After my last letter where I advocated the outsourcing of art sales to galleries, many readers legitimately asked how to do just that. Vast changes are currently taking place in both economics and demographics. When I first started painting 50 years ago, there were fewer accomplished artists and less expendable cash to buy art. Today there are far more artists and a peculiar disconnect in the buying of art.
Basketball star and former US Senator Bill Bradley in his recent book We Can All Do Better notes that our world now has both a surplus of labour and a surplus of capital. Jobs and money shift eastward in the name of power shopping, fossil fuel consumption, outsourcing, investment and debt. North American artists, particularly, are affected by this. It’s safe to say that art thrives best in prosperity on home shores.
Currently, in my estimation, four percent of Western populations are making art while only two percent are collecting it. While many pockets of healthy collectorship remain, and some countries remain strong, many artists are experiencing tough times. In the meantime, we have exciting (or obscene) new highs in world auction prices.
Commenting on the 120 million bucks recently paid for a rendition of The Scream by Edvard Munch, the financial journalist and commentator Felix Salmon said that the phenomenon is all about speculation and “rich men comparing the size of their genitals.”
So what’s an artist to do in this environment? First, artists need to get better at what they do — on the creative front, the production front and the distribution front. Second, the oft-disregarded connection between art and investment is here to stay. Artists who want to be around for the long haul need to maintain creative integrity, dealer price and territory protection, and annual price increases. Third, artists need to realize that any group, any country, indeed, any brotherhood and sisterhood can reinvent itself. Vital are the oft-neglected arts of cooperation and consensus. When artists learn the skills of working together with complementary talents and a spirit of enterprise and mutual well-being, all things are possible. As Bill Bradley says, “We can all do better.”
PS: “Respect your fellow human beings, treat them fairly, disagree with them honestly, enjoy their friendship, explore your thoughts about one another candidly, work together for a common goal and help one another achieve it.” (Bill Bradley)
Esoterica: The days of submitting slides to galleries are history. Providing the work is of a suitable standard, artists need a simple, unpretentious and un-shopping-carted website with at least eight of their current works. Target dealers and galleries need to be made aware of your site and directed to it. It’s fast and efficient for dealers to go there — they almost always do — and they can tell in 10 seconds whether they are the slightest bit interested. A stand-alone website is best, but a page in our own Premium Listings is sufficient. Your own personality and lots of apples in your applecart help when galleries ask you to come by and say hello.
by Richard F Barber, Watford, Hertfordshire, UK
The Bill Bradley’s of this world are the type of people that have made their first million by a lot of good luck and other people’s hard sweat and pain. To artists, their hopes of selling their first painting is the beginning of a lot of anxiety and apprehension — whether the galleries will accept their work as being done by a serious artist. To some artists it becomes an ongoing battle. In today’s market it is not unlike trying to make your first million — only the few succeed. Hard work and style have nothing to do with it. If your name happens to be the flavour of the month, you can sell crap at a very high price. We live in a brand-name society where the more anti-society you are the bigger the chance you have in selling your art work for big bucks. It has come to the era of throw-away art (if you can call it art?) for celebrities who have bad taste.
(RG note) Bill Bradley’s book We Can All Do Better is a celebration of potential, integrity, cooperation and the will to get things done when we pull togethersomething the world needs right now. As far as I’m concerned it’s recommended reading for anyone who might be interested in understanding today’s dysfunctional systems and divisive forces.
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Art not rare anymore
by Suzette Fram, Mapel Ridge, BC, Canada
Finally, someone else who has made the connection between supply and demand. These days there is way more supply than there is demand. Baby boomers are retiring and taking up painting in droves and some of them are excellent painters. They all want to show and sell their work. There are art shows and festivals every week. Every town has its own ‘art tour.’ Public galleries need money so they keep putting on juried shows that are on for only 2 weeks. It’s all becoming too much and the public is losing interest, and there are few who are still interested in buying. What we need to do is find a way to create more demand. I don’t have the answer (wish I did) but perhaps we have to create work that is so unique and compelling that viewers will just have to have it. Easier said than done, I’m sure. In the meantime, some of us have to paint just because we love it, otherwise we’d give up.
