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Selling Art in The New Normal: Marketplace, Native Communities, and Virtual Reality

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The Virtual Edition of The Santa Fe Indian Market offers an amazing atmosphere of delight and awe at a time when most of us are cooped up in our own worlds of social distance. SWAIA Executive Director Kim Peone joins The Clark Hulings Fund’s Executive Director Elizabeth Hulings, Artpsan Founder & Director Eric Sparre, and leader of the Vircadia Implementation Project & CHF Board Member, Steve Pruneau. Tune in for a wide-ranging discussion lead by host Daniel DiGriz about how all four organization are actualizing possibilities for collaboration and community in the digital world, how Native Artists are poised to flourish in this year’s market and beyond, a profile of the events and gallery spaces in NDN World, and how all of these partner organizations are championing artists as they emerge as leaders and innovators in our changing economy.

To purchase the artists’ work, visit swaia.artspan.com.

Art Business Conference

Beginnings: How Virtual Edition of SWAIA’s Indian Market Started

  • Kim: “This was a scenario where SWAIA needed to pivot after cancelling their Indian Market due to the pandemic. I came on board after the organization had spoken with Clark Hulings Fund on that possibility. Once I became the Executive Director of the organization and vetted that quickly with my board and staff and Clark Hulings’ team as well, it seemed like it was a great partnership for us to collaborate together and move this vision forward. It was a concept at the time, and now we’re really in a place of vision. And so it’s been a great partnership. And I’m really excited to be part of this collaboration.”
  • Elizabeth: “SWAIA has been a champion for Native arts for almost 100 years. CHF is interested in promoting artists’ ability to earn a living, and therefore get their art to market, so that the market can decide what it likes and what it wants to buy. We want to level the playing field, get as much out there as possible, and let everybody have a fair shot. It’s a beautiful combination: we have an organization whose goal is to do that for Native arts, and an organization that is coming from the artists’ perspective to drive that forward. Instead of a top-down, it’s really a bottom-up proposition.”

Working with Native American Artists

  • Kim: “This is really a ceremonial moment—where, just like when we go to our traditional powwows, we go there not only to dance, but we go there to be in a place where there is community, ceremony, and camaraderie. So I think that is no different than Indian Market.”
  • Kim: “Working with Native American communities, you’re definitely working with a population that’s underserved. We have recognized, especially in my past experience in working with tribal governments, that it’s very challenging to do economic development within those organizational structures. This is the first time that I’ve been able to work for an organization which represents Native American tribes where we’re truly in that place of free commerce—and so it allows us to be creative.”
  • Kim: “The resilience part of this is something that we’ve been dealing with for generations. So how do we come out of that miry clay and become something? I really appreciate being with an organization where we can empower individuals in doing that, and then as an organization come alongside them to support them. I also feel like it’s a scenario where if you’re helping one artist, you’re not just helping them, you’re helping a family—and that family is helping a community. It really is a ripple effect, as opposed to other artists organizations where it’s very individualized. When we look at an artist, we look at an artist in reference to their tribal affiliation, what nation they are representing. For SWAIA and our juried artists, that’s 220 nations that we’re touching, personally. For us it’s about not only resilience for the artists, but for the community.”

The Online Art Community & Artspan

  • Eric: “What you had in the past 99 years was one event over two days. Now we will be taking in—hopefully, in the years to come, that one event as the centerpiece of something much larger, which goes throughout the year. One of the nice things about websites and a virtual marketplace is that it doesn’t end after two days. That simply becomes a very good place to meet possible collectors to give them your URL, your domain name, and then you meet them again online. And hopefully, you know, they will buy some work.”
  • Eric: “It started for me 25 years ago when I went out to California to do commissions for one of the founders of Netscape, which was, as you will recall, the first great internet company. And I realized then that, wow, the whole world was going to change—at least that’s what I thought. And I set up a website and it was awful. I didn’t get any traffic, it was ugly. I had to pay somebody a lot of money. So that’s that was the genesis of Artspan itself.”
  • Eric: “It really has to do with, not the death of galleries, but certainly the lesser importance of dealers and galleries. Artists really have to fend for themselves. And it’s not hard. It’s a social event—as you say, it’s belonging to a community. It seemed to me very quickly, when I set up my own website, that it was great, it was nice to have a website (although it was ugly)…but I got zero traffic. So you really have to have a community around you. You can erect your own community now through Facebook, and all sorts of different ways. But I like the idea of the individual combined with a community.”

