Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Starting From Scratch

I got an email the other day from the wife of an artist who at one time (and, in her words, "without any effort") had a network of galleries across Europe and Australia up through 2006. These galleries reportedly sold out the husband's shows.

The email continues to note, though, that after 2006, the husband moved to the country and stopped working with galleries (but rather sold his work directly to collectors from his home until the economic crash in 2008). She doesn't specify whether this arrangement (i.e., cutting out the galleries from sales) was his idea or the galleries' idea, but the letter suggests it was his idea.

Her email continues,
He has not sold a painting in the last two years. Now many of the galleries he worked with have closed or changed hands or the people he knew have died or retired. He is in the position of having to establish himself all over again in a very different market. He paints in a quite life of near solitude and has no skills to sell himself and although I know nothing about how to help him I am desperate to help him.
I offered the wife a suggestion for a gallery on where I think her husband's work fits, and I do wish them both all the best, but I think their story raises two important issues as well.

The first issue (my being an art dealer, of course) centers on wondering about the details of why he stopped working with his galleries to sell directly to collectors himself. I could sense the urgency of the request and didn't want to add to the wife's desperation, so I didn't pry, but I surmised from her account that it was a conscious decision on her husband's part to cut out the "middle man." Assuming that to be the case, I have to admit to not having as much sympathy as I might had the galleries dropped him. If indeed he chose, while the market was hot, to develop a direct relationship with his collectors and cut out his galleries, that reveals a shortsightedness about the always potential pitfalls in the arc of any artist's career and market.

At the very least, it would have made sense in this case for him to keep in contact with those galleries (possibly offering them some work from time to time). His being in the "position of having to establish himself all over again in a very different market" is directly related to this failure.

The second issue relates to another point the wife raises in her email, in retelling how she had organized an exhibition of his work on her own : "There were many requests to buy the [artwork] but the price was too high." I won't reveal all the details that led to this statement (in the interest of protecting the artist's privacy), but the situation as I understand it is that, when he had a network of galleries, the artist's prices had reached a level that he's reluctant to reduce at this point. And if I had purchased his work at its peak "gallery price," I would appreciate that he wasn't undermining the value of the work I owned.

Still, what I feel this highlights (and what seasoned collectors understand very well) is that the "gallery price" of artwork includes more than just the object the collector takes home. It includes the service and commitment to working to protect the value of the artwork (something very much in the collector's interest) that the gallery provides. It includes having someone working to prevent having the artist's support network fade away. Finally, it includes having someone whose job it is to respond to the market as it shifts and steer the artist's career through those changes.

Again, the wife noted "He is in the position of having to establish himself all over again in a very different market."

I can imagine, when the market's hot and an artist can calculate that they have enough collectors to live off direct, from-the-studio sales, that it's tempting to go it alone. It's a good idea, though, should you choose that path, to keep in mind that no market stays hot forever and networks are hard-earned support systems it makes a lot of sense to keep intact. Again, that can be as easy as offering your former galleries a few works from time to time.

Cutting them off altogether, as it did with this artist, can leave you starting from scratch just at the time in your life where you'd rather do just about anything other than sending cold calls submissions to a new crop of galleries.

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10 Comments:

Anonymous mark said...

Not to veer too off topic but the title of this post reminded me of an oft indulged fantasy I have of starting over as an artist. In fact, several times, when I reflect on my teaching and students I imagine what it would be like to be them right now, like to go back to being a student of art with all the knowledge and experiences I have had so far. How would that experience affect what I do? And from a career standpoint, what would it be to perhaps go to a better school than I had. If I won the lottery, why couldn't I just go get a replacement MFA at SAIC or Columbia? Assuming I could get in of course.

2/21/2012 03:54:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Edward,
looking for some further insight -- let's say that the husband needed to start over under different circumstances.

In this economy, so many galleries have closed and so many artists are grabbing for such few opportunities.


What advice would you give this artist?

2/21/2012 07:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It should have been obvious that the artist was going to have to at least duplicate the combined efforts of his galleries to sell his work if he wanted to continue to sell it without them. The notion that you could cut them out and sell to your collectors, assuming zero attrition among current collectors and no need to cultivate new ones, is foolish.

I'm a big proponent of artists bypassing galleries to sell work out of their own studios. But not at the expense of galleries that are doing right by their artists, of which there are plenty. And certainly not without the understanding that you yourself are going to have to do everything that a gallery would be doing for you, in addition to making your art and whatever else you need to do to survive. This is not an advisable path for someone who "paints in a quiet life of near-solitude" and "has no skills to sell himself."

2/22/2012 08:09:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

anonymous, I don't think my advice would change from what I note here (Advice for Artists Seeking Gallery Representation).

I think having once had a strong market and good career will appeal to some galleries and not to others, and that it's impossible to tell from any publicly available information which ones fall into which categories (that would vary almost artist per artist and gallery per gallery...i.e., whereas 95% of the galleries out there might pass on such an artist, he/she might be the perfect fit for the remaining 5% or vice versa...depending on the work).

I would agree with Franklin that one of the most important things to consider if you're trying to sell your work outside the gallery system is whether you have any sales skills. If not, even if you have a strong market, you may not be able to keep it strong.

2/22/2012 09:29:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My Favorite Television Show is Shark Tank on abc friday nights.
It's a real eye opener to the mass produced cut throat consumer world. The only Buisness you are going to get a 50/50 split with a Brick and Mortar Store is the Art Buisness so thank your lucky stars represented Artist's.

Like Franklin and Edward said you Better have a buisness/marketing/internet plan if you go it alone.

Another alternative is The wine and Cheese curcuit, art festivals where you pay for space. You have to have the right type of work . I reckon retired Canadian snow birds wont pay for edgy art.

2/22/2012 10:56:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It strikes me as odd that any successful artist would cut out not one dealer but their entire worldwide network of dealers. Obviously if the arrangement doesn't work with one of them, fine...but something about this story doesn't make sense. Sounds to me like there is more to it....a psychological breakdown, perhaps? It certainly doesn't sound like a rational business decision.

2/22/2012 09:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

It certainly doesn't sound like a rational business decision.

His galleries were selling out shows, but after he started selling paintings out of his studio, "There were many requests to buy the [artwork] but the price was too high." Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but it sounds like he cut out his dealers and then jacked up his prices. Maybe he thought that his galleries were conspiring to keep his prices down. It looks like even if they were, they were doing him a favor.

2/22/2012 10:35:00 PM  
Anonymous MMuldrow said...

Franklin,I agree-Also, sounds like he imagined he could do exactly what he thought his galleries were doing,but focused only on prices..Shortsighted considering galleries really have to cultivate their collector base-for an artist who is not good at networking and being out and about, he really didn't plan this decision out well.I have this conversation with many artists who complain about galleries and the cut they take-if an artist is really good at self marketing,networking,cultivating collectors,sure go for it-but it also neglects to pay attention to the fact that museum shows are gathered from the artists within the gallery system, the press reviews shows at galleries-just seems to be a lot for an artist to do when they should be working on their art instead...

2/23/2012 12:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stick with your galleries, unless they are crooks.
They earn their 50%, if they are doing their jobs.

2/26/2012 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I tend to agree that going it without galleries did not seem to be the smart business decision. On the other hand, galleries drop artists all the time. Without seeing his work, I'm only guessing how much a gallery could have helped this guy's career.
B.T.W., I thought cold inquieries (sic) where considered bad form for the emerging. OK or worse for the established?

2/29/2012 12:15:00 PM  

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