Why Your Art Needs a Story

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As a committed supporter of small business, I don’t frequent big box stores unless I can’t find what I need from an independent shop. On the rare occasion I do patronize discount houses, I am always disheartened (OK, sometimes I’m just plain angry) to see unlicensed knockoffs of hand made designs.

As an artist, making each piece by hand, how can you possibly compete with a copy of your own work made by children in China? Even if your designs are trademarked and copyrighted,  you likely can’t afford the lost time or emotional reserves to fight these mass manufacturers.  I’ve watched it happen to so many artists and I know it’s a struggle to stay ahead of the copy-cats.

So, what can you do about it? How can you differentiate your work from the inexpensive look-a-likes?

Well, the best way I know is to make sure that shoppers know the difference so that they appreciate the value of your work and understand why it commands a higher price tag. Otherwise, they are not going to pay $279. for a piece that looks just like what they’ve seen in the Target, Walmart or Macy’s. And the one element that makes your work worth paying more for is the YOUness. If your work doesn’t have a story, your customer can’t understand the value and there is no way they are going to pay more for something that looks just like the cheaper one.

Why your art needs a story

Now, more than ever, your art needs a story.  Annette Simmons, author of The Story Factor,  said  “in today’s world almost anyone you want to influence is operating under a deficit of human attention.”  They are drowning in facts, information and  statistics. They need a story they can relate to.  Most people don’t remember facts and figures. They do remember stories. As an artist, you need a story too.

If you’re showing your work at a juried craft show, chances are the attendees  understand the value of your work. In that case, just being personable and explaining a bit about your process, inspiration, etc will help reinforce the old know-like-trust factor. They’ll be loyal fans because they know your face and like you. However, if you exhibit at an un-juried show, it’s likely that some vendors have slipped imports into the mix and you’ll have to work harder to make sure the customers know you.. Knowing your “story”, where you came from and how you got where you are now, adds that human element and makes your work worth the higher price.

If your art is represented in a gallery, you may assume that the clientele perceives it’s value. Don’t take it for granted.

For several years I owned a contemporary craft gallery in a quaint coastal village. I represented artists and craftspeople from all over the US and Canada. Now you would assume that with the upscale ambience and the word “gallery” in the name, customers would expect to pay more for items that are handcrafted.  But I was surrounded by souvenir shops housed in cute victorians, carrying items embellished with the local town name. Some of these shops had mass-produced Chinese copies of the same handmade-in-the-US yard sculpture that we carried. They were priced a fraction of the hand-crafted piece. My neighbors put a 4X mark-up on these imported knock-offs while my handmade pieces were at keystone (double my cost.)  So, why did customers  buy from my gallery and how did I build a loyal following for the artists despite the challenges of knock-offs? I made sure that everyone who walked through the door was greeted with eye-contact and a smile and told that the items in the gallery were made by hand. When a visitor looked at  each display, they were told the artists name, a personal “story-bite” and a brief description of the  craft process. For example, we carried a line of hand made venetian glass jewelry.  Several neighboring shops carried manufactured jewelry made with Chinese “murano” glass-not made on the island of Murano at all.  But visitors to the my gallery were told the story of the artist, Jane, an American opera singer who went to Italy years ago to sing and fell in love with glass. Fluent in Italian from her opera training, she was able to befriend the Venetian crafts people, were invited into their studios and taught the craft of making beads. She then designs her own beads and goes over several times a year to design her seasonal lines. She brings her beads back to her Portland studio where she hand makes her jewelry.  My clients purchased her work because they felt a human connection to the item which increased the perceived value and they became collectors because they remembered her story.

So how can you, as a artist, differentiate your work from the knock-offs? Your work needs the story of YOU. Every piece you display for sale should be accompanied by a photo of you and a personal bio. Not a resume bio but a human interest story. No one is going to buy your art because you have an MFA in ceramics or a certificate in gemology. Art is an emotional purchase and it’s your story that speaks to the buyer. They want to know about your family, your pets and what inspired your craft.

It’s the story of YOU that will sell your art and turn shoppers into collectors.

Is your bio a resume of facts or does it tell a memorable story of who you are and what you stand for?

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