Art in bad times


Dear Artist,

Yesterday, Teri Peterson, owner of The Lakes Gallery in North Lake, Wisconsin, USA, asked, “Do you have any thoughts for galleries in the current poor economy? So many artists are discouraged and art-related businesses are closing. I’m not closing, I’m just looking for a new dial to tune in on.”

Thanks, Teri. In good times and bad, galleries are always opening and closing. It’s been my experience that it’s not so much the times, but the mission of the individuals running the galleries. For those who merely hang acceptable pictures on walls and who wait around until people come in, a downturn in the economy can close them. On the other hand, many dealers, including those in out-of-the-way and depressed places, seem to weather all storms. Here are a few current and timeless qualities that keep them in business:

They work the Internet and/or the telephone.
They attend to the secondary market.
They feature living artists who are going somewhere.
They honour their artists and pay them promptly.
They also feature and promote dead artists.
They do not try too hard to educate people.
They know how to advertise wisely and well.
They keep long hours and stay open through thick and thin.
They have an eye for innovation as well as quality.
They do not represent work they have done themselves.
They have a natural ability to foster trust.
They create desire in otherwise uninterested folks.
They are enthusiastic believers in art and artists.
They are proactive, hard working and practical.
They see the art game as fair, fun and rewarding for all.
They use the word “investment” with respect.
They have an understanding of human nature.

At one time, I had my work in a wildly successful gallery on a busy street loaded with stock brokers and investment counsellors. I’d still be dealing with the owner but the beautiful fellow passed away. On a day when the stock market retreated 508 points (October 19, 1987), he phoned to say he had sold five paintings. I was amazed. “Yep,” he said. “When stock brokers have lots of money, they collect art. And when stock brokers have only a little money, they invest in it. It’s human nature.”

Best regards,


PS: “Keep your shop and your shop will keep you.” (Benjamin Franklin)

Esoterica: Artists can become stuck in depressed areas and develop bleak attitudes. Artists need to look beyond the local scene. As art need not be regional, much of it can be offered worldwide. Make an effort to introduce work elsewhere. The idea is to outgrow the stigma of being simply a local artist. Artists who have the chops need to think “Dubai,” not “Duluth.” Giving a progressive dealer free reign in a distant location can give an artist the idea there’s no depression going on at all. Create well, distribute well, live well.


Artist/gallery parallels
by Alan Soffer, Wallingford, PA, USA


“Circles & Square VI”
oil on paper, 22 x 30 inches
by Alan Soffer

Of course, the ability to run a good gallery is similar to running a good business, with a bent toward the beautiful and precious. This doesn’t seem to fall to very many people. However, a lot of people try it because the art work is on consignment and the commissions are big. After your best friends bought a little bit and a few lucky sales occur, it takes hard, skillful work to succeed. It’s rather like being an artist, don’t you think?



Perspective plagiarism?
by Michael Mayer, Hong Kong

I am hoping to create a good supply of watercolors of local scenes to offer for sale in ten months time for prices of $20 to $100 each. It will be my first attempt at selling my work.

Is it considered plagiarism if, say, I was to do a painting of a famous local landmark in which the composition is similar to many other paintings and photos that have already been made? How many different ways, for example, can someone do a painting of St. Paul’s in Rome, or the Bank of China Building in Hong Kong, or of the White House? I think you know what I mean.


Deterred by high prices
by Jennifer Sykes, Encino, CA, USA

Galleries need to keep prices reasonable for artists who are hardly known. I got so fed up that I stopped buying paintings. There will always be a few people who can spend what they want, but most of us cannot. I was building a nice collection when I went to one of my favorite artist’s shows, only to discover that her prices had jumped from 6 to 8 hundred to over $2000. I quit.


Stop making excuses
by Paula Manning-Lewis, Albuquerque, NM, USA


“Happy Sun”
greeting note card, 5 x 7 inches
by Paula Manning-Lewis

I know many artists, myself included at times, blame slow sales on the economy. One of my resolutions this year is to stop making excuses and keep working toward my goals, no matter what happens. I know that if I keep my eyes on my goals and keep working hard at marketing my work, I will make it through thick and thin.

