One of the Greatest Lessons in Art Marketing I Ever Experienced
A great and unique event: the McCulloch Corp. had bought and moved and re-erected the real London Bridge in the Arizona Desert on the Great Colorado River at Lake Havasu. My wife and I had watched it from scratch (somewhere in our 8mm movie files we recorded it periodically).
1971 – The London Bridge was opened in Lake Havasu City, Arizona. The three day event was greatly heralded and publicized. It included: parades, music, speeches, food and games and of course, market place bazaars for local vendors, artists, and performers to ply their goods, the greatest display of fireworks we have ever seen. The vendors were in one of three giant tents. Another tent was for concessions, food, and music, and a special one on the bridge for invited guest and dignitaries only. Virtually hundreds of people showing their stuff, all was great.
After pre-renting a booth for my art work in the vendor tent, I painted and framed artwork for many days getting ready. In my late twenties it was a big deal, 50,000 people were expected, weather was perfect and the space for my table couldn’t have been better.
It was a 60 mile drive each morning to Lake Havasu for those three days, no tear down needed each night, just arrive and have a great time, we were excited, My wife, two children and I! It was fine weather in Arizona at that time.
A few booths down from mine some poor guy showed up with almost nothing, no obvious finished art or merchandise. He arrived there just before showtime; we had been set up for almost four hours. He had no backdrop, no skirting or curtains, no easels, no signs, no merchandise, well . . . no nothing except a table, a chair, a bucket, some odd supplies, paint and paper.
I sauntered down and introduced myself and asked him, “What are you doing?” He looked at me straight in the eyes, and asked, “Well, what are you doing?” “Uh, oh I’m here to show and sell my art work,” was my reply, sweeping my hand around a room filled with other mostly artists and craftspersons all set and ready, as if to include them in my questioning assessment. “Well,” he replied, “I’m here to find new owners for my pets.”
Me – “So, you’re going to paint while you find new homes for your pets?” I’m thinking: cats, dogs, strange desert creatures?
He – “Kinda, yes.” He was being a little illusive, I thought.
“What kind of pets?” I asked.
“Oh, I’m going to get them now,” he replied, grabbing his bucket. He said, “Be right back.”
I would have not believed this had I not seen it, but he returned with a bucket of stones from the shoreline of Lake Havasu. Set them to dry and began to paint faces and caricature them, gluing google eyes on and some with horn rimmed glasses. A small sign was made stating his purpose, “New homes wanted for my pet rocks.” I laughed out loud, thinking, “What a nut case.” I didn’t see it, I didn’t get it, but it seems everyone else did. He put the rocks with a painted face in a little box with padding, handed out instructions for care and training. He sold several hundred dollars’ worth of rocks the first day; I sold 30 dollars’ worth of fine art.
It was hard to get near the guy after that, his booth was always crowded. As best as I can recall, either he or someone else who either bought or was inspired by the idea, or perhaps it was the other way round, someone went on to form a corporation and made over a million dollars selling the pet rock fad nationwide. I do not know if this was a sample idea test, or another guy with the same idea, because it was 1971 when this happened and it wasn’t until 1975 that a man named Gary Dahl started the Rock Bottom Productions for marketing his pet rock products. I just know this guy was first and painted faces and glued personalities to his rocks. Perhaps Gary was at that show, too; how they were or were not connected I don’t know!
Here is what I learned: I misperceived the moment, I was busy being a “salesman” instead of being in the moment. Being what I really am – an artist. That was not art – that was marketing and in marketing this guy blew us all out of the arena.
If it is money you’re after, marketing is faster. Being an artist doesn’t mean we don’t all need financial success, but it is truly a different thing than expressing art. I wish I would have photographed, or sketched this, collected his name and others who brought their best as well, or something. But as most young artists I did not see him, or them, I saw only my own opinion of art. After that day I have greatly widened my view of the world I walk around in, and have come to truly appreciate and enjoy those quirky elements and people that jump up in front of us all. That is where art really is, right in front of us. Why didn’t I capture in sketches those tents, that crowd, that very special moment in time? I should have been making art, not trying to sell it.
Can you imagine if there were images of that day instead of just memories? 50,000 people were there who might remember that special weekend!
I wonder if it is too late to sketch from memory, “Who would care?,” I wonder.
Number one lesson in art: make art.
I am searching my own archives for resource material from this time; I think I owe it to myself to do something on this. If I can, I’ll post it.
The person given credit for the pet rock idea was Gary Dahl, an executive in an advertising firm.
Dahl called his own company Rock Bottom Productions. Using grey stones hand-picked on Rosarito Beach in Baja, Mexico. His pet rocks, just common beach stones, sold for $3.95 each.