Hope for the High Street?

The first six months of 2018 have shaken many retailers, as we see household names such as Toys R Us, Maplin, and Poundworld suffer losses, alongside retail giants like House of Fraser and Marks & Spencer who are radically changing their business model and closing large numbers of stores across the country. Understandably there is great concern about the future of the High Street, but I have a differing opinion to many of the analysts predicting its demise.

I have been in art retail for twenty two years, and for a while I blamed the online shopping culture for how art retail slumped during the recession; more recently though I am noticing some big and potentially positive changes. Our takings have grown year on year, and not fallen. Why? There are many reasons, but one main reason is because we have remained true to what we do.

  • We are primarily an art shop, we haven’t diversified into other fields. Our team of sales staff are artists, and I am also an artist. We are able to provide advice to our customers that they are unable to get from some art chain stores, or online. We do not sell anything that we haven’t personally trialled or used, so all of our recommendations are honest.
  • We reward our customers for shopping with us with loyalty cards, and are huge advocates for the shop local’, and ‘just a card’ campaign. So much so, that we have recently made the decision to close down our online shop due to reduced sales and feedback that our customers prefer to call in to see us!
  • We are more than just a shop: we provide art classes all year round on a variety of subjects, at various times of day, evening, and weekends. We also provide the facility for customers to display their art work, run art competitions, and generally advocate and promote art in the area.
  • We are an active part of the retail and wider community. We have helped to promote the art scene by creating the town’s first community gallery around the corner from our shop, which was initially a pop up shop through the local town team. More recently we have also created the areas first designated art festival where dozens of artists demonstrate their skills whilst selling their products all under on marquee roof.

Community plays a big part in modern retailing, and that is something that many of the large chain stores have forgotten. They have left the town centres in favour of out of town retail parks, they have reduced their stock levels and forced people to shop on their online stores…yet these are the very companies that are beginning to crumble. To me, this shows a business model that fails to see how their consumers are changing opinion on retail. In art retail we are seeing huge changes in our customer base and signs for the future are encouraging.

Who will save the high street?

The younger consumers, those ages 18-25 are in my belief, the hope for the high street. They have grown up only knowing the online world, but now they are adults they are yearning for the social side that the internet doesn’t give. They use Social media such as Instagram and YouTube on a daily basis to see what new things are out there (another plus for those retailers who are using these sites), but then are taking to the high street to buy them in person. They use Facebook less in favour of real interaction. They have brought back Lino printing, calligraphy, and letter writing. Digital photography is being replaced by traditional film and developing techniques, and of course who can forget the surge in vinyl record sales?

Their lack of large income means that many don’t own a car, so out of town shopping isn’t for them. The accessibility of the high street, coupled with its unique independent shops, many whom have years of experience and advice in their field are where these young adults prefer to shop. They enjoy the social side of shopping. They want to be able to meet with friends, share experiences, and gain experiences from those retailers who share the same passion as they do. The have the power to help kick start the high street, as they have a belief in supporting local shops, brands, and goods. They believe in a sustainable future where things are made more locally to cut down on air miles, they want less plastic and more environmentally friendly produced products…all of which points to their own towns.

A retail Renaissance?

I truly believe that we are on the verge of a retail renaissance, the likes of which the high street hasn’t seen since the Victorian age. It may not happen straight away, or all in one go, and perhaps the towns that are keener to adapt will be where it begins, but the foundations are being laid for the rejuvenation of the town as we know it.

  • With more of the unused upper floor retail spaces being turned into living accommodation, we will see a greater number of people living in the town centre, who will also be shopping extremely locally. They will be as dependent on the town centre shops, as the shops are of them. This may mean that we will see supermarkets coming back into main shopping areas, but on a small scale. In fact we are starting to see this with Tesco, Sainsburys, and Morrisons already.
  • Our own shop works because we have remained small enough to function, with enough capacity for growth, and we haven’t grown too big. Also by sharing the building with other retailers and services that are part of the same industry, not only cuts the bills, its adds to the shopping experience. Nowhere else can you call into a building that offers a café, a gallery, an art shop, art classes, tattoo studio, and photography studio! It works, and we may see more retailers and services joining together to cut costs and increase footfall due to what they can provide unitedly.
  • We may too begin to see the once large retail giants opening smaller high street branches with their best selling items and click and collect feature to link with their online presence. Shopping small and supporting your own local economy is an ever growing message that is being heard, so I believe the big stores will begin to see the value in their own town centres where their stores are based.

