THE COASTER ECONOMY

August 13, 2021  •  Leave a Comment

                                    MULTNOMAH FALLS : FINAL VERSION

This week I'd like to try something different. I am going to explore the business of photography, I think it might be interesting to the readers of this blog to learn of some of the trials and tribulations of an artist who tries to sell his work. I have been engaged in this pursuit for a dozen years, and it is both a source of great pride and frustration. Before I begin, I'd like to set a few ground rules:

1. I am one of the worst businessmen I know. If you want to say you are worse, you've got to prove it to me. My wife Fran has concluded her opinion of my business acumen in Star Trek terms - in marketing terms, I am "anti-marketing."

2. Selling art at Saturday Market is unlike selling anything anywhere else in the world. It has nothing to do with any other product or venue you might consider as an MBA exercise. While I have always considered any well-meaning business advice, my long-standing rule has been that until you sit in my booth for a couple of hours you really have no idea of what you are talking about - it's that different.

3. I respect and love almost all of my customers. The artist/customer relationship has always appealed to me as much "cleaner" than my years of negotiating the frequently fraught architect/client dynamic. I offer my work to the public; they either buy it or not, no hard feelings. While I will be talking about selling art in this essay, I would assure you that despite all of the evidence to the contrary, my marketing silliness is clearly 100% more than any craziness among my customers.

4. I have made money in the last twelve years as an artist, which almost universally is greeted with surprise by my fellow artists. Most of the fine art photographers I have met make almost all of their money by teaching people photography rather than selling their own prints. Almost every consultant I have encountered has basically said that they can't believe how successful I am, and don't know why I might want to broaden my efforts beyond what "works." While I have made a profit, and take great pride in that, I have come nowhere near "making a living". My wife has totally supported me in my artistic efforts, and I'd like to once again thank her for that.

                                   KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD! : FINAL VERSION

A dozen years ago, in the midst of the Second Great Depression, my wife suggested one day that maybe I should try to sell my photographs at Saturday Market. Like many other people, I was totally at a loss of what to do, since my solo architectural firm had ground to a complete halt. I had always thought that I was so "micro" that I had nothing to with the "macro" economy, but I obviously was completely wrong. My income had dropped 90%, and with the chances of me getting a job as an architect somewhere between zero and nil, mostly because I had no recent experience working for anyone else, and i had allowed myself to miss the computer revolution. I couldn't imagine doing anything else, so the prospect of selling my photography seemed a lot more fun than getting a "gig" that paid minimum wage. After  experimenting at several street fairs and not being laughed off, I finally decided to try the most legitimate venue, Saturday Market.

                                   MADE IN OREGON : FINAL VERSION

So in October of 2009 I went down to the Market - or in the words of one of my market friends, I ran off to join the circus. I arrived to the chorus of Canadian Geese, which I know now really means in the Fall that "why don't you fly off with us since you won't make any money till December anyway." Since I didn't know what I was doing, any money I made was more of a surprise than anything else, and I just muddled through until Christmas without any real idea about really selling my art. I literally would take the art of my walls in the house on Friday night and bring it to the market to sell on Saturday. The idea that I was not showing  my "personal work" was ridiculous, since that was all I had. And much to my amazement, some people actually liked it enough to purchase it.

VESPAS                                     VESPAS : FINAL VERSION

Fran eventually caused some professionalization simply by accident. I was forced to buy some storage boxes because she progressively put up some of her quilts to replace my photographs - the photography department was losing wall space to the textile curators. But I still didn't have the barest idea of a business plan, a marketing strategy, or anything else that might convince anyone else that I knew what I was doing, At the end of that first three months  the extent of my business records was my delight that I had a "winning record" as a pitcher at the market, a 7-5 record of days that I had made more money that I had paid to be there. Christmas had netted me a total profit of $632 for about 120 hours at the market. Who needs minimum wage when you are selling art?

                                    LEWIS AND CLARK: FINAL VERSION

It was only after a the first few months of the new season in 2010 that I finally began to realize that this was not a going concern. While I had never been "skunked", which is what we called making zero all day, I was not really covering my costs. By the time I had really outfitted myself to approach a legitimate business, I had spent over a thousand dollars that I didn't have in the basic costs of setting up a booth and coming up with a real stock, most of which was not selling. Like a lot of my fellow artists, I had not solved the Market problem; the red information booth at the Market represented our rental costs to appear at the Market, and by extension all of our business expenses. "Are you working for the Red Booth or are they working for you?" was the basic question I was not answering correctly most weeks.

