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.