Vircadia & NDN World: Virtual Reality at the Virtual Indian Market for Art Collectors, Patrons and Artists

  • Steve: “Vircadia is an open source, virtual reality enabled, social platform. We call it Social VR. Just because it’s VR doesn’t mean you have to wear the VR headset. It works in desktop mode. The people who maintain that virtual community are very interested in the same themes that we’ve been talking about here, which is, first and foremost, community. Creating a shared experience that is not limited by physical distance or limitations that we experience in the real world—which includes some forms of prejudice or [feeling like] you don’t really fit in. So it’s really the next step in developing communities together. The second aspect of it, is that it is truly open source which means anyone can download the software, put up their own world, and host the community—or they could just be a participant and join.”
  • Steve: “Every person experiences [VR] a little differently, just like we all experience the world a little differently. But there is a common theme for those who keep coming back: it is very close to the emotional connection we feel. For example, people tend to apologize sometimes unnecessarily for stepping in front of someone if you are between the speaker and the circular audience. If it’s a small group, you happen to step in [you might say], ‘Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to step in front.’ There are those sorts of personal space type events that happen in-world. That’s a cue that says, ‘Ooh, this is a lot more than Zoom.’ “
  • Elizabeth: “The thing that excites me about it is that it’s the intersection of art and tech, because it’s artists who are making the outfits [that the avatars in the VR world wear]. It’s artists who are going to be doing the dances, it’s artists who have constructed the whole thing and added their aesthetic. When we talk about community, my goal and underlying reason for creating CHF and continuing to work on all of this, is to have artists and inventors and creators be at the center of community activity and development. That’s when we move forward as a species and that’s how we support our planet.
  • Kim: “I feel that we as an organization are in a place where we have to take into consideration generational transfers that are occurring. When you look at the demographics of our collectors, they’re 65 years and older. And so what are we going to do in the future? And this really went back to my interview with the board: one of their questions, to me specifically is, ‘What are you going to do to take us into the next hundred years?’ When I was in North Carolina, I was there with my children and with my grandchildren. And I’m watching them interact in this world called Fortnite. I have a six year-old playing a game with a 26 year-old, and they’re communicating with each other. It was their way of socializing in a space where they had a goal, they worked together, and it was community. Even before coming on to SWAIA, I was asking questions of my kids saying, ‘Who are you playing with?’ […] So when I got the proposal from Steve regarding what this [virtual] world was, there was a statistic that he gave me that said: Fortnite has only been in existence for three years, and they have 250 million followers. And I just had an aha moment: this platform is giving me the opportunity to capture a generation that we’re not currently capturing. […] As we move past Indian Market, it’s still going to be a platform that we’re going to use in the future. And one that we’re all going to learn to use together.”
  • Kim: “I called up Chad—an artist I’ve been in the Powwow circle with since he was a little boy—and asked him if he would develop an avatar for me. I thought initially: ‘Oh put me in a traditional dress.’ And he was so cute, he said: ‘I don’t see you in a traditional dress, it is okay if I put you in a jingle dress?’ And I said yes. When I saw the drawings of what this avatar was going to look like: front, side and back version—do you know, that threw me back to when I was in the circle at Powwows with my kids, my friends, and my family abroad. It was not only touching to me but it was profound to me. Because now, when I go into NDN world, I’m actually in my traditional regalia. Jingle dresses represent for our people a form of intercession and prayer. And so I felt like this has been a journey of intercession and prayer for me. Not only for SWAIA but for artists and for the world.