What can retailers do?

When the recession hit, experts were constantly telling retailers that they needed to adapt – but nobody anywhere was explaining how, and we were left to muddle along. Here are a few ways I have found that helps:

  • Utilise all forms of social media – Facebook and Twitter are great, but if you are in a visual industry (which most retail is), then Instagram and YouTube should not be overlooked. Social media is a virtual shop window and can attract a lot of people if you do it well. Don’t go for the hard sell as it rarely works – use it to post photographs and videos of things you find interesting, engage with your flowers, interact and ask questions. Use live video to showcase your skills, do Q&As about products – how your customer base what makes you unique and better from the rest. Find fun ways of subtly promoting your products without actually posting a photo with a price.
  • Spend time making sure you can be found! With the growing trend of hubs in the home, or smart phone technology where people ask Cortana/Siri/Google for recipe ideas and fashion advice, they also ask where their nearest shops are. Each search engine uses different means for gathering information, so make sure your details are correct on Yelp, applemapsconnect, Google (which includes Google My Business), and get the Google My Business app to get yourself a great profile boost.
  • Remember what made you enjoy independent shops when you were younger – was it their quirkiness, their hand written price labels etc, and concentrate on recreating it for your own shop. I learned the hard way not to make my shop look too much like a large chainstore as it doesn’t attract a strong customer base. Focus on your individuality – you are an independent after all!
  • Stick to what you know and don’t diversify too much. Become an ambassador of what you sell, and resist the temptation to copy other retailers in your town who have successful ideas, as it only dilutes the customer pool. Create new ideas, displays, or shop windows. Become leaders in your field and stand out.
  • Talk to your suppliers – many suppliers trawl social media looking for brand ambassadors where they can send samples of their products to. They tend to look for those who have a good social media following and who do product video, but they often overlook the companies that sell their products! Chat with them and ask for samples that you can do a Facebook video on to show how that product works etc.

Survival rate

In short, I truly believe the high street will survive, and it will change a little. Working together as retail communities to support and promote each other is the best way; but also as customers – write reviews for shops that you enjoy going to, tell your friends by sharing their social media posts. I think the most important thing is to have faith that the high street won’t die. It has been there since the Viking age, and it will always be here. Gone are the days of standing at your till and hoping for customers though. Retailers need to be far more proactive, and utilise all forms of promoting themselves. It can be so easy to become jaded and apathetic when low sales or quiet days happen – but those quiet times are the best times to update your social media.

The Great British High Street Awards 2016

For several years the Great British High Street Awards has focused on town centres throughout the country, looking for the best one, the one that is doing all they can to help the town thrive and survive. This year they teamed up with Twitter to search for the best GB Twitter shop, and how thrilled were we here at The Artery to discover that we had been nominated in the summer, and later astounded that we had made it into the final three in October!

The public were then asked to vote daily for a month for their favourite twitter shop out of the three. In the running was Fleetwood Beach Hut – a lovely little beach front cafe, Heart Gallery – a lovely gallery in Hebden Bridge….and us!

On Monday (12th December), Jacqui and I attended the awards ceremony, and what an amazing day it was! The venue for the day was Lancaster House in London – opposite Clarence House, and around the corner from Buckingham Palace. We had our I.D.s checked by the police officer in the guard box, shown into the building and welcomed by the doorman. The huge hallway lined with gilt plaster work, a winding double staircase, and beautiful paintings. After collecting our badges and programme, we were invited up to the music room for refreshments.

Walking through the large ornate double doors we were immediately photographed and saw dozens of people all chatting, laughing and discussing all dressed in their finery. We chatted to people from all over the country all there as finalists in their respective town category, chatted to Hilary Paxman the head judge and drank coffee all in the room where Chopin played and taught piano to the original owners of the building. Such opulence, and beauty.

