Sunday, May 29, 2011

The demand surge and buy switch phenomenon

Bearskin Neck. Thanks to Renee Lammers for the photo.
I received a lot of comments and people seemed to be interested in hearing about when I was running my first gallery in Rockport, Massachusetts. I have written a little about this before, but I will elaborate a little upon my previous writings.
The window at the far left is my old shop. I began that business in 1983. I had no money, I was working a very part time job, as a janitor at the Rockport Art Association. So I went into business with no capital. I was able to afford a few gallons of paint and luckily the shop had tracklights.

The small shop had at its backdoor, the Old Harbor. This was Rockports first harbor, with its early 19th century seawalls made of enormous blocks of granite. There were stone steps from behind the gallery onto the mud flats of the partially silted in harbor. In those few steps, you could leave behind the thousands of tourists and enter another part of Rockport, the tourists didn't know. The backs of the buildings on the harbor were on stilts or huge granite seawalls. On foggy days you could hear the fog horns and groaner buoys out on the water. Bearskin neck is the last thing before England, and the Atlantic washed the back of the shop. It was enclosed in stone seawalls, but in the storms of winter the surf was high and the neck seemed like a narrow stone ship at sea.

When the tourists walked into a gallery in Rockport they expected to meet the artist running their gallery. That was an old tradition in the town. Anywhere else, the visitors wondered, who is this guy and is this a real gallery? But in Rockport they didn't That was a big advantage. My operation was threadbare and rinky-dink, but that was perceived as charming and just what the crowds expected. A REAL artist!

My apartment was next door and my whole life was about the shop. I seldom strayed more than a few yards from it, except to go the the grocery. I was there seven days a week, Sunday mornings the blue laws kept us closed. But at noon on Sunday we opened to the largest crowds we saw all week. It was crazy sometimes, there were wall to wall people on the Neck. But on Sunday, they didn't ever buy anything. We saw ten times as many people and sold nothing, every Sunday. I was learning that it wasn't a numbers game, it was not who you saw but if they were buying. Monday mornings could be good though, travelers had checked out of their inn rooms and sometimes bought a painting before they left town.

Some weeks we would sell nothing and then the next week I would be selling an oil painting every day. Sometimes I would sell more. BUT sometimes in the fall something very strange happened. I had noticed that it seemed like people had an invisible switch somewhere on them. If that switch wasn't set to "BUY" You couldn't sell them art, no matter what. They wouldn't buy the Mona Lisa for a ten-spot. That was the default setting and most of the time people came in set to "not buy".

You have probably looked down from he edge of a dock and seen a whole school of little fish suddenly reverse direction all at once as if cued by a director. The tourists were like that. On any given day there was a mood, a tenor, to the crowd. The crowd was an organism. One day they would all be goobers from the hayfields of Silesia, and the next day befuddled moonbats from Cambridge. The crowd had a group personality. like a coral reef or a school of fish. One day everybody was on crutches or in a leg cast. People were missing arms and walking on artificial limbs. All day I didn't see a whole man. I thought I did once, but when he turned to go I noticed he was missing an ear.

Every once in a while demand went from zero to some heightened surge that would suck all of my inventory out the door. If I had ten paintings hung, I might sell seven. If I had been able to produce a hundred paintings, I would have sold seventy, or maybe all of them. There were demand spikes. It was easy to sell art to these people, their switches were set to on. They had come to Rockport to buy art and it was only a matter of which artist they found appealing. The artists would meet up on the street after the crowds had died back and we would all be selling art.

The town sort of lit up, like the proverbial pinball machine. I would have upper class mom and dad visiting New England to visit their children in expensive private colleges, lined up at the door to my tiny shop. That tended to happen in the fall, on crisp perfect days, I made as much across the span of a few fall weekends as I did the rest of the year. When I went home at night, I would get phone calls from people wanting to buy the painting in the front window. I had a little card there with my number on it.

It was an inventory test. In the winter and early spring I was sitting in the shop working every day and selling nothing. An older artist already many years in the gallery business there told me "keep painting em, when the summer comes you are going to need art, and there won't be time to make new ones when you are selling". I had feverishly followed his advice, hoping what he said was true. When the feeding frenzy would start it would decimate my little collection of painting and I always wished I had more. I would make three or four paintings to be ready for the next weekend and those would sell too. I would start each week with inventory problems. In the late summer and fall I was shoveling paintings out the door. They were cheap, but it added up. I had more money than I had ever had before. Not that it was very much in comparison to a very average working stiffs income, but I had lived real poor for many years. I thought I was rich.


barbara b. land of boz said...

