This past summer I participated in the Toronto Outdoor Art Exhibition (TOAE), the annual art sale that congregates over three hundred artists on the hot concrete of Toronto’s Nathan Phillip Square. I had maybe twenty works of wood assemblage with me, oddball decorative things construed specifically for sale. They were, I reasoned, rustic, interesting, accessible, and unique when measured against the other kinds of artwork that the TOAE attracts.
I entered TOAE because I felt I needed to be a little more entrepreneurial, needed to flex the perpetually underdeveloped muscle of self-promotion. So I updated my business card, designed a crop of postcards, quickly revised my crudely conceived website, and posted pictures of my work via a Facebook photo album. I even tweeted once; an accomplishment for someone fundamentally unable to grasp the function or purpose of Twitter. I thought that was more than enough.
As a direct result of these efforts, a buyer swooped in during the first moments of the exhibition, having seen images on-line, and purchased the most expensive piece I had for sale. In this one sale, I was able to exactly pay off the total costs of my participation, all of my additional expenses for the weekend. For at least an hour, I felt good; the remainder of my weekend was bound to be nothing but profit.
But good promotion needs to be thorough; it needs to extend through all of the details. Three hours after my first sale, a freak wind blew my tent canopy straight up in the air crashing it into the tent of a neighbouring artist, destroying two of his meticulously wrought, wood vases. The artist was gracious and generous in his reaction (he was a veteran of these kinds of shows, had insurance, had seen it all before, etc.) but that only intensified my shame. Instantly I stopped feeling in charge of my practice. I didn’t bother to learn how to secure a tent in the wind; I should know those things. My work was displayed in a rushed, rudimentary way. I was dressed like a disheveled father, not an artist. I hadn’t thought much how to talk about my work confidently.
Over the next few days, I came close to four more sales, but each time it felt to me that I was missing that one bit of magic energy to push a buyer into a decision. Finally, during the last moments of the weekend, an eccentric looking man wanders in, takes a long look at my work, and then turns to me with an extremely troubled look on his face.
“Do you mind if I say something blunt?’
“It looks like you’ve cooked this work up to sell it. I don’t get the sense you really believe what you’re doing here.”
(long pause) “I think you might be right.”
It’d be easy for me to write off this year’s TOAE as bad luck, but I prefer to roll the experience around in my mind like a parable. I always thought that self-promotion was this kind of used-car-salesman-like lubricant you were obliged to pour over your practice in order to make it run. Sticky, messy, don’t pour too much on or no one will go near you, kind of thing. I now wonder if self-promotion isn’t better understood as a more meditative, truthful practice. Maybe it’s a system where you comb over all of the details surrounding the context in which your work is shown, slowly taking ownership over them.
I had conviction in my work, but I lost it. Next time, I will try to build a more complete edifice behind it. That way, when the freak wind blows, I will have a better chance of recovery.