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Value of applying by email
by Anonymous art dealer
As a gallery owner I get four or five submissions from artists every day. Mr. Genn is right; the email ones with websites attached are the best and easiest to follow up. And, as he says, they can be dispatched in seconds. There is an awful lot of poor art being offered around these days, and we don’t need more. But there are always slow times in the gallery and I or one of my staff do look at them sometime after they come in. You never know when a genius may show up. It’s human nature. But, alas, most of the geniuses are already taken by the galleries and are already thriving and do not need more galleries.
Artists should trade
by Ted Lederer (Elliott Louis Gallery), Vancouver, BC, Canada
With regard to cooperation between artists I have a particular beef. I have always been of the opinion that artist’s should buy and/or trade artwork with each other. I can’t tell you the number of times I have had artists in the gallery truly admiring the work of another but who would not buy that work. Here’s how the conversation usually goes:
Artist: I really like that work (effusive praise follows).
Dealer: Would you like to acquire the work?
Artist: Oh, no, I am an artist myself — I don’t have enough money to buy the work. I wish I did.
Dealer: What if I could make it really easy for you? We could put you on a real affordable payment plan, say $50 a month and you could have the painting right away. You wouldn’t have to wait.
Artist: No, I am an artist myself.
The excuses are either, “A rich person should buy that” or “I make my own work and don’t buy other people’s art” or “I can’t afford it” — Absolute rubbish, and those people should be horsewhipped. If artists won’t support the arts, who will? Some mythical “rich” person?
Imagine, artists not supporting artists? Infuriating. If you don’t want to, or are too stupid to buy art, at least trade.
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Direct sales on the rise
by Loretta West, Spokane,WA, USA
What I have found in the past two years is that most of my sales have occurred through my website or people in person shopping in my studio. Perhaps customers think they are getting a better deal this way, I don’t know. In light of this, I had a re-think on galleries and shows this year: did my presence to some of these traditional venues pencil out? So many people are used to buying just about everything, including original art, on the Internet. Buying on the Internet also takes care of the “snooty factor” which prevents many people from entering galleries and you can shop in your jammies! It would be interesting to hear from other artists to see if they have noticed a shift in sales origin from traditional galleries to online in the past few years, as I have.
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Pricing art on your website
by Lillie Morris, Appling, GA, USA
You mentioned that artists should have an “un-shopping cart” website… along those same lines, what is your opinion about listing the price of the painting on the website? My website is currently being overhauled and I’m undecided about whether or not to include pricing.
(RG note) Thanks, Lillie. While this won’t apply to everyone, I’m a believer in merely using my website to build links and connectivity to my dealers’ websites. I don’t believe in looking like I’m actively trying to sell my own work. Potential galleries tend to shy away from artists who are trying to sell directly. But I do place my regularly updated price list on my art site. The reason for this is to maintain universal and consistent pricing between all my dealers. For those artists who wish to sell directly on the Internet or from the studio, my general experience is that artists who are unable to sell their art in galleries are not able to sell on the Internet as well. This may be changing.
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Feeling sorry for walk-in artists
by Art gallery manager
I always look at online submissions to my gallery. I do not solicit them, nor do I pass them up. If artists come into my gallery and tell me they want to show me their work I politely tell them we are not taking on any new artists and I feel sorry for them as they go away. Generally, talking to artists in the gallery is a waste of time as I could be on the phone talking to potential customers. But if artists send in online I give them a quick scan. While dealers will tell you they are not interested, there are no dealers in the world who are not looking for better art that will sell itself. Several of my most popular painters have come to me via the Internet and I would not have heard about them otherwise.
