Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone.
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’. – Bob Dylan 1963
It takes an admitted bit of hubris to include lyrics from one of the most enduring and powerful protest songs from Bob Dylan’s oeuvre for a mere blog post. But, hey in the spirit of the holidays just passed, I hope dear readers you and Bob Dylan will forgive the trespass.
Dylan’s epic words were written in tumultuous times. The Civil Rights movement was fulminating while the Vietnam War was beginning to rage full on over there. Here at home young people, angry Baby Boomers, were being politicized as never before as a result of being drafted to serve in arguably the most unpopular war America has ever fought. I have little doubt if involuntary conscription were a feature the current Iraq War, it too would have galvanized the populace, especially young people into action to make it equally as unpopular with the same divisive consequences as Vietnam caused. And, Dylan’s lyrics would be apropos now as then.
The reality now is we are engaged in an unpopular war that has lasted longer than both World War II or the Vietnam war with a cost so high, the debt will still be being paid by the children of generations yet unborn. But our volunteer army and relatively stable economy have kept most of us on the sidelines praying for a reasonable end to an interminable situation. That said, the focus of this post is the state of the economy and how it affects visual artists in the print market.
Our remarkable U.S. economy has been able to slough off troubling signs for years, fueled by our consumerist society and underpinned by a soaring real estate market and record low mortgage interest rates. We’ve been on a borrowing binge at every corner of our economy with the federal government leading the way racking up debts so astronomical they are near impossible to comprehend.
Right in lock step, consumers have taken on more debt per capita than any time in history. We’ve borrowed freely and used our home equity like ATM’s as we refinanced frequently to be able to get all the stuff that tempts us daily. Even with most families having two wage earners, we haven’t been able to keep up with our desires and the Joneses without heavy borrowing and the consequences that come with it. Real income hasn’t grown for so long most have no recollection of times when people bought what they could afford and saved for those things they really wanted…what a smart but seemingly quaint way of managing finances.
The bloom came off the rose when home prices began to fall and home sales began to falter. Adding more fuel to the fire was the melt down of the sub-prime business. It’s hard to imagine supposedly really smart people in charge of billions of dollars of mortgage lending couldn’t comprehend that continually making 100% loan-to-value loans to virtually anyone who applied for home loans for homes that had doubled, trebled or risen greater in value in just a few years would turn out to be bad business. But, then how many realized when George Bush stood on that aircraft carrier under the "Mission Accomplished" banner in March 2003 that five years later we’d still be mired in an intractable war with no solution in sight?
Home Furnishing Retailers Are Handwriting on the Walls…Read Them!
Home furnishing stores have come on hard times lately. The recent announcement that furniture warehouse giant Levitz was shuttering in bankruptcy drives home the point that the fallout from the mortgage and housing markets has a long tail. The Levitz story comes on the heels of notices that mall-based accessory retailer The Bombay Company was also closing its doors permanently. Here in Phoenix, where I reside, we also recently have seen multi-store specialty furniture retailer Tres Amigos go out of business along with Brueners of Arizona. Reports from the fall IHFC show in High Point, NC were basically glum.
Another sign, one some in the art industry will look upon with glee, is the closing of many Painted with Oil stores here in the Phoenix area. The chain offering imported oil paintings has reportedly been shopping for a buyer since early 2007. Now straddled with the high costs of upscale mall retail leases, it like the aforementioned furniture and accessory outfits is making painful adjustments. I would not be surprised in the least to learn of its demise in 2008.
Despite the continuing rise of record sales of contemporary art at auction houses and shows such as Art Basel Miami, the other items mentioned here are closer to home and cannot be construed as good news for artists in the print market. Granted things have been undergoing major changes for the past few years as any poster publisher will attest. But the pace appears to be quickening and not in the right direction.
The art and framing tradeshow scene continues to evolve in ways that reflect the shaky changing conditions surrounding the print market. As of this date no floorplan or exhibitor list has been published for the Baltimore Decor Expo show. With just three months to go this is not a strong sign the show is selling well as a robust current exhibitor list is the best selling tool to help herd laggard lemmings into a show. Perhaps management is distracted, or understaffed, or both, or perhaps there is not much to brag about for this show. Whatever the reason, it’s hard to come up with a positive take on the Baltimore show’s prospects for 2008.
At least there is a published list for the 30th Anniversary ArtExpo New York show. As of today January 5, it shows a total of 314 exhibitors listed on the show producer’s Web site. However, with less than 60 days before the show takes place on February 28 this is only half the reported 600 exhibitors in the 2007 show. As with Baltimore, it’s possible the list has not been updated. But a check just before Christmas showed 255 exhibitors, so there is upward movement, but it has to be worrisome at the least for the show organizers if they have yet to sign half the number of exhibitors from last year. Given the state of the economy as discussed above, if this is close to the actual total, it is a very bad sign for the health of the industry and individual artists seeking to find their way and grow their art print publishing ventures.
The unemployment figures released this past week shook the stock market and caused President Bush to make a public pronouncement that he was aware and that the economy was being carefully watched by his team of advisers. They had wrongly been expecting positive job growth figures. Since the prez has shown few signs of willingly admitting things are not going well on any front, one has to believe the situation is something causing him great concern with his statement and the obvious look of concern he showed in making it.
You can find just about any prediction you want to suit your own outlook for future economic conditions. Me, I’ll go with these guys. Former Fed Chairman, Alan Greenspan, puts the odds of a U.S. recession at 50-50. John Bogle, the esteemed Chairman Emeritus of The Vanguard Group has a less sanguine take putting the chances at 75% a recession will ensue in 2008. No matter how you slice it, it’s not a particularly rosy picture for the U.S. economy or the art print market in particular. I would be wary of anyone bullish on the economy or the art print market in the coming year.
What Should Your Plans Be for 2008?
Here are ten points to ponder for your 2008 marketing plans:
- Create a realistic marketing plan and a budget that is neither too optimistic nor adventurous.
- Realize the most successful CEOs are serious planners who leave as little as possible to chance. They know getting things done revolves around executing achievable plans.
- Break your plan down incrementally so you can fully comprehend the necessary steps and how to adequately fund them to reach your goals.
- Be vigilant about how you allocate your marketing budget.
- Look for the angles that put you closest to being a sure thing. When you have a sure thing, fund the opportunity fully at the expense of anything frivolous or sketchy.
- Take a clue from the many established publishers who are trimming ad budgets and cutting back on show space. They haven’t gone out of sight, but aren’t blowing the doors off with big budget advertising and promotion either.
- If you haven’t already, start making plans to set up your own distribution. This could be online sales, alternative spaces or other inventive ways you can conceive to get directly to new collectors. The future success for many artists depends on their ability to deliver directly to their customers. The sooner you comprehend and act on this concept, the better off you’ll be later on.
- Beef up your plans for publicity. There is no better bang for your buck than what you get from a well orchestrated publicity campaign.
- Keep in mind that if we do fall in recession, those who keep their heads and business afloat come out with significant market share and awareness over those who hunker down and do nothing.
- Don’t stop having fun or being creative. Good things come about even in the worst of times. Henry Luce launched Fortune magazine in 1932 in the heart of the Great Depresssion. Now 75 years later his vision and fortitude are proven out as it remains a profitable staple in Time-Warner’s portfolio of publications.