Monday, August 18, 2008

Gone Fishin'

Enjoy the last two weeks of Summer folks. We're off until after Labor Day.

Regular posting will resume September 2.

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Thursday, August 14, 2008

An Artists' Market Horror Story : Open Thread

Quick one today...busy schedule.

There are two practices I advocate for how artists should protect themselves in the market.


The first is geared toward protecting yourself should your work sell well. In my opinion, you (artists) should keep back at least one excellent piece from each series you make. Send it off to relatives, far from your studio, to avoid the temptation to sell it should pressure build. Think of it as your 401K plan.

The second is geared toward protecting you while your work is not selling well, until the market comes back around. IMO, you should not sell too large a quantity of your works directly to dealers for resell. Let them take most of the work, if not all of it, on consignment, but keep ultimate control of what's on the market.

This advice tends to raise a few eyebrows. Many artists think they would be thrilled if a dealer were to buy out their studio inventory, clearing the space out, giving them a chunk of change, letting someone else worry about turning it into profit. Indeed, that practice was commonplace only 100 years ago and is still not entirely unusual in many situations.

I don't recommend it though. This anecdote about art dealer Samuel M. Kootz (who had worked with important American Abstract Expressionists and European Modernists) serves as a textbook artist's market horror story and cautionary tale. From Malcolm Goldstein's fabulous book, Landscape with Figures: A History of Art Dealing in the United States (pp 244-245):
Although Kootz's love of art might never be questioned, he was a practical businessman with a businessman's eye on the balance sheet. He had bought scores of paintings by Byron Browne and Carl Holty as an advance against sales, but in 1951, two years after he had dropped the artists from his roster, many of the paintings were still on his hands. In a bold effort to recover his investment, he offered them in a sale at the gallery. There were, however, few takers. His next move was to take the paintings--forty by Browne, fifty-nine by Holty--to Gimbels department store, then Macy's great rival on Thirty-fourth Street, where they were to be sold along with other household items.

Readers of New York's newspapers were informed of the sale in advertisements whose tone was a far cry from the measured prose of a respectable gallery's press releases:
Gimbels loves modern art (we like the Mona Lisa too, but she's 450 years old), but we don't spell art with a capital A. The mention of the word doesn't send us into awe-struck silence. We think fine paintings are just as logical in a department store as they are in a hushed, plushed gallery.... But are out prices the same as the uptown galleries'? The answer is 'not very likely!" Gimbels doesn't see any reason why we can't save you money on a fine original painting as on a pot, or a pan, or a pair of nylons.
...The bargain prices at which they were offered drastically undercut the value of all work by the artists wherever it might be found and threatened their market in perpetuity. Gimbels, moreover, sold very few of the paintings.
Both artists (and their markets) were hit hard by this. Browne suffered a heart attack shortly thereafter. Neither artist's market recovered until after their respective deaths.

Kootz may have suffered a few whispered grumbles in response to this highly unethical behavior, but all-in-all he got away with it. And the law would be on his side, I suspect, had the artists sought damages. The property was his to do with as he saw fit.


Now the odds of some other dealer doing this to you may be slim, so I shouldn't suggest it's never appropriate to sell large quantities of your work to a dealer, but if you do, you could end up with the short end of the stick in both situations (if your work begins to sell well or if it doesn't). Selling work on consignment may be an administrative pain, but it ultimately protects you and gives you control.

Consider this an open thread on protecting yourself in the market.

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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Tuesday's Aside : Hope or Audacity

Tuesday's Aside, a weekly post in which I will try to answer your questions. In order to keep each Tuesday's thread on topic, I'll ask that you post any additional questions on the original thread (even though it will fall off the main page, I'll be emailed each time a new comment is added there and so, thus, will be monitoring continuously).

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Anonymous wrote:
Do you think it is appropriate to contact curators who have organized group exhibitions with content specifically and directly related to one's own subject matter? For example, "Dear ___, I was excited to learn of your recent exhibition at ____ exploring the subject of ____. As my work also relates closely to this content, I thought you would be interested in learning about it..."

Basically, Ed, I'm wondering how to get my work more into the conversation with regard to a specific topic in art over the last few years. Upon learning of these exhibitions I've thought of contacting the curators directly, but am apprehensive about coming off as too direct.
I'm going to present my thoughts about this in a roundabout way so as not to suggest I understand the subtleties of the position or speak for curators. Any curators reading, please do jump in.

To frame the topic as broadly as possible, let me note that I think the dilemma here boils down to whether you simply wait and hope your efforts will be noticed or take the more audacious step of asking someone to pay attention. As is true of any dilemma, both courses have potential downsides. Simply hoping for recognition reminds me of the charming expression a family acquaintance used in my childhood to dampen expectations among we overly hopeful (i.e., non-initiative-taking) children: "Hope in one hand, and piss in the other, and see which one fills up faster." Taking the audacity route, however, might backfire in that if you push too hard, the target of your campaign might take to crossing the street to avoid you and rather than ambivalence you've spawned active avoidance in that potentially helpful person.

