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

July 24, 2013

Starting where I left out on how to make a living as an artist in Maritime Canada I suggest that we throw out traditional marketing practice and start anew. The best possible solution would be to eliminate the need to sell your art. The very best way to do this is to be born to wealthy parents. This has worked very well for some artists in past such as Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler and Sargent, however this is difficult to do after the fact. The next best method is to marry well and use their money. I, on the other hand, married often with disastrous results. The third way is to have a tenured appointment in fine arts at a good university. This allows you to advice your students to stay true to their art while you take no risks yourself. This I was able to, but it is becoming harder as universities close their fine arts departments or hire teachers for peanuts on a course by course basis. Failing these three admirable choices, you are left with trying to flog your work.

Galleries often refer to their artists as a stable. Note to artists: a stable is a place where they keep horses or, perhaps donkeys. I know that Jesus was born in a stable as well and although it was a beginning of a great religion, it did not work out well personally for him. In this age of the web, we need a new way of selling art and, perhaps, one where the artists are in charge. It is common knowledge that visual artists are unable to tie their own shoes much less take charge of their commercial lives and need the wisdom of others to keep food in their mouths. There is a model from New York City in the 1960s that failed, but was interesting in its revolutionary ambition and that was the Park Place Gallery. It was an artists co-op where they hired their own director and put on series of important exhibitions of their members. It was one of the first galleries in SoHo and was to be a whole new direction in the marketing. I knew some of the artists, Dean Fleming, Forrest (Frosty) Meyers, Peter Forakis and Leo Valledor who were either teachers or fellow students who had been in San Francisco and had moved to New York. I did visit the gallery a number of times and, like its members, I thought that we were on the ground floor of a new order of marketing art, but that was not to happen. Why?

A group of artists like those in Park Place are difficult to control, rather like a clowder of cats. There is the issue of egos. While we do have trouble with our shoe laces, we do often have a high opinion of our own artistic talents. Co-ops need people to co-operate and there is the problem, if visual artists were co-operative they would likely not have become artists in the first place. Most visual artists and writers are hermits when it comes to their production and do not work well in groups. I hang out in my basement office with my dog, who provides company, and bang away on my computer. When I need to talk to people, I go to the local coffee shop and converse with the usual suspects. However, artists, myself included, do need an audience and a way to make a living.

Struggle_session_poster_wikimediaThere needs to be a whole new class of people to promote and sell the work of visual artists. They need to act as agents, managers, who work directly for the artists. Some of these people very well might be existing gallery owners, but the business model would be very different. The web does give visual artists a world wide audience, but most buyers want to see actual works of art before they part with their cash. Traditional commercial gallery models are not really efficient in a world market in particular if the artist lives in a rural area like Maritime Canada. Artists have better things to do than deal directly with customers in far away places, but there is the need to know who might be interested in your art nor would it be a good thing for an artist to send an art work away to an unknown buyer on approval and hope that money will follow.

There needs to be another person or persons in the equation; someone in the area of the purchaser who physically shows them the art work and, if there is a sale, collects the money, takes a modest cut, and sends it to the artist. These agents would work for a number of artists, be knowledgeable about art and be bondable. There should be, via the web, direct communication between the artist the would be buyer before there is any contact with the artist’s agent. Remember, in this model the agent works for the artist. The agent is not selling the artwork and passing half to two-thirds of the price to the artist which happens in the gallery model where the dealer has overhead and actively promotes the artist. In my model the artist must take an active role in their promotion. This means having a good, usable, professional web site and that means hiring professionals to set up their sites. Empowering visual artists to take active charge of their professional lives requires a radical shift in thinking. Artist are not taught in art schools about business, but they are assured that quality will out and that is just not true.

Another idea that a rural artist, or a group of artists, might explore with an agent, or agents, is pop up exhibitions in major centres. These exhibitions need not be for more than two or three days and would need to be carefully planed to be successful. They would act as a showcase for the artist or artists and be controlled by them not the agents. However, this is the subject for another post. I also realise, not being an original thinker, that many of my ideas on watermelon retail are being done here and there already, but what is apparent is that if artists, both rural and urban, want to make a full time career as visual artists there has to be a radical rethink in the way that things are done.

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Monday, 15 July, 2013

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