Last night I had dinner with the owners and staff of one of my more effective galleries. Eight high-spirited young women took over a private room at a lovely restaurant. So far this year, this team has sold around fifty of my paintings ranging from $2,000 to $20,000. As well as an hourly wage, these women share profits through commissions on sales. In this particular gallery, 43% of sales happen on the Internet-telephone axis, so as well as personally attending to customers, they eagerly take turns answering the gallery phone and checking email. Many have been with the gallery for years. A remarkably bubbly bunch, they are full of pride, totally turned on to art, collect art themselves, and are wildly in love with their jobs.
I’ve always seen gallery people as friends and partners in enterprise. When I’m in the bush batting mosquitoes or quietly struggling in my studio, I often think of these angels. They are the bridge between private creativity and evolved collectorship. Theirs is a business of sharing magic. In my case I could not, would not — under the daily glare of gallery lights — do what these angels do.
“What’s the most important thing you do in your job?” I asked as we sipped our Merlot and sampled the samosas. Everybody agreed that listening was right up there. Clients have different degrees of confidence and must be heard out. For many it’s a major purchase and they’re nervous. For salespeople, natural enthusiasm, knowledge and empathy are all virtues. Serial, institutional and compulsive collectors need other types of treatment. I have it on good account that there’s never any pressure in this gallery. These young women know when to be quiet and to leave people to take their time. Art’s not donuts.
“What’s your best asset these days?” I asked. “The Internet,” one blurted out in the middle of a sip. “When your paintings arrive in our gallery they’re immediately put up on our website. Each of us alerts our clients by telephone or email. Sometimes they buy online — sometimes they come in. Sometimes, a customer comes out of the blue. Recently a lady bought one online from Turkey. Last year a man walked into the gallery holding up a painting displayed on his phone. ‘Have you still got this one?’ he asked. He took it home. You gotta love it.”
Esoterica: Every one of my galleries has a different set of values and a different approach. You could characterize this one as conservative and democratic. They have art that ranges from relatively modern through decorative, to place-specific rendering. All media are featured. There’s a price for every pocketbook. While they may be a living example of creative pluralism, they’re not interested in the secondary market — auctions, re-sales, etc. Some of their customers have many works by one artist, while others collect several artists from the gallery stable. “It’s often easier to work with established collectors than to get new ones started,” said one. Most of my angels ordered bison or venison. They like unusual things and they’re not afraid to take chances.
Unable to find gallery representation
by Ion Danu, Sherbrooke, QC, Canada
Why am I not able to get any angels? I consider myself a sincere artist. I have originality (and I don’t “search” for it; it’s just there…) and I am a pretty good draw-man… I produce small but many (good) paintings. But, for some reason I don’t understand, I don’t seem able to get to important collectors, or galleries. I’m a full time artist for 4 years now. I know it’s not a lot of time but I restarted as an artist at age 42 and I do not have much time left. What do you advise in order to find some angels so I can earn a decent living as an artist?
(RG note) Thanks, Ion. Your plight was echoed by many others, and I thank everyone for writing with concerns. The response to this letter was simply overwhelming, and it has prompted me to sit down and write a few RG notes, which I hope may be of value. Unfortunately the “star system” that works in galleries can be cruel in its selection of what it sees as creators with the “right stuff.” I too have been in the same boat. You need to be relentless with your self improvement and the process of growth. You need to see your website not as a primary way of selling but as a means of making friends with angels. You need to be philosophic about the art game and you need to keep on keeping on.
Address of angels needed
by Michal Ashkenasi, Israel
If I sell more then 5 paintings a year it means a very good year for me! Could you give me the address of those angels? I would like to send them some images of my work and, maybe they can be my angels too! I know I have good work but here, in Israel, most people like the more realistic paintings and although I get very good critical acclaim, sales are low. I suppose people here are too busy with surviving and art will always be a luxury and second place.
(RG note) Thanks, Michal. It’s my persistent belief that people actually need art in their lives. But generally they don’t know it — even deny it — but motivated angels can turn a percentage on to it, no matter how desperate or distracting or backward the environment. Unfortunately, most dealers turn away three or four applying artists a day, and my angels are no exception. These angels are at Canada House gallery. Another thing, several dozen writers asked why all of these angels are chicks. During dinner I asked the same question. There was a look of amused puzzlement on their faces. It seems from time to time men have joined the team—only to be eaten up and spat out by the energy and dedication of these women. Go figure.
