This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She's blogged since 2002 about the business side--and the spiritual inside--of art. She says, "I share my experiences so you won't have to make ALL the same mistakes I did...." For ten years, Luann also wrote a column ("Craft Matters") for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She's a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.
REASONS WHY MILLENNIALS DON’T BUY OUR ART #3: “They Know Nothing About Real Art!”
So….whose fault is THAT?!
(8 minute read)
Continuing on with our examination of the reasons why “young people today” don’t buy art.
This reason came up over and over in the comments section to my original post in this series. “Young people don’t appreciate art!” “Young people don’t care about art, all they care about are their smartphones!” “Young people didn’t have art in school, and now they don’t even like it.” And on and on.
And my response bounces from “yes” and “no.” And “Whose fault is that?”
My daughter brought this up during my visit earlier this year. She said, “That’s not true! We still had art in school, but a lot of kids don’t anymore.”
When I thought back, I realized I myself didn’t get much art in school. In the elementary grades, it was mostly simple paper craft projects, or drawing, gluing, poster paints, etc. In fact, during my high school years, when I thought for sure I would get some “real” art training, we had a budget crisis. I got to make one clay sculpture in class, and the kiln blew up. (No, not because of me.) (I don’t think.)
My art teacher also coached women’s gym classes and later, women’s sports. (Title IX was enacted in my last year in high school. Which is why I never played sports. Because there weren’t any sports for women until it was too late for me.) Art was understandably secondary for my instructor. They did the best they could, but there certainly wasn’t much money for a new kiln, paint and brushes, nor even good quality drawing paper.
I certainly don’t remember any art history classes while I was in grade school, though I did major in art history in college.
Oddly, though, we probably studied about, oh, four women artists in those classes? Even in college? In all? And certainly no artists of color. In fact, one professor suggested those of us intending to do museum work, or other art history careers, focus on Africa because the field was almost non-existent. It was “wide open territory” for art history folks.
So even though I have wanted to be an artist since I was very young, I didn’t get to practice it, nor study it, nor even see many women who were considered “real artists, in studies covering over 17,000 years of art history.
In fact, when my daughter was in elementary school in the ‘90’s, I was asked to volunteer provide “artist presentations” for the school. I had just taken up the reins of my own art career, after feeling for decades I simply wasn’t “good enough”. I thought this would be fun, sharing my own experience and journey, and sharing my own work.
So I asked if I could talk about my art journey.
The response was, no, we want them to learn about real art (boy, I’m beginning to hate that modifier). So, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Michelangelo, etc.
I declined politely, saying I wasn’t interested in giving lectures on dead white European male artists. Flippant, I admit, and I apologize to those who are offended.
But it was true. Still is.
And yet, none of this—the vacuum, the lack of women in art, the lack of materials, exposure to art, the lack of a portfolio (which resulted in me not being accepted into art school at the time), none of this prevented me from appreciating art, nor did it prevent me from becoming an artist myself.
It won’t prevent young people today from that either. It may delay them, set them back, as it did me.
But if I found my own way there, they will, too.
Not only that, if there aren’t many schools focusing on art today, whose fault is that? Certainly not theirs (millennials.)
They did not vote on their school budgets, they do not create the coursework for their classes, and they don’t set the curriculum for their school years.
Our local newspaper ran an article recently about a group of artists, all volunteers, who come into schools and share their own art, their art journey, and why they are passionate about art. Because if we think millennials had a lack of art exposure, it’s even worse today.
My first thought: This is the kind of program that makes art truly “real” for young folks.
My second thought: Why aren’t more artists doing this??
Last, a triggering photo made the rounds of the internet at least twice in the last decade. It showed three girls sitting on a bench at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art looking at their phones. As you can imagine, it set off a tsunami of comments, shaming them for being among some of the greatest artwork we’ve ever known and ignoring it.
It turned out to be something else. (I love the most popular headline: “Bette Midler asked, ‘What’s wrong with this picture?’ The answer was universal: nothing.”)
Their class was visiting the art museum. The girls were reading about the artists. The article continues, “The image she shared is similar to one that inspired the same debate in 2016. In it, a group of schoolchildren are tuned into their phones, backs turned to Rembrandt's "The Night Watch" at Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Critics at the time called it a "metaphor for our age."
It was later suggested that the kids were using the museum's app to complete a school project.
Critics at the time of “young people today” called it a "metaphor for our age." It literally is. Ironically, though, not as the disparagers meant.
Our assumptions are just that: They are based on what we think we see, and what we think we know. We all do it.
Unfortunately, assumptions are just that: Assumptions. Assumptions like these can be toxic. They don’t build bridges, they don’t fix our sales, they won’t do anything except keep us in a place of righteous indignation.
I get it. I do. My sales have gone downhill, and continue. When we are dispirited, when we despair about art sales, when it feels like the world doesn’t want our art, it’s normal to blame the world.
The problem is, that will be apparent if we meet younger people with that expectation, that assumption, in our hearts. Yes, people can tell when you disrespect them.
And it won’t change a darned thing to help our sales.
It simply makes us feel better. “It isn’t our fault!” we tell ourselves.
Of course it’s not our fault. But it isn’t theirs, either.
And frankly, how many people our age hang that kind of art in our homes anyway? The “real art” of the great masters.
Very few. The only way we could (since most museum art is donated by wealthy patrons, who originally bought at auction for millions of dollars), as most of us can’t afford those originals, are reproductions.
The only pieces of art in my childhood home were a pair of reproductions of Chinese art, and a reproduction of Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.” Original art was not an option (where would we have found it?) nor affordable, and not actually valued anyway. (They did have one still life a friend painted, because they wanted to support her efforts, though they also seems a little lukewarm about it. Like they’d done a “nice thing” for her. At least it was cheap!)
I loved those works, though. It wasn’t until my early twenties that I learned (from a much older friend) that original art can bring just as much (if not more) joy than a reproduction, and often for not much more money. “Original” in the sense of going to local galleries and art fairs, and buying from a living, breathing artist whose work I loved. It was the beginning of my art collecting, and I know it will never completely stop until I do. (More on reproductions in the series ahead.)
My question today for you is, how do you connect “young people today” with your art?
Does it deal with topics they find relevant? (They are very big on climate change, for example.)
If it’s a “souvenir” of their travels, do you offer affordable prints? Or smaller works? (One person shared this last week, that many younger people DO seek mementos of their visits this way.)
If you do see them captivated by one of your works, do you proceed to lecture them about it?
Or do you ask them what drew them to it, and respond to what’s speaking to them. Do you engage them to explore who THEY are before you expound on who YOU are? (Actually, this is useful for ALL artists.)
If art is no longer taught in your school district, what can you do about that?
Are you creating opportunities to volunteer in schools, in local art classes, in local youth art organizations? There are quite a few here in Sonoma County, they are always welcome in my studios, and I’ve learned a lot by interacting with them.
Do you offer classes to a wide variety of age groups? I overheard a young artist talking to one of their even younger students a few months ago through the wall that separates our studios. I was fascinated by how animated their conversation was, how encouraging the artist was, how enthused their student was. Thought-provoking!
Do you have other ideas and suggestions for sharing our love of art with a newer, younger audience? Please add it in the comments section. It will help us all!
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Reasons Why Millennials Don't Buy Our Art
Why Aren't People Buying Our Artwork?