The Big Squeeze

Brian J. Sullivan

In my quest to better understand what's been happening in the art market, I have been talking to artists from around the country. While their responses may vary, there seems to be an underlying commonality among them—that something has changed over the last ten years, and not for the better. Although this is an informal survey and holds no significant statistical relevance, I do believe it does represent a cross section of the artists exhibiting across the United States. One artist summed it up quite nicely when I asked him what he'd do if he won a million dollars. He responded that he would continue to do art fairs until all the money was used up. Others had similar sentiments.

Joe (70+ year old, painter, Wisconsin): "I have been doing shows for as long as I can recall. I remember the 'good ole days' when on average I (and many fellow artists) would have a $10,000 show. Now I'm happy if I break $1,800. I have a sick wife, and expenses keep going up. I am too old to do anything else."

Martha (47 year old, glass artist, Washington): "With the cost of natural gas skyrocketing, I cannot afford to keep my glass kiln running as long as I'd like. It has forced me to raise my prices, yet I am selling less than before. Money to pay bills is very tight."

Sandra (58 year old, jeweler, Rhode Island): "With the abundance of imported jewelry creeping into the fairs, my sales are way down. I mean, how can I compete with someone working in a sweatshop overseas for 35 cents for a 10 hour day?  These shows that let these vendors in are doing a great disservice to the other artists participating who make all their own work. Art fairs are a place where people can come and meet the artists and buy from them. If you want items of the buy and sell nature, you should go to your local discount store. It costs me more in raw materials than these vendors can buy a completed piece, and I still have to fabricate my work."

Sam (61 year old, sculptor, Florida): "I have never seen it this bad. I remember doing the Mount Dora show when the space shuttle exploded (on Saturday morning, the opening day of the show). Crowds were almost non-existent as everyone was at home glued to the TV set trying to learn what happened. Those who did come out were like walking zombies in a state of shock. My sales were one eighth of what they normally were for that show and it has not gotten any better since."

Judy (38 year old, mix-media, Iowa): "With the combined cost of gas, hotels, and entry fees nearing $1,200 per show, I have to sell a lot just to meet expenses. What about my time? Labor? Clothes? Mortgage? Car payment? Family? Etc., Etc., Etc."

Stanley (66 year old, metal artist, Texas): "I drive a big motor coach and tow a full size van behind me loaded with art fair stuff. I spend approximately 230 days on the road. I make cheap yard art on a stick that I can sell for $20 a piece. I store the pre-made parts in boxes in the 'basement' of the motor home. I have a large retirement pension from the company I worked for. I don't care how much I sell because I enjoy doing the fairs." 

Rita (43 year old, watercolor artist, Michigan): "For me, I noticed a big decline in sales around the 911 incident. Then the 'tech bubble' burst. I am doing more shows than ever and grossing less than 10 years ago. People are still out of work. Consumer prices are up. Purchasing art is a luxury few can afford when they have a family to raise. I don't know how much longer I can keep this up."

Thomas (28 year old, graphics, West Virginia): "I don't know if it's this war in Iraq or what, but something has changed. I have prices from $10 up to $3,000, and prints in all sizes. The volume I once saw is gone. Sure, I do OK, but not like several years ago. Digital art and color printers have cheapened the market, making it harder for the customers to distinguish between originals and reproductions."

Mary (56 year old, photographer, Tennessee): "How can I compete against Walmart and Hobby Lobby selling imported prints, matted and framed under glass for less than I can buy my frames from a wholesaler? Most people don't recognize the value of original art. For many, it's just about decoration, and price wins out every time."

Silva (47 year old, print maker, California): "People only have so much money and with five to six shows going on in the same vicinity (Florida, Michigan) the pie gets cut pretty small. Some of these 'combined' shows have upward of 1,800 artists all vying for the consumer's dollar. People are overwhelmed and over satiated. In addition, on any given weekend there may be three other art fairs all going on at the same time. After a while, it's all the same old, same old at each fair. There is nothing special about any of them anymore."