                                   STUMPTOWN EVENINGS : FINAL VERSION

I had been trying everything to encourage sales, exhibiting many different sizes and prints and just losing money increasing my stock. One day I literally had too much in the booth, ran out of real wall space, and resorted to placing several new very small 4" x 4" prints lying flat on an IKEA table, embarrassed by my unprofessional gallery display. Something weird began to happen -everyone who entered my booth asked me whether these small prints were coasters, and were clearly disappointed upon discovering they were not. I sat there and realized that if I had gotten a dollar for every time a customer asked that question that day, I would have made several hundred dollars without selling a thing. While I might be a fool, my parents didn't raise an idiot, and with all apologies to fools and idiots, I went home that night resolved to somehow make them the coasters they seemed to desire.

                                    POWELL'S : FINAL VERSION

It took a few weeks, but I finally perfected the crazy process that I would ensure a reasonably reliable photo coaster. The really funny part of the whole affair was that the least fragile part of the coaster was the the actual photograph, which of course ran counter to any reasonable expectation. The low point of my experiments in terror, when I almost called the chemistry department at Portland State, was when the coasters worked, then failed and bubbled up with much tears and consternation, and then miraculously worked again. While this was a miracle, it obviously wasn't a real product, and the experiments in water-resistance, if not water proofing, continued. Somehow I made it work, but not before I came up with a 12-step process that most people would reasonably declare so crazy as to call for another 12-step program. But my career as a coaster-monger was about to begin.

COMING HOME (MT. HOOD)                                     COMING HOME : FINAL VERSION

Despite my ridiculous process, I did get a few thing right from the start. Since I had always liked the square format anyway, I had plenty of images to choose form to create my first coasters, and I soon learned that most of my other images could also be cropped to a square without completely violating my artistic principles. I also absolutely refused to do the obvious and make sets of themed coasters - i just said that customers could choose any four they wanted. While I would eventually realize that this resulted in fights between couples, I found that I could steer my customers to resolution most of the time. By making the set a free-for-all, I avoided any dangerous curatorial decisions beyond just seeing if an image had any traction at all. It became every coaster fending for itself, and while some were popular and some were not, they all seemed to find some audience. What actually happened was that an individual coaster would grab someone's attention, no matter how weird, and then they would build up a quartet.

                                    DROVE MY CHEVY TO THE LEVEE : FINAL VERSION

So I soon realized that while an abstract image like the '55 Chevy above would never challenge a tourist landscape image, it could engage a car nut even though I might not have four auto images. The object became to inspire interest more than to curate my own collections. In any case, I was now actually selling things all day. Even more important, I now had a easy way to engage with customers, because I could answer that original question. Even when I provided signage that assured them that "Yes, These are Coasters", I finally had an easy way to talk to potential customers. Before this I had relied on a seven-hundred page history book to show customers I wasn't going to "sell" them anything, since a simple "Hello" seemed to drive most people from the booth. I was on my way!

                                   DAISY, DAISY : FINAL VERSION

While I resisted any marketing efforts, I couldn't argue with the obvious facts emerging from my new coaster sales charts. I had always avoided making any images "for the public", since my own personal work sold better and all of my colleagues at the Market already made all of their sales from those same images. Why sell the same things?  So I continued to exhibit images that I had made for myself anyway, and learned that any artist's best work falls in that category. I knew that photos of Paris would probably not sell in a Portland market, but since I had lived in Portland for seventeen years, most of my best work was on Portland or architectural themes. But the coasters allowed me to easily try new things, and flowers, which I had always loved, became a new obsession. It actually was so easy to sell flower portraits that of course the "anti-marketeer" began to resist, out of concern for feeding the addiction of little-old ladies. The flower series actually became the only thing I ever sold anywhere else besides the market, despite all of my entreaties of dozens of Portland shops to try to share in my good fortune. I didn't realize that since shop owners make so little money too, their only pride came from curating their shop, and they didn't want to sell something that they hadn't thought of. But Portland Nursery agreed to try my flower coasters, and when I quietly asked if I could get store credit instead of cash, I was handed a piece of paper that allowed me 20% off as a supplier. When I came home and told Fran about her new discount, you would have thought I had won a Pulitzer or something. My art was finally worth something, and "the letter" became the holy grail in my house. It got so bad that when coaster sales began to trickle down at the nursery,  Fran came up with an "I Love Lucy" scheme that involved me "reverse shop-lifting" more coasters into my display at the nursery to show how popular they were. I resisted, and soon the discount was history, although we mad a lot more off the discount than I did off the coaster sales.

                                   FISH PARKING : FINAL VERSION

Of course I went overboard, and although coaster sales were now most of my business, I soon had so many different images that I couldn't display them all, and more importantly, the sales statistics no longer meant as much, since they were now as divided as the FM radio dial. Almost all of the images made some sales, but the newer ones could never compete with the old favorites, and my charts soon resembled  the Top 40 charts, with some former favorites falling off the charts, while a few others were moving up with a "bullet." The lunacy that eventually created more than 400 coaster images led to a perverse pride that my most popular images never accounted for more than 6% of my total sales; I knew that my colleagues relied on just a handful of images for all  of their sales. I also took pride that even though I was now selling what could be called tourist trinkets, most of my images seemed to speak to natives, who would steer their visiting relatives to images they wanted them to buy, or would be taking coasters to far-flung places they were visiting.