I only have one question for you. In your list of qualities you said, “They do not represent work they have done themselves.” Why is that? I have considered opening my own gallery and keep going back and forth because I know that it is a lot of work to run a gallery, much less work as an artist at the same time. The problem is that I know of a lot of galleries with owners who represent their own work!


The art of self-promotion
by Coulter Watt, Quakertown, PA, USA


oil painting, 12 x 9 inches
Torrit Grey nomination
by Coulter Watt

Two more items should be added to your list: 1.) Ditto for the artist. 2.) The artist should be doing promotional work on their own behalf, promoting both themselves and their dealer. The good artist/dealer relationship is a partnership. Some shameless self-promotion should include mention of one’s gallery or dealer. Write an article and get it published or pull an art-stunt to get yourself in the newspapers. I don’t care what it is, but do something positive to promote your work, especially if you’re having a show.

For my upcoming solo show in January at The des Champs Gallery in Lambertville, NJ, I wrote an article about Vermeer & War, published in the January issue of Primetime A&E, took out an ad in that publication and got long articles into many local papers. My dealer took out a half page ad in American Art Review (serious collectors read it), plus a blurb and ad in the local gallery guide. Plus I just won Honorable Mention in the 2007 Gamblin Torrit Grey Painting Competition and that went out in a Press Release that I wrote which included that I’m the first repeat winner having won First Prize last year. I built a Show Preview page on my website and emailed it to everyone I know. Invited a few real collectors to my home to have first bid on the work, have a cocktail party and a good time. You get the idea.

It’s all part of the job, because you can’t expect buyers to come to you without your doing things to promote yourself, especially under dim economic times. I also invested in beautiful high quality frames for the show – there’s nothing worse than cheap frames on good paintings, it degrades the work. Ok, you get the picture. Artists must promote themselves.


Your legacy
by Brad Greek, Mary Esther, FL, USA


“From within”
acrylic painting, 16 x 20 inches
by Brad Greek

Yesterday I attended the home of Dharbinder Bomrah (a friend and world renowned wildlife artist) for a gathering honoring his life. I was able to visit his studio in his home and I could feel his presence. A started canvas sat on his easel for his next project. The world has lost another great and it was a privilege to have known him.

I couldn’t help but to think about my own death at a time like this and asked myself, “Have I done enough, will I be remembered, what will happen to my work, will I have friends show up to honor my life?” I can only be myself and hope I’ve made a difference and have touched people’s hearts enough to earn their respect. I was privileged to see his studio and honored to see his home filled with friends and fellow artists. It gave me hope.


Empowerment galleries
by Gwen Pentecost, Pinetop, AZ, USA


“Carmel River I”
acrylic painting, 22 x 30 inches
by Gwen Pentecost

Good list and, as a gallery owner, I believe strongly in almost every thing you’ve said. As a result, I’ve done well this year despite the soft economy. I work hard, I know my customers and my area, I love the work I represent, and I love this business.

Big exception, however, to the only negative on the list: “They do not represent work they have done themselves.” Give the artist-owned galleries a chance! I think it was Art Calendar who called us “empowerment galleries,” certainly an apt description.

True, I’ve seen a couple of galleries where the owner only pushes his or her own work at the expense of the other artists on the walls, but I think that is the exception. Once it’s on the wall of the gallery, my work becomes artwork to sell just like anyone else’s, or I wouldn’t stay in business. It’s not a matter of ego, it’s a matter of pleasing the customers, and finding that perfect piece that speaks to their hearts.


Artist seminars
by Lori Wolfson, Santa Cruz, CA, USA


“Ruthie In The Middle”
colored pencil
by Lori Wolfson

I am an artist who has been working passionately for over thirty years, but I have not yet fully entered the “market.” This is partly because I wanted to develop my strengths far from the roaring crowd and partly because I wanted to be free of commercial – until I would be ready to put my work out into the world. Periodically I would stick my head out the door and look for a hook on which I could hang my artistic hat. After a few tentative and arbitrary forays into bookshops, search engines, or galleries, I always retreated to my studio to wait for another time, for some epiphany which would occur and light the way. Recently I have made a happy discovery that I would like to share with other artists. It is an event called the SmARTist Telesummit 2008, which provides a wealth of cutting-edge information and advice for artists looking to sell their work and be more creative. For me, this modern day seminar is a godsend. I no longer feel I have to reinvent the wheel and forge my way alone. The depth and breadth of well organized information offered gives me a way to evaluate my many options and make strong, innovative choices. After reading your twice-weekly letters for the last several months and seeing the value of artists sharing what they know and feel, I thought it would be nice to add my helpful hint to the mix.


