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Crawling out of Art Purgatory...

by Russ Cushman


Anybody still out there? God, I hope so, because our country needs artists more than ever.

The last time I pontificated about the art market, I'm sure my comments left many of you confused. It was a mixed bag of “buck up” and “go get 'em” that many of you probably found discouraging. I don't regret any of those words...but after moving to Central Texas and literally working two years towards reinventing my art career, I have some better, more useful observations.

So sure, the Internet is where it's at, social media, etc., and most importantly, really working those social skills in real, rubber-hits-the-road public interaction...so I wanted to elaborate on that last facet- an element of every successful art career.

Sorry, there is no way you can stay at home and just make your art and never have to deal with the public. I have pointed many times to my friend Leon Collins, who sells more art than anyone, and who does it by putting himself right in the pathway of the American consumer. Literally. Leon works the Navasota community so well, hawking on its sidewalks, that he created the illusion, as far as the city leaders were concerned, that Navasota was some kind of art market. The Navasota City Council saw Leon Collins' healthy slice of success and figured, if he could do so well by himself, without a website, without even a business card, then they could certainly engineer a larger, more lucrative pie. They have created a visiting artist's program, drawing from applicants from all over the U.S., providing housing and a gallery for exhibits, and coordinated with the Arts Council of the Brazos Valley to help these visiting emerging artists emerge. But they have not sold much art or expanded the “art market.” That is because these young artists are being encouraged to focus on creative development and less on commercial success. So they come and create and raise their eyebrows at the old black guy downtown, and never imagine how much art is actually being sold every week, while they sit in the old Horlock mansion and seek inspiration, and often wonder why they came there.

Leon Collins has made an art career look incredibly easy. He has combined the irresistible qualities of personal likability, hard work and availability---to market his imaginative surrealism. And he has proven that people are still buying art, even in these bizarre, financially bumpy times. And really, lots of it. So, after I got settled in my new environment here in Bell County, I decided to test the theories Leon has inspired in me.

Limiting myself to medium-sized canvases, I began to paint subjects which I knew would appeal specifically to the local people...since tourism is way down. That does not mean I quit painting things that I like... subjects which excite me...I still have, more than ever, but I make sure that I consider native tastes 50% of the time. I built up a decent inventory of around 20 original pieces and a nice variety of gicles and looked for a local venue. Most importantly, I abandoned a long-held career policy and decided to drop my prices and do arts and crafts shows, after a thirty-year moratorium; Mall shows, county fairs, any public showing would be considered as an opportunity. And soon one presented itself.

The Samishows out of Austin found refuge this autumn during the Covid crisis in the Bell County Expo Center and is doing an unprecedented FIVE shows in a row between September and December. I built some show easels and joined my old Texas Wild Bunch buddy George Boutwell at the very first one... and had enough success to go back again- and again. Starting all over again, meeting complete strangers who never heard of me... after a comfortable career in the B-CS area, was one of the scariest things I have ever done...but it proved Leon right.

Only a few “fine” artists do these shows, so there is not a lot of competition. That is good. The Expo Center is in a great location, in Belton, right on I35 between Austin and Temple. It draws easily from the nearby Ft.Hood/Killeen/Harker Heights metropolitan area, as well as the chain of Salado/ Belton/Temple. I have met folks from Waco, Georgetown, Round Rock, and even Austin. Samishows have a loyal following, after nearly forty years of promoting shows in Texas, and they know how to draw a crowd.

The rest is up to each vendor, to test his or her viability. My second appearance at the Expo Center I sold over a thousand dollars worth...and believe me, just getting public reactions and affirmation was worth almost as much to me. Yes, I had to lay down some cash to have the stuff I needed to do an exhibit. But I believe the money was well-invested, and the scheme gets me out of the house.

And when this Covid thing is over, and the elections are behind us, I believe I will have gotten a head-start on whatever art market there is, which is bound to improve. And now Leon and George Boutwell are no longer unchallenged in that market. Hard times make you think more, work harder, push yourself farther, and they separate the dreamers from the doers. Art shows are hard work and test your physical and mental stength...and believe me, I did not quit doing them for no reason decades ago! There are easier ways to make a living...and nobody should be talked into it against their inner voice....

But if you were thinking about it...of going down fighting...be encouraged. Success is still attainable... if you are lagging, it's not the art market...I'm sorry, but it is you. And you can learn and climb the ropes, if this old codger did. So take courage my fellow artists!

The “art market” may be a little smaller, and more persnickety, but it is still out there.