m not endorsing buy/sell… or the value of “inferior work,” I’m proposing that both exhibitors and show sponsors become more honest in their expectations so that all of us know what game we’re playing before it begins! As exhibitors sometimes we have to look at things that are being done for the “greater good” of everyone and allow ourselves to look at the bigger picture before we pass judgement. Besides, here’s another economic reality… if we’re selling thousands and thousands of dollars worth of our work… do we really care? Most of the time the answer to that question is obvious!
It’s important for all of us to realize that where a person’s work fits into that “big picture” is not necessarily and easy decision to make so lets take a look at a few broad categories. Our perception of how we fit into that “big picture” often times changes with our position in the industry just as the show sponsor’s perception changes proportionate to the number of applicants vs. number of spaces in a show. Remember too that any or all of these may be perfectly acceptable in a show… as long as the show sponsor is up front with everyone and is clear about where they want to “draw the line” with regards to acceptable work. In my opinion the only place where trouble starts to brew is when there is one standard in the show application… and another standard applied to the actual acceptance! Lets take a quick look at how perception can change…
I actually make absolutely every part of everything I offer at a show! OK… this is a pretty easy one to figure out. This is the woodworker that cuts down his own trees… dries it in his own kiln.. mills the wood… assembles all his pieces using wooden pegs and dowels he’s created himself… mixes up his own glues and creates his own finishes from raw materials he finds occurring in the natural environment that surrounds him. This guy doesn’t even know that Home Depot or Lowes exists! Nails are worthless unless he forges them himself from the iron deposits he’s mined… and Sherwin-Williams is the wedding he read about in the paper last week! His friend the fine artist weaves his own canvas from plants he gathers in the woods… sometimes he’ll just cut a slab of wood to save time though… of course the drying and milling takes some time but he doesn’t care because that can happen while he’s gathering berries and mixing various minerals he’s collected to make his paints and he can use the left over branches for an easel. The goose he’s having for dinner not only provided a great meal… its feathers also made a nice set of pens. And that deer he got last fall made a nice set of pants, several fine suppers and plenty of hair for the brushes he fashioned. Of course where either of these guys found time to actually make the crafts or art I don’t know… it seems the preparation is an art in itself! I’m sure these people are out there… but certainly far and few between.
I use materials I’ve purchased to create something entirely new. Now this person is a lot more common. Here’s a woodworker that has discovered that he can purchase wood that has been harvested, dried and milled into usable raw materials by someone else. Of course he buys just the raw materials and creates everything else himself. He’s also found out that you can actually buy nails and screws… but he wouldn’t consider anything you wouldn’t use with manual hand tools. And for glues… there’s a new guy on the block called “Elmer” that seems to help a lot and even another named after a Gorilla! Finishes aren’t such a problem anymore either… Behr, Miniwax, Glidden, Pittsburgh Paints and a wide variety of others have joined in to make life a lot easier. His friend the fine artist has gotten into the act too! Although he still stretches his own canvas on the frames he makes, there’s no need to weave his own canvas because he’s found someone else to do the job! AND… he’s started buying his wood slabs from the woodworker because he had plenty of extra laying around the mill. His wife didn’t like all the dead geese he used to bring home so he’s started to buy brushes and she’s also decided that although a nice venison steak tastes good occasionally… she kind of likes seeing the deer running through the woods rather than ending up with their fur lashed to the end of a goose quill!
I use parts I gather to create something new. We’ve stepped into a more modern age now… and an even more common type of artist or craftsman. Our friend the woodworker buys trims, turnings and pre-finished lumber from both Home Depot and Lowes. Sure he’s pretty much limited to dimensional lumber, but what the heck… all his friend houses are made of the same stuff and if it isn’t some multiple of 8 feet then it probably doesn’t exist! He’s saving a lot of time now too with fast drying glues and finishes… and with a few power tools the jobs are starting to hum right along. The wood mill and the kiln he used to have are collecting quite a bit of dust now and the trees are starting to grow back on his lot! Here’s got compressed air now too so painting has become a lot easier and faster. The new nail gun has made assembly a lot easier too. His fingers are thankful too because that hammer used to give them a lot of abuse. Of course the hammer always left the fingers attached to the hand… something the new table saw isn’t so good at doing! His buddy the fine artist is getting along pretty well too. The deer and the geese have started coming back around quite a bit more… and they don’t recognize any of their friends in the art studio anymore! Canvases come pre-stretched and the paints come in both acrylic and oil. There are more colors than in the rainbow and all you have to do is squeeze them from tubes! The woodworker made a nice easel for him out of dimensional lumber and a camera has been quite an aid in recreating scenes that once required a lot of time outdoors. New lighting in the studio has allowed him to see colors just like they would appear under natural light… and his new airbrush has allowed him to fill in large areas in minutes where he once spent hours. A printer down the street has let him know that the work can now be reproduced at a small fraction of the time it takes to create a new painting and “prints” could be sold over and over again!
I still make everything myself (but I have assistants). Business has been good and the woodworker now has a couple of people doing the basic labor on the projects he does. It’s his hand that applies the final coats of finish… he checks the alignment of the table legs, the quality of the joints and of course it’s his decision to give the work it’s final OK. He still handles all the customers himself too. He knows quite a few of the buyers from over the years and doesn’t mention that he doesn’t do all the work himself… he doesn’t say he does it all and if pressed with a direct question he’ll skirt the issue. But the work is superb and the quality is very consistent and because he’s able to produce so much more product the profit margin has grown considerably and he’s started towing a huge trailer to the shows so he can fit in all the understock he’s made. His friend the fine artist has been having a great year too! He’s still painting new work but since the printer has been doing such a great job at reproduction the amount he can offer at the show has grown tremendously. So many people are buying prints rather than originals he’s beginning to wonder if he’s really become a picture framer rather than an artist. There’s no question that the money is better… and more people get to appreciate the work… but what about the work? It just doesn’t seem like there’s much time left to create something new. And with the prints doing to well does it really make sense to “rock the boat?” It’s still art… at least that’s what he keeps telling himself.
