Exposure: The Ugly Mythby Jack White on 5/6/2011 7:36:56 AM
Way back when I was making my gold leaf art (*Echruseos), I was swarmed with requests from charity groups to donate. Without exception, each group emphasized to me how much EXPOSURE I would receive with my gift. I was painfully inexperienced to the art business - gobbling down the promises they were feeding me. I was fully expecting to become famous from all the exposure those charities were giving me. Trust me, if exposure were the answer, then I’d have been world renowned in a few months. I was so naive I gave, gave, gave and gave some more. One year, I donated art to twenty local charities. I did this for two reasons. I love to give and the exposure I would receive. Back then, I believed if you could get enough exposure you would be walking in high cotton.
In this column, I will prove to you the folly of expecting exposure to make your career. I became fairly famous, not because of exposure, but the amount of art I sold. For three years in row I did art shows in a minimum of 60 bank lobbies scattered all over Texas. I had two fulltime men setting up the art, working the shows and pushing for publicity. I was on radio, television and in newspapers for every show. We sold a lot of Jack White art. I sold art to the leading citizens in those communities. My art hung in the offices of banks, mayors, coaches, sheriffs, Texas Rangers, the movers and shakers of these towns. Everywhere you looked there was a Jack White gold leaf on an important wall. There was almost a cult following for the gold leaf. I simply got lucky and worked my rear off.
I used a Greek lexicon to coin the name for my gold leaf on glass. Ek out of, crus is gold and eos, having been made. Thus, having been made out of gold. Thus *Echruseos. I suspect you can find some Echruseos art on eBay. I saw one listed as a Buy Now for $50,000. (smile) The process was simple. I did an original pen and ink, silk-screened several images of that drawing on glass, washed on an oil stain, covering the backside with gold leaf. I could produce 50-16”x20” in a day with the help of a couple young ladies to lay the gold leaf and place the art in a ready made frame. I have no idea how many thousand pieces of my gold leaf on glass were sold. I did gold leaf art décor for around 500 McDonalds across America and in the Caribbean.
Two things opened my eyes to the fallacy of exposure. I donated a large painting to raise funds for a little league charity. The art was a piece I retailed for $4,000 back in the mid 70’s. The league sold raffle tickets for $1 and then held a drawing for the winner. A few days after the drawing a couple walked into my studio carrying the art. I asked, “What can I do for you?” fully expecting they wanted me to personalize their painting. My ego was hyper puffed up.
My tongue almost fell out of my mouth when the woman said, “We bought a ticket and was lucky enough to win your painting. But to tell you the truth Mr. White, we can’t afford anything this expensive. We would like for you to buy the painting back. We understand the painting is valued at $4,000, but would be willing to sell it to you for $3,000.” Let me stress they purchased a dollar raffle ticket. I was so shocked, speaking became almost impossible. I remembered my grandfather used to say, “You cannot argue with an idiot.” I thanked them for the offer, explaining I already had a gallery full of paintings. What else could I do? I didn’t want to go to jail for murder.
I donated to a woman’s charity with the promise of EXPOSURE. After the auction, the winner came by the studio. I thanked them and asked how could I help. Again, expecting their request for me to personalize their art. This time the man spoke, “Jack, this frame doesn’t fit our décor. Would you mind allowing us to pick another frame? Also we live in Ohio and the art it too big for to fit in our car after we load our luggage. We want you to box and ship the art to us.” I almost grabbed him by the seat of his pants and tossed him out on the street, but somehow I restrained myself. The audacity was beyond belief. These two events happened in a matter of a few weeks apart. I then understood what exposure was doing…in truth, nothing.
I sought out my friend and master artists, A. D. Greer. (Google his name.) I told him how much exposure I had been receiving from all the charities and whined a little about the two recent winners. His questions stunned me, “How many people from these auctions have come to your gallery and purchased paintings? What has all that exposure produced?”
He made me think. I had vigorously given for at least four years, but I couldn’t remember anyone even mentioning seeing my art at such and such charity. By now I’d donated at least eighty paintings in the city of Austin, yet with all that EXPOSURE it had not resulted in one tiny additional sale. Not even a mention of seeing my work at any of these events. Two things came to mind, my work sucked or exposure was not working. Since I was selling all I could make, the fault slept at the feet of exposure.
Mikki and I still give to two charities, The Ronald McDonald House and a Breast Cancer event. Most charities think we can write off the retail value of our art, but not so. The IRS will only allow you to deduct the cost of materials, which all of us already do. We are allowed nothing for our labor.
