Monday, June 23, 2014

Muddy Monday: When and Why's of Collection Downsizing

When it becomes a chore.

When it hurts my normal life priorities.

When I don't see the point anymore.

When I literally don't see the horses, anymore! They are all boxed up.

Does everyone have similar boiling points, the twists in life that make them decide to sell off the horses they have spent years collecting? 

The survey was completed by 22 ceramics collectors, all residing in the USA, in June 2014.

Of the downsizing collectors surveyed, 82% said that when they were actively acquiring, most of it was sight unseen by internet/mail order. As in, the actual model was produced later and shipped to them, or they saw photos by mail or online. They did not make the majority of their purchases in-person, buying the actual model shown to them.

This is really interesting because it begs the question of "disappointment". Was the photo better, or the actual item received? After three or four let-downs, does one look at that section of the cabinet and downsize it? If OF, was the factory color different than the advertising implied that it would be? Or, was it your only option when you got it, but decades later, you finally saw other examples of it at shows? Did you feel it was due for an upgrade? If Custom Glaze, was it live show proven before you received it? 

Of those downsizing ceramics, 91% acquired more ceramic models within the last six months. Yes. It is very tough to make the decision, but no one said you can't bring in one for every ten or so you sell!

Interestingly, only 25% made the decision to disperse within the last six months. Most have been at it for years, or at least plotting it for more than half a year.

Something that I thought would be a common factor for downsizing was lack of display opportunity. "If you can't see your horses, the urge to keep them is reduced", I thought. No, 73% display their ceramic collections.

I also anticipated a lack of shows in the immediate area ( a two-hour driving radius) would be a reason for most to downsize, or even drop out of the hobby. Gatherings are fun, and competitions can bring a lot to a hobby experience. Only 23% of responses have zero showing opportunity within that range. There are 32%- nearly a third- residing near shows (within that range), but they do not go. One reason cited was that there were no dedicated china classes offered. It is not fun to show ceramics in with plastics and resins.

Perhaps dealing with customers and distributors could cause a burn-out, which in turn inspires down-sizing?  Only 14% had ever had a model dealership, or provided a service professionally to the model horse hobby (or to its manufacturers).

The 54% majority of down-sizing collectors don't compete at the National level at least once every five years. This means, when they win a first or second place at a qualifying show, it is very likely that the NAN card will never be used for entry (they now expire after four years).

Speaking of burn-out and its many possible causes, there are other ways to "serve" the hobby public. Well, almost a quarter of china down-sizers (23%) have served or are serving in a North American Model Horse Shows Association office, or as a region representative, or in a paid assignment (NAN judge).

This next one made me proud of ceramic collectors. We as a group (although I personally did not take the survey, I've done this, too) pull our hobby weight as show hosts. Forty-one percent of down-sizing collectors have been a show holder member of NAMHSA, at least once! Can you just imagine how many shows there would be if 41% of plastic collectors (who have been in it long enough to need to down-size) would also host a show or two? Interestingly, most of these were not annual commitments, but occasional open (not china specialty) shows. We china people pace ourselves. Also, annual commitments to hold shows could absolutely contribute to a hobby burn-out and subsequent down-sizing, don't you think?

The results were telling me, I was looking for data to pin the culprit, but I had the wrong suspect. Burn-out from several sources combined was still a minor cause for down-sizing, compared to the unknown majority.

Economics are a huge factor in this. Several wrote in comments about the economy, their spending habits, and wanting more funds to put in their hobby, on yes/no questions. Of those polled, 23% are on a fixed income. It is impossible to "keep up with the Joneses" in ceramics, when your luxury spending is cramped more each month with rising living costs.

Of the participants, 72% said that a recent family/household change had an effect on their collecting habits. About a third of those were due to adopting new pets, or having old pets with new veterinary costs. This is not surprising, after all, people who collect art of animals tend to love real animals!

I asked if, despite downsizing, there was a model they will keep forever. Is it the most valuable to the market, or is it for sentimental reasons?

When it comes down to it, 82% want to keep at least one model for purely sentimental reasons. Value is no factor to these folks, when it comes to these favorites.

Still, who doesn't love a bargain? The 73% majority continues to hunt for models at flea markets, estate sales, and antiques shows.

