How to Talk to Artists at Art Festivals – the Do’s & Don’ts (Warning: You’ve probably been guilty of at least one of the don’ts…)
I visited the Cherry Creek Arts Festival here in Denver today. I go every year. As an artist I was fortunate enough to be chosen to show at this festival (one of the top 3 outdoor art festivals in the country) for 3 consecutive years back in the 2000’s. (I’ve since moved on to strictly gallery exhibits) As I was wandering around enjoying the art, I was struck by the conversations around me, and reminded of the “horror stories” shared by fellow artists (and experienced myself over the many years of doing outdoor shows) about rude and insensitive people, and even well-meaning people who unintentionally insult the artist. On the other side, I see many people who are intimidated by art and feel insecure talking to artists and asking questions. So if you are one of the millions of people visiting an arts festival (or gallery opening, or art walk) this summer, this “How to Talk to Artists” Primer is for you.
Please Note: The following was compiled as a result of nearly 2 decades of conversations and questions with fellow artists of all stripes, and is a reflection of the main concerns expressed by hundreds of artists over the years, and not at all strictly my opinion or experience. Every artist is different. This is meant to give a general idea of what life is like for the fair artist, and hopefully give a little knowledge and understanding to the patron.
Lesson One: Understanding the Artist
We may be somewhat unconventional people, but we are human, just like you. What sets us apart is the intense drive to create. It is what we are made of. We can’t not create. (I apologize for the double-negative) What we make is part of us. The pieces you see hanging on the walls are our “children”. We put our blood, sweat and tears into every one of them. Frankly, it takes (ahem) big balls to put ourselves on display, to open ourselves up to criticism and judgment. No matter what we do, there are going to be people that don’t like it. Being an artist is a hard life. We are all self-employed. We do not have companies to give us regular paychecks, insurance, and security. Most of us also have to do all our own marketing, sales, packing & shipping, and everything else it takes to run a small business. A typical working artist spends 50% of the time on marketing and sales and the rest of the time working on his/her creations. We also tend to put in 50-60 hour work weeks. Make no mistake, being an artist is a JOB, not a fun hobby we do in our spare time. Most of us went to school to learn our craft and earn a degree, and have spent years (in my case, decades) continuing to learn, practice, and get better at what we do, just like any job. It can be a thankless job as well, as most artists make very little money especially in the beginning. It can be a rather humbling career.
Lesson Two: How did these artists come to show at this festival, and what does it take to get here?
With the larger Arts Festivals around the country, this is how it works. There is an application process about 6 months before the festival, with artists submitting images of their work (usually with an average fee of $35) to a jury who selects which artists will be allowed to show at the festival. The competition is fierce. With the Cherry Creek Arts Festival for example, only about 9% of all submitting artists are chosen to exhibit (and of course, the jury fee is not refundable). The artists then pay a “booth fee”, which can be anywhere from $800-1600 depending on the show (CCAF is $850 for a 10 x 10 space for 3 days). The artists then have to supply their own booth and display. Artist’s displays can cost in the range of $1000-$5000, some even more. Many artists also travel great distances to get to the festivals, usually driving with all their art and booth set-up hundreds and thousands of miles, incurring costs for gas, hotels, etc. As you can see, most artists are out-of-pocket for thousands of dollars before the festival even opens.
Here’s what doing a festival can feel like for an artist: Imagine packing up a tent along with all your most valuable possessions, being on the road driving for days, then setting up your tent on an asphalt street with hundreds of other people in 90 degree heat, and placing all your valuables in this flimsy tent. Then, you get to spend 10-12 hours a day for three days standing in that hot tent (you can’t leave except for bathroom breaks and to grab a fast bite), smiling at thousands of people till your face hurts, and hoping like hell people like your valuables enough to buy a few from you. Then, at the end, when you’re dog-tired, you get to pack your tent and things back up and drive all the way back home, or to the next festival and do it all over again.
Lesson Three: What to Never-Ever Ask or Say to an Artist
So you’re at the festival, looking at the art on display. If you’ve read the above, then you know more than most of the people there already (good for you!) and probably have some appreciation for the artists, even if you don’t like their work. Here is the Top 9 List of what to Never-Ever Ask an Artist, and why:
#1 “Can I get a discount?” Or, “Will you take $500 instead of $1000 for this?” First off, this is an insult to the work and the artist. Unlike a flea market, artists generally do not expect to haggle. This is their livelihood and their blood sweat and tears on display. That being said, most professional artists build about 10% wiggle room into the price for their collectors, and this is ok, but asking for more than that is not. Most artists price their work at very fair rates based on time, materials and overhead. Think of it like this: What would you say if you went into work on Monday and your boss asked you to work at half your usual salary for the week? You’d probably quit.
