Selling Solo vs. Working with a Gallery
It’s not the chicken and the egg. No Art– No Art dealer. It’s that simple. If they’re not making money off you — they don’t give a fuck about you. 50% is inequitable. The fucking Mob doesn’t take 50%.I might, after a few cocktails recently, have been heard to note in response that your dealer probably doesn't come to your studio and break both your legs if your exhibition doesn't sell out... but I'm sure that was only a misinterpretation of my actual words. And it's irrelevant to boot. My thoughts on why the 50/50 split is both equitable and, should an artist's work sell well, negotiable can be found here.
But I'm being a bit disingenuous (I've been trying to work in that "dealer doesn't come to your studio" line since reading that comment). I'm fully aware of the advantages of working with a gallery over selling your work on your own, I understand that those advantages are well worth sharing the proceeds for some artists and not for others, and I know both that dealers are a relatively new part of the art-as-commerce equation and that innovations like the Internet are making it easier for those artists for whom the advantages are not worth it to find a market on their own.
These issues all came up in the Sunday article, which is actually a column in the New York Times Magazine by Rob Walker called Consumed. In this week's column Mr. Walker discusses the case of artist Brian Donnelly (aka KAWS), who at age 33 has been selling his work quite readily and even has his own store in Tokyo, but has, until now, not worked within the gallery system:
KAWS...has been taken on by the Gering & López Gallery in New York, where he’ll have a show this November. He will also exhibit a batch of paintings at Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin in Miami in September and will have another solo exhibition early next year at Honor Fraser in Los Angeles. Sandra Gering, of Gering & López Gallery, had not heard of Donnelly before another artist she works with included him in a group show last summer, but she is clearly smitten with Donnelly’s bright, clean, slightly off-kilter canvases that often riff on pop-culture figures like the Smurfs or the Simpsons. And she figures there’s another market for his work. “I think it needs to get out there in the art world,” she says.This history led John Jay, the executive creative director at the ad agency Wieden & Kennedy, to note that “[P]eople don’t always understand you don’t have to have a gallery to sell to international stars anymore.”
It seems odd that someone already making a good living as an artist is only now being introduced to “the art world,” but Donnelly’s story may say something about the different ways creative work can acquire value these days. He studied painting and majored in illustration at the School of Visual Arts in New York, and during the 1990s he gained a certain underground notoriety for removing ads from Manhattan bus shelters and altering them — often adding a slightly disturbing skull-like image, with X’s for eyes — and then putting them back. Visits to Japan brought him into contact with a subculture of hustling young creators blurring the lines between design, art and business, and in 1999 he began producing plastic, toylike versions of his characters in addition to collaborating on products with companies like the skateboard brand DC Shoes and the fashion line Comme des Garçons. He gradually built a clientele for his paintings on his own, and images of his work traveled widely online.
I'm not entirely sure I understand that quote to be honest. Who is selling what here? If Mr. Jay means that an artist doesn't have to have a gallery to be an international star anymore, I'd agree. I suspect, however, he actually means "to sell the artist," which might be good topic for another thread. [UPDATE: I worked it out...he means to sell one's art to celebrities. Sorry for being so dense.]
Mr. Walker and I talked for a while by phone while he was researching the piece. He had happened upon the blog and saw the threads in which we've hashed out the issues related to artist-gallerist relationships. I thoroughly enjoyed the conversation and was highly impressed that he approached the topic with a very open mind (i..e, unlike some other non-art writers I've been interviewed by, he didn't have his mind made up already about how evil dealers are and call just fishing for gotcha quotes). I thought his presentation of our conversation was fair:
Edward Winkleman, owner of the Winkleman Gallery in New York, offers a slightly different take. At edwardwinkleman.blogspot.com, he offers thoughtful observations and practical advice about overprotective gallerists, studio-visit strategies and the like. While the Internet is helping a growing number of artists get noticed, he says, most upstart artists still prefer to rely on a gallerist to connect with appropriate consumers (collectors). And Donnelly’s reputation-building and connection-making is pretty much what Winkleman advises many of his readers to do; he just did it in a different context — one in which selling your creativity is part of the job.I did want to elaborate on those thoughts here a bit though. First, I have discussed before my ideas on how artists can effectively sell their art outside the gallery system here.
So why bother with galleries at all? Winkleman notes that it remains much harder for artists who operate outside the art-world structure to end up in museum collections, which is still seen as “the quintessential validation” by many.
Second, after some more time to think about this I would prefer to say that although the Internet is helping more and more artists sell their work outside the gallery system, some artists still prefer to work with a gallerist. More than that, I honestly feel that the path to museum validation need not remain via the gallery system, and so that raison d'etre for galleries isn't the end all.
What I think a gallery still does well is provide additional market opportunities beyond what an artist might find on their own and help raise prices, as evidenced by Donnelly's working with Gering & López...
And surely a new market is part of the equation. Gering has been introducing Donnelly’s work to her clients since last summer, and “we’ve sold every painting we’ve brought into the gallery,” she says. The November show will consist of new sculptures (including 33 bronzed, painted renditions of his own head) and paintings; the works will be priced at $25,000 and up....and, perhaps most importantly, provide a context in which not only solo exhibitions can garner press but an artist's work can be supported against bad press or misunderstandings on the part of the public. The program at most contemporary art galleries is an ongoing dialog about what's important in today's art world. Within that context, an artist can perhaps afford to take some risks that wouldn't make sense without an exhibition space dedicated to their latest ideas, get feedback on them, and return the studio to hammer them out. I'm not sure that's as possible in museums or other exhibition spaces as it is in many galleries. Yes, I know, the general meme is that galleries are often worse because they'll only exhibit what they know they can sell. I think that describes a small percentage of the galleries most of us would consider good ones though.
In summary then, I feel the advantages (today at least, and not considering the personal relationship an artist might have with any given dealer) of working with a gallery include:
- Greater chance at receiving significant critical response
- Bigger market than any artist might be able to get on their own
- Context for solo exhibitions
- Ongoing dialog that supports their work
- Greater likelihood of entering museum collections
- Getting the g*ddam gallery to work with you in the first place
- Sharing the proceeds of sales
- Being locked into a less-than-desirable situation possibly
- Being ripped off possibly
- Having your work misrepresented possibly