Yesterday, Bob Ragland of Denver, Colorado, who claims to be a Non-Starving Outlaw Artist, wrote, “I just had a very good write-up in the Denver Post. I arranged to be interviewed by a reporter. I never talk to art critics — they just try to beat you up. I learned a long time ago to get a storyteller to tell my story. Smart eh? I try to get ink every two years in this town. So far, so good. A critic can’t speak louder than a bill collector.”
Thanks, Bob. Artists frequently write to ask the best way to get print publicity. Bob has a system, and he’s on to something. Human interest stories that tell of an artist’s projects or dreams are ten to one better than a write-up by the local art critic. An even greater waste of ink can be an erudite deconstruction in a critical journal. These days, people don’t want to be told much about art — or whether it’s good or bad. The right kind of folks make up their own minds. The right kind of folks love to hear about adventures, passions and dedication.
Not all artists want or need publicity. For those who do, the best plan is to prepare your itinerary before you speak to a reporter. It’s your ‘story’ and you need to take control of it. If you don’t do this your reporter may try to make a story himself. Think of the headlines you don’t want: “Artist has to sell his hair in order to make ends meet.” “Artist is so rich he doesn’t have to paint.” “Artist says critics are slime.”
I’ve found there’s real value in being seen as an interesting and evolved person — worth reading about and worth the trouble to go and check out. In the long run a community asset is more significant than a community ass. A few written notes beforehand will help you to control your reporter. Don’t use jargon or obfuscation. Straightforward honesty and humility go a long way in our over-hyped world. I’m convinced that this is the best path for artists whose work is what is called “accessible.” More inaccessible, conceptual, and entertainment-art may require concerted hype in order to get the curious to venture forth. Often there’s something in it to hype about, and there’s always something more to talk about. But the general public these days has a bit of an attitude: The more the hype, they rationalize, the poorer the art.
PS: “Why don’t we spend less on advertising and just make better airplanes?” (Bill Boeing, 1918) “The market is the critic that matters.” (Walter Kirn) “Do not deviate by a hair’s breadth from your principles.” (Gustave Courbet)
Esoterica: The best publicist is extraordinary art. Just try to make quality work and let people discover you. When people discover you they take you as their own. Reporters too. A downside when working with commercial galleries is that extraordinary work can go to a customer before paint is dry. Your extraordinary art is not seen by enough people. While it’s not always easy to do, try to get the dealer to leave it up, red-stickered, for as long as possible. Red-stickered on line is good too.
What’s the proper etiquette?
by Mary Harrell, College Station, TX, USA
I wonder about this. I have a friend who is one of the top reporters in my town. Is it appropriate to approach her about writing a story about my art? What’s the proper “etiquette,” i.e., how do I approach her, begin the conversation, etc.?
Today’s connectivity by email
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
I use my email system for publicity. I have all the emails for art press journalists within the 100 mile radius of all my galleries. Whenever I have an event or show opening I send out press releases with images attached. It is a good system and works very well. I always include my contact information so that the person can talk to me if they need more information.
Successful article on show
by Anne Sherwood Pundyk, NYC, NY, USA
While I don’t have an objection to the work of art critics, I do agree that other types of press can be valuable for an artist. For a recent solo show I sought out an interview with a local reporter. I made sure to tie my comments to subjects of local interest, while at the same time discussing what I feel is important about my artwork. The resulting article Archetypal Images, Atypical Works was widely read by a local and regional audience and is also a good record of the show.
(RG note) Anne’s article written by Claudia Schwab is an example of a moderately “high-brow” balance between information, personal story and artistic interest.
Inspired by interview
by Lin Wryghte, Campbell River, BC, Canada
I happened to catch an interview of Trisha Romance on TV the other morning. I found myself being envious of her ability and situation. She is a mother who chose making art as her career and she spoke with such depth of involvement and commitment. Her face radiated joy as she spoke of juggling motherhood with seeing and then consciously making an effort to capture moments in time — (imprint this image, imprint the light, imprint the emotion, imprint, imprint) like taking a photograph but more — in order to reproduce that mind-image later, in a sketch and then a painting. She spoke of needing her times of solitude and her husband recognizing when those moments are, and giving them to her — and her opportunity to focus on her art because her husband takes care of the marketing. She paints what she knows; she paints what she loves.
Seeing this lady talk so passionately about what she is able to spend her time doing, and how she “sees” pictures, struck a cord in me. She described seeing the picture, described how she set about imprinting it in her mind, described capturing the moment in a painting, and as I watched her face as she described the process I realized that I used to experience that, and it’s made me hungry to experience it once again.
Offer to proof read
by Kendra Smith, Fernie, BC, Canada
I also suggest asking permission to proof-read the article before it is printed. I recently had a very lovely article written about me, but in it were three misprints which really turned it around. For example, she wrote that the most important aspect of my art is “printing” instead of “painting.” One little letter makes a big difference. Luckily, the paper printed my letter to the editor explaining that printing was a misprint, and although it is important to my business, as an artist I need to grow creatively and painting is the foundation of my artistic endeavors.
(RG note) In order not to put any reporter off — some of them have a great deal of professional pride — I sometimes suggest I can help them to make sure the “facts” (dates, etc.) are correct if they email me the draft. Some reporters appreciate this. It gives a chance to have removed unwanted or unnecessary information like “artist sleeps in the nude.”
Word gets out fast
by Lucy Bates, Fruitvale, BC, Canada
My husband and I, who both paint, moved to a small town in the West Kootenays, Canada, renovated a small church to accommodate our living quarters, studio and a front room art gallery. We are located on a very public corner in a residential area with many curious on-lookers. The word got out fast that we were there. We got calls from advertising agencies and the local newspaper who did an hour interview and a positive write-up on our life and goals with a photo of our gallery on the front page of The Trail Times. It was not something we pursued or even thought about. We were busily engaged in our renovations and people were curious.
(RG note) Artists who live in small communities often report that they get excellent attention from the local press. Apart from the fact that reporters are looking for news to fill their papers, there seems to be a friendly, sympathetic approach to local creators.
Concern for reputation
by Marlene Howell
I live in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I have narrowed down the places where I would like to show my work here. There is a long string of galleries showing local art, but I have discovered an art gallery/ restaurant frequented by the International set, which is a non-profit organization, there are no commissions, plus there are plenty of walls, natural light, and customers. My main goal is to successfully reflect a Canadian’s observation of the life in Cambodia. I was going to get in touch with one of the daily newspapers, hoping to attract an art critic for an honest opinion, but now I am concerned that it could do harm to one’s reputation if the opinion isn’t favorable.
(RG note) Thanks, Marlene. You don’t need an opinion. You need someone who will tell your story.
Be careful what you write
by Dawn Smith, Panama
Your letter came at exactly the perfect time as I was struggling with my bio for an upcoming show. Two comments of yours reminded me of my direction — was I seeing it like a storyteller would, and was my best publicist my extraordinary art? I spent months trying to work on those 10 word intro sentences (what my art can do for you) and developing memes for my art (art that entertains you). What a way to limit myself! If one of my three life purposes is to entertain — what happens when my work isn’t entertaining? Is it invalid if it is serious or thoughtful? Do I only get three life purposes? Gee, what if I have more to say? And the worst was, I actually started creating art to ‘fit’ my publicity!
Keeping it real
by Dar Hosta, Flemington, NJ, USA
I couldn’t agree more with your recent views on positive publicity, particularly on the points of honesty and humility. I am a non-starving artist, myself, working in central New Jersey. I manage to get ink a few times throughout the year, and generally present a story of myself that is both true and appealing to my demographic. Most of the articles about me relate to either a gallery exhibit or a public art show exhibit that is taking place, and when I pitch my idea to an editor, I generally send a nearly complete “article” that the reporter could use or modify, along with the jpegs. I find that it is the most genuine version of myself that gets the best response in art and print sales, often for many weeks after the article runs. I grew up with a parent who is also an artist and was given a very real and gritty work ethic as it relates to being a working and non-starving artist — as opposed to the romanticized version of an artist that can keep the general public and the artist separate from each other. I rely on the general public for my livelihood, and so I think it is important for them to know that while I spend part of my days in the, often mysterious, creativity mode of the artist, much of my day is spent very similarly to theirs: in the tedium of bill paying, email-answering, laundry-doing, toilet-scrubbing, lunch-packing and homework-helping duties.
My job is ideal in that I happen to really love it and also make a living doing it. Other than that, it’s really still a job, and the art that I make is my product. My life is like most people’s in that it is full of both joy and disappointments. The difference is that I have chosen the challenging road of following a dream and have worked very hard to stay at it and not let disappointments force me to take the easy way out. When I admit these types of sentiments in a public forum, such as a newspaper, my public connects with me and, thankfully, often takes a piece of my life’s work into their own life. We all love human interest stories.