What’s Happening in NDN World?

  • Elizabeth: “Right now, there is an exhibit of all the work submitted to the jury that you can walk in and experience, and there’s a panel next to each work that describes it and who did it. And then on the 13th, we have the preview of the final pieces. That is a private VIP experience, and it’s also the official opening of the space. So there’ll be an invitation. So that’s our first official event. And then on the 15th is the award ceremony. We will be announcing best in-category, best in show, etc.”
  • Steve: “There is art on the walls, and there is a popup button ‘Open here,’ or ‘Click here.’ It pops open the SWAIA website, for this year’s entries, for that piece of art only. And from that, and also some of the information in-world, you can find the artist. You certainly tipped your hand about the future of this, which is that we do want it to be possible to just buy right there”.

A Brighter Future For Artists

  • Elizabeth: “The majority of SWAIA artists historically have earned a substantial amount of their income every year during Indian Market. That was one of the reasons that we were so adamant that we have to do something: because we can’t have an economic catastrophe fall on the heels of a medical one. But the goal is to make it so that these artists and many other artists can earn a living year-round. That’s where the Artspan piece really comes into play—you have to be able to engage in e-commerce and understand what you bring to it. Who are you as an artist? What are you trying to accomplish? What is your message? What is your story? What is your brand story? What are your sales strategies and how are you going to use e-commerce? An individual website that belongs to you is really key to delivering all of that.”
  • Elizabeth: “If it doesn’t start with vision and innovation— if you don’t know why the heck you’re doing something, or you’re doing something because you’re going to make bunch of money quick…maybe you will make a bunch of money quick, but you’re going to end up with something that doesn’t serve anybody else in the long term. Right now we’re in a moment. You mentioned Tesla, Steve—we’re in a moment where we have got to change the way we do a lot of things: in order to not just make sure SWAIA is here for another hundred years, but make sure that any of us is here for another hundred years. And the way to do that is by involving the artists, entrepreneurs, visionaries, and innovators at the beginning of the process.”
  • Steve: “When we were paired up by Kim with various artists to work on avatars, little micro explosions were going off; there was potential and [people saying] ‘Oh, how can we do more of this?’ and ‘This is great. I get it.’ People were getting the ideas really fast. The thing that causes innovation is these unexpected reactions when you’re hanging out together, talking. When you look back in history, the way certain parallel inventions happened is because they were in each other’s orbit. They were influencing each other. Did we see this in music? People start reverbing back and forth. Now that we can no longer have distance separating us. I predict that this is going to accelerate some really interesting creative explosions.”
  • Kim: “One of my thoughts for September is doing a live cookbook where we feature Native American chefs, and talk about our Indigenous foods. Food is a form of art—it’s not one we’ve probably ever talked about at SWAIA but now that we’re virtual, we can get very creative. For us, we want to stay online, we want to continue to work very closely with every partner on this podcast.”

To purchase world-class art and support this event, go to swaia.artspan.com.

Marquee Events in NDN World are open to SWAIA Members—Membership info is here.

To get early access to the virtual reality world VIRCADIA, where you’ll find Steve Pruneau tending the virtual bar more often than not, visit Vircadia.com.

Thanks to Jerry’s Artarama for their support of CHF and The Thriving ArtistTM podcast.

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AvatarDaniel DiGriz
Daniel DiGriz is CHF's Creative Director and Director of Educational Programming. He's a founder at corporate consulting firm Free Agent Source Inc., and Digital Ecologist® at MadPipe which provides creative direction and marketing leadership to multiple firms. His background in Fortune 500 life is in sales and education. Daniel is a corporate storyteller and collector of brand stories who speaks at conferences and hosts podcasts, including The Thriving Artist™ Podcast. His personal website is DiGriz.com.

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