Retailers battling for sales on Black Friday (and now Brown Thursday, too) get a lot of attention this time of year. But rural artists and craftspeople are quietly getting their share of holiday sales through technological innovation and old-fashioned connections.
You probably won’t see people camped out waiting for the doorbuster sale at your neighbor’s quilting studio or your small town’s holiday craft fair. But rural artists find creative ways to attract customers and get our products under Christmas trees.
It’s a challenge to draw shoppers to a rural location. My husband and I live too far outside the geographic areas included in two regional art tours — events where rural and small-town artists and tourism groups work together to draw visitors off the beaten path. We do a few art fairs, but it’s challenging to haul his rustic furniture to those events. So to claim our small share of holiday sales, we’re counting on customers to “buy local” at our November 16 studio sale. We started promoting the event last summer, passing out “Save the Date” cards from our booth at the farmer’s market in our rural county’s largest town (population 8,044). Bill and I spread the word with Facebook posts and tweets, send email newsletters and traditional postcards, write blog posts and press releases for the local newspaper, and post a notice at the gas station on the corner two miles up the road — the nerve center of our community.
And for the first time, I’m promoting “previews” and advance purchases online through my shop on Etsy, an online marketplace for individual artists and crafters. That’s a technique I just learned from my friend, Lynn Straka Schuster from Sturgeon Bay, Wisconsin, where she sells her work at house sales and “art crawls.” I saw the Etsy preview line in her direct mailing to customers. On the day of our sale, I’ll make many of my Etsy listings “inactive” online and offer those items only in my studio (where the WiFi router doesn’t quite stretch). If they don’t sell, I’ll reactivate them in time for Cyber Monday on Etsy, where my rural location is a marketing bullet point.
Hiding In Plain Sight
In a recent report on Etsy sellers’ economic impact, the online marketplace’s editorial director, Juliet Gorman, said, “Etsy sellers are a serious economic force, often overlooked or misunderstood, whose work is not captured by traditional metrics.” That pretty well sums up the situation for describing the economic impact of craft in general. In 2011, 730,000 people in the U.S. classified themselves as non-employer independent artists, writers and performers (NAICS code 7115), according the to the IRS. How many are rural? Good question. Anyone want to fund a study? How many more don’t self-classify as NAICS 7115, probably because they have to work another job to pay the bills?
Consider rural artists an economic force hiding in plain sight. You know they’re there. You probably have neighbors who work weekend craft fairs in addition to their regular job, or sell in a local consignment shop, or take orders from co-workers on their lunch break, or put products by the roadside along with a sign and an honor box. Whether they do it part-time or full-time, it can be an important source of income for a rural family. And while a growing number are adopting online venues like Etsy for at least part of their sales, local buyers are still essential.
Your Place Or Mine?
“House sales” like Lynn’s are one way artists sell without relying on an online marketplace or traditional retail channels. In some areas they’re called “boutique sales” or “pop-up art sales.” Sometimes they feature the work of just one artist. Sometimes they’re group events.
In rural areas, they’re often hosted by someone with a good location and enough space for displays and parking. That person may invite a few friends to sell their work for an evening or two or over a weekend. Especially for part-time artists, pooling inventory can be an effective way to make sure customers have enough products to choose from so they look forward to the show from one year to the next.
Soapmaker Mary Griesbach of Grantsburg, Wisconsin, hosts one such holiday sale in her log cabin home, who curates a compatible mix of artists. She organizes the event carefully to make it easy for customers, with things like good signage on the road and valet parking. And she makes it easy for sellers to know what to expect. What she can’t necessarily do, though, is ensure cell phone coverage that allows for the use of a smart phone’s credit card reader at her rural location.
Willow basketmaker Jacki Bedworth is one of the sellers at Mary Griesbach’s Cabin Open House Holiday Boutique. Jacki also sells at a 35-year-old event called the Area Artisans & Friends Art Show, founded by jewelers Leo and Dina Lisovskis to promote artists along the upper Mississippi River. It’s held in the historic village of Taylors Falls, Minnesota, less than an hour from metro Minneapolis/St. Paul. The show’s location in a historic train depot offers plenty of space for 10 to 12 artists plus room for shoppers to sit and chat with friends while enjoying live Irish music and refreshments. Many of the artists in the show have done the event for years. Jacki is a relative newcomer, invited into the show just a few years ago.
