Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Seeing Your Licensed Art Applied to Products - From a Spark to a Bonfire: Sheri McCulley Seibold on the Power of Ideas

How does one "find" what works for licensing? It's been an interesting and challenging process to discover what I am willing to license that could be also appealing to manufacturers. I'm still not totally sure in fact, but for the past couple of weeks I've been developing more concepts for my collections and I think I've found a possible way through this narrow tunnel... I still have much more market research to do, although I think this is an ever continuing, integral part of licensing.

To help enlighten the quest for a workable licensing style, Sheri McCulley Seibold of Sheri Berry Designs shares with us her story.

Artist Sheri McCulley Seibold
Since her 2007 debut at the Surtex art licensing show in New York, Sheri has built Sheri Berry Designs into a brand that encompasses fabric, holiday ornaments, murals, crafting supplies, cards, stuffed animals, checks and wallets, and baby clothing and decor – her brand name, Sheri Berry, is based on the nickname her parents gave her as a child.

Sheri’s dad was an art professor, and she grew up among the easels, paints, and brushes of the college art studios where he taught. She also spent summers at her grandparents’ farm in Oklahoma. Wherever she was, she says her earliest goal was simply “to create!” Sheri earned degrees in photography and graphic design from Pacific Union College in California, and since then has done commercial graphic design as well as taught art at all levels from kindergarten to college.

Since exhibiting at her first licensing show in 2007, Sheri has done projects with about a dozen different licensees, including Macy’s, Northcott Silk, EK Success, Provo Craft, and Bradford Exchange.

TMFMA: What's exciting about your creative work? I love having a spark of an idea and watching it grow into a small candle flame, a campfire, and finally a roaring bonfire. Like many licensed artists, I enjoy seeing my work applied to products and getting it into consumers’ hands—It’s how I make a living. But turning an initial concept into a complete, unified collection of art that can be taken to market by a licensee who “gets it” is very exciting.

Woodland Tails on melamine tableware for Lily and George 
© Sheri Berry Designs
TMFMA: What's your favorite medium or tool/s you create with? I work in Adobe Illustrator, but many of my ideas start out as pencil sketches on my clipboard, a sticky note, or the back of a grocery list. You never know when an idea’s going to hit! I often scan in these sketches to give me some reference as I work in Illustrator, but other times I just start drawing on screen.

TMFMA: Who or what has inspired you in your art?As a child, I admired artists like Betsy Clark, Holly Hobbie, and Charles Schulz, and dreamed of creating art that would add joy to everyday living, like the treasured pillowcase my mom made me from Holly Hobbie fabric. I studied art history and the “great masters” in college, but what I really appreciate and relate to are the largely unknown commercial artists of the twentieth century—people who created artful advertising, affordable textile designs, charming illustrations for children’s books and home magazines, household goods, and corporate and product mascots. Unlike “fine art,” these things are all a window into the real history and culture of the American spirit.

TMFMA: How long have you been doing art licensing? In 2007, I made my first exhibitor appearance at the Surtex licensing show in New York City, which led to my first two deals for stationery products and fabric.

Tiki Tikes collection for Murals Your Way
 © Sheri Berry Designs
TMFMA: What brought you to exhibit for the first time and how many shows have you exhibited in? While working on the art staff of a scrapbooking supplies company, I became aware of Surtex for the first time when I was sent with a group of fellow employees to walk the show and discover “trends.” I wanted my art to be on more kinds of products than scrapbooking supplies, and felt I had to try the show from the inside of a booth rather than the outside! My husband agreed, and in 2007 we went to New York and did our first Surtex show. We have exhibited there every year since then.

TMFMA: Do you work with an agent or do you represent yourself? Until recently, my husband and I completely managed our own client relations and contracts, based mostly on contacts we got from Surtex. We are now working with a freelance licensing industry veteran to help us build new licensee relationships, assist in contracts and negotiations, develop new product ideas, and generally build awareness of our studio brand. We will be announcing more about this relationship at a later time.

TMFMA: Do you advise new artists to exhibit at Surtex or other art licensing shows to start off their career? And how many shows should they be part of to begin with? As far as trade shows go, Surtex has been my primary marketing and networking tool, and we’ve never felt the need to exhibit anywhere else. It does represent a substantial investment for the first-time exhibitor, but for me it’s been a good source of clients and projects. Those considering Surtex should certainly get second opinions from people who’ve exhibited at other shows before assuming Surtex is the best one for them.