New York Art Expo sells booths to any artist with the money to pay their fees. One artist I have attempted to help can’t even sell work on eBay with a starting bid of 99 cents. He borrowed money on his credit cards to rent a booth. I tried to talk him out of going, but the Expo salesperson promised him he would get tons of EXPOSURE. My word against EXPOSURE was too weak to win. He came home a dejected young man. He sold his grandmother a $100 painting and that was all. That was four years ago and he is still struggling to pay off those credit cards. I think it’s a crime to take money from artists who obviously will not sell any art. Where are the ethics? Where is the human compassion?
There is a vanity online art site, Art Exchange, which promises great exposure if you join their marketing program. President Clinton gave them a $700,000 grant to start their online company in Arkansas. When they were getting started they gave us free listings to have a named artist on their site. We didn’t put up my work, but we did add Mikki. If my memory is correct AE added my mate, Mikki Senkarik's images in 1998. The last time I looked, Senkarik was still on their site. This is 2011 and we have yet to have a request for so much as a poster.
For all those years we have been receiving great exposure, but no sales, no contacts, nothing, nada, zero offers to buy her art. The only contact we got was from an AE salesperson wanting to sell us space. We told him were already on their site. If you have a Website, expect Art Exchange to find you. Our friends Suzie and Tim Cox, president of the Cowboy Artists of American had a similar experience with Art Exchange. It took Suzie about a year to force them to remove her husband’s work. She didn’t want others to see Tim’s art and think if was okay to spend $3,000 to $5,000 to be listed. AE’s hook is if you don’t sell enough art to pay your fee the first month they will give you another free listing, so you can get more exposure.
As you probably can guess I get a lot of emails from artists with questions and, in many cases, they tell me what they are doing. They will say I did so and so show. I didn’t sell much, but I got a lot of great exposure. I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I know the truth about exposure and it’s not good.
I read an article in the Albuquerque Journal about an artist south of town that had one painting be juried into 105 shows. He had to box and ship the art to all those shows at his own expense. Yet with all that great exposure the painting was still for sale. Be aware the only one making money on juried shows is the promoter. Before you spend the money to be juried into a show take a good look. Find out how much art is being sold. If the art hangs for a month and judges pick the winner, run, don’t walk away. Put your art in front of art buyers not viewers.
When the economy fell in the tank in Texas in the mid 80’s, Saving and Loans went under, oil was $20 a barrel and unemployment up to 18% I purchased a small Air Stream trailer, hitting the road. I worked in-door and out-door shows in Florida and California. At the end of the show, I would ask artists how they did. Some did well, but many would say the sales were off, but I got a lot of good exposure. I guess they thought good exposure somehow softens the blow of no sales. Had I not learned the truth about exposure, I’m sure I’d have considered the same thing. I did well at those shows. I sold wet painting. I painted fast and mesmerized the audience. I never had an inventory when the show began, but was slapping paint the moment we opened. Painting animal and Indian portraits, I managed to Fedex money home every week for the kids to remain in the top schools in Texas.
Artists put their art in libraries and restaurants for exposure. Most of the people in libraries these days are the homeless keeping warm or cool, depending on the season. People go to restaurants to eat. Any sale will be a miracle. A restaurant can work if the owner will allow you to place placards on the table and you pay the waiters 20% commission on all art they sell. You may have to pitch in another 10% to the owner. Money talks. Get to know the waiters -- they will be your salespersons.
If you really want exposure here’s what you can do. Pick the largest city you can find, go to the spot were a lot of people are out walking during the noon hour. Strip naked, stick a few paintbrushes in your mouth and start running down the middle of the street. It will help to scream, more people will see you. Have a friend video your brief run. The cops will nab you after a block or so. Put your naked run on YouTube. Call it “Art Exposure”. The video will go viral and be seen by several million people. You will no doubt make the evening news. Even the print media might pick up your mad dash to fame. This will give you maximum exposure for the least amount of effort. Or you can face the reality that seeking exposure is a waste of time and energy. Find buyers and keep them on your mailing list. Make them a member of your team. These folks will be prospects, not spectators, for the rest of your life.
I recommend you seek places where people who are interested in buying art will see your work. Remove the word EXPOSURE from your vocabulary. Life will improve when you are no longer expecting exposure to bail you out. Do like the rest of us, sell your way to the top. The sooner you realize exposure will give you nothing but a bad cold, the faster you can begin to build a solid career.
Jack White has the title Official Texas State Artist and recently Governor Rick Perry appointed him an Admiral in the Texas Navy. Jack authored six Art Marketing books. The first, “Mystery of Making It”, describes how he taught Mikki to paint and has sold over six million dollars worth of her art. You can contact Jack at firstname.lastname@example.org.