Sunday, January 4, 2009

Shelf Life

86. Shelf Life

I have, on several occasions, made it clear how grateful I am not to be selling either bananas or paper products. My loss from spoilage is low. I need not fear an unexpected rain shower. And my pots enjoy every prospect of enduring for centuries. In the parlance of retail, pottery has good shelf life. Handmade pots do have a shelf life, though, and it can be important for a potter to understand the aging process of inventory.
“Fresh” pots, of course, are those just out of the glaze kiln, preferably of a new design. You’ve never really seen them before, whatever you thought they might look like, and your excitement about them is contagious. The “fresh” pot is often the easiest to sell and many notable potters have harnessed this advantage by hosting “Kiln Opening” sales.
A variety of systems are used for this but the principles are generally the same. By whatever means, potential customers are notified that the sale will take place on a given morning at the potter’s studio. The crowd, including the early birds, are made to wait while the pots are removed from the kiln, organized on tables or the lawn, and priced. Here the artist may remove some pieces as being too good to sell and shift others to a seconds area. When all is ready the crowd is released. Sometimes each patron is limited to one initial purchase to allow everyone the opportunity to come away with something. Eventually, the potter runs out of either pots or patrons. It’s a brilliant system, if a bit hectic, and it’s much simpler than boxing pots for transport to other venues.
Most pottery, however, has to wait a little while before being sold. That’s quite all right since they don’t go bad. They can, on the other hand, go stale.
A “stale” pot is generally one that you have packed and re-packed for too many Fairs. Usually, they’re the oddballs, the ones that don’t blend in with your regular inventory. Maybe it’s been priced wrong. Maybe it’s been seen by the wrong people. Maybe it stinks. Maybe it’s just unusual.
The danger with an old oddball, whether you’ve left it in a gallery or continue to drag it to Fair after Fair, is that customers may recognize it as old and unloved and lower their opinion of you as an artist for continuing to drag it around.
In my own case, I increase the risk of this by signing and dating all of my pieces. A piece with last year’s date on it may be perfectly understandable, particularly in the first half of the new year, but a pot two or three years old will draw questions. Perhaps rather than field those questions you would prefer to give the pot away or make it one of the pots you use at home?
Work in galleries is a little less date sensitive but galleries need fresh work, too. Every gallery has return customers and the gallery wants those customers to be excited by works that weren’t there during the last visit, particularly new work by familiar well-loved artists.
This can be tricky for the artist who is tempted to shift unsold work from location to location so that it always seems new in its current location. You shouldn’t forget that work is in a gallery precisely so that customers can return to it over and over again, gradually deciding to spend the money to buy it. Moving it because you feared it had gone stale might be a mistake if there was a customer whose interest in it had been slowly ripening.
Talk to your gallery staff. They want to sell your work and they know who their customers are. If they want to establish a reputation as a place where work doesn’t linger they’ll tell you.
Some pieces just take time to sell. I’ve seen wonderful oddball pieces go unnoticed and unloved for months, even years. And then, for no predictable reason, a customer will come into the booth looking at nothing else but the oddball. They simply must own it and by then I’ve probably made the mistake of lowering the price.
Art is not ‘one size fits all’. Sometimes you just have to be patient to match the object with its owner.
I should add, in closing, that there is a segment of potters for whom ‘dated’ work is not a problem. These are the people for whom ceramics is largely just a manufacturing business. It is quite possible to make a living producing the same pots, year in and year out, without noticeable stylistic changes over the course of decades. Shapes, glazes, and decorations are all problems that have been solved to the satisfaction of the potter and the potter’s challenges have been reduced to production and sales. For them, a ten year old pot looks the same as a ten day old pot.
It’s easy to criticize such potters for no longer having any ‘fresh’ work but such pots are much more convenient for the customer who bought place settings ten or twelve years ago and needs to replace a few broken pieces today. Who’s to say that mastery lies in innovation rather than consistency? When is a craftsmanship devoted solely to the pursuit of novelty unworthy of praise?
Craft or Art? Now there’s a stale subject!

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