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Behind the Digital Curve: What The Creative Abq Symposium Got Wrong

I attended part of a daylong Creative Albuquerque symposium on October 19th. Titled Profit: From Striving to Thriving, it dealt in a mission to give “creative” economic training to artists and creatives. Yet how problematic this area can be was underscored by the speakers’ approaches to the audience and the subject – with the caveat that I departed after the morning session.

The morning speakers delivered advice on messaging, but the ways of self-branding and promoting that I heard represented, managed to evade or even misinform as to the reality that full digital participation is an absolute mandate to doing “creative” business. Even as we can argue about what outcomes new partnerships on creative economies and creative cities and creative placemaking have, the larger point when nonprofit organizations purport to train would-be creative entrepreneurs must be that those doing the training need to be ahead of the audience in proficiency. Or what’s the point?

Touching briefly on writer Dave Hickey, who last week “quit” the art world with arguments that centered on his view that now being a critic  is merely being a “courtier” to the very rich, he said famously back in ’97 that “art and money never touch.” He first wrote: Art does nothing to money but translate it. Money does nothing to art but facilitate its dissemination and buy the occasional bowl of Wheaties for an artist or art dealer.”  This, remember, was 1997 (before Hickey curated the 2001 SITE Santa Fe biennial or won a MacArthur.)

Artist Rackstraw Downes, featured on Art.sy on November 6th, at a price estimated at $150,000-$200,000.

It would seem lately to be self-evident that the universe of value that is the artist eating Wheaties has become a matter of civic interest. Catalyzing “creative economies” comes out of Richard Florida’s branded “creative cities” movement. (I posted here last summer on the latest thinking on creative placemaking’s outcomes problem.) But here comes the issue: A “symposium”  has the weighty sound of a highly informed, highly thought-through event in which, after creatives pay $87 to attend (disclaimer: I was “comped” as a member of the press), they come away with, at the bare minimum, very good and very workable advice.

Keynoter Marlene Richey’s dated advice sets for creative entrepreneurs included deciding carefully which fonts to use when sending out letters (presumably by US mail). She allowed that creative people “need” websites, but when an audience member later asked her about selling online, she replied that price resistance for online buyers tops at $200. Here was a moment when an effective but firm correction should have been made.

Do we suppose Richey has heard of websites including Gilt Groupe, YOOX, Jetsetter, not to mention EBay and Etsy, which all sell things in the four-, five- and even six-figures? Or, the new art-selling site, Art.sy, which has launched with much fanfare for its ability to help consumers learn an art “genome,”  and collect according to factors DNA-ish that help guide the search process, if not consumer decision-making?

On the home page today is an oil painting, Under an Off Ramp to the George Washington Bridge by Rackstraw Downes, at Betty Cunningham Gallery, estimated at $150,000-$200,000.

This I can say with assurance: Any supposed market advice that deals as if selling to retail establishments and gallery systems is a viable goal for many, is out-of-touch with the fact that increasingly, we are needing to create new markets and new funding sources given the growing import of our virtual lives. An online portfolio — regularly updated and blogged about — seems a lot more pertinent a choice for exhibiting work with the goal being to “thrive,” than which font to print letters in.

The marketing director of New Mexico’s Heritage Hotels and Resorts took the dais to relate the branding story of the New Mexico hotel chain. I took away that HHandR both collects and has collected art to go with the “heritage” themes of the hotels, and then gives monies to nonprofits such as in the historic village of Chimayo, and to SWAIA (which runs Santa Fe Indian Market). It is hard to argue with charitable giving, but it was unclear whether HHandR was messaging that it represents a market with potential for creatives in the audience — or merely reiterating that it treats in capital letters the concept of “heritage” in the Heritage brand?

Things got worse as an “organizing” specialist took the dais only to try to make a joke, in front of a largely female audience, that because so many men are her company’s clientele, she can’t engage with them on Pinterest, where people post lots of pictures of their cats. Cat jokes, really? The best of this panel’s speakers was Eugene Brill of Rio Grande, an Albuquerque jewelry supply company, who came prepared but was cut short by time constraints from doing more besides showing a few slides that poked fun at the social media sites that he clearly uses with both analysis and subtlety, in his job. I appreciated the humor but still left shaking my head as to why the takeaway could easily have been construed to mean, don’t worry about this arena which is so vast and confusing.

Here are some mini factoids dealing in the changes we’ve seen in online life: Facebook is third most visited site in the world, demanding on average 3-7 hours of our time per month (and much more among some demographics). Women 55+ are joining up fastest. One in two Americans have smart phones. 600k broadband users a month are coming online from China. Investigating your creative niche likely means going where the people are. And: we are entering what is being called the intention economy.

If you are a maker, “you have to find a way of engaging your customer and having a relationship with them in some way before the decision to buy is engaged.” That from Artsjournal.com founder Doug McLennan speaking at a Grantmakers in the Arts webinar earlier this year. Lack of digital engagement makes you much easier to ignore. If you’re hard to find once, people won’t try twice.

So. I left perplexed about how a daylong symposium that cost $87 for creatives to attend, dealt so glibly in marketing as if for a retail environment circa 1980.  Those who already are eating out of a gold-plated bowl of Wheaties don’t attend such events. And, based on October 19th, I likely wouldn’t go twice.

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