Marketing Mondays: "The Sofa"

At the end of every semester in the professional practices course I teach, one student will inevitably ask some version of this question: “What if you don’t want your work to go over the sofa?”

This is a huge issue not just for newly emerging artists, but for artists at any stage in their careers. We want to sell. We don’t want to sell out. So beyond that specific piece of furniture, "the sofa" becomes a metaphor for any commercial transaction we feel will debase our work.

Let me ask you this: What makes a corporate atrium any different from the space above a private collector’s sofa? The work will be appreciated by some, ignored by others. I think of Herb and Dorothy Vogel, those passionate packrats who acquired so much art it was not just over the sofa but in the entryway of their modest Manhattan apartment, in the kitchen, in the bedroom and in the bathroom. They loved what they had, and they put out as much as possible so that they could live with it and enjoy it. Recently they donated their collection of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. --and then began to collect more!

At the other end of the scale are private collectors who acquire so much, so specifically--and often, so large--that they need to move the work into storage. Some mega-collectors acquire and rehab warehouses, which they turn into private museums. If you’ve been to Miami during the art fairs, you’ve probably visited collections belonging to the Rubell Family, Martin Margulies, the Cisneros-Fontanals Art Foundation and others.
(I don't think most artists have a problem with their art being acquired by a museum, so that's not part of today's discussion.)

Still, “the sofa” looms for many artists

If that's the case, consider alternatives to the commercial gallery. Some artists include them as part of their exhibition strategy as a matter of course:
. Local or regional non-profits (guilds, societies, associations and other .org institutions) are focused on bringing culture to their constituents. They’re funded by state or federal funds—or perhaps by private donation. Advertising, a catalog and the occasional review may be part of the package here.
. Academic galleries serve the institution while providing artists a respected venue in which to exhibit. The mandate of this kind of venue is to provide educational opportunities for its constituents—the educational community, perhaps the community at large. Some such galleries draw big-name artists as well as provide opportunities for emerging artists to build their resumes. A visiting-artist gig may be part of the package here, as well as advertising, a catalog and reviews. Many academic institutions cover shipping to and from, and some offer a stipend to the artist. (A post on academic galleries is coming soon.)
. Libraries and historical associations provide an appropriately dignified setting for work. Some of these institutions have designated exhibition spaces, though many are unlikely to have curators or directors the way an institution like the New York Public Library has. If you’re enterprising, you might explore exhibition possibilities in a local library to create not only a show for yourself but a gig developing or curating small exhibitions there. A salary is unlikely, but the opportunity to become part of your art community in a curatorial way would give you experience and access that most artists don’t have.
. Co-op galleries allow the artist, who is in fact a cooperating owner of the venue, to retain a high degree of control over every aspect of the exhibition. If you choose not to sell, that's an acceptable option.

Of course you’ll need deep pockets to fund your career without selling. But maybe a 9-5 job or a teaching gig is a more appealing choice than “the sofa.” That’s fine. And, if you get good at the application process, you could conceivably support yourself in large measure through grants and residencies.

One thing is certain: Pursuing alternatives to “the sofa” requires that you be the very opposite of a couch potato. And I'm curious: What do you have hanging over your sofa?

Image from Atlas Sofas


Nancy Ewart said...

Good question - I guess that it depends on whose sofa and how they approach me. I know that some of my work is hanging over people's sofa's. In fact, a couple of my pieces are hanging in their kitchens which does not make me very happy but when I sold my painting, I couldn't demand that it be placed in the place of honor. And what's hanging over my sofa - the first big "real" piece that I ever bought, painted by my dear, late teacher N'Ima Leveton. I'll change to sofa to match the art work and not the other way around. But then, I value the art over the decor which isn't true of some buyers.

Georgia Gray said...

Yes indeed - what do we have hanging above the sofa? Don't we all want to live with paintings or pieces we can enjoy or have meaning? I suppose some artists don't want their work to be "pretty" conventional or accessible.
There is a necessity for art that confronts and disturbs but the art I want to live with needs to be my friend.
- Georgia

Rob said...

I don't have a problem with work hanging over a sofa. It is often a prime spot in a home for work to be seen (much better than a bathroom, where someone told me my work was destined -- when they saw my appalled look they tried to soften it by telling me how nice the bathroom was), but I think there is an issue when people start to worry about matching their art with the sofa.

Coincidentally, I actually wrote my own blog post on that issue yesterday. With the matching issue I'm not so offended as distressed that a sale will fall through for a stupid reason or that a commission will be diminished because of misinformation. Art doesn't have to, nor should it, match the decor of a room. The question is, how to educate the public to understand this point. I have found that when they are in the process of selecting work, it really isn't the time to educate them.

Pamela Farrell said...

Mostly my own work. With a shortage of storage space, and minimal funds for collecting, I have my own work placed here and there around the house.

Pieces in my very modest collection of work by others hang where the light is good or where they fit.

Once someone acquires my work, I don't really care if it hangs over the sofa or the bed or the fireplace. It's theirs to place as they see fit.

I find the post interesting, and the discussion about alternatives to commercial galleries is food for thought.

