Paint Schoodic

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Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Is the plein air festival losing its punch?


To be a successful artist, you have to catch the currents, not be driven by them.
Downdraft snow in the Pecos, by Carol L. Douglas
I still plan to travel, but the guts of my summer work moving forward will not be plein air events. Rather, I’m going to capitalize on my location and run a gallery from my studio. It’s a great location. If you’re in the art mecca of Rockland, ME and you want to head up the coast to Camden, you travel right past me.

Bobbi Heath taught me that it’s wise to know where my revenue comes from—paintings vs. teaching, for example. That helps the small businesswoman make smarter decisions about where to put her effort. Of course, there are limits to how you should deploy this information. It’s easier to grow a teaching practice than to sell more paintings, but that doesn’t mean the painter should stop painting. We’re self-employed so we have the freedom to be self-directed. That means catching currents, not being driven by them.
Parrsboro dawn, by Carol L. Douglas
It didn’t take an analyst to see what’s been staring me in the face for the past several seasons, a reality I didn’t want to face. My revenues from overall painting sales are up. At the same time, my revenues from plein air events are down.

I like doing these events, and I have great loyalty to the communities and organizers, but it no longer pays to constantly hare off over the horizon. To understand what had changed, I asked myself if I was doing something wrong, or had the market itself changed?

The answer is yes to both. My price point has risen over the years (a good thing). At the same time, these events have been flooded with new artists (good for the art world as a whole). I’m finding myself in the position of an established brand being undercut by start-ups. I can respond by cutting prices or by defending my brand. I’d rather do the latter.

Beach erosion, by Carol L. Douglas
To check my own experiences against those of my peers, I collected anecdotal information from fellow painters all summer. (You should see my bar tab.) Many, although not all, have experienced the same thing. The air seems to be out of many of the events that have long been the staple of our summer income.

Nobody collects hard data about plein air festivals. But anecdotal information is famously unreliable. If you’ve done a lot of festival events, you know that while five artists are sitting on their hands, the sixth is selling out. And artists don’t like talking about sales. It’s impossible to get a big picture of what’s happening.
Tricky Mary in a Pea-Soup Fog, by Carol L. Douglas
Last week, I corresponded with the founder of an event I’ve done since its inception. “One third of our artists sold no art this year,” he wrote. “That’s unacceptable.” They’re suspending their program for 2020 and reconsidering it for the future.

Then there was a public announcement that the Bucks County Plein Air Festival is being discontinued. Two data points do not a trend line make, but in the face of my own personal experience, it looks ominous.

“Hey, life ebbs and flows,” Bruce McMillan commented. The plein air movement has been an astonishing force over the past thirty years. I’m fortunate to have played in it for twenty. And none of this means I will stop painting outside, or even totally stop doing plein air events; it is just a sign that it’s time to widen my net. What does it mean for you?

2 comments:

Mary Whitney said...

I don’t know. The “movement” seems a bit craft fair like to me except the artist are actually painting live. I look back to the first artists who could paint outside...back in the day when paint tubes made it easier to paint in nature.I think artists will always paint outside.
Maybe when the same thing is done over and over it gets old. Maybe it’s the marketing and maybe people get tired of the same thing all the time. Who knows. Markets change. Whatever happens...I think that the focus of an artist needs to be authentic ever striving to improve how they want to say something via their art or how to have their voice heard.

Carol Douglas said...

Having done both sidewalk art festivals and plein air events, I think there are certainly similarities.