Level playing field here
by Rick Woods, Sparks, NV, USA
I’m the editor of a free monthly tabloid supporting the arts, and I have to say that of the working artists in this area, I only hear regularly from a small percentage of them. I wish it were different.
I edit Encore for northern Nevada readers, published by Sierra Arts as a service to the community. Encore is event driven. While there isn’t room for feature material, it does provide space for publicity about upcoming shows and new work.
I’m pleased to get releases from artists that tell me about that ‘aha!’ moment when a composition comes together, about the grumbling partners, kids and pets who have to shift for themselves while the kitchen table lies hostage to a color balance problem that just won’t go away. A lively short story about the process makes it onto my pages almost every time.
On the other hand, I exercise the delete key liberally when faced with marketing fluff about ‘must see’ shows, and how great a ‘gift’ a piece of this artist’s work would be. I call ’em PR cruise missiles — million dollar fire-and-forget plugs for attention delivering a payload of meaningless verbiage, through a smokescreen of elaborate formatting. All gone in about 10 seconds.
The playing field is a very level clean white page. Invest your effort in words with life, and sizzle. If you’re not comfortable writing, find someone who is, and tell me how your work came to be. Get down to what really matters. I’m not much interested in art work from a production line. I like to hear from the hand that created it. My readers appreciate that too.
My philosophy as an editor is to give the reader enough information about the work for them to decide whether to see the show or not. The pleasure of discovering new work or a new artist is mine every month, and I’m determined to share as much of what I learn with my readers as I can.
By all means aim for some exposure in the big daily, but remember it’s just that. One day of exposure, and it’s fish-wrap the next. Remember you’re competing with every other artist for a piece of the print real estate, so aim for multiple targets. Many regional and state arts organizations publish newsletters and magazines — include them too. Mine is on the news stand for a month. If you’ve got a visually interesting process or work style, let the broadcast media know too, including the local NPR station. Make a list of reporters working in print, radio, television and now the internet. Email is a wonderful thing. Make a group address list and keep it current by sending them regular email updates.
Hope to hear from you all soon!
Blogging and other success ploys
by Mary Madsen, Henderson, NV, USA
This letter surprises me. I’ve only been in the visual arts for about 10 years, so I guess I entered the game after the rules had changed. I didn’t know artists were supposed to sit back and wait for reviews from critics, then hope to build their careers while twiddling their thumbs and hoping someone else will give them the nod. I’ve always worked on the press release as I’m working on the project. I do the art work, so I just assumed it was my responsibility to tell the story of the art and get that information to the media. This last project I worked on was a collaborative piece done with three other ceramic artists (a whopping big piece of architectural ceramics), and the lead artist on our team used to work in the business world, so she took charge of PR. Her fax machine was running night and day, and our faces have been in every publication in the city. I didn’t know there was a different way things were done. There isn’t a single publication or broadcasting company that won’t send out a complete media kit for the asking, as well as instructions on how to use the kit and return it to them. Have artists just discovered this? Really?
I’m also a fan of marketing strategies. If you want to know the personality of a people and the subterranean changes in a culture, and what people care about most, look at their advertising — it tells the story. The advertising industry does not control the people. Advertising responds to the stories people want to hear. I want to know the story before it is edited, so I read the books and learn to identify the trends. I don’t apply any of the trends to my art, but I do use them for marketing. However, I’m sure these trends have sunk in on my mind at a subconscious level and permeate how I process information and stimuli. That might be unfortunate, but at least I get to choose my influences, and I’m not at the mercy of academe and/or Big City snobbery. Some of the excellent books on the subject out now are:
— How Brands Become Icons, The Principles of Cultural Branding by Douglas B. Holt
— Blue Ocean Strategy… by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
— Trading Up, The New American Luxury by Michael J. Silverstein and Neil Fiske
— The Medici Effect… by Fran Johansson
— We The Media, Grassroots Journalism by The People for The People by Dan Gillmor
Most of these books, whether directly or indirectly, point to the return of “power to the consumer” through the new, great equalizer — the internet. One of the most powerful tools any artist, or business person, can have in this brave new world is a blog. More and more the consumer is overwhelmed by choices, with no hope of making those choices in a fast and satisfying manner. As consumers we now let our emotions direct which way our money flies, and increasingly we’re attaching those emotions to artists through their blogs. Although traditional media still stands, bloggers are rapping at the backs of their knees and making them buckle. Some of the major publications are starting to buy blogs to cut down the competition. Some major corporations now encourage all employees to maintain a blog. We will always hunger for that personal connection.
