Awards and Ribbons - Who really cares? (Jack White )

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FineArtViews Daily Newsletter | Wednesday, August 24, 2011 | Issue 1010
 • Awards and Ribbons - Who really cares?  (Jack White)
 • Technical Support (Carolyn Henderson), Revisited
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Awards and Ribbons - Who really cares?
by Jack White
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This post is by guest author, Jack White. This article has been edited and published with the author's permission. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.  This author's views are entirely his own and may not always reflect the views of BoldBrush, Inc.
We live in the Texas hill country near several small rural Texas towns.  Each year, these communities have spring events like the Peanut Festival, Watermelon Festival, Strawberry Festival, Bluebonnet Festival, Black-eyed Pea Festival, Turkey Trot Festival and The Pig Catching Festival. You get the picture; every community has a themed event based on what they grow. Naturally, all of the events have a special area where arts and crafts are sold.  Like all small communities the stuff is mostly crafts, but there are always four or five local artists who exhibit faithfully. We attend several events, showing our support for the arts and anonymously buy a few items.
We always make “small-talk” being careful not to let it slip we are artists. We made that mistake in Carefree, AZ and found we suddenly had a cluster of “new friends” pouring into the studio unannounced. It’s difficult to paint and entertain guests.
This marks our fourth year attending these local Texas festivals. At every show there are two or three artists with their booths plastered in awards of all colors; blue, red, green, yellow and white ribbons hanging from ceiling to floor. There is always a small shelf with some plastic trophy awards. Some festivals give ribbons, others trophies.
Two older ladies teach local art classes and always have a booth. They each had a minimum of 30 ribbons on display. In the middle were giant blue ribbons. One section in each tent was filled with faded yellow newspaper clippings about their awards. To call them award winning artists would be an understatement. I suspect the pretty ribbons garner local students; however, those trophies have not helped either make a sale. We’ve seen the same art hanging in their booths four years in a row. Their frames are full of dents and dings from being hauled from show to show. I get the feeling some of the paintings are twenty years old. People stop to admire the ribbon display, glance at the oils and go on to the next award filled booth. 
I thought about helping them find a way to sell their work. Mikki reminded me the two ladies’ main interest was not selling but rather, “Hey, LOOK at ME!”  The big display of ribbons did stop people, but no one purchased. Their sole reason for doing these festivals is the hope of winning another ribbon. It appears to me these ladies fight out the ribbon contest at six or seven festivals each year to see which one wins first or second. We were told the feud is pretty intense. They live in neighboring towns. They both teach and on top of that they don’t speak to each other. “Hijole” (that’s Spanish for Oh My!)  We have a blood feud brewing in Texas over ribbons. I expect one day to read the headline in our small town newspaper, Local artists schedule a pistol duel at sunrise.
I’m long overdue to destroy the myth of pretty ribbons and shiny awards. Artists think if they can win a few awards, people will suddenly want to buy their work. After all, they are “award winning” and that should translate into sales. Right? Unfortunately NO, this is a myth. I have a feeling juried show promoters were the ones to start this idea. The only way these promoters can exist is for artists to keep sending in their entry fees. Sure, a few artists do win monetary prizes, but for every one who gets money 1,000 don’t receive a Confederate dime. Dejected, they pick up the pieces and begin to look for other shows to enter. The masochist in them is ready to be hurt again. Perhaps that’s harsh. The desire to win is so great they keep on failing over and over to prove a point. I often wonder how much art they could sell if they would extend the same effort to make sales as they do to win ribbons.
This week I received spam from a juried photography contest. They said last year we had 1,584 enter and 90 accepted. If they award ten prizes, the odds of winning are slim to none. Guess who earns the money in this contest?  90 out of 1,584 is not good. You get better odds in the Las Vegas slots.
I see artists’ websites with a long list of juried shows as if they were writing a CV (Curriculum vitae) to be employed by a prestigious University. Please understand, only one in a thousand will ever read your list of all those shows and awards. Maybe your mother, one of your sisters and possibly your spouse, if you insist. Collectors are not impressed. Collectors want to know four things. Write these down.
Does this piece connect with me? 
What is the price? Can I afford the art?
Is the size right for my space?
Do the colors match my decor?
Wouldn’t you agree that by any standards I’ve had a successful art career? I’ve enjoyed great success in selling what I make. Here’s a little secret, I’ve only won a few ribbons and I don’t have a clue where they are or what the awards were for. I’ve never been listed as the Artist to Watch. I’ve never used Award Winning on any of my brochures or suggested to people doing articles on me to mention my awards. Texas Democrat Governor Dolph Briscoe made me the first official Texas State Artist and our current Republican Governor, Rick Perry, honored me as an Admiral in the Texas Navy. Those two honors allow Mikki and me a gravesite in the Texas State Cemetery in Austin where governors are planted. By the way I’m in no hurry to use my grave plot. My Texas Ranger friends gave me a gold ranger badge with my name on it. I sought out none of these honors that I consider life achievement awards, not show ribbons. The years I did shows, I was never singled out for any special awards. Sometimes I was told I had the best booth, but that was because the promoter wanted me in their other shows. There are a lot of politics with show and festival promoters. When you prove to be a crowd pleaser, you get the best space. With confidence it’s easy to say Jack White was the top money producer in every show he worked. Not bragging, just a fact. It comes down to this; do you want pretty blue ribbons or dirty green cash? Sometimes you can have both, but if the choice comes down to one always take the filthy lucre.
Secret number two. In my forty-one years as a fulltime artist no one has ever asked me how many ribbons or awards I’ve won. Not one single person cared enough to even ask.  This may come as a shock, but collectors are more interested in the quality of your work than all the ribbons you harvest. This will sound trite, but people buy art that connects with them, not the hype you promote.