Art and the economy
by Nancy Wostrel, San Diego, CA, USA
For many years I had a similar relationship with the Knowles Gallery in La Jolla, California, but much to everyone’s dismay they had to retire and nothing has been the same. In your case, Canada’s economy must be very good. I’ve noticed that when an economy is not, the first inkling is lagging art sales. And, for me, sales are really bad in the USA. (I would love to forward your column to my current gallery in Philadelphia but hesitate as I wouldn’t want them to think I was being critical). The owner recently told me that business was quite bad — and they have been in business since 1865!
(RG note) Thanks, Nancy. Yes, it’s partly to do with the economy. Having said that, it’s been my observation that proactive galleries make things happen in all economies. Keep in mind that even in depressions there are folks who do well and need to have their lives enhanced with art. It may be only 4%, but that is about the same percentage as those who actively buy art at all times.
Reality of the commodity pool
by Ron Elstad, Anaheim, CA, USA
It’s been my experience thus far, the last ten years, to find galleries who treat artists as a commodity pool. They have a very large stable of artists who range in style, genre and abilities, quality not a concern. For the most part galleries promote themselves with great vigor and expense with only a few of the individual artists ever getting the same treatment. If they promote an individual artist it is usually an artist with a large following, not necessarily one of quality, and then this is only in the interest of promoting the gallery. It seems these galleries find it easier and cheaper to promote the artists who already have a collector base rather than establish one for them and really earning their percentage of the sales. Thus doing malice to the careers of many of the good artists in their stable.
It is for this reason the artist these days has to be an artist, not necessarily a good one, as well as a promoter. So these artists who have great abilities but lack in the promotional skills or the financial whereabouts find themselves going by the wayside never to be seen or qualify for success. There is something wrong with this picture. Where is the integrity in galleries these days? Moreover, where is the integrity in the art world? My only hope is that my perception is from not realizing the big picture, that there are more galleries like yours out there than not.
Downside of art dealers
by John Ferrie, Vancouver, BC, Canada
It is these sorts of stories that can distort an artist and the perception we have with galleries. A gallery is a business and simply put a stepping stone between an artist and a buyer. Young artists are prepared to sell their souls to be with a gallery. Most artists I know who are successful have been with at least five galleries over 20 years and usually have the battle scars to show for it. Eight bubbly and enthusiastic “Gallerinas” selling your work in one fell swoop is exhilarating. But it has been my experience that the artist does more for the gallery than the gallery does for the artist. Most galleries have twenty to twenty-five artists in their corral. They need to pay their rent; heat and lighting every month, let alone make a profit. They will sell anything, not necessarily just one artist who has sent in twenty fresh canvases. Dream on! Galleries also usually want exclusivity and you’re locked under a contract. I know of artists whose work has not sold for years, but they signed a five year contract. Like working as a barista at Starbucks, nothing can suck the life out of an artist faster.
The other thing with galleries is an artist’s work will eventually change. The gallery needs to move with an artist. They can claim that while they “love the new works,” it is the older stuff that they have orders for. A gallery can start to dictate what an artist paints out of economics and is not the voice of an artist. Artists and galleries need to be in constant communication about what they are doing. The relationship is like a marriage with a profound understanding about what each of them needs. Only then will the contract for fame and fortune come along. It takes time.
(RG note) Thanks, John and Ron. One of the significant problems that democratically oriented galleries can encounter — because of the large sales power and incessant need for product — there can be a recourse to the representation of amateur and lightweight work. In the long run this has the effect of discouraging serious collectors and diminishing the perceived authority of the gallery. It can also have the effect of putting a ceiling on the upward end of prices that a gallery can achieve. On the other hand, some of the most amateur and lightweight work is frequently sold at the most discriminating, esoteric and exclusivist galleries.
by Mark D. Gottsegen, Greensboro, NC, USA
All the serious collectors I know use the Internet or slides as a preliminary screening device. But they also know that the colors in slides or on the LCD screen are completely inaccurate — so they always visit the gallery before making a final decision. Many a sale has crashed and burned when the colors turned out to be different in the actual painting.
