Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Can't Dealers Be "Honest"?

As if to brandish their insider credentials, often you'll hear folks in the art world "decode" for the layman the responses from gallerists asked "How was the art fair?" You've seen or heard these equations:
  • "It was fabulous. We sold out everything in the first 10 minutes." = We had sold most of the work via jpgs before we arrived.
  • "It was a good year for us." = We covered our expenses and made a little bit of money.
  • "We did OK" = We failed to break even.
  • Etc., etc.
Generally, this is done with a warm sense of humor, but more and more frequently, as the market endures this seemingly interminable "event-driven" sales phase, the "translations" are being bantered about as if evidence of egregious duplicity on the part of dealers. "Why can't dealers be honest about how things are going?" is a common refrain to learning they had spun the outcome of a fair in the very best light.
Asher Edelman recently mused on the heart of this issue [h/t S.T.]:
The average gallerists (not the few at the top) are struggling, some on the verge of closing or reducing their spaces and staff. Some, having decided to close, leave the business. Art fairs, I read all the time: “We did very well. We broke even and made great contacts for the future.” As art dealers are prone to optimism, I think that means, “We didn’t do well at the art fair.” Private dealers call each other daily to complain that the auction houses and art fairs are taking their business away.
Before we delve into the logic of being prone to optimism, though, I'd like to spread the defensive posture around a bit here. This quote popped up recently on Facebook. I copy here, for further discussion, my response from there:
Why is that such a noteworthy custom? Don't artists do the exact same thing when asked how their shows went? I have never heard an artist say "I got no press, no sales, and no one other than a few of my friends saw it." Even if all that is true, they'll say "I got some great feedback" or "It was great to get the work out there" or something of that ilk. It's not like dealers are unusual in putting the best spin on things.
And the same can be said for curators and others who take huge gambles (either with money or reputation) to present their wares to the buying and/or visiting public.

In other words, the optimism is a choice. Like deciding the glass is half full, rather than half empty. And it's actually better for you than its opposite, as Jane Brody recently discussed in The New York Times in an article titled "A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full":
In one study, adults shown to be pessimists based on psychological tests had higher death rates over a 30-year period than those who were shown optimistic. No doubt, the optimists were healthier because they were more inclined to take good care of themselves.
 More than helping one remain healthier, though, optimism is solid business strategy:
In a book called “Breaking Murphy’s Law,” Suzanne C. Segerstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, explained that optimism is not about being positive so much as it is about being motivated and persistent.

Dr. Segerstrom and other researchers have found that rather than giving up and walking away from difficult situations, optimists attack problems head-on. They plan a course of action, getting advice from others and staying focused on solutions.
Wallowing in the most negative spin one can put on the outcome of some huge effort (and art fairs are huge efforts, believe me) may feel more "honest," but it doesn't help one's business grow. Neither does blatant fantasy, for sure, but a healthy dose of looking on the bright side is clearly smarter than the alternative.


Blogger John said...

I think it pays to be your own cheerleader too. Pooh-poohing your own event that you paid to put on is bad business and it reinforces the opinion that you aren't quite aware of what you're doing and who you're catering to.

Not every show and every event is going to make money. Having a vision and adhering to the vision is important as long as each step is in the right direction; I think you also gain some respect for having principles.

Personally I prefer to deal with upbeat people, hang out with friends who have a positive attitude and people who can find a way to turn empty glasses into glasses that will be filled.

5/23/2012 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

I've read that all entrepreneurs and small businessmen are overly optimistic. I think they have to be--if they weren't, no one would ever risk starting a business from scratch. There'd be no new restaurants, no new galleries. Thank god for pollyannas!

5/23/2012 05:41:00 PM  
Anonymous rory said...

And this is why the art business is delightful. A bad day is ok when we do something we love.

5/23/2012 07:51:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Studies have shown that clinically depressed people are the most accurate at predicting the future. This might not be healthy, but it is admirable in some way.

5/23/2012 10:31:00 PM  
Blogger Tina Mammoser said...

Surely it depends where they're being asked? As an artist when I have an event and people ask me how it's going, in the venue, I'm never going to say badly. I'm in the show, with potential collectors around me. Ditto when I worked for a gallery and did the art fairs.

The same goes on a professional social media presence. I might qualify it with some optimism but I'm not going to go on my Facebook business page and say an event was poor.

There are appropriate, more private, places where I can give an honest assessment of a show or venue.

I was taught in business that you never complain about business in front of customers. Nowadays our customers are everywhere! :)

5/24/2012 04:05:00 AM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

I recently put the best face on art business. I realize game face in art is akin to using euphemisms when talking about war. Who gets hurt? No one important.

But obviously some people are losing. They have no taste, or expect to lead taste when there are far stronger pulls like big money. In the long term they may win though. That's why art still exists. The promise of another day.

5/25/2012 10:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Hz said...

Tina - just wondering then, anything truthful, critical - constructive even is only good and proper in small rooms with push button running water!??

As an old European, I do still marvel, when and where, in my chosen home in CA for example, one can expect to get a true answer to any question, as some straightforwardness is the new rude. Makes it real hard at times to discuss art and such, requiring a like/dislike answer on occasion.

5/28/2012 08:40:00 PM  

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