The Visual Artist at Odds with the Mass Market

Column by Heather A. Fraser.

The Problem: Many visual artists fear that the quality of his art will suffer if he creates for a market or if he takes commissions. This fear becomes a problem only when the "fearful" artist attempts to sell his art and is frustrated by his inability to make a living. Is it useful to blame the customer for being unknowledgeable about art? Or, is the onus on the artist to work his way out of his principled corner? Is he able to examine his activities and discover how to make a living at his art? Can he do this without altering the way he makes art?

Making Art Is an Economic Activity: A Toronto artist recently stated in a letter to the editor of Artword (Toronto) that "the raison d'etre of art is not, most emphatically, not economic". Economics is not more or less important than aesthetics. It is, simply speaking, the system of production, distribution and consumption of money -- in this case -- as it relates to art. And many artists are aware of this.

For example, the artist, in taking the risk of an uncertain financial return by producing art "for his own satisfaction", accepts an opportunity cost: he knows that he could have spent his time to greater financial profit. As well, most artists attempt to do the most with what they have by maximising their revenues and minimising their costs. An artist might buy a less expensive brush or work in stone rather than marble. And finally, by all reports, many artists are interested in making a living from their original art. One obstacle to doing so for many artists is, again, the problem of quality. The artist may fear that the consumer, through the power of his buying dollar, could influence his aesthetic decisions.

Quality as Motivation for Both Artist and Consumer -- the Problem of Taste: An important motivation for the artist in continuing to create art, is its improvement. The increasing "quality" of his art might be measured in some part by the acknowledgement and respect of his peers. Ironically, with seeming individuation comes conformity to the taste of the group from which the artist seeks respect and to which he wants to be associated (cutting edge Toronto, non-figurative, magic realism, etc). The artist who claims to be doing "real art" and condemns another artist for taking a commission or for painting in a naturalistic mode should re-examine his own motivations, as well as the hierarchical power structure reflected in his affiliations.

For the art consumer in the mass market, quality may be measured by the strength of the good feelings he experiences when he buys and owns an original art object. The consumer's motivation is satisfaction in ownership in as much as it reflects his own taste, lifestyle, price range. Sometimes, the motives of the artist and consumer are in harmony. Frequently, however, they are not. Two common barriers between producer and consumer are price and intellectual access. The artist may use a visual language in his art that the uninitiated consumer is unable to understand. The artist may explain the gulf between his taste and that of the consuming public by saying that it is slow to appreciate contemporary art. The consumer, fearful of looking stupid, often replies defensively, "I may not know a lot about art, but I know what I like." Stalemate.

If the artist has decided that he wants to make money from his art, there are many ways of reaching the mass market. Changing his original product is only one way.

The Lucrative Mass Market: The mass market is a product of 19th and 20th century technology. Its culture relies on mass production and reproduction. Given this, has the artist defined his product too narrowly as the sale of only original objects?

Information on the current interest in and sale of original art to the public is available through the Canada Council's Canadian Arts Consumer Profile (1991). This report tells us that Canadians are interested in purchasing original craft and fine art: 34% of general public respondents say they had thought about buying a work of art in the previous year; 20% say they bought a work of art within the five previous years and 24% within the previous year; 16% say it is very probable that they will buy a work of art in the next two years. These respondents were generally university educated, around 45 years of age.

This consumer report, however, does not examine the significant number of purchases of reproductions and other manufactured "symbolic objects" sold in shopping malls, department stores, or museum shops. These are purchased by people of all ages and levels of education. The numbers of art marketing indicate that for every $1. purchase of original art, the shopping mall stores sell $100. worth of mass produced low priced "art" (figurines, framed reproductions, etc). Here is the artist's competition. A redefinition of product to include secondary and tertiary products may draw the customers away from K-mart and towards the artist.

Secondary and Tertiary Products: A movie cinema makes .50 cents on an $8. ticket but might make $2. on a $2.50 chocolate bar or $1.25 on a $1.50 soft drink. The cinema makes its money on secondary products, food. If an original artwork is too expensive for the average consumer, a reproduction of it in whole or part on coasters, calendars, hats, napkins, cards, or in miniature in resin or ceramic, etc. is more affordable in the $50. to $200. price range. Consider these elegant and thoughtfully priced objects as first steps toward a consumer making a major purchase of a higher priced original. 20th century technology has changed our means of making, distributing and consuming art. This fact is acknowledged by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the largest retailer in N.Y.C. It is worth scrutinising their catalogues of reproductions for ideas.

A tertiary product of visual art is image or atmosphere. A study done several years ago in Hamilton, Ont., by an MBA student on theatre-going habits revealed some instructive surprises on the importance of atmosphere to the public. The people polled wanted three things from theatre and in this order: a place to see and be seen: a nice place to see and be seen; and "good" theatre. The sense of event was more important to the customer than the "art". The art, however, made the event special (few people dress for the movies). Developing a tertiary product in the visual arts might include the sale of unusual evenings in a gallery space to corporate businesses or other groups. Consider a coffee shop/gallery, a hotel/gallery, a wedding reception hall/gallery, etc.

Strategies for the Artist/Businessperson: The artist/businessperson may consider a variety of potential strategies to making money -- again, other than changing his original product. These might include: increasing his activity level to reach more buyers on a regular basis; improving his sales skills; examining his attitude towards the customer; analysing and understanding the competition; and writing a business plan. These are not new ideas. They do, however, take hard work. They are a part of doing business.

The Challenge.... is for artists to examine their activities with regard to making money. The visual arts community in Canada maintains a certain distance from the mass market on the grounds of quality -- the artists' is higher and they want the public to learn from it. The high-low debate is frustrating in its superficiality and inescapably paralysing in its effect on artists. The challenge for artists who think of themselves as small businesses is to view financial self-sufficiency as a priority goal. Likely, it has nothing to do with changing the original art to suit a market. Ask yourself the question, "what would it take" to make a living in the visual arts?