(RG note) Thanks, Mark. This situation seems to be changing. While most online collectors may have been in the gallery at one time, they trust the staff to photograph well. In the case of these angels, one of them is designated to take, colour-correct and post. She’s an expert, and to my eye the photo quality is pretty darned good. For those others who have asked about this, my work is posted here. To be sure, many galleries are not as careful. In any case, work shipped anywhere in the world, if it fails expectations, is instantly returnable at no cost. In this particular gallery this amounts to a very low percentage indeed. Apparently, 95% of Internet-assisted sales stick. Mark Gottsegen is author of The Painter’s Handbook, a vital guide for painters.
Stumbling blocks for digital artists
by Fred Asbury, Memphis, TN, USA
I feel I have an even greater challenge by being a part of the greatly misunderstood, under appreciated, and criticized group of emerging artists known as fine art digital photographers. Trying to break into the established art market is full of pitfalls, stumbling blocks, and brick walls. Many of these emerging artists simply give up. Prices for archival limited edition fine art photographs are much lower than what is charged for paintings which does not inspire gallery owners and sales people to offer this work. This is understandable as I would rather sell a big ticket item than the nickel and dime stuff. I am sure that I would steer folks away from the small ticket items to those that would provide me a bigger paycheck. Typically you go to an art gallery to buy a painting. The galleries that offer other media still favor paintings and feature the painters, leaving the printmakers, sculptors, photographers, etc. hoping that their work has enough power to distract the buyer to consider these other media for possible purchase and collecting. Can you offer some guidance that can help us who are struggling?
(RG note) Thanks, Fred. Perceived values are a serious problem for many media, especially in an environment where a higher price may indicate a higher value. Galleries need high prices to make it all worthwhile. So make your digital (or other) art so remarkable that it can carry the higher tag. Never underestimate the pockets of collectors or the winning smiles of angels who carry the art to them.
Moving from ‘one man band’
by Judi Gorski, San Francisco, CA, USA
I am doing all of the jobs that you and your angels are doing. I paint the paintings, provide giclees of the originals, display the work daily in my own home/studio/gallery (one address) and promote the work on a shoestring budget. There is a retail store and a cafe near my studio/gallery that are open many hours 7 days a week and they serve as showrooms of my art to the pubic. Business cards, postcards and other advertising leading their customers to my place are easy to pick up once inside their doors. I too have been able to sell as many as 50 paintings in certain years, but the high-end single item that I have for sale is priced at the low end of your price index and I’m not making money enough to call it a real success, although the sale of any piece of art seems like it. Simply raising the prices is not the answer because making the money involves being able to target the correct audience that is willing and able to pay higher prices. That is where a successful gallery comes into the picture, but finding one to take the work is a full time job in and of itself. If that is the case, then one needs an agent to find the gallery to take the work. How did you go about getting a reputable agent and galleries to promote your work?
(RG note) Thanks, Judi. Without representation it’s difficult to get to the higher prices. I have always preferred to paint rather than to sell. So I am more than willing to share. When you establish a certain level of quality and a history of reliable delivery, and when you have galleries that are successful with you, one situation leads to the next. All my galleries operate in a different manner, some have diametrically opposed philosophies, but I consider all of them to be my friends. You’ve got to realize that I’m older, in harvest mode, and my work has become a bit of an (dare I say the word) investment. While I’m sometimes bothered by some things that some of my galleries do, I’m too occupied to interfere.
Finding the right gallery
by Marty Gibson, Scottsdale, AZ, USA
I feel that being represented in a gallery is the best situation for me. I’m just not going to do the tent show thing. I have taken part in my local arts association studio tour every year and received a lot of positive feedback from the public but no sales. I think most of the persons attending are out for a fun event rather than purchasing fine art. I think the major question I have relates to finding any gallery I can get into versus holding out for one of the primo galleries in this very competitive gallery town. I have a BFA in painting and design from a major state university in the states and worked for many years as a graphic designer so I feel confident in my work. How important is a history of sales and collectors?
(RG note) Thanks, Marty. Gallery personnel seem to have an intuitive sense of “We can sell that,” when they look at art. Of far more importance than a BFA, prior history, or a pile of prior collectors is simply how the work might fit in and not compete with work that is already represented by the gallery. While the factors you mention may be important in some galleries, there is more often than not a sense of building a talented artist — even if it has to be done from scratch. Also, while the need for fairly consistent quality and reliable delivery are important, dealers still must ask the question: “Can we work with this person?”
