Right after I wrote and posted, “Why People Aren’t Buying Art,” I got an email from one of “my artists.” The email had a tone of frustration as he told me some of his pet peeves about the “art world.” It’s something that inspired me to go ahead and write this list that I’ve held in my head for years. My list certainly runs longer than twelve items, but I’ll limit it to that. Also, it’s my hope that this list is viewed as a “Call to Action” for change rather than a bunch of empty gripes. Here we go …
1. SNOBBERY: I’ve spoken about this many times before, but it doesn’t seem to be getting any better. Snobbery and exclusivity are really keeping contemporary art and artists from truly soaring. So many people in the art world want to retain their social position (or whatever) and keep art locked away on Mount Olympus, but this is not helping art and living artists one bit. Snobs and stuck up art staffers in galleries, museums and fairs are actually hurting themselves. I’ve gone gallery hopping on numerous occasions with even artist friends who can be intimidated by galleries. I remember chatting once with a high-powered marketing professional who told me she liked art, but would NEVER walk into a gallery because she was afraid of being judged or snubbed. This is a shame and it only hurts galleries that depend on sales from people like her (who by the way, can certainly afford to buy art). Not all galleries are guilty, but many are. Let’s take our heads out of our asses and behave like adult professionals people. I can’t even believe that I still have to talk about this. It’s a BIG problem.
2. EMPHASIS ON FAMOUS, DEAD ARTISTS: The blue chip art market and auction houses are always in need of rare inventory from the likes of Pablo Picasso, Mark Rothko, etc. However, because these artists are no longer living, their work is hard to come by and therefore, highly valuable to wealthy collectors and investors. This keeps the high-end market going and as a result, super-high prices for art always make for great news headlines. However, if the art world REALLY wanted to shake things up at the middle and even lower ranges of the art market, it would focus more on where the real action and fun are - Contemporary Art. There are SO many gifted artists out there today and trying to figure out WHO might be the next great artists is a fantastic game. It’s like stock market speculation. Many in the art world don't love this because it levels out the playing field. How? Well, no one can really predict the future and therefore, no one can really boast and put themselves above anyone else. It's much easier for "experts" to focus on “sure things” like dead, famous artists whose works have become commodities and are guaranteed to bring in big dollars. Such is life. However, a greater shift toward living artists would practically revolutionize the art world and worldwide art markets. Auction houses have been steadily moving toward "Contemporary Masters." Let's hope this continues at least. No disrespect to dead, famous artists, mind you. I love them.
3. NO RESPECT FOR CRAFTSMANSHIP: No one believes in free expression more than I do, but there is a lot of junk out there trying to pass for contemporary art. You can easily spot it because there's no respect for craftsmanship. It looks thrown together and purposely, “art schoolish,” which it often is. No offense to art schools. We need them, but I think it's completely possible to "draw outside of the lines" and be fearless and experimental while retaining craftsmanship. In order to break the rules effectively and successfully, you must first know the rules. In other words, art should come from an educated and/or enlightened place and space. We've all seen plenty of stuff that attempts to pass as art. Is it art? Yes. Is it good art? No. Ultimately though, bad art can be interesting, but nothing is more interesting than ideas that are well-executed as opposed to half-baked and unintentionally haphazard.
4. RIPPING OFF ARTISTS: In the past several years, I've seen a lot of publications, directories, websites, "artist representatives," "artist consultants," etc., that have popped up, claiming to want to help artists and give them "exposure," but they often charge artists a LOT of money. A few of them have even asked to collaborate with ArtBookGuy. By the way, ArtBookGuy does NOT have ANY partnerships, so if you see someone who says they do, PLEASE let me know. Anyway, most artists are not rich and it's a challenge for many of them to even buy materials. So, artists need to very careful about where they spend the money they have. Some of these enterprises are indeed legitimate, but not all. Having said that, I really think it's up to those with scruples to help warn artists about the hucksters.
5. ART WRITING: I think that in an effort to reinforce the idea that art is important and indispensable in a society that often disrespects art, many art writers believe that their writing must also be profound and lofty. They feel that they must use big, obscure words. Great writing is like a breath of fresh air. However, over-intellectualized writing that reads like an art history textbook in Latin serves no one but the ego of the writer. Actually, it doesn’t even really serve the writer or the publication. It makes them look like arrogant windbags. Rightfully so. Contemporary art desperately needs great writers who respect and revere it enough to make it understandable and accessible to everyone. Great writing is a SERVICE that helps art to remain relevant. Let's lose the convoluted hogwash designed to impress art colleagues rather than win new art lovers.
6. DRESS CODE AND ART SPEAK: This is going to sound so shallow and superficial, but I must mention it. Is there some rule out there that says art people must only wear black and look so sullen and serious all of the time? I mean, really. It's like a joke. Some art people are so easy to parody. Visit any big art fair and you'd think you were at a funeral. Art is serious business, but isn't it also supposed to be … I don’t know … Enjoyable? Fun? What ever happened to fun? Don't get me wrong. I love the color black, but there's more to life than black clothing and constipated faces. Nobody wants to buy art from a stick in the mud. In fact, no one wants to have anything to do with a stick in the mud. You don't always have to wear black to be taken seriously. How about doing your job well and actually respecting people? Doesn't that help you to be taken seriously? As for art speak, all industries have their coded language. Fine. However, some folks (yes,"folks") get carried away with the whole “art speak” thing. It can get a little silly. Coded language is akin to taking shortcuts, which can be convenient, but may also be hellish trips through bad neighborhoods. What’s the point?