Artist’s website helps gallery
by Liz Reday, South Pasadena, CA, USA
I agree about having one’s website and without shopping carts. My present gallery uses my website to sell to customers who drop in to their well located gallery and enquire about my type of work. This extends their selling range and gives them the encouragement to sell even more of my work, especially unframed acrylics on paper, for example. I’ve been with my present gallery for over a year now and although they take 50%, they sell. Yes, if I sell from my studio or at local booth fairs I get to keep more of the sale price, but a gallery gives the artist a legitimacy that direct sales do not. People respect artists who are respected by a third party, i.e. a gallery. The hard part is when folks like to sneak around the dealer and buy direct from the artist. Sleuthing is called for. i.e. “How did you first see my work?” or maybe something more subtle. It is shooting yourself in the foot to undercut your local art dealer/gallery, since they invariably find out. It’s not just ethics, it’s good business. The gallery can increase sales and keep artists visible. You can refer folks to a gallery easier than invite them for a studio visit. Or do both. People walk into a gallery at least thinking about paintings for sale. The gallery folks can brag about the artist and finesse the deal. The artist could do these things too, but it’s a drain on energy better spent being creative in the studio. I’d rather paint.
I’m yet to be represented on the national scale that I was in the eighties, but when I am, what safeguards can the artist use to make sure prospective clients are not trying to undercut a gallery exhibiting their work in another part of the country? Guess I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. I still have collectors in other states who bought my work before Google and websites, that are now just looking me up, but they usually send photos. In those cases, I follow your example of good customer service by telling them the story behind their artwork and the methods & materials, etc. They usually are delighted to make the connection and I have another person for my e-mailing list. Keeping collectors happy, courtesy of The Painter’s Keys — thank you.
How do you deal with a gallery that sends out e-mail blasts for One Day 20% Off Sales? The written understanding is that any further discounts are taken from the gallery’s commission. I know that most art galleries are suffering (despite the success of jet-setters of Art Basel/Miami) and are doing everything they can to attract buyers. However, as an artist, I don’t like to appear desperate. If the gallery still honors the agreed upon commission from the original retail price signed by both artist and dealer, is this something that we as artists need to be flexible about? Getting too rigid about pricing could annoy the gallery and make them less likely to feature the artist? Your thoughts? In the past, I’ve had folks selling my art who tried to talk me into lowering my prices below comfort level and I’ve had to hang tough. Luckily, in that case the buyer paid the higher price, but these days every high priced lawyer in town wants a painting for half price. Highly successful artists can call the shots, but what about the up and coming artist?
Although I no longer do outdoor shows, I’m going to go look at the Beverly Hills Art Show next Sunday and will report back on what the regular booth artists say about sales this year. It’s a pretty good indicator of ground level sales for us artists who haven’t reached blue chip status yet. I look forward to knocking heads with the bottom feeders that show up late Sunday afternoon when artists are breaking down their booths, looking to haggle. Some of these Prada-wearing Beamer-driving folks carry cash and make horrible lowball offers. Is it ethical for the booth artist to double their prices when they see them coming? Now I’m getting nostalgic about haggling, better get back to my studio.
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Internet brings on sophisticated buyers
by Art dealer anonymous
Since the Internet has come on the scene, there has been a great change in the way things are found and marketed. One need look no further than the realty industry to realize that commissions have been too high and marketing systems have been too hit and miss. In the same way, when people are looking for a certain artist, they will often scan all available sites representing a name on the Internet before they even get in their car. When customers arrive in my gallery they often already have a pretty good idea what an artist’s prices are, how well they are selling, and where the best works are located. This puts the customer in the driver’s seat, which is realistically where they should be. We have had many customers walk in, read from a piece of paper the name of a painting and artist and ask if we still have it. When we bring it out, they say, “Yes, that’s the one,” and they take it. Not like the old days of all the song and dance, coming and going, etc. Maybe someone else at another gallery has already sold them on the particular artist. It works both ways. We are all in this together.
Training for combat
oil painting by Dave Paulley, Osage, WY, USA
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Heidi Adkins of Pleasant Grove, Utah, USA, who wrote, “Should the annual price increase happen only if demand is there? Demand is very low here, probable less than 2% collecting original work.”
(RG note) Thanks, Heidi. I believe art prices should be “supra-inflational.” That is, they should provide an investment factor and beat inflation. In low inflation times, and where the stock market produces mediocre results, like now, increases can be slight. I usually do between 5 and 10 percent per year.
Enjoy the past comments below for Art and current economics…