Monday, May 2, 2016

Precarious Lexicon; How A Simple Word Can Complicate An Artist's Life Part 5

Welcome back to this 7–part series discussing how the term "hobby" influences the experience for everyone in the game of showing model horses. There are indeed many things to consider from how the term affects how we think and interpret the game to how we behave towards each other. In particular, it creates a bit of rough terrain for artists working in the field, practically and philosophically speaking. Knowing how to negotiate these rough bits will help artists maintain their sense of well–being and productivity within this underlying atmosphere of confusion and derision.

And it's no small matter. Many artists find themselves at the short–end of the stick because of outcomes directly linked to the term. They can find themselves exploited, demeaned, or dismissed while at the same time the players can end up confused, frustrated, or angry. All this can be better avoided with a simple paradigm shift that moves us away from a casual, throwaway attitude to that of an invested motivation for the game, and for each other, and for the cohesion that seems to be eroding away more every year. We're a community, and being able to inspire more camaraderie and clarity within it and within the game only helps to promote a better environment for everyone.

So in this Part 5 we'll explore some additional issues for artists like volunteering, donations, discounts, auctions, and the nature of our demographics to get a better idea of more of the concerns at play.

So let's have at it!...

Getting Real

The “hobby” paradigm forces a skew between scale and reality when it comes to running the venue’s large organizations. In the real world, annual extravaganzas are run by armies of well–paid, full–time professionals. Yet in the model horse venue, we find that these organizations typically operate on the sheer generosity of overworked part–time volunteers constantly berated by those who complain, criticize, speculate, and presume too much. Such demands want ever more perks and outlets from a gaming system designed specifically to limit them. However, it's partially a question of players' time and resources. Most players have jobs or families that limit the time dedicated to playing the game. Yet at the same time, large horse shows go for days, and people always find a way to make it. 

Regardless, it's also a matter of an organization's resources: many are simply unable to cater to such demands either financially or with staffing, yet complaints become more pressing every year. It’s no wonder then why the largest organization flounders as volunteers are crushed by this hostile environment. Time is a limiting factor, too, not only with the clocks of the volunteers, but with the show clock, too. There's only so much time able to be dedicated to such a massive classist and still remain within the limitations of the volunteer base, and the claimed limitations of the showers. This puts such organizations in a real hot spot riddled every day with frustration and aggravation.

Indeed, the desire for new opportunities to show has inspired the birth of huge new divisions in an attempt to give more people a shot at showing with their different types of pieces. These divisions eat up the show clock voraciously, leaving little room for anything else. They also eat up the staff's ability to manage them, bringing into question whether the army of volunteers is large enough. However, what was ignored is that all these divisions are still Open divisions and not AO, Novice, or Youth divisions. They're based on the nature of the game pieces, not the motivations or abilities of the players. We, as a community, didn't want to show apples against oranges when, in fact, that's exactly what we did, only in another way. And we did so in a way that's fundamentally antagonistic to the very base of the community itself. Sure—many DIYers enjoy showing with the big guns in the Open division, but still many don't appreciate it. And wouldn't be it cool to have Youth, Novice, and AO classes on the National level? Real horse shows do. Yet even more, we should think about how we can help such organizations realize such things, to actually spearhead and stewart them ourselves, to release an already overworked staff from unreasonable burdens.

There's also the question of qualification. If Novice, Youth, and AO classes and divisions are anemic, how are such showers expected to qualify for the equivalent options in an organization's year–end show? Simply put, they can't. And for a qualification–based show, that's a real practical problem.

However, there's the option of specialty model horse shows that can fill the niches created by the game as it exists today. It seems that time has come sooner than expected. In response, perhaps organizations could amend their bylaws to allow such shows to qualify to fill such classes. Then it has to give the venue time to permit these classes to catch on and grow. It will take time and investment. Yet it's in the artist's vested interest to have Novice, Youth, and AO options flourish, something we'll explore later.

Anyway, what this means for an artist is care should be taken in how invested we become with model horse organizations. It’s good for our enthusiasm to spill into other aspects of the community, and it’s important to give back—and volunteering is a great way to do that. But we should be careful where and how we engage that enthusiasm. We should also know and accept exactly what we’re getting into when we do volunteer. There are many ways to give back from helping with shows to writing articles and books to hosting a workshop to writing informative blog posts to organizing a retreat to mentoring a beginner to sponsoring a specialty division, so we should chose an outlet that best suits us. In other words, we should know our boundaries and stick to them. 

