Navigating the Real Art World

By Joanne Mattera

“We’re all living in the real world of mid-level galleries and modest artist success, and I don’t think it needs to be a big mystery.”

That’s Wendy Haas responding in conversation to the rarified world of art auctions and museum acquisitions. It’s not our world, as she made clear. With Haas’s down-to-earth comment in mind, our Saturday Morning Panel at the Tenth International Encaustic Conference addressed the professional issues that real-world artists want to know more about. Our panel consisted of Dan Addington, Miles Conrad, Wendy Haas, and Jeff Schaller. All are practicing artists and entrepreneurs, thus with a fully dimensional sense of what it takes to be a dealer as well as an artist in today’s art world. I was the moderator.

Addington Gallery, Chicago: Howard Hersh solo show

Addington Gallery, Chicago: Howard Hersh solo show

We began by addressing how galleries are being forced to respond to current market concerns, because the issues that affect dealers will affect how they select and show artists. First, gallery rents are up, causing many dealers to take fewer chances with new talent, sticking instead with artists who have a track record of sales at higher prices than an emerging artist could ask for. Second, as artists have visibility via the internet, collectors may “shop” for an artist’s work from several dealers. And, third, as more sales are made via the Internet, some dealers question the viability of bricks-and-mortar spaces.

2. Sat am panel.

The Saturday Morning Panel members, from left: Jeff Schaller, Wendy Haas, Miles Conrad, Dan Addington; moderator, Joanne Mattera. Photo: Corina Alvarezdelugo

Dealers, how have you been navigating current market concerns?

Conrad: “I have downsized three times in five years.” He is referring to physical space, but he has also tightened up his operation: “One way for the gallery to reduce risk it to reduce the number of solo shows. Group shows offer something for everyone and help us meet our budget. The economy has affected our program but not our quality.”

Conrad has shown at art fairs in New York City, Los Angeles and Miami. “As a gallerist you can’t wait for the client to come to you,” he says. How can he afford art fairs in this difficult time? “The gallery asks artists to share the risk. We ask artists to contribute a couple of hundred dollars. The rewards are great for those who sell.”

Haas: “There has been a high shift to the internet. At one point 50 percent of my gallery sales were made online. Collectors were making purchases without setting foot in the gallery. As a private dealer I depend on the Internet. But I miss having a physical space to show your work. It’s our creative expression, to select, curate and show your work.” In part for that reason, she still sends postcards to her clients. “The physical is never going to go away, but it’s only a small part of a bigger picture.”

3.CerviniHaasGallery

At Cervini Haas Gallery, Scottsdale: The physical space before Wendy Haas’s move to online private dealing. Paintings by Tremain Smith installed during Basketry Invitational, 2006

Addington: “Recently there have been gallery closings the likes of which I have seen never before. Retirement has made sense for some older dealers, but financial circumstances have pushed many others out. I have to negotiate with my landlord as if my life depended on it.

“As dealers, we love to walk around our gallery space. We put work up, move a painting, move it again. In the process, a show falls into place. How am I gonna do that on a website? The act of curating an exhibition in real space is an important discipline. When you visit an exhibition, you see work hung in a visually pleasing and meaningful way, with visual logic. When all the strategies go digital, we lose this curatorial component. Instagram, with its one image, offers a tiny remnant of that experience.”

What do your circumstances mean for artists?

Conrad: “It has drastically reduced the wall space for your work. When we’re not doing solo shows, we’re not representing you correctly. And there’s a loss of experienced staff. We now have interns.”

4.ConradWildeGallery

At Conrad Wilde Gallery, Tucson: Laura Moriarty solo, before the scale back to group shows

Addington: “Many dealers are playing it safe. I’ve seen some dealers dump all their artists except for a few of their biggest sellers. Then all of those artists are out looking for new representation. Other dealers are trying to play to the market. That is a losing enterprise, and you can end up compromising your own aesthetic. At the end of the day you’ll be selling no more than you were previously. Over time, one starts to learn what may work and what might not, but it has to be work that I respond to so that I can be enthusiastic about it in the gallery. If I could just predict what people are going to buy, as opposed to what I love and want to sell, I’d be up here in a nicer suit

“In the current climate, I think it is worthwhile to try new artists as opposed to just hunkering down with a few safe bets. I like working with mid-career artists who are professionals and have a handle on what they are trying to say with their work.”

Addington’s advice to artists: “Don’t play to the market. Be one of those artists making a consistent body of work. If you’re represented, keep your dealer in new work, and not just when you’re going to have a show. I’m representing my artists all the time. Make it easy for the gallery–respond to your dealer’s requests, and deliver on time.”

