Thursday, July 9, 2009

The sinking stepping stone theory


Fredrick Leighton, The Music Lesson image from artrenewal.org.

I will return to the theme of preparing for a show, tomorrow night. I want to tell you a story and make a point about art careers, at least what I have seen.

In the 1980's I ran a gallery showing my art in Rockport, Massacchusetts. That was the standard sort of gallery in Rockport at that time. It was a pretty shoestring kind of a business and I was always struggling to keep the bills paid and the lights on. It was like grad school for me. It was a forced work regimen. I always had a one man show hanging and I had to replace what sold. I got feedback on the paintings in real time as people came in. They could get really blunt. It was sometimes a rough crowd and you needed to be tough to deal with them . I have some great stories about that, but I will come back to them another time.

After I opened my first gallery there which I shared with two glassblowers (actually lampworkers, they make those little glass animals and doo-dads, its a handcraft) the real estate market in Rockport began to heat up. Soon it became a speculative fever and buildings in the commercial area would sometimes change hands several times a year, for ever increasing prices.

The rent on a shop might double or triple as the new landlord sought to recoup their investment. I had to move several times because the rent would go up to a point where I knew I couldn't turn a profit. I used to joke that the only thing you could sell out of a building in Rockport that would carry the rent was cocaine. There was no business you could open that would carry the mortgage on the buildings at their dizzying new prices

What had happened was that the business of Rockport was no longer selling things out of the shops, it was about selling the shops themselves. A business was merely a decoration to a larger real estate investment.

The shops were rented out by the year, so you would have to rent the shop through the winter, in order to have it for the summer when the seasonal tourists came and hopefully bought your art. It could be a real burden carrying that non producing shop until May or June.

One year I rented a shop, carried it through the winter and in the spring the building changed hands. The new landlord refused to honor the agreement under which I had rented the building all winter and wanted a 300% rent increase. I had to hire a lawyer along with the other tenants in the building and things got nasty and expensive. He was a developer and he really just wanted to get rid of us so he could condo the building and flip it. He had a very low opinion of me (because I wasn't rich ) and saw me as an impediment to his designs. He had an unreasonable idea of what he could sell the units for, and ultimately suffered shirt removal. I helped.

I knew I would only be able to hold him off for the season and at the end of the year he would be able to evict me or raise my rent to a stratospheric level and I would be out. It would be the third shop in three years. I was getting sold or condoed every season. It made it nearly impossible to do business, but I didn't have much choice if I wanted to continue having my gallery.

It was then that I developed the sinking stepping stone theory. It went like this;

ANY TIME I WAS DOING WELL IN A GALLERY, OR SHOP, OR HAD A BIG CLIENT BUYING MY ART, IT WAS A STEPPING STONE THAT WOULD IMMEDIATELY BEGIN TO SINK UNDER MY WEIGHT. SO I HAD TO ALWAYS BE LOOKING FOR WHERE I WAS GOING TO STEP NEXT, WHEN THE STONE INEVITABLY SANK BENEATH ME. THE STONE I STEPPED ON AFTER THAT WOULD IMMEDIATELY BEGIN TO SINK WHEN I STEPPED ON IT TOO.

My whole career has been like that, many times I have had a gallery selling like crazy for me, stop. I have had giant clients buy everything I made for years,then suddenly quit. I have had my best dealer die. I think it must just be the way of the world. Now there may be artists who got into that great gallery and spent their whole life with them, but it never happened to me. I have been in situations where I have made excellent money and drove new cars and sent my kids to private school. I have also had times in my life where I was only a step ahead of the bill collectors .

The lesson here is that even though you are selling this month or year , you need always to be looking out in front of you for that next stepping stone. What is working for you now, will in my experience, nearly always end at the absolutely worst time and you need to have some sort of a plan for that eventuality. Know where you are going to step next!

11 comments:

Gregory Becker said...

That is advice that never goes out of season.

Knitting Out Loud said...

Another great post, Stape!

mariandioguardi.com said...

Hi Stapleton,
I have been doing this as a living for only five years but my experience with your "Sinking Stepping Stone" theory is right on. The only artist that I know who has been with one gallery for YEARS has several streams of income: gallery, a historic Boston studios in a great location , lots of teaching (privately as well as in the formal Boston art schools) and a wife with a good, full time job. He was happy to just sell one painting (a real beauty though) at his show at his big name, Newbury Street gallery.

Right now, my foot is under water(sinking stone) and I am working to find the next stepping stone or a hand hold. I think it's very important that an artist story gets told so truthfully. Thanks. It helps.No matter what kind of art one does there is no magic to selling and "success". It's hard, hard work.

PS. In reference to my previous question and your answer: I cringe oh so elegantly, one would think I was smiling pretty. That is how I deal with galleries. But I can always hope there is a better way. Hope dies last.

Jeremy Elder said...

That is some of the best advice I have heard, thanks for sharing the pearls of your experience.

DennyHollandStudio said...

So true, so true- insightful post...

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gregory.
Thanks

Stapleton Kearns said...

Knitting,
Hi , good to see you out there....Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Marian;

What I am telling you is true for about everyone I know. I can't speak for the rest of the art world.
..................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Jeremy
Thanks again. Perhaps I can save others having to learn things the hard way. There are so many painters and galleries today that it is easier to find someone who can tell you what the deal is,
..................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Denny:Hello and Thanks for checking in. I always wonder who is lurking out there. a lot of people read this blog, but only a few comment. Sometimes they will comment once just to say hello. It is nice to know who I am writing for.

Frank P. Ordaz said...

Stape,

Good advice. Since I have made my living at Art for 25 years now the only constant is CHANGE. My next step is to be a high end portrait painter. So I am keeping my day job so to speak as I make a lateral move.

One important point is overhead. I lowered it by moving to Auburn so that I could make the change without getting into financial stress or ending up divorced....