How to Build a Successful Fiber Arts Business
Art marketing conversation with textile artist Susan Levi-Goerlich
Textile artist Susan Levi-Goerlich stitched her first fiber painting in 1984 and never looked back. In the 30-plus years since then, Susan’s fiber paintings have been featured in The Crafts Report as well as on Maryland Public Television’s Artworks This Week and HGTV’s Sew Much More. She’s a successful artist whose work has been featured in newspapers and magazines and included in the book Artistry in Fiber: Wall Art.
Becoming a successful artist isn’t easy. “When you decide to be an artist you are really opening a small business,” Susan said. “The amount of time I spend in my studio creating is a fraction of the time I spend with everything else that goes along with running the business. I didn’t realize that at the beginning. I just wanted to make stuff. But it’s a business.”
Copyright Susan Levi-Goerlich
In this post we discuss the Four P’s of Susan Levi-Goerlich’s fiber arts business:
Susan’s fiber art business [Product]
Susan’s medium is fiber. She uses a combination of free-motion machine embroidery, silk and needle-felting. She uses photographs as a reference to create landscapes using layers of richly colored silk. She may use the same photo more than once as inspiration but, as she told me, “the individual stitched paintings based on a specific photo are more like siblings than identical twins. There is a strong family resemblance but they’re not exactly the same.”
Copyright Susan Levi-Goerlich
Glance at Susan’s website and you’ll see that her business consists of making and selling fiber paintings, commissions, book sales, as well as teaching and lecturing. Phew!
Teaching, Susan said, “tends to be an extra leg on the stool that we all need to support ourselves,” adding that “…if one leg gets wobbly the stool will still be supported by the others. Teaching is an additional leg for my stool.”
Tip: If you are interested in teaching you might also be interested in this blog archive - How to Make Teaching Art a Full Time Profession: One Fiber Artist’s Story
In terms of book sales, Susan started making books nearly 10 years ago and now has four self-published books to her credit. (You can read more about them on Susan’s website.) They started initially when her husband suggested Susan create a book of her work. Her first book, Stitched Impressions, was intended to showcase her pieces. “The book served as a portfolio,” Susan said. “[Buyers] could narrow-down what types of images they liked.” Her next book, Garden Portraits, was developed to show customers that she could do a commission based on their gardens. It showed photographs of gardens and how Susan interpreted the photos to create stitched paintings. Originally, Susan had both books with her at craft shows for informational purposes. When customers expressed interest in buying them, she had more printed.
How Susan prices fiber art [Pricing]
Figuring out how to price art correctly is one of the most challenging business activities for artists. My regular readers know that I ask the artists I speak with to share their pricing approaches because it is tremendously helpful for other artists. [One side note: while each art medium has its own unique pricing considerations, I firmly believe that some ideas are universal and apply equally well to any artistic endeavor.]
In terms of how Susan prices her work, she has a pretty good idea of what she can charge because she’s been a fiber artist for over 30 years. For instance, Susan doesn’t track the hours spent on a specific painting. “What I try to do is have a wide range of prices, from under $100 up to $5,000 or more,” Susan said. “The little pieces are good because while the big pieces make a big splash when you sell one, you have to wait longer [for a sale].”
Susan likes to be busy. She would prefer to be making (and selling) work regularly so she has a lot of smaller pieces. These are what she sometimes dubs “starter art.” In her experience, buyers of starter art/the smaller work “often come back in future years to add to their collection or start moving up to larger pieces.” In this way, she’s taking a longer term approach to building her business by encouraging smaller sales now for potentially bigger sales in the future.
For beginning artists Susan's advice is, "It is more fun to sell stuff than not. Even if you think a piece is worth $1,000 you also have to figure out whether you want to sit and look at it for a long time or move it on out so you can make more pieces.” She adds, “You can’t go backwards with your prices. If someone buys a piece for $1,000 you are stuck. You can’t sell a similar piece for $250 [next time].”
Copyright Susan Levi-Goerlich
There’s another reason that Susan likes to make art available within a wide range of prices. “If I have a piece that is $2,000 and another that is $5,000, the $2,000 piece doesn’t look quite as expensive when it is compared with the $5,000 piece.”
Case in point: “If have a $250 [piece] and a smaller [one] that is $100, a customer might feel like they can’t afford $250 but can spend $100.”
This pricing approach does have implications for the way she works. Susan simplifies her fiber paintings for the smaller pieces, and usually offers them in framed dimensions ranging from 8”x8” to 16”x20.” She makes sure that if she uses a certain technique for a smaller piece, all of her work with this technique and size will have the same price.
