By Barbara Campbell, former editor and current writer about doll art and artists
One-of-a-kind figures sculpted in a semblance of the human form, in sizes from miniature to approximately 25-inches, reside under the title “figurative art.” When these figures, no matter the medium from which they are constructed, wear fabric costumes they are called art dolls. Because these figures can be priced from a few dollars to thousands, each artist must find a particularly appreciative marketplace.
All forms of doll design are time consuming and the materials are costly so when a doll-maker arrives at the decision to tempt collectors he or she must evaluate venues appropriate to their skill level as well as to pocketbook and time. To set aside a block of hours or days from the creative process to pursue sales is to interrupt an artist’s concentration and, collectively, such activities consume great amounts of time and focus.
A beginner may begin testing their potential at local street or mall fairs and at class exhibitions. Doll artist, Bonnie Prebula, teaches a Facebook class titled, Techiques to Self-Promote Your Art for Success & Sales where she advises setting up kiosks in shopping centers. From there, Bonnie does make-and-take and how-to projects and uses an I-Pad to display pictures of her art. Keep the kiosk interesting by inviting guest artists to demonstrate materials and techniques. She says, “Extend your circles by joining groups, volunteering for causes that interest you and attend open meetings. Develop post cards and business cards with pictures. Utilize the social media, develop a website and set up a blog using the free WordPress platform.
As the complements and buyers increase the doll-maker moves on to professional exhibitions and shows, art galleries, joining doll organizations and approaching editors of publications that feature objects made in the mode and material in which they work. Publications serving the doll community are Art Doll Quarterly, Doll Collector, Doll Castle News and Dolls magazine that features the current enthusiasm of BJDs (ball-jointed dolls). Other likely sources are publications about working with the individual materials used in doll construction: fabric, beading, clay and wood.
As a past editor of publications that support the doll community and a patron of The National Institute of American Doll Artists (NIADA), I counsel artists to establish a routine of sending photos of recently completed work to every editor of a suitable publication. Include all the pertinent information about the doll: name, size, materials, and anecdotes about its origins. Do not become discouraged if photos are not acknowledged or used; subjects, even editors, change and one never knows when a photo on file will fit. This also serves as a record of improvement, changes in direction, consistency, dedication, etc.
There is constant movement within the ranks of doll artists, making it difficult for newcomers to be noticed. Be pro-active; use the Internet to source doll clubs, publications, Facebook, Pinterest, Linkedin, ETSY and eBay. Most organizations are now global; examples are The United Federation of Doll Clubs (UFDC), NIADA and ODACA (Original Doll Artist Council of America). Joining local doll clubs usually will access UFDC membership. NIADA and ODACA welcome qualified newcomers as individual artist and patron members. Both hold annual conferences with sales opportunities and sponsor classes taught by their Master Artists.
Below are synopses by and about doll artists who have persevered to attain public awareness of their art form. Every person profiled here learned through various steps and stages that to successfully market art dolls, the artist must begin by marketing him or herself.
Nina Tugarina, a graduate of the Kharkov Art Institute (now the Academy of Art) in the Ukraine now resides in the United States. Nina began making one-of-a-kind dolls in 2009 and became a NIADA artist in 2012. That is a meteoric rise and testament to her abilities. Nevertheless, she encountered extreme difficulty in finding buyers, relating those efforts to, “Finding the right husband for your daughter.” Citing from experience, she states, “Facebook works if there is already a circle of buyers familiar with the work; in my case, a place to brag about my newest pieces. I find EBAY and ETSY works best for low-priced items. Well-known artists dominate the expensive sales. NIADA conferences provide updated information about dolls and doll artists to the publications, which spread the word and are extremely helpful.”
Victoria Rose Martin initially encountered difficulty finding a material suitable to the many standards doll artists face: workability and suitability to design, and archival quality. She explains, “I began with polymer clay because I didn’t have a kiln, but found it fragile and a bias against polymers from gallery owners. Through experimentation, I established the ratio of clay and tensile strength and found a material that combined those qualities with sustainability. I simply wouldn’t give up.”
Welcomed as a NIADA Artist in 2013, Victoria Rose attributes her successes to the Internet, explaining, “The Internet has been indispensible for building connections. I am able to design marketable pieces through online printing companies, post images on social networks, and galleries and publishes are able to find me.
