The Philosophy of Selling Watermelons in the Big City: Part One

July 17, 2013

The other day I was speaking with an artist friend of mine about the difficulty of selling art works in Maritime Canada. Truthfully it was about selling art anywhere, but we were sitting in a cafe in New Brunswick and the situation here is particularly hopeless. The market is flat, we have the highest unemployment rate in the country and the middle class, as elsewhere, is going down the tubes. Not a pretty picture for traditional commercial art gallery sales. What to do? There appear to be no easy answers.

Now my friend is a senior artist who has been making a modest living as a professional painter for the last thirty-five years. From the day that he graduated from my department I had no doubt that he would remain true to his vision of being a full time artist. He was then, and remains, a realist painter and continues to live mostly in New Brunswick. I am proud of him and the hard work that he has done as an artist. However, it has not been easy for him or for other full time artists I know in this part of the world to make living off their work. He could have moved to a major art centre and tried his craft there, but if all our artists did that, this would be sadder place. My friend has lived and worked extensively in other places in the world, but has always returned here where he feels he belongs. Art is often about a sense of place. Unfortunately some places support their artists better than others. Canada does not have a good record of doing well for her visual artists. Some regions, like the Maritimes, are particularly bad in their support. Why?

Lack of a large population is a major problem. There are fewer people living in Maritime Canada (New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia) than live in the city of Toronto: 2,615,000 to 1,836,700 give or take a person or two and that doesn’t count the area around Toronto which brings the population to over five and a half million. There is a serious lack of people here who have the remotest interest in the visual art living in the region with the possible exception of Halifax and even there it is a tiny number in the scale of things. The rich collectors in a place like Halifax, and there are a few, tend to buy their art in major centres outside the region and even outside of Canada. The commercial galleries are not generally of high quality. There are only two quality civic galleries; the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, in Halifax, and the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick. There is also the Confederation Art Centre in Charlottetown, PEI, but it is not in same class as the other two. If people don’t see first class art as part of their lives, then they are unlikely to want to buy art for their home and many people in my region struggle to put food on their tables much less buy art. The provincial governments support of the arts leaves much to be desired and federal support is not much better.

Why, then would any sane artist want to stay and work here when the odds against making a go are so remote? For some it is a sense of place; I was born here, I belong here, it is my home; for others, it is place I want to be because of the quality of life. The latter want to be here because it is not Toronto and they like a scale of life and, indeed, the people here. It is possible to like the life style and people even if those same people don’t give a damn about your art. In my own little town, which is perhaps the most arty small town in the Maritimes, a majority of the population don’t give two hoots about art and high culture, but I love them nonetheless and I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

All of this brings me to the title of this post: The Philosophy of Selling Watermelons in the Big City. Back in the very early 1960s I subscribed to the Peking Review (It was Peking then not Beijing.). God knows why, but I think I was testing the FBI to see if they cared about what I was reading. It was a hell of deal if you managed to get the five bucks to them for the one year subscription they kept sending it year after year hoping that reading it would make you a Maoist. I viewed it more for comic relief from mainstream right wing American newspapers. When I spotted the article on watermelon selling, I cut out the headline and used it in a collage, but not until I read the piece of wisdom from my Red friends. It all boiled down to the Red Book and Chairman Mao’s thoughts on the subject of selling stuff which was rather along the lines of ‘build it and they will come’ and, of course, you need a good watermelon.

The most obvious answer to coming up with a different model of commerce for my artist friends is dragging them into the early 21st. Century. We all now live in McLuhan’s Global Village and have the means, the web, to make ourselves known to a whole lot of people some of whom might still want to buy old fashioned wall art. Another problem is getting artists to give up on the traditional artist/gallery model: put pictures on the wall; hope people come to the gallery (some galleries work hard to make this happen and others less so); hopefully sell some pictures; and divide the money between the artist and the gallery. Most visual artists, even if they are wild-eyed avant-garde in their own work, are very conservative when it comes to changes in marketing their products. It is time, my friends, to throw everything out and start anew, but I am getting to my self-inflicted limit of around 1000 words per post, so I will continue this with part two of watermelon selling next week.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Friday, 12 July, 2013.


  1. curious to know how they sold water melons in the bigcity! thanks for the article!

    • You are very welcome. Like to hear what you think about part two next week.

  2. I agree Virgil, it is hard to make a living selling art through traditional means in communities far flung from the art centers of the word (I grew up in the Annapolis Valley went to school at Mount Allison and was employed as a designer in Pugwash). Thank goodness we live in a time when we are not limited by our geography but rather by our our willingness to participate in a very accessible online global marketplace and social community! Don’t hang your shingle on the main street of Boonesvillle and hope people will find you! Enjoy the special remote paradise that you’ve found that feeds your soul and your art but take on the responsibility of sharing it with the world yourself!

    • Look forward to your comments on part two. It really is a different world we live in now and artists need to think about how they market their work.

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