Maintaining one’s mission
by Adan Lerma, New York, NY, USA


My wife and I, poor as can be, were working and raising 3 kids in the early ’80s recession, never even knew, much less were conscious, of there even being a recession!

I also probably did some of my best free wheeling acrylic abstracts and abstracted shapes then, colorful shapes I called cups so they could evoke either flowers or the seashells there in Galveston. Your point about those having a mission surviving — I didn’t have anything articulated, but I realize now I had a mission to create art and stay connected to it.

Though today our technology has presented us with computers and the Internet, and the wonderful opportunities it provides, I think having and keeping one’s mission is still the key, the means to survive.


Selling through storytelling
by Mel Davenport, Dallas, TX, USA

Most baby-boomer type folks have an interest in “the good ole days,” so why not capitalize gallery space to host your local/regional/state storytelling guild or groups to entertain for an hour or so, then let the patrons browse the gallery, munching and sipping provided goodies. It only takes a minimum of space for folding chairs, less space than that for storytellers, even with sound equipment if it is needed. In my humble opinion, art and storytelling have been a match made in heaven for years, but rarely do you see/hear of them working together. You can visit the National Storytelling Network; as well as Tejas Storytelling Association.

Here in Texas, I have worked with the Dallas Museum of Arts and the Meadows Museum on the campus of SMU, and both have mentioned that storytelling is a good “draw” for their patrons. Children are the target audiences of many storytellers, but parents spend the money, so the stories you would use at smaller galleries would have to be aimed at adults, and advertised as such. Most storytellers love to tell more adult stories, and sometimes going to a cheap/free storytelling event in a gallery is less threatening to an adult/patron than an artist’s opening, where you are expected to schmooze or at the very least talk.


Art appreciation is universal
by Elsie H. Wilson, Fitchburg, WI, USA

When one follows the “market” (meaning the stock market) too closely, one forgets that while we look to the “rich” and urban art collectors to buy our creations, our clients are not all tied to the “stock market.” Right within Teri Peterson’s Wisconsin, or another’s Indiana, or Pennsylvania or upstate NY, there are lots of people who love art, who will go to galleries and fall in love, and buy what they love. Love of art knows no price.

You can choose to close your doors and wait in the wings for the next big boom. Or you can believe that art is universal, profound and hopeful. Use every one of Robert’s ideas on his list. Do not sit in your gallery and wait for the customers. This is the time to meet with the local B&B’s, the motel owners, the local art guild. Then have a presence on the Web, nearby urban area newspapers and don’t forget AAA state magazine articles. For the first time in art history, our art is available to the world. Where in the world are the customers? You must be there, too.


Tough times for artists
by Jon Conkey, Mora, NM, USA


“Near Camel Point, CA”
oil painting, 8 x 12 inches
by Jon Conkey

No one seems to notice that even the largest “art organizations” and “art magazines” are always hitting the artists up for money to keep their “charitable” boats afloat, of course (how could we live without them!?! Hah!). Those multi-millionaire clients actually don’t have to really support the arts (which they easily could if it really mattered); they can just go buy their favorite painting “off the wall” to fit their motif: it can’t get any easier than that for those that really don’t give a hoot. Only the most talented will survive this current crunch, art is going the same way of fine classical music, and other highly specialized trades; there is not enough folks that appreciate “the arts” to keep them alive, and without support, few are willing to “suffer for their art” the way artists used to.