                                    WHAT'S WITH THE CARPET?" : FINAL VERSION

Coasters kept me in business, so they were in some sense the magic bullet that ensured the viability of my art business. I never was successful in selling them anywhere else or on line, but they clearly paid the rent and usually much more. I was surprised that it took a few years for me to get any coaster competition, but my images are better, and the coasters allow me to sell other things, so there you go. The coasters allowed this photographer to finally answer what I believe is the ultimate Saturday Market question, which I characterize as "The Illusion of Use." If you walk through the market, you will observe 250 artists passionately selling their art, while all the while carefully assuring their buyers that it is really something else. It is my belief that unfortunately most people don't think they "deserve" art. Art is for rich people with too much money, and its purchase is frivolous if not downright immoral. You can admire it, but you must come up with another reason to actually purchase it. Now some art is really easy to justify its use, like jewelry, or pottery, which my wife calls the introductory drug of all crafts - everyone has their first mug. I came up with an excuse for people to buy my art because they were buying something they could use - a coaster - even though probably half of my customers don't actually use them as such. They graciously email their coaster installations - on the wall! - even though I have never made any headway in selling them that way. When I assure my customers that they can display them on their walls, most just look at me and declare "but they're coasters! You really can't win.

                                    BEER HERE : FINAL VERSION

But of course I've won. The coasters, and my wife, have allowed me to be an artist for the past dozen years. I've learned a lot as a coaster-monger, and I have actually gotten even more cynical about "business" as a result. I have sold more than 16,000 coasters from my little booth, and can't  convince anyone else to share in the wealth. My competitors either wildly price their products so that mine look like bargains, or go the other way so much that I am speechless. When I finally saw coasters at Powell's, I was embarassed as I cursed not really under my breath. I then started cackling when I realized that the price was so low that I would actually lose money on every coaster I sold to Powell's at that price, and wished my competitor all of the luck in the world. I have now sold my art to over 3,000 households in Portland, and to people in every state in the Union, and to places in 67 countries around the world.

                                    INTO THE WOODS : FINAL VERSION

Which doesn't mean I actually know what I'm doing. While I have improved my coaster routine - they are actually far better and it's now only a four-step process - I still retain my anti-marketing cred. I finally realized that a good portion of the public are still "flippers" - even though they have never been in a record store - so that I can restrict the unpopular coasters to one copy in a "rarities" box that customers can flip through to make their own "discoveries." I started making magnets out of coasters on the spot as a "service", at no charge(!) once I realized that I could sell these coasters at twice the market price point for magnets as long as I didn't stock them. Yet I resisted selling an image of the St. Johns Bridge for so long that once I finally did I sold 36 of this image in only three weeks!

                                    DONUTS AND COFFEE : FINAL VERSION

Ok, sometime you know  a good coaster. But often it has eluded me over the years is what kind of image actually makes a good coaster. I have been reduced to just putting them out there and seeing if anyone salutes, because there doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason for why an image will succeed. The minute I think an image will be catnip for tourists, or will be an irresistible joke, or just happens to be one of my most popular images in other forms, it fails as a coaster. Some of my most famous images totally fail as coasters, while other popular coasters, and not just obvious tourist images or my attempts at humor, have never sold in any other form. I've remained perplexed that a 4" x 4" image on the wall will not attract any interest, but put it on a table and I can sell it until the cows come home. In some regard I have come to the conclusion that some images are made for the small format, that arrogant photographers who will only sell an image at its one proper size are in fact on to something. I realize that my small images, which I call my "little Jewels", actually look their best as a small image rather than blown up. Other images, mostly with more detail, only shine when printed at larger sizes. And still other images look great at several sizes, or even change and look great fro different reasons as they are enlarged. Finally, when I think about it, since most people never see an image bigger than their phone display, or printed slightly larger in a book, a fine image doesn't need to be blown up to billboard size. And while I love selling my large metal prints, most people can't afford what I have to charge for them. I'd rather profitably have my art in homes around the world than just sell it to a few rich collectors - that would just bring back all of the angst of the architect/client relationship!

                                   YES, THESE ARE COASTERS : FINAL VERSION

Finally, we get to a meta-coaster, and we have entered the twilight zone. I decided to try some new form of advertising to replace my venerable booth sign. So I found some background images and inserted my self-deprecating advertisement over the image, to create a new coaster version of the sign. Imsgine my absolute delight and horror when these coasters started actually selling as coasters! I didn't know what to say, but as Fran says, take the money and smile. It turned out these are popular with customers who have relatives who refuse to use coasters. I have created the first passive aggressive coaster, and I am now ready to call myself a marketing genius!

 

 

 

 

 


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