Saturday, May 30, 2009

The art business waltz, lesson 3

Tonights post is illustrated by yet another fashionable 18th century portrait painter, Thomas Gainsborough, 1727-1788 Images from

Eric Rhoads the publisher of several art magazines is contemplating resurrecting Plein Air magazine. He has sent out a questionnaire to artists about that possibility. I have provided a link here where you can go and fill it out.

Send me your art for the the next reader critique, my e-mail is If I use your art I will photoshop your signature off of it and I will tell no one whose art I am

The next step in getting your art shown is scouting. You need to have a deep and honest discussion with yourself and figure out where you might begin to show your art. Most of you who are reading this are at the beginning of the process, but there are also lurking out there, established artists who are following along to see if they can glean any useful ideas (I hope so) . I am going to write this for the totally uninitiated though. If this is your first foray into the art scene, you are probably not going to begin by showing at a top flight gallery in a major city. Nor do you want to. You want to cut your teeth out in the bush leagues. You are learning a skill, showing art and dealing with galleries is a learned skill.

The lowest rungs on the ladder are usually the outdoor art fairs, the local art associations and smaller galleries that specialize in inexpensive art. You need to begin here. But keep your eyes open, if you have been painting for a while you might be of interest to a gallery a rung above these. You should begin by investigating these venues. l suggested in an earlier post here
that you should join a local art association if there is a good one around and join a more distant one if there is not. You can ask other artists you meet there about the quality of the various shows in your area. They may be able to tell you about the local gallery scene also. I say local because unless you live in a very rural area there is usually a gallery within 25- 50, miles of you.This does not include non art venues like banks restaurants and dog groomers, those are not places you should show unless you have lots of inventory, and even then is very seldom productive.

If there are outdoor art shows and fairs in your area sign up for a couple. You will need to find out how much display equipment you will need. If they require a tent or any fancy infrastructure you will have to decide how much investment you want to make. Some shows provide a wall for you to hang on.and a table too. For others you will need to rig up a screen of some kind to hang your art on. A little research on line or at the local library will give you an idea of how to make a simple display screen for your art. I always enjoyed doing outdoor shows and you might too. If you price your work right you will probably make money at some of them. If you are able to do a handful over the summer that's a great way to begin showing your art and building experience and confidence. If your area has outdoor shows or weekend festivals I think this is a great place to begin.It is a short term, low buck commitment and it still has all of the elements of the more "uptown" art market. If you sell a few things , and you should price your art low enough so that will happen, it will change your entire attitude on the business end of the art game.

Let me tell you a story about an artist I know. He was a working guy with a wife and a home who was working as a stripper. No not that kind of stripper! Back in the pre digital days there was a job preparing lithographic plates in commercial print shops called a stripper. I am not even sure exactly what they did, but I am pretty certain very few of them are doing it now. For his birthday someone gave him a paint set. It went unopened for a while, but one evening with nothing else to do , he got it out and decided he would copy this poster of a beach in Florida, with palm trees. Hours and hours go by and he is working away having lost all trackof time and his wife is asking him if he intends to stay up all night.The next day after work. its the same thing, and it quickly becomes a compelling hobby for him. After a year or so of this he decides he will do an outdoor art show. He has only one frame and only one painting of which he is proud enough to display. So on the Saturday morning of the show he sets up his little display and posts a ptrice on his painting. Before too long someone buys it. Now that really affects the guy and he spends all of his nights over the course of the week making another seascape, that's what he was making, for the next weekends show. Of course that one sells too. All summer long this is going on, and the next summer when the outdoor show season begins again he is better prepared and is arriving at the show with a little collection of paintings and he's improving and charging a little more for them. Because they are selling, again he is up,till all hours of the night painting. He is dragging himself into work every day looking haggard and probably not functioning as well there as he had in the pre- painting days. A group of his buddies started ragging on him for his all night painting and telling him he needs to get more serious about his job. He angrily tells them " I'm making more money painting pictures at night, then I am doing this dumb job!" And then of course he has hit the tipping point. He asks himself the logical and dangerous question "well then what am I doing working here?" Now he has been painting professionally for many years, but it can be a precarious existence. Sometimes you make money and sometimes you don't. His wife married a tradesman with a good job, she didn't know he was going to morph into an artist. All these years later they have raised a family and they are still together, but I always felt it was an unwelcome surprise for her to have to adjust to the bohemian life.