At the height of their acquisitions, 95% of the down-sizers spent more than $100 per month on models. This was not a geographically selective survey, so bear in mind that one region's $1200-a-year is significantly harder to come by than another's. I didn't just poll one economic tier or part of the USA. The ceramics market itself must be fairly uniform for such diverse Americans to very nearly all be spending the same minimum. The polled 5%, a single participant, only spent under $100 a month because their main acquisition period was during the original mid-century $5 debuts of many of today's high-dollar vintage horses. 

At this point, the survey shifts in tone again, and asks the participant to examine their more specific reasons.

How would you describe the core reason for your dispersal? Select as many as apply.

a. bored of horses

b. no longer feel the creative spark

c. can't keep up with the costs

d. no longer show

e. frustrated by constant changes in color rules, breed registries, etc. required for informed purchase and showing decisions

f. unemployment

g. starting a family

h. found a new hobby, directing all luxury spending there

i. got into a different subset of the hobby, selling these to fund my new model horse focus

The good news is, no one is bored of horses. Six participants had "n/a", or reasons not listed. Some gave additional notes, expressing the reasons they had: lack of display space, general late-life downsizing. Thankfully, no one gave reasons of hostile home environment or illness! 

Of those who selected from the list above, and they could have multiple selections (hence this equals more than 100%):

  • 19% no longer feel the "thrill" or the creative spark to assembling the collection, or any number of possible hobby-related activities
  • 56% can't keep up with the climbing costs of collecting (even shipping costs are on the rise)
  • 25% no longer show, so they don't need a big show string anymore
  • 6% frustrated by constant changes in what one needs to know about real horses to make informed purchases and show successfully
  • 19% unemployment
  • 6% are starting a family
  • 44% have found another hobby entirely to direct their spending towards
  • 44% are selling to fund their refined interest in another subset of the model horse hobby
On the last one, it was encouraging to read that when ceramics were on the chopping block, it was only to focus on other ceramic horses. It is a refinement of the china collection, rather than a full-blown ceramics extirpation.

The last was virtually an essay question. Indeed, I received some essays! Beautiful, sharp, valid points were made, and I'd like to share them with you. Maybe, while you are reading this, you have a solution or something helpful to contribute.

Aside from life's obstacles, what change(s) to the hobby (or new services) would make your return appealing and possible?

More than a third responded that there was nothing they'd change. They love everything about the hobby. They'd of course like a little more spending money, but it's just life that is getting in the way.

Almost a quarter said they wish there were more gatherings, parties, swap meets, or shows. Can we just have lunch, and a PowerPoint presentation, something to further hobby education? No show really needed. Just get together. More fun, less stress. This is what collectors are requesting.

More than a quarter said they would be more "into" today's china horse hobby if there was less ego, less NAN emphasis, less drama. Those things can blend together in a super-storm that registers on the Fujita scale, but it is possible to have fun, even in today's atmosphere. I used to not define it, but just call it, "being on the fringe of the hobby". I don't mean that in a hipster way; it's not about being non-conformist, since we all like horses and have so much in common. I found that a lot of it had to do with being comfortable with my own taste in models- even if it wasn't the hot new thing, or the oldest great thing. I simply edited the things that I didn't like from my general hobby experience. This is largely solved by the Hide button on Facebook and avoiding online forums. For others, it means only going to non-show gatherings. I know folks who have only a buy-and-sell relationship with the hobby, and that is all the interaction they require. It helps them keep drama, with one exception, at arm's length. It is a hobby on their terms.

That one exception is related entirely to the buying and selling (and trading) of models, and some of the survey participants say it needs improvement: protection from rip-off artists (ROAs). This term is not directed at artists in the sense of those who make art; it means those who have made grift part of their skill set. Things are much better today, with tracking available on shipped packages, plus eBay's, PayPal's, and your own bank's fraud services on the look-out for the buyer. It is a bit of a different story for the honest seller who gets robbed by scam artist "buyers". There was a period of a year where I refused to do any business overseas, as we lost thousands in one year, in product, refunds, and cost of shipping/insurance, that were declared "lost" to overseas destinations. The scam artists knew how to check to see if tracking was in effect, and use it to their advantage. Our local post office had adopted a time-saving (for them) policy of not scanning every package, which, as you can imagine, resulted in some angry customers and lawsuits. An unscanned box is essentially untracked, and thus can't be proven not-lost, from the moment it leaves the sender's fingertips. So, there was no way to even claim the insurance we'd paid for, and had a receipt for, because as far as the post was concerned, we never handed the box to the employee. We just swallowed the loss, and refused a lot of purchases from overseas, until their scan requirements changed. In fact, I stood in line today, to make sure boxes I had to drop off were scanned, because it still stings. They really want us to just leave them on the counter, not take up space in line, and trust that they will scan them... Meanwhile, the ROAs just get better at jumping the new protection hurdles, with practice.