It was like a good bedtime story. Only this time I know the main character. Keep the stories coming. Thank you Stape...

Florante :-) said...

Hello Stape,
You know, this last two post that you did is truly an inspiration for me to strive hard to live.I always admire you,Stape.Thank you!

Karla said...

"Somebody" should paint that photo said...

Note: painting that photo without permission and offering it for sale is a copy right violation. Copyright is an interesting topic in itself.

And you are right Stapleton, since nearly everyone these days is a self declared artist is does change the results of the survey. When people exclaim " You paint every day!? I tell them "that's my job". Nearly everyone seems surprised, even "artists".

This is a good post and painters need to be honest about what they do. It's all hard work and we never know when we will get paid.

Mark Heng said...

These stories are great! I'm hoping for more installments. What happened next? When did you decide to move on, did you ever get sick of the lifestyle, etc...?


The thing that strikes me the most is how hard you work. It is not a hobby you do when you aren't watching tv or jetskiing on the weekends or playing video games. You live and breathe it. I think many people ignore this part.

Charles Valsechi said...

Great post, thanks for sharing. Do you have any advice for people beginning their professional career in painting?

Also I recommend checking out: it would clean up your comment section a bit, and makes discussion easier.

Logan Maxwell Hagege said...

I could read old art stories like this all day. I think it's time for a book.

Deborah Paris said...

Great story, Stape. Thanks for sharing it. Armand is right, it is such hard work. This is the hardest thing I've ever done (and that includes practicing law for awhile before coming to my senses).

billspaintingmn said...

your analogies paint wonderful pictures Stape!
Sincerity is on your pallete.
Thanks for all your help.

Dale Cook said...

Thanks for sharing this ongoing saga. I do feel like I am reading a good book.

CM said...

I really liked your comment about your paintings in those early days "Some were good, some were awful. All were sincere." And you sold! The public is not stupid. They know and feel sincerity when they see it whether it is good or awful.
Wonderful story, Stape...visiting Bearskin Neck in my younger days was the seed of my dream to be a full time painter and own my own gallery. Lucky came true.

MCGuilmet said...

Loved reading this, thanks!
I wonder, are there many artist/galleries still working there?

Anonymous said...

Hi Stape,
I am not trying to sell, just improve, and I find it all consuming. It is the hardest work, I get so excited when a little passage works; it keeps me hooked. I am completely boring to a non artist and can think of nothing else. Everything I look at is value/color/temp spots! So wonderful, so fun!
Just love reading everything in your repetoire, like having a lifeline to the place I want to be. Terry

Brady said...

I love hearing these stories about you. I'm glad you made it so you can tell others about them.

Katherine Tyrrell said...

I do so enjoy visiting your blog Stapleton.

So many people don't get the fact that there's more to a career as an artist than simply painting - and there's more to getting buyers than painting a good painting. It's tales like this that help to flick switch and the lightbulb goes on.

This was an all round ace post. I agree - time for a book!

willek said...

All great stuff, Stape. I feel fortunate to have made your acquaintance.

Stapleton Kearns said...

barbara b. land of boz;
Another to follow.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

Not me, I hate working from photos. Boring.

Stapleton Kearns said...

I have sold thousands of paintings, You would think I could sell JUST ONE MORE!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Mark Heng;
OK I will tell you more.

Stapleton Kearns said...

All I do is work.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Charles Valsechi;
Charles I have written a lot about that, go into my archives look for the art business waltz.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Logan Maxwell Hagege;
In the movie I will be played by Walter Brennan.,

Stapleton Kearns said...

Deborah Paris;
No one who doesn't paint has any idea how long it takes to learn it.

Stapleton Kearns said...


Stapleton Kearns said...

Dale Cook;Maybe someday there will be a book.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Sincerity, if you can learn to fake that, the skies the limit! - some guy in Hollywood

Stapleton Kearns said...

Yes, but not nearly as many.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Terry ;
That is very nice of you. I feel so useful!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Made it? always a struggle!

Stapleton Kearns said...

Katherine Tyrrell;
Thank you too.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Gee thanks Willek.