Here is another Gainsborough. They look a bit different from the previous portrait artists at which we have been looking because he was a generation earlier.

If there are no shows or outdoor festivals near you, or you want to do the gallery thing right away you need to do some research. There is no reason to drive 100 or more miles to find your first gallery, you will do that later, but the place to start out is near where you live. Start walking into galleries and reconnoitering, notice whether the person running the gallery greets you politely, they can leave you alone after that, but they should acknowledge your entrance. If they don't, that's not a good sign.


This is just an information gathering expedition. If you are in a conversation with them and you have talked for a few minutes or if they seem to want to know if you are a collector, then you may tell them then .But don't ask them if you can show them your work.You might say that you are scoping out local galleries to find a place to show. If they ask to see your work that is fine, but galleries have people walking in all day and pestering them to review their portfolios and they get real tired of it. Usually the people who do that, are not of the caliber the gallery shows and the dealers have all had the experience of some wannabe artist they have politely rejected going bonkers at them. The dealers are very apprehensive about going through that again so they dread the whole portfolio showing thing. Visit a number of galleries and compare them . You didn't marry the first girl ( guy, or indeterminate creature ) you met did you?

Take a friend with you and make a day of this effort, go out to lunch and discuss with this person what they think, then go back out for the afternoon and see some more galleries, if there are that many near you. Look for handout art newspapers and guides in the galleries, they may guide you to more galleries that you might not have known about. At the end of this process you will probably have found a gallery or two that look to be likely prospects. Did you notice any art remotely like what you do, in that gallery? If all a gallery shows is photography and you embalm sharks, they might not be right for you.

Look in the appropriate magazines or local papers to see if a gallery is advertising, they should. Even a little galley should have some sort of system of letting people know they are there, even if they are operating on a shoestring budget. Notice other things in those galleries too, what sort of framing seems to be the norm in the gallery. Are there only small pictures shown? If the owner is showing his own work there , does it look like the the art there gets a fair chance to sell, or is it just there as a foil and space holder for what is really only a gallery for the sale of its owners art? How good is the location of the gallery, does it have good signage, etc?

The next step is to find out if you know any of the artists in the gallery. Ask around your art association and perhaps you already have an acquaintance who is in the galley, if you do that's useful. You can ask them what their experience has been with the gallery .

This lady has presence, she looks boldly out of the canvas at us. She is strongly characterized, I will bet it was a speaking likeness of her, although of course we will never know.

All of this is a little like hunting for an apartment. And like an apartment you can almost count on its being a temporary affair. You will probably be in several galleries before you find a good fit.

Go to the openings of the shows and talk top people. Going to openings is a good thing to do anyway. You like parties don't you? Andy Warhol went to almost every opening in New York. If you were a young unknown artist you might be surprised to have Warhol show up at your opening. On one such occasion someone asked Warhol if he would go to just any art opening. He replied" I would go to the opening of a box of saltines!"

Tomorrow we will talk about a web site. You are going to need one.


JAMES A. COOK said...

Great post on the art busness. I have never read anything like what you have been saying anywhere. Do you reconmend going back to galleries that have turned you done . Lets say a year later. Will they look at your work again .

JAMES A. COOK said...

SORRY FOR THE BAD TYPOS. I am not good with spelling when I am in a hurry.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Thanks: I don't think I can give you a blanket answer for that.Perhaps you could get an upfront contract on that by saying." Well thanks for looking at my art anyway. Say, if I were to come back in a year or so would you be willing to take another look? I'll bring the coffee". If they say yes,and they might shake their hand and say,"thanks, I appreciate that" and then leave. In about six months you go through the gallery just to look at the art and say hello,dont even ask to show them your art. Before you go in the second time you better have your Goddamn act together though,because they won't be likely to give you a third bite at the apple. The gallery may be above your paygrade. Or show a different sort of art, or even have somebody they think is too much like you ,for whom they don't want to add competition. Often it is unknowable.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Typos are allowed in comments. I make lots of them here and don't even correct them.