Sunday, May 20, 2012

Food for Thought - What is selling in art...

On the Linked In group Museums and Galleries the question was posted "Is anyone selling art out there". Great question as from most artist's point of view the answer would be no. At least at a price point that you could live on. I have to admit that I am working from the limited perspective of an artist working in central Utah, and haven't been seen outside of the state yet. 
One, actually in two parts, posting by an artist out of Phoenix, AZ by the name of Kevin Geary gave cause to pause and consider:

"Do the work you love. You'll go nuts trying to do work you hate doing, just to make money. 

Secondly, in this market, it's difficult to sell work to the middle (that's true almost anywhere). Today, works will sell under 500 (dollars, euros, pounds) but anything between 500 and 50,000 is a hard sell. And the 500-5,000 market is largely dead. It's actually just as easy to sell a work for $50,000+ as it is to sell one for $5,000. The people who can afford $50,000 will buy, because they perceive such a price as the bottom rung of "investment level art". in other words, the very rich are buying, but the middle classes are not. The trick is to find, cultivate and find the rich who are buying, and have the courage to ask a high price (when your rent's due and you can't put food on the table or pay your bills!) But the sad truth is that people with a lot of money understand a high price and prefer it. If you say to a very wealthy person, this is $5,000, he or she will either say "I can't afford it!" (they can, but they think it's not worth buying at such a low price) or else they'll ask you to lower the price, or offer you 50% of the asking price. Ask for 50,000 or 100,000 with a straight face and the rich person will feel that a) you value yourself and your art, and b) they consider that the price is worth it! Years ago, a friend who was very wealthy told me that it was easier to get people to write a check for $1,000,000 for a fundraiser for a museum than to ask for $100,000. She said that $1,000,000 seemed like a serious request, but at $100,000 all her rich friends would claim that they didn't have the money, because of the 'stock market' or the "economy". She was adamant that high prices are respected by the wealthy but low prices are considered unworthy. This is true in almost all luxury goods markets (art is a luxury, after all).No-one would buy a Rolls Royce for a Toyota price. They'd think something was wrong with it. That's what we, as artists, have to recognise in this economy (it was the same in the Great Depression) and during the First World War when prices were "depressed". Of course you have to be able to connect with very wealthy people, but that's a whole different story.... Sell really cheap, (like .99 cents downloadable images or songs or "apps" or sell for under 500, or sell for tens or hundreds of thousands. Ther'e no happy "middle ground" anymore in this world or economy.

However, having said that, the sad fact is that all the "middle" people (people who used to buy art for between $1,000-$10,000)have essentially disappeared from the market. I know, because I used to do portrait commissions for years (very successfully, too), but the people (doctors, lawyers, accountants, etc), who used to have no problem spending $5000 -10,000 for portrait commissions of their families simply no longer have the disposable income (or feel they don't). So, one can sell small works for small sums, either through galleries or yourself, but you won't make a great living. 

A long time ago I saw Aristotle Onassis being interviewed. He said there were three secrets to success. Follow them, and you'd be successful. Fail to follow them and you'd fail. The three secrets were these: 
ONE: When you move to a city, get yourself an address in the best part of town, even if it's the size of a "broom cupboard".So, when people ask where you live and you give them your address they immediately think you're successful because of "where you live" 
TWO: Find out where all the rich and powerful people go for lunch or dinner. There's always one place where the rich and powerful go. Go there every day and even if you sit at the bar and can only afford one glass of wine, do so. The rich and powerful will see you every day, and get curious or want to know you. Then they'll come up and start to say hello and you then make useful connections, That will be the kind you need when you want to sell, get support or borrow from to start your venture. 
THREE: When you borrow money (from a bank, or an investor) ALWAYS ask for THREE times more than you need! The reason is that nearly everyone underestimates what they need when starting a business, and no-one will give you all that you need, but they will offer you half or maybe two-thirds of what you ask for. That will ensure that you have enough to get through the inevitable problems of the first year of business. 

I would add one other thing. A great friend of mine (now deceased) who was a hugely successful artist in the UK but came over to the US, especially Texas, regularly and secured art commissions for insanely expensive prices back in the 1970s and early 80s, told me that "Americans will never buy from you if you're cheap, and they'll always rise to a challenge!" He used to tell curious rich people who asked him what he did, that he was far too busy to accept new work (even when he was broke). When they said that they were interested in commissioning a work regardless, he'd say "you can't afford it!" that made them so mad they'd say they could afford anything! He'd then hand them a folded paper with his prices and tell them that they should read it when they got back to the office and not to bother him unless they were serious and could call the number on the paper. Well, they always did. And he made so much money it was insane. But that takes a lot of guts to do. I cannot say I've done it, Although a couple of times when I have, it's been very successful. Strangely, this works with collectors who are billionaires and want to buy art from dealers like Gagosian. If you have millions you cannot just go in to Gagosian off the street and say you want to buy the Koons he has in the gallery. He will tell you it's not available! Then you have two alternatives; you either pay an art consulatnt who is known to Gagosian, who buys the work for you, and maybe after buying two or three, through the consulatant, you might be allowed to buy directly from the gallery; or, you go to Christie's or Sotheby's and bid on a work by Koons (along with all the other "refusnik" Russian billionaires at the auction) and drive up the price to crazy levels for the artist. Guess what? Gagosian is also at the sale, and maybe he approaches you afterwards and says, "Come round and see me. I may have something for you". It's all a big game!"

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