Marketing Mondays: Demystifying the Art World

"To me the first rule in the art world is there are no rules in the art world! (If there were I am sure I would not be allowed to be in it! I am a critic simply because I say I am! I have no training in this! I am making it up as I go along. Like you. Like everyone, we're learning on the job, doing the best we can as honestly as possible."--Jerry Saltz*

I get frequent emails from readers who tell me this column helps them demystify the business of art and the art world in general. I’m glad to hear that; thanks. Certainly the dealers, curators, critics and collectors I’ve talked with and worked with over the years have helped to demystify the art world for me, so I’m happy to pass along whatever wisdom or information I’ve gained.
Early on it was a revelation to learn dealers were in it for the same reasons as artists. Here's Stephanie Walker, owner of Walker Contemporary in Boston: "We do this because we have to, like artists. There is simply nothing else we can picture ourselves doing. It's certainly not for the money! This is a tough business and if you're not in it for passion, you're not going to make it."
It was a bigger revelation to realize that dealers also struggle. Back in a previous downturn, one prominent dealer confided that he'd mortgaged his home to be able to keep his gallery running. In November, just after the crash, I was making the rounds in Chelsea and I got an earful: who was downsizing, who was going cyber, who was considering sharing space with another gallery. A number of galleries did close, and those dealers are now consulting privately or running a gallery for someone else.
"I need a job!" said more than one dealer, meaning, of course, that they needed another job. In this regard, artists have the advantage, as most have always juggled artmaking with the other job. We have learned, by necessity, to do a lot of things.
Critics are not exempt from the struggle. Here's uber critic and Facebook provocateur Jerry Saltz: "There are only a tiny tiny handful of critics being published at all. And only five or six in the US making their living from art criticsim alone (I am lucky enough to be one of that tiny handful)." And even he teaches and lectures.
Wonder what an art critic earns? Here's Saltz again: “A review in an art mag. earns a critic $125; an article, $800. The Village Voice now probably pays brilliant critics like C. Viveros-Faune and M[artha] Schwendener around $400 (before taxes). The most well-known critic, if she/he is super lucky makes around $35,000 a year (before taxes). . . . I just wanted you to know that the annoying critics you sometimes hate are as bad off as you are.” *
So let's stop putting dealers and critics and other art world folks on Mt. Olympus while we tremble before them. Let's consider them as equals instead. As colleagues. Yes they have power, but they don't have jobs without artists and art. Walker again: "I don't understand the reverence artists have for dealers. The relationships I establish with my artists are a true give & take partnership." As for a power imbalance, she says, "If you feel your relationship with a dealer is lopsided, run!"
In terms of demystifying the art world in a bigger and broader way--i.e. how to find or create a place for yourself in it--I noted a number of books and online resources in a recent post, Useful Reading.
And of course your frequent comments in these posts help draw back the curtain as well. Here’s my e-buddy Steve Eichenberger telling me about a panel discussion sponsored by an arts council in his area of the Pacific Northwest: “By the end of the presentation I felt I'd learned enough to proceed with confidence in approaching new galleries. It demystified the process, answering all my major questions, so I can now expend less mental angst on worrying about getting into galleries and turn that energy toward sculpting instead. ("It's the work!!") You can read his blog report here.
As for understanding the curatorial point of view, let me refer you to two posts in this blog (click here first, then here), in which the curator of a regional museum helps demystify the process. As for the more bizarre and byzantine politics of New York curating, click here for Paddy Johnson's Curators on Display in City Arts.
What has helped demystify your relationship to the art world? Please share what you have found helpful: info, quotes, books, blogs or websites, links--and of course your own experience.
Both images from the Internet
*On a Facebook thread recently I invited Jerry to write for my blog, since the thread was about critics and artists starting ‘zines and blogs and writing for free. He turned me down in a generous way: “Thank you for the invitation to write for your blog. I wish I could. Feel free to take anything off this FB and use it in anyway you'd like; for free, of course.”


rodney said...

