the business cycle

Socrates said that the purpose of art is to charge the object with speculation. That's a good enough definition for me. The business of art, on the other hand, is to charge the consumer enough to keep the creative process going AND your family fed, clothed and sheltered. How well you do this determines your level of success.

As a craftsperson, you must obtain your materials, convert them to craft widgets using your tools and process materials, make a market in them, get paid, cover your expenses and overheads, fork over your share of taxes at all levels, use some of the net proceeds to keep body and soul together, AND plow back into the process enough to keep the cycle going and ­ hopefully ­ expand your business. Whew! It doesn't matter where you are on the curve. Your craft widgets could be made at the kitchen table and sold for cash at a couple of retail arts & crafts shows. Or you could have a production studio employing several people with a multi-level distribution system. What you each have in common is a real need to keep track of all that cash, checks and charge card paperwork to ensure that it's accounted for and allocated correctly. It's not that difficult; it's just a mind set problem. If you don't do this yourself, then I guarantee you that you will end up giving away a disproportionate share to suppliers / retailers / bankers / lawyers / accountants / the taxman, thus leaving you with too little money or time to continue listening to your particular creative muse in the style to which you would like to become accustomed.

Read that paragraph again. Crafts is a business, and money drives business. There's a lot of velocity to money (pay me so I can pay him so he can pay her so she can pay you), and it's also the way we keep score. If you've dealt with your basic needs for food, clothing and shelter, then you aren't a starving artist. You're a success by most historical standards for folks who have chosen your career path. But there is a unique opportunity here in these United States at the Millenium. Because of the selfless efforts of Eileen Osborne Webb, who founded the American Craft Council a half century ago, you and your particular craft address a mature and appreciative market for contemporary American handcrafts. In an age of objects made by machines in cookie cutter fashion, a few thousand entrepreneurs with such a gift can make a very good living crafting items by hand. With the right venue and the right "charge" on your objects, they will come ­ and they will walk right over the guy with the 99 cent coffee mug handcrafted in Thailand to get to your $12 one. Is this a great country, or what?

Webb pioneered the distribution system for our industry, which has been mutated by recent promoters at the century's end. Wendy Rosen gets the credit for the "wholesale" explosion of contemporary American handcrafts (do you mind if I just acronym this as CAH from now on?) ­ but the painter Peter Voulkos has to get top prize for turning "handicrafts" into CAH's. He took a turn at making pottery on his girlfriend's wheel in Greenwich Village back when it was cool to be an artist there, and punched holes in his effort with handfuls of clay. If your vessel can hold water, like vessels have for the last umpteen thousand years, then it's a mere handicraft. If it won't hold water, but it's pretty, then you have a CAH. So much for an historical context. Why do I bother? Because the past is prologue to the present and also the future. On to the Millenium where crafties should worry as much about their mutual fund and stock portfolios as they do the hues on their pottery glazes.

There is no motivational message in the above. To grow your craft you must be willing to grasp alien concepts such as revenue and profit. You will leave here thinking that you just went through business school, and perhaps you will have. But I hope to make it a fun ride for you, with an altogether practical, irreverent and amusing twist to the presentation. In Greek mythology Tantalus was condemned to an afterlife of hunger and thirst: every time he tried to drink from the pool of water he stood in, it drained away. Every time he reached for a fruit from the overhanging trees, the boughs receded. Business is like that. It's tantalizing to think of yourself as a successful craftsperson. But you have to obtain the knowledge and then practice the skills better than Tantalus does: catch a little water in your hands as it goes down the drain; knock a fruit from the tree. Then, in the words of the immortal Shakespeare: "Bell, book and candle shall not drive me back, when gold and silver becks me to come on." This is the business of art.


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