Offer great service
by Norman Ridenour, Prague, Czech Republic


71cm high, base is integral ash, cherry and oak
by Norman Ridenour

I have supported myself in some way or the other with my art/craft most of the time since the mid-70s. However, I was married to a highly successful gallery owner/art consultant. From both sources of experience I say that you need to add to your list “service.” You need it reframed? I’ll send it out for you. You need it delivered to the fifteenth floor and it weighs 400 lb, we’ll do it. You need it all installed by next Friday, OK. You have all of a series of graphic works but number seven. We’ll find it for you. Of course you charge more but it gets done.

People are so surprised that of course they pay.





Archived Comments

Enjoy the past comments below for Art in bad times



From: Nigel Mason — Jan 06, 2008

I find that many painters are concerned with trying to match colour on their palette with the colour they perceive from the model. In my experience painters should be trying to match the tonal value – not the colour. Colour should be thought of as arbitrary. Tonality is what makes an object recognisable and places the object in space. I have painted with a limited palette for the last fifteen years. The colours are (because I’m English the names of the colours may differ): Ultamarine, yellow ochre, Alizarin Crimson, Burnt Umber and Titanium White. The Ochre and Crimson, when mixed, make the most beautiful oranges. The range of blacks and neutrals by mixing the umber with Ultra and white is unlimited and the greens obtained from a mix of Ultra and the Ochre are greens that are found in nature. In my opinion any ready made, tube black kills any observational painting stone dead.

From: Lynn Lemyre — Jan 08, 2008

Wow, I just can’t express strongly enough how much I was offended by Jennifer Sykes comment about how galleries need to keep prices “reasonable for artists who are hardly known”. Value of artwork is not just determined by how well known an artist is. It is really determined by what someone is willing to sell their work for and what someone else is willing to pay for it. Most galleries won’t sell a painting for a price that they don’t think they’re going to get. Most artists won’t sell a painting for more than they think they are going to get either. If anything, they tend to underprice their work. She also states that “There will always be a few people who can spend what they want, but most of us cannot.” Artists and galleries are not generally non-profit institutions with the primary goal of providing inexpensive art to the public. Historically the art for the masses has been the print. A good piece of original art that is truly valued by its purchaser, is worth budgeting and saving for. And by the way, congratulations to the artist whose work increased in value from 600 to over $2,000., most likely through demand.

From: J. Bruce Wilcox — Jan 08, 2008

Bad times? Really? For artists? Here on Earth? When haven’t there been bad times for galleries and artists? Like Robert- I’ve watched galleries come and go for more than 30 years. The business of art is fickle and unpredictable. But it is even more so if your art (mine) doesn’t fit into the mainstream (fiber). And mine never has. Unlike Robert- NO gallery I’ve ever hung in has ever been able to properly and effectively market my work. And in the last few years- first a gallery- and then a museum- fully screwed me over on 2 different postcards. The female gallery owner ordered the pictures on the front of the card differently from the names on the back- and then sent them out to 4000 people completely mis-representing me and my work. The museum used my piece on its card without notifying me- and sent me 5 CARDS. I didn’t need 5 cards- I needed at least 500. And then- because it was the week of Thanksgiving- and the show opened on December 2- there was no timely opportunity for me to order any. Furthermore- the director left my name off the back of the card- and the female museum director’s reason was that she thought the card/advertisement pieces would have such a high profile- that she didn’t want to offend the other artists- ALL FEMALE. Frankly- after working for 30 years to get to the point where galleries/museums were starting to use my work on their cards- to then see myself get completely screwed by these galleries- well- if I’d been in the same room with either of these women- I’d be in jail right now because they’d be dead. Now- back to that other perspective about galleries. For the last 10 years I’ve been producing and expanding as artist-in-residence in a house that was not expanding with me. Finally- last June I was able to lease (and hopefully afford) a perfect (for now) studio space just outside one of Denver’s rapidly growing art districts. For the last 30 years I’ve been pushing my work out into the entire world via juried shows- having work travel to Europe a couple of times and getting into Fiberart International in Pittsburgh in 2001. 769 artists from 35 countries entered over 1900 pieces and they picked 82. I’ve made it! I’ve succeeded! That piece didn’t sell- I got it back- and I still own it. ????????? There are truly only a handful of fiber galleries around- there is one new one here in Denver- but though I know the director- I am not high on her list of artists to add to her very small stable. And she’s doing a beautiful and competent job. So- after all these years of becoming an internationally recognized fiber artist- THE ONLY THING I AM CURRENTLY FOCUSED ON IS MY OWN LOCAL STUDIO EXPERIENCE. I don’t produce hundreds of pieces each year. Maybe tens. I don’t need hundreds of buyers- only tens. And I’m the only person whose ever been able to sell my work. I don’t know why this is. I can live on next-to-nothing because I never married a female and fathered any children. I can exist with next-to-nothing (except art supplies) because I spiritually evolved beyond our current societal mis-perceptions about what we all are supposed to NEED (abject consumerism) in order to be happy. And because I finally have all I need in order to continue to just produce- effectively and efficiently- I AM BOTH UTTERLY HAPPY AND COMPLETELY CONTENTED. And the work is flowing out of me. Robert’s rules and suggestions will always apply to many- but they will never apply to all of us. Some of us have to figure it out on our own- because the ‘normal’ rules simply won’t work. Do not give up- if you can’t fit yourself into those rules. And do not accept crap from gallery owners and museum directors who are CLUELESS.