Haas: “We need each other to be more creative and flexible. We’ve got to talk to each other. Perhaps this is an opportunity for more collaboration, as well, on things such as art fairs. I think that continuing to give each other our best—efforts, work, loyalty—is the way to persevere.”

How are artists responding to this new reality?

“You’re in trouble,” Jeff Schaller said to the dealers on the panel. “This is an opportunity for artists to help you.”

Schaller’s solution was to create the Chester County Open Studio Tour, near Philadelphia. In the most recent incarnation, which took place a couple of weeks before Conference 10, some 125 artists showed their work in 53 studios. “The event teaches artists to sell and collectors to collect,” he says. “It gives the public a look at what artists’ work is worth. Local galleries come, consultants come.”

Schaller also competes for and accepts commissions. “I have no gallery representation in Philadelphia so I’m not competing against myself (in a gallery) there.”

5.TheChesterCounty

The Chester County Open Studio event, founded and directed by Jeff Schaller; below: Schaller walking with a visitor

Conrad: “Jeff’s situation is ideal. As an artist it’s your right and responsibility to sell your work. There’s no one out there to rescue you. Open Studios can be a great training ground for you to learn how to present yourself and your work, how to establish pricing, how to make sales. Nothing attracts a gallery faster than an artist who sells well. But it’s a double-edged sword. Galleries have a more cultivated and regular clientele. If those two things are in conflict—artists selling out of their studio to a gallery’s collector clientele—there’s an ethical problem.”

Addington: “I don’t want to be the dealer who says, ‘You can’t do this, you can’t do that,’ but there are certain considerations that must stay consistent between artist and gallery. When you deliver work to a gallery, that’s their inventory, and you have to let them work confidently with that inventory. I will work with other dealers to make sales happen, but one gallery’s inventory should not appear on another gallery’s website.“

Haas: “It comes down to integrity. We have to recognize that artists and dealers need to be creative about selling. Maintain an element of exclusivity. If you have work at Dan’s gallery, don’t post it online in five other places or try to sell it yourself.”

Schaller: “Make something you can’t sell at a gallery. Diversify. Create a line for Etsy, sell at outdoor art fairs. Maintain your mailing list. Write a book—a book gives you credence. Artists are competitive. But be good competitive.”

How are galleries finding artists?

Haas: “If one of my artists recommends an artist, I’ll consider—so vet whom you recommend to your dealer.”

Conrad: “I find artists from other gallerists, curators, seeing work at art fairs, and exhibitions. If a collector is behind you, they’ll recommend you to the galleries they do business with. If the work is aligned with my program, I’ll look.”

All agreed that the artist who shows up to talk about “my work” is rarely the one who gets an invitation to show it. Conrad describes a situation he calls “artist fatigue”—the exhaustion dealers feel after meeting so many artists eager, even desperate, to get their attention.

That high desk in the gallery? It’s there because dealers try to protect themselves from the constant stream of artists looking for a way to introduce themselves and their work. Our panelists described the physical barrier—or the invisible emotional one—as “a membrane,” or “a firewall.”

Conrad: “It’s like Gaydar. You’re sitting in your chair, at the computer, and you can tell when someone comes in fishing for an opportunity to tell you about their work, as opposed to engaging you in a conversation about the work in the gallery.”

Addington: “Know when it’s cool to talk about your work and when it’s not. Talk to me about painting—not your painting—but the work in the gallery, or art history. I might then ask you, ‘Are you an artist? What kind of art do you make?’ By all means respond when the gallerist opens that door. And know how to talk about your work. My conversational firewall is moveable, because I’m also trying to approach collectors on behalf of my artists, and I don’t know initially who’s an artist and who’s a collector.”

Surprise: The enduring power of postcards

Haas: “In addition to the social ways of connecting with a gallery, there’s the passive connection: postcards. Have a good image that represents your work well.”

Addington: “If the dealer is interested, they’ll go online to see more.”

Schaller: “Make sure your URL is on the card!”

Haas: “We’re not going to call you to ask for it.”

Addington: “Yes, a cutline under the image is important and website you produce. Do you know how many websites I click on? Information must be easy to locate.”

As for frequency, every six months or so would not be unreasonable. No one on our panel expressed annoyance with receiving postcards. Noted Conrad: “In this digital world, the tactile becomes increasingly pleasurable.”

