‘So, where do you get your inspiration from?’ …you’d be amazed how many times I have been asked that question this week: it’s that perennial undertaking which we round here call Somerset Arts Weeks. Now, I’m not usually one to complain, but I would like it known that it is hard work, it is time-consuming, it does cost money, and it does involve talking to the general public for about a fortnight in the eager hope that they may be inspired to make a purchase.
And in the past, it has been worth all the effort.
Let me describe this event a little from my point of view: where I live it happens that we have several artists geographically very close to each other, though artistically very diverse. This is particularly good when it comes to Somerset Arts Weeks, because we get a lot of visitors, who, seeing on the map a group of artists that they can reach all at once, without getting back into their cars, often head for us and do the village art-crawl. So a lot of visitors come into my exhibition space, they look at my pictures (paintings, etchings, life drawings), and many of them have a lot of nice things to say about them. Many of the visitors ask me at great length about my artwork, ask me how it is done, ask me why it is done, ask me a lot of questions generally.
I often explain things at length, even sometimes going to the trouble of showing people some of my photos on the laptop of paintings in unfinished stages, explaining exactly how this and that was painted, describing my own particular invented techniques, etc, etc. Some people go away with a free half-hour art lesson to think about. And that is all they go away with. It is often the case that those who talk most, spend least, as if, having no money to spend, they are instead paying with their praise and appreciation. Now, please don’t misunderstand me on this point: I don’t mind this. It can be entertaining; it can be rewarding to feel that I may have helped people who have gone away with some new techniques to try; it is flattering to be told nice things abut one’s artwork.
The problem is, this year, everyone is doing it. In the past, the talkers have been offset by the spenders: one can talk all day and feel that it has been worth the effort because a few people have bought some artwork too. But although I have indeed made a few sales this year, the change in attitude is noticeable, and many visitors report that lots of artists are saying sales are way down. On the other hand I know that many of us offer for sale low priced items such as cards and other small creations, that would not break anyone’s budget and probably cost less than the entrance fee to a stately home or other similar Sunday afternoon entertainment.
Of course I don’t live under a rock, and yes, I have noticed there is a recession on, but I have been visited by a stream of enthusiastic people, eagerly doing the rounds and delighting at the wonderful free entertainment. I am not sure that many of them appreciate that it costs the artists quite a lot of money to take part in this event, and they do it in the hope that they will sell something. And I feel for those artists who are far off the beaten track and will not even be getting large visitor numbers.
I hesitated before writing this article, because I do not like to be negative and I don’t feel that it usually does any good, but I think that in part the problem lies right at the heart of the SAW organization. The Somerset Arts Weeks guide, a large full-colour publication proudly exclaiming ‘free guide’ on the front cover, has an endorsement on the inside in large letters that speaks of “ this glorious week of cultural exploration”. Passing briefly over the fact that it is actually slightly more than two weeks, there is a further introduction in smaller text on the opposite page that declares “It’s a chance for you to explore!”
Now, it is true that this secondary introduction goes on briefly to mention that “it’s a good time to buy at artists’ prices too” in what seems to me a slightly apologetic way as if the mention of commerce might sully this glorious cultural event, but even that lone statement is problematic in itself. Many artists, myself included, sell in local galleries, who take a commission for selling our artwork. Of course they take a commission: it pays for the existence of the galleries who, quite rightly, will take exception to the suggestion that all people have to do is wait for Somerset Arts Weeks to come along, and the public can buy cheap art. The gallery’s commission pays for the fact that it costs to run a gallery. During Arts Weeks it costs the artists to run their own exhibitions. No doubt a lot of artists charge a little less than gallery prices, but the public expectation should not be set to expect this as a given.
There is a growing trend to expect everything for free. I was particularly shocked to hear from a fellow artist, who had gone to the trouble of providing coffee and cake at their venue in aid of charity, that some people had been taking advantage of that and not even making a donation for their refreshments! And on a wider focus, this is not all free: the artists themselves are paying for their visitors because we pay to take part in the event, and we give up our time when we could be working.
The event could be better marketed as an event that exists to help artists to sell their work, be they well known or just starting out down the hard road of trying to make a living from something that they have a talent for. Would it be so very mean to try to nudge the public’s perception next year? I do not expect every visitor to buy from every venue, or even expect every visitor to buy, it is simply that I think the perception of what we are doing here has slipped far too far the wrong way. Nothing is, after all, free… somebody is always paying.