My First Art Show - written in 1980 (some years after the show)  Painting done in 1980.

     I'll always remember that day. It was raining but that didn't matter sitting there in front of Sears. The air conditioning may have been a little too cold for sitting, but my clothes were soaked with sweat by the time I left. It was my first show. It was my worst show. I'm surprised I ever did another. They never told me about the business end of being an artist in school and now I thought I was "getting the business end"!

     I had prepared well enough. Roger helped me, he and his dad. Actually, I'm surprised he ever married me after this event. It was the display racks that I needed them for. They were very enthusiastic, thinking of all eventualities as they designed the structure. His dad, Jack, soaked the lumber in old automobile oil so it would never warp, no matter how wet it might get. They designed braces at the back that could (and almost would) withstand a hurricane. My paintings were big so it had to be strong. A system of bolts, washers and wing nuts held the whole thing together.

     I got up early that morning, stacked the racks on the roof of my car and lashed them tight with bungie cords. I didn't worry about rain. They were oozing with oil! Burlap fabric stapled over chicken wire would be durable enough too. All my paintings fit behind the front seat with cardboard sheets separating them, protecting my precious work from all harm. I was ready.

     The information I was provided with when I paid my fees and registered for the show months ago was sufficient. After asking several people where I might find spot #36, I located it at the opposite end of the mall from my parking spot. I quickly moved my car with all my paraphernalia to the nearest mall exit. Nothing was heavy but it was all awkward. My hands were covered in old automobile oil by the time my racks were in place. After what seemed to be 10,000 wing nuts It stood there like a mighty giant, not at all out of place among the many experienced exhibitors. Roger and his dad had done a good job. I had display racks I could be proud of.

     Time was running short as I carried my paintings from the car, piercing the burlap structure with drapery hooks from which to hang each one. As I worked I could not help but look over my shoulder to see who was looking over my work. No one! Are they blind? These are beautiful. These are brilliant. How can they not gasp in awe at the new artist in their ranks? There wasn't much traffic at that end of the mall. I wasn't even in a path to the entrance of Sears. You could get your scissors sharpened at a store behind me, but they attracted less attention than I did. So I opened my director's chair (all the best artists sit in director's chairs) and tried to relax.

     How much money had I spent to sit here and be ignored? That was a question I should have spent more time thinking about. Apparently switching to an art based schedule of classes had wiped out all I had learned while earning an associates degree in business. Only now that I have a master's degree in accounting and several years of experience in the field of accounting do I see the error of my ways. Let me demonstrate.

     People did eventually start pouring into the mall to shop. Inevitably they came past my display and to my great pleasure many stopped to tell me how much they liked my work. No one bought any however. This I could live with. It was only my first show. I even walked around and checked out the prices on similar types of artwork. There weren't too many. Mostly water colors, a few oils and one acrylic painter like myself, but hers were small and awkward looking. I figured that water colors are painted quickly and therefore could not be compared to my work on which I spent weeks to complete a single painting. I new I was better than the other acrylic artist and oil paint makes me sneeze. Well maybe there was some competition there, but they were much more traditional than my work.

     In regard to pricing I found the water colors were priced very similarly to my work. How can that be? I'm sure it took me much longer to paint mine. The oils and acrylics were generally smaller which made it difficult to compare prices. Perhaps because it's what I wanted to believe, I decided my prices were just fine.

     Throughout the day I had several visits from a nearby artist who sold butterflies mounted on a water color background scene. He had basically three sizes, medium, small and smaller. The painted scenes were all very similar, loosely painted plants of no recognizable breed. It was the butterflies themselves that were the work of art, each one different from the next. People stopped at his display and ooohed and aaahed at their beauty as they tried to select the most exquisite butterfly. I saw no relationship between my work and this man's. He apparently did. He seemed to have appointed himself as the person who could teach me the error of my ways.

     My big mistake was in revealing to him that this was my first show. That just made me ripe for the picking. "You'll never make it with those prices" he said. "You've got to have something like my work if you ever want to succeed." He went on talking, rambling about his wife and her earthwork and how he's been successful but she was not. I heard very little of his speech. My ears were ringing with anger and disbelief. I wanted him to go away and stay away but he didn't. He kept returning to preach his message to the "new kid".

     By the time Roger came by to see how I was doing I was near hysterics. Tears flowed and I thought surely I would never survive this terrible day. What ever made me think I could be an artist. Somehow looking back, I don't think this was the greeting he was expecting. I took him aside, away from the butterfly man and tried to explain what had happened. He laughed softly, gave me a hug, and said "He's just jealous. It's his work that can't compete with yours." We had some lunch and I began to feel better. Roger stayed and helped me avoid the man.

     Whenever someone praised my work he reminded me that it was my work that would succeed because it was good. Any negative comments were only expressions of some failure on the viewer's part. He must have done his job well because I did go back the second day and complete the show. I might have been more hopeful if I had sold something, but I had to take my rave reviews, ignore the bad comments and conclude it was all OK.

     Now as an accountant I can look back on the events of that day and understand what the butterfly man was trying to say. I have to admit that in his own way he was right. He was more of a businessman than an artist. I had no business sense at all. When I set out to hang up my shingle as an artist my father told me, "To keep track of your expenses all you need is a shoe box and a receipt book. When you spend money, throw the receipt in the box. When you sell something, write a receipt for your customer with a carbon copy. At the end of the year you will have all the information you need to file your income taxes and find out how much money you have made."