7. MEDIA: The only time we ever really hear about art in the general media is when someone finds a $20 million Jackson Pollock painting behind a secret wall in their basement or when a Picasso sells for an ungodly price at auction. Really? Of course, news is about aberrations and anomalies, but living artists are the BIG story that the entire media continues to miss (or dismiss).
8. GALLERY OPERATING HOURS: Okay, I totally get it. Art dealers want to enjoy at least part of the weekend off just like everyone else. However, why are so many galleries closed on Sundays? Shouldn’t galleries be open when most people are actually free to visit them and maybe even buy art? Galleries should be open for at least for a few hours on Saturdays AND Sundays. Why not close on Mondays and/or Tuesdays? If you’re concerned about mail and deliveries, you can still have one or two staffers on hand to receive them and do other things that are difficult to do when the gallery is open to the public. Also, an artist told me that he felt that galleries should explore having late evening hours and eliminate “seasonal thinking.” In other words, selling art is a year-round thing. Most retailers never really have any “down time.” Why would galleries? My artist friend also thinks that more galleries should even collaborate to expand their client bases. Why not?
9. PRICING: Pricing art is one of those topics that can get tacky and crude really quick, but please, hear me out. Okay, ready?
I’ve done a LOT of writing while alone in galleries in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, Chicago, etc. In fact, I would say that during most of my gallery visits, I’ve been one of very few potential customers inside of the galleries at the time. The overwhelming truth is that MOST people who’ve gathered up the nerve to even walk into a gallery in the first place will walk out empty-handed. Hold that thought.
Let’s face it. You cannot MAKE people buy things. HOWEVER, this is where galleries and artists need to get creative. First, let me say that gifted artists totally deserve to get top dollar for their work and I would LOVE to see reputable galleries always doing brisk business, but here’s the thing. You guys have GOT to get REAL about pricing. Most people who visit art galleries are probably middle to upper-middle class, No? Why not price your product to make it more affordable for some of the REAL people who visit your galleries? I know, I know. You want people to think that you’re “High End” and “Top Quality” (please re-read item Number 1). However, “high end” and affordability do not have to be mutually exclusive.
It remains a mystery to me why artists and galleries haven’t followed the lead of top clothing designers who’ve created various lines at various price points. They create couture lines for the super-wealthy, signature lines for the well-to-do, more affordable lines for premium outlet malls and some even create lines or everyday people and sell them at places like Target. How cool and clever is that?
There’s no reason why artists and galleries cannot do this as well; create original paintings, drawings, prints, lithographs, etc. You could set up payment plans (for a fee, of course. This IS business). For God’s sake, get creative! Let’s be real. Most people who walk into galleries walk out empty-handed. Shouldn’t you be doing a just little more to entice these people? The people inside your galleries are YOUR audience. They are potential customers. SPEAK TO THEM! At least one-third of them are seeking options. Give them options. As I said earlier, I do a lot of writing in basically empty galleries. If you guys don’t get creative, things will remain that way. People have too many other options these days, including buying art online (if they buy art at all) which is exploding as we all know. One day, I’ll write a whole separate piece about buying online. I’ve done this many, many times myself.
10. CURATORS: Where are the curators and show organizers? I know that you guys are busy tending to a million things, but people need to see more of you and have the opportunity to ask you questions about art. This shouldn’t only be the job of docents. Think about it. Curators are among the best ambassadors for contemporary art. No one is asking you to be a great orator. Just be yourself with art visitors. They need YOU.
11. MUSEUM GUARDS: Yes, security is the primary responsibility of museum guards and they need to focus on keeping art and people safe. However, I wish I had a buck for every time I saw a museum guard who looked so bored out of their skull. Museums, let your security people be just a little more friendly and engaging. Let them interact just a bit more with visitors. This will help your bottom line by attracting more visitors. I wrote a short essay on this topic called, “Guardians of the Gallery.”
12. ADMISSION FEES: Believe it or not, I don’t believe that museums should have FREE admission. Art is free to see in galleries, which makes sense, but museums have bills to pay and people need to understand that. I’m not saying admission should be unaffordable, but art institutions need to charge at least a nominal admission fee to remind people that while art can be free, it should never be a “free for all.” You know what I mean.
Well, there you have it. One final thing. I carefully considered everything that I wrote in this piece. Again, I could’ve included more and perhaps I’ll write a follow-up. Ultimately, this is about expanding the audience for contemporary art and actually helping the art world build its base and create more art lovers, collectors and patrons. Our world desperately needs to reconnect with its creative spirit. We can help it do that, but we must do some self-examination and realize that we can often be impediments to progress. See ya!