As she watched COVID-19 cancel Wilmington-area festivals earlier this year, Linda Callison started freaking out a little.
Callison, a 60-year-old Wilmington-based artist, relies on venues like festivals and farmer’s markets to sell her work. Her jewelry business – called Out of Chaos – does not have online sales.
In mid-March, with everything in the near future cancelled, Callison turned to Instacart to make ends meet. She shopped and delivered grocery orders almost every day for the next three months to support her and her 89-year-old mother.
For many Wilmington-area artists like Callison, selling work at markets and festivals is the lifeblood of their business. The Wilmington area has seen the cancelation of major festivals, including the Azalea Festival, Autumn With Topsail and Riverfest, among numerous others.
It’s a revenue stream that has been largely eliminated this year due to COVID-19 precautions. Facing upended schedules and COVID-19-wary buyers, Wilmington artists have had to get creative to make ends meet.
In addition to Instacart, for example, Callison upped the number of farmer’s markets she attends. Instead of two or three, she now sells her handmade necklaces, earrings, bracelets and wind chimes at five local markets each week.
While Callison’s efforts have worked, and she feels somewhat financially stable, she misses those big weekend festivals and the revenue they would bring in. She will go back to shopping grocery orders if she needs to.
“I have that in my back pocket if we get shut down big time again,” she said.
PIVOTING TACTICS TO STAY AFLOAT
For Leland-based artist Jenn Maksymiak, COVID-19 cancellations gave her the opportunity to pivot in a big way.
When farmer’s markets began to start in June, Maksymiak signed up for several. But she barely made enough from her sales to pay for the market’s entrance fee and the cost of gas to get there.
Maksymiak, 41, makes and sells candles, resin art and intricate mandala artwork – mediums which are not conducive to socially-distanced shopping.
“You either have to look very closely at my artwork or you have to pick it up and smell it,” she said. “And people were afraid to do that.”
So, she decided to stop going to markets altogether and to put all of her energy into growing online sales. Maksymiak hired a marketing consultant, redesigned her website and signed up for several e-commerce and wholesaling sites.
Maksymiak has had some success. Using connections made through the wholesaling websites, she now sells her candles in stores across the country. She has also started teaching group art classes and giving private lessons.
But between all of the missed shows and festivals, Maksymiak estimates her business – called Jems of the Sea – has taken a $50,000 hit due to the pandemic.
Luckily, Maksymiak said, she has been able to lean financially on her husband’s income, which was not threatened by the pandemic.
CREATING HER OWN MARKET
As the pandemic persisted, Carla Paschal, the owner of Wild Child Art Studio in Hampstead, decided she needed to create her own market. Paschal recently relocated, moving out of her old studio in a pink house along U.S. 17 into a storefront in a strip mall.
The move to her new space was motivated, in part, by a need to sell merchandise that would normally be sold at festivals. Her old location wasn’t zoned for retail. Inside of her new space, Paschal now displays and sells the work of 12 local artisans.
Putting together the market was a collective effort to make up for the cancellations of the festivals that many local artists depend on for money, Paschal said.
“It’s a huge deal for us,” she said. “These are thousands of dollars that artists depend on. So, we had to think outside of the box and come together to figure out what we were going to do.”
Paschal said she typically travels to about 30 festivals throughout the Southern U.S. She estimated sales from festivals traditionally made up about three quarters of her business’ income.
Paschal also turned to Facebook for help with sales. Each Tuesday afternoon, she goes live on a Facebook group dedicated to selling her art. Members of the group are able to purchase items virtually and pick them up later at her studio.
She has also poured money into Facebook advertising and is in the process of setting up a website for online ordering.
‘I’M JUST TRYING TO KEEP MY HEAD ABOVE WATER’
The pandemic has also taken a emotional toll on local artists.
Peter Beckley is a Wilmington-based digital and watercolor artist who sells most of his work at farmer’s markets. His business is called Coastal Focus Art.
While many of his scheduled markets were not cancelled because of COVID-19, going out and interacting with customers is a risk he wishes he didn’t have to take. Beckley has an auto-immune disorder and takes medication that weakens his immune system.
“I was terrified,” he said about selling at markets. “I am still terrified.”
The stress of putting his health at risk has taken a toll on his mental health, Beckley said. He has avoided getting together with friends and family members because of his increased exposure to the public, which has made him feel even more isolated.
“I’m just trying to keep my head above water,” he said.
With his sales down between 70-75%, Beckley has had to cut back.
“I’ve just started living absolutely bare bones to try and fit my expenses within my income,” he said.
Both Beckley and Maksymiak applied for and received small business loans from the federal government, but they are hesitant to spend the money because officials have not released clear guidelines about how the money needs to be spent to have the loans forgiven.
Maksymiak, for example, might consider spending the funds on online advertising, but she’s unsure whether that will be officially classified as a business-related expense. Beckley shares her uncertainty.
“I’ve got every single dollar that I’ve received from all of those programs still in my bank account and I’m terrified to use it,” he said.
Since many artists are self-employed, they are not eligible for federal unemployment benefits. This spring, artists who applied could receive benefits from North Carolina’s Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program.
Payments from the program varied but were often less than $150 before taxes, according to Maksymiak. Artists could also supplement their income with $600 per week in unemployment relief from the federal government’s CARES Act. These payments, however, ended in July.
SURVIVING THE PANDEMIC
While the pandemic threatens the income of some artists, other art businesses that provide others with supplemental income might not survive the COVID-19 cancelations.
Catherine Logsdon makes pottery in a studio behind her home in Onslow County. Logsdon, who is semi-retired, uses money from her business Salt & Clay to purchase pottery supplies and to supplement her husband’s pension.
While she feels financially stable, it is becoming more difficult to sell enough pottery to purchase the clay and glaze that she needs to make more product.
“Even though we survive on my husband’s income,” she said, “this craft of mine might not because I might not be able to afford to keep doing it.”
‘I’M NOT GOING TO GIVE THIS UP’
Some local artists feel under-represented in conversations surrounding the financial impact of the pandemic.
Maksymiak acknowledged the impacts of COVID-19 reach far beyond the artistic community. But although many artists have their own businesses, they are often less visible because many don’t own brick-and-mortar stores. Instead, they rely on events to sell their work.
She sees the need for people in the Wilmington area to support local artists and all local businesses.
“All of the artists are small business owners, but it’s not just the artists,” Maksymiak said. “It’s the restaurants, it’s the bars, it’s the small local shops.”
Sometimes working as an artist comes with the stigma that it’s not a “real” profession, Beckley said. But he will continue making art regardless of how bad things get financially.
“My mindset is I’m not going to give this up,” Beckley said. “It’s my job.”