Dollar Art, Lake Havasu Az. 1971 Art Show
Some Years You Just Can’t Get It Right (or, Don’t Try This at Home)
Recently I read an article written by Cory Huff; he and his partners have a blog/web site that deals with helping artists prosper on the internet. It is called The Abundant Artist http://theabundantartist.com/ He posted an article by one of his submitters that tells about how they listed some art work for sale at 5 dollars on a site designed for just such a purpose – selling only five dollar art. Mr. Huff didn’t exactly endorse this but he also didn’t discourage it; he simply said there was some merit to a limited approach for some specific reasons. For some, getting out there at any price is useful but for some it is a distraction and could be counter-productive. It seems the internet roof then came down around his ears. The overwhelming backlash caught him by surprise as if he had betrayed his very own mission statement. For this, he apologized. The opinions in general seemed to be that artists are lowering themselves, selling out at five dollars and setting a precedent that is industry-wide destructive. I have a different take on this and personally, I think Cory Huff had it right in the first place and should not back off his original opinion.
Here is my story:
Back in 1971 as a much younger artist, I too, had this great promotional idea: After having a couple somewhat successful one man art shows, things had settled down to quiet, pretty much, and an upcoming art show for the opening of the London Bridge in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, prompted me to produce over two hundred small pictures (framed, mind you) for a dollar each (along with $5.00 pictures and up to $350.00 paintings). Keep in mind this is 1971. My thinking was a market spread with incentive merchandise (nowadays called loss leaders). Big miss-thinking for an artist.
Did it pay off? Not in dollars, that is for sure, I did sell almost all of them but not at that show. So for months after that I had all these small pictures I painted in a batch and as quickly as I could – not my best work, however, at the show they had been displayed alongside some of my better work of that time. I wasn’t sure if that was smart or not, but here is what happened . . .
A local businessman/politician (whom I knew) bought a couple of the better (relative) dollar art pieces, and later approached me and asked if I would paint 50 original one of a kind place setting cards of Arizona scenes for $3.00 each, He needed them in a week for an upcoming political fundraiser. I said not for $3 but I would do it for $5.00 each because the time was so short. He accepted and gave me half down, $125.00. Wow, I was in tall cotton, that covered the rent for the month, and I could see breaking even for the show costs I had just done when I collected the balance.
Let me tell you how much work that was: 50 original one of a kind cards in about 6 days, and he wanted the good stuff on card stock, acrylic, no quickie slipshod stuff like the dollar art. I painted 18 hours a day for 6 days to get those done. After about the fifteenth card it got tough to create a new Arizona image every few hours. There was no internet to surf, there were few image resources, I did not have a home library then or time to go to the local library, and most resource stuff was in black and white anyway. I was running on my own memory of my home state of Arizona (don’t ever do this). I got done about 4:00am on the morning they were due. I delivered them, collected my other half of the fee and went home to bed.
I was in no way prepared for what followed. A few days after their political event, I received a phone call asking if I would frame 3 of the cards I had painted, and did I have any more? This person went on to tell me that everyone else at the fund raiser was sending their cards out to be framed. Not because of the art work, but because the governor of Arizona had signed them all, personally.
It turned out that the event was for his re-election campaign, and at the event he had been asked first by one, then another to sign their place mat cards I had painted. They were swapping and trading them at dinner to get particular views they wanted; it turned into an art event with some buying cards from others. He signed them all and then they framed them for their memory collections.
Again, it was not because of the art. It was the novelty of it, and it was the governor’s signature that had value. Not that the art was bad (it wasn’t), and I was proud of the art work, but it was about the event and the fun they all had with it. The governor jokingly said he would sign the cards for a further donation, and off it went. His signature had the value.
The story goes on: One of the biggest mistakes or misjudgments of my life as an artist….. A few days after I framed those three cards and collected another $21.00 (yeah, I know – stupid) I got another call from the businessman. He had spoken to the governor and was asked If I would accept an invitation to do a one man art show of Arizona art in the state capitol building. No one had ever had an art show at that location and he felt that it would be a natural follow up to the previous event. He said in gratitude for the response he had received he would like to offer that. He was good at marketing!