Brenda (60 year old, painter, Arizona): "We've become the next form of entertainment for people weaned on Reality TV. They are charged an entry fee to enter the fair grounds and expect 'free' entertainment. It's the museum attitude of come and look but don't buy. In addition, I now have to compete for the buyer's attention against live bands, humongous food courts, kid's corner, student gallery, cell phone and corporate sponsor's displays, and beer tents. All for three bucks admission. People are not coming out to purchase art; this is family day out with the baby strollers."

Leon (79 year old, jeweler, Colorado): "I remember the era before the U.S. government's big crackdown and eventual breakup of the big drug cartels in South America. Doing any show in Florida was a guaranteed five figure show (usually all in cash). Drug dealers flushed with cash, bought freely. Those days are long gone."

Larry (52 year old, sculptor, Illinois): "With the gating and the charging of admission, my fair sales have declined significantly. I realize that everyone has expenses (including the fair committee etc.) and this is one way to raise some additional revenue. However the theory that this 'gating' screens the serious buyers from the walkers just doesn't work. It creates a snob appeal like some exclusive club and intimidates many from even coming out. Not everyone is an art connoisseur. I believe art fairs should be open and free to the public. Or give the artists a percentage of the gate income. What's with all this double dipping? Charge the artists to display their work, then charge the public to come and see the work. How many concerts or theatrical performances have you gone to where the artists pay for the privilege to display their talent? I find it unconscionable that artists are treated so poorly, yet what other choice do we have?"

Tina (38 year old, bronze worker, Ohio): "I think the change in the tax law for artists' donating to 'not for profit' organizations has hurt not only the artists but also museums and other organizations. Even though I still donate to causes in which I believe, I find it ludicrous that I am only allowed the price of materials actually used (canvas $2, frame $12, paint $5, staples $.002). If I was a car dealer donating an automobile, I would get the full value. Why are we artists always treated like second class citizens? How many jobs do you know that pay less then 25 cents an hour, and require you to work 12 hour days in the hot sun with no breaks? What happened to all the workers' rights laws? I'm tired and mad. I am a good artist. This is what I'm good at. It's just not fair."

Lewette (58 year old, ceramic artist, New York): " I have been doing the same 'craft' show at a particular mall for over 20 years. With the advent of the big box stores and urban sprawl, mall traffic has all but died. Each year, less and less people come to shop at the mall. This will be the last year I will be doing this mall show. I have also been a regular vendor at the State Fair for the past 15 years. However, policy decisions to allow vendors to sell imported crafts (verses showcasing the crafts made in the state, which is the whole idea behind the "state fair" in the first place) has virtually pulled the rug out from under me. Not only can I not compete on price, customers now think I purchase all my stuff too! I find the whole state of the art fairs insulting. I have a master's degree in fine arts—I have been a practicing artist all my life. I find it very sad that we have lost the intrinsic value of art in our society and even more appalling is that most art programs in schools have been cut."

Jerry (61 year old, fibers, Utah): " Don't get me going. I've had three heart attacks and two bypass surgeries. We are getting squeezed from all angles at once. It's not just all the higher art fees, but also the lack of adequate health care. Not only for me, but for all Americans. I think it is despicable that in a country as rich and bountiful as the United States, people are forced to choose between what medicines they can afford each month, or food. I personally can't afford health care insurance at my age and condition. I worry about how I am going to pay for my huge hospital bills. My credit cards are maxed out. I have bill collectors calling about past hospital bills. I live in an 800 square foot house. I drive a rusted-out 1978 van. Being an artist is a hard life."

So there you have it, a brief synopsis of artists' opinions across the country. One thing is for sure—times have changed over the last decade. Each person seems to have an idea of what the problem is; however, no one seems so sure of a solution. Traditionally, artists as a group have proven to be quite resilient. Their independence, determination, and persistence have carried them this far. What lies ahead is anybody's guess.