Art dealers actually deal with this dilemma on a daily basis, but curators, writers, and collectors expect it of us. There are, of course, dealers whom collectors or curators will cross the street to avoid, so you can't overdo it, but in thinking about anonymous's question I realized that the criterion I use to make such a call is how certain I am the party I'm approaching will truly be interested in what I'm suggesting they pay attention to.

It is possible, for example, to suggest...as a dealer...that a critic should make a special effort to come see an exhibition, with the subtext of such an invitation being clear that you feel the critic might want to consider writing about it. Dealers do this all the time. The only thing that will keep a critic from mentally (if not literally) blacklisting you for repeated patterns of such effrontery is being correct in your assumptions. That is, the writer will generally be grateful for the heads up if the exhibition is truly something up their alley.

This then comes full circle to the number one piece of advice I give in approaching anyone in the art world: Do your homework. In the case above, that means be certain that this curator's interests are indeed aligned with your work. To soften the impact of being wrong about that (and despite your best assessment, there might be one minute subtlety about your work that contradicts the curators thesis that would be nearly impossible for you to know before talking with them, so...) I would consider phrasing the inquiry more like (and assuming from the way you've worded your opening line that you didn't actually see the show):
"Dear ___, I was sorry to have missed your recent exhibition at ____ . As my own artwork relates closely to this content, I would have loved to have seen it. Will it travel at all?

It's exciting to know this topic is finally being explored so thoroughly. In my experience, the limited number of people able to discuss it in depth has been disappointing. Indeed, it would give me great pleasure, if you had the time, to invite you to my studio and show you my recent progress on... I've enclosed some images and a statement, as well as a bio.

Please don't hesitate to email me or call if you have any questions. I look forward to the opportunity to show you my work as well as hear your thoughts on {{the subject}}."
or something like that...the focus being to acknowledge that your interest truly is in the dialog and not just another notch on your group exhibition bedpost. Being as specific as you can about why the dialog would be interesting/helpful for you will go a long way toward helping the curator assess whether or not they will benefit from it as well.

If the response to such an inquiry is the long lonely cry of crickets, I would follow-up...once and only once...and then let it drop, at least in correspondence. If you happen to be in the same place as that curator I think it's fine (good) to repeat the effort in person, but I would recommend beginning afresh...noting how you liked or would have liked to see the show and appreciate that someone is finally delving into the subject matter, etc. etc. Don't ask why they didn't respond to your inquiry. Nothing but awkwardness lies down that path. Let that go.

Anonymous's central question though is "
I'm wondering how to get my work more into the conversation with regard to a specific topic in art over the last few years."

If the curators are not finding you, and your inquiries are not producing interest, and this topic is definitely one for which you feel you have a significant contribution to make, one way to get the attention of others also interested in it is to compete with them for the public's attention on it.

One of the tricks I used in writing university theme papers was to find a book on my subject by my professor, quote it heavily, and then heartily disagree with any portion of it I could. The professor wouldn't necessarily agree with my conclusions but they never failed to notice the challenge, and, I believe, graded me more generously for my audacity.

If you can't get a curator to come to your studio, perhaps write a review of their exhibition (on, say, a blog you start on the topic) and outline what you feel they missed. If you're right about it, word will get back to them...and if they're good (and you were gracious about it), they may very likely wish to continue the conversation with you. I know, I know, you're not a critic, you're an artist...but you are saying you're interested in the dialog, and you would be expected to use language during a studio visit...so I'm sure you can find your way to express what the curator missed.

Or curate your own exhibition and do a better job than the curator did. That might backfire (it might piss them off that you upstaged them), but my guess is you're interested in a dialog with the general public on the topic and not just one curator, per se.

None of this is as easy as having them simply include your work in their next exhibition on the topic, I know. I'm merely looking for alternatives, should your inquiry not meet with the desired results.

Do other artists have experience or advice with approaching curators?

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Artists Organizing : Open Thread

In reading a report on artinfo.com today, about how the ADAA is working to change the law so that artists who donate their work to public institutions can be more fairly compensated (or at least as fairly as collectors who donate the same work after buying it), I was reminded of an earlier law that was enacted, on the urging of artists, but then later taken off the books, on the urging of artists, and began to wonder about the power that today's artists in the US have (or rather don't have) through lack of organization.

First the current law in play:
The Art Dealers Association of America has announced a drive to collect pledges for 50 works of art — one for each state — in support of the Art Museum Partnership Act currently before the Senate. In an effort to demonstrate to lawmakers how the act could benefit the country, the ADAA has promised to donate the works to museums located in each of the 50 states if and when it is passed.

The act, introduced by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt..) and Robert Bennett (R-Utah), and in the House of Representatives by John Lewis (D-Ga.) and Jim Ramstad (R-Minn.), is a bipartisan effort to address the inequity artists face when donating their works to public institutions. Under current law, a buyer who donates a work to a museum may deduct its fair market value, while the creator of that work may deduct only the cost of supplies.