From: Bryan Dunleavy — Jan 10, 2008

The idea of not exhibiting in galleries run by owners who represent themselves is probably sound. I ran my own gallery for ten years and closed it last year in order to devote more time to painting. Over that time I probably sold more of my own work than that of other artists even though they were all as good as, if not better than, me. Now I would say that I did not consciously favor my own work and was more inclined to wax enthusiastic about the works of others, but more often than not buyers would alight on one of my works. Sometimes, as they were about to write the check, they would ask: Who is the artist, by the way? I’ve just been doing my tax return so I thought I would do an analysis, so for the last year of trading 62% of the total sold were mine. Clearly, although I would insist that I was scrupulously neutral, some unseen hand was at work here, and my fellow artists were not getting such a good deal. So to all artists out there, if you have the choice, find a gallery who has to make money from the sale of your work.







Summer Shadows

oil painting on linen 
by David Lussier, Woodstock CT, 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 Thomas L. Cranmer of Great Falls, VA, USA who wrote, “Art prices are at all-time highs. A few areas may be depressed, but overall the economy is doing well. Good marketing skills and hard work as you point out are still essential, since art, like most things, is competitive.”

And also Mary Rosek of Steven’s Point, WI, USA who wrote, “I’m down with that.”

And also Emily Dimov-Gottshall of Altoona, PA, USA who wrote, “I feel like this is the first time I’ve read a piece by you that has spoken to me directly. The concrete facts, a practical and realistic goal/attitude made this article one I will copy and save for reference from today on. I will be putting this into practice as an artist and business person.”

And also Barbara Becker of High Point, NC, USA who wrote, “Maybe those art-related businesses are closing because they have crappy art or are not run by good businessmen. I am just fine, thank you, as is everyone else I work with and know. We are paying our bills, living within our means, expecting great things in 2008, and think America is the best place to live in the world.”

And also Armida Nagy Stickney of Land O’Lakes, FL, USA who wrote, “One item you left off your list is that the galleries can often operate at a loss. They have other sources of income.”

And also Linda Myers who wrote, “I am surprised that she doesn’t try expanding her market to entice the newly affluent Canadian dollar. With her proximity to the Canadian border she may fair better than her counterparts to the South. Offering Canadian artists would also add an advantage.”

And also Dean McLeod of Sherwood Park, AB, Canada who wrote, “I keep a proverb on my computer screen that says ‘If the wind isn’t blowing, row.'”

And also Marjorie Tressler of Waynesboro, PA, USA who wrote, “I have been saying all along that Galleries are talking too much about dead artists and forgetting the living ones. How are we to continue painting if we can’t sell to go on?”

And also Susan Easton Burns of Douglasville, Georgia, USA who wrote, “When Tiger Woods became the youngest person to win the Masters Tournament, he was asked what he would do to stay on top. His reply was something like, ‘I will change my swing.’ His success records speak for themselves, but his way of looking at life is the inspirational thing.”




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