Clients hate puffery. The saying, “He that doesn’t toot his own horn the same will not be tooted” is another form of puffery. Do you know how silly it sounds when people read you are an internationally known artist, yet they have never heard of you? How dumb does that make you look?  In truth, there are only a few internationally known artists. What is the world population? In 2009, the census was 6,775,235,700 people on earth and 7 in space. We are famous if 500,000 people know of our work. Mikki and I have traveled almost all over the world. Not one person in any of those foreign countries knew us. We have found a few American travelers over the years knowing who we were, but no foreigner.
I find puffery is one of the biggest turn offs in artist bios. Puffery is usually a sign of insecurity. Bragging will run buyers away faster than bad breath.  They don’t care to hear how great you think you are, the buyer is much more impressed if you tell them how great they are.  They don’t want to listen to you brag about your awards, they had much rather you show real interest in them. I want to reiterate, if you want to exercise the most important name the client knows, try using theirs.
I see artists who have won various awards in juried shows and yet they can’t even get a gallery to carry their work. You have placed your career emphasis on the wrong thing. There are exceptions of sales success after you win a major national competition. The Prix de West is one that can help. The national Duck Stamp used to be a nice rung on the ladder to success, but not much any more. In the first National Art in the Park juried show, Richard Schmid won $100,000 and instant name recognition. All art media reported on his big win. Then the contest cut the amount of money way back. That award propelled Richard into the limelight but now you seldom see the winner’s name in any art magazines. The Duck’s Unlimited and Arts in the Park juried shows have no real impact these days.
If I told you all trees grow up toward the sky, one of you would find a bush growing down from under a ledge to prove me wrong. There may be a few exceptions, but not enough to require two hands to count. When I think of the hundreds of thousands of artists entering juried shows hoping to win an award or a money prize, my heart is troubled. I know one day you will wake up and realize you have been duped. All the juried ribbons and plastic trophies will not help you generate any real sales or give you fame.
Do me a favor and be honest with what you put down. How much money and time did you spend on painting, frames, fees, shipping, and crates? Count your time and money invested in trying to win juried shows. What did you do with the rejected art? You can’t tell clients this painting was rejected five times.  How much money have you won? Only a few who are professional show artists will come out on the plus side. Again that number can be counted on one hand.
Judges for art shows are not art buyers.  In many cases, the judges are college and university art professors. These folks don’t have a remote clue of what it takes to sell art. They can talk theory and concept into the ground, but ask about marketing and they will treat you as if you had an incurable disease.  How do I know this?  You would be amazed at the number of artists over the years, emailing me with questions, relating horror stories about their instructors. I have yet to have one artist tell me his/her professor was a genius at marketing art.
I’ve juried many art shows. To be truthful, I don’t judge on what I think will sell, but rather I work hard to avoid hurting as few feelings as possible. I know in the end the pretty ribbons won’t do anything but help some sooth their pride and maybe get their picture in the weekly newspaper. I juried one show with 16 artists participating. They had 20 pretty ribbons for awards. Everyone got a ribbon with four left over (smile). 
The sad part is the artists who win ribbons begin to think they are on the lip of success. I’m one of the lucky people. I didn’t have to overcome art school professors. I never knew about Juried Shows until I was earning obscene amounts of money. I was never blindsided by those myths.
I’m not saying turn down the pretty ribbons and shiny awards. In time, your grandchildren will be impressed.  Win, take them home and put them in a safe, dry place. But at your next art show don’t drag your pretty ribbons along; instead carry quality art that connects with people. The ribbons are a distraction to your art. People get involved in looking at your awards and never see what you make.
Mikki, my mate, spent 9 years as a Medical Illustrator and won their top Award of Excellence 5 times. I asked if the awards helped her get new books to illustrate.  She admitted the doctors who selected her to illustrate their big, thick medical books liked her style of illustrating and never knew about the 5 top awards.  She illustrated 47 major medical books before I taught her to paint. Several of those books won publishing awards. As a painter she has won only one ribbon. In her first year, we entered her in a big three-day event in Amarillo and she won Best of Show. We still have the ribbon tucked away in our memory box. That was the last show we entered and her only pretty ribbon. For twenty plus years Mikki has been very successful as an easel painter, represented by major art galleries. What’s amazing is we cannot remember one client or gallery ever asking about her awards. The galleries just wanted to know if could she keep them supplied after they sold their inventory. They never doubted her work would sell.
Artists enter juried shows hoping to win some awards, planning to use those ribbons and trophies to propel their art to the top.  I recall an artist from Silverado, New Mexico. He had one painting that had been juried into a large number of national shows. I read a feature on him in the Albuquerque Newspaper. After exhibiting the painting all those times and winning several best of show ribbons he still has not found a buyer for his award-winning piece of art. If my memory is correct he was in over 100 shows with that one single painting. I’d bet my boots - my best boots -  that he didn’t break even. 
What do you want to do, win ribbons or earn money? The choice is in your court. If it’s money, then place your emphasis on making a quality product that will connect with the folks. Get that product in front of people who love art and have money to buy. Help them find a way to add your work to their collection. Let your satisfied collectors be your awards and pretty ribbons. You do these simple things and success will follow like a hungry dog when tossed a bone. 
Jack White has the title Official Texas State Artist and recently Governor Rick Perry appointed him an Admiral in the Texas Navy. Jack authored six Art Marketing books. The first, “Mystery of Making It”, describes how he taught Mikki to paint and has sold over six million dollars worth of her art.  You can contact Jack at jack@jackwhiteartist.com.
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