"For too long, artists have been treated unfairly by the tax code, and our nation's nonprofit arts institutions are suffering because of it," said Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts and a member of the national committee of collectors and art professionals backing the effort.
I feel it's right for the ADAA and the Americans for the Arts (which includes artists members, but is comprised of a range of arts professionals and nonprofessionals) to champion this legislation, but in thinking through which artist-based organizations are working to get it passed I was somewhat surprised to realize I don't know of any.

Of course, perhaps an artist-only organization isn't really necessary, but there was a time in the US when artists looked more organized and led the charge to change the laws that impact their profession.

In his wonderful book, Landscape with Figures: a History of Art Dealing in the United States, Malcom Goldstein chronicles what today seems a rather embarrassing see-sawing back and forth on whether a tariff should be used to protect American artists from the more popular art of yesteryear being produced or resold out of Europe. As early as 1867 there were calls, from American artists, to impose a tariff on imported art. Congress didn't comply at that time, but in 1883 actually passed a 30% tariff aimed at stemming the mania for European fine art. That percentage seemed to fluctuate a bit over the years, but this duty wasn't totally lifted until 1913 (in response somewhat to the wildly popular Armory Show of that year).

In 1905, though, some American artists were embarrassed enough by the implications of the tariff (i.e., that they couldn't compete on their own and needed their government to protect them) that they organized a protest. In a New York Times article published November 26, 1905, we learn that "ARTISTS VOICE PROTEST AGAINST ART TARIFF; Declare in a Public Meeting They Want No Protection. RIDICULE THE TAX IDEA.":
Carl Bitter, J. Carroll Beckwith, Kenyon Cox, and Howard Mansfield addressed a large audience at the Hudson Theatre yesterday morning at a meeting of the League for Political Education to urge the removal of the duty on works of art. Other artists were on the platform or sent letters to show their sympathy with the movement, and the greater part of the audience rose at the close of the meeting when R. E. Ely, who presided, asked for this expression of their interest in the abolition of the tariff.

"The United States is unique among civilized countries," Mr. Ely said, "in having a tariff of 20 per cent. on works of art. Russia admits works of art free, Turkey charges 8 per cent., and the Fiji Island only 12 1/2 per cent.

"To the honor of the American artists it may be said," Mr. Ely continued, "that they disapprove of this tax; they have fought against the protection they do not want, and taken money from their pockets for the work. But their time is too precious, and this is work for us to do. A Congressman said recently that the tax was just because it was upon a luxury. It is classed with liquor, tobacco, diamons, ostrich feathers, silks, and laces. Do these things rank in the same class with a Sistine Madonna?"

"There is a blush on all our faces at this tax," said Howard Mansfield of the American Free Art League, " and it is our work to make this blush extend to the men of Congress, and to make it the blush that won't come off until the tax does. Our artists are not manufacturers. The Congressmen say they will not lift the tax from a luxury of the rich until they lift it from the necessities of the poor. I maintain that art is a necessity for all. The museums may be said to be the residuary legatees of most of the great art collectors. If the people want art, they must have it, and free art means more art for all the people."

Carl Bitter said he had never heard of an artist who wished to be protected against a work of art 1,00 years old."
Carl Bitter [I think it's spelled "Karl" in some places], and his contemporary artists, apparently had a somewhat different grasp of history from Mr. Goldstein's, who insists that artists were the leaders in getting the tariff passed in the first place, but the passion and spirit of such a meeting stands in stark contrast to anything I know organized by artists to rally support for the Art Museum Partnership Act. Anyone? Perhaps there is no contrast, and I'm merely uninformed. Or perhaps the sentiment expressed by Mr. Ely that "their time is too precious" has become the conventional wisdom and that explains the contrast.

I do, again, feel it is the responsibility of dealers and arts professionals to fight for a more fair arrangement for artists. And it's highly likely that I'm merely out of the loop, but you'd think the press would give equal coverage to artist-based efforts to get Congress to act...where is that coverage?

Consider this an open thread on artists organizing for political purposes. Pros and cons.

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Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Selling Solo vs. Working with a Gallery

As a few folks noted in the previous thread, I was quoted in an article Sunday about an artist who has had a good deal of commercial success outside the gallery system but is now entering it. This decision raises a wide range of questions, none the least of which is why an artist would choose to share the profits of their labor with a dealer. Indeed, from the comments on a recent Bad at Sports post by Lisa Boyle (who recently closed her eponymous gallery in Chicago), I was beginning to wonder how many artists not only resented the gallery system but actually wished it ill. Here's a gem from among them:
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.
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.

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
The disadvantages (again leaving out inter-personal relationship issues) include:
  • 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
I understand that this issue is likely to generate some passionate responses. Truly I do. That's why I'm happy the comments are still moderated. If you feel the need to compare what I do with what the mafia does, I can tell you right now, I won't publish your comment. There are more honest ways to discuss the disadvantages of working with a gallery than that. With that caveat, though, I'll open the comment thread.

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