I once had a solo opening on a day the stock market happened to fall out of bed. Arriving late, I was surprised to find a lineup in the street and a crowd of eager buyers inside. “What’s going on?” I asked my dealer as he rushed back and forth with his dots. “It’s always like this when the stock market goes down,” he said. “People put their money into art. And when the stock market goes up, they have extra money so they put it into art.” The event was one of my first insights into the remarkable phenomenon of the art show.
>Being flock animals, humans gain confidence when everyone else is flocking to a kill. Also, being predatory, we like to tear off the best cuts, preferably in front of others. It’s called “conspicuous consumption,” a term first used by the sociologist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 and in evidence ever since.
Over my lifetime, shows have become more subtle and nuanced. In a lot of areas they are less frenetic and perhaps less effective. I’ve had shows where there were no sales at the openings; people discreetly phoned their orders the following morning. Perhaps there were sociologists in the crowd, but it may just be a Canadian thing — the desire not to expose our fangs in public.
Bringing artists and public together is a main function of shows. Actually, customers turn out to be real people, as do artists, humility and all, and George Bernard Shaw’s dictum, “When you know the artist, you think less of the art,” is often, but not always, laid to rest.
Then there’s the modern miracle of the Internet-telephone axis. Once a potential client has agreed to receive a show by email, a dealer in Toronto can sell work to a keener in Kapuskasing. The best galleries send their virtual shows to favoured customers just in the nick of time — like an hour before the opening. Nowadays, when you’re sipping your Chardonnay and the gallery phone rings, you know that foreigners are crashing the party.
And that reminds me of booze. Everyone knows it loosens the tongue. It’s a wallet shaker as well. Once, late in the evening when we had pretty well run out of cheese, a fellow said to me, “Thish is your worst show yet, Robert — I’ll take that one.”
PS: “I must discount the possibility of a show since I have nothing worth showing.” (Claude Monet)
Esoterica: The printed, mailed invitation, with its expensive postage and all that folding and licking, is currently going the way of the Tasmanian Devil. Evites are now acceptable and a lot cheaper. General online announcements viralize your efforts as well. Today, to help you and your galleries, we’re introducing a new feature on the Painter’s Keys site. It’s called The Art Show Calendar. Please take a look — it’s easy to put your announcement in, and you can include a piece of your art.
Check gallery credentials first
Mike Barr, Elizabeth East, South Africa
Some galleries have an amazing list of clients which really helps when it comes to shows. But I remember one gallery opening I had where they asked where all the people were. In other words they expected me, the artist, to fill the place with clients and here’s me thinking it was the gallery’s job to do that! So, the lesson for me was, check the credentials of the gallery before jumping in.
Facing the fear again
Lynne Windsor, Santa Fe, NM
I have always felt it was worthwhile doing shows and have, in the past, had a lot of success either before the show or on the night. The thrill and excitement have always carried me along, even though I get very nervous beforehand. However, three years ago my husband Barry McCuan and I had a joint show of paintings created on our travels in France, at our gallery in Santa Fe, and sold one painting the night before and then nothing for ages. It was just at the time the stock market was plummeting but this didn’t seem to help us!
The effort and investment we put into this show was immense and the show looked incredible and Barry’s work in particular looked wonderful. I haven’t had a joint or solo show since as I just haven’t wanted to put myself through that kind of angst. We did eventually make sales and Barry sold about 10 to one person, but it was a long time coming! Still, this year I find that I have committed to two shows, so I guess I am over it and ready to face the fear!
Find out who your friends are
Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
I’ve never had the experience of a stock market crash while showing in a gallery, so I can’t speak to this issue, but I can say that shows do serve several useful purposes. One, they let people know you still exist and are painting new things. Two, you get to meet some interesting people, some of whom you may never want to meet again. Three, there is ample opportunity for sales, especially after the participants start drinking. I always have wine at my openings. Lots of it! You also get a better handle on who exactly are your friends and those never to include in your will. If nothing else, it’s a pleasant night out and you leave with the knowledge that if nothing sells, you can reuse the frames for another show.
People-watching at shows
Tatjana Mirkov-Popovicki, Port Moody, BC, Canada
At an opening of a show, a good number of people came to meet and greet. Right in front of where I stood as I was talking with people, I could see one woman who spent a lot of time examining a painting. I gathered that she was important by the way the gallery owner tended to her. At some point the gallery owner came to tell me that this is a Russian woman and that she does NOT want to meet me. But, she bought the painting. I learned that she was a repeat collector and a good customer of the gallery. I suppose some people like to see and be seen from afar. Works fine for me.
(RG note) Thanks, Tatjana. There was a particularly scruffy fellow at one of my shows. Everybody came up to him and shook his hand because they thought he was the artist. Decent fellow, though — he told everybody he was just there for the food and wine.
Hurt feelings ahead?
