Good publicity can become the key to a successful fine art career. But major feature stories do not materialize out of thin air. You must work for them.
I was well into my documentary of the Appalachians, and I had just broken down a major attitude barrier in 1972 that had prevented fine art photographers from entering multi-media art shows when people starting asking me when I was going to publish a book of my photographs.
Heck, the thought of producing a book at this point in my life was a bit overwhelming, but the public persisted in asking that question at every art show and exhibition I entered. My images and stories of the mountain people and old farm scenes continued to draw attention . People would constantly ask me how I managed to capture this or that landscape, or the image of a rustic old mountain man.
In 1973 it happened, and quite by chance. I sent a portfolio to the Washington Post, and I targeted the editor of Panorama with a potential story about my work This was the Sunday section that dealt with special area features.
Prior to this story in the Post, I had actually been working on a book, and I was disgusted to learn that publishers were not interested in this type of "regional" subject matter. While publishers were telling me one thing, the public was saying that they wanted a book. I could detect that I stood a good chance of selling a book if I marketed it myself. As it turned out, this became the story of my life. "Do it myself."
Because I had some experience with publishing, design and layout, I had put together a book titled, Windows to the Blue Ridge. And I had taken my material to a local printer to publish four thousand copies. This project literally took every cent I had and then some, but it was just coming off the press when I sent my story to the Post.
I was living in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia at the time, and we had a small rural Post Office that serviced the community. I can remember-- it was about the middle of the week when I received a call from our local postal lady, and she asked me if they could make a special delivery right away because they had quite a bit of mail for me. This was somewhat puzzling because I was not expecting anything, but I had not yet seen the previous Sunday edition of the Washington Post.
Bottom line, Hal Willard, had devoted three pages in the Sunday Panorama to my art and my new book. I had told him that I had just finished the publication, and he had worked it into the story, including the price and where to order. This was like winning the local lottery on a grand scale.
I spent the next two weeks stuffing book bags and darn near sold out of the four thousand copies. I immediately put in an order for a second printing of five thousand additional copies with some major upgrades in the paper and binding. In looking back, I figured I sold nearly all of the nine thousand books in less than a year.
At this time, I was working full time for General Electric as an advertising and sales promotion specialist. A short time later, I decided to go it alone as a full-time artist and commercial illustrator, and that lasted for almost nine years before the economy took a turn for the worse. I then joined the public information staff at Radford University. Another new book was in progress and it was titled APPALACHIAN BYWAYS. I had five thousand of those printed, and this time I went with a higher quality stock with full duotone illustrations.
I followed the exact same plan with APPALACHIAN BYWAYS as I did with WINDOWS, and it paid for itself within a month. I still have a few copies of that book, which was printed in 1984, sitting on a shelf, and I proudly tell people that I never paid one thin dime for advertising. Those books kept selling until I took early retirement and moved west.
In 2001, a similar size feature to that which was published by the Washington Post appeared in the Denver Post, and it dominated the Arts & Entertainment Section. The spin off from that was slim because the feature came out just a week prior to 911 and that turned the public heads in another more serious direction. The whole art scene has been a bit shaky ever since. In fact, as I write this, it would appear that the economy is no better off today than it was following the first depression which FDR had to cope with. My father talked about it for the rest his life, and often spoke of how terrible it had been.
Publicity can still be the key to success when it comes to marketing fine art; or anything else for that matter.
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