My first "real" gallery experience came about when a new gallery opened in my home town. I visited it and talked to the owner and offered him a hand if he needed it with the website or hanging shows, etc. He brought me on and it was fun. After a few weeks I asked if he would like to see some of my work and he said sure. He loved it and wanted to have some on hand in the flatfile then put me in a group show.

I think what this showed me was that there are lots of ways to get into spaces, as long as you try. But maybe more so that those new spaces can be helpful because they need you too - especially if your work sells.

But lately I'm not sure how to go about this. Would sending a packet of my work, resume, letter of intent to galleries I want to show in do any good? Should I visit the space and try to talk to the owner instead? What do you think?

Joanne Mattera said...

There's a wealth of info in the previous MM posts. For instance, "The Unsolicited Submission" from 11.2.09 deals with just the question you ask.

Anonymous said...

"The Pusher Paradox" is a great article from the Dealer's perspective. I still think that we need to find out who the non-art buyers are and why. I think that making yourself familiar with potential gallerys is a great idea.

anne mcgovern said...

The most useful tools for me have been this blog, "The Artist's Guide by Jackie Battenfield, "Inside the Painter's Studio" by Joe Fig and Jerry Saltz Facebook page.

Chris Rywalt said...

I got scolded for picking on a dealer too much on my blog. She told me pretty much the same thing Stephanie Walker told you, that no one becomes an art dealer for the money.

On the other hand you could just as easily say, for example, that no one plays baseball for the money because on average it doesn't pay all that well; of course, people play baseball to compete for the opportunity to become famous and make a lot of money. The money's no good if you're not good enough, and if you still have a passion for it (but not the talent) you can always slip down into the cracks and find a living in the supporting system -- coaching, stacking towels, cleaning locker rooms, whatever -- but that doesn't change why people get into it in the first place.

There's also, aside from the money, the cultural cachet, which is like money in some ways. You get to tell people "I'm an art dealer" and they say ooh and ahh. I mean, outside of artists and dealers, the art world is mysterious and interesting to people. You get to be cool and hip in a way, say, accountants and computer programmers are not (believe me on this).

Joanne Mattera said...

So we're in agreement, then, that it's the passion rather than the promise of riches.

Re cultural cachet: We've seen this in a few wealthy kids looking for something "interesting" to do, and in a few dealers with richer-than-god spouses, but sooner or later they get bored and move on. (Just like some artists, if they don't overdose first.) The passionate and serious ones are in it for the long haul, whether we're making art, selling it, curating it or writing about it. Don't you think?

Kathryn Hansen said...

this is one of my favorite quotes from Jackie Battenfield:Let's face it, no one chooses to be an artist for the keep at it because you are driven to create and can't imagine doing anything else with your life. For better or worse, you know this is where you belong.

Joanne...your blog is the best..thank you for all your wonderful posts!

Matthew Beall said...

"...the passion rather than the promise of riches." I think this is what motivates a great many of us.

From your e-buddy Steve Eichenberger's blog, “Be prepared for a LOT of rejections; MOSTLY rejections. It’s just math—hundreds of artists apply for every one accepted.” Isn't that the truth! And one I have experience in. Good info. there, too.

Anonymous said...

If you are a poor or underemployed artist, gallerist, critic, or art lover this is for you-
Free tickets to the Armory Show. paste the link fill out the information then print them out. Pass on to all your friends:

Joanne Mattera said...

Wow, I just tried it. It does seem to work. Thanks, anony--and I think I know who you are--for passing this along. See you all there, artists!

Cervini Haas Fine Art said...

I WISH I could pay the bills with compliments and "cultural cache!" But when I ask myself what I'd do if I closed the gallery (now a private consultancy), all I can come up with is "open a gallery?" A vicious cycle of loving the arts... I think it's worth it.

Terry H Hill said...

The money's no good if you're not good enough, and if you still have a passion for it you can always slip down into the cracks and find a living in the supporting system.