KCAC Forum Magazine May 1987
INSIDE THE ART GALLERIES
by Rebekah Presson
The reason artists and galleries get together is twofold: to expose the work and to make money. In both cases, the results of the union for most Kansas City galleries and artists is less than satisfying. The relationship between an artist and the gallery that represents them for her is one of mutual dependence. It should also be one of trust, but that part doesn’t always work out either.
Of six gallery owners asked, only two say they actually earn a living selling art. As everyone already knows, only a handful of Kansas City artists make enough off fine artwork to get by. And the people who visit galleries are more often other artists, giving support and/or keeping up on the competition, than potential buyers.
The situation is so bad, in fact, many consider the economics of selling fine art in Kansas City to e a moot point. As generously put by Bob Carlson, who’s Gallery Karl Oskar folded after burning through $200,000 (yes, two hundred thousand) of his own money, “If anybody starves more than the dealers, it would be the artists.”
Nevertheless, gallery owners complain about artists who shun loyalty and sell work directly, leaving the gallery without commission; and artists are angry with galleries that don’t promote them outside the immediate area. But when it comes down to it, both know that exhibiting art is a high-risk venture.
Most gallery owners say the average show opening costs at least $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses before a thing is sold. Thus, at a 40-percent commission, a gallery would have to sell $25,000 worth of art just to break even for opening day. That, of course, doesn’t count rent, electricity, and food on the table for the gallery owner for the rest of the month of the show.
A recent show of works by Richard Beige and Barbara Westerfield at the Leedy-Voulkos Gallery resulted in no sales. And if the $3,000 out-of-pocket monetary drain on the gallery weren’t enough, nation of no sales and a bad review from the Kansas City Star left the artist disconsolate. Beige says, “I don’t be believe in myself – I stopped painting after the show at Leedy-Voulkos because I’m so down and so disheartened.” Like many full-time Kansas City Artists, Beige teaches. And the advice he gives students these days is, “get out of art” and learn about video.
For those artists who think they will be the exception, here’s what gallery owners in the Kansas City area have to say about how they pick who they will represent.
Only one gallery claimed to have an interest in very young artists straight out of school, and that was the not-for-profit Euphrates Gallery. Euphrates emphasizes artists from ethnic minorities, most often blacks. Founder Carol Cooper says her selection committee is “an open bunch,” which will look at work outside the mainstream. Gloria Baker Feinstein of the Baker Gallery says she might exhibit the photos of an artist straight out of school if he or she could show “a consistent body of work – at least 20 things.” She adds that she has no interest in the photographer with two or three great picture.
Cooper advises a young artist to have slides of his/her work (never take the work itself along) and to be self-confident. Susan Lawrence of Westport’s Batz/Lawrence Gallery agrees that an artist need to believe in himself and says it doesn’t hurt to come armed with a recommendation. But even though – like most other gallery owners – she tends to opt for established artists, she says “We look at everybody’s slides because we don’t want to miss the next Rembrandt.” Exclusivity doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for working with a local gallery. Bob Carlson dismisses the idea with, “We fought a war a hundred years ago about slavery.” Although Euphrates has an artist sign a contract, Carol Cooper says it’s not exclusive and has mostly to do with insurance.
The list of ways an artist can alienate gallery owners is much the same from store to store. Cooper includes taking payment directly from the buyer (whether or not the artist intends to eventually pay the commission) and putting stuff in other galleries while showing at Euphrates. Most gallery owners say they don’t often seek retribution against those who sell behind their backs (although Cooper says she once held an artist’s paintings until the commission was paid), but they all agree the word does get around – and when it does, the artist who works for himself won’t have a glory to show in. According to Bob Carlson, “They only screw your once and then it’s over.”
But cooper doesn’t paint the galleries as white hats against double-dealing artists. On the contrary, she takes issue with the way some galleries are run. Euphrates Gallery operates on a 30-percent commission, and the average at a for-profit gallery is 40-percent. Cooper says she has heard of the cut going as high as 50 percent of a sale. “What is the gallery bringing to the relationship to take this much?” asks cooper, adding “That’s one-half of the artists idea, concept, and work.” And for that sort of arrangement, says Cooper, an artist should expect to be heavily promoted in and out of the local area.
