The most important factor in successful ceramics sales is the ceramics. What's being offered for sale must be the highest quality available. A person or group of people have to vet what's going into a sale, or at least the artists must be vetted beforehand. Yes, someone with a good eye and broad tastes must exercise judgment and make choices. This presents challenges, but I don't see how to avoid it. The sale should include a broad range of artists, functional as well as sculptural, to appeal to a broad range of collectors. What's finally offered to the public, and how it's offered, functions in at least two ways. First, it functions as a lesson in aesthetics for collectors. We're teaching collectors what the possibilities are; we're teaching them what quality is. Collectors need to train their eye, and one of the best ways to do that is for them to come to shows where they can see a whole gallery full of high quality objects. Once they've seen dozens of high quality pieces, they can tell the difference between them and pieces of lesser quality. Second, a sale functions as a lesson in what a group of artists (a guild, for instance) is doing and what it aspires to do. I'm a member of the Hawaii Potters Guild which has had an annual sale every November for decades. From what I've been told, for many years it presented the finest work of HPG artists to the public but in the last decade it's become a sale of pots that have been donated to HPG over the previous year. These castoffs and seconds are offered for a few dollars and very few are offered for more than $5. Individual artists from HPG are also invited to put up a table and sell their stuff. I've tried this once but haven't done it again because I found myself competing with my own seconds that I'd donated to HPG. Who wants to buy one of my bowls for $125 or $250 when they can get one of my seconds for $5? HPG doesn't advertise this as a seconds sale, so people probably think this is the best the guild has to offer, not the best thing for the guild's reputation or for recruiting new members.
A second factor in making a ceramics sale successful is adequate promotion. In my experience, the quality of work that's been offered in most sales has been quite good, but no one knew about the sale because promotion of the sale was almost non- existent. Every bit of energy had been put into making art and almost none was given to promotion. Let's be honest, it's hard to find anyone who likes to do promotion and is really good at it. In every organization I've been a part of, especially non-profits, promotion is the part that no one wants to touch. Who wants to email or (*gasp*) call a newspaper, radio station, or tv station and try to get them interested in what you're doing? I've found that artists are especially adept at not selling themselves and their work because they've bought into some form of the notion that "if you make it, they will come." Again, making good work is essential, but people won't find you or buy anything from you just because you're making good work. Businesses certainly don't assume that and we shouldn't assume it either. Just as businesses do everything they can to educate and inspire consumers, we should do the same thing too. Why do we want people to know about our work? So they can just admire it, or do we want to sell some of it? If we want to sell some of it, then let's make promoting and selling an important part of our creative process.
Why isn't marketing and promotion enough? Let me use a recent conversation as an example. I was speaking with one of the leading interior decorators in the state and had a long conversation at the end of another disappointing sale that she had hosted. In the course of the conversation, she mentioned that many of the gallery owners in Chinatown were disappointed with First Fridays. For several years now the art galleries in Chinatown have hosted special exhibits and stayed open late at night the first Friday of the month. The event is always packed with hundreds, maybe even thousands of people visiting the galleries. The problem, she told me, is that everyone's treating it like a gallery walk. They come in for the wine and cheese, look at some paintings, talk to a few people and then move on to the next gallery. Lots of socializing but very little buying. I told her I wasn't surprised because buying art isn't an impulse purchase for most people. I've been to First Friday many times and I've never purchased anything. The least expensive paintings are $1,200 and the ones I really like are always $5,000+. These are out of my price range, or at least I'm not inclined to pay that much for one of them at first sight. You may have hundreds of people circulating past a painting, but how many are going to see it for the first time and immediately lay down $5,000 for it? Apparently not many because after several years the First Friday events aren't helping gallery owners (and artists) sell much art. Developing collectors is the missing component because it's collectors who will be willing to lay down larger amounts of money to secure works of art that they crave, not curious passersby. The passerby who comes to the studio for a sale isn't looking for art. They aren't looking for handbuilt statues or bowls that are non-functional. They're looking for cups, bowls, and plates, something they can use at home. That's what they already understand and are motivated to buy no matter how much discretionary income they might have. If you want to sell art, which generally is more complicated to make and carries a higher price tag, you have to develop collectors, people who are looking for artistic pieces.