7. Bringing the Gallery

Bringing the gallery to the collectors: Cervini Haas Gallery at a recent SOFA Chicago fair
(SOFA is the acronym for Sculptural Objects and Functional Art)

Questions from the Audience
We returned after a short break to take questions from the audience. I’ve altered the order of the questions so as to create the best possible narrative.

Myriam Levy: When you follow up from the postcard image, what do you want to see?
Conrad: “The first thing I look for is an artist statement.”

Addington: “Any follow-up experience with the Internet is instantaneous, so I want to get a sense of who you are as a person.”

Deborah Winiarski: What do you look for in an artist’s website?
Conrad: “Easy navigation, readable fonts, a white background. Can you simulate the environment in which the work is shown [i.e. in your studio, in a gallery setting]? Don’t show me too much. If you show me prices, that implies the work is for sale, which would make you in competition with the gallery. If it’s sold, take it off the website”

Haas: “Emphasize your current work. If you show early work, put it in a timeline or some sort of chronological order so that I can follow your development as an artist. I also want to see a list of who else is currently representing you.”

Addington: “Make sure every image is identified with title, date, medium and size.”

Conrad: “I’m not a fan of slide shows. I want to see images at my own pace, and I need to be able to drag and drop images. That’s how I keep a file of artists’ work that I like. If your website is set up so that I can’t drag and drop, I’m not going to be able to put images of your work in my file.”

Are watermarks a viable way for artists to protect their online images?
None of the panelists responded positively to watermarks, citing their visual interference.

Schaller: “Post your images in 72 dpi. No one is going to be able to copy them.”

Dora Ficher asked about showing a variety of work on one website–in her case, pen-and-ink illustrations, which have a commercial application in licensed products, plus her fine art painting in encaustic.
Conrad: “I think it creates confusion. The dealer will ask, ‘What is she really putting her effort into?’ Don’t conflate your commercial work with your fine art. And consider the collector, who will ask, ‘What am I getting behind?’”

PWJ.Issue13.Pullquote_Navigating_Addington_rightSchaller: “Look at the example of the fashion designer [I think he cited Isaac Mizrahi], who has a high-end line as well as the commercial line he does for Target. You have two products that you’re marketing at once. Market the hell out of them—but in separate accounts.”

That might be a divided website for two different genres, many on the panel noted, or a separate website entirely for commercial work. Schaller mentioned his own Etsy project under a different name: Pink Cow Studio, which sells small, affordable works.

Maura Joy Lustig and Anne Wright each asked about creating a “virtual experience” (Maura’s words) or “a short video clip” (Anne’s words) as part of the online presentation to a gallery, curator or collector.
Haas: “Media people tried that 10 years ago and did it poorly. But now we have the technology to do it better and send it out into the world easily. Make a video with your iPhone and post it on YouTube. You can link to it on your website. Just make sure it doesn’t look like a real estate ad.”

Addington: “I like the human interest aspect. It’s a way that many collectors new to the work can personalize it for themselves. When I’m talking to collectors, it’s not just about aesthetics or price but about the artist who makes the work.”

Conrad: “I love the concept, but it can backfire if not done well. Early on the conversation was about ‘What is encaustic?” and ‘How is it done?’ It’s a more sophisticated conversation now.”

What about the artist who is uncomfortable with self promotion?
Haas: “Use the more passive tools, such as email and postcards.”

Conrad: “Become part of an artist community. Not every conversation has to be a sales pitch, but you still get to interact and network.”

Schaller: “Social media is not only for outgoing personalities. Facebook allows you to be part of a community, keep up with friends, network. Instagram lets you show your art. Twitter lets you chat in a short form. Be yourself, whoever you are.”

Facebook vs. Instagram?
Conrad: “There’s always a new platform. I have all I can do to check Facebook. I guess I’ve officially entered middle age.”

Haas: “It’s another way to expand your portfolio.”

Schaller: “It’s important. It’s another way to brand. I just sold a painting on Instagram.”

Addington: “We’re a microcosm of the art world on this panel in terms of how we use social media. And it’s all relative. Miles says he’s entered middle age, but we’re about the same age and I ‘m probably the youngest art dealer in the River North District of Chicago. If you’re using Instagram, your responses are more immediate. On Facebook there’s more conversation. I’ve found artists from Facebook.”

How do I know when to raise my prices?
Addington: “The price question suggests that an artist is early in their career. I’d suggest you look at the work of artists working at a similar level in terms of experience, education, and exhibition level.”

Schaller: “If you’re selling out, raise your prices. Be consistent with your prices across the board, galleries, studio, outdoor shows. When you raise your prices do it in small increments remember once you go up you can’t come back down.”

Do gender and age matter?
Conrad: “They make no difference to me. I have an uncanny ability to pick women artists. I think it has to do with what I like.”

Addington: I prefer working with mid-career artists. I want to work with professionals. I need a level of consistency. For me it’s about the resume, not the age. Don’t be discouraged if you’re emerging.”

Haas: “I think the intense and discouraging fixation on young artists is particular to markets such as New York, and less common to the mid-level gallery/artist world that we’re discussing. Here you’re far more likely to be appreciated, exhibited and purchased based on your work and not on your age and gender. I also tend to largely represent female artists, but it’s simply an aesthetic choice. Age and gender and even geography have never been a part of my selection process.”

Note: I didn’t insert myself much into the panel discussion, but as one who is now up to my chest in the gender and age pool, I feel compelled to say something in this report. By all accounts, women make up a higher proportion of art school students but are consistently underrepresented by most New York and many big-city galleries. This is true for museums everywhere as well. Though I am thrilled to be in the company of dealers here who are so open minded—and I cannot applaud them enough—it is difficult for an unrepresented woman artist over 50 to find representation in New York City unless you live there, and it’s still difficult. Even if you are represented, it will be harder to get your museum solo. And even if you have had your museum solo it will be harder for you to get the kind of attention you need from art historians. If you live long enough—i.e. until your 90s—it’s possible you will be ‘discovered.’ In the meantime, I like what Miles, Dan and Wendy are saying: that is entirely possible for women at any age—and men, too—to have a full and rewarding, even thriving, career outside of New York City.

What about the emerging artist?
Addington: “If you’re an emerging artist of any age, you want your work to be seen, and juried exhibitions are one way of getting out there. But pick your juried exhibitions carefully, otherwise you’re gonna have a collection of a lot of cancelled checks from juried shows you didn’t end up in. Seeking out venues like college galleries and community and suburban art centers is a worthwhile way of gaining experience and exposure. As a dealer I’m investing thousands of dollars in each artist I represent, so I’m looking for a good exhibition track record.”

Schaller: “Non-profits are a good place to start. You get to show without the pressure of having to sell. When you do make some inroads with a commercial gallery, don’t ask for a solo right away. Focus on the group shows. Eventually you can ask, “’When can I get some space on your wall?’”

. . . . . .

Dan Addington

Dan Addington is an artist and gallery owner who has been working with wax since 1989 and exhibiting encaustic work professionally since 1992. In 1996, as director of what is now Addington Gallery in Chicago, Dan curated the first in a series of exhibitions featuring encaustic painting. His own figurative work echoes his interest in history, the stratification of cultures, and the layering of memory.

.

Miles CoMiles Conradnrad is founding director of the Conrad Wilde Gallery. Since 2005 he has hosted innovative programs in Tucson, Arizona, and at art fairs in Miami, New Yor k City, and Los Angeles. Inclusion in his Annual Encaustic Invitational has been a milestone for many in our community. Miles holds an MFA from the San Francisco Art Institute. He lectures and consults on professional practices.

Wendy HaaWendy Haass is a Chicago-based private art dealer and curator. As the founder of Cervini Haas Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, for close to a decade she represented international artists—many of whom work in encaustic–and exhibited at art fairs across the U.S. Since moving to Chicago she has worked for the SOFA Chicago art fair and is renewing her own studio practice.

 

JJeff Schallereff Schaller has shown here and abroad, recently at The Coca Cola Museum in Atlanta. Frequently selected for commissions, he recently completed an installation for Main Line Health at the Exton Mall in Pennsylvania. He received a fellowship from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and is the recipient of the prestigious Philadelphia Museum of Art Purchase Award. Jeff is founder of the Chester County Studio Tour.

2 thoughts on “Navigating the Real Art World

  1. Elizabeth Harris says:

    Thanks for this great article, Joanne. Even though I was there for the panel and taking notes, I still couldn’t retain all of the information. It’s interesting to see how online sales and social media have changed the way galleries do business, and also to know they don’t all use the same platforms. And it’s invaluable to hear them in conversation, something artists rarely are privy to. I’m glad you included an artist on the panel as well, as we have a different perspective from the art dealers. Jeff’s self marketing is impressive and gave me some ideas.

  2. cdmcclure says:

    Thanks for this refresher on the panel discussion, Joanne. This panel was enlightening about what gallerists think when looking for artists to represent.

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