By the way, my work has sold from academic galleries, and historic cultural venues. Probably hanging over sofas somewhere.

Casey Klahn said...

My own paintings, and one from a painting mentor and pottery from friends who throw.

A good list of alternative venues, Joanne. Have you done a thorough list of these kinds of venues somewhere? I could create one, but I am interested always in your take on these various venues.

Larry said...

@Joanne: “What if you don’t want your work to go over the sofa?” So beyond that specific piece of furniture, "the sofa" becomes a metaphor for any commercial transaction we feel will debase our work.

One response could be: "Do you have so little faith in your collector that you think your work will be debased by their owning it?"

Just as there are serious artists, there are serious collectors. If the collector is discerning enough to buy *your* work, why not give them the benefit of the doubt that they will preserve and display your work in a discerning manner?

I would hope that serious collectors know enough not to keep work in a humid area like a kitchen or bathroom or a dry area like over a fireplace and not to expose it to direct light. As for the matching art to the decor thing, I would say it does matter to some degree. When I buy a piece, I have three criteria: do I love the piece enough to want to live with it permanently, can I afford it, and will it work in my home environment? By the last of these I don't mean to reduce the art to an accompaniment to the furniture, but something more like, does it enhance and harmonize with the space I have to put it? If if fails any of these three tests, I won't buy. Cost aside, there are many pieces that I would find impressive in a museum, but I could not see working within a private home.

Joanne Mattera said...

@ Larry: Thanks for the collector's point of view. You're absolutely right that collecting has its responsibilitities to keep the work safe, first and foremost, and that while you don't want it reduce it to matching the drapes, you do want it to work with the environment you've created for yourself. I know that my work is hanging over a number of sofas; that's OK with me. It's also in atriums, bedrooms and even a bathroom (half bath, no shower, so no humidity issues). I have artwork in my bathroom, too.

@ Casey: No, I have not made a thorough list of these alternative venues and I have no plans to. I do have a post coming soon on "The Academic Gallery." I spoke to the directors of two respected venues; now I have to find the time to do their words justice.

Larry said...

May I add: I have a couple of b+w drawings framed in blond wood that I've hung in a hallway painted in red. And they really look fantastic there. I also like to keep more somber pieces in my bedroom, which is painted in beige. The environment does make a difference.

Anonymous said...

I too collect art and I am also an artist. I not only hang good art in the bathrooms but some of my art is in turn hung in a few bathrooms. I don't mind at all. To want to dictate where a collector hangs your work is, to me, the height of insecurity.

Lisa McShane said...

I think everyone should have good art hanging in every possible spot in their homes: above sofas, chairs and fireplaces, in hallways, dining rooms, kitchens. I have a couple of nice pieces in my bathroom too.

Art should be everywhere.

I don't love to hear someone say 'that would match my sofa' but that's how many think and I think it's a good step for them to purchase original art.

bill said...

On my house, "over the sofa" is a place of honor, and where I hang a favorite painting before it gets exhibited or sold. I enjoy living with the work, seeing it every day in a natural setting. Sometimes I notice or learn something else about it, different than when I was contemplating it in the studio.

It's part of my letting go process too.

Anonymous said...

There is a B&B (or Inn) on route 6A at the Cape that we once looked at while looking for a place to stay. In the living room there was a painting of "a sofa" hanging over the sofa! My husband and I still laugh about this encounter. Somehow we didn't stay there but......on a serious note many artists hold back part of their works in order to control who owns the work. I have done this on occasion but in general if you make a lot of work letting some work be sold to match furniture does get the work out and you have the money to make more.

Philip Koch said...

Matisse, Picasso and Braque didn't have much choice when they started out when it came who bought their paintings. I suspect they were just glad when anybody did.

In a perfect world we might have more say about where our work ends up, but in this one that is a luxury for only the most established artists.

Mead McLean said...

Artists really seem to have a strange sense of ownership. I think most of us assume that a piece is always ours, before and after we die, and that anyone else who might "own" it doesn't really possess it. I think that's healthy in some ways, but it can be a damaging thing. If you don't want someone to buy your work because you don't want it going into a residential or other non-art environment, there is a problem. The best thing about a painting is that it sits there. It doesn't require you to look at it or anything, but when you do look at it, it can be engrossing.

As far as a personal relationship with my work and others, I try to keep a piece from each series that I make, and I try to buy or trade for other stuff that I like. I get things from friends, professors, and people I encounter when I'm out and about the art world. I also collect a few records and loads of books.

Ultimately, a collection is a living thing with a mind of its own sometimes. A gap or hole in your collection of art/music/books is painful at times and makes you want to go out and get more stuff. Now that I have a certain amount of objects, I'm driven to go get things that will offset or complement what I have and what I make.

All major collectors feel a responsibility to keep up their collection to a certain degree. Most of them catalog everything when the collection reaches a critical mass.

Also, the exact "something unquantifiable" which makes people want to buy a piece of art is exactly what one can't buy. That's why we keep collecting, I think. We're always searching for something outside of the material and monetary nature of a painting, just to have it around us for a while. If the piece gets boring, we move it around, store it, or get something else to put in its place.

In short, I think art starts to live when just a few people look at it every day, and hopefully we can make art that people need to see regularly.

