Veteran Island artists say you don’t have to be a huckster to market successfully: Make authenticity your brand.
The big brand is Martha’s Vineyard. The Island fits the definition of a brand: a promise from a product or service to always meet customer expectations. The Island is beautiful, creative, sea-ful, and it showcases six unique cultural pockets we call towns.
Perhaps 60,000 or 70,000 people a week come here in-season. They love the beauty and many want to take a piece home with them. The artist’s marketing goal, it seems, is to create a personal brand that matches up with the Island’s, so his or her work gets on the boat or the plane.
“The influx of people helps for several reasons. Visitors are educated and have the resources to buy medium-priced art,” fine art print maker Dan Waters says. “If I were working in Omaha, I’d be doing a circuit of shows. Here, you stay put and people come to you, fresh nutrients with each tide.
“Also, people come here to experience paradise, as it were. They want to capture a piece to bring home and they want a story of meeting you. Showing your art in their home is also an expression of their taste and choice.”
In addition to the big brand and the individual artist brand, there are other established art events perfect for marketing art. Many are fundraising events, like the long-running Family Planning Art Show, and the artists’ show for the West Tisbury Library that was held in July. Others, like the recently held All-Island Art Show around the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs give artists the chance to display their work and introduce themselves to the public.
Andrea Rogers has built her brand over 16 years. Called the Vineyard Artisans Festivals, the event shows on Thursdays and Sundays between Memorial Day and Labor Day and on holiday weekends through Christmas at the old Grange Hall in West Tisbury.
“Art is a tough business. It’s a luxury, not like food, gas, or health insurance, It takes a lot of effort,” she says. “I knew there was a niche. Galleries, consignments, wholesale. I tried it all — just wasn’t enough to make a living. Other artists sang the same song.
“People were taking a chance with me,” Ms. Rogers continues. “The community aspect of this is important. I felt responsibility and they committed to me. I don’t know if this could be replicated somewhere else. It took years for people to take us seriously. We’ve earned the right to be taken seriously.”
Ms. Rogers restricted the event to full-time Island resident artists (and made them prove it). She also began jurying the work shown to deliver her brand’s promise: high-quality arts and crafts by honest-to-God Island artists. The first festival had 11 artists. Today it has more than 60 artists.
Ms. Rogers believes in advertising: “We use newspapers, radio, internet. As much as we can, even in tough times. We tell our people to shout it from their websites. It’s a mistake for artists to think they don’t have to advertise. We give them a free page on our website so they can learn to promote their work.”
Every artist we spoke to said the art buyer wants two things: to know as much as possible about the artist and to have their own story about the image of the Island they buy.
“We are storytellers in a way,” Ms. Rogers says. “The story behind the art. People who are spending money on you have to like you as much as the art. That’s why we ask for artist statements. People love seeing pictures of artists working, how the work comes to be. It’s like a book about that artist.”
Mr. Waters also believes in the importance of face to face with clients, even if the artist isn’t a social gadfly. “I mentor a young artist, James Evans, who is very shy. I told him people want to see the artist,” he says. “So he paints quietly. But if people have questions, he interacts with them. It works for him.”
Mr. Waters continues: “There is a wall between summer and year-round residents that is rarely breached. Artists are ambassadors. Last week, some people came to my studio and invited me to visit them at their farm in Vermont. That would never happen in a gallery. It isn’t just about dollars and cents.”
Oil painter Thaw Malin knows the power of the Island brand. He makes a living painting Island scenes on the Internet and selling upwards of 125 pieces a year.
“I never conceived of working this way,” he says. “I thought you had to be in a gallery or a studio. It boggles my mind that people will pay $5,000 or $10,000 for one of my larger pieces on the Internet.
During the summer, many emerging Island artists who can find the space test out the response to their work by creating galleries from garages, guest houses, or barns.
Ten years ago, artist Ashley Medowski took over her great-grandfather’s barn on Lambert’s Cove Road in West Tisbury. On August 7 she’ll host the 10th anniversary of her second-most important marketing tool: the barn gallery, which houses her sea glass jewelry and paintings.
“I used the legacy of my grandfather and the family name (13 generations of Luces and Bensons) and that has been a great selling tool. The barn will be my biggest piece of art,” she said, describing a mixed media interior and a staircase of refurbished driftwood: “I do a lot of historic Vineyard landmarks with salvaged wood frames. It all looks great in the rustic ambiance.”
Mr. Malin is a big believer on the artist’s story as well: “I work on my vocabulary so I can say what I feel,” he says. “I embed artist notes with every painting I post. It’s very important.”
Ray Ellis, an Island institution when it comes to landscape artists, has been painting for 70 years, and says, “My advice to young artists is to let local newspapers know what you’re doing. Island newspapers are very receptive to young artists. And galleries are easy to approach on the Island. What’s the worst that can happen? They’ll say we can’t handle you now. It’s well proven; the Island is a good place to be an artist. The proof of that is that there used to be a dozen artists working here, and now there are hundreds. There’s more competition, but it’s made art more prominant.”