“I think location is key for both shows,” Jacki says. “Taylor’s Fall is cute, quaint and even in November still a destination day-trip with a state park, gorges along the river, a cute coffee shop, and gingerbread historic houses. It’s well-known for a huge holiday celebration, which kicks off the weekend after the show. But you can come a week early for this show and miss the parade, avoid the crowds and still get a healthy sampling of holiday charm.”
Mary’s house sale, on the other hand, is more of a local event, scheduled on the same day as Santa Day at the town hall. “One year there was a blizzard during Mary’s show,” Jacki said. “Since most of our customers are local, they came anyway.”
“I try really hard to tailor my wares to the show’s customers,” Jacki says. Smaller items — “gifts for the office girls” — are reserved for the house sale at Mary’s. At the Taylors Falls show, which features art jewelry, custom furniture, oil paintings and other higher-price-point items, she allots 60 to 75% of her space to things priced at $40 or less, so people who like to look at the premium items can go home with something very nice but affordable. The rest of her space she reserves for larger pieces for collectors who look for her work at that show.
Collectors & Commissions
Commissions are bread-and-butter business for quilter Cathy Hooley of Broadalbin, New York, who specializes in T-shirt, baby and memory quilts. Cathy got her start with craft shows. But for the past 15 years, 99% of her sales have come from her web site. “You can reach so many people with a website that are looking for what you are selling,” she says. Most of those customers want to have their special project ready for gift-giving in December or June. For Cathy to meet those deadlines, orders must be placed months in advance (August 1, for Christmas delivery). “Custom work is difficult without face-to-face contact,” Cathy says. “There’s a lot of back and forth with designs and samples. Photos are very important.” Cathy also posts photos of finished work on her Facebook page, so customers and fans can share them with their friends, who might be future commission customers.
Recurring sales to collectors are also important to independent artists like Peggie Wilcox of Lakemont, Georgia, and Jo Campbell-Amsler of rural Monticello, Iowa. With a commission, there’s only one thing to pack, as opposed to packing up all your inventory to haul to a show. And you get to sleep in your own bed. Both artists built their contacts lists through many years of teaching at basketry events across the United States.
Both artists have built relationships with the kind of art-loving buyers who curate museum-worthy collections. Both have work in the Cole-Ware Collection of American Baskets on display at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery through December 8. Sadly, the October 4 opening of that exhibit was canceled because of the federal government shutdown. As a result, Jo, Peggie and other artists in the show lost that important opportunity to meet collectors who might have become future customers.
But “collectors” can also be friends and neighbors who know they can meet their “Buy Local” pledge at your house. When your immediate goal is paying the electric bill, one is as good as the other.
Buy Local Art
As the “Buy Local” concept expands to include more than produce, artists eager to support the philosophy are adapting to serve that local market. For the past 20 years, Andrea Myklebust and Stanton Sears of Stockholm, Wisconsin, have created large-scale commissioned sculptural works for sites across the United States. But recently Andrea has started raising Icelandic and Shetland sheep and selling her handspun yarn at the local farmers market. She plans to sell during Stockholm’s Country Christmas event in December.
“It’s possible to make a living and a life as a rural artist,” Andrea says. “You need to be flexible and nimble. You need to be willing and able to wear a lot of different hats and do a lot of different things. But if you focus on doing what brings you joy, and keep yourself focused on creating a sustainable practice, you can make it work.”
One of the things that brings me joy as an artist is actually seeing customers interact with my work. Local customers are my focus group and my muse. I imagine their faces on Etsy buyers from distant places. I need both types of buyers to make ends meet, and appreciate them spending their hard-earned money to buy local and buy handmade.
In your area, there are probably artists who would appreciate your holiday spending, too — people who won’t ask you to get up from your Thanksgiving dinner to get the best deals. Don’t know who they are? Ask at the gas station on the corner.
Donna Kallner uses plants she grows and gathers in rural northern Wisconsin to dye the silk scarves that are her best-selling product with local holiday gift buyers.