In my blog, I have sections about parenting adult children, agoraphobia, weight, sexuality, and three sections about my art — how it’s made, what I do on a daily basis in the process, and how I live my life centered around art. My old web site used to average about 75 hits per month, if I was lucky. I took it down and started my strategy anew, with the blog coming first as I construct the new site, and construct it well. During the first month my blog was up, I got 4,000 hits. Each one of those hits read about the construction of my new web site, saw a peek at my work, and helped build curiosity, emotional identification, anticipation, and included them in my work process and life. It’s marketing, but it’s a whole new way to market that seems much less hostile and manipulative.
I also practice “open source marketing” by offering any and all images on my blog to my readers for free as a screensaver. The computer is now the hub of the home. Every time a family member sits down to the computer and sees one of my images with my name signed at the bottom, the higher the price goes on the original and all limited editions. “Brand name” recognition goes up exponentially in a way I could never dream of with galleries, critics, and juried exhibitions. Of course, none of these strategies work if the art doesn’t live up to the hype. Consumers are confused and overwhelmed, but they’re not idiots — they know when someone’s cheating at the game. In many ways it makes me a better artist. I’m working now for people who have become my friends, and I want to give them the best I’ve got. In fact, I’m dragging my feet on the new site because having this connection with others has made me want to raise the bar on my work. I have to live up to my own self now, and if that isn’t a motivator for those down and insecure days, I don’t know what is. I’m the stiffest competition I’ve got.
As artists, we claim to be creative individuals. It doesn’t make sense to lock the door of our creativity when we lock the door on our studios at day’s end. Does it? Am I missing something? If I am, don’t tell me. I’m having far too much fun.
How to provoke interest?
by Judi Gorski, San Francisco, CA, USA
I have to say I agree with you about getting publicity as a human interest story. I was written up in my local paper in January of 2004 and someone who read the article came over immediately and bought two original pieces from me. I didn’t do anything to solicit the writing of the article, and I’m wondering what someone does or says to provoke that kind of interest from those who write the articles. Any ideas?
(RG note) You need to leak out what reporters need to hear. Every decent piece of news has a meta-message — that is, a single arresting idea that can generally be summed up in one sentence: “Peonies are her passion.” “Father and son paint huge mural upside-down on Grand Canyon.” “All bird paintings in this show were from her feeding tray.” “Artist bakes portraits onto hamburgers.”
Valuable image of Virgin Mary
by Dave Reeves, Quispamsis, NB, Canada
The other day our local paper had an article regarding the sale of a 10 year old grilled cheese sandwich on e-Bay for $28,000 US. Apparently this “collector’s item” had the face of the Virgin Mary on it — presumably a result of the cooking process. Just when I thought the human race could not possibly be more foolish something like this always turns up. After giving it only the miniscule thought it deserves, the following occurred to me:
What is the archival life of a grilled cheese sandwich so that the purchaser knows they can continue to enjoy this object d’art? Who’s to say what the Virgin Mary looks like anyway — the only images we have are surely the result of some artistic license. Is this the answer to the starving artist syndrome? What you don’t sell you can always eat. It boggles my mind that anyone with $28k to spare couldn’t think of something more useful to do with it — say, giving it to the local food bank, charity of their choice, or perhaps buying some art.
Gotta run, I need to buy some loaves of bread and several pounds of cheese slices — there are many more religious icons than the Virgin Mary.
That includes Louise Zjawin Francke, Chapel Hill, NC, USA who wrote, “Once again my local exhibit didn’t get reviewed!”
And also Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA who wrote, “Extraordinary art in a closet is somebody’s junk, worthless. Why wait for someone to open your closet after you’re dead? Take a pro-active approach: Tell the world about your work — that’s taking control, which is exactly what Bob Ragland was talking about. Besides, it can be a lot of fun.”
And also Kelly Borsheim, Cedar Creek, Texas, USA who wrote, “Storytelling and your red-sticker idea are good examples of what successful artists really do — they take non-sales-directed actions that allow people to have the opportunity to discover.”
And also Julie Rodriguez Jones, Spanish Springs, NV, USA who wrote, “It is as important for an artist to know a bit about publicity as it is to paint well.”