I still oversee all operations. The woodworker has now become Woodworks, Inc. And although he still shows up to work everyday and still comes up with a few new ideas, his workforce actually turns out the products. A sales force participates in the shows and his retail accounts have overshadowed the art and craft shows several months out of the year. The new workshop has allowed him to purchase and use more automated equipment so that everything about the pieces is extremely consistent. Prices have climbed a bit as has overhead. Payroll has started to become more of a concern than new designs… but of course there’s a staff for that too! It’s a long way from the days of harvesting and gathering the wood but it sure is a lot more like and industry than a craft. The fine artist has gone “Hollywood” too. Art, Inc. Has become an industy. With his new digital camera, sophisticated computer software, scanners and large format printers the staff is turning out so many prints every day that the framing department can hardly keep up. And the wholesalers have been having a field day selling the mass produced work. In fact, there’s been so much of a demand that the artist has become more of a editor and has started selecting the work of others to expand the line of “original” artwork he’s offering. There’s a new staff of aspiring artists creating originals in the workshop now. Our fine artist friend puts the finishing touches on those he feels are worthy… signs his name to the work and takes all the credit! How else could he be producing 40 or 50 originals every day for the shows. Has he become the painter of “fright!” What a reputation!
My sub-contractors adhere to my specifications. Finally the wood shop has just become too much of a burden and the concerns over payroll and increasing overhead have become too high. The accountants have advised that Woodworks, Inc. that production could be outsourced to overseas companies and produced for a fraction of the cost while retaining somewhat similar quality. All designs and specifications can be emailed to competing firms in these developing countries and the lowest bidder will have all orders completed within the time frame we’ve specified. Once the shipment arrives our warehousing staff can spot check the product to make sure the majority of the work meets the minimum specifications set forth in our contracts. The marketing staff has already booked over 400 shows over the next year in 40 or the 50 states. We tried to reach our woodworker for his comment… but when the secretary transferred us all we got was a voice-mail telling us he was either on the other line of temporarily out of the office.
Our fine artist has been expanding too. Outsourcing had proven to be just as profitable. His signature appears on all kinds of work… it’s reproduced digitally now so that it gives the appearance of an original signature. Experts are called in to verify the original “originals.” There is some disagreement… only our artist knows for sure… maybe! Other artists and craftspeople are purchasing these works to augment their own. The prints are being incorporated into all kinds of media. Restaurant chains and banks have begun to hang the work on the walls and incorporate them into calendars. Of course the marketing people have still booked shows for every weekend because they wouldn’t want to loose the “working artist” mystique… it makes GREAT PR!
I’m living well here on my yacht in the Bahamas and I check my offshore accounts daily. Our woodworker docks right alongside our fine artist. Of course the woodworker thinks the fine artist is making all the money and the artist thinks the woodworker is making all the sales. They both think they need to be in separate marinas each setting it’s own standard! The woodworker hasn’t cut any wood in so long he can’t even remember the difference between a crosscut and a rip saw. There’s a guy on the island that’s been working cutting down some trees just far enough away you can barely hear the sounds. Our woodworker gets annoyed at the noise and complains to the marina management. They tell him that’s a local craftsman just trying to gather some supplies. Our woodworker isn’t amused!
The fine artist is waken from his mid-afternoon nap by someone setting up an easel at the end of the dock. All the racket has prompted him to call security and paint fumes have irritated his allergies. Imagine the nerve of someone invading the his private space. “Shouldn’t we be licensing this image” he says?
Where do we draw the line? Do we become “jaded” with experience and think that we are so much better than others there is no room in the world for those who are beginning? Can we be so narrow minded we no longer see the big picture anymore because our little narrow view has become so big? Have we become full of ****! Our perception of what is acceptable and what isn’t sometimes changes just like that show sponsor who’s jurying process changed proportionate to the number of spaces sold. It’s easy to become pompous and pretend we’re above others when we have 200 applicants for 100 spaces. Sometimes our “heads” overflow with our own visions so much that we fail to see the value of a wide range of options in the world. We need to relocate our thinking. There is room for everyone and every level of quality, talent, price and every style you can imagine. Lets worry less about the buy/sell and who does what with their work and lets start thinking more about how show sponsors can more accurately pair exhibitors with consistent standards. If the event is up front about what they will and will not accept… and you decide to participate, then don’t point the finger of blame somewhere it doesn’t belong. Show sponsors… you have to hold up your end of the bargain too! Don’t insist on having handmade work created by the exhibitor and then have a local timeshare booth in your show. Our perception of who we are, how we fit in to the “big picture” and what we expect of those around us can change… but our communication about what we expect as both exhibitors and show sponsors should remain consistent. If economics dictate the compromise of the initial standards we set, then that should be explained and communicated to everyone involved so that there is no misunderstanding prior to the event. If some people were told to come to a sporting event prepared to play baseball and some were told to come ready to play football there would no doubt be some confusion as the batter was tackled on his was to first base! Both games have distinct merits… and require talent as well as a great deal of specialized skills… but can be played well simultaneously. Lets try our best to communicate all our expectations and consistent rules before the events. There’s bound to be a lot happier exhibitors and shows sponsors out there and we won’t have to relocate anything.