Does it Pay to Sell?

How to sustain your community art event: get creative, work hard, and find people who will actually buy art.

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

While it’s not as difficult as judging art itself, judging the success of an art event is a complicated endeavor. Should the number of artists whose work is on display be the barometer of success? The number of visitors? The objective (or subjective) quality of the works on display? Or – not to put too fine a point on it – if the artists involved were able to convert enough of their creativity into cash to make it worthwhile?

If you ask artists and organizers, you’ll get a combination of these and other answers – as well as differing assessments about whether local art events are sustainable.

By most measures, last month’s fourth annual Banbury Art Crawl was successful. It attracted an estimated 3,000 visitors who wandered their way through the hallways of Building 13 at Banbury Place, where they saw 65 exhibitors, including 30 artists and craftspeople who have their studios in the former tire plant.

“I think it’s about a community,” Jo Burke, chairwoman of the Banbury Art Crawl’s organizing committee, explained when asked about the purpose of the crawl. “Being able to be around other artists as well. To be around that sense of creativity that’s so often lacking in our daily lives.”

Fostering creativity and community – as well as exploiting the mystique of the funky old factory – were among the motivations for creating the Art Crawl in the first place, says Laurie Bieze, who co-founded the event with Adam Fuller. But there were more straightforward reasons as well.

“The point for the artists is to make money,” says Bieze, an Eau Claire stained-glass artist and sculptor. “That’s how they pay their rent. This year, I think a number of people had a good year and a number of people had a bad year.”

Thousands of people perused the artwork at the recent Banbury Art Crawl, but not everyone was a buyer.
Thousands of people perused the artwork at the recent Banbury Art Crawl,
but not everyone was a buyer.

Are Sales Secondary?

The intersection of art and commerce inevitably creates contradictions. Artistic experiences may be priceless, but if no one ever paid for art, it might well vanish.

But are the Art Crawl and other art events solely money-making ventures for artists? Are they catalysts for future sales? Or do they exist mainly to expose the public to art?

“If people come to just have a good time and walk around and look at art, that’s great. That’s what art’s about,” said Barbara Shafer, a painter with a studio at Banbury Place who is on the Art Crawl’s organizing committee. If artists sell some of their work – and Shafer and her husband, fellow painter Anders Shafer, were pleasantly surprised by their sales at this year’s Art Crawl – she sees that as a bonus.

Burke agreed that merely making sales shouldn’t be the goal.

“If you come here to be a big entrepreneur and make a lot of money, you’ve come to the wrong place,” she explained.

For her part, Chetek-based painter and Art Crawl committee member Patricia Mayhew Hamm said artists should focus on the longer term with such art events.

“Some of us can be a little temperamental,” she said of her fellow artists. “If they don’t make a lot of sales, they don’t come back.” However, she said, that’s the wrong attitude to have: “Exposure is great. If you’ve been there year after year, people come hunting for you. ... They might remember you. They might remember a painting too.”

But Will They Buy?

However, over the long term, art festivals aren’t sustainable if the public isn’t buying. And the works of many fine artists, from painters to potters, carry price tags that are beyond impulse-purchase territory for most Chippewa Valley residents.

“I think people want $30 to $50 things,” said Burke, the Art Crawl chairwoman. “They don’t want to pay more than that.”

“There’s definitely people who want to buy art here, but people say, ‘$100? My God, that’s so expensive.’
I understand, but I’ve been to other parts of the country where people say, ‘$500? That’s cheap.’”
– Jason Anhorn, artist and organizer of the
Open Air Festival of the Arts

Jason Anhorn, an Eau Claire artist and organizer of the annual Open Air Festival of the Arts, which is held in Phoenix Park each June, agrees that the art-buying public in the Chippewa Valley is frugal.

“There’s definitely people who want to buy art here,” he said, “but people say, ‘$100? My God, that’s so expensive.’ I understand, but I’ve been to other parts of the country where people say, ‘$500? That’s cheap.’ ”

Anhorn said that while beginning artists at his fair may be merely trying to build their audiences, the majority of exhibitors make their living from their art.

“Everybody would love to sell all their work and leave with their pockets full,” he said.

Achieving that goal can be difficult, however. “Everyone seems to make something. Not a lot,” Anhorn said of exhibitors. “They make some profit, but it hasn’t been a great festival for selling high-end work especially.”

Erin Roesler, co-founder of the Artist Market of Eau Claire, which debuted last summer at Phoenix Park, acknowledged that Eau Claire can be a hard place to sell fine art. However, she said she received only positive feedback from those who exhibited at last year’s series of nine Saturday markets. Some people, such as fine artists whose work was more expensive, were able to establish leads for commissioned works; others, such as small-scale soapmakers, were thrilled to make their first-ever sales.

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