Thursday, October 25, 2007

art and the man


I've been dithering over whether to talk about art galleries for a couple of weeks now. It all started when Radiohead released its new album In Rainbows on-line on October 10th. The media storm was fascinating because I could immediately see parallels in the art world, i.e. bypassing The Man to deliver the product directly to the consumer. This revolution has been coming in waves, starting with the impact that the internet has had on the publishing industry. I'm not thinking so much of the original (and short-sighted) furor around the idea of downloading a published work. From a practical perspective, who really wants to do that? It's easier to bite the bullet and buy the book, not to mention more satisfying to actually hold it in your hands. The real impact appears to be in the explosion and success of the vanity press. I bought a vanity-press novel on-line a couple of years ago and felt a real sense of satisfaction in not having editors and publishers, whose prime motivator is the bottom line, making the decision on what I should read. Never mind that the novel was mediocre.

Like publishing the printed word on-line, publishing music has two sides. At first glance the availability of free music seems to punish the musician who isn't getting paid, and just look at all the number of artists who have gone to bat to fight for so-called control. But on second glance it's really the music publishers who are the big losers, especially when bands like Radiohead have learned how to make the internet not only work for them, but work in a huge way. And just look at the explosion of small music publishers and indie bands who would still be noodling away in basements and working at HMV without the internet. My son, who has very specific taste in music, orders most of his CDs from small independent music publishers who only sell on-line. I love that he has immediate access to the non-mainstream music he loves; he loves that he can bypass the record companies, who pretend Britney Spears is a singer in order to sell CDs, and buy real music.

Then, last week, I had 'words' with a gallery who were carrying my work, and I silently shook my fist at all commercial galleries who exploit their vulnerable artists to make a buck. (Note: There are excellent, ethical galleries out there, and who I deal with, who would never exploit their artists.) This year alone, from galleries who have sold and taken an up to 50% cut of my work with not a single penny paid out for inventory, I've had to put up with having damaged paintings returned to me, poor or no publicity of my work, having to hang my own show, badly-managed intenet presence, completely ignoring my attempts at contact, and expecting me to pay shipping of my work both to and from the gallery. And because I'm no Robert Genn, I'm like so many other artists who know better -- but take it anyway because we need the galleries more than they need us.

Like publishing and record companies, commercial art galleries are facing the threat of competition from direct on-line sales, but unlike books and music, art buying is primarily a game for the rich and the elderly, who are slow to tap into new trends in delivery and technology. And let's face it, running an art gallery is a tough, tough business. Many artists, frustrated with the gallery system, have tried, failed and acquired newfound respect for what it takes to run a gallery. No wonder so many galleries will only go with idyllic landscapes and unchallenging design-house abstracts; it seems like the only way to survive! Robert Genn can call the shots for a reason and as an arts writer as well as an artist he has never once questioned the commercial gallery system because they are his bread and butter and he is theirs. It's the perfect marriage of art and commerce.

But this incredibly conservative system can't last forever as the computer generation grows up. Fine art painters like Mandy Budan and a whole host of designers and illustrators like Yellena or Ashley Goldberg or Lisa Congdon are tapping into the younger on-line market and really making it work for them. And there are savvy bricks-and-mortar gallery owners, like Susan Schwake-Larochelle, whose galleries are multi-faceted enterprises that combine traditional fine art exhibitions with on-line sales, film, fashion and design shows (and she has shown the work of two of the designers I mentioned) and, best of all, an art school, all under one great-looking roof. I think artstream's current and future success in the bricks-and-mortar world lies in Susan's passion and openness for trying new things (and being an artist herself doesn't hurt).

In spite of the frustrations I've had to deal with as I try to bridge two worlds I find it all pretty exciting, too. We've come a long way since the Salon des Refuses set the stage for artists to thumb their noses at authority. I can hardly wait to see where it all leads.

12 Comments:

Blogger susan said...

ah it is a complicated life as an artist and gallery owner. ... but we really try to not only be fair (we actually give 60% to the artists!) but handle and exhibit the work as if it were our own.
i don't understand how the galleries who don't practice good business stick around for long as the artists are our bread and butter so to speak.
if you don't love what you are doing, you have to get out - don't take the hard working artist down with you.
ok, off said soap box for now.
god i love radiohead.

25/10/07 10:47 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Thanks, Susan, and you are definitely not the only great gallery out there (right, Toni?) and I've been lucky enough to sometimes deal with others. I've just had an unusual run of bad luck this year.

25/10/07 11:04 AM  
Blogger Angela Rockett said...

What a great post, Andrea, and thanks for taking the time to write it. Lots to think about there.

I too love Susan's gallery model. Though I'm running our gallery as a volunteer and out of a church, I'm trying to run it in such a way that we show really, really good art, usually very different art than what is expected of "church" art, and also so the artists feel good about showing there. And given the number of repeat exhibitors, I think it must be working.:) We've even had 2 artists gift the church with original artwork in thanks.

