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ART IS RETAIL

((Excerpt from, "Art For The People: A Collector's Journal"))

This is something that no one in the art world wants to admit, but the truth is right there in your face like a shiny, maroon Jeff Koons sculpture.

I know.  I know.  Art is conceptual, consciousness raising, expressive, high-minded social commentary.  That’s a given, but these days, arguably above all …

Art Is Retail.

This hit me just a few minutes ago after reading an email from Los Angeles based artist Karen Sperling.  I love her thought-provoking, charcoal abstracts.  Anyway, as of this writing, the Christmas shopping season is in high gear.  Retailers are desperately slashing prices (supposedly) to get consumers to buy during this tough economic time.  Even though Karen wasn’t actually shopping herself, she sent me an interesting note …

“I just took a walk around the mall.  There were tons of people in the mall itself, but no one in the small shops.  It was kind of creepy.  (However,) the Apple store was hopping.”

I had recently met Karen at Art Basel Miami Beach.  I was talking with some friends outside the Bridge Art Fair when Karen walked by and handed me her postcard for a group gallery show in the vicinity.  I remember saying to her, “Oh, I see you’re doing some guerilla marketing!”

Basically, Karen was doing what more artists could be doing … she was out there promoting her work.  She was, dare I say this, being a salesperson.  You know, this is something that has always been in the back of mind during my art fair trips.  I guess I didn’t really want to admit it, but what are art fairs if not glorified department stores for art?  They’re trade shows.  The location and venue don’t make much difference.  We all want to believe in art’s higher purpose.  Still, as I wandered up and down the endless aisles separating booth after booth of stunning art, I cannot deny that I was actually window shopping ... only because I couldn’t afford anything there.

It’s the same story for millions of “shoppers” across America.  Let’s be real.  Many people who regularly go to malls don’t buy merchandise.  Lots of teenagers go to the mall to hang out, some seniors visit to do their “mall walking” and professional types often go mainly to have lunch in the food court.  Malls are the not-so-new downtown.  They’re often the hot, exciting place to be … even if you can’t buy anything.  Even “black belt” shoppers don’t always buy.  People who aren’t wealthy tend to want the best deals possible for their hard-earned money.  This is a reality that more and more artists are bravely facing.  I also recently chatted with artist Judy Horowitz.  She captures life in South Florida with her oil and cut canvas collages.  She sent me this email …

“During Art Basel I had one potential buyer ask me to drop the price over 50% and I declined.  Right now I have a little non-sale remorse.  (I) could have used the money and so I plan to reconnect and see if we can strike a deal.  I am having a one-person show in Miami in March and plan to price to sell.  I have also learned to not count on the gallery/event for all the marketing.  I will make the extra effort myself.”

You know, in some ways, art is even more retail than … well … retail.  When it comes to buying art, collectors and artists can negotiate price.  Buying art can sometimes be almost like buying a car ... hopefully without the stress of five-year loan financing.  Still, why not ask the artist for his or her best price?  If you can’t afford their final price, be prepared to walk away or perhaps you can set up some sort of payment plan.  Let me be clear … buyers shouldn’t try to SWINDLE artists who’ve put in weeks, months or even years on their work.  Artists deserve to make a great living just like anyone else.  However, I also believe that avid collectors would be remiss in not trying to get the best deal.  Here’s another tip … if you can’t get something you want, chances are you’ll like something else that the artist has created.  Perhaps you can afford that.  This happened to me just recently.  I missed out on something that I wanted from an artist, but she had a couple of smaller paintings that I could afford.  I think I like them even more than the piece that I supposedly “had to have.”  Life, or should I say, retail is full of surprises.

Given that, I must say that while most artists sell their work, some of them still haven’t embraced it as a “commodity.”  I think they can achieve this without sacrificing their artistic integrity.  If you’re even remotely interested in selling your work, you must practice the “art of the sale.”  Perhaps injecting your own creativity into the process will help maintain your sense of integrity.  I don’t know.  Get creative!  This just seems like common, business sense to me.

Oh, I have to ask this question.  What are art dealers if not glorified sales people?  I know that I’m about to get slammed, but I go to these fairs and there’s no denying that their MAIN purpose is to SELL.  They’re not there just to look good and educate the public about art.  Educating the public isn’t going to buy that Calvin Klein suit that you got at the factory outlet in Jersey.  (God knows that’s where I got mine!)

Couldn’t you say that one of the primary functions of an art dealer is that of a sales clerk?  Oooh, I’ve done it now!  Sales clerks!  Why … sales clerks don’t even like being called, “sales clerks.”  They prefer to be called, “business associates.”  You know what, the next time I encounter a snobby art dealer, I’m going to snap back, “Don’t you snub me!  You’re nothing but a GLORIFIED SALES CLERK!”  Then, I’ll storm out with my dignity barely intact.  (I’ll get to the dignity thing in a second.) 

Can you imagine?  Surely, the art dealer would shoot back, “Well, I NEVER!  I have a doctorate in ART HISTORY from YALE!  How dare YOU!  SECURITY!!!”

Sorry dude or dudette.  I’m wrong (inserting dignity here).  While art dealers can certainly play the role of sales clerk, they do MUCH more.  They’re also curators and public relations experts, not to mention savvy business people.  In short, they wear many hats in the name of art and commerce.

Speaking of commerce, the fantastic thing about art is that it’s simultaneously SO MANY things.  Art enlightens us and feeds our souls … it soothes and provokes the human spirit … it makes us consider new things and look at ourselves and society in different ways.  However there’s no denying that consumerism impacts practically everything in this day and age.  Yes, art is retail. 

One last quick story.  On the last day of Basel, I think I was at the Pulse Art Fair where I was chatting with a couple of dealers.  I said to them, “You must be thrilled that today is the last day!”  One of the dealers replied, “Yes, but now we have to pack this stuff and ship it back!”  I jokingly responded, “Don’t worry, I’ll take it off your hands.”  And without missing a beat, the other dealer looked at me and said …

“Sure!  What’s your credit card number?”



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