As the morning progressed, Dan Biddle the Director of Strategic innovation for Twitter UK approached the microphone to talk about our category. We were mentioned first and he spoke about how he loved our creativeness. he said ‘you would expect creativity from an art shop, but The Artery goes above and beyond this’. He talked about how we not only show what we sell, but also how we interact with our twitter followers and use humour and art in a wonderful way. He used Jacqui’s idea of our little wooden manikins as an example of ‘genius’.

Fleetwood Beach Hut was announced the winner, but for this little shop to be in the top three shops on twitter in the country is something we are immensely proud of. It helps galvanise us that even though sometimes it can be hard running a bricks and mortar shop in a digital age, that people do appreciate us being there. It spurs us on to greater things.

Sitting in the Long Gallery at the awards ceremony surrounded by businesses and groups of people from all over the country, all passionate about keeping town centres alive and thriving was a wonderful thing. It shows that there are people who care and who want us to succeed. We had a day we will never forget. Thank you to everyone that voted for us and got us in the top three shops in the country, the best twitter shop in the county for that matter. Thank you!

What Quality Art Materials Should I Purchase?

Can any art materials make a decent painting? Simply put, no. The quality of your materials greatly affects the quality of your work. Beginners will often say that they will go for the cheapest materials to start with and as they improve, get better quality ones.

The harsh fact is, with the cheapest materials, they will never make a marked improvement. Paper, especially watercolour paper, is one area where money shouldn’t be scrimped on. Real watercolour paper is sized both sides with gelatine; this is so the paint has time to be reworked and specialist techniques can be used before the gelatine breaks down and the paint is absorbed in the paper.

Cheap watercolour paper is not properly sized and is in effect, blotting paper. The paint is just absorbed straight away, leaving you no time to do anything with it. If money needs to be considered then you do not need to go for the expensive cotton rag paper like Arches or Fabriano, just stick to the wood pulp watercolour paper like Bockingford, Cotman or Langton. This is not cheap as such.

An A4 pad of 12 sheets is around £9 but you can use both sides. Unlike food, supermarket own brands of watercolour paper are markedly inferior to the named brands. A tip I will give is to buy a much larger pad size than you need. I always buy an A2 size pad. 12 sheets costs around £22, but each sheet makes four A4 sheets. So when you work out the value, it is much cheaper.

Also, get a decent weight of paper. I would recommend paper of at least around 300gsm (140lb) as this will take quite a bit of water and is a good all-rounder. You can even use it for acrylic painting or pastels. Brushes and paints too will also have differing qualities so don’t be swayed by price. Stick to reputable brand names or ask your local art shop for advice.

What is an Artist?

A few weeks ago over on Twitter, I saw someone who discretely sought advice on their artwork and on approaching galleries receive in return a public shaming and the judgement: they are not an artist.

I was appalled that somebody in my profession would treat another person in this way. Instead of saying to them privately that they should perhaps build up a wider body of work, or explain that galleries are now looking for styles such as ‘x’, to gently let that person know that they needed to improve their work a little, they decide to do this publicly, which of course invited others to discuss it.

This got me thinking about the word ‘artist’. Being an artist comes way before anybody takes an art class. Being an artist can strike at any age and any time; when you wake up each day and feel the need to be creative – to draw or paint or sculpt then you, my friend are an artist!

“To be an artist is to believe in life” — Henry Moore

Ability does not come into it. The many prefixes that can be attached to the word ‘artist’ such as ‘good’, ‘rubbish’ or ‘professional’ are merely opinion and are totally subjective. Any dictionary describes an artist as ‘a person who creates paintings or drawings as a profession… or as a hobby‘, so those opining that ‘an artist’ is of a certain calibre are misinforming their followers. How must it feel to read this and feel that they cannot call themselves an artist because they weren’t good enough? Good enough for whom? Unfortunately this can turn people away from something that they enjoy, find relaxing and go into to escape the worries of life. Statements like this can cause people to lose confidence and give up doing what they enjoy – something that no tutor ever wants to see.

“He who works with his hands is a labourer. He who works with his hands and head is a craftsman. He who works with his hands, his head, and his heart is an artist” — St Francis of Assisi

Our role is to inspire and encourage at every stage. An artist is simply someone that enjoys being creative – being ‘good’ or making money from it doesn’t come into it. There are many paintings by trained ‘professional’ artists that I wouldn’t give hanging space to, and paintings by untrained ‘beginner’ artists that have captured the essence of a subject that I would gladly have on my wall. It can often be forgotten that people use social media and internet resources such as blogging, rather like a diary.