Beverly Ruth Bader, Hastings-on-Hudson, NY, USA
I recently started an Artist’s salon in a former brewery warehouse where we have our studios as well. The purpose of this monthly meeting is to have more contact with other artists who paint near us, as well as a place to talk about our work in a creative space. Last week group members decided to bring in an art piece for our next meeting to critique each other’s work. I wonder if this can lead to difficulties in that each artist may have limited experience in knowing how to give constructive feedback. So I thought Painter’s Keys people would have some useful suggestions, as well as a “critiquing model” that I can bring to the meeting and have the members follow. Could subscribers kindly let me know some critiquing ideas, as well as thoughts about even having artists critiquing each other’s work at all! I wonder if this can lead to hurt feelings, thus leading to inter-personal difficulties.
You’ll never be sure
George Robertson, Mississauga, ON, Canada
This note was inspired by the Monet quote that ended today’s letter. Yesterday, I came across this W.S. Merwin poem. It struck me that the idea basically applies to any artistic discipline. For instance, just substitute ‘painting’ for ‘poetry/writing.’ The title, Berryman, refers to Merwin’s teacher, the poet John Berryman.
as for publishing he advised me
to paper my wall with rejection slips
his lips and the bones of his long fingers trembled
with the vehemence of his views about poetry
he said the great presence
that permitted everything and transmuted it
in poetry was passion
passion was genius and he praised movement and invention
I had hardly begun to read
I asked how can you ever be sure
that what you write is really
any good at all and he said you can’t
you can’t you can never be sure
you die without knowing
whether anything you wrote was any good
if you have to be sure don’t write (WS Merwin)
Is beauty next?
Thierry Talon, Calgary, AB, Canada
An artist friend does marvelous, very large landscapes. A voracious reader, he mentioned that “art doesn’t know where it is going next.” I thought there was a good chance that art would start giving comfort. It would be good if art would now become less edgy and less challenging. Art could start giving comfort, beauty and an uplifting experience. Pope Benedict (I never thought I would mention him here) has called on an audience of prominent artists to embark on “a quest for beauty.” I hope this will happen. In ‘another life,’ I researched the economic prospects for the world in the coming years: they are not pretty, not comfortable and not uplifting. We will not need more ‘challenges.’
“I do not like to be a prophet. I like better to paint than to predict what the next painters will do. Though I have a feeling that consideration of order is very much in the air.” (Josef Albers)
Empty apartment gave ad-hoc show
Peter Brown, Oakland, CA, USA
I have an attic studio and I rent out several apartments below. One of these went vacant rather suddenly in the middle of the month. I was looking at the place being unoccupied for six or more weeks, which is rather depressing. I also found that the empty apartment simply looked rather empty! So, just as a way to make the place look better, I brought some pieces down from the studio and just threw them up on available nails. The rooms did look better, and because the apartment has great natural light, my paintings looked great, too. A few days later, a friend called, and asked if she could borrow my empty apartment for an evening. Her idea was to have a dance party for the kids from her co-operative day care. I thought great, twelve sets of parents, a bunch of little kids, nothing to break, and word-of-mouth advertising for a big vacant apartment. It was a strange and wonderful event, and people took the flyer about the vacancy. Only then did it hit me! Throw yourself an art show! I sent out emails, kept gallery hours of noon to five on weekends, offered by- appointment-only hours, and I have had a ball. My neighbors have visited, old and new friends, and friends have brought their friends. The place accommodated 52 paintings, from the past two years. I have had about 200 visitors. There are a couple of camp chairs, a few choice carpets, and I ended up getting some folding chairs, which I keep in a closet, until they are needed.
Thoughts on the Art Show Calendar
Christopher Volpe, Newmarket, NH, USA
I’m a big fan of your letter and I think the show calendar is great idea — brilliant. One thing: it needs to be searchable geographically to be useful. Scrolling through hundreds of shows in Alberta, Minneapolis and Cairo has little appeal to me. Even for online buyers there’s shipping to consider. Further, being able to filter by medium, style, subject matter would help a lot. It’d also be nice to set up alerts when my favorite artists post a new show. I realize this may be beyond current capabilities. I’d just like to see this thing become hugely successful.
(RG Note) Thanks, Christopher. We’re working on it. We are particularly playing with the idea of geographical location which you and others have mentioned. One of the areas of interest to me is that many artists are located in remote areas. It’s been my thought that these people deserve recognition and featuring along with the ones who are exhibiting in New York, London, and other big centres. The Internet and the World Wide Web go a long way toward neutralizing the unpleasant label of “local artist,” and the other, even worse epithet, “small town artist.” I’ve had a couple of shows lately where people from Indonesia and Argentina purchased my work from a Canadian show, so I have had firsthand experience that it is possible to show to the world. Thanks for your encouragement on our new feature. I’d love to see our Art Show Calendar become hugely successful too — I particularly enjoyed just cruising through the illustrations and enlarging them. For those who haven’t been there yet, please take a look here.
Enjoy the past comments below for The power of shows…
Featured Workshop: Janice Robertson
oil painting, 11 x 14 inches
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 Jason Nimmit of London, UK, who wrote, “If a tree falls in the forest, and nobody hears it, did it happen?”