With Green Bay’s popular Artstreet festival just a few weeks away, Barbara Smits of Allouez, one of the event founders, says her hope in helping create it was that it would be a venue for local artists to sell their works.
"We were working with the Northeast Wisconsin Arts Council," she said. "Our goal was to bring art into the Green Bay community." And while the festival has succeeded on many fronts, it also points out the difficulty for local artists to make a living from their art. Now 76 years old, Smits has made art her life. She has been a photographer, folk performer, author, freelance writer, music teacher, producer of Giclée prints (fine art digital prints made on inkjet printers), and videographer.
"I have been in the arts in one form or another all of my life and am motivated to carry through my inner visions," she said. "If I can’t do it one way, I’ll do it another."
The former SCORE client has encountered numerous roadblocks to that success. In a business plan written years ago, she said the challenge was to find markets where she could sell. Having taken business classes, she knew the business aspects, but couldn’t find that illusive answer to the most effective conduit.
"My work is not your typical, saleable and marketable artwork that is considered ‘modern art’ on the market today," Smits said. "I love doing historical pieces, but who wants to hang historical artwork in their home? People seem to want generic artwork — something that matches the couch, but I don’t create art for that reason."
In the past year, she estimates that she has contacted about 50 retail outlets in a search of a source where she could sell. She can’t sell out of her home due to municipal codes, and galleries are reserved for the biggest artists. The fees for art fairs have become, in many cases, cost prohibitive, and since she works alone, she is not able to erect a booth and endure unpredictable weather conditions.
She champions changes that would allow local artists to sell.
"Communities should have people’s art galleries with artwork that ordinary people can afford. I want ordinary people to appreciate the beauty and inspiration, as art was meant to be created, and as I am motivated to create it," Smits said.
Her works have sold and are on display around the state, including some higher profile locations, and there is no dispute that she possesses a unique talent. Her portfolio includes more than 400 pieces, all based on photographs, and she continues to expand that catalog.
Smits hopes that Wisconsin businesses will take time to find and purchase local art.
"We need one or more central locations where designers and decorators can come to find Wisconsin artwork," she said. "They seem to wait until the last moment and then rush out to find artwork to finish their decorating or designing projects."
Her other ideas include a traveling Art Bus and an Artist’s Garage Sale network. Smits that the municipality allows three garage sales per year, and she has had two garage sales featuring her art recently and plans another. She is also encouraging Wisconsin museums and galleries to feature smaller, local artists.
"I have a million ideas," she said. "I have suggested it to De Pere — why not become known as ‘The City of Art’ just as Waupun has become known as ‘The City of Sculpture.’" As she continues to look for places to sell, including the option of online sales sites such as Etsy, one thing remains constant — her love of art and unwillingness to compromise.
"Art is beauty and it’s truth and if you look at it and get something from it that helps you enjoy your life, it is important to create," Smits said.
"The advice I would give to a new artist would be to be true to yourself and your own motivations, and that is not always going to sell. I don’t create my artwork to sell it, although I certainly want to sell it… I create it because it has meaning, inspiration, or a particular beauty of its own."
Tina Dettman-Bielefeldt is co-owner of DB Commercial Real Estate in Green Bay and past district director for SCORE, Wisconsin.