“Painting is just another way of keeping a diary” — Pablo Picasso

Setting up a Facebook page or a website to show their paintings isn’t so much saying ‘look at me, aren’t I amazing?’, it is a way for artists to keep their artwork all in one place, to show what they are achieving and in the hope they may sell a few pieces to people that like what they do. It is a good way of displaying your portfolio of work to people and what is important is the feedback that can be given which will drive the artist into new directions and deeper into their chosen field.

The public does not have to ‘like’ or view these pages, nor do they have to feel compelled to order a commission or buy the work. So if you enjoy painting, drawing, sculpting and creating then please call yourself an artist – the world needs more people like you. Fill Facebook and the internet with your artwork and enjoy yourself. Not everyone may like it, but as long as you do then it is okay! 

“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art” — Andy Warhol

Looking Back to Go Forward

Sometimes we have to look back to go forward in art. Having my art shop in a wonderful old town, when I get a quiet moment I peruse the many shelves of my local antiquarian and second hand bookshop, heaving with weighty tomes of artists of years gone by and I find out so many ideas and techniques that I then buy the said books and add them to my own bookshelves!

I think in art it is important to look back at the techniques and methods of the old Masters: these artists have been revered for centuries and are what artists aspire to be like, yet these methods are scarcely taught and in fact the only places they are taught are during art history lectures and often not to practising artists wanting to deepen their knowledge and understanding of art. By looking back at these methods, I have learnt so much more than I ever did during my time at college studying art.

I also got me thinking about a quote that I have printed out and hung as a banner in my classroom:

“That which we call failure is often that necessary struggle called learning”.

My students occasionally say to me how frustrated they feel as their work sometimes doesn’t look like it’s getting better. There are a few things I say to help them see that they are improving even if a little slower than they had hoped. Firstly, the knowledge that is in our head (techniques we learn in an art class for example) can take several years to reach the end of our fingers in skillful rendering of that technique, so it may take a while before what is in your head gets rendered on paper. With that in mind, I ask my students to critique their work after they have finished their painting and ask themselves ‘if I were to paint this again, what would I do differently?’ and if they can see that a few techniques could be altered, or the use of colour or that the perspective isn’t quite right, that shows great learning, even though it may not be obvious from the execution of the painting that is before them. Also, I tell my students to keep their paintings in a file – even the ones they’re not happy with. This way, when they are having a bad day, they can look back at their old paintings and see how far they have come and even though they may not be pleased with the latest painting, it is a lot better and shows more skill than their earlier works.

Canvassing Opinion

Canvases are all the same, right? Sort of. So why would it appear that art shops sell canvases at a much higher price than say, a home furnishing or bargain book shop? Are they ripping off their customers?

On first glance, all canvases appear to look the same, and they all carry the name ‘canvas’, but there is much more to this humble, ancient painting surface than meets the eye. There are many things that will cause canvases to be more expensive:

i) The weight, the weave, or the type of canvas will make a difference. For example a 7.5oz canvas has a more open weave than a 10oz canvas. Callico, Cotton, or Linen canvases will also change the price (and the look).

ii) Is the canvas primed? If it is primed well you should be able to hold it up to the light and not see any daylight shining through (which is often the case with cheaper canvases).

iii) How the canvas is secured to the frame. Often with more budget canvases, there are visible nails or staples on the sides. With better quality canvases these move to the back, and with good quality canvases they are hidden altogether in grooves.

iv) The wooden support. This is perhaps the most important thing to consider when buying a canvas, and yet is often over looked. It is the wood that will make or break (quite literally) the canvas.

It is this that can mean the difference between a cheap canvas and an expensive one. If the wood is not well seasoned then should the canvas be hanging on a wall above a radiator, the heat may cause the canvas to twist put of shape and bend. An awful and embarrassing mistake to make especially if it was for a commissioned or exhibition piece of work. Good quality canvases will use better quality wood which will keep its shape no matter where the picture will be hanging. So although canvases are all called canvases, there are many reasons why some appear to be cheaper than others.

