Clay Culture: Pottery Paradigm

Making a living during the pandemic by teaching and selling ceramics requires new approaches. A gallerist and artist shares his experience and advice.

Ceramics is a small field; we don’t exist in a cultural or societal vacuum and the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all of our lives. We tend to myopically view our field through the lens of our individual choices and experiences, but need to acknowledge that the impact of the epidemic has caused all of us to redefine and reexamine our core values as artists and craftspeople. Navigating our choices with an explicit understanding that what we once thought of as normal no longer is, and even what could be called a new normal changes on a daily basis. How we earn a living, teach our students, and operate exhibition venues and galleries have all changed dramatically. The only constants are change, adaptation, and a continued exploration of our options. We are a tremendously gifted, inventive, thoughtful, and creative community. Rather than viewing these current circumstances solely as dystopian, we can chart a new course through these difficult times and continue to make our art, earn a living, educate our students, exhibit beautiful objects, and be compassionate and loving human beings to our friends, families, and colleagues. We need to adopt different parameters, different expectations, and different types of critical thinking.

While the village potter is no longer a cultural imperative for the preservation of foods or liquids, each of us continues in that tradition when working in our studios, albeit with a different focus. The arts have a significant financial impact on everyone’s lives and contribute to vibrant economies and healthy communities. Much like our colleagues in academia who have adapted to pandemic-induced restrictions—finding ways to teach virtually, in hybrid models, or in much smaller groups—to survive financially as studio potters and artists necessitates expanded thinking.

The Universe Over Denver, 15 ft. (4.6 m) tall, slab-built clay, fired to cone 6, illuminated at night with computer-controlled LED lighting and projection. Concept, ceramic construction, and installation on the Plinth Gallery building by Nan Kitchens (clayarchitecture@hotmail.com). Electronics and lighting by Jonathan Kaplan.

The Universe Over Denver, 15 ft. (4.6 m) tall, slab-built clay, fired to cone 6, illuminated at night with computer-controlled LED lighting and projection. Concept, ceramic construction, and installation on the Plinth Gallery building by Nan Kitchens (clayarchitecture@hotmail.com). Electronics and lighting by Jonathan Kaplan.

The Concept of the Ceramic Pie

Visualize the sales and production of ceramics as a pie. Years earlier, potters and ceramic artists could be represented by a small number of slices. There were fewer of us and there was an ever-expanding base of buyers, stores, and galleries, creating a vibrant economy in handmade ceramics. Fast forward to today, and that pie is the same diameter, but the number of slices has increased: there are exponentially more potters now and the marketplace for handmade ceramics has been shrinking. Sales are now diluted by the increased number of people making ceramics as well as a tepid marketplace.

Redefining Your Paradigm

Now envisage the sales avenues for ceramic artists to sell work. Though these have shifted in prominence over the decades, in pre-pandemic times, traditional ways to sell work included large gatherings of people for physical events like gallery openings, retail and wholesale art/craft fairs and exhibitions, and craft or holiday markets. Right now, these are no longer viable. Virtual events are the new normal. There are many possibilities and options to expand this type of commerce. Here are some areas to focus on when redefining your paradigm:

  1. The importance of branding cannot be overemphasized. Our uniqueness is in the individuality of what we make, and these differences are our brand, our style. Our varied aesthetics provide potential customers with choices.
  2. Think globally. Social media and e-commerce sites are the most direct way to broaden our reach and exposure. The entire world is now our market. Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Etsy, Patreon, and others are the platforms to use for consistently cultivating a wider audience for exposure and sales. There will always be work of dubious quality on these platforms; our role is not to judge. Excellent work always stands out.
  3. Having an up-to-date website is critically important. Update your website and add new and different content on a frequent basis. Maximize your search engine optimization (SEO) by using keywords that people search for and that accurately describe your work. Google Analytics can help with SEO.
  4. The communities where artists live and work represent sales opportunities. Within a 25–50-mile radius of our studios is a potential market that can be very tactfully cultivated. To grow this audience, who can visit in small groups by appointment until the pandemic subsides, act locally. Join geocentric group events, studio sales, pop-ups, and organized pottery tours that can bring customers to you. These events can be designed as hybrid in-person and virtual sales events during the pandemic, to adhere to social distancing requirements. Many of our neighbors are unaware that there are artists and craftsmen living within their communities and are eager to support local businesses once they learn about them.
  5. Think locally. Develop and update a well-curated email list. Digital campaigns are effective in reaching a very broad audience. Use your list and create newsletters and/or blogs to update your market. Inform your readers of newsworthy events, like the fact that you have new work, developed exciting new colors, or have purchased new equipment. Always create new content to engage your mailing-list subscribers with a glimpse of your work and your life in the studio. Perhaps even have a dedicated time weekly or monthly when you offer studio tours. While it may seem soporific to you, prospective customers are interested in the lives we lead. Take the lead and further develop your market through effective outreach.
  6. Recognize small compromises and act on them, keep the larger goal in mind, stay relevant with intention, and always focus on the work. Compromises are not necessarily negative. If you are selling more mugs with handles than tall tumblers, make additional mugs. Take control of your marketing and outreach: do your own photography and learn to use applications like Photoshop and Illustrator to manipulate images and design your own advertising. Do your own accounting. All of these can help save money. Operate as lean a business as possible.
  7. Define your target market and where you fit in. Are you making gift ware? Do you have relationships with restaurants (before COVID-19)? Is your market primarily collectors? Next, consider whether you need to tap new markets. Direct your choices of who you make work for and build those business relationships. When deciding, consider not only the work that you enjoy making, but also what is sustainable and provides the income that you need. Business is not only about commerce, it is also about relationships.
  8. Recognize, reconcile, rethink, and reframe your choices of lifestyle, making a living, and what you need to be truly happy. Devote time to other interests, read more, learn a new skill or language, build better and healthier relationships with your family and friends. Take time for yourself outside of the studio to chill and decompress. Budget your time and money. They are not mutually exclusive or infinite.
  9. Continue to be an advocate for the importance of art and handmade objects. Be politically active and socially relevant. Stay informed, always. Read newspapers, and if you can, write about what you know or keep a journal. Reach out to your art community or art institutions and see if you can be involved. If you are inclined, devote time and effort to building a better community in which you live, volunteer, be politically involved if that works for you. Mentor someone, if you can, teach from your studio. Include others on your journey.
  10. Education is still important, both inside and outside of academia. Many potters are streaming their techniques, conducting online workshops, and offering lessons on social media. People in our field still thirst for knowledge and information. Show others how to do what you do, and yes, reasonably charge for it. Develop a workshop or teaching program that you can stream. If you have particular specialized knowledge, consider writing about it for trade publications, or for that matter, think about writing a book.