Art export chances
by Clyde Hannan, South Africa
I am an architect, and prior to my University period, I spent time studying and practicing art, and naturally, as an architect, it is a great advantage if you do have the natural ability to use your artistic talents. Unfortunately, I have had very little time to be able to relax and do some paintings, apart from the usual sketches, or charcoal renderings, and pastel drawings of the family. In those periods when I did find time, I did some oil paintings, mainly portraits, landscapes as well as still life. Over the last weekend, I was in a very lovely historical town here in the middle of the Karoo area, a town called Graaf Reinet, and met a young artist, who sends all his works (Wildlife) to one specific gallery over in the USA, and they are selling very well. He did say that the average price of his paintings as sold was approximately R250,000. He also said that of this he gets a 22% share. Obviously I am curious as well as interested to find out more and whether there may be some possible chance for me to try out the market there.
Unique do-it-yourself idea
by Bob Ragland, Denver, CO, USA
I have sold art futures to get some traction art career wise. Your art is your currency. Get ten or twenty friends who believe in your work to front you a certain amount of dough for some of your work. Make all of the work the same size. People will have to select by content. Write out a one page proposal to explain what you are up to. Give yourself enough time to produce the work (60 to 90 days) and have a selection party. People can select by drawing numbers out of a hat to choose the order to pick the work. Tell the press and get a story published. I have done this several times in my early art life. This has been written about in the Watson-Guptill book Promoting and Selling Your Art by Carole Katchen.
Some galleries threatened by Internet
by Collette Renee Fergus, New Zealand
I both paint and work in a gallery, so I can see both sides of the coin. Some galleries here are deeply threatened by the Internet, although not all of them (including the one I work at) as some are getting used to the idea that it actually helps them to have such a broad audience to show their wares. I guess because some artists will try to undercut the galleries they can sometimes be a disadvantage and I can understand when some galleries refuse to show artists who have a large Internet presence and are easy to contact directly.
I have overcome this problem by making sure that my prices on my site reflect the ones in the galleries and that I list the gallery where certain works are as the point of contact. Most important of all, I make sure that if I am contacted by a customer trying to bypass the gallery who insists on buying via me, that I still pay the gallery their portion as I have also asked for the same amount of money anyway and can do so. It’s all about integrity. We need the galleries as much as they need us!
Art automat idea
by Len Sodenkamp, Boise, ID, USA
Imagine a shopping environment were there are no sales people. You are greeted at the door where staff members take your name address and email info. That is put into a computer and a card is produced with a bar code and handed to the shopper. The person is then free to stroll through displays of all kinds of home improvement and décor exhibits. If you see something of interest the person slides the card through a slot and the exhibitor immediately gets a hit on their email. Upon leaving the staff has prepared a pack of brochures for the person as they exit. A 10 x 10 booth is 8000.00 per year paid every 90 days. A 5 x 10 is 6000.00. One year commitment. The store is the size of a supermarket in a high traffic area with lots of parking and easy in and out access. It opens 10 am and closes at 10 pm 7 days a week. Thousands of people would be exposed to your work and free to view it without pressure. It seems to me selling art requires putting it in front of lots of people. I am not sure this is the right venue for fine art sales?
(RG note) Thanks, Len. Automats work for things that people need to eat or to put on their bodies — products with known prices and values. Art is arbitrary and emotional and requires the personal touch and the human connection. Your idea wouldn’t work for me but it might work for Martians.
oil paintings (diptych)
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 Malama Pono Kealohikina of Hawaii, USA who wrote, “Your mindfulness brings new meaning to what art creations and form does for the human. Many things catch my eye — only a few catch my heart.”
And also Norman Ridenour of Czechoslovakia who wrote, “There is something these angels know and do that is beyond me – how to get the Internet to work. I have two good looking sites, I have paid for high placement and still I support the website.” (RG note) Thanks, Norman. It’s ‘clicks and mortar’ that does it.
And also Dee Lessard who wrote, “I do not want to be the sole collector of my work! I have looked into shows but I’m not crazy about the set-up cost of tent and racks and show fees. Also, the weather can be unpredictable.”
And also Todd Dawson who wrote, “I’ll be emailing this letter to a gallery I am currently with that has taken only about 10 months to update their web site… (aaaarrrgghh!).”
And also David Benjamin who wrote, “Your letters have helped me in conquering my fears and hesitation in producing my own art. In addition, they have helped me be more adventuresome when painting.”
And also Wayan Handoko of Jakarta, Indonesia who wrote, “Thanks for awesome massage that u send through email. So blessed and always give me courage and ideas. I really want to give something through my talents.”