See, here’s the issue: without an understanding of what we’re signing up for, or a personality that can’t weather such storms, volunteering for certain positions can burn an artist out rather quickly with frustration, anger, and strife. And when we have to squeeze in our art, especially if we're a working artist, this can impact our income. So picking a “pay it forward” conduit that best suits our personality and time limitations is the best way to volunteer because it ensures we’ll probably stick with it and be happy doing it.

Which brings us to the issue of donations. The “hobby” attitude usually forces an activity to rely on artist donations as subsidization since players generally are resistant to fully paying for the resources they enjoy. And as a member of the arts community, we may find ourselves regularly solicited for donations, which can point a doubled–edged sword right at us. It’s a tricky situation. For example, we may encounter players who argue that donative subsidization is an obligation of the arts community, an entitlement owned to the game. While there is some truth to this, it does tend to overlook some important issues from the other side of the studio door: 
  • The activity may be operating in ways contrary to our convictions.
  • The chance that we’ll be treated with professionalism is rare. We may never be told to whom our donative piece was sold, or for how much. 
  • We may never receive a “thank you” note or the promised advertising, or copy of the show program. 
  • We may never receive the requested sales receipt from the show for our tax purposes. 
  • We may never receive a "thank you" for the awards we donated. 
  • Donating work, whether a custom or a piece of a limited edition, is a problematic prospect for a working artist. Donating effectively tells people we can afford to give our work away, which can be counterproductive to our long–term goals. If we do so, and regularly enough, be sure to deal graciously with the subsequent challenges to our policies and pricing.
  • A dependency on donations can hinder the adoption of more sustainable funding for the activity. 
  • A donation may not fit in our production schedule.
Along these lines, here are some special notes to new artists: 
  • Don’t donate a certificate for something like a paint job, prep–job, or sculpting. This approach usually ends up with the artist being exploited in some fashion, no matter how defined the conditions of the certificate. Never leave a donation open–ended. It’s much better to donate a piece and be done with it.
  • Remember that a percentage will be taken out of our donation, so we shouldn’t outdo what we expect to be paid. Indeed, donations can be the surest way into the poor house when we forget the context of the situation. 
  • Always be aware that we’re gambling with our reputation if it’s an auction donation. Yes—we may gain exposure and buzz—but we have to weigh that against the very real risk that our auction lot will come up short, or not even sell. A bad sale in public view is terrible advertising.
  • Have a bad auction enough times and this effect can compromise the value of our work over all. It can also endanger the investment previous buyers have made. Both scenarios can breed bad future sales.
  • We should know the reputation of the show and the show host before we opt to donate. Ask for referrals, if necessary. Never donate blindly.
  • Understand that as our fame grows, donations only offer a cycle of diminishing returns. There will come a point when “no” will actually be in our best interest. 
Now that said, donations can be a terrific way to promote ourselves, especially if we’re new on the scene. It’s buzz that advertising just can’t buy. Donations also funnel essential resources into the backbone of the venue—showing—which does have a cumulative positive impact. 

But remember, too, there exists many ways to offer donative support, and often with more managed conditions. For example, providing awards to a show, especially an experimental show, could have a long–term positive outcome. Or donating awards to special challenge classes we design to showcase a particular interest we support can add interest to a show. Buying a class or division sponsorship can be a good option, too. 

Whatever our decision about donations, we should manage the circumstance well enough so as not to compromise ourselves too much. It should also serve our long–term goals and prerogatives. Don’t forget that donating is a means to an end, so we should know what those ends are and decide for ourselves whether donating is the appropriate means to achieve them. 

We should also be careful about discounts. If we routinely discount our works, that can compromise their value with existing buyers, or with our sales in general. We're essentially telling people that we were overcharging in the in the initial sales. Only discount periodically, and try not to discount our finished works (those we've prepped and painted). Discounting unfinished pieces, like blank resins, is a little bit better, but be careful all the same. Perhaps offering twopacks at a discount is a better route because it gives the customer an added bonus of two at a lower price point. This can also be useful when a blank resin edition is slowing in its sales. Nonetheless, discounting can be a slippery slope, and we don't want to give the wrong impression. So proceed with caution.