Here are a few thoughts, in no special order, on how artists, galleries, and studios can develop collectors. First, there are more potential collectors than we realize. All of us know people who have reputations as "top" collectors and we fantasize about them collecting our work. The pool of known collectors, those who've already shown a commitment to buying art, is usually vanishingly small in any community and they're already getting bombarded from all sides by artists vying for their attention. But why would we try to get the attention of such a small elite when ceramic pieces are so affordable that a huge number of people can afford them? Even the most expensive clay sculptures that I've seen don't come close to serious oil paintings, especially older paintings. At the recent Hawaii Craftsmen show, several pieces were purchased by the Honolulu Museum of Art and the Hawaii State Museum of Art. I don't think anything was over $2,000 and the most impressive ceramic piece in the show was bought by HMA for $1,400. Collectors can get very nice pieces for only a few hundred dollars which means that the number of people who could collect ceramics is enormous because many people can afford those prices. At one of the sales this fall, I invited several of my friends to come. Three were doctors and one was an architect. Their family incomes are in the hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. They aren't billionaires or top collectors, but they don't need to be to buy pieces for hundreds, even thousands of dollars. I've been in their homes and they have plenty of original paintings and prints on their walls, but they don't have any serious ceramics. In fact, they don't have any serious 3-D art in their houses at all. The point is that ceramics has a much larger pool of potential collectors out there than almost any other form of art because right now its price point is comparatively low.
Second, sell artists, not just art. Galleries and studios know that buyers are interested in meeting artists. That's why they have receptions at the beginning of an exhibit or ask potters to man their tables at a sale. Every artist hopes these brief encounters develop into a relationship with someone who's interested in collecting their work. I think these efforts are important but not intense enough to generate new collectors in any volume. I'm grateful for the person who comes in and buys one of my bowls to give to their mother, but I'm hoping to find more people who'd want to buy many of my pieces over time. Is meeting people at a sale the best way to do that? At one of the sales this fall, I met a woman who told me she's collected the work of a Montana potter for the last 25 years. When I met John Glick this past summer, he showed me a large piece he was sending to a collector in Taiwan who had purchased more than 500 of his pieces over the years.
Third, collectors don't become collectors just at sales. We need to work outside of sales to promote artists. For instance, the Honolulu Museum of Art used to have what they called a "Collector's Club." My understanding of how it worked was that patrons of the museum were invited to hear presentations by artists who presented and discussed their work. This is important because the museum has access to many people who are already interested in art. They also have a reputation for being mediators between artists and the public, and people in general expect their art museums to put the best art in front of their faces and to help them understand it. Through means such as presentations, museums can help collectors develop their eye for art and find more things they might be interested in collecting. They also can help collectors or potential collectors to make knowledgeable buying decisions. There's a lot of hand holding that takes place in developing collectors since new collectors don't know what quality is yet and they don't want to waste a lot of money on pieces that aren't that great. I just received in the mail a letter from HMA asking me to renew my membership. I'm a "Supporting Member" which means I pay the museum $100 a year and I get certain benefits. I notice that the highest category is "Collector Member" which is $1,000. I noticed that only at this level will I be invited to "A Think + A Drink" collectors' talks with curators and artists. I suppose the assumption is that only people with a stratospheric net worth can become a collector but nothing could be farther from the truth. Bill Ismay became one of the most discerning collectors in all of Great Britain and compiled one of the best collections of ceramics in the world on a librarian's salary.
Fourth, present artists and their work through publications. Self publishing is well developed and should be used to get the work of artists into the hands of potential collectors. Last year I contacted a ceramic artist from Belgium who was preparing for an exhibit of her latest pots. A catalog was also being printed, over 100 pages, in which every piece in the exhibit was included with a color image of high quality. It was self-published in hardcover from Snapfish if I remember correctly. These things can be presented in digital formats as well, but there's still something about a book in your hand that lends greater credibility to what's inside. It helps to focus people's attention in important ways. When I have a book in hand, the objects inside grab my attention; they force me to really look at them. Through repeated viewings, I see more and more and come to appreciate the art and desire to have some of it in my collection. By reading the words of the artist as well as art critics, I come to understand more about the pieces I'm seeing. So when an exhibit is coming up, say the Hawaii Craftsmen Show, a catalog could be made up quickly of all the pieces included in the show. After they're selected for inclusion, it wouldn't take long to take images that have been submitted for each piece, include a preface from the juror, a statement from the three visiting artists, and additional information about each artist.
Fifth, museums, galleries, and studios are key to developing collectors of contemporary art, especially museums. Too often museums act like they're the Fort Knox of art. Art is pretty old and expensive, so expensive that most of us couldn't afford to buy even a single piece of it. Museums, especially museums with schools, should fight against the perception that they're the only place where art lives. Art is alive and well, being created all around us. I've seen alot of it getting created over at the museum's school. Museums should be more interested in developing collectors since the growth of their collections depend almost entirely on donations from collectors and not from direct purchases they make. How many museums have the money to buy serious art of any sort? Almost every category of art collecting has become so expensive that museums depend on developing collectors who will later gift their collections to the museum. HMA has some very nice pieces of primitive art from Papua New Guinea. One of them says that it was purchased about 40 years ago with funds from the security guards. That piece would probably bring $50,000 or more today which would be quite a stretch for the security guards or just about anyone else for that matter. If museums have become so dependent on donations, why don't they work harder at developing collectors?