We provide publicity, online and otherwise, and we hang the show, and we provide refreshments for the opening reception. We've even provided professional musical performances. All this is on a volunteer basis. The only money we get from these shows is from the entry fees. When that hasn't been enough, our priest has made up the difference from his own pocket. It kills me that so many professional galleries can't seem to do even that much for huge commissions! If we took commissions on sales too…

When I submit my work to galleries, I can only hope they'll treat me and my work as well.

25/10/07 2:32 PM  
Blogger dinahmow said...

Yes, a well-thought-out piece of writing. Were I still editing a small local "rag" I'd run this on my front page.
I hope Robert Genn takes this heart. Most of his writing seems to be aimed at steering artists towards galleries,when maybe more writers should focus on challenging galleries to represent a broader field.
I hope this stirs the cool pot and turns up some heat.

25/10/07 3:03 PM  
Blogger Ian Lidster said...

It is a brave new world indeed, and in creative realms it's both exciting and sometimes frightening. Your blog was particularly apt today, my friend, because I just sent a MS off and am now leaving it in the hands of the gods, or the publisher. I think it's good. They may not.
I've toyed with vanity press, and I might go there if there are no bites, because I believe it's worthy. Yet, something deep inside my ego says "I want somebody to want to buy it!" Anyway, a very interesting bit of pondering on your part. Thanks.

25/10/07 4:41 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Angela: You know, you could ask for a small take, like 20%, and I'm sure you'd still get great entries. I think what you're doing is fantastic and brings art to a whole new audience. I wish more churches used their wall space in such an enriching way (and more gallerists were like you).

Dinah: I think there's a lot of value in Robert Genn's position, it's just that it's an old-world position that, with new blood, will probably go the way of the Dodo eventually.

Ian: I know what you mean. In my world, galleries are still the holy grail but when people don't buy art the whole system has to change. On that note, the next time you pick up a book or CD, why not think about purchasing, say, a limited edition print?

25/10/07 5:04 PM  
Blogger Jafabrit said...

Excellent read and so on the mark. Unfortunately many in the art world are still very snotty about the vanity galleries/blogs etc.

I love the fact that artists have so many means and choices and the middle man is out of the picture.

What I see as a possibility coming out of this is smart galleries combining a bricks and mortar with the cyber space. Already respectable aunction houses are doing this. I have been lucky to be in a gallery where the owner and I are on the same page, respect the difficulties each face AND promote each other. So many artists dump their work into a gallery and that's it but I feel there has to be more of an interactive relationship.

26/10/07 6:05 AM  
Blogger Alda said...

Excellent and thought-provoking post, Andrea. I've just finished reading an interview with an Icelandic musician who left his record company last year and is releasing his newest CD on his own - it came out today. Your thoughts on art galleries could be transposed onto his about record companies. It's definitely a trend across the board, and like you, I love the potential inherent in the Internet.

In fact, (being into the written word, mostly) just a couple of days ago I found a site that devotes itself to the study of 'blooks' - books that have grown out of blogs, or blogs that are written with the intention of publishing them as a book. Very exciting - all of it.

26/10/07 2:06 PM  
Blogger andrea said...

Jafabrit: As time passes I find myself throwing off more and more of the pre/misconceptions about art that I had unconsciously absorbed. After all, how can I be pretentious when I have a blog? :)

Alda: The parallels between all the arts are fascinating, aren't they? I love connecting the dots!

26/10/07 5:06 PM  
Anonymous donna said...

I think this is really true with any product. I watch what my husband's company Sony goes through in dealing with its distributors for games, and this is a LARGE company! Getting the less popular titles out there is a challenge, and Sony has done very similar moves to the other creative fields by making smaller titles available online, sometimes as online only downloads.

I think eventually this will lead to even individual game developers being able to put out very small "craft" games playable on the system. It's going to be an exciting market, especially with so many kids wanting to be game developers and finding it difficult to get into the field.

Eventually all business may have to work this way to some extent. There will always be larger distributors, smaller "galleries" and so on, but those who want to get thier work out their will at least have some channel for doing so. Even fabricated products can now be made and sold in small batches and distributed - we don't all have to deal with China and WalMart to be successful.

27/10/07 12:34 PM  
Blogger Toni said...

Taking a break from the studio to catch up on reading blogs and had to respond to this one. I am fortunate that the galleries I deal with are good ones. I know which ones are not in my area. I also feel that what Susan is doing will be and is how both artist/gallery owner will survive. A marriage of brick and mortar and internet to produce interest and sales. I just wish I could get Kathy and Joe online.
Now if only we as artists can come up with a form for the gallery to fill out for us to determine their ethics.

28/10/07 3:39 AM  
Blogger andrea said...

Donna: I found the parallels particularly interesting, too. The impact that the internet has is a democratizing one in so many ways.

Toni: You probably saw my little note to you in my response to Susan's comment. From this distance Kathy seems like a super gallery owner and getting on-line might make quite a difference. So often I get people visiting my blog that have done a search on "Kada Gallery". The galleries I've had trouble with have all been new ones making it impossible for me to vet them properly before signing on, but my leaps of faith are running a bit dry...

28/10/07 6:52 AM  

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