Susan Lawrence is one of the gallery owners who lives off selling art. She uses local artists almost exclusively, saying it’s too expensive to bring artists from out of town. She says she signs artists because they are good and judges their merit by how well they use materials, their style, and her judgement that people will buy the work. She admits that, as a for-profit gallery, she can’t show all the talented local artists, saying “there’s some really good art being made here that we don’t show because it doesn’t sell.” Richard Beige claims to be one of those artists. He says, “I was with Lawrence – at least she had to guts to say she couldn’t sell my stuff.”
Whether an artist’s work sells in a gallery depends on a lot of factors. According to Lennie Berkowitz, who operates one of three (the other two are in Los Angeles and New York) Garth Clark Ceramics Galleries out of her home, “A collector wants what he wants.” She says price is rarely a factor in the habits of her buyers; but she adds, that may have to do with the fact that ceramics sell for a lot less than paintings. The average piece in her gallery goes for $400 to $800, and she finds it easier to sell the more expensive pieces because “it’s easy to see there’s a lot of value there.” At the Adrian Saxe show held recently at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and represented by Berkowitz, pieces went up to $7,500. The problem there, says Berkowitz, was that there weren’t enough masterworks to go around.
But Susan Lawrence says, “People in Kansas City have a hard time spending more than $1,000 on a work of art.” A show she held this year for Jim Sajovic who’s giant paintings had price tags of $9,000, resulted in no sales. And Gloria Baker Feinstein advises artists to keep prices reasonable as well, because in photography one can buy the work of a well known artist for $350 and up.
Feinstein also lives off sales from her gallery. This is the Baker Gallery’s sixth year, and Feinstein says sales have increased steadily each year. She says her goal is “to show that (artwork) that other wise wouldn’t be seen.” She admits she rarely promotes her artists out of town but says, “so much of what I give to them is support.” That support extends to giving feedback, taking the work to corporate clients and including it in shows such as the ones she recently put together for Saks Fifth Avenue and Johnson County Community College.
Feinstien says determining whether to take on a photographer is a subjective thing, but the final test is whether the photos can “make the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up.” She represents about seven local photographers; most of her artists are from out-of-town.
Carol Cooper plans to take advantage of out-of-town talent in the future as well. Referring t6o the success of the Gordon Parks show at the Euphrates Gallery she says, “Kansas City will support big name artists over locals – so we’re doing major shows.” One such show will include a film series on the Harlem Renaissance.
Cooper acknowledges that a sense of despair over the future of artists and galleries exists in Kansas City, but says “it’s not just galleries, it’s also farmers and steel companies.” She goes on, “To survive, people have to set up certain priorities and art is not one of them.” She says modern people have to learn to take the same approach to art as primitive people and see it as integral and useful to their daily lives. Asked why she would open a gallery in such a strained economy, she answers, “It’s strained in terms of money, but in terms of consciousness, it’s the right time.”
Bob Carlson says that resources are exhausted, and he now must depend on making a living bartering art. “Something only comes from nothing, and we have nothing in art right now,” he says.
Other gallery owners agree, as Lennie Berkowitz says, the art business “will swing back up – but not in the next couple of years.” Berkowitz admits that her optimism has to do with the fact that “I’m not eating off art.”
Tips for approaching a gallery about a show
- If you’re fresh out of school, try to get in some juried shows before trying galleries
- Have a professional looking portfolio with at least 20 pieces of work in it
- Don’t rely on one or two good pieces. Show your range.
- Be confident and sure of yourself and your talent.
- Know what the gallery is all about. Visit it a couple of times before peddling your wares.
Once you get in the show
- Sell only through the gallery while your work is there
- Any sales that come as a result of the show (even afterward) should be handled by the gallery
- Don’t put work in more than one local gallery at a time
- Find out what the gallery owner will do to promote you:
- Do they have contacts outside Kansas City?
- Can they show your work to corporate clients?
- Expect to pay a 40 percent commission. If it’s more, find out why.
- Look for a teaching job