~ by Maria Benner
In business school I was taught to react to a crisis that affects one’s business, but none of the case studies ever described a drawn-out external threat to the business that lasts nearly a year, like the current pandemic. Making and selling art for a living is already considered a risky career option, and people often remind us of that with their pessimistic and inappropriate questions about our finances when they find out we make a living from Scott’s art. So, when the pandemic hit, I felt especially vulnerable at first. We had art shows lined up at local breweries, and other than that, we were selling art online. When everything shut down at the end of March, we were pleasantly surprised as our Etsy sales more than doubled compared to the same time period last year. People were bored at home, and they were shopping. The building where we lease our studio was locked to the public, but we were still allowed to go into our studio, so we kept mailing orders, and Scott kept painting commissions, and new pieces for his upcoming art show in June at Midnight Sun Brewing Co. When everything opened back up, we swooped in and had a successful art show, despite the pandemic, before the brewery was closed again for on-site consumption for the month of August. Orders kept rolling in all summer, and we kept working.
I took advantage of having extra time to learn HTML and CSS, and built a new website for Real Art Is Better. I also combed through all the Etsy listings, making sure photos looked good, descriptions were correct, and keywords were optimized. There were a couple requests for proposals announced for public art in Alaska. I applied for two, and we were granted one, and Scott is a finalist for another one. He’s working on his final proposal right now.
We spent most of the summer in McCarthy, where the majority of businesses were open, including the gift shops in McCarthy and Kennecott. We sold art there all summer, and sales were only a couple hundred dollars lower than during normal summers. We also fulfilled a wholesale order for a book shop in Haines, and I now plan to build a wholesale program for the business.
We maintained our social media presence, posting updates every weekday, and sending e-newsletters every other Friday. Since we can’t travel, Scott has had extra time to work on oil paintings. He decided to paint a few pieces on canvas for a change (he normally paints on wood panel) and completed a large painting that sold right after the election. Having more time to try new techniques has been valuable to him. He also kept teaching painting lessons at the studio.
Then the Mayor of Anchorage announced a third hunker down order for the month of December, which is when we usually do in-person sales events like craft fairs. This year the craft fairs were cancelled, so I set up live painting/pop-up events at two local breweries. When I heard about the shutdown, we contacted Anchorage Brewing Co. and were able to reschedule one of the events for the Sunday before the emergency order went into effect. We also were able to go ahead with another event as planned at Odd Man Rush Brewing. Since the shutdown does not apply outside Anchorage, we scheduled a live painting/pop-up event at Bleeding Heart Brewing in Palmer for December 19.
Tonight we are hanging oil paintings at Turnagain Brewing, eventhough the taproom is closed for onsite consumption, but is open for to-go orders. The art show is scaled down to just one wall, but we’re still doing it.
There are several lessons I learned during the pandemic about running an art business.
- Keep working; making new paintings, posting on social media, sending e-newsletters, blogging, applying for public art projects, doing art shows, going to the studio every day. We didn’t cancel anything, were pro-active about contacting venues, and were available when people asked us to work on projects.
- Have a strong online presence and SEO.
- Be safe, but also show up whenever you can.
- Offer excellent customer service, including curbside pick-up, and free shipping.
- Be flexible enough to re-schedule events, or adjust how they happen so everyone stays safe.
- Just keep going…