I had lunch at the Empire Diner in Chelsea recently with Stephanie Sachs, a New York-born artist now living in Hawaii. She was in town to visit the galleries and museums.
There are not a lot of gallery opportunities on Maui, says Stephanie—save for the tourist venues with the whale paintings—so she has found an alternative way to show and sell her work. Once a week she sets up her paintings in a designated exhibition area of the lobby of a five-star hotel on the toniest part of the island. She shares this space with several other artists. "We are are responsible for carting our displays, for sales, for shipping and for customer service. The hotel takes a percentage that is less than a gallery."
Stephanie Sachs, Yes It's Plaid, oil on wood, 20 x 16 inches
Annual gross: "The high five figures."
The art world paradigm makes no room for this kind of success. The classic route is to make art, find a gallery to represent you, get into the Whitney Biennial, onto the cover of Art in America, have a sellout show every couple of years in New York, have your dealer take you to the art fairs and get you into museum shows and collections, see your work go for big buckaroos at auction, which allows your primary dealer to ramp up your prices, and enjoy life at the top. (The reality for the other 99.999% is, of course, a soul-sucking job that leaves little time for artmaking in a studio that costs 10 times more than you can really afford. And in this economic climate even life at the top has sunk like a soufflé.)
So Stephanie's entrepreneurial model is looking pretty good. And did I mention she lives in Maui?
Here's another example: A few years ago the Boston Globe Sunday magazine did a lifestyle feature on two artists, a wife and husband, both painters, who live in a farmhouse close to the tip of Cape Cod. They integrate artmaking with raising two kids in a back-to-the-land lifestyle that includes growing their own vegetables, preserving their harvest, and cooking gourmet meals from their own produce. They paint in a barn-turned studio—she downstairs, he upstairs in the loft— and in the summer they open the studio every morning to visitors, many of whom are return collectors. (I visited; it's idyllic.)
These folks are not likely to make it onto the cover of Art in America or into a major show at MoMA. But then, how many of us will? (AiA publishes 10 issues a year. That's 10 artists who might be so recognized. In a decade, 100. In a century, 1000 artists. Hell, that many artists get churned out each year from, say, three or four art schools. As for the MoMA solo, you do the math--and if you're a woman, you can probably count on the fingers of one hand.)
So the post today is to get us all to think about the definition of "success."
Is the art-world paragidm the only viable option?
. If you're making art you love in your studio and selling it in your summer gallery on Cape Cod or Ogunquit or Santa Fe—and enjoying it— isn’t that success?
. If you’re selling to relatively well-off collectors on vacation in Maui, who happily call to commission more work, isn’t that success?
. If you teach all year and show every couple of years in a co-op gallery, get reviewed by the local press occasionally, and have a rich full art life and a personal life, isn’t that success?
I admit that these are not the opportunities I've spent my career in pursuit of. But sometimes I do wonder, when I'm closing in on the 15th or 16th hour of another long work day, if I've been missing something.
Consider this an open forum.