I’m back with the second part of my interview with Clare Yuille, the founder of Indie Retail Academy and the go-to retail coach for artists and designers who want to get wholesale right first time.
Clare helps creative people get their products onto indie retailers’ shelves in a way that’s non-icky (for them) and non-terrifying (for us artists), and I have been an avid follower of her newsletter and site for a long while. Her no-nonsense, practical and friendly tips make a great read even if you’re not directly within her main target audience (artists looking to sell physical goods to small retail stores).
Most artists keep second-guessing themselves and wondering if their work is marketable enough, appealing enough, and trendy enough – so I asked Clare to give us her view from the dark side, since she also owns a lovely indie gift store in the UK called “Merry and Bright”.
Q: I wanted to ask you some questions from another of your major areas of expertise – as your knowledge about what buyers want comes from being a long-time art buyer yourself, would you share with us some of your perspective on the type of art that has a better chance at success in today’s market?
A: In terms of what kind of art sells these days – I’d say everything. Thanks to the internet, there’s an audience for every type of art imaginable. My feeling is that creative people don’t have to get too hung up on that. Concentrate on making your work the best it can be, and then shine that bat-signal up into the sky. If you do those things well enough, your potential customers and stockists will find you.
Q: Art buyers and agents often speak about how important it is for an artist to have an original and unique voice, but from observing art competitions and the pieces that tend to win them one gets the feeling that things that have the greatest chance at success are those which are around 20% original and 80% pretty much right in line with the most popular current trends. What is your feeling on this? Should we be trying harder to lean in the generally popular direction, or should we keep chasing our own vision and hope that at some point we’ll come into fashion by accident? The value of originality can’t be denied, but it’s also a fact that Popular Things are popular. How does one decide whether to jump on the proverbial band wagon?
A: This is a tricky one and, ultimately, something each artist has to work out for themselves.
I know artists who are making a bundle by selling work which makes them roll their eyes a little. I’ve also met artists who wouldn’t even dream of creating something with slightly more mass appeal – even though they’re currently broke and miserable.
For me, part of maturing as an artist is working out how to make a living from the world as it is right now – not as we wish it was. If you completely sell out your vision as an artist in order to be fashionable (or profitable,) what’s the point? It can’t possibly end well. At the other extreme, sticking rigidly to your ideas and not allowing popular products or a different type of customer into your holy temple of art can also leave you in a difficult place.
I think art has to mean something to the artist. Always. Even if you’re churning out dinosaur fridge magnets, you have to see the value in them somewhere. I also think, though, that you have to be flexible. You don’t come out of art school (or drama school in my case) as a perfect, fully-formed artist. There has to be room for new ideas, products and ways of working to flow in.
So what I’d say is go where your heart and conscience lead you. Keep refining – and challenging – your taste. Make work you feel good about, but don’t have a set idea of what that looks like. And if you are experimenting with a more mainstream style, see what you can sneak in. Challenge yourself to say something that matters, even if you are designing for the middle of the road. Be subversive – that’s what artists are for.
Q: While some artists discover their distinctive voice early, others tend to produce very eclectic work and simultaneously develop in a number of different styles until years later they manage to synthesize them into one. When approaching potential buyers, how narrowly should we curate our work? Do buyers prefer to see a very unified look where all the pieces seem to flow in the same direction, or is some degree of variety acceptable? (And I’m not thinking in terms of ‘Here, I sell these cute baby blankets and also these hand-made custom tractor exhaust pipe cleaners, would you like to buy either of the two?’ More along the lines of using a few different illustration styles.
A: Retailers love choice. We do like collections of products to hang together and to make sense on the shelves, but we’re used to seeing a range of collections from the same supplier. If you can offer that kind of variety, great.
However many collections you have, make sure they’re coherent – not just in terms of style but the types and prices of the products too. After that, find the thread that links all your collections, and express it throughout your pitch. Shopkeepers are happy to have lots to choose from, but you’ll have more impact if I can immediately recognise your overall point of view.
When that’s the case, I know right away whether your work is a good fit for my store.
Q: What are some good ways to get more public feedback? Artists tend to talk to other artists, and we’re a pretty supportive bunch. Also, artists tend to have ‘artistic’ tastes, and we generally seem to be in agreement on what makes good art – but the things we tend to like the best are not necessarily (in fact are not ever, pretty much) those that have the greatest success with a wider audience. So in the commercial sense, paradoxically it seems that most artists have no idea what makes good art. Unfortunately, while getting feedback from other artists is relatively easy, since you can return the favor in kind, getting honest feedback from potential clients and the general public often proves tricky. Any tips on how to make it happen?
A: Just ask. Call up your favourite stockist, or customer, and ask if you can buy them a coffee in return for a little feedback. Or put together a very simple, three question survey and send it to your mailing list.
Weight it towards what you want, so if you need a confidence boost one of your questions might be “Why do you like my work?” or “When you sell my work in your store, what does the customer say about it?”
If you want to know what to make next, you might say “What product do you wish I’d make for you?” or “How would you tweak my existing range to please your customers?” Your existing buyers are an incredibly source of support and inspiration, and most artists don’t use it enough.
I think you’re right about only talking to your friends and peers – that can quickly turn into a group hug, which isn’t always what you need. You might be surprised, however, at why people buy your work. Some will buy it because they see exactly the value in it that you do, but there will be many other reasons.
I think a great thing to do is ask yourself “What am I wrong about?” Actively track down opinions on your work which differ from your own – perhaps by asking your mailing list or twitter followers. Post a picture of a new piece and say “Here’s what I intend this lovely thing to say – but what do YOU get from it?” People love to share their point of view, and that won’t always be easy to hear, but if honest feedback’s what you’re after I think you only have to ask.
End of Part 2. If you missed Part 1, about artists’ approach to communication and social media, check it out for sure.
Thanks again Clare for taking the time to give such thoughtful and useful answers to some pretty difficult questions.
For anyone who is still not familiar with Clare’s work (and after reading this interview I’m sure you want to be), I warmly suggest that you visit her Indie Retail Academy, download her free starter kit for artists who want to sell to indie retailers, and subscribe to her informative, smart and genuinely funny newsletter. Also read all the awesome articles on the Indie Retail Academy site. The place is a treasure trove of art retail savvy.