An Interview with Astrid Bennett
In this edition of textile art business interview, we’ll be talking about marketing for textile artists. I’m pleased to welcome Astrid Bennett to the blog to help us with that. Astrid is the current President of the Surface Design Association. She received her BFA in printmaking from Indiana University and has exhibited and taught at various locations throughout the country. She also served as longtime manager, marketing director & Co-owner of Iowa Artisans Gallery in Iowa City.
There’s so much to talk about with Astrid. So, I’m going to break this chat into two parts.
In this first part of the interview, Astrid and I discuss:
- Astrid’s creative Journey into textiles
- Why she likes to work with textiles in particular
- The secret to selling art & how to make it easy for galleries to sell your work
- Tips for marketing small fiber works
- The importance of having a good website PLUS
- She recorded a special encouragement video for all of you my readers, to encourage you on your creative journeys
Let’s get started.
CN: Hi Astrid, welcome to the Clara Nartey blog and this edition of Textile Business interviews. It’s wonderful to have you on.
AB: Thank you, Clara. It’s a pleasure to be able to give back.
Astrid Bennett’s creative Journey into Textiles
CN: Astrid, tell us about your early influences and how you became an artist.
AB: I always “made things” as a child and was surrounded by art. “Blessed” with a strong right and left brain impulse, my family, who came to the US from Europe when I was a toddler, had a strong orientation to projects, working hard, and nature.
My art training did not come until college. I am probably the only kid in my class who grew up with German Expressionist nudes in the house; this background also gave me a strong sensibility for materials. I trained as a musician; this remains a strong influence on my visual vocabulary.
CN: Why did you choose textiles as your artistic medium? Is there any special reason?
AB: I was studying printmaking in college but gravitated to textiles at the very end because I could work large and in a modular fashion. During my textile career odyssey, I did weaving, quilting, and now mixed media, but always with painting and printing fabrics at its core. I like the tactile qualities of textiles and prefer the drag of the brush on fabric as opposed to paper (I currently do both, with drawings on paper later translated to cloth and screen print designs.)
Astrid Bennett: Working as a Gallery Owner
CN: Tell us a little bit about the art gallery you managed and then co-owned for 34 years.
AB: Iowa Artisans Gallery is really a contemporary crafts shop that was started by 12 artists in 1984. (I was pregnant with my third child at the time and was a consignor.)
I joined the gallery in 1991 as a very part-time PR coordinator, later managing and then having co-ownership with the remaining 5 owners. The Gallery is a destination business in a historic building in downtown Iowa City, known for its large university, its writers’ workshop, medical school and for inventing the MFA degree. The Gallery sells work by close to 200 artists in a 4000-square foot space.
I liked to tell people that 96% of our inventory was American made, and 4% Canadian.
When I worked there, we had a 50-50% mix of consignment and wholesale (store-owned) work that we located at national wholesale shows, through portfolio reviews, and online. Although I did teach fiber art at the University of Iowa for one year until they shuttered the program,
I like to think that I had a teaching mission at the gallery: teaching the public, artists, staff, about the power of art and creativity.
In May 2017, we sold the Gallery to a staff member and two other people who are leading it in their own directions. We are very pleased that it continues to thrive. Retail is undergoing tremendous changes in the internet age.
Marketing for Textile Artists: Your Website
CN: Now that you bring up the topic of retail, let’s talk about marketing for textile artists. You and I met because you saw my website and liked the job I’m doing with my marketing. What are the things gallery owners like to see artists do with their websites and why?
AB: Let’s face it: most artists will not have big museum shows on a regular basis, or ever. But they do stand a chance to be recognized in the community, not just the local community but the community of art lovers and customers nationally. This contributes to economic success if that is one of their goals.
As Gallery or shop owners, we like when you make it easy for us to sell your story because that’s the secret ingredient to selling art. Presenting yourself in an engaging and friendly way on your website and social media helps people connect with your work and with you as an artist. Customers want a part of that story when they purchase your work. When I see someone who “gets” that, it excites me!
Marketing for Textile Artists: Contemporary American Craft vs Textile Art
CN: When we’d chatted prior to this, you’d mentioned that it’s more challenging to market textile art than it is with other media. What are the particular challenges textile artists face in marketing their works?
AB: In my considerable experience selling contemporary American craft in a Big-10 University town (which is one of the best places to have a gallery or shop of that kind), fiber art was always much harder to sell than jewelry, the #1 seller for most contemporary craft retailers.