Also be careful with auctions. When our pieces consistently sell for good prices in auction, we're doing it right. And sometimes we want to put a piece in an auction to gauge the accuracy of our price points, and an auction is a great way to glean this information. But if our piece under–performs, we've got a pickle of a problem. For example, we've just compromised all our prices and sales. We've especially potentially compromised the value of the works already bought. However, if all of a sudden our auction prices tank, we may want to rethink our sales methods or the nature of our work. Even more, we may want to evaluate our public image and standing in the community since how we come across to people can have a strong influence on the performance of our sales, especially auction pieces. And if we auction all our pieces, we're tapping out its price, and that can be a problem on the secondary market, especially if we only have a couple of people driving up the price. We want about ten people actively in pursuit of the piece because that helps to bolster its value on the secondary market. Truly, don't undervalue the importance of the secondary market. If our pieces can consistently hold their value, or go up in price, we're on the right track. We want to create timeless, heirloom pieces that hold their value. But overall, it may be better to have a fixed price, or a "Buy It Now" option rather than an auction. When we fix a price, we're telling people that we're confident in our work, that its quality reflects our best work at the time. Or we may want to auction some pieces, especially particularly popular pieces, and sell others at a fixed price. The thing is, many people don't wish to participate in an auction and would rather buy a straight price. So mix it up! Offering different ways to procure our work is smart, and thoughtful to our collectors. 

A Question Of Numbers

With the small, insular market engineered by the “hobby” paradigm, product over–saturation can be a real challenge. The equation is simple: a small, fixed group of buyers can only purchase so many pieces a year. This presents some problems for artists, which worsen in times of recession, or even around holidays, or large gathering such as Breyerfest or NAN.

Here’s the thing—buyers usually have a budget and will therefore prioritize their purchases. Now if we share a niche with another artist, or a group of artists, the market base can become tapped out by a single sales opportunity. Similarly, timing can mean the difference between boom or bust if we’re competing for the buyer’s dollar with other artists. For instance, if our sales overlap those of another artist with similar buyers, both of sales can suffer. Or tying to sell in the months before a big event, like Breyerfest, can meet with difficulty or come up short. In other words, the less buyers there are for our work, the more anemic our sales tend to be. This can also affect our work’s resale value on the secondary market, regardless of its quality. 

In an insular niche market, which is what the model horse market actually is, the movement of money can be brisk and lively just as easily as it can become sluggish and unstable. Indeed, if there aren’t more “fresh” dollars being funneled into the system through a more open market or healthy economy, the more buyers are forced to sell pieces in order to fund new ones, closing the system even further. We may have already heard, “I have to sell some pieces first before I can buy yours.”

We also have to recognize that many players are horse traders, too, and they derive a lot of enjoyment from this aspect of the game. While fun, we should know that this additional layer can inhibit a buyer from purchasing from us because they’d rather trade than buy. Plus, if the horse trading game is slow on the secondary market with our work, perhaps our future sales will be as well.

We should also recognize the ever–increasing number of works competing for the buyers’ dollar when this activity is actually a small, fickle, luxury market. So as artists, we should ask ourselves if our sculpture really is cast–worthy or if our 200th paint job serves a purpose other than simply increasing our body of work. That’s to say we should become as picky in what we produce as buyers will be in purchasing it. Creating our best, innovative, provocative work each time is always the best bet. 

But down to brass tacks: the game relies on an unstable and rare demographic—horse–crazy girls who grow up to collect (often expensive) little replicas of them to engage in a resource–demanding, skill–intensive game. Without a mechanism by which these types are attracted and retained en masse, the game is starved of new generations to sustain it for the future. Look around—we can’t ignore that the bulk of the model horse community is aging, especially its arts community. With too few newcomers to take up the reins, one wonders what the community base will be like in another forty years. Even worse, it seems frustrated participants aren’t showing, or leaving altogether in search of another hobby. Indeed, there are plenty of online cheaper versions of what the model horse game is essentially doing. How much longer can this game continue to hemorrhage players? 

These are serious concerns if we plan a career in the model horse market. It means we could be selling to an ever–shrinking or increasingly–fickle market, and at which point does that become an upside down equation? 

These are issues we’ll wrestle with, one way or another, so give it some thought. Bear in mind, too, that our decisions not only affect ourselves, but the long–term sustainability of the game’s economy, too. Indeed, continually tapping out our prices may have a big negative impact over the longtermfor everyone. Until the venue recognizes and addresses its precarious future, we artists simply have to do our best to ride out its times of instability. Paying attention to the supply and demand cycle for our work, filling open niches within the market, diversifying with different scales, media and ware, venturing outside of the model horse venue with our work, and always creating consistent, envelop–pushing pieces are our best tactics in such an environment.

Conclusion to Part 5

We've now got some practical ideas to chew on in regards to the term "hobby" and how it permeates the community with its influences. And they can be troubling. While this activity is truly a hobby for most of its participants, to an artist working within the venue, it's serious business. Because of this, working artists tend to be more concerned with the long–term viability of the market they cater to for obvious reasons. And there's a concern that the future is starting to fray. Lots of things to think about.

So until next time...get real, get engaged!

"Attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference."
~Winston Churchill

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