Swell Noel for Afghan kit for Dimensions (EK Success) 
© Sheri Berry Designs
TMFMA: Please give us your analysis of the market based on your own experience and contacts. To summarize the market from my perspective: 2007: Difficult! 2008: Hard! 2009: Challenging! 2010: Competitive! 2011: Scary! My point is that working in art licensing is an inherently challenging and somewhat chaotic way to make a living. Even though it sometimes looks easy to those who are observing the industry from the outside, for me there have been ups and downs, good years and bad ones. Regardless of the economy at a given time, or the number of prospects you meet at the show in a particular year, or even the number of projects you did last year—I don’t see clear-cut “trends” in my project calendar. The market for licensed art has always been—for me, at least—unpredictable and sporadic.

TMFMA: At Surtex an artist can both sell and seek art license opportunities.  How does one decide what to sell and what to license? Our studio always intended to license only, because I’ve never wanted to sell all rights to any of the art I’ve done. That said, I think it’s important to distinguish between licensing for royalties and licensing for a flat fee. Both are licensing, technically, because you sign a contract with a manufacturer to let them use defined art on defined product types for defined periods of time. Some manufacturers are set up to track and pay royalties, while others prefer a one-time, up-front fee that gives them exclusive rights to that art within a particular product category for a specific period of time. Some artists refuse to do anything but royalties, but if you do that try to negotiate for an advance or “guarantee” on royalty payments in case the product doesn’t sell as well as you think it will.

Another way to figure this out is to go to Surtex yourself and see what types of art are being sold and what are being licensed. Selling art outright may be right for some artists, but licensing was the right choice for me.

TMFMA: In your view, what was of major interest to manufacturers this year? What do you think the main trends are for 2011-2012? We didn’t see any clear-cut areas of interest to manufacturers this year, or any year. The only real trend is that it’s getting more competitive, and more manufacturers are wanting to buy art outright.

TMFMA: What advice would you give other artists that are considering the art licensing field and that want to exhibit in a show like Surtex? First, if possible, attend your target show as a non-exhibitor so you can get a feel for the show’s vibe and where you fit in. Waiting for the next show may seem like an unbearable delay, but having a booth is a big investment for the first-time exhibitor and you want to be prepared and make sure it’s the right place for you.

The number of projects I’ve done in the four years since I first went to Surtex can give the impression that it’s as easy as showing up and having the deals roll in. What new exhibitors don’t realize when considering that total is the overwhelming number of promising leads that simply dried up, the projects that got cancelled, and the deals that fell short of their early apparent potential. This may not be true for every licensed artist, but I’ve talked to enough of them to know that creating art is a lot easier for us than a) finding new licensees who not only like your art but can push a project through their organization, all the way to market, and b) keeping that early excitement alive for future projects, even with licensees you’ve had a positive relationship with. Having good sales on products your artwork appears on helps keep the door open, but every new project is a test of the licensee’s ability to invest wisely and pick winners in the marketplace—not just art that they personally like. This is another reason why many companies “play it safe” and repeatedly manufacture with designs that they know will sell—and what they pick may not be yours!
TMFMA: Any other useful info that you'd like to share about art licensing? While it’s important to be confident about your own look and style, remember—when you get a deal—that you are part of a team that’s needed to get the product to market—not the center of the universe. Be nice and don’t step on other people while trying to get your work noticed.

Second, be prepared to compromise and adapt what you do. You may create beautiful or fun or sophisticated art, but each manufacturer has their own goals in the marketplace and you need to help them achieve those. I love quilts, but I’m not a quilter, so I knew I could either accept the manufacturer’s instincts on adapting my style and actually get a product on the market, or insist on having everything my own way and spend the next 20 years creating art for myself. Manufacturers know their audience—and if you help them succeed, you will succeed.

Third, take production deadlines seriously and deliver your art in the form requested. Just as when you’re working at a salaried job, establish yourself not only as a good artist but a reliable partner who manufacturers can count on.


Laurel Nathanson said...

thanks Alex, great interview, I too am always wanting to learn more about licensing!

laura t. said...

thanks for the very informative interview- lots of practical advice! i printed this one out to keep and refer back to later.
looking forward to more interviews :)

Kelly Lahl said...

This is a really informative article. Thank you for sharing!

Unknown said...

You are all very welcome :)- check out Sheri's website, too, more info there!

Rhonda said...

Thanks Alex....hoping to learn how to license some art!