#2 “Does this come in any other size/color?” Each piece of art is a unique creation by the artist, not a mass-produced item. Again, this question is insulting the artist’s work, however unintentionally. (Note: this one refers strictly to original art, not prints and reproductions, which can of course come in several sizes. It is in the context that implies “Can you change your original art to suit me?”) DO ask to look at the artist’s portfolio, there may be something there you like even better!
#3 “Is it finished?” Another one that makes artist’s cringe. If it is on display and for sale, always assume it’s finished.
#4 “How long did it take you to do that?” I can feel artists all around the world shriek in horror at this question. How long it takes to make has no bearing on the value. My favorite answer to this question is a little story about Pablo Picasso. Pablo is having a coffee in a cafe’ when a fan comes up to him, exclaiming how much she loves his work and asks, “would you draw something on this napkin for me?” Pablo does a drawing on the napkin, hands it to her and says, “that will be $10,000”. She cries “$10,000! but it only took you a few minutes to draw it!” and Pablo replies, ” But madame, it took me a lifetime to learn to draw that way.”
#5 “How did you make that?” There is a fine line with this one, as it’s all about the context. Often, this question is asked with the intention of, “I’ll go home and make one just like it!” Which is obviously not good for the artist. Inquiring about the artist’s process (ie: “Tell me about your process.”) is ok.
#6 “Your work is just like so-and-so’s.” Ouch. Artists like to think they are unique creators. We would rather not be compared to other artists. It IS always ok to ask who the artist is influenced by.
#7 “It must be fun to just paint all day.” and/or “What do you do for a living?” If you’ve read the above paragraphs, you already know why this one is a no-no. They are artists. That’s what they do for a living.
#8 “I want to learn to paint when I retire/have free-time, etc.” It’s wonderful that you’d like to paint, (everyone should have a creative outlet!) however it can imply that art is a hobby, which to these artists, it most definitely is not and this can be taken the wrong way. This question goes hand-in-hand with “How can I learn to paint like that?” Just don’t go there. “Do you teach?” Now that’s a good question.
#9 It should go without saying, but never insult the work. Even if you think it’s hideous. Just keep it to yourself. That’s a person’s heart and soul on display, even if you don’t like it. Comments like, “My 5 year-old could paint that!” are always rude. I’ve had many rude comments thrown my way, such as, “Why would anyone want to hang that on their wall?” (CCAF 2008) and, “You’re painting on top of photographs!” (Spoken very loud and accusingly at my own art opening in 2010) It just plain hurts. That person standing behind you may be the artist, don’t assume he can’t hear you. I’m an artist and see work I don’t like all the time, but I always try to have enough respect for the artist to keep my mouth shut. If I want to discuss the work in a negative way, I wait till we have left the festival or gallery. Always.
OK, if I haven’t completely scared you away from talking to artists at art festivals by now, here are a list of questions that will always be welcome:
#1 “Tell me about your work.” It’s the perfect question.
#2 ” What/who influences you?” An excellent conversation starter, always welcome.
#3 “What inspired you to create that?”
#4 “What attracted you to working with pattern/the figure/still life’s/animals, etc?”
#5 Sincere complements are always welcome. “Beautiful work”, “well-done”, “great technique” is always nice to hear. I had one man tell me, “This is hands-down the best work of the show.” and I could tell he really meant it. That was 4 years ago and it still makes me smile.
#6 It’s ok to just be silent. (it’s much better than an insincere complement) A person thoughtfully and quietly studying a piece is always welcome. Don’t feel like you have to say something.
A few final notes:
Never take pictures of the art unless you ask the artist for permission first. There are unfortunately people out there who take hi-res images of work to make prints of and sell. Obviously this is a highly illegal copyright violation, but it happens. Also, some folks take pictures thinking they will go home and try and copy the piece (this is theft and copyright violation). Both these scenarios are bad news for the artist. You may just want to take a picture because you think it’s pretty, but the artist doesn’t know that. Ask before you shoot.
And lastly, remember these folks are working hard and are here to sell their work. While many artists will not mind shooting the breeze when the booth is empty, don’t be offended if an artist excuses themselves from your conversation to greet/speak with someone else who may be a potential customer.
Don’t feel bad if you’ve been guilty of one of the “bad” questions. We’ve all been there, even the arts professionals! You are now armed with more art festival knowledge than most, and you’ll never be in danger of unintentionally insulting an artist again. So go forth, explore the arts, and have fun!