Let me share with you how quickly one can get puffed up and then deflated. The event would be within 4 months and fell just before his campaign would kick into high gear (now understand, it has been 42 years so details might get thin).
I was elated – then reality set in: I would have to paint every wakening hour. I had been painting boats, clowns and city scenes, forests and mushrooms. With exception to the cards and the dollar art, my entire collection of art (a dozen images at best) was everything BUT Arizona!
No cowboys, no horses, nada. I could do them, I just had not. Now the money I didn’t make at the London Bridge show and the little profit I did get from the cards would not support me for 4 months, I had to work at another job every day, I had just taken a week I could ill afford, and we weren’t making it anyway. Then imagining my art in the rotunda with every one looking at it, I needed to spend a month on every painting, not one hour. They expected a couple dozen images. I went back to bed. Who did I think I was, I just got lucky, that is all.
I had no experience in funding myself, or finding funding to carry this off. I lived in a cowboy town that had no art culture, no patrons, and no understanding. I also had a myopic view of what I thought an art show should be: you know – traditional with easels and canvases and well, just think of it yourself.
I didn’t know how to ask for help or who to ask, and people around me didn’t have the good sense or perhaps the gravitas to help either.
The short of it is, I let this pass without fulfilling. Can you imagine how many times I have gone over this in my mind.? I did not take advantage of this, and found too many excuses. Don’t ever do that.
I could have simply painted a thousand one of a kind cards and called it good, I could have done one painting, I could have done performance art and painted in person; they didn’t care, it was political. I could have done anything I wanted, think outside the box, no – better yet, get rid of the box. I could have painted cactuses and snakes on rocks, anything – but I did nothing!
(I think my wife tried to tell me, but hey I knew better, right?)
So here is the bow on the story: it is not how much you sell your work for, it is how much you sell yourself for, and if you do sell yourself, have the good sense to collect the fee you have earned.
Oh, make no mistake, that is not the only super blunder I have made. That is why I wanted to blog.
Now about weighing in on Cory Huff: people who think five dollar art is a mistake, it is not, just don’t think you can do it as a main dish for a living. Do it for marketing or recognition or whatever motive you choose, just don’t try to make a living at that without also adding who and what you truly are. Have a bigger plan than that. It is always ourselves that we are selling, we’re just converting ourselves into marketable images.
Personally, I prefer art priced in ranges from $500.00 to $5000.00 and who wouldn’t like to get $50K for their work, but I still push a pencil for 5 bucks at times, too.
Opportunity comes in sizes that can’t be calculated in dollars. I no longer measure profit and progress with the same ruler.
In 1971 dollars my dollar art worked out to about 5 bucks profit an hour. The average wage in 1971 was about 4.50 hr.
The marketing value was huge. The experience was painfully huge, and now the story value is . . . well, we will see. I sold around two hundred dollar art images in 1971. That is 600 gallons of gas in 1971, or 2,500 postage stamps, or 133 trips to the movies.
Now figure that today’s cost of living is 5 times 1971, so a five dollar piece of artwork today has the same purchasing power as a one dollar piece in 1971.
So paint 200 pieces of $5.00 art, do it well enough to get them all sold, do it every week – If you could keep up the pace it would be 50 grand a year and it would kill you. (I don’t suggest you actually do this, just do the math, and paint something more worthwhile).
The value was in marketing and the mistake was in not harvesting the investment opportunity. Better idea is to paint what you want and price it high enough to make a good living. Let’s all go do that instead. This entire adventure was too costly, too painful, and now too long ago. Still, it started with dollar art. (See dollar art samples below).
|Cost Of Living 1971How Much things cost in 1971Yearly Inflation Rate USA 4.3% Dow Jones Industrial Average 890 Average cost of new house $25,250.00Average Income per year $10,600.00Average monthly rent $150.00Cost of a gallon of gas 40 centsDatsun 1200 Sports Coupe $1,866.00United States postage stamp 8 centsLadies 2 piece knit suit $9.98
Movie Ticket $1.50
2” X 3” art by Me $1.00