About 20 years ago, I was sitting in my Dawson City printmaking studio dreaming up ways to reach out to a wider audience of art buyers.
I tried commercially printed catalogue sheets showing reproductions of my work, expensive advertising in magazines, and targeted mailings by snail mail. All with mixed success.
At the time I wasn’t aware of any other artists in remote areas using these methods of self promotion.
Then, along came a game-changer called the internet.
I wasted no time in casting information about myself and my work into the ether known as the world wide web, much as a fly fisher would.
It felt like standing on the banks of the information highway, waiting for something to bite. Bite they did.
Over the years my online sales have been respectable, with the proviso that the return is always proportional to the effort that I put into the virtual marketplace.
By now, we know, everyone, including their uncle and auntie from every country in the world, is flogging something on the world wide web.
What do you have to do to get anyone’s attention in such a competitive environment?
That question can’t be answered easily. But simply put: customers can and will find you as long as you keep working at your online presence.
Yukon sculptor Shane Wilson was an e-commerce trailblazer during the early internet years from whom I gained valuable guidance on how to market my work online.
His three-dimensional art practice is a perfect candidate for attracting distant customers using the web, because he can engage people with visual updates of works in progress.
Nowadays, many artisans, craftspeople and artists have webcams set up in some corner of their workshops allowing for a voyeuristic view of their activities from afar.
Late last year someone living in New York City found me online and asked whether I could do a commissioned woodcut print. The unusual addition to the request: would I agree to sell the original block as part of the deal?
This question caught me off guard because, as a rule, printmakers do not sell the carved woodblock from which a print edition is pulled.
My online sales have been steady since 1998. Yet I had never sold one of these blocks before. In fact, I covet them greedily because they are often beautiful objects on their own.
Besides, it raises some concern regarding copyright and misuse of the original block.
Despite legislated protection, along with international agreements, there is no practical way to ensure that intellectual property rights won’t be compromised at some time.
A very good resource regarding these important issues can be found at the Canadian Artist’s Representation Copyright Collective, www.carcc.ca.
As my new client and I chatted over internet video a few times, those questions were at the back of my head.
Many emails later, we arrived at a mutually agreed-upon course of action.
Reference materials and preliminary sketches were exchanged. When the actual work began, progress reports were just as easily shunted back and forth.
On this assignment my client wanted specific things addressed. So specific that our project departed the realm of traditional printmaking and crossed over into the digital world.
My efforts to please my customer gave birth to what I call a hybrid print, where old and new technologies are combined to create a print edition.
Thanks to the ease of online communications it was never a problem to exchange ideas and content relative to the project.
It was a straightforward process for her to make clear what she wanted, and I did everything to meet those requirements without being uncomfortable in my own skin.
After a month or so of work, I packed up an edition of eight prints along with the cherrywood block and arranged to have it sent to the FedEx depot in Whitehorse. They were extremely helpful to me since I couldn’t dash over there in person.
I watched the delivery tracking online as it got to Richmond, BC, then on to Memphis and finally to the requested address in Vermont.
I can say that my client is super happy with her prints. I’ve also gained another “cyber-friend” who is supportive of my work and continues to be engaged in my online activities.
Certainly a client’s physical presence in my studio will always trump a virtual presence, because a face-to-face interaction engages in a way that is not (currently) possible online.
Happily, the web does offer a robust substitute that only a few short years ago was not available to us. My long distance sales, and ongoing customer relationships with other customers as well as this New Yorker, would not have happened so easily without the internet.
Of course printed materials still have a place in marketing strategies, especially in combination with an online presence.
But static promotional materials such as brochures and catalogues are often out of date the minute they are delivered – cue to stacks of obsolete copies sitting in the corner collecting dust.
The world wide web allows for a dynamic and flexible platform for any artist who wants to present their work to potential customers.
It’s surprising how quickly artists and customers can find each other through this medium. It used to be that many artists were all dressed up with no place to go.
Now, the door is wide open to an international community of potential buyers. If you can thread your way through the crowd and discover a target market, you’re off to the races!