Vol. 8, No. 2, Spring 1991
By J. L. Wagner
"Fiber Art is a demanding, labor-intensive and exciting form of artistic expression," begins Barbara Barron, artist and businesswoman. Her career in fiber art spans 18 years, with several evolutions in scope, technique and style. It includes a successful partnership of 11 years with designer/ sculptor Al Granek and a client base that reads, in part, like a roster of the Fortune 500. She continues:
"As a business, there are a couple of approaches. The first method would be to create one product line, with several price points. The second, more difficult method would be to concentrate exclusively on site-specific work, done on a commission basis. Early on, I tried the first approach, and found that it just didn't work for me.
"Although the one-of-a-kind commission requires more time and energy at every step in the process from concept to installation, I found it more personally satisfying and actually more profitable. The only drawback is that you don't have much in the way of a product line to show to potential customers, since the work is installed in someone's office or home. Except for a very few samples which hang in my gallery, the impact of the work must be communicated through slides and brochures. Nonetheless, we average approximately 100 commissioned projects a year, two of which can be qualified as 'big' --like the 24-square-foot fiber sculpture we created for the Hauppauge Corporate Center."
The "we" now includes Barron and her son Steven, who oversees the workshop and a staff of three to four. The workshop occupies one half of an 1800-square-foot space in Huntington Station, New York; the other half is devoted to the gallery.
The method Barron employs for her fiber sculptures is a "wrapped fiber" technique, which she developed after years of studying the textile field. Layers of fiber are wrapped, one on top of another, to build a solid core. Sometimes, if the size or weight of the work demand it, metal or PVC pipe will serve as a central reinforcement. The finishing layer is composed of any of a variety of smooth, lustrous threads: silk, linen, cotton, wool, even metallics.
The result is a sleek, colorful soft sculpture that complements the mirror- smooth surfaces favored in contemporary interior design. But unlike stone, steel and glass, Barron's fiber art adds warmth to an environment and a senses of intimacy to large open areas. Her sculpture is defined through curves and abstractions, which soften the edges of a hard world--both visually and emotionally. Barron calls this effect "humanizing" the space; her international cadre of corporate and private collectors simply call it wonderful.
Clients and the Commission
Barbara Barron works with both corporate and residential clients: the former category constitutes 40 percent of her business, the latter 60. They're a diverse group, including AT&T, the United Virginia Bank, the Australian Film Institute, the Miami Children's Hospital Foundation, Burt Reynolds, Gary Carter, and artists Hisashi Otsuka and Paul Wegner. Many commissions develop through her relationships with interior designers and galleries, but surprisingly enough, her residential projects are mostly generated through word-of-mouth. "A person will see one of my works when they visit a neighbor's house and in turn, will come into my gallery," explains Barron.
Whether the client is corporate or private, Barron follows the same process in taking the commissioned sculpture from concept to completion:
Following the agreement to do the project, including price, the client pays a 50 percent deposit. The balance is due upon the delivery of the sculpture for installation. The price of the work is based upon the client's budget, as well as the size and complexity of the piece. To determine this, Barron does a site inspection, tape measure in hand. She takes down impressions of the "overall statement" of the space, noting its shape, size, scale, color scheme, lighting, traffic flow and architectural details. Although her work is original art, Barron's symbiotic relationship with interior design and designers has led to a pricing system based upon square footage. Currently, the range is $65 to $275 per square foot.
After visiting the site and discussing concepts and colors with the client, Barron creates color sketches and assembles color samples. "If I had to select a single phase of the process that would qualify as the most exciting, this would be it," she remarks. "I love the challenge of working with a client to discover a significant or special idea that they want to incorporate into the work. The sculpture then will say something special to the client, every time he or she sees it. It's also the final point at which you have room for speculation and adjustment without incurring major setbacks in time or expense."
Following final approval of the design, Barron goes back to her workshop, orders the yarns, and holds a production meeting with her staff to discuss the execution of the project. For the most part, Barron buys her yarns and threads from the same vendors who work with the fashion industry, because the fibers are durable, have deep saturated colors, stand up well to light, and possess a lustrous finish.
