Monday, June 22, 2009

A Lesson From "The Mist"

Every now and then a dealer friend of mine and I will talk about how tough it is out there (as The New York Times so, um, charmingly put it, "This Summer, Some Galleries Are Sweating"). Any gallery that reports that they're not struggling at the moment is either freaking fortunate or embellishing. So it's nice that my friends and I have each other to share war stories with and give each other encouragement. Whenever a friend seems particularly down (say a sale that seemed a sure thing [and just in time to pay some bills off] fell through or their landlord refused to reconsider their rent), I always encourage them to keep up the good fight! Press on! The galleries that survive the downturn will be rewarded on the other side.

Of course there are times when it's not possible to press on. The cash flow of the business presents an unsolvable problem (no more Peters to rob to pay Paul). The business is kaput. But until that time...until the bitter end, I encourage them to keep fighting the good fight. Now this might seem easy for me to say (though, it's not...we're struggling just like everyone else), but the truth of the matter is, I had why this was important drilled in my mind for me by a very unlikely source.

A while back, our friend Ondine, Bambino and I indulged ourselves with a truly cheesy matinee horror film called "The Mist." You may have heard of it. Based on a Steven King story, it tells of a small town engulfed by this dark mist in which the most terrifying of monsters lurk and then invade to kill the townfolk in spectacularly gruesome ways. OK, so gruesome is an understatement. These various giant-bug- and octopus-like creatures mutilate their victims viciously as they eat them. Each is more nasty than the last.

But (and this is a spoiler, so if you really want to subject yourself to this flick some day, stop reading here [and this is how I remember it, which migh be only mostly accurate, but...]), human nature being what it is, a band of five people (four adults and one child) pull it together enough, having witnessed countless of their friends devoured by the demon insects, and make their way to a car to escape. On the way out of town they see all manner of nightmarish horrors, but for the first time you begin, as a viewer, to unclench your seat's armrest and let yourself hope for their escape. That is, until they run out of gas.

In the stalled car now, with the mist all around and no way to see more than a foot out the window, they debate what to do. The creatures are out there. They can hear them. They've seen what they did to the other townspeople, how horribly they died. They don't want to be burned with acid and watch themselves be eaten alive by the mutant giant cockroach-praying-mantis-bats and such.

They do have another option. They have a gun. The only thing is, there are five of them and only four bullets. After some heavy soul searching, they decide that the protagonist (the father of the child) will save the other four from the horrifying deaths awaiting them and then wait for his own grisly end, knowing he had spared the others.

Four shots ring out in the car. For a few moments there is quiet. Then the father is shown again, weeping. And then the noise outside the car grows louder...they are coming for him. Only rather than the creatures, the source of the noise is revealed to be the Army rolling through, flametorching the critters and collecting survivors in trucks.

The lesson of the film was immediately apparent to me when it was released (in the darkest days of the Bush administration, when my hope for our country was all but extinguished), but lately, for my friends with galleries, I parse it just a bit.

It's better, in my opinion, to keep pushing on, keep fighting, and stay hopeful than to end things, by your own hands, just before the dawn breaks. If the economic critters get you, they get you. And of course, if you can escape them, by all means run for that sanctuary. But don't throw in the towel just because you can't imagine the calvary is out there. The calvary is always out there. The trick is hanging on until they reach you.

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Blogger Tom Hering said...

I'd recommend this Depression-era story of reaching for the stars. Hale's incredible decades-long perseverance taught me everything I know about hanging in there.

6/22/2009 02:26:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The cash flow of the business presents an unsolvable problem (no more Peters to rob to pay Paul). The business is kaput. But until that time...until the bitter end, I encourage them to keep fighting the good fight."

My problem with this is that we all know who the Peters are.

6/22/2009 11:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

My problem with this is that we all know who the Peters are.

Do you really?

It might surprise you then to know that dealers I know who religiously pay their artists have 1) forgone any salary at all this year; 2) sold artwork from their own private collection on the secondary market; 3) lent their gallery more than a year's salary from their own private savings (earned through means other than the gallery); 4) trimmed all manner of overhead and fringe benefits for themselves; and 5) taken on truly crippling debt through their bank's lines of credit just to keep their galleries afloat and their artists' careers still on track.

Seriously, folks, I know there are some galleries infamous for taking years or simply not paying their artists at all, but to see comments like this (from someone whom, for all we know, isn't owed a dime by a gallery) try to paint all dealers with the same caricatural brush makes me vomit just a little bit.

