I asked Marilyn Rea-Menzies to write about her experience with marketing and promoting her tapestries. I think you will find her story a worthwhile read. Barbara Burns
In early 1991 I took a trip from Picton, New Zealand, where I was living at the time, to Christchurch, NZ. I sat outside the Arts Centre of Christchurch with a student of mine and said to her that one day I would have a studio here. It took about seven years for that dream to come to fruition, and in mid 1998 I shifted my looms into a brand new studio in the Artist Quarter of the Arts Centre. The Arts Centre of Christchurch is situated in beautiful Neo-Gothic Buildings which had once housed the University of Canterbury. When the university relocated out into the suburbs in the late 1970’s/80’s a group of interested people canvased the City Council to turn the buildings into an Arts Centre. This was done and from that time on it became a great tourist destination integral to the heart of the city. The Artist’s Quarter consisted of a group of studios for Craft/Artists and featured weavers, quilters, woodworkers and potters, bookmakers and the occasional painter. It became very popular with visitors and I worked in my studio there until the earthquake of February 2011 damaged the buildings so badly that the Arts Centre was closed. It is only just now, in 2018, starting to open once again.
I really enjoyed working in the Arts Centre in my public studio. I worked pretty much every day, though did take some time out now and again. The Arts Centre was open seven days a week and we were expected to keep our studios open for all of that time. That didn’t bother me too much as I am never happier than when I am working in my studio. Tourists and other visitors to Christchurch could come into the studio and see the work, see the processes in action and just chat, maybe buy some art work or commission something for their homes. It was through having a public studio that I was able to attract tapestry commissions, which kept me busy. I earned most of my income throughout those years. I am very much a people person so I did enjoy the contact with people and never minded them watching me work. There were some funny times though, such as the day a woman poked her face through the door, took one look and sniffed “Tedious!!!!!” then disappeared very quickly.
Working in a public studio also gave me opportunities to meet people I would never have met otherwise. I had Chelsea Clinton and her grandmother in my studio one day when her father was visiting Christchurch on a public visit as President of the United States. Chelsea sat at my loom and did a little bit of weaving on the Millennium Tapestry which was being woven at that time. It was a big thrill and I promised her I would never use her photograph for publicity purposes and of course, I never did. Helen Clark the Prime Minister of New Zealand was in my studio twice over that period, once to cut the Millennium Tapestry from the loom and celebrate that event.
When a visitor to my studio expressed interest in commissioning a tapestry, I would spend time with them, explaining the process and techniques of tapestry weaving. I would show them photographs of my past work and what others had commissioned, talk to them about what they liked, what sort of subject matter they would be interested in and ask them to send me photographs that I could work from. I would often request a photograph of the space where they would potentially hang the work and ask also what size they would expect the tapestry to be to fit nicely into their space. Once I had received all the information I needed, I would work on a design concept, often two or three concepts, send them to the client and they would choose the one they liked the best. Along with the concept I would send them a quote for the cost of the work, the time it would take to weave and all details of how it would be woven, the sett, colours, types of yarns, etc. I would also ask them to pay 25% of the cost of the work upfront,
25% half way through, and the 50% balance on completion of the work. The clients were always happy with this process for payment and it worked well. Throughout the weaving process the clients could visit the studio at any time if they lived locally, or if they lived away, I would send the progress photographs from time to time and keep in touch. Occasionally the client would also come and sit down at the loom and do a little bit of the weaving themselves. I felt that when this was possible it would give them a personal investment in the work and they really enjoyed doing this. They would also be invited to cut the tapestry from the loom when the weaving was finished, another way of involving them personally in the work. I did enjoy doing commissioned work and I only once had a client who was not happy with the finished product. Luckily it was only a small work and I actually wove a second one for her in a different colour way. She was happy with that and I was able to sell the first piece to another client, so that turned out okay in the end.
Since my shift to Hamilton I have not sold much of my work, no tapestries, but just the odd painting occasionally. I am a super annuitant (retired) now, at the age of 74, and I am still able to earn some extra income from teaching drawing and tapestry too. I have two flatmates that help me pay the rent.
I do not have a Gallery representing me, but at present I am working on a major body of work for an exhibition in October of this year. This exhibition will include tapestries, drawings and paintings, and will take place at the Wallace Gallery in Morrinsville. Working in a private studio and not taking commissions has given me the opportunity to develop my own themes and hopefully extend my practice in other ways as well. I am hoping that this exhibition will give me a greater profile amongst the Art World in the North Island, as my work is not so well known here as it is in Christchurch.
Pricing my work has always been difficult for me. Here in New Zealand we do not have a history of tapestry weaving, and most people think cross stitch and embroidery is tapestry, so my work is always difficult to sell. I am not very good at trying to sell it either. I do not create my work with selling in mind, as I think that can stop an artist from producing work that is important and has something to say. Most people, I find, want to buy the ‘pretty pictures,’ landscapes and such, and it is often only the collectors and galleries that will purchase more serious work. The Christchurch Art Gallery purchased two of my collaborative tapestries in 2005 and that was great. This happened because the director at the time had a real interest in textiles, hence the sale of my work.
I do have Facebook and Instagram and of course, my website, but I have had no luck in selling from any of these. I have found that they are great for making contact with other artists but as I am not sure how to promote the work well on these sites, I have made no sales. I have been looking for an agent, for someone who has these skills to sell my work for me, but that has not eventuated either. New Zealand is a small market and I have not had the recognition amongst those who can afford to buy expensive tapestries, to enable me to sell them easily. It has been a feast or a famine for me since I decided back in 1985 to become a full-time artist specializing in tapestry. I have had some very good commissions for public art works in the past, and these have enabled me to keep working. I have lived alone since I left my husband in 1985 and made that decision to make tapestry and art my life’s work, and it has been a bit of a struggle at times, but I have no regrets about that choice at all.
My website needs upgrading as I am unable to go into it myself and make any changes and this is not satisfactory. I have started to develop a new website, but it is often put into the ‘too hard basket.’ When I do manage to create a new website, I think that I would not put the prices on the website but have them POA, Price on application, as once a price is stated so publicly then it must remain at that price and cannot really be changed, no matter the circumstances. In conclusion, I have been weaving tapestries now for 38 years with hardly any time without something on my loom, and I feel it is a bit of an obsession, but hopefully a healthy one. Being an artist has helped to keep me well and healthy and I hope to have many more years to produce more good work.
Marilyn Rea-Menzies lives and works in New Zealand. Marilyn says about tapestry: The architectural process of building the tapestry, actually constructing the fabric and image together so that the two are physically and visually inseparable, relates very strongly to the process of constructing and building our lives and our living and working spaces.