A great place to make art,
but a hard place to sell it
Hays tells the secrets of surviving as a painter in Vermont
by Joyce Marcel
Brattleboro - Brattleboro may be an arts town, but in is not an arts market.
This situation puts pressure on artists to develop their own marketing skills. And that may be a good thing, according to painter and printmaker William H. Hays.
"Nobody can make a career of art in Brattleboro alone," Hays told a group of 20 artists gathered by Brattleboro- West Arts on March 20 at the Elliot Street Cafe to discuss art economics.
Hays was a guest speaker because he has, by hook and by crook, been "making it as an artist" while living in Brattleboro for more than 20 years.
"But that supposes that I'm making it as an artist," Hays said. "You can count the number of people who make 100 percent of their income in art in Brattleboro on one hand and have fingers left over. Sorry."
Windham County is a wonderful place to live," Hays said.
"I love living here," he said. "This is a strong place to live because people respect each other. I love the people here, and I love the town. But this is not yet an art marketplace. Do we want it to be? Do we want it to be Santa Fe or Scottsdale, Arizona? It would change the character of this place greatly."
Hays defineshimself as a "professional artist" and an admitted "shameless self-promoter." He and his wife, Patricia Long, have lived in Brattleboro for over 20 years. They own the Artist's Loft on Main Street in Brattleboro, which serves them as a gallery, a home, a studio, and a small income-producing Bed and Breakfast.
They have also had a hand in founding Gallery Walk, as well as the now-defunct Windham Art Gallery. They live part of the time in Nova Scotia.
Twenty years ago, Hays and Long found themselves unexpectedly living in Brattleboro.
"I had no intention of being an artist in Brattleboro," Hays said. "My wife and I moved here from Anchorage, Alaska, and we got stuck in Brattleboro. Over time, I realized that I had to make a career for myself as an artist. Eventually, I renovated some rooms next to our third-floor apartment and that became my studio. Then, I renovated some more rooms and that became the gallery. So I took on a high-profile position just by having a gallery overlooking Main Street."
Like most artists, Hays has some odd jobs on his resume. He's cooked, waited on tables, and worked in a nuclear power plant, among other things. He and Long co-directed the Stratton Arts Festival for four years. In 1999, Hays was the administrator of an arts education program for the Vermont Arts Council.
"I recognize that there are times when I am not able to make a living as an artist," Hays said. "Figuring out a balance between making money and making art is a good thing. I've had periods where I just worked to make money, and periods where I just worked to make art. But I realized if I'm going to sell the art, that's a business. The business of art is business."
When he is working as a full-time artist, Hays says he devotes two-thirds of his time to marketing.
"It's not necessarily pleasant, but it's absolutely necessary," he said. "And I promise, if you're waiting for someone to represent you or be your business manager, you're going to be waiting a long time."
The first thing to learn is how to write about yourself in the third person.
"You're writing about this mythical artist, William Hays, who does these wonderful things," he said. "You have to write a press release about yourself. Initially, it's uncomfortable, but after a while, it just becomes what you do."
Marketing also include courting journalists, developing a web presence, compiling a list of people interested in your work, sending out a newsletter - Hays estimates that he sends his monthly newsletter to 450 people all over the world - doing social networking, developing a portfolio, and researching galleries.
Careers have arcs, Hays said. New artists will seek to have juried shows on their resume. Then, they'll court one-person shows. But it takes time and money to create enough work to fill a gallery, and Hays said he tries to avoid one-person shows now.
"The idea is to find galleries that will show your work regularly," he said. "Don't have all your eggs in one basket in terms of one-person shows or exclusive galleries. I try to be in a gallery that has been there 10 years, 25 years. I've been in one gallery in Pennsylvania that's the second oldest in the country. They didn't sell much of my work, though."
Choosing the right galleries is essential, Hays said.
"Style is important for galleries," Hays said. "Identify the galleries that will show your work intelligently. I am a realistic, representational painter of nature, so galleries that sell abstract art won't work for me."
Since the Windham County market area is small, artists must show in places with more people - cities like New York, Boston andChicago. Finding the right galleries there may be an art form in itself.
"Don't walk into galleries desperate to show your work," Hays said.
"Walkingintoa gallery with a portfolio is an absolute turn-off to gallery owners. They get about three artists a day coming in like that. That's almost a thousand people a year. You've got to be cool and confident, and act like you know what you're doing, even if you don't. Then, you hope for the best. Sometimes, they're not taking people. Or they're not interested in the style you do. Nine out of 10 times, they're going to say no. You can't worryabout it.Youhave to look for the small percent of galleries that say yes."
How did Hays learn all this? "I didn't sell art," he said. Artists also have to be responsive to
the world around them. During the global economic collapse of 2008, for example, people stopped buying paintings. So Hays turned to printmaking."It has been the thing that pays our bills," Hays said. "Flexibility is essential. I never had any intention of being a printmaker. But it's something more affordable for the average person. You have to adjust to the economy. I have to sell 10 times as many prints to make the same money as one painting. And I can't do that in Brattleboro alone. So, I'm working now to set up more galleries for the prints."
Hays said that he looks at his economic life in terms of years, not months.
"I've had periods of five months when I sold no paintings at all, and yet the other seven were the best months I've ever had," he said. "I don't' get worried anymore when I don't sell a painting for three months. But it takes some conscious thought not to get upset. Some years, I don't make a living as an artist. I make the majority of my living as an artist, but not the entirety. That's the truth of it."
There's a difference between making art to sell and making art because you love it, Hays said.
"I've had periods where I've done art to sell, and I've been disgusted with what I've done," Hays said. "I finally took that gig with the Vermont Arts Council, and that worked out great. At the end of two years, I had all the freedom in the world to do whatever I wanted in art, because I didn't have to worry about making money for a while. I did nothing but drawings and watercolors for about two years. I came out of it adding portraiture to my oeuvre. I find that if I do what I love, people feel it. If I do what I love, people will buy it. But they won't buy it if it's not in front of them."
That makes presentation vital, Hays said.
"If I want to sell a painting for $8,000, it has to look like an $8,000 painting," Hays said. "I have to spend money for a frame and make it look like it's worth the money I charge."
Art is just canvas and paint until somebody pays for it, Hays said.
"But if I can create something that's so beautiful that people can't throw it away, I have succeeded," Hays said. "The world has enough ugliness and strife and sadness. There isn't anything, aside from love, that is more valuable than beauty."
The Artist's Loft is open 10-6 daily; www.theartistsloft.com, 802-257- 5181.
Joyce Marcel is a local freelance writer whose work appears in many periodicals and publications. You can reach Joyce by email: email@example.com.
Originally published in The Commons issue #94 (Wednesday, March 30).