Generally art shops will sell mid range to high end canvases as their customer base dictates quality and longevity over price, whereas bargain shops who have the reputation for stocking inexpensive items will very rarely sell good quality items at pocket money prices.

Copyright Questions

I often get asked that if you exhibit or sell paintings you have created that have been done in a workshop or from a step-by-step art book, is it acceptable or legal? In short the answer is ‘no’. However most of us art tutors understand that when you start out learning to paint or draw, our instruction will be the only reference point you have so are fairly lenient.

It all boils down to two areas: permission and profit. By attending an art workshop or buying an art instruction book, you (may) have the artist’s permission to reproduce their painting(s), as it is often taught in a step-by-step fashion. However, this does not mean you have their permission to reproduce their artwork to sell on or make a profit from. They are not the same thing.

In reproducing a painting that is being taught (whether it be in book form or in a class), you are being allowed to use the artist’s ideas to learn techniques to become a foundation to your own style so that you can create and sell your own paintings from what has been taught. Most tutors will accept that when you start out that you will exhibit and sell one or two of your versions of their paintings, the problem can begin if they become your ‘best sellers’ and more versions are painted and are either repeatedly sold, or prints made from them as greetings cards or open print runs.

It could also be a problem if you reproduce any painting from any art book, even that is a step-by-step book as the publisher and artist has exclusive rights to its reproduction.

Why could you get into trouble? You are painting a picture that is basically someone else’s originality – it is their composition, their colour choice, their entire own idea; and without careful consideration you could be in breach of copyright law. The same goes if you are using photographs you find on the internet or in books to copy from.

Here a few steps you can take to make sure that you are never in breach of copyright law:

1. (i) Always where possible, only sell art work that is of your own originality and not copied. Use your own photographs to work from at all times.

2. (ii) Ask the owner of the original painting or photograph for permission to sell it. Permission will often be granted especially by your art tutor. However, do not make prints of them or turn them into greeting s cards. Make sure it is a ‘one-off’. But if working from an art book, you would need to contact the publisher for permission to reproduce the painting as they may have exclusive rights on that image.

3. (iii) Where possible, credit the originator of the painting on the back: ‘inspired by a painting from…’, or ‘after…’.

4. (iv) Check the front pages of the book you are using. Some clearly say that ‘no images may be reproduced in any form’, others say ‘a substantial part may not be reproduced’.

In short, it is much easier to only produce art work that is yours and only yours – painted by you from a photograph that you have taken. There are one or two websites available that allow artists to use the images posted on there, but always check the copyright before copying it.

Is Modern Art a help or a hindrance of true artistic skill and ability?

A student of mine recently handed me a newspaper clipping from a daily national. The article was entitled: ‘At last, the real shark is exposed.’ It was all about artist Damien Hurst and how his work is starting to lose value. The writer of the article comments that Hurst is talentless and that in decades to come people will look at work such as his and wonder why in the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st Century, rubbish such as this was displayed as art. The article also went on to say how they felt that the Turner prize, named after one of the most influential and innovative British artists in our history, is constantly being given to “exhibits that are at best pathetic”.

This got me thinking, and so here are my questions to you: what is art? Does it matter what we as individuals think of a piece of art as long as the one that purchased it is happy? Is the art world losing its credibility by allowing things that have never been classed as ‘art’ into their galleries? Ponder over these.

Throughout recent history, we have seen many different styles and movements in the art world, that maybe aren’t my cup of tea, but does that mean that they aren’t ‘art’? It would be foolish of me to think that I am the authority of what art is, I can only say what my personal taste is and it would be unfair to label other artist’s work as ‘rubbish’. We have seen Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract, Fauvism, Installation Art, Dadaism, Bauhaus, Abstract Impressionism to name but a few of over one hundred different art styles and movements in the world since 1860 alone.

What all of these do is make us think. Regardless of whether we like some, all or none of them, we have an opinion on them, we talk about them. It is our choice what art we buy. As long as we appreciate or buy it because we like it and not because we think we are supposed to like it because ‘the artworld’ says we must then it paves the way for artists to stay creative and further their individuality.