Back then I was still new at this business, presenting my work to the public in a bona fide art show. I busied myself with setting up a folding table and a couple of easels, balancing anticipation with anxiety, trying to act like I knew what I was doing.
An older man knelt in the space across from mine, fitting together the pre-formed sections of an expensive, professional-looking display. He looked up and smiled.
“What are you here for?” he asked.
“To sell pictures,” I replied confidently.
“No you're not,” he said, his expression now matter-of-fact, the smile still dancing in his eyes.
Is he kidding? What else would I be doing here?
“Then what am I here for?” I asked, a little incredulously.
“You never know, until after the show is over.” He paused intentionally for dramatic effect. “Sometimes long after.”
He held my gaze a moment longer, then turned back to his work.
That was more than a quarter century ago.
His words have stayed with me over the years, have haunted and strengthened me through hundreds of art shows, good and bad. It took a long time for me to understand what he told me that day, even longer to appreciate the value of hearing it early in my career as a professional artist.
He was right, of course. I was hoping to make a month’s rent at that show. More to the point, I needed to make a month’s rent at that show. In my head, I’d worked out all the ways I could generate five hundred dollars, selling $20, $25, and $50 prints, in every conceivable combination. I had my pictures hung, cash box and receipt book ready, a brand new box of business cards, and a boatload of enthusiasm.
What I didn't have was two-dollar inspirational refrigerator magnets, like the ones the lady next to me had. They were the going thing that weekend, and she sold hundreds of them. Customers lined up all day, every day, using my table to rest their purses while they dug for checkbooks and change.
I went home that weekend with forty bucks, and the understanding that things don't always turn out the way you want them to.
Every art show has its grumblers, people who believe there should be better weather, wider promotion, quieter neighbors, lower booth fees, more customers, more sales, more money. Sometimes I’m one of them.
At that point I try and remind myself that I’m not just there to sell pictures. I may be there to meet people, to build business relationships, to be inspired by other artists, to give an encouraging word to a beginner. Maybe I’m there to capitalize on the quiet time, and jot down ideas for future drawings.
I’m definitely there to hand out cards and brochures to anyone who is even remotely interested in my work. (If people can’t see what I do for a living, it’s a sure bet that they won't give me enough money to keep doing it.)
Sometimes it takes years to notice the benefit of a ‘zero’ show, to see evidence that the long-term investment of energy and optimism has actually paid off. We always enjoy getting orders from cities we have never visited, from people who tell us they first saw the pictures at a little out-of-the-way art show in Whoshotjohn, Wisconsin. Once a new customer called the studio to make a purchase after finding our flyer in the glove box of a used car she had just purchased. We had never even been to her part of the country, but someone, somewhere had stopped by to see us. The flyer was more than ten years old.
“What are you here for?” is a question I ask myself now, before every show. Maybe I’m there to sell pictures, or just maybe I’m there to pass along a gift I received a long time ago, when a veteran artist cared enough to poke his nose into my business.
I never know until after the show is over.