“Marketing campaigns are comparable to compounding interest; each piece builds on the next. It’s imperative to make work that truly honors who you are as both artist and person.”
Susan Fosnot also gained NIADA Artist status in 2013. She states, ruefully, “I have thought of myself as the Anti-Marketer. My successes seem to be in spite of my efforts.”
She says that beginning with local doll shows was, “encouraging because onlookers liked the work, but sales weren’t great and I continue to remain unknown locally. Being published in doll magazines has brought some success and calls continue years after publication.”
Two organizations play a role in Susan’s past successes and future plans. “Since 2006 I’ve been showing at UFDC conventions and did well until the economy tanked. Becoming a NIADA artist is a stamp of approval and I feel artistically freer by that acceptance. It is a credential, a mark of authenticity, a PH.D. in doll-making. My dolls are classified as rag dolls and rag dolls are not highly valued. I’m hopeful the annual NIADA Show & Sale will introduce me to new markets and collectors interested in dolls as artistic statements.”
Janet Bodin already had an extensive background in needlework, beading and felting when she first encountered art dolls at the 1996 International Quilt Festival, an annual event in Houston, Texas. After pursuing an intensive schedule of classes with numerous teachers, she began designing original figurative sculptures in 1998.
Soon after, Janet began marketing those first sculptures and remarks about how much has changed since the late 90s. “Social media has brought about an awareness that was lacking. I now use Facebook and Pinterest, maintain a Website and blog, and email notices to friends and customers about upcoming shows that I will participate in. Artists are my best customers.” Her figures have been exhibited in galleries and juried exhibitions and widely published.
Janet is a member of ODACA and TAODA (Texas Association of Original Doll Artists), several art organizations, and submitted a doll for critique at each 2012 and 2013 NIADA Conference. She says, “I attend conferences for the pure joy of being surrounded by the most beautiful dolls in the world and the artists who make them. It is inspiring and educational to be associated with the very best in our business.”
Sharrie Wing was one of the wunderkinds of the 2013 NIADA Conference. She is still in the midst of artistic discovery, defining a signature, and making a presence. Previously, Sharrie enjoyed local success but realized that today’s economy has forced a need to offer variety. She’s learned that, “Customers may buy inexpensive pieces while admiring the art dolls, efforts that allow for exposure and the distribution of business cards. Customers have contacted me after a show.”
As a figurative artist just breaking into larger markets, Sharrie shares two decisions she’s found beneficial—becoming a NIADA Patron and establishing an online presence. She states, “NIADA membership provides worldwide networking opportunities and attending conference allows me to see firsthand what most interests buyers.”
And the Internet, she says, “Puts me in touch with fellow artists and potential collectors. My goal is to be published in the doll magazines. Perhaps there is a collector waiting to see something that speaks to them and will be proud to own my work.”
Kate Church titles her figures “sculptural puppetry” and describes them as a combination of the line and form of sculpture with the playful anima of puppetry. Kate’s story is included here as an example of a person with a goal, set early, which utilized education, critique and willpower to fulfill that ambition. She studied sculpture, printmaking, textile design and graphic arts before and after embarking into period of teaching art. All the while Kate continually entered exhibits in her native Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, eventually adding a select group of prestigious U.S. and Canadian retail shows. She became a designer for the Cirque du Soleil’s licensed figures, marketed worldwide.
The sum total of those experiences, enhanced by the critiques by established artists and the public, caused continual growth of her workmanship, but Kate remained mostly anonymous. Changing that perception was another journey. She explains, “I had decided to develop a small production company to make pieces to sell locally. A friend came across the NIADA Website and once I saw the work, I felt strongly that to be accepted as part of that incredibly gifted group of artists would prove a level of professional accomplishment and build respect for my work.
“Learning that NIADA’s Patrons assisted their artists to achieve recognition was a unique concept. I had made a living from the hard work and long hours it takes to fill a booth at a large craft market. I am proud of making it alone, but to be recognized and accepted in the art world was the ultimate goal and I longed to see it happen.”
Barbara Campbell, a free lance writer and editor, is former editor of Ceramic World, Ceramics, Doll Collector, Doll Crafter and a Patron of the National Institute of American Doll Artsts. Barbara lives on the Pacific coast of Washington State.
Arts to Market celebrates the work of artists, innovators and arts organizations and shares advice on balancing the creative life with arts marketing and business development.