Sunday, April 11, 2010

empirical evidence of why I don't tweet

The other night I was honored to take part in a panel discussion at the School of the Art Institute, Chicago. The subject was "Galleries, Artists and the Market" and included, along with myself; our gallery owner David Weinberg; owner of the Rhona Hoffman gallery, Rhona Hoffman; founder of Three Walls, Shannon Stratton; and well-known collector, Larry Fields.

It was a blast for me because I really respect all of these individuals. I know it's a little early to be making this kind of statement, but by the time this year is over, I think I'll still be saying that the Richard Rezac show at Rhona's gallery was easily one of the best of 2010. I went back to that show five times and was fascinated every time, although I'm still a little shocked that, as of the last day of the show, most of the sculptures were sold (I suppose what you'd think of as signature style Rezac work) but none of the drawings had sold. Not only were the drawings exquisite and delicate but, frankly, they were affordable. I was surprised nobody snagged them.

Richard Rezac, Drawing for 05-04, 24.5 x 30.5, image from his website and works available at Rhona Hoffman Gallery

Three Walls is easily one of the best not-for-profit spaces in Chicago and Shannon does an incredible job with it. You can often find Cassi and I at their openings, events and lectures. I've donated money and I've purchased work from them. There needs to be more spaces in Chicago that are as pragmatic and far reaching as their program.

And Larry was a real treat. He works at the Merc and clearly loves what he does. Which is wild, because if you listen to him describe what he does, it sounds a little like art. Except it's all analytical and mathematical and feels very left-brain, but he's really seeing elegance in systems that I would guess, to him, feels more right-brain. Which is probably why he also seems deeply engaged in the intellectual depth of the best artworks.

In general the panel discussion rested on the concept that we would impart some logical and practical information to the curious graduating student body at SAIC. I hope we did. If I'm honest though, I think it would have been more fun for Rhona and I to duke it out a little more (figuratively.) It was clear that we had some theoretical differences concerning how to run a gallery and which artists to focus on. What would have been nice about a more spirited debate is that I don't think either of us would have been "wrong." We just see it differently and I think that's largely due to where we are in our respective careers.

Rhona was, I think, a little surprised that I consider whether or not I think I can sell work from a given artist before I move forward with a show. To some this may seem a logical step. If I can't sell the art, I can't pay my bills - or myself - and therefore have no gallery. Pretty simple and really the crux of my argument.

Rhona though, was surprised at that kind of thinking - and said so (sort of off mic). She said (I paraphrase) Oh, I just show what I like and figure other people will like it too. Which is also what I do, I just also consider the economic reality of what I like, which can limit what I show. In other words, I never show anything I don't like, I just don't show everything I do like. And mostly, the stuff that I like that is wickedly complicated, difficult to install, giant, heavy, insanely expensive or some sort of new media usually takes a back burner because I'm still building that niche clientele. I think Rhona's perspective is that if it's good art, it will sell, but I know for a fact that that is not true.

There is proof of this concept all around the art world, and, in fact, in Rhona's own gallery. For example, Rhona will soon be mounting a solo for Chris Garofalo. Chris' work is really really great stuff. Also really affordable (at least it was last time Rhona showed it) and should sell well. But prior to Chris showing with Rhona, she showed with Aron Packer. I'm sure Aron sold the work well, and I'm not suggesting that the only reason (or that it was a reason at all) that Chris left Packer for Hoffman in 2006 was that she felt that she could get increased sales at Rhona's, but come on. She (Chris) can rely on the name of the Hoffman gallery, which, no offense to Aron (because I adore him and his gallery) is better known outside of Chicago (Rhona is one of only 5 Chicago galleries who is a member of the American Art Dealers Association.)

So, is the work selling because it is good work? Yes. Is it selling because Rhona likes it? Yeah, sort of - I suppose. Is it selling because of the awesome history that Rhona has established? Undoubtably. But it is also presumably (I have absolutely no proof of this, by the way) selling better at Hoffman than it was at Packer. So if Aron showed the work because he liked it (because he did) and didn't sell it like Rhona can or does, then how much of that value is added due to the simple fact of which gallery's walls upon which it hangs. I'd say quite a lot, and this is why I have to consider deeply how, and if, I can sell a piece or not. Rhona has the luxury of history (and it's a great one that she worked hard for and has earned.) I hope to create that for David's gallery, myself as a dealer, and for my artists, but it takes time. And Rhona is the first to admit (because I've heard her admit it) that the art world was a very different place in the 70's when she started.

Chris Garofalo, detail of work to be included in aquibotanous zoolatry at Rhona Hoffman Gallery from 5.21.10 to 6.30.10

But in this world, one in a deep recession, one where, if you don't have a lot of clients to rely on already, you are forced to cut through this nasty fog to find them, it simply becomes more of a risk to show work that you might not sell. One example for me is R. Justin Stewart. I love this guy's work. I've been checking back in on his website for well over a year now, working on identifying just one client ahead of time so that I could bring some work in. (I've done all of this with out once contacting Stewart.) And while Rhona might have the clients to buy this, it would be a major risk for us. I mean, who wants a 24 hour 3-dimensional diagram of the Twin Cities Metro Transit System from 2am to 2pm Sunday morning? I love this thing - it's awesome - but where's it gