Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Ka-Boom Of The System

A well-regarded gallery owner came to visit me at the enamel factory yesterday. We have known each other for several years but we had renewed our acquaintance just a couple of weeks ago when I raised with him the possibility of mounting an exhibition at his space in the latter half of 2010. The point of his visit was to seal the deal.
I made fresh coffee and served delicate, mousse-like cakes from my favourite Chinese patisserie. He said how much he liked my new paintings. He also told me that I looked both well and happy. We sat in front of a new, large enamel painting in pretty colours and started to talk about exhibition dates.
Then things went awry.
The gallery owner assumed that my commitment to an exhibition also meant my agreement to local representation. It hadn't been mentioned before. It wasn't enough that he'd make forty percent on sales of the works included in the show. He wanted commission on the sale of all future works to all Sydney-based collectors, even those whose interest in my work I had nurtured for years.
In addition to this commission, he wanted every Sydney-based collector who contacted me to be referred immediately to the gallery and any further contact with me discouraged.
I told him, politely, I didn't work that way. I explained that my individual relationship with everyone who was interested in my work, whether they were collectors or not, was enormously important to me and I went into some detail about how my online presence – through a heavily trafficked web site, a 'blog, Twitter, YouTube, and even LinkedIn – encouraged constant contact.
The gallerist didn't know what Twitter was, and I suspect, hadn't actually ever read a 'blog – let alone mine. When I mentioned that he could see how transparently I lived and worked through my blog, he thought I'd said 'blood'. Even the word 'blog' was unfamiliar.
Still, we talked around the stumbling block of his insistence on representation a little more even though I knew the relationship was doomed and I should withdraw.
After he'd finished his coffee and cake, I walked him to the end of a long work table covered with paint cans and work debris to a clear space where my stencil prototype lay on glassine paper. I talked a little about how it was created and why.
As he had with all the other work, he told me how much he liked it but I realised that he hadn't been listening: he suggested I do the stencil image as a giclée prints.
"As you know, artists can't do traditional colour prints anymore," he said, somewhat archly (and wrongly). "So they're printed in ink."
Ink as in ink-jet printing. The last thing I wanted to do were giclée reproductions – which he would have known had he read my last entry here.
The gallery owner left before I could tell him that I wasn't going to exhibit with him. I called him as he was driving away in his large, shiny, foreign-built car. Politely, I insisted I was looking for an exhibition, not representation.
This provoked him to give me the same lecture I had first heard from another gallery owner over a decade ago. A little too loudly, he boasted that other artists were proud to be represented by him and respected what his gallery stood for.
He went on to tell me that by joining his gallery, I would benefit from the gallery brand. Gallerists always talk about brand with very little understanding that a brand is not just a well-known name: it is inextricable from a set of clearly identifiable values and attitudes.
I replied that – if we were speaking in those terms – I already had my own brand, so I didn't need his gallery's.
"If anything," I said, my own voice rising a little, "my partnerships with galleries are about co-branding. And in every instance, my brand brings benefits equal or superior to the gallery's."
The gallerist moved on quickly, telling me he didn't want to be 'used' for his space, and that the gallery would need a return for its "significant" investment in me during the exhibition. I pointed out that, quite apart from the fact that I usually bore the brunt of advertising and promotional costs for my exhibitions, the hefty commission on works his gallery could sell immediately before, during and for 60 days after the exhibition, not to mention the media attention my shows always generate, would be a more than generous return – on the space and on their time and effort.
His tone became emotional, angry: "What am I supposed to do if I am at a dinner party and someone asks if I represent you? What am I supposed to say?"
"Simply? No," I said.
"Look, you can't have your cake and eat it too," he blurted.
I laughed. The exchange was slipping out of his control, an unfamiliar experience for him when dealing with a young artist.
The gallery owner's last, weak jab was to tell me that his gallery worked to a specific structure, for which I had no respect because I didn't have one. I told him that my studio structure was probably as well or better organised than his but as it was now clear to me that our methods of working would not be compatible, I suggested we end the conversation.
Of course, the 'structure' that old-school galleries like to talk about is nothing more than the same 'middle-man' system used by everyone from mortgage brokers to car dealers: a system in which artists are little more than suppliers of product which is then given 'shelf space' on a sale-or-return basis. In return, galleries 'mark up' the work with commissions that can reach as high as 60 per cent and are rarely less than 40, and the artist gets few, if any, back-office benefits like accounting, tax planning, inventory management, or strategic career advice.
Even skilled marketing and communications are a stretch.
Moreover, art dealers (and artists) of the old school don't want to accept that 'regional' art markets now exist on a much larger scale than mere cities. There's a world-wide community of collectors and fans (whose value, even if they can't afford the work, mustn't be underestimated), for whom online media enables and sustains a highly personal, ongoing dialogue directly with the artist. Even better, there are no opening hours, no middlemen, no doorkeepers, no 'exclusivity', no 'good address'.
The gallery owner saw the value in displaying my name and work on his website but he had no real understanding of how the internet worked beyond what he kept referring to as his 'virtual shop front'.
Ironically, the reason he had schlepped out to see me at the enamel factory, in the unfashionable industrial suburbs far from the centre of Sydney, was because he had been impressed by the speed and scale of the spreading awareness of my name and work over the past couple of years. He was entirely resistant to the idea that this had been accomplished almost entirely online.
My encounter with the gallery, from whom, I suspect, I will never hear again, reaffirmed my view that the traditional system (a system to which not all gallery owners belong) is dying.
What I hadn't really understood, until yesterday, was that the galleries still working within that system are determined to take as many artists with them as they can.


Jason Barre said...

As I am just starting to work towards independence as a artist by promoting myself online exclusively, you have provided me with confidence to continue in my ways.

The rapid advances of technology and connectivity thereof will leave these "traditional gallery structures" in the wake of the oncoming wave of progress unless they change their ways.

Thank you for reinforcing these ideals by forging your own path!

Nathe said...

They just don't get it. Change occurring where even institutions like the printed version of the Trading Post can't survive must tell people something. The writings on the wall for that guy. Business models formed decades ago are less and less relevant. We'd all be better off without them anyway!

Anonymous said...

What would he say at a dinner party? THAT was his big concern?
Jesus Christ!

ArneA said...

The only left out part of your post is his name as a warning to other artists. Give the press a copy of your post so they can start digging into some possible dark side of art distribution.

Kirsty Hall said...

The gatekeepers are dying off and frankly, many deserve to - the majority seem to be completely clueless about the ways things have changed. Yes, their way USED to work but it doesn't now and if they refuse to change, they're going down.

Tina Mammoser said...

Such a sad conversation! Your brand and reputation are so strong, it will be his loss not to work with you. The few galleries I work with (not nearly at the level you are!) seem to be gaining a bit of understanding that we artists are building our own brands online and that is actually a benefit to the relationship, not a threat. There are, unfortunately, those that have their heels firmly dug in.

Tracey said...

I don't really see any value in naming the particular gallery owner, there are many like him ( though probably less every day!) If he is as savvy as people in his field think they are, then he will give some serious thought to what Hazel told him, and find ways to use his space in a new way. Hazel saw value in using his space, so he obviously has something to offer.
Times are changing and I don't think you can fault people for finding this difficult. His business model used to work, now it doesn't, this is not exclusive to the art world!
I am not for a moment suggesting that there was any honour in the old system, far from it, but many artists without any business sense will have made money from their art through people such as him.
Not all artists have the drive and determination that Hazel has,or the ability to manage themselves, and effectively shift the overheads associated with producing works.
I do think he is an ass though:-)
Fortunately with artists like Hazel exposing themselves (no pun intended)the bullying force of personality strategy of gallery owners will no longer be effective.

Ben said...

nice post, its up to the artist to decide, the work is not stuff we put on a shelf in a store....

Gretchen Kelly said...

This is a fantastic entry and valuable info. You are the new millennium model of a successful Artist. I am learning from you about how to be steadfast in my belief of self and emergence in this new landscape for the Artist that is their for all of us to create for ourselves. Bravo to you and your confidence, courage, creativity and innovation.

Rob Reeves said...

I'm happy to say that I've been luck thus far in my dealings with gallery owners although I have seen that, even in my smallish community, there are some people that just can't change with the times. Hopefully this means that those individuals will become mercifully extinct (metaphorically speaking... of course).

merlinprincesse said...

I read this post with great interest! I think there will always be a spot for traditional galleries, but those will have to adapt.... :) Yup!

Angela said...


You're better off not having anything to do with that sort.

Mike Wood said...

Wow. That was a great read. And such a load of old school crap from that gallery rep you had to deal with.

Writing in blood, on a blood? online? His not knowing the potential of how to build a brand online, and how your brand could immensely help his, is staggering.

If he had an online presence, I am sure he would have blogged about your meeting too. But he will be just as happy in his ignorance to tell people the story at a dinner party. Much bigger audience there.

b/rood said...

I have to add my congratulations – and my admiration for the sheer balls of this entry. I can think of no other established young artist that would dare to 'draw down'on a system that, in the past, has had the capacity to cripple a career, even a big one (George Condo and David Salle come to mind).

I cannot really understand the dissenters who are artists: this is, after all, entirely about empowerment, greater financial independence and stability, and control of one's creative destiny.

I also believe there are galleries out there who understand this (Tinku in Toronto and George Byrant are two) and are trying to re-engineer their business models to accommodate it.

Remittance Girl said...

I'm not a visual artist, but I can see parallels between your world and the agents and publishers of the writing world.

I was interested in your comments about the relationships you form with your collectors and others who admire, but might not own, any of your pieces and how the net played a part in that.

I was a writer born on the net, and my relationship with my readers is an intrinsic part of my writing practice. One of the reasons I am so ambivalent about being published in print is the disruption of this relationship.

It is an interesting development when artists step out of their cage of protected creativity and engage with the reader / viewer on such a personal level. I think it makes for great and innovative work. And it would be a shame to eclipse that.

Sue said...

It's great you're being so successful doing it your way. Good on you and keep moving forward.
You know artists and the public are behind you, because we're here conversing about it.
It's sad and shameful that the example of the gallery owner can't realize the exploitation and bullying of artists. There's probably the realization that without artists they'd be out of a job, but the business isn't going that well. If only they'd realize why.

Annie Paul said...

wow, thanks for this one Hazel, shocking that he doesn't know about blogs or Twitter. and great to be in your head like this experiencing your reactions and thoughts.

yeah, those invested in the old paradigms don't get it, i'm beginning to think paradigms shift because that;s the only way to get the recalcitrant complacent older generation out of the way--

Anonymous said...

You should hire a space and do a "pop up" gallery!! There are lots of great spaces available for short lease at the moment due to the GFC.

S x

d.edlen said...

Really well said. And great story too. I'm currently internally struggling with the desire to reach more eyeballs that go to local galleries instead of online for decor and art. I'm not sure how to do it yet. But I do know that exclusive consignments and exhibitions aren't the way. I've learned this the hard way once on fortunately a small scale and have avoided it since.

As the old structure crumbles it is difficult to pick through the rubble to find the audience squashed beneath. I think those like yourself who tirelessly, to the point of physical damage to the self, work to dig them out and bring them with YOU are amazing.

Many industries with gatekeepers have evolved, most still working through it as those of the old guard cling to their posts while the walls tumble, so that middlemen have a different role. I think the ego-laden word "curator" is best left in that rubble, but the idea is valid. They just need to listen to those they filter from and those they filter too, not themselves in a vacuum.

Again, really well said Hazel.


Natalie said...

He's of the same mind set as my tutors were at uni. They had absolutely no knoweledge of the power of the web, net culure, blogging etc They encouraged students to go down the traditional route (as if it was the only one available) and they spread the notion that there was only space out there for a select few that had to kowtow to the established and the trendy East End gallerists.
Great post

Gary Brant said...


The most meaningful words for me in your eye-opening and very useful story is the term "co-branding", which applies so well to the joint venture that is created when both the gallerist and artist put their best efforts forward in cooperation.

Gary Brant in NY

Secret Artist said...

one of the best artist posts i have read in a while - thanks

Oscar Ortiz said...

Galleries are the most still existing Victorian era way of selling paintings. Next in line for extinction ... art critics (a literature genre with a very small readers base).

fitzroyalty said...

Ha! You can have your cake and eat it too. Say to gallerists: no cake for you!

Keith Bond said...

People will always want to have opportunities to view actual works in an exhibit or gallery setting. Your desire to have an exhibition at the gallery illustrates this point.

Those gallerist who understand the new dynamics of the art world (because of the internet) and still provide the bricks and mortar space for viewing will be the ones who will survive and even do well.

Those gallerists who do not embrace the possibilities of the internet and the reality that artists no longer NEED them will find themselves out on the street.

I do much of my own marketing and sales and I also still do some with galleries and shows. I have felt the need lately to help my galleries realize that there is a revolution going on like has not been seen since the industrial age. Social media is the way of the future.

Thanks again for the great post.

Daniel said...

Great Post! Every young or young at heart artist should read it. The writing is on the Blog -- Times they are a ch ch ch changing.

Aaron B. Brown said...

You seem a formidable negotiator, and wise to the ways of the old art establishment. Apparently there was a point in your conversation at which you realized that further negotiation was pointless because this individual was so fixed in his ways. I imagine you've had such encounters before.

As someone who is unfamiliar with the art world, it seems to me that much of it, like the art itself, is largely inaccessible to a large segment of the population. Historically art seems to have been relegated to those who have the disposable time, income and wherewithal to experience and enjoy it. But in this new age and century it seems that more people than ever before are gaining access as well as the opportunities for exposure to art, opportunities that past generations could hardly have imagined.

It seems that you actively pursue a broadening of your exposure to a wider cross-section of the population, and thereby create a wider and more diverse market for the pieces that you produce. I think you should be applauded for this.

Dan Monceaux said...

In film, art and music making circles the independent musician has never had it better. Scat to the system... we have the tools, the technology and the passion to make it work on our own terms. I'm with you, Hazel. Defend your right to work and live on your own terms.

Anonymous said...

Good on you, Hazel.

Adam Hyland said...

Well put, Hazel. The juxtaposition of this encounter with Gerry Harvye and Solomon Lew whingeing about online retailers not playing by their rules must tell you that you are getting this right.

anselmvr said...

As a very 'old skool' artist who has been in self-chosen exile from the Art world for several decades, I applaud your courageous stand against the cultural dinosaurs that inhabit the Art market. However the fundamental problem with online representation is that our carefully hand-painted images get seen on computer screens, where they are distorted in every conceivable way: in size, surface, colour, tone and most importantly, in their aesthetic energy. It seems to me that if there is any point in making laboriously hand-made images in this era of the ever expanding electronic media, it is about the uniqueness of the particular object; that particular canvas with its unique size & scale, its unique colours & tonal relationships. If "the medium is the message", those formal elements of the work are every bit as important and meaningful as the more consciously intentioned subject matter. And it is those that get lost or changed when they appear on our computer monitors.