Creativity is great, but not so helpful when trying to balance a checkbook.
Many a young talent hits the wall when it comes to the commercial side of being an artist. And in the end, art has to succeed as a business if it is to survive.
Enter the American Craft Council (ACC), which today opens its 26th annual show and sale at the St. Paul RiverCentre. The event is a three-day pop-up salesroom in which 250 of the country's top artisans can meet their customers, test-market new designs, and hopefully sell enough to make it all worthwhile.
Artisans from around the country compete for spots in the expo, which features high-style, handcrafted furniture, clothing, tableware, jewelry, leather goods, glass, pottery and other works. With prices ranging from $50 to more than $10,000 for one-of-a-kind items, the show aims to wow its 10,000 visitors with a level of originality that's perhaps a cut above the outdoor art fairs that proliferate every summer.
"These are not just shows," said Pamela Diamond, marketing director for the ACC, which also stages expos in Baltimore, Atlanta and San Francisco. "They create commissioning opportunities for our artists and platforms for them to establish themselves as businesses."
Juggling creative projects and business responsibilities is always tricky for the artists. Most work alone, which means designing websites, packaging orders, doing taxes and sweeping floors, too.
"I was just contacted by a woman interested in a special $1,500 necklace and all I could think was, oh, my gosh, I'm going to be in St. Paul in a week. How am I going to make that?" said Molly Dingledine, a jeweler from Asheville, N.C. "There are so many different hats to wear, as in any business -- the bookkeeping part, the marketing and accounting and galleries. Most parts of my job I really, really love, so I feel lucky. But at times I'm really stressed out, or tired of making a piece, or don't want to get on the road and travel 14 hours to a show."
Made primarily of silver garnished with pearls or occasionally garnet or aquamarine, Dingledine's earrings, necklaces and other jewelry are often inspired by leaves, twigs or seedpods she picks up while walking her dog in the mountains near her studio. Though grounded in nature, they're suggestive rather than specific. She doesn't do ginkgo or maple leaves, for example, but creates poetic shapes that remind people of familiar flora and fauna.
"I like organic shapes and that element of the natural world, but I don't want it to be too literal," she said.
A 2005 graduate of Savannah (Ga.) College of Art and Design, she is looking forward to a reunion in the Twin Cities with classmate Jennifer Merchant, who also will be in the show. Both are first-time participants. For Dingledine the trip comes at a watershed moment when her business has grown too big to manage without part-time help.
She'll also turn 30 while in Minnesota. Her scientist boyfriend, who fortunately "thinks my jewelry is the coolest thing in the world," will be along to help work the booth. She hopes the trip will help her decide what comes next.
"Two years ago I left on a summer trip with all my jewelry in a bag," she said, recalling her launch. Now her work is in more than 40 galleries, according to her website. "I feel my business has the potential to be more than it is, but I still find it very challenging to balance everything."
Though they took many of the same college courses, Merchant's work is very different from Dingledine's, as is her career. A Twin Cities native, Merchant settled in Eden Prairie after graduating in 2005 and spent the next five years experimenting. Since she didn't have metalworking tools, she turned to acrylic and Corian, an artificial countertop material. Now she collages colorful magazine images between sheets of transparent acrylic that she stacks, laminates, carves and polishes into chunky bracelets, rings and chain-linked necklaces.
She's been showing professionally for only two years and is a little awed by what's ahead.
'"My work is all hand-fabricated so it's quite time-consuming, but I love it," Merchant said. St. Paul's ACC event will be "the first big high-end craft show that I've done," she added. "I didn't know if I was ready yet, but they said yes so that's been great."
In the 11 years since he graduated from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, glass artist Nolan Prohaska has established himself on a circuit of about 15 art fairs per year. His colorful vases often look like abstract landscapes with hints of trees, hills or the Southwest desert. He also makes fanciful floral sculptures with delicate stems, leaves and blossoms inspired by orchids and other blossoms.
He made his ACC debut in St. Paul last year and participated in the organization's Atlanta show in March.
These shows, like their outdoor counterparts, involve a bit of a financial risk: Prices for a booth in St. Paul range from $875 to $1,750. Prohaska said it's too soon to judge the shows' impact on his career.
"They haven't quite reached my expectations yet," he said, "but I don't try to figure it out."