Within the hobby, there are a couple forums that allow reporting of issues, including full-blown ROA transactions. We try to watch out for each other. Facebook has become another avenue of communication about ROAs, and happily, it is as fast as they are!

Speaking of speed... improving the wait times for original art was mentioned by one participant. I am an artist, and I resemble the criticism. I am very up-front about my ceramic services waits, and my usual policy is to not accept payment in advance for anything. It's much nicer to do highly technical, delicate work when there is nothing looming over you. If the future buyer changes their mind on the custom glaze before I get a dime, I accept that it is now mine to keep or sell. Inevitably, if I make an exception to this rule, and wow, sometimes it just works out that way, it sometimes results in that wait. It's a bit of a no-win, Murphy's Law for the artist: if you refuse deposits, people say you are a snob and you only do art for your inner circle, it's unfair, nobody can get anyone to glaze their bisques for them; if you break your policy and accept deposits, the window of time you had will instantly shatter under an unexpected flurry of family commitments, and a downright blizzard of unforeseen commercial work with extreme rush deadlines. That's what happens to me, but I can't speak for every artist. I myself have been waiting, longer than several of my friends have been in the hobby at all, for a paid-for custom model. It is, indeed, a flaw of our horse hobby. It doesn't seem a viable solution for all of us artists to say, "No, we just won't make anything available to order, at all, anymore!", since some people really like ordering their own taste in finishes. Maybe, we should take a more commercial approach, instead of the constant fine art sales methods? If collectors could only issue Purchase Orders, and the same consequences applied...!

Another request was to have ceramic hobby artists all advertise new sales in one central site or group. Just the one, where it is a free-for-all when an edition opens, or a custom series is available. Today, most artists will not go this route, for their more important pieces; we've already seen what happens when we do that. For a clear example, consider the phenomenon of the buyers of current UK bone chinas: those who are first to buy up each new edition, but also quick to resell at a profit, sometimes without the horse even touching their hands. Much like ticket scalping, this was rampant in artist resin and hobby small edition ceramics about 10-17 years ago. Those of us artists who got the angry letters from those days know exactly why we don't put whole editions out for the public, in a central shopping site. Our faithful collectors expect some modicum of consideration, in return for following our work for years. That means, they want to have a chance at new stuff, away from those who are only buying to immediately profit on the secondary market. Hence, the scattered private newsletters, yahoogroups, Facebook sales and Pages have become the institution, since those days.

Some requests that need more hobbyists, not just artists, to get behind them are all show-related. These are:
  • More shows
  • More judging opportunities (shows and clinics can generate these)
  • More china classes, without lumping them in with plastic customs and plastic OFs
  • Add Youth & Amateur Artist divisions
The last one, I opine, cannot be combined and still called Youth, because adult Amateurs would be in the same classes as Youth. I come from the model horse school of hard knocks, where I was tossed right in Open and Senior divisions, with my wonky OFs and early, awkward art in Custom. So aaaaaaaaaaawkward. That said, I'd get behind an Amateur Ceramic Art division, no Youth designation, because it can be all ages and still a very good learning experience for everyone. Ceramics are a lot tougher to master than just acrylic repainting. In this, and in most art disciplines, youth have an advantage over adult amateurs. They get art supplies for birthdays and holiday gifts, they have lots more spare time to wedge art practice in (I know, because I slept about 3-5 hours a night, all through high school!), they have class by day, but they don't have their own kids to raise, no HOA meetings, no DMV lines, no post office lines- all the stuff adults squeeze in to their lunch breaks and after-work time. Nowadays, there are decorate-your-own-ceramics shops everywhere, and ceramics are so much more accessible to all ages than when I was a youth. Maybe we should organize some hobby fun days at those places?
The other items listed above, well, they require more show holders and more shows. Let's tell the plastic collectors about how 41% of our down-sizing ceramics collectors have hosted shows, and talk them into pulling their show-hosting weight. Then, let's sponsor china classes within their shows, so they have decent china divisions, which in turns draws our collector friends from more than two hours away... 

A cheer of thank-you to all the collectors who participated in the downsizing survey! I also appreciate those who did not fit the topic, but offered to take the survey. I didn't include them this time, but there will be future surveys that might be more applicable to their experiences. 

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