Jewelry has broad appeal: to women for themselves or their friends, to men for women in their lives, and as impulse purchases easily transported while traveling.
Ceramics or wood or metal also do well and are functional works that also appeal to men. We also sold a lot of works for the walls- original prints, paintings, etc.- but the pool of artists who want to supply that kind of work is huge compared to the relatively small group of textile artists.
Another factor is the large population group that comes in, sees textile work and says, oh, I could make that myself, which is rarely true. Please note that I am not discussing clothing here, which has its own set of conditions (fashion-purchasing mentality, size and fitting issues). We only sold scarves.
Marketing for Textile Artists: How to Sell Textile Art alongside Gift Items
However, here are some notable exceptions regarding sales of textile art. I like to divide textile work into two categories: functional and decorative (works for the wall).
Functional works that can be purchased as small gifts, wedding gifts, hostess gifts and/or that reflect a local icon or environment do well. Pair them with ceramics or wood in displays. For example, I have sold literally thousands of tea towels with non-sports cultural icons of Iowa City, or prairie plants. I include a “what’s what” guide to the images included.
Affordable handbags do well; more attention has to be paid to fashion trends for these. Scarves have traditionally done well but may be more popular for an older demographic now. Interesting pillows can work (although costs are hard to recoup). Sometimes our fiber art sales mushroomed due to adding an artist with an approach that no one could resist. Examples are the Velvet Moustache pillows,
If the store is known for an eco-conscious philosophy, pairing eco-conscious processes and materials works well. If the store specializes in home décor and furniture, pair your work with these. (The internet is changing this market rapidly, as you can see from watching HGTV.)
Wall art is where the large ticket items sell. Even selling one large piece often exceeds sales of multiple small functional items. So, artists need to decide where they want to devote their energy. For this approach, also consider galleries or art consultants with connections to corporate or hospital installation and designers if possible (these are harder to make happen these days).
While I have sold many large abstract art quilts over my career, the prevalence of quilters in society at large and the downturn in 2008 contributed to somewhat waning sales for these.
Marketing for Textile Artists: Tips for Marketing Small Fiber Works:
If you are doing small wall pieces,
- a large piece can make the smaller ones look affordable.
- remember that with small pieces, it’s all about presentation, presentation, presentation. Consider it to be an object.
- mount fiber art or frame it somehow, even if without glass (see how to frame fiber art behind glass).
- consider pieces for a modular display. Your work will be competing for customer attention along with many other artists in the venue.
- Make it easy for the store to display your work.
Marketing for Textile Artists: Textile Art Trends
CN: Astrid in our conversation earlier, you also touched on the fact that nationally, textile art has become much more prominent, so it’s an interesting time for marketing textile art. Can you explain that some more?
AB: Textile media being incorporated into art is huge right now. I say this because mainstream sculptors are using textiles in their work, as are students, and male artists and others who long embraced other materials. Textiles have so many important cultural stories to tell.
In addition to that, the DIY movement has spawned first an interest in knitting and silkscreen, then embroidery and modern quilting.
Now we are also seeing weaving become important to younger artists, even as college programs have closed and sold their weaving equipment.
Early adopters of Instagram have huge followings. These woven works are fairly simple, favoring materials that speak for themselves, are sculptural and imbue color. This work is surprisingly saleable in some venues, although I don’t think it would have been in mine. Check out Alicia Scardetta on Instagram.
Another whole group of textile practice goes to make exhibition work that is often socially engaged. This kind of work is rarely saleable in a standard gallery or shop, but it makes for great resumes. Artists will sometimes do both “lines”, ie exhibition work and a line of up-cycled repurposed printed linens for bread and butter sales.
Astrid, this here is a great point to pause the first part one of this interview on marketing for textile artists. In part two, we’ll pick up where we left off on the topic of galleries. We’ll answer the questions – why do you need a gallery representation, how to get one, what are the expectations of gallerists and much more.
Confidence Boost for Creatives
Click to watch the video: Astrid Bennett on Creativity
- As Gallery or shop owners, we like when you make it easy for us to sell your story because that’s the secret ingredient to selling art.
- I like to think that I had a teaching mission at the gallery: teaching the public, artists, staff, about the power of art and creativity.
- Let’s face it: most artists will not have big museum shows on a regular basis, or ever.
- Make it easy for the store to display your work.
- Textile media being incorporated into art is huge right now. The DIY movement has spawned an interest.
Tha’s it for now. Hope you enjoyed part 1 of “marketing for textile artists”. See you in part 2 of the interview.
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Also published on Medium.