6/23/2009 07:50:00 AM  
Anonymous Rodger Roundy said...

Love this. Thanks, Edward!

6/23/2009 09:06:00 AM  
Blogger Steven said...

I wonder if some of the problems that galleries are facing today are self-inflicted. I recently made a trip to NYC to visit galleries and found several disturbing trends...

1. Unhelpful staff
I visited one gallery with the thought of purchasing a piece but the two people working there barely made an effort to answer my questions and I left without making a purchase. The artist I had in mind shows in other cities and I'll wait for his next show.

2. Galleries that have installations with nothing to sell. I just don't understand their business model.

3. Sparsely populated shows
I visited one gallery that only had 4 pieces on display even though there was an entire wall left bare. Another gallery had one sculpture on display (nothing on the walls) in a large room.

4. Unreasonable prices
Saw a small grouping of photos by an unknown photographer selling for 18,000 Euros. Who do they expect will buy them?

In short, I don't understand the business model that a lot of galleries today seem to be following. It seems designed to discourage buyers.

6/23/2009 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


There are possibly a range of reasons for items 2-4 (I agree that there is never a good reason for item 1).

For item 2, there is actually probably always something to sell by the artist with an installation up. You simply need to ask "Is there any other work by the artist I might see?" (Of course if you're in a gallery in which item 1 is the problem, you're still gonna be frustrated).

In our gallery, for example, although we often have installations that your average collector wouldn't be able to install in their home, there are usually smaller pieces by the artist available either in the office of by asking to see them. The business model is to use the installation to attract attention to that artist's work (and hopefully sell it to collectors with more means or institutions) and have other collectors who appreciate it acquire the smaller works. Think Christo and Jeanne-Claude (although their installations are not in galleires) or even our own Jennifer Dalton for examples. Jen's installations are sometimes room-sized, but we have other related smaller works in the office available.

Item three might be an aesthetic decision based on the belief that either the work looks better minimally installed or that the minimal installation is integral to the concept of the work. I tend to feel less is more in viewing work, and we've on occasion left the odd wall blank (sometimes to permit the viewer to back up against it and see a larger work in our smallish space, but other times because the statement the artist wished to make was stronger that way).

Item 4 is something you should always feel empowered to ask about. It's tricky, because if you approach it from a "that work seems really overpriced to me" tact, the dealer may get defensive, but if you approach it from a "I've never heard of this artist...have they been exhibiting long or had many museum shows?" or something that gives the dealer the opportunity to justify the prices, you're going to have a more productive conversation. Sometimes the price might be justified (this artist will have a solo show in MoMA next year and we have a waiting list for the work, or what have you). It's impossible for me to comment on the example you cite (not having knowledge about that artist), but generally galleries don't put unreasonable prices on artwork as a matter of practice. (And the artists reading here would likely argue that their art is underpriced in most galleries.)

I can't speak for all galleries. How approachable they are runs the gamut, but in general the idea that it all is designed to discourage buyers is perhaps partially true. The goal of a gallery is not to sell artwork like a supermarket sells products. The goals are to contextualize the work for critical appreciation and have the work purchased by serious collectors who will take good care of it.

In the current climate, you'll see far less of the kind of discouraging behavior you would have two years ago, but bad habits die hard, so your experiences don't surprise me too much. You'd be surprised how much attention you'll receive with the right question though. "Are any of these works still available?" generally makes the staff jump to. If the answer is No or you get an offensively ambivalent response, ask "Could I talk with the director about a possible purchase please?" If you still get attitude, then you're just in one of those galleries that you won't have to worry about much longer, I'll predict.

Of course, if the director comes around and you're not actually interested, you won't get invited to their holiday party, but...

But to address your first statement, most of the galleries struggling today (and that's most of the ones that exist) are doing so because the first thing most people stop buying during a recession are luxury items, which art is. The fact that all of the items you note were easily found three years ago when work was flying out the doors suggests they are not the source of the current challenges, though.

6/23/2009 11:16:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ed, did you read Charlie Finch's argument for collectors to step up? Collectors who are still in decent financial shape could be the cavalry we are waiting for...if they are willing.

6/23/2009 02:05:00 PM  
Blogger Steven said...

Thank you for your serious and thorough response to my comment. Much appreciated.

6/23/2009 02:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric said...

The Mist is an underrated horror film. I thought it was quite good, but Dead Can Dance at the end was too much. It wasn't the place for it.

Cedric C

6/24/2009 04:10:00 PM  

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