Artists and the economy — how they survive
July 22, 2009 · Updated 3:17 PM
Most artists have their “starving artist” period and then move on.
But the reality of the present economy has thrown a chink in the palette. Now, not only are many established Whidbey Island artists thrust back into the dilemma of being on the edge of a financial precipice, but so are their once-dependable patrons, the people who regularly buy art.
As the depressed economy forces a white-knuckled grip on dollars in the marketplace, media reports by financial experts abound regarding the belt-tightening and saving strategies that are necessary for most Americans to survive.
Even once-dominant retailers are scrambling to change their approach to making sales, redesigning themselves for a leaner buying landscape.
Artists, too, are searching for ways to survive the downturn and sell a product which is considered a luxury by most buyers.
Just like everyone else, island painters, potters, sculptors, jewelry makers and textile artists depend on a predictable paycheck. They rely on the sale of their work to provide a steady income for themselves and their families, and creativity comes in handy when change is necessary to one’s survival.
Several local artists revealed how they have adapted to the shifting economic reality.
Clinton artist Teri Jo Summer has designed and sewn original wearable art clothing and accessories for more than 30 years.
Her lines have been shown in boutiques, galleries and museums all over the world, having translated her eye for color, shape and texture into a language that speaks to women. Her pieces are high-quality, unique designs that have an appeal all their own.
But sales in the ubiquitous high-end boutiques of urban centers such as New York, Boston and San Francisco are no longer feasible markets for Summer, she said.
Even the uber-rich are reaching for the racks at Bloomingdales and Macy’s rather than the once-familiar shops that carry one-of-a-kind pieces.
Summer said it is necessary for her to change with the times.
Her inclination has been to realize how best to answer the needs of the local community, while still maintaining her integrity as a textile artist and businesswoman.
“Rather than cling to the past, I decided I had to face the economic reality,” Summer said.
“I’d rather accommodate the community that I cherish and create sustainable and unique clothing that women can appreciate for the rest of their lives.”
Summer is an advocate of living simple and owning less.
She welcomes a collaboration with each customer who seeks to express themselves by creating a personal style.
“It’s exciting to me to re-invent the function of my clothing, to discover a new audience and reach for new goals,” Summer said.
“I want to dress the many beautiful women of the island who can wear something to lift their spirits and which they will want to wear forever.”
Fellow businesswoman Sharon Lundahl is the co-owner of Music For the Eyes, a rug and textiles merchant in Langley.
Lundahl encouraged Summer, her friend, to go down a new path and adapt in any way possible to the changing economy.
It’s something she did herself.
“I’ve been buying beads and making jewelry in my shop,” Lundahl said.
Lundahl said she started buying beads from around the world fairly recently. People would wander into the shop, buy beads and come back for more.
It inspired her to create her own pieces, and she soon found the bead buyers began buying her jewelry as well.
It’s lifestyle, she said, that makes the business work. Lundahl tries to identify who her customers are, and then do what she enjoys to bring them into the shop again.
“It’s good to update things, rearrange the furniture and, more importantly, enjoy yourself,” Lundahl said.
She said it was Summer who injected her with this strong dose of positivity and the idea that enjoying what you do will help to further your business.
“One woman who wanted a jacket fitted was so happy with my work that she paid more than what I had asked for,” Summer said.
“I nurtured her, gave her more than what I needed to give, and she responded to that. There’s another side to creating things for people than just the business. It’s very satisfying.”
Summer said she also recently traded some of her work for a surgical procedure she needed to have done.
“For me, the problem of the economy is an invitation to play, to think outside the box and be mindful of what is happening locally,” Summer said.
“Trading is just another way to make it work.”
Changing what you’ve done in the past can also be satisfying for an artist. Some artists expressed a new-found goal with their art that they may not have discovered if not forced to make a change.
At artistsnetwork.net, a Web site devoted to working artists, artist and journalist C. Sharp recommends “Twelve Tips for Selling More Art in a Recession.”
Crisis, says Sharp, is often an opportunity in disguise.
Among some of the suggestions on Sharp’s list are to start a support group with other artists to commiserate and brainstorm, avoid lowering prices if your prices are already established in the market, get on a studio tour and build a patron list and don’t let them forget who you are, try new venues, curate and enter shows, and get out in the community by doing your art outside where people can see you work and, finally, stay positive.
For painters, the idea of painting smaller in order to sell more pieces is also among the suggestions on Sharp’s list.
The idea of small paintings began before the economy crashed.
Richmond, Va. artist Duane Keiser started his own “A Painting-A-Day” concept.
Using his personal blog and eBay, his postcard-sized paintings began selling with $100 as the starting bid. The concept took off.
Still, Sharp suggests, it’s better to avoid lowering the price of the work, especially for artists who are already established.
But some artists believe lowering the price of a larger painting is acceptable in the rough market, and in some situations.
Rob Schouten Gallery manager Victory Lee Schouten has asked painters if they would consider offering a 25-percent markdown during a festival weekend.
“One painter, a well-known Whidbey Island artist, told me to do what I had to do to move his paintings. If that meant knocking something off the $4,000 price, he said to do it. He’s got a family to feed,” Schouten said.
“These artists just want to sell their work.”
Ceramic artist Joan Govedare is currently showing work at Rob Schouten Gallery, as well as at another gallery on the island.
Govedare started throwing pots 38 years ago, gradually becoming the professional artist she is today, along with being a wife and mother.
“Once I decided to become an artist, I entered the realm of chance and hope and faith,” Govedare said.
“I learned to do my creative thing, cast out my fishing line, and wait for clay to turn into money,” she said. “I did that successfully for decades, and to do this I had to fine-tune my needs and live a life of simple wants.”
Govedare said to live as a full-time artist is a bit like standing at the bottom of a cliff wondering how you are going to scale the wall each month.
“Now, with the economic downturn, my family has been getting a stiff neck looking up at that cliff wall,” Govedare said.
So, she decided some adaptation was necessary.
“My decision last year to find a part-time job so that there would at least be a rope to hold onto each month, has enabled me to stay calm,” Govedare said.
Unexpectedly, the job became a source of contentment for the artist.
“It provides me with a chance to feel useful and organized, to be out there in the world when I’m not in my studio hunkered down with clay.”
Another adjustment Govedare made was to her work. After 30 years of doing mainly non-functional artistic pieces, she began throwing functional pots.
“I’ve made the leap to creating glazed pottery this year. I’m having fun with the new process, while continuing to produce the work that I’m best known for,” she said.
Govedare’s new usable vessels are currently showing at Karlson/Gray Gallery in Langley, while her star-studded night-sky-influenced pieces are at Rob Schouten Gallery in Greenbank.
Govedare said that as long as she and her family continue to live within their means, there is no reason why they can’t continue to enjoy life as artists.
“We firmly believe that eventually things will turn around, and we will find ourselves thriving again,” she said.
Teri Jo Summer: Custom clothing and accessories. Summer provides a private atelier or consultation by appointment and special orders and direct sales from her inventory.
For more information, call Summer at 341-3009 or click here.
Sharon Lundahl at Music For the Eyes: Handmade jewelry from ethnic beads.
Music For the Eyes is at 314 First St. in Langley. To visit, click here.
Joan Govedare: Night Sky Studio pottery.
You can see Govedare’s work at Rob Schouten Gallery at the Greenbank Farm and at Karlson/Gray Gallery at 302 First St. in Langley. Visit Govedare’s studio online, click here.
Any other artists who wish to express their ideas, methods or musings on the effect of the current economy e-mail Patricia Duff at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 221-5300.