by Heather Weiler
Lately there has been a lot of talk in Salt Lake City about “art” and what role it will play in the revitalization of Salt Lake City’s downtown. While business ventures have often thrived as a result of having the arts in their midst it is, ironically, the artists who never seem to be able to make the business of art thrive. With this in mind, I began a collaborative teaching project at Riverton High School with the AP art program. Together with the art staff — mainly Robyn Harris and Susan Hyde — I collaborate to teach a section entitled, “The Business of Art.” The purpose is to develop the concept that “art” should be profitable, not only for the corporations, the financially successful, and the gallery owners, but for the artists as well.
In collaborating with the AP Art course this year, I have been challenged to examine the eternal question, “What is art?” and it’s companion question, “What is fine art?” I believe a third question should be added to this theoretical quandary — “What is consumable art?” This question, to my knowledge, has not been formally raised in the art curriculum. It is a crucial one, however, because once an image is produced and goes from the artist to an outside source, it has been consumed. The intellectual property remains with the artist but the manifestation of that concept does not. So unless the artist is to keep all his images, he must face realize that his art will be consumed and must ask himself, “How?”
To Reproduce or Not to Reproduce
A strong myth has been perpetuated that suggests to reproduce one’s artwork detracts from the original piece — sell a reproduction and your retail value for your original work will fall; better galleries won’t carry you. Since museums sell reproductions of all kinds and very high priced artists have selected reproduction, I would suggest this argument is a moot point. Reproduction is a personal choice. Often reproduction broadens an artist’s client-interest base and actually increases the retail value price for the originals. The reproduction can be the bread and butter product of consumption allowing an artist to eat from the sale of one original to another!
The reason I am so in favor of reproduction is because it allows the public to select an image from an artist and purchase it. The reproduction is about buying something you like and want to enjoy. It is about a size that will let you hang it in your personal space. It is about purchasing more than one image and being able to hang them and still have money left over to do other things. It allows the consumer to begin to consume at a level with which he or she is comfortable. It is about not cutting out people who could eventually decide to spend their money on an original.
I had a wonderful conversation with Bonnie Phillips recently and we both believe the core is about building a consumer market. There are all levels of consumers. I happen to believe that the introductory level may be consumption of reproductions and then ease up the price point as the consumer becomes more involved.
Taking the plunge to reproduce can be intimidating, both emotionally and financially. After 16 years of marriage to an artist, having a brother and sister-in-law, aunts, and cousins who ply their trade as artists, what I know about reproduction is that IT IS NOT EASY and like marriage, “not to be entered into lightly.” But it also can be very rewarding both emotionally and financially. I have financed poster runs, cards, and IRIS prints, as well as lithographs. The following suggestions are based upon what I have observed, experienced, and read. It is presented not as a “Bible” but merely in hopes it will help you producers out there not to be consumed!
As I have met artists, both known and relatively obscure, one thing many have in common is that at one time they looked into or have done reproductions. Those who have reproduced most often did cards and posters. Just as often they now store thousands of these in their basements or studios. Or sadly, they sold the image to a publishing company and have received minimal reimbursement but have the satisfaction of knowing their pieces are listed in a stock image book. That is not to say that others have not hit the mark with just the right image at just the right time and done well.
The first step in considering reproduction is to make certain you know all your options. In order to understand which option is best for you as an artist at any time in your career, you must know about the profit margins for cards, posters, lithographs, serigraphs, and giclee. It is equally important to know how much you have to spend on reproduction and the amount of time you can afford to spend recouping the money you will spend on the reproductions. This second factor is so critical because your profit margin is not just the difference between the production cost and your sales price. It is also the cost to distribute, store, and await reimbursement for the prints — which can turn what seemed like a great deal into one you now keep as a deep dark learning-curve secret. For some, this learning curve can be too costly.
Picking the image
This is without a doubt the most critical decision. Remember, your decision is based upon consumption, not technique, personal appeal, or intrinsic meaning. How often has the piece you love been your commercial bomb? That is not the piece to select. My suggestion is TEST YOUR MARKET. You can do this both formally and informally. Enter images in competition, show fellow artists, show retailers, and publishers; get feedback from more than one source. Look at what is out there, what is “hot” in the current media, what is selling where. If you are painting desert themes, Hawaii may not be the place to test your market strength!
Once you have what you want to reproduce, you then have choices of reproduction method. Look at your financial resources carefully. Also look at what you will choose to have your image created upon. The quality of the reproduction process should also be given consideration. The serigraph and IRIS giclee prints set a high standard of reproduction quality. Both methods have an upfront fee where the artist pays to have the original piece prepressed (or prepared for the printing file). Then comes the production run. Serigraphs have a large upfront fee for initial setup and volume production. However the result is the “Rolls-Royce” of prints, both for overall quality and longevity. The IRIS giclee print has an upfront fee. The main advantage with giclee printing is that, unlike serigraphs — where the number of prints is selected, the run is made and the artist leaves with the entire edition — IRIS allows the artist to run (and pay) by the sheet. So if you decide to run 500 printed images then you can decide to run just one sheet at a time or ten or all 500. You pay for what you have run. The printer tracks the sheets and the artist signs and numbers the edition pieces. The nice thing about this process is that you can test market images before doing an entire run. Again the result is a high quality print with longevity.
Lithographs, posters and cards have a large upfront fee and production volume is best for larger quantities. Though overall per unit cost is less than other options, the initial set up and production run cost can be high. However you get a lot of prints!!!
Distribution is the inevitable effect of printing. Now that you have prints, who is going to consume them? Will you be the distributor? Will you have “outlets?” Will you have a company buy the lot from you and sell them independently? Your answer can also determine the volume and quality of the print choice you make. Obviously the more you make, the more you have to sell! Be honest with yourself. If you are not a salesman then you will need outside outlets to sell for you. Some artists sell their own work at arts festivals, cooperative galleries, their own gallery, studio appointments, and the Internet. Others select agents who seek sales outlets for them.
When selecting an agent, an artist has to remember to define the role they want the agent to play. Some select publishers, some select from a pure business background, some have a combination, and some use galleries. From state to state the pricing also changes. Some agents take a profit percentage of sales. Others are hired on an hourly basis with fee for service contracts. Some have a combination. Some are representatives and sell the art directly. Locally I know that locating such an entity is hard. Agents are not living in Utah as a rule of thumb. They are in L.A., N.Y.C., Boston, Atlanta, and Chicago. Here artists tend to find people that will manage the daily operations while they find outlets themselves.
It is up to you what you want and what you can afford. Initially you may have to be your own agent, which has its own advantage — you are getting the feedback directly.
Locally, many artists do reproductions. Some, who I know personally, have a cache of cards knee-deep in their basements. My personal bias is toward the IRIS giclee process. It is no secret I own and operate The Art Is In, here in Salt Lake, where we sell original and reproductions of art work. It is also no secret that I love and am passionate about art. I do however, reproduce and promote artworks every day. Reproduction allows art to be consumed. Be it an original or a print you hang, it is an investment like no other. Spread your images around!
(Heather Weiler is a speech-language pathologist in the Jordan Public Schools by day. She has degrees from the University of Vermont and Emerson College. When not plying that trade, she stays busy with running the store on weekends, helping her children with their school projects, and meeting with wonderful artists from all around and trying to promote living life artfully.)
UTAH’S ART MAGAZINE SINCE 2001, 15 Bytes is published by Artists of Utah, a 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah.