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Some Thoughts on a New Group

March 20, 2014

Recently I have been talking to a few close artists friends about an issue that has been on my mind for several years and that is, why are so many artists not in charge of their lives? Clearly the existing gallery/artist relationship is not working and, likely, never worked very well. We live in what Marshal McLuhan predicted a half century ago, a global village and, yet many artists rely on, what at best is a medieval marketing strategy. In a small market area, like the one I live in, rural Canada, the chances of people walking off the street into a commercial art gallery and buying moderately expensive art is pretty much nil to non-existent. By moderately expensive, I mean, say, a painting over $15,000 and that’s not a lot in today’s market for a work by a well known artist with over thirty years experience. The market is just not here. It’s not enough for a local gallery to have a web site and many of those that do, have half-assed sites, at best, designed on the cheap. In any case, people who are going to spend $15,000 to $30,000 dollars for a painting are not going to buy something on the web without seeing the actual work first.

A friend of mine from Nova Scotia, who is one of Canada’s best known and successful artists, just had a show in Toronto, the centre of Canada’s art universe, at least in its own mind, and sold two large paintings to a member of one our province’s, New Brunswick, most prominent families, which really says it all. However, even if you can sell art in Toronto that doesn’t mean that it is a good deal for the artists. Galleries famously take forty to fifty percent off the top, in addition to charging various expenses to the artist. Of course, some artists negotiate better deals and some galleries are better than others, but that’s not the point.

Galleries almost all work on consignment which from the producers’, the artists’, view is a dumb idea. The artists take all the risks and the galleries take their money off the top of the works that sell. That’s not the way most merchandising works. Usually the retailer buys from the wholesaler and, in turn, sells to the public at, hopefully for a profit. If it doesn’t sell, hard cheese and cheese might be a good example. Yes, I know there are lot of exceptions like books, but writers and, some publishers, are even dumber than visual artists and as a writer and artist, I speak from experience. I say that dealers should buy art works upfront from artists at an agreed discount and then it’s their problem to market them, but that seldom happens.

My friends and me are in the process of putting together an umbrella group, of what we call like minded individuals, to care for our commercial and professional needs. We are keeping this group at this time purposely small, around six proven professional artists and myself as curator. This is not some airy idea, but based on the premise of a new order for professional artists. I used the term medieval earlier, but there were some things medieval that were not all that bad and one was professional guilds. We are looking at the guild model as guide for a 21st century organization. Artists’ guilds in 15th and 16th century Flanders were organizations of master artists that protected artists rights. To become a full member of the guild required a number of steps that guaranteed a level of competence and professionalism. One moved from apprentice to journeyman to master. To become a master, a full member, one had to present to the guild, and have accepted, a master work or piece. Hence the term masterpiece. Today the meaning of the term is, at best, vague. Everyone is free to call themselves an artist and art is anything that wishes to use the term. Craftsmanship (the term includes women) is down the tubes along with any standards.

Russian_Civil_War_posterWe are not looking to a return to the 15th century, indeed, it is the 21st century and we should use contemporary technology to market our wares. It is a world market; we should be looking, in addition to North American and Europe, Russia, China and Arabia. Common sense should tell us that our art should be where the money and buyers are located. Art has always followed the money be it Brugge in the 15th century or Beijing in the 21st century. The web, and similar technologies, makes it possible for artists, and I mean artists, to deal directly in the world market in a professional manner. It’s time for artists, to use the old Marxist phase, to cast off our chains and as producers take charge of production. It would be deliciously ironic to use classical Marxism to sell visual art to the Chinese.

Our group is only at its beginnings, but we are hoping to start our own little revolution. Tally O!

© Virgil Hammock, Sackville NB Canada, Wednesday, March 19, 2014.

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One comment

  1. Virgil,

    Your group sounds like a positive step forward. I have always thought Guilds were a wonderful concept and believe artists/craft people alike need to revisit this in some kind of manner. My only reservation would be the subjective/objective decisions made determining who was a ‘master’ and who was not. There is always the danger of becoming elitist and exclusionary.

    I love what many of the younger artists are attempting to do, breaking down the commercial gallery confines, by choosing alternative ways and means to get exposure, (i.e. Dumpster Gallery). Not sure about that one, but I trust you understand what I am attempting to convey.

    Artists need to find tangible tools that enable us to get rid of the middle man, and if not stop, at least minimize galleries and dealers from pimping out artists. Art is BIG BUSINESS and it stinks!

    Here’s to a new order!

    Kind regards,

    Catherine



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