Saturday, August 15, 2009

Taking on the "Stay Small Brigade"

Last week I was preparing for my first solo art show--an event I called an "art show, sale, celebration"--not in a gallery but at a friend's house. Even without the pressures of a "real gallery," getting ready for this show was a big deal for me. It was a huge opportunity to choose to show up as fully as possible. . . or not--since to speak of choosing implies there's another option!

On three prior occasions I've had a couple of small works included in large, eclectic, and wide open (as in, non-juried) group shows. But I've usually not even thought to tell my friends about them, let alone invite them to see for themselves.

This time was different. This time I invited a considerable group of friends and neighbors, and my host invited some of her friends, too. This time there would be no one else's art alongside mine (other than the art Sarah already has in her home). This time people who know me would be looking at my artwork and even deciding whether or not they might want to purchase some of it.

I did pretty well with looking through my surprisingly large collection of paintings, most of them painted in the past twelve or thirteen months. Even I was astonished at how many I have tucked away and how much selecting there was to do to arrive at a group of paintings I wanted to show.

Much of my work is in oil on either stretched canvas or wood panels, though a sizable minority are small works on gessoed paper. I took about ten of the latter to Art House Picture Frames in Portland to be matted.

What posed the biggest challenge to me--and where the "Stay Small Brigade" launched its fiercest fight--was the pricing! I was challenged not only by the multi-layered question of how to put a dollar figure on art, and a whole host of related issues: who gets to decide what's art and what isn't? who gets to decide what's valuable art and what isn't? how do you even begin to measure the monetary value of something so subjective and so unquantifiable as a piece of art?

Beyond these broad questions, I was really pushed to the wall by having to decide how to price my own art, which is of course related to valuing my own energy, time, vision, and work. And to trusting myself to arrive at prices that felt right or at least good enough.

An unexpected development raised the bar on all of this. When Graham Wilen of Art House Picture Frames called to tell me my matted pieces were ready and I asked him what I owed him, he said he was wondering if I'd be open to trading one of my pieces for his matting work. That was a big boost right off the bat--just to know that someone who handles a fair amount of art was interested in one of my pieces!

The next day when I picked up the work and learned what was the actual charge for the Graham's work, I couldn't imagine that he considered my small painting to be of equal value. I even had to ask him outright in very plain language to be sure I wasn't misunderstanding. He considered my piece to be worth more than twice what I was thinking I'd ask for it!

I arrived home from his shop with a whole new delightful dilemma! Would I accept this beautifully timed invitation to rethink the value of my own art, or would I stick with "staying small," in essence aiming for the lowest possible prices just a hair above giving my art away?

In many ways there really was only one choice--to take a leap forward, with gratitude for this well-placed nudge, and change all the prices I had been imagining. And that's when the Stay Small Brigade really showed up, too.

First I felt just plain frozen, a clear sense of conflict residing in my body. When I probed the conflict, it was rather basic: stay "safe" with the status quo (static and status kinda go together, don't they?) and keep the prices low, or dare to live a little bigger and bolder and raise them.

The Stay Small Brigade's arsenal consists almost entirely of thoughts: "Raise the prices, and no one will buy anything." "How could you possibly consider asking more in this economy?" "If you price your art higher, everyone will think you're full of yourself." "You're getting too big for your britches!" "Who do you think you are, daring to believe in yourself like this?!" and on and on.

Of course such thoughts bring with them physical manifestations--such a burden! So much tension! I knew I would raise my prices--after all, in order to be honest I had to label the one work to be traded as "SOLD" at the price that Graham was willing to pay, and it only made sense to adjust my other prices accordingly.

After a day of rumination laced with fear, I began to feel rather amused by the SSB's tactics, and by the essentially bottomless nature of its thought arsenal. Neutralize one thought, and three more would pop up! Amused curiosity and eventually laughter proved effective antidotes. Clearly this was just going to be part of the landscape, and I was just going to have to choose to keep going regardless. Which I did.

I totally enjoyed the evening. It was fun to see friends and neighbors, and to meet Sarah's friends. And whether our guests bought something or not, they were still seeing my work! I rarely worried about the prices (though I did tell the story of Graham's trade a few times), and I sold five pieces that night, and five more small ones the next morning!

Of course it didn't take long for the Stay Small Brigade to start launching its next assault: ("Don't you dare imagine this kind of success will ever happen again!" "This was probably just a fluke." etc. etc.). But I've learned a little about how to manage that crowd.

Image: "Color Play II", 8" x 6", oil on wood. SOLD!


David Heald said...

It was a wonderful evening. One to be savored on many levels, not least of all in learning how to work with the Stay Small Brigade. I suspect it will be a life-long companion...

Sukie Curtis said...

Yes, I have a feeling you're right about that. I suppose that means one needs to build as full and clever a tool kit (or counter-arsenal, to stay in the metaphor) as possible. And good, supportive friends, coaches, colleagues, and spouse help, too!

Anonymous said...

I wish I could have been there. What a wonderful reflection. It can be such a challenge pricing our worth...the man at the frame shop was your Saviour.

Sukie Curtis said...

Amen to that!! :)