Once the fibers are in the studio, it usually takes three to four weeks to complete the sculpture. If the client is from the area, Barron arranges for the customer to come in periodically to make sure everything is satisfactory. With long distance clients, she sends snapshots of the work in progress.
The final step in the process is delivery and installation. If Barron is not directly supervising the installation, as is sometimes the case with long distance clients, she includes explicit, detailed instructions for the on-site crew. Sometimes, she also has to divide the sculpture into sections for easier shipment and handling. "The work can be quite heavy, and I learned a long time ago that you have to make the weight manageable for the shippers. We send everything by truck. The largest crate I use is 4' x 8'. And once it arrives, and is reassembled, it must look seamless."
In the tri-state area, Barron and her staff will do the installations. Barron chuckles, "We start out as artists and turn into gymnasts. I have to exercise just to keep in shape for the installation work!" Using ladders and scaffolding, the crew mounts the sculpture on wall or ceiling with cleats.
The scale of the pieces can be quite monumental. The blue, green and coral sculpture gracing the atrium of the Taxter Corporate Park building in Tarrytown, New York, is 45 feet long, 30 of which stretch from ceiling to floor. A 1990 commission for the Hauppauge Corporate Center measures 24 by 24 feet. Three stories high, it also represents Barron's top dollar commission to date--$25,000.
Although her business is thriving, Barron limits her expenditure on advertising. "To reach the trade, I make a point of participating in shows-- ArtExpo, home furnishing, and interior design shows, designer showcase benefit presentations. You have to keep your clients abreast of your current work. And you have to maintain a consistent presence. To attract residential customers, I do place some regional advertising in newspapers and upscale long Island magazines. Promotional materials are always presented in tandem with the show, and slides and brochures are available by request."
Barron's enterprise is small, family-run and a model of careful economics. There are no sales reps, no corporate infrastructure separating the client from the artist. The intimacy of scale is appealing. At most, there is Barron, a designer or gallery person and the customer.
Strong Business Sense
Barron also defies the stereotypical notion that artists are terrible at business. As a woman in business, Barron has presented lectures with AWED--the American Women's Economic Development organization. As an artist who has managed a professional career for 18 years, she has spoken with other artists on how to strengthen their business skills. Most recently, she spoke at the Contemporary Sculpture Guild, Long Island, on "How to Get a Commission."
Even in light of the current economic downturn, Barron is unflappable. "I've already survived a series of recessions. In fact, during the last one in 1979, business was good. There's no magic formula--I just work harder. More days, more hours--10 to 12-hour days, six to seven days a week is not uncommon. You stay persistent and patient and just don't give up. Now it's true that a good percentage of my clients are financially secure, and largely unaffected by the ups and downs of the national economy. It's also true that during the fourth quarter of 1990, my business was quiet, which was a reflection of the interior design trade.
"But even then, there were terrific projects. One was a sculpture for U.S. Pharmacopeial, in Rockville, Maryland. They approached Sandie Tropper, of Artemis, Inc. in Washington D.C., to provide all the art for their new building. She gathered together a whole group of artists who worked in a variety of media. I was commissioned to create a fiber piece to look like a painting. The piece was a small one--4' x 4'--and it was installed in the executive wing of the building in December. The wonderful surprise on this project was that the company flew all the artists in for an opening, to show their appreciation for our work. A terrific time was had by all!
"Now, in the first quarter of 1991, I'm working on a sculpture for the AMOCO Research Center in Napersville, Illinois. The commission was arranged by Meryl Stone, of Merrill Chase Galleries. The piece is scheduled to be completed in February, and installed February or March. It's a horizontal triptych, 9' x 5' and one of the most interesting feature is that the yarns I'm using are those AMOCO uses in its line of carpets. It's an added touch that will make the piece quite special, a unique reflection of the company," notes Barron, who has developed "unique" into an art form, as well as a successful business.