The Uncertainty Principle

The Uncertainty Principle

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Photo: Mark LaFavor

For glass artists Trefny Dix and Bengt Hokanson, finding a groove in the past five years has been a challenge. The two met in New Orleans in the mid-1990s and launched a hot shop and gallery business in New York state two years later. Ultimately, demand from retailers was so great that the logical next step was to expand. But they didn't want the headaches that come with expansion, so they moved to North Carolina in 2007 and focused on their wholesale business instead. Then the economy crashed in 2008, and all bets were off. Now they've restarted, again, off the beaten path in Colorado. (See "A New Frontier" for their story.)

Hokanson and Dix represent one principle in a troubled economy: When the going gets tough, the tough keep moving - sometimes literally.

These are times that try artists' souls - and the souls of gallery owners and art dealers too. We are in the midst of a "great consumer bust," says the New York Times; Americans usually cut their spending by about 3 percent in a recession, but this time spending is down almost 7 percent. And no wonder: We've entered a frontier of high unemployment, bankruptcies, and home foreclosures, and nobody really knows what's on the other side.

The normal reaction to such uncertainty is not action but paralysis. Human beings are stasis seekers. (Some are also status seekers, but that's another column.) We want equilibrium in our lives, and many of us are reluctant to take action without it. Yes, we are rational beings, thinkers and planners. But we are also animals, and the primitive, animal part of our brains often operates from fear, interpreting uncertainty and disequilibrium as threats to our survival. When the world is chaotic, it feels more natural, safer, and wiser to wait than to act. It takes courage to fight that animal urge.

I thought about this as we were putting together this issue, focused on the marketplace. For people with a strong need for stasis, the marketplace of recent years has been a trial. A lot of us like clarity, formula, and closure, and this economy has been fiendishly unrevealing, indecipherable, and inconclusive.

And yet. It's possible to see opportunity in uncertainty, not simply danger. Art dealer Tom Grotta has seen one segment of his clientele - collectors - wane; but as he developed his "digital placement" service, another segment, decorators, has emerged (read "Image Is Everything"). Longtime gallerist Garth Clark took a year to explore options, leapt into the auction business, and found his business thriving again (see "Craft: State of the Market"). And Hokanson and Dix are seizing the opportunity to chuck the production work they never liked much to begin with.

I read recently that there's more information in a Sunday edition of the New York Times than was available in the entire 15th century. Unfortunately, that doesn't make the right course of action any more obvious than it ever was. The trick is to put fear aside, consider possibilities, and keep trying.