     This is a rather simple method of cash basis accounting for a small business. Revenues are represented by your receipts and by deposits into your bank account. Expenses are represented by any combination of your purchase receipts, canceled checks and charge account receipts and statements. Unless you have large amounts of money tied up in unsold inventory, expensing materials as you go is a legitimate method of accounting for your business. This system worked for me for a long time but may not be for everyone. Look at my situation. Fresh out of school, just starting out. Most of my tools and supplies were actually purchased for school work and in fact all of my paintings had been done as school projects. The material costs in any one painting was not significant in respect to its selling price. I had no large equipment expenditures. I started collecting receipts when I began preparing for exhibitions. My first expenses were for slide film for pictures of my work. The only cost of my display were for fabric, cheap lumber, chicken wire, bolts and wing nuts. Frames were from the local flea market, inexpensive aluminum frames or wood lathe strips stapled to the edges of my paintings.

     Lets look at what my books would have looked like and compare them with the butterfly man's. First I'll have to make some assumptions about his costs. Let's suppose he was buying his butterflies in bulk quantities, perhaps $500 for 100 butterflies. That's $5.00 each. Some pictures would have more than one. His frames were not large but did have glass and were quite deep. By buying these in large quantities he probably got a decent price. Let's say $10.00 each. I don't recall any mat board being used. Watercolor paper or pressed board would not be more than $1.00 each sheet. Remember they were not very large frames. By using the same standard sizes for all his work he probably was able to buy all his materials already cut to size. The cost of the paint would be an insignificant amount. For our example lets assume all his work was the same size so the per unit costs would be the same on all, a total of $16.00. As I recall his average picture sold for around $36.00. That would appear to give him a profit of $20.00 each. If he sold 10 of these at a given weekend show he makes $200.00.

     Well, not exactly. There are also marketing costs such as the entry fee for the show. Say this show was fairly cheap and cost only $25.00 to enter. Now he has a $175.00 profit for this show alone.

     Well, not exactly. There is also general overhead expenses. This would include the gas and maintenance cost for his van, meals and motels during the shows, shipping charges, credit card fees, taxes, office supplies, telephone calls, postage, etc. We need to also include his marketing and show costs in this overhead figure. You can see that this is a much more obscure figure to define.

     How can he tell if he is making a profit at his $36.00 price? If he has been doing this for a while he can total these overhead expenses and spread them evenly over the number of pictures he created during the same period. He can then calculate a percentage figure which he can use as a basis for his costing. Lets say that over 26 weeks he spent $2600.00 on these incidental expenses. That's just $100.00 a week.

     Next we need to know how many pictures he would create during that same 26 weeks. His paintings did not look as though he labored for many long hours to create them. They were fairly simple colorful background settings for the butterflies themselves. Let's assume that he actually worked on creating these pictures an average of 20 hours a week, or 4 hours a day. If he spent 2 hours on each background he could paint 2 each day. I don't know about you but a 4 hour work day sure seems nice. I usually put in 8 or 9 hours with an hour for lunch. What did he do with the rest of his day?

     Now that his backgrounds are painted he needs to spend some time assembling his product. Butterflies need to be mounted effectively and the whole thing needs to be framed. But wait. That can't take another 4 hours! What else does he do with his time? Play golf? No, not yet.

     First he must locate appropriate shows to attend, apply for entry into these shows, look for other appropriate outlets for his work such as gift shops and mail order catalogs, maintain his display in good condition, make travel arrangements, order his frames, butterflies and other materials, pay bills, and keep his bookkeeping records up to date. He needs to maintain some contact with the art community so he can stay in touch with new exhibition opportunities, advertising or publicity outlets and even new materials and methods. In his case he also needs to keep in touch with butterfly collectors and maintain his knowledge of these butterflies as though he found each one himself. This helps him sell his work.

     We'll assume at least 2 hours a day for these business and assembly activities. In actuality these activities become more of a life style than hours of work. They merge into every corner of an artist's life and can extend to much more than this 2 hours we will be using.

     Now we must not forget the shows themselves. I believe there is a great tendency among artist to discount the time they spend at shows, going to shows and traveling out of town for shows. A show that runs from 10 to 6 on Saturday and Sunday would take up 20 hours of your time. That's 8 hours each day of show time plus one hour before and after each day to set up your display and take it down again. This does not include travel time to and from the shows or to out of town shows. If our butterfly man is doing a show every other weekend, that's 10 hours per week or a average of 2 hours per day. It seems he works 40 hours a week just like everyone else. He only gives the appearance of working 4 hours a day.

     What do we have now? He produces 2 pictures per day. Averaging 5 days per week over our base 26 week period he should be able to produce 260 pictures. We've made his overhead costs 2600 for 26 weeks so that's 2600 divided by 260 or $10 per picture for overhead expenses. If his average picture sells for $36.00, material costs are $16.00 each and overhead costs are $10.00 each, his unit cost is $26.00 and his unit profit is $10.00. If he had 13 shows during that period, selling 10 pictures at each show, he would have sold 130 pictures. If he makes $10 on each picture, that makes a total profit for each show of $100 or $1300 for 26 weeks or $2600 per year. Not very much. As a sole proprietor he cannot claim wages for himself on his income tax form. His $2600 annual profit is his paycheck. This must be where the expression "starving artist comes from.

     But what if he also has pictures in several gift shops and one mail order catalog. If his sales increase to 600 pictures in that same 26 weeks and his overhead costs remain essentially the same his unit cost is now $16.00 in materials and __ (75%??) in overhead costs his per unit profit has risen to $... and he has made a total of $... . Whatever...it makes my head hurt. You get the picture.

© 2019 by Caren Keyser 

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