I planned to write this right after Artscape, thinking that my wholesale workload would be tapering off. Since then five new wholesale orders rolled in, so I haven't been able to take a break. On one hand, I could really use some time off. On the other hand I just got this pretty new roof installed on my house (looks nice, doesn't it?) and now I have to pay for it.
Needing a new roof is relevant to what I'm about to write, believe it or not. It's the story of where I have chosen to live. And why I think that, by accident, I chose an excellent spot to grow a pottery business. And maybe to answer the question some people have, how can a potter afford to live in a metropolitan area?
I live just outside of Washington, DC. I bought my little bungalow in 1997, when I was a fearless (maybe reckless?) 26-year-old. The house was a total fixer-upper, including an improperly-installed roof. The neighborhood was considered undesirable, and the term "housing bubble" did not exist yet. All of this means I bought the house for very cheap. In the 14 years since, the neighborhood has undergone an urban redevelopment, just like lots of similar communities in the DC region. I really like it here. My walkable neighborhood, the nearby big city, and the wider region provide everything I need.
When I bought the house, I did not yet have ambitions to be a professional potter. I was a workaholic graphic designer, taking pottery classes to stay sane. A few years later, when I started dreaming of becoming a "big time potter," I assumed that I would have to move to a rural area. Partly because I wanted a wood kiln, but mostly because it just seemed like all "big time potters" live out in the country. Yeah, I was pretty clueless then. Like many dreamers, I had plenty of naive notions to unlearn.
I still have deep respect and admiration for wood-firing, but I no longer wish to own a wood kiln (how I arrived at that conclusion is another long story). Other than having the space to burn a fuel kiln, the other reason for living rural is the low cost of living. But I already have a cheap house. And like I said before, I really like it here. Things had changed after the housing bubble, and now moving to the country wouldn't be any cheaper.
My little bungalow has another potter-friendly feature: an unfinished basement. In 2002, I began looking for a space to establish a studio. I considered renting in a warehouse park where lots of artists have studios (pretty cheap, even in a metropolitan area), I considered building an outbuilding in my backyard (pricier, would require a loan). But the best answer was right underneath me. I don't even remember what filled up those two carloads of stuff that I cleared out from the basement. But once it was gone, I had a 15 x 25 ft. space. And it was free.
I began firing pots in an electric kiln in my basement. I was slowly moving up into bigger and better art festivals, and people were buying them as fast as I could make them. I was winning awards. In 2007, I was juried into the ACC Baltimore show, where even that upscale audience bought my urban basement pots. Including gallery buyers. And then I saw it: I can be a big time potter in the house I already own. I can laugh about this now, but this moment of clarity was the direct result of the blinding terror I endured leading up to the ACC show. I only applied to the show because a friend egged me on. I really didn't think I belonged there. I was wailing "I'm not worthy!" to anyone who would listen.
Maybe I should have titled this blog post "Blinding Terror Leads to Moment of Clarity."
Since then, I've never regretted my decision to stay put. In fact, I've learned that my urban location has some real advantages. The DC region has weathered the recession fairly well. In addition to a large federal workforce, there are many other stable industries here. My sales have really not been affected by the economy. In fact, my sales grew during this period to the point where now I only take design projects when I want to. Even at a show that occurred right after the stock market crashed in 2008, I remember thinking that wasn't as bad as I expected. I know this has not been the same for other areas of the country.
And although I can't fire a wood-kiln here, I learned last year that I could fire a gas kiln, if I ever wanted to evolve into reduction firing. I met a potter who lives nearby, firing a small gas kiln with the full blessing of the county government and the gas company.
Another advantage is the emerging "buy local" movement, i.e. people who have figured out the economic and environmental benefits of buying locally-made goods from local merchants. This movement keeps the farmers' markets around here booming, and has created new fans of handmade crafts. Some shows use "buy local" as the focus of their marketing, and it works. The flip side of "buy local" is "sell local." Businesses can save a lot of money, and go easy on the planet, by selling their goods locally. You can only take advantage of "buy local/sell local" if you live where your customers are.
Half of my income is from selling pottery at art festivals, and I never have to travel far to find good ones. When The Hourly Earnings Project was published in Ceramics Monthly, I heard from several people who said "you forgot to subtract your travel expenses for the art festivals" which left me scratching my head. What travel expenses? I realize now that rural artists need to burn lots of gasoline and stay in hotels to get to a decent festival. This can easily double the cost of a show. I don't need to do that, and I don't take it for granted anymore. The fact is, my largest business expense category is show expenses (application fees, booth fees, and my display) ... considerably higher than supplies (clay, glaze chemicals, equipment, and tools). My show expenses could be much higher, if it wasn't for my location.
The other half of my income is wholesaling, which can be done from anywhere, rural or urban. But The Hourly Earnings Project revealed it's the least profitable way to sell. If it were my only option, my business wouldn't be doing as well. And my arms may have fallen off by now, it's an absurd amount of throwing. But here's why it's still worth doing: a good quality gallery elevates my credibility (I like that!) and exposes my work to customers in other regions. These things support my "sell local" plans. A credible brand is easier to sell, and I don't need to travel to far-off art festivals to expand my reach, because my pots are already there. I can focus on finding more local customers within this big population base.
I haven't ventured into online selling. I mean to, but haven't had time. But I've been observing Etsy, and venues like that, for a while. Etsy is an unjuried art festival with 100,000 booths. There's a lot of quality work there, surrounded by a sea of junk. You'll never be noticed in all that clutter. Unless. The successful Etsy stores have something in common: the artists had big followings before they got on Etsy. They are still working the art festival scene and/or other venues where they regularly connect with their customers, and their customers follow them online. My mailing list now tops 1,000 names, and I think this bodes well for my future online launch. But still I expect online sales to be the smallest segment of my income. Selling one or two pots at a time just can't match the volume of art festivals or wholesale. Lots of craft artists think opening an Etsy store is the start and finish of a business plan, but it's not. If you want more thoughts about this from someone who would know, read this.
Wholesaling supports local selling. Local selling supports online selling. They don't work as well by themselves, but combined they make each other better. And it all revolves around local selling.
So to conclude a very long blog post ... just because a potter's income is modest and unpredictable, that doesn't mean you have to live in the country. You can also choose to live cheaply in a big city. It pays to live within a big population center, because local selling is the backbone of a good business plan. Choose a metropolitan area with a stable economy, then buy a house in a bad neighborhood. Not just any bad neighborhood, use your visual judgement skills and pick one where the streets and houses are nice, but maybe not in great shape. Potters are good with tools, you can handle the maintenance. Make sure it has a built-in studio space, like a basement or garage. Yeah, so you'll have to pray frequently that the old roof will last for one more winter, until you can finally afford a new one. You'll survive.
Maybe the secondary point I'm trying to make is ... you don't have to go somewhere else in order to chase your dream. Build it where you are.
(My current prayer is "oh please let my old car last until I pay off the roof.")