Anonymous said...

I have a painting from a Cuban artist named Salvador, who painted while Castro outlawed participating in the fine arts. It is a piece depicting some Orisha Gods.

We bought the piece while visiting Habana in 2002, oh yeah and the embargo on Cuba outlawed us going to Habana then...

As for my own work? Well above the sofa isn't my first choice. BUT my first choice is that my work speaks to the collector. After that, it's theirs.

Larry said...

@Mead: "Artists really seem to have a strange sense of ownership. I think most of us assume that a piece is always ours, before and after we die, and that anyone else who might 'own' it doesn't really possess it."

I don't think I "own" a piece or art I've collected in the same sense that I own a computer or a Cuisinart. I'm more a caretaker. I try to take good care of the pieces of paper and canvases I've bought in hopes that someone else will take good care of them when I'm gone. If that sounds too sappy, I also hope that what I've bought will be "worth" more someday than what I paid for it.

Maria Brophy said...

I love this article and everyone's comments after it. You really can't control where the art is going to end up after you sell it. Your collectors may place it somewhere respectable, but should they leave their estate to less respecting family members later, it could end up anywhere. You just have to let it go and move on to the next painting. Forget about it! said...

A collector buys art for reasons all their own. They buy the art in order to own it. They will do what they will. Serious collectors have art everywhere.

My mother-in-law visited the Cohen sisters in Baltimore. She loves to tell the story of moving the Mattises' off the toilet seat cover in the bathroom so that she could use the toilet. We all know where those Mattise pieces ended up. Need more be said?

Suzanne said...

I am a painter and an interior designer. In my role as designer, I, of course, ask first what their needs are . I then approach the idea of selecting the art first, so that we may buy the sofa to complement the art. This was always a tough sell, but when the few did agree to that philosophy, oh my, the magic that happened! Not only does the space give honor to the art by everything else in the room being more quiet (neutral), clients are so excited about learning more about themselves and the idea of become collectors. Hail to "art first" in interior design.

Tracy Helgeson said...

I have a painting by Francis Livingston hanging over my sofa, I enjoy seeing it there and it inspires me every day.

Which is all I want for my work. It can hang in a closet for all I care, as long as it somehow inspires the person who has it, I am happy.

Bernard Klevickas said...

Great Sofa! I'd hang my work over it.

Julie Caves said...

If an artist said to me "oh, you know, the old sofa problem" I would assume they were talking about a prospective buyer asking if it came in different colours that would match their decor. I don't think most artists have a problem with hanging over a sofa at all. It is the attitude of a buyer wanting a piece of decoration rather than "getting" the work.

Suzanne- it is wonderful to hear there is "art first" interior design!

kim matthews said...

The sofa is sort of the least of it. As some of the other posts have mentioned, works end up in dangerous places like bathrooms and kitchens all the time. My "sofa" story involves a friend who bought a piece of my work, only to encircle it with dried vines. Every time I go to her house I cringe inside: if I wanted damned dried weeds on my piece, I'd have made it that way! But it's hers now, and I wouldn't dream of telling her that I'm offended. It's her right to paint it or burn it or eat it if she wants.

Linda said...

One of my favorite pieces of art is hanging in my bathroom, just to the right of my sink. Since it is a small and well lit room it gives me the chance to get up close to the art and really appreciate it. I have spent hours while brushing my teeth looking at that painting and really seeing it - much more so than the art in my living room. I still love the piece as much as the day I bought it and I don't think that any artist would ask for more appreciation than that.

Hylla Evans said...

To Kim, it is not the new owner's right to paint your painting. That would change YOUR work, to which you still hold the rights even though someone else owns the painting. So no, they can't change it or make postcards out of it or anything derivative. Sadly, they can burn it or hide it away.
Above my sofa, proudly, is a letter from Adlai Stevenson, a Joanne Mattera sewn grid (too beautiful for words), a Sam Allison, a Jhina Alvarado, and a larger Joanne Mattera Uttar. The sofa is angled so I can lounge back and stare at that one for hours.
Nearby is a Jeff Schaller portrait of my daughter, which also gets its share of staring.

Frank Wick said...

I think at some point all people, including artists, should try to realize they are destined to be forgotten. This takes a lot of pressure off of where your work ends up during your life. Strategically, you may want your work where you want your work. Few would NOT want their endeavors purchased and admired by the wealthy. However, do we really need validation that much we bristle at the idea of our work in proximity to a lowly piece of furniture? Students can be excused, on some level, because they have been led to believe there is a bad place to show. Sometimes it is better to let your darlings die and be placed where they may fall.

Anonymous said...

I've never had an issue with where a purchaser decides to hang my work. Anywhere in a home is fine by me. David Reed's ambition is/was to be a bedroom painter. I can identify with this. As an aside, my preference has/is for work to go to those that struggle to aquire a work of art over a 'collector' any day. How much time does your work spend in storage?
P.S great blog Joanne,thanks for your efforts.

Daniel Sroka said...

Please, hang my art over your soft. Heck, hang it in the kitchen, or even the bathroom for all I care. Just buy it, support my art, and love it. That's all that matters.