It is important to realize that you and only you can create and define your particular path. Especially now.

Cup-grid display at Plinth Gallery in Denver, Colorado, showcasing cups, mugs, and sculpture by more than 25 artists, available for purchase.

Jonathan Kaplan’s River North Art District (RiNo) branded coffee cups, 4 in. (10 cm) in height, slip-cast whiteware, fired to cone 5, ceramic decals.

Working with Retail Venues

Even as the pandemic continues to ravage other economic sectors, providing a visual respite from such stress by having art and beauty in our homes is still important. In my experience running Plinth Gallery, gallery customers are still interested in buying art. Here are some suggestions from a gallery perspective:

  1. The artist-gallery relationship depends on mutual trust and respect based on a shared mutual risk. Reputable, successful galleries work hard to promote the artists they represent. The gallery commission does not mean you are settling for half price. Carefully analyze your pricing so that you can make that mug, and some profit, for half of what you receive from the gallery while keeping the retail price competitive and affordable.
  2. Galleries that exhibit ceramic work are unique and are still important in keeping handmade objects relevant and accessible. If you run a gallery or work for one, use the many online resources to widen the business’s presence. A cell phone can take remarkably high-quality photographs and videos. Promote the gallery and the represented artists with online videos and social-media posts focusing on their work. If you have developed a mailing list that includes collectors, offer private showings. If you have outdoor space in proximity to your retail venue, stage and promote small outdoor exhibitions, weather permitting. Write about the value of owning and using handmade ceramics and how it can enrich your life.

A View From Three Perspectives

As a maker, I continually need to challenge myself as well as sell my work. I balance this by making slip-cast one-offs as well as limited editions of usable, affordable pottery. I also make branded ceramic gift ware for the River North Art District (rinoartdistrict.org) in Denver, Colorado.

As a gallery owner, my job is to stay connected with ceramic artists and choose pieces that interest me and have potential for acquisition by collectors as well as impulse sales. I also must continue to work diligently for each ceramic artist I represent. While the gallery has seen a small decline in sales since the beginning of the pandemic, we still sell artists’ work at many different price points both online as well in person during the gallery’s open hours. Pieces with higher price points are selling online, but I am also intrigued by customers seeking that special piece, regardless of price, who come to the gallery. We can always depend on sales from the cup-grid display in the gallery, as these items are both affordable and all different.

Right now, our in-person guests are asked to follow specific protocols. Our monthly newsletter always includes information on how we are sanitizing common surfaces and the necessity of wearing a mask while in the gallery. In addition, we have a supply of small containers of hand sanitizer that we give away, and large pump containers of hand sanitizer at our checkout counter. Masks are always available, and we limit the number of people in the gallery at one time. If the weather is nice, we open the outside courtyard and it can accommodate more people at small tables if they wish. The City of Denver has provided small businesses with personal protective equipment kits including masks, face shields, and hand sanitizer. We also keep the door locked and customers must ring the bell to gain entrance. A sign is posted on the door reminding guests that they must wear a mask to enter.

Jonathan Kaplan’s textured coffee cups, 3 1/2 in. (9 cm) in height, slip-cast whiteware, fired to cone 5, ceramic decals.

As a thinker, I choose to be forward-looking, always including others with me on my path and sharing whatever resources I have. This can take many shapes including mentoring, demonstrating what I do to small groups, and planning small events that further our outreach. Broaden your network and make yourself available.

A story: The gallery receives an on-site inspection from the fire department once a year to see if our fire extinguisher tags are up to date, exits are accessible, and the smoke detectors have new batteries. Our recent inspection was a team of four firefighters. I gave each of them an art-district branded coffee cup as they left. Even though the fire station is three blocks away, none of them had ever been here before or knew that there is a working potter and a nationally recognized gallery close by. They were extremely grateful and enamored to receive a handmade coffee cup as a gift. It is important to continue to be an advocate for handmade ceramics, accepting that these are different and unsure times yet consistently focusing on the work. Having a sense of humor helps.

the author Jonathan Kaplan has a lengthy and active career as a ceramic artist, potter, ceramic designer, educator, and author. He also has a sense of humor. Since 2007, he has curated Plinth Gallery (plinthgallery.com), exclusively exhibiting ceramics in Denver’s River North Art District. He serves on the board of Studio Potter and is a member of the International Academy of Ceramics.

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