Thursday, April 09, 2009

I Won't Be Your Give Man No More

More and more galleries are developing websites. So-called virtual galleries are popping up everywhere online.
Some of the dealers behind these efforts are writing about their reasons for getting out of bricks and mortar. They're not exactly a mystery: gallery profits are falling and the sway they used to hold over artists has been undermined by a younger generation of artists (and musicians and film-makers) savvy enough to use the web to manage and promote their own careers.
A gallerist recently wrote on Art News Blog, "Why shouldn't the internet be profitable for both artists and galleries?" Well, for one thing, the whole point of the web is that it disintermediates – in other words, it makes life tough on the middleman.The gallerist tried to argue that collectors discover artists through visiting galleries – so galleries have a right to any and all sales of artists' works: "A collector walks through our doors, falls in love with the artist, goes home and Googles the artist and then commissions directly from the artist." The implication is that it's the gallery that attracts the collector. What nonsense! Collectors seek out a gallery which represents a particular artist in whom they are interested. The gallery then tries to leverage that specific interest to 'introduce' the work of the other artists they represent.
That any artist owes a gallery for the development of their career is also a nonsense. The artist has usually worked hard his or her entire life to achieve recognition – and more often than not, their relationship with a gallery represents just a small percentage of that life. Besides, very few are the galleries or gallerists that have the high-level skills required to develop and manage even a moderately successful career, let alone a stellar one – many are nothing more than self-regarding poseurs lacking the business sense of second-rate shopkeepers.
In 2005, I was represented by one of the best-known gallerists in Australia. Not long after I signed with him, he complained bitterly to me about another female artist who had recently left his stable. He ranted angrily about her, claiming that he had "made her career" and that she was "bloody ungrateful". He was particularly irked because she had left just as her prices were beginning to rise dramatically.
And yet it was obvious from her output and career arc that she'd worked incredibly hard and had earned every part of her success herself. She had always sold well, even before she was represented by this gallery, but the gallerist had also made plenty of money from her over the years. He had also retained a reputation for being hip and contemporary solely through the publicity he gained because of her work.
I suspect that he had refused to increase the price of her work (as he had also refused to increase mine) not just because he was a lazy salesperson but because he just didn't like the idea of an artist "getting above themselves". Her prices increased not as a result of his efforts but because she gained interstate representation and entered more high profile competitions, which drew more attention to her work. Nonetheless, he felt entitled to a percentage of whatever she earned, forever.
The concept that artists owe these people to whom they're often compelled to pay up to 50 per cent of their earnings (oh, plus gallery expenses) is exploitative and debasing. Let's face it, galleries don't do any artist a favour. They take on those who are most likely to be successful or who have already achieved some level of success. The art business is, after all, a business not a charity and it has fuck-all relevance to culture, despite its pretensions.
Artists are traded between galleries like football players between teams – or, worse, like whores between bordellos.
I once schlepped my work and myself seven hours by plane (at my own cost) to exhibit at a gallery interstate. It was sold to me by my gallerist at the time as a 'good strategic move' to build my career. As it turned out, my gallerist just wanted shared some of the success he'd had with me with a business ally. After the gallery's commissions and my travel and accommodation were paid, I was left deeply in debt. Of course, I dumped the gallerist, who was not only peeved but tried to demand a percentage of all my future sales.
The art business is all about petty power plays. Artists, gallerists, institutional and corporate curators, art magazine editors, and critics are all complicit in them.
Art magazines rely on advertising from galleries to fund their publications and in Australia, at least, there is little or no art critique that is independent of the traditional gallery system. It's ironic, really, that so many apparently creative minds are trapped within a system that only works if everyone plays the same sleazy, corrosive game – to rules made up to benefit everyone but the artist.
A younger, more independent-minded generation of artists, of which I am unarguably one of the first, is less inclined to bother with the game at all. We like to think of it as beneath us – along with all the other fakers and percentage-takers that persist in playing it. We're too busy connecting and working with each other and our audience, taking responsibility for our own careers. reclaiming a measure of self-reliance and maybe even a little dignity. Being under someone else's control, being told that you owe them half your income plus expense, being passed around their so-called friends, is demeaning and ultimately unproductive.
A number of years ago, I asked an art dealer who managed a well-known artist why he didn't create a web site for the artist. He laughed and told me the web wouldn't make a difference. I thought he was stupid. But I suspect he may have been better at his own game than I'd realised. Creating a website would have, inevitably, empowered the artist and diluted the influence of the art dealer.
But the power of new media, combined with the accelerating decline of traditional galleries, especially in a drastically deteriorating global economy, is such that even the most persistent and grasping middlemen will lose their grip in the near future. While artists will flourish on the net, only a very few galleries are likely to adapt to it, let alone be able transfer offline success online.
As any geek – or record company – can tell you, the web works against any effort to exert control within it.


Phoinix said...

A gallery is nothing but a retail store with delusions of grandeur. If they can't sell "product" they have no buisness being in... well - business actually. If you can't out-sell me, you have no buisness trying to tell me anything. Quite the opposite really.

Art is a buisness. A hard buisness. And if you want to eek a living out of it (forget getting "rich") you have to play hard-ball to defend every penny some angel of a collector pays you. Art has *always* been a hard buisness. For a long time controlled entirely by a gallery system that pimps out other's creativity for it's personal profit and enjoyment.

I know a few artists who dream of having a gallery manage their career, advancing them money, and making the world safe for them to simply create in their studio without worrying about buisness... They are dreaming about an age that never really existed. And galleries love to play on that fantasy.

But now the artist can control her own career entirely, for good or bad.

Mary Anne Davis said...

Ok, Ok, I love this rant, I so relate, but there is bit of harsh that could come down just a tad. Some dealers are actually really wonderful expanders of an artists world. A lot of artists prefer to have help selling their art, who wouldn't? More studio time. Some dealers have been awful, for sure, but that doesn't mean they are all bad. Just sayin', for balance. Check out Tinku Gallery in Toronto. Amrita sells art for the right reasons and is incredibly careful about how she does business.

It is a hard road, wicked hard work. I prefer to collaborate. With the right person.

d.edlen said...

I read that same post, got pissed off and ranted in a comment. Man, why don't galleries trust artists? Because they aren't trustworthy. Those are the galleries that are in it just for the money, not the art. @tinkugallery, I suspect, is different. But not many are. I'm with you on this.


Anonymous said...

great post.

things are changing, and finally to the benefit of the artist. As you mentioned, the way the internet is developing, more and more artists are doing it themselves, without signing over their soul.

Years ago, i dropped into a gallery i had once exhibited. they asked how where things, I said good, sold some work online... oh you should have seen their ears prick up. They didn't want to make it obvious, but they where very interested how i managed. They know the internet is a threat to them.

I would rather put in the extra hard work of the sale myself any day, to take back control of MY work.

Amber Baiguerra said...
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Queen Vee said...

On the other side of the fence, as a newbie art-buyer, I personally don't like galleries. I don't like going in them – generally so cold and impersonal and unengaging. They rarely seem to have anything I'm interested in, either.

I DO love Art Melbourne, however. But a few years back I picked out some artists I liked there and signed up to their galleries' mailing lists… It was a total waste of time. The art I've bought has come from artists with blogs. As soon as my art fund has built up again, I'm hoping to get one of Hazel's watercolours!

… The other thing I love is the street art in Melbourne; both the graffiti and the Laneway Commissions.

Queen Vee said...

PS: has anyone had any experience with Imagekind or other sites like it, where the site makes its money from selling you framing for the works?

Amber Baiguerra said...

I would like to know (Queen Vee you might be able to answer) if purchasing online only: 1. Were you already familiar with an artists work having seen it in a gallery? and 2. What is the average spend online, is it over e.g. 2K?
Curious. I personally wouldn't pay over $200 for work I haven't seen in the flesh unless I knew the artist, and that would be from seeing the work in most likely..a gallery. I know a lot of people who buy online and aren't willing to spend more then $50.

Anonymous said...

My boss and his wife are busy with careers and little kids and have no time for galleries and don't know what is around.

I was asked to advise and assist in their search for a large colourful aboriginal painting they had envisioned for a feature wall in their new house.

It was easy, all I had to do was to go to the web and onforward links to appropriate galleries with online catalogues of their stock.

They have selected a painting on the 'flinders lane gallery' website ticketed $25,000. This was more than they expected to pay so they made an offer $16,000.00. The gallery has dropped the sale price for them to $19,000.00 and this is where it stands. No agreement yet.

My boss and his wife have only seen the painting online but intend to visit the gallery soon to take a look at it in real form, if they can find the time.

It will be interesting to see whether they buy it, whether they make the effort to go and see it first and who compromises most in relation to the price.

So far the process for them has been solely via web and phone. It may come to nothing.


TET (David) said...

Whilst I wouldn't hold myself as a prime example of a successful artist who sells exclusively online (I've done okay but nowhere near Hazel's success) the issue of selling art unseen, except as a digital photo) is a real one to be overcome.

Few people would hand over even $1000 as a first time purchase from an unknown artist online. Hence creating smaller cheaper works for online sales becomes more critical to build up trust between artist and client.

It's akin to selling samples. If the client buys a few small works online for little financial risk and you deliver (in every sense not just sending the art) as an artist. Then that client will start to feel safer about buying your more expensive work based solely on a digital photo.

Like selling in galleries, you still have to work hard to get the 'big' sales. Online is no free ride to easy money.

Queen Vee said...

Hi Amber. To answer your questions, the pieces I've bought online I got without having seen the artists' work in the flesh anywhere. So far, the most I've spent is about AUD 450. (I haven't bought anything in the four figures simply because I haven't got the money for it at the moment…)

I suppose if I were to consider buying, say, one of Hazel's enamel works costing low five figures, I would want to go see it without the backlighting of a computer screen. :) But then, as David said, perhaps if I'd bought a smaller, cheaper enamel work from her, I might not.

Having said that, I think it would depend a lot on the medium. I wouldn't have a problem paying a decent amount for a photograph or a print I hadn't seen in the flesh, but an oil painting or collage or sculpture – something 3-dimensional or very textural – I might hesitate over. Good photography can make things look so much better!

Amber Baiguerra said...

Totally agree with you David.

Amber Baiguerra said...

Hi Queen Vee - yeah photography can make a difference. Even at home, the paintings I have sold online, have been from a photograph I have taken of new work on a white wall with furniture around it. I think this can make a difference also. Gives you a sense of size / proportion. Depends on the work / medium etc as you said..

Anonymous said...

Well my boss, as I said, is negotiating by phone to pay $16,000for a painting only seeing it online. If the gallerist agrees to his figure I am sure he & wife will attend the gallery to see and collect it when paying the dollars. I chatted with that particular gallerist the other evening and she said having her full stockroom catalogue on line was great and saved her lots of time it takes to unroll and pull out works to show people and then put them all back. Its so easy she said to show people who walk in their full stock online and long distance/overseas customers trust her gallery which has a good reputation, to buy expensive works on line. It was an email from her gallery that allowed me to browse the works and find that they would interest my boss and wife and so I passed on the information. The gallerist was very pleased with my referral and their online gallery. Of course the artist involved is not being part of this as she resides in an aboriginal community on the other side of the country and her representatives over there are the contacts for negotatiating the price of the painting, not the artist herself. It would be nice if the parties could contact the artist and buy direct but this is not possible in this case.

Anonymous said...

In fact I have heard many artists bemoan the fact that they find it too hard to find a gallery to represent them when they are new to the market. Getting into a good gallery is their dream.

Its only when artists have been part of the gallery system that they then may find its not all they thought and want to break free.

I heard a gallerist the other day tell that one of the artists she had been showing had left and gone 'independent' opting out of her gallery representation but they were still in touch.

My cousin, a sculptor, had been offered a contract with a St Kilda gallery, but opted out as there were too many conditions. He didn't want to be owned by the gallerist in having to tell get her permission for shows he may want to do elsewhere etc. etc..

Amber Baiguerra said...
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Amber Baiguerra said...
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Anonymous said...

amber, my cousin the sculptor had no investment of works in that St Kilda Gallery apart from having participated as part of that gallery "stable" of artists at the Melbourne Art Fair a while ago, while the contract was being considered but not entered into.

He has been with other galleries, one in particular in Flinders Lane for a couple of years from where he withdrew describing the gallerists as 'vipers, 'snakes' etc. I am not sure what happened except that he did not feel supported, only heard from them when they sold a work of his.

However there are some artists who have been represented by that flinders lane gallery for many many years, clearly have a great relationship with the gallerists, doing very well & are happy with their representation. I know at least a couple of these artists also have teaching careers with the local university art faculty so would not have time to do what the gallery does for them.

In fact there are many artists with galleries who have alternative but associated careers teaching art/history etc at various unis/techs. That probably makes the difference in their being more than happy to pay for someone else to manage their careers as artists in organising exhibitons/sales and promotion.

I'm not an artist but a legal secretary so my views and observations are not coming from an insider as such but I do spend a lot of time in galleries, have done art courses and have a collection of artworks around the house.


Steve Gray said...

I run a blog which has interviewed Hazel and others I agree with the concept of Visual Artists having their own website, it's one of the criteria I use in selecting artists to be interviewed.

The big thing though is many Aussie artists don't have one... I can get USA Artists (which is fine) but feel I am missing out on so many locals.

The whole gallery artist issue is a huge one, so there is a twist or bent to go direct to collectors via the web, great if you can get them. So many seem to fail in the marketing stakes, too much "art for art sake" idealism, hey guys the world has moved on...

Great article Hazel!

Stefan Maguran said...

Excellent article, Hazel. It is the first article telling it like it is. Very interesting comments as well. Good luck.

Leigh Fogle said...

As a gallery owner for 15 years now I can understand where a lot of the artists are coming from. I don't like visiting a lot of galleries either to tell you the truth, they are too snobby and "cold" of my favorite compliments is how welcome and comfortable our gallery is. However, after starting out in a flex office/warehouse space for the first 10 years, I didn't expect any exclusives from my artists, as most of the work was commissioned or placed - we have never been a pedestrian gallery. But, four years ago we took on a major project, renovating a 1950's art deco building to convert into our 10k sq foot gallery and frame production studio. Within the first week, I realized it was going to be a different game - clients I knew for years came in and saw the originals on the wall and commented, wow, I forgot about "John" -I should check out his studio and see what he's up to. Meanwhile, I had just taken all of my finances including what felt like my first born child and dumped it into this enterprise.
We have been succesful over the years because of our relationships with corporate and healthcare buyers - placing art and commissioning with the artists we trust - and like (personally, really - who wants to work with a jerk?). But, we're in the midst of a new website development and along those lines, new "contracts" with our artists. I've never before asked for exclusives but now must as we will focus on those that are a part of our family/team and understand that working with us as their marketing/sales/promotions arm - they the artist can do what they do best...create art.

Ken Joslin said...


Fi said...

As an upcoming artist who is very familiar with the digital environment, I simply cannot imagine using old brick and mortar models of business to find & connect with my fans and sell my work. An offline gallery would have to show me a solid marketing plan and offer conditions more attractive than common currently for me to consider them. For me, it's just too easy to be online and bypass the middleman.

Phoenix Perry said...

Reading this article, I noticed a serious lack of perspective on several issues. First off, many artists create experiences, not objects. Affordable object and graphic based works sell well online. I have several friends who are living proof of this. While I adore the internet and have been using it for 20 of my 35 years on this earth, it doesn't take the place of the experience of art or music in person. It never will. It also doesn't replace local community and the need for artists to have audiences and venues.

Personally, I have seen thousands of images of art online but only ever been touched deeply by works I have seen in person. Many galleries and institutions eek by, and like my own gallery, Devotion, are completely self funded efforts. Most of the best galleries in large cities are run by artists themselves who simply want to grow their communities and share work they believe in. This rant completely over looks these galleries. Those individuals who are struggling to give opportunities to work not supported by the commercial gallery system are, in my opinion, key to their communities and worthy of respect.

As an artist, I created a concept gallery in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Devotion focuses on the presentation of art, science, design, and complexity to open up a dialogue about the evolution and connection between these disciplines. Financially, my only goal for the gallery is that it break even. I hope we provide the artists who show with us inspiration, support and motivation. Otherwise, I'm personally throwing away a huge amount of energy and cash. I'm not a trust fund kid. I just work and believe anything worth having is worth fighting for.

The thoughts going through my head are not "I want to make tons of cash" but "I hope we can open some minds and inspire people." I am sure that I am not alone in this. Galleries like See You on the Rivera and Cinders in my neighborhood are also run by artists for our communities in an effort to build audiences and encourage artistic growth. (As a side note, I was really sad to see See you on the Rivera close. It was a loss for local artists.)

How many artists have been pushed to make bigger, brighter works because of a show deadline? How many of us have been seriously encouraged by the positive feedback we have gotten at a show?

Space for us is an extremely rare commodity - I just vote more artists do what I have done and open galleries of their own. Only show art you love by artists you care about, regardless of their ability to sell. Claim no ownership of them, and in fact help them make opportunities for future shows. Simply put, take back the gallery system. There's no reason we shouldn't. That's the only way this is ever going to change for artists who want to exhibit outside of the digital realm. Frankly, I got sick of complaining about how much I hated Chelsea and did something about it - I recommend anyone reading this do the same.

Katie said...

It is partially true! A gallery is almost comparable to a magazine. The gallerist might feature artists and contribute to their reputation or say spread the word about them...but that´s it!
Actually some buyers contribute to an artists image too! Do buyers demand 50 % comissions for raising the artists market price?
not really!
So yes, I can relate!