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GETTING STALLED: Artists who depend on market circuit find new ways forward

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Kelly Sweitzer works on her handmade items for The Pepper Mill Shop. Courtesy photo

As the novel coronavirus continues to keep us homebound, our artistic town has pivoted with the downfall somewhat by taking many events online: Livestreamed concerts, online film festivals and series, Zoom book readings, virtual art exhibits and even museum tours have happened every week for a month now. However, for artists making a living vending on the arts market circuit, going virtual isn’t an option. In fact, they’re now losing the majority if not all of their income during one of their busiest times of the year.

Take Kelly Sweitzer of The Pepper Mill Shop, for example. Her food-pun drawings, onesies, tote bags, magnets, cards and pins have become staples at local festivals annually, from the weekly Riverfront Farmers’ Market to Thalian Association’s Orange Street Arts Fest to Brooklyn Arts Center’s annual Holiday Flea at BAC. She had just wrapped the Burgwin-Wright House’s spring market before the COVID-19 shutdown wrecked 50% of her schedule so far in 2020.

“I was doing about 80 markets a year,” says Sweitzer, who often travels to Atlanta, Nashville, Raleigh and Richmond. “This year I was only able to get in about 10 before events started being canceled. I’d booked every single weekend through June, both local and away. Now, nothing.”

She began pushing online sales immediately, offering 20% discounts through her website and even gifting domestic shipping. Boutiques also continued to place wholesale orders. Yet, it doesn’t make up for monies lost from market cancellations.

“I’ve applied for a grant through the NC Artist Relief fund via Visual Artist Exchange (VAE) in Raleigh,” Sweitzer says. Like many small businesses, she also applied for an SBA loan and plans to try for self-employed unemployment through the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance under the CARES Act once it goes into effect.

“My gut feeling is this will impact us through summer,” she says realistically, “especially if people keep ignoring the stay-at-home orders.”

The stress of losing everything she’s worked so hard to build over the last five years has hampered her creative output. “I’m trying to be hopeful, trying to keep a routine,” she says. “I did plant a garden for the first time in five years, so I guess can watch that grow instead of my bank account.”

 

 

Helen Greaves-Williams predicts another five months before she vends her In Stitches embroidery brand in public again. She makes 50% percent of its income through 10 markets she does annually.

“My thought is we might be able to get back to markets in the fall, but that is going to depend on the fluctuation of the number of cases as we open things back up,” she says.

In Stitches repurposes and upcycles vintage fabric and tablecloths with funny, irreverent phrases embroidered over them. Greaves-Williams also sells them in retail shops to make up the other half of her income. She acknowledges her good fortune, regardless, in that she spends more one-on-one time homeschooling her 11-year-old. “My husband’s job is the main income for our family and he’s been able to work from home,” she adds.

She’s utilized her time building up stock during the shutdown, especially since fall and the holidays prove fruitful. To combat loss of income this spring, Greaves-Williams put together a pop-up shop on her front porch.

Embroidery from Helen Greaves-Williams’ In Stitches brand, which makes 50% percent of its income through annual markets. Courtesy photo

“I made some sales that way,” she admits, “but it’s the same neighborhood folks walking by at the moment, so after the first couple of weeks, I didn’t make any more sales. That’s OK, though, as my main goal was to give a laugh and have a little chat with some folks walking by.”

The lack of markets has shown Greaves-Williams something even more essential to her artistic enjoyment: social engagement. “I miss the interaction with my fellow vendors,” she says, “the venue owners from our fabulous breweries and the customers.”

In fact, losing foot traffic at markets is irreplaceable—and it’s not just because of potential sales. “It’s exposure to large numbers of consumers who might not have otherwise found you,” artist Zak Duff explains. “These opportunities are not something that can be made up in other ways.”

Markets and vending events generate 70% of Duff’s annual income. Through March 17 he did only one show and one pop-up market. He was slated to participate in four weekly markets and additional events through summer; in fact, spring and summer are his busiest months.

“I am hopeful many markets will still be held, perhaps starting later in the [summer] season than normal,” he says. “Some of the towns’ parks and recreation departments are connected or are lead organizers, and they will need the income they generate from booth fees as much as the vendors need their sales income. Events like craft and farmers markets are important contributors to local economies, and it will be fundamental to a return to normalcy for these sorts of gatherings to resume once the governor allows it. However, I suspect many of our current precautions will still be in place, including cloth masks and some degree of distancing.”

Duff posted a “grab-bag” sale on Facebook over the weekend, wherein $25 got customers an 8-inches-by-10-inches original print. Shoppers chose the “category” of work, and Duff would pick the print. He’s also received a few commissions and special orders from friends and returning clients, though it doesn’t match his business being up and fully functioning.

“It’s not nearly the volume I did at this time last year,” he admits, “around one-eighth of what I would typically be producing and selling.”

Like Sweitzer, Duff has applied for artist grants, including the artist relief fund, and government assistance. Though, he knows it won’t make up a fraction of his income loss. Plus, there is a lot of uncertainty if he even meets new qualifications to receive unemployment benefits.

While less income weighs heavily, Duff puts that concern in the back seat when it comes to family and health. Some of his family members are cancer survivors and immunocompromised. “And my young son had shown signs of developing asthma prior to the current epidemic, both of which are factors that could contribute to COVID-19 impacting them far more severely should they contract it,” Duff says. “I would much rather declare bankruptcy and have to start over financially than lose one or more of my family members to this horrible contagion. So, we will continue to wait it out, and if I’m only painting for myself and no one else in the meantime, then at least I’m doing something I love.”

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