Asking why, oh why?
“WHY IS IT SO EXPENSIVE?!” the woman almost shouted at me as I stood on the other side of the sales counter. Fortunately, she was wearing a mask that contained whatever steam she was venting.
The woman was referring to an exceptional Teec Nos Pos weaving Priscilla and Rick had hung on the wall behind me. Her inquiry was being made after we had already applied the 30 percent discount associated with our CARES/Shop in Utah grant, so I was, in a word, dumbfounded.
Aside from being beautiful, to me, the weaving was a genuine bargain.
“How can she not see the work this weaver put into the rug?” I asked myself. And, “How is it she does not value that effort?”
Most Navajo rug weavers of that caliber have spent a lifetime honing their skills. So why is it we don’t adequately compensate them for their experience, creativity, and talent?
Of course, the same questions should be asked about the teachers teaching our children, the masons applying stone to our homes, and a whole host of other craftspeople and tradesmen and women who make our world more livable.
These are but a few of the difficult questions I have faced countless times over our 30+ years selling art in Bluff.
Typically, I have taken a cavalier approach, asking the individual what they do for a living and how much they get paid as a comparison. Most customers are unwilling to disclose the information, so the conversations end abruptly.
Typically, the visitor comments on my unfortunate manners and poor customer-service training. These sessions always conclude when the visitor elects to leave without making a purchase.
At Twin Rocks Trading Post, we have generally been inclined to push a little more across the table to ensure the artist gets a fair shake. For us, this is an investment in creativity, generosity, sustainability, and artistic evolution. I contend our investment has paid large dividends.
We are, for example, proud to be the place where the contemporary Navajo basket movement took hold.
To paraphrase the Natural History Museum of Utah in their 2013 catalogue, this is where the “revolution” started. Hopefully this will not be where it ends.
Fortunately, many of our customers have also been willing to invest in these same principles.
When you visit Twin Rocks, you see things you simply do not see at any other trading post or art gallery. I attribute that to our willingness to pay a little more for new and unusual items and to support working artists when they have fallen on hard times.
Many years ago I did an exhibition with Mark Winter, who was quickly becoming known for his work at Toadlena Trading Post. Mark had taken on the historic outpost and done amazing things for the people of the area generally, and the weavers of Two Grey Hills rugs, specifically.
He had published books, encouraged families to revive long-lost traditions, and put in a heroic effort to improve the lives of local Navajo people. He had succeeded beyond what I had considered possible.
To say I was in awe would be a gross understatement; I was thoroughly impressed.
At the time, Mark told me he often asked his patrons how much they were willing to invest in the project – meaning, he not only wanted them to purchase a rug, he also wanted them to pay a fair price so the weavers could enjoy a reasonable lifestyle.
He was asking his customers to participate financially and emotionally in the project he had nurtured. And, it was working.
Frankly, being the shy type, I found his approach a little too aggressive for me to personally adopt, but I agreed with his overall philosophy.
As I had learned, improving people’s lives through art takes the buy-in of artists, dealers, and collectors. If they aren’t all in, the system breaks down and nobody benefits.
On a recent road trip through Moab I noticed McDonald’s was offering $15 an hour for entry-level workers.
“Why are we unwilling to pay master Navajo rug weavers, jewelers, and carvers the same?” I wondered.
I know it’s not just Navajo art that suffers this indignity; it’s applicable to quilters, folk artists, silversmiths, musicians, and any number of other creative people.
Isn’t it, however, time for a change?
As Mark might ask, “How much are we willing to invest to improve the lives of these individuals and ensure they and their art have a future?”
If we will pay $15 an hour for inexperienced workers at a hamburger joint, shouldn’t we also be willing to fairly compensate artists, teachers, and craftspeople?
Instead of asking why their work is so expensive, maybe we should be asking why it is so inexpensive. Now that would be progress.