Living on the Edge and Taking Risks

June 18, 2010
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Some years ago at the NCECA conference in San Diego, I was asked to be one of two “Business Doctors” with my colleague Bill Hunt. The idea was to present a panel that could rotate from conference to conference along with the “Glaze Doctors” and the “Kiln Doctors.”

The focus of the panel was to impart some wisdom on business practices. In my presentation, I used a pie chart to represent the marketplace and the segments (or wedges) of the pie to indicate the vast numbers of potters and ceramic artists competing for a piece of that pie. Over time, the number of segments has multiplied by a factor greater than the size of that marketplace pie. Currently, the segments or wedges continue to increase in number in inverse proportion to the size of the pie.

So what has happened? Well, our economy has certainly changed, baby boomers have ceased accumulating “stuff,” collectors are not collecting in the volumes that they previously did, and craft stores and galleries have certainly slowed down their buying or have gone out of business. Gen X and Gen Y need more education on the value of the handmade. The list of reasons goes on and on.

Our industry can be looked at in many ways. From one point of view, I could argue that it defies the model, if there is even a model. Thousands of would-be pottery aficionados, students, wannabes, poseurs, etc. populate the NCECA conference. Vendors hawk everything we need, and their market shows little signs of shrinking. We consume what they offer. The polar opposite view is that our industry is like any other and, as the economy goes, so goes the ceramics business. Yet schools and colleges continue to spew out more and more graduates with BFA and MFA degrees in ceramics who are clueless on how to make a living. But that is a topic for another conversation.

It is a huge risk to be in this business, either as a maker of ceramics or as a gallery. If we can’t sell what we make, then the ripple effect transfers to the galleries and materials and equipment vendors. If the gallery business is slow, their openness to buy or have new work follows that trend. With so many people competing for a shrinking market share, wither goes the pottery making business?

I recently spoke to a colleague who has been a potter for maybe 35 years. He is competent, productive, hardworking, and his signature fake ash glazed work is featured in most of the stores on the East Coast. His market is shrinking. Major shows do not return what he needs or he is wait-listed or not accepted. He is looking to enter smaller local shows, travelling further, expecting less of a return. His family has no investments, no savings. But his wife has a steady income and a good job, so they both have health insurance. They put all three of their kids through college. Their investments are their kids, for sure. My friend is concerned and nervous, but continues to make work and fire kilns, thinking that at some point the market might return as it was in the 1980s.

My friend, that market will never come back. Things might get better economically on an incremental basis, but times are now different. Disposable income is not what it once was.

We have taken a big risk. We are self-employed; we make things of great beauty and utility that, really, most people don’t need. You can’t eat a pitcher or a mug. It may enhance the culinary experience, but it won’t pay the electric bill or the dentist. We have the luxury of doing what we love to do, but few of us ever really thought about the consequences of the big picture of what it meant to be a potter or a ceramic artist-or of aging, for that matter, when we started out, yes, back in the day. That day.

It is uncomfortable to live on such an edge and to have taken these risks. Yet we are an extremely versatile and creative group of individuals. I am confident that most of us will overcome this adversity and continue to make and sell work. We accept the challenge of risk and embrace new ways of thinking about what we do.

One can only hope.


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