“You have to be consistent with your prices,” she says. “If there is a discernible difference between pieces it’s okay to price them differently, but you can’t price things willy nilly.” Her prices are standard whether she shows her work in a booth at a craft show, on her website, or in a gallery.
In terms of how to get started setting an initial price for a large piece (20”x24” framed and up) Susan uses a formula to figure out a square inch price. This is similar to what Lesley Heathcote told me that she does with pastels (You can read more about Lesley Heathcote in a blog archive).
Using social media and the web to promote fiber arts [Promotion]
When it comes to ways to promote an arts business, opinions differ. Commercial travel photographer Ken Kaminesky shared with me how he’s used Twitter extensively to build his business. (You might be interested in reading the full blog post, How can you use twitter to promote your photography business?).
In Susan’s case she feels it is “really important to make room in your life for work and for play.” This philosophy applies to her use of social media too. In terms of her business she says “It [social media] is not something I’m willing to make the time for. I know it could be useful but I know that it can also be a huge time suck. I don’t want to get caught in that vortex and end up spending even more time on the computer than I already do. I know that to do anything effectively I would need to put a lot of time into it and I’m not willing to do that with social media.”
Susan was willing, though, to spend three months revamping her website so she would have a site that she could update on her own (instead of needing a web designer to do it). She says she “was willing to put the time in because I knew it was important, whereas with social media, it isn’t that much a part of my life.”
This traditional approach works for Susan and her art business, in part because of her medium – fiber/textile arts. She feels that buyers needs to see her art in person to really experience it. This is why craft shows are a great venue for her to sell work. More on that in a minute.
“I am most comfortable using the web as a follow-up for people who have already seen my work in person. Otherwise they aren’t exactly sure of what they will be getting,” she says. “My work is not captured well online.”
This may be somewhat unique to fiber/textile arts. For photographers and other artists, it may be less of an issue to need to experience the work up close and in person.
So, how does Susan promote her work if it isn’t through digital means? Teaching she says, can be a good medium for promotion. When she teaches at a craft school she brings samples of her work and often sells them. Also, she’s open to having a show at a gallery. Her primary means of promoting and selling work, though, is at craft shows.
Selling fiber art at craft shows [Place]
Susan started selling her fiber art at craft shows and they have been a constant in terms of how she has sold for the past 30 years. She still participates in six to eight shows per year. She also deals with galleries but not that much. Susan no longer sells her work wholesale because she said having to repeat pieces took the fun out of creating the work.
Copyright Susan Levi-Goelrich
Interestingly, craft shows give Susan something besides sales. They also give her feedback, feedback that she says “is a whole lot less filtered when someone is standing in the booth [versus on Instagram].” She believes that delivering comments in person in a booth trumps “likes” on social media sites. “At times, people in my booth have made fairly random comments that have sparked an entirely new body of work,” she says. “I listen with open ears. I also have developed a thick skin.”
Time, Susan says, is a finite resource. “With the business of making and selling art, you wear lots of hats—you either do everything yourself or you contract out tasks.” The four “P’s” of her textile business (product, price, promotion and place) work for Susan.” Susan allocates her time on the things that matter most for her and give her the in-person feedback, ideas and motivations she needs.
“Doing craft shows, I have colleagues spread across the East Coast. When we come together it can be a really fertile time to share ideas. There have been times when an artist friend solved something for me in an instant that I had been stuck on for days.”
I hope you’ll use Susan’s story as inspiration for your own art business and tailor it to what works best for you. For instance, if you are a photographer and don’t have an original piece in the same way textile artists or painters to, you still might consider offering a range of work at different price points by having fine art prints as well as ready-to-hang canvas art or glass prints. Or, you might choose to spend some of your time meeting potential customers face-to-face instead of only promoting work using social media. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach. Do what’s right for you to build your successful arts business.
You might also be interested in this blog archive, Finding Customers for your Fine Art Business.
Susan began selling fiber artwork when she was living in Munich in the mid-1980's. Then, as now, stitching played a primary role in her work and she used the sewing machine as others would use a pencil or paintbrush. While in Munich, she learned the art of silk painting which prompted her to begin experimentation with different weaves of silk. Designing silk collages from layers of colored silk was a natural progression. Her current work combines her passion for gardening and garden imagery with free-motion machine embroidery.
Keywords: art business, art marketing, contemporary textile art, how to build a successful fiber art business, how to price fiber art, how to sell fiber art
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I am a marketing professional and a fine art photographer. With more than 20 years of experience as a marketer and image maker during the digital technology revolution, I now educate creative professionals how to create their artistic presence in the changing art world.
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