Keeping up with Joneses has given way to keeping up with the mortgage…Slow Down, Produce Less, Make It Authentically Right, Charge More? If might just be the time to make less, make what you make more pricey and more unique.
Thomas Friedman, the Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and bestselling author of Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution–and How It Can Renew America had an December 20 Op-Ed piece in the NY Times that caught my eye. In China to the Rescue? Not!", he discusses how China is not in a position to stimulate its domestic demand and thus help lift the rest of the world's economies out of their collective downward spiral. In a nutshell, it's not going to happen.
Phony Prosperity Too Good To Be True
In the phony prosperity propped up in great part due to our partnership with China, where we bought ever cheaper stuff we thought we needed, but really didn't, while they bought our deepening debt, it worked until it didn't. That's where we are today. Now Chinese workers are feeling the same pinch as are those in U.S.
Chinese Oil Painting Suppliers Feeling Economic Pinch
To illustrate his point, Friedman used the example of how the art village of Dafen, the world’s leading center for mass-produced artwork and knockoffs of masterpieces — had been devastated by the bursting of the U.S. housing bubble. Apparently what used to be said about our neighbors to the North and South is now a global phenomenon. That is, when the U.S. sneezes, they would catch a cold.
Art Business Has Sex Appeal
Friedman could have picked from any of thousands of other industries where low cost Chinese manufacturing has knocked the pins from under them. It proves that although relatively small by comparison to giant businesses making furniture, machinery, etc., the art market is intriguing. It will good to remember on the days when you have second thought about painting for a living you are in a sexy intriguing business. The kind a well known columnist will showcase in an Op-Ed piece.
Sex appeal aside, you have to instinctively realize that this news from China is as much a cause for concern as it is an opportunity to look up the meaning of schadenfreude. So, take a moment to feel some glee for knowing your knockoff nemesis has hit a very rough patch. Then take a breath and realize there is little upside for you in their downfall.
Holiday Sales Hit Retail Businesses Hard
The news today on retail sales is it is alarmingly abominable. The deepest discounts and desperate bundling techniques failed to shake dollars from consumers wallets. Considering that we are in a business providing a product that is to most a completely dispensable luxury, none of this is good news.
There has been a slew of articles from business pundits, art and otherwise, offering untold guidance on how to survive the current downturn. It ranges from the practical to plain pollyanish. There seems to be so much that if one were to digest and act upon all of it they would soon find themselves enveloped in a paroxysm of paralysis induced by a potent combination of overexposure to bad news and bland advice. Undaunted, yours truly weighs in with observation and opinion.
Consumers Have Spoken – Make Sure You Are Listening
The consumers have spoken; they get it. They are scared and not buying things they don't need any longer. Keeping up with Joneses has given way to keeping up with the mortgage. This puts artists in a bad position, especially those who have not yet developed both a strong dealer and collector base.
Anyone who would seek to soothe you now offering advice laced with few bars of "Everything's gonna be alright," or "Don't worry, be happy" is be taken skeptically. While it's not time to get a gun and head to the hills, it's surely not time to be laying out grand plans for major expenditures either. Certainly, it's not a time to take lightly that economic conditions are eroded nearly beyond comprehension or to be persuaded a turnaround will be measured in months. Here is the unvarnished truth. It's going to take years to fix the problems we are dealing with now. And, that is if we don't take more unexpected shocks on the economic, war or terrorism fronts.
What Can You Do?
Watts Wacker, the brilliant futurist, a subject of a previous post here, who along with co-author Jim Taylor wrote the 1997 international bestseller, The 500 Year Delta: What Happens After What Comes Next . Here is part of a review of it from the InnovationWatch.com Web site:
The 500-Year Delta ultimately is about the shifts of perception needed to prosper in a future that is fundamentally, unrecognizably different. It is about surviving and thriving in an economy inhabited by two kinds of workers: owners and temps — in a marketplace where customers must literally be bought, one at a time, and where mass merchandising utterly ceases to exist. It is a world, in short, where borders — political, economic, and technological — simply disappear.
Desire for Authentic Unique Goods On the Rise
Considering the book and review are a decade old, it is interesting how both now seem quite prescient in describing our current condition. A point made in the book that to me is yet more poignant today, one that carries a lesson and offers a path for visual artists in this most difficult time is this: In an age where nearly everything is mass produced there will be a very strong yearning for products that are authentic. You may feel it yourself. Sites like Etsy, EBSQArt and The Artful Home and publications such as NEET Magazine all respond to this yearning. These are just a few of many serving the market as conduits between independent artists and consumers.
As a visual artist, you are in luck.
You have more control over what you produce and how. You have ways to easily stretch what you do and how you offer it. A recent segment on the Oprah program was titled Wallpaper Makes a Comeback. Hand-painted wallpaper is an example and inspiration of how you might stretch yourself and fill that need for an authentic one-of-a-kind product. Can you make wallpaper? Are their other ways to utilize your talent and training? I'm betting there are once you put your mind to what is possible.
You don't have to paint wallpaper to make authentic products. You don't have offer originals only either, although there is a movement for that notion with the painting-a-day phenomenon as one example. There are plenty of other ways to stretch yourself and find niches for your creativity.
Tap the Knowledge of Your Giclee Printer and Other Suppliers
Talk with your giclee printer, they see way more than you do. Ask what you can do to collaborate to use the technology to create reproductions of your original that are each unique in some demonstrable way. Consider everything including substrates, sizes, colors and graphic wraps, etc. Challenge yourself to think of what you can do. Test your theories about what you would never do. There are certain to be things among them that upon second review might just offer a new opportunity.
You Don't Have Make Your Own Canvas To Be Authentic
Authentic doesn't mean it has to be made from scratch. If you bake a pie with pumpkin filling you scrape from the pumpkin and use a store bought crust, is it enough to say made from scratch? Or would a purist say you had to grow the pumpkin, wheat and sugar cane to make it authentic? You already know the answer.
The point is consumers have become fickle and not inclined to buy stuff right now as the dismal Christmas retail season bears witness. What they are inclined to buy are things that offer meaning to them in their lives and that bear the mark of authenticity. Your challenge is to find ways to connect your images to your audience, to provide them with work that goes beyond decor. Work that resonates with them so they want to live with it in their home. That mission is really the same as it always has been. It's just today your focus needs to be more intense and in tune with your art buying public.
Slow Down, Produce Less, Make It Authentically Right, Charge More?
If might just be the time to make less, make what you make more pricey and more unique. Doing so could be an antidote to trying to mount a marketing scheme aimed at production run sales. In other words, just because the Chinese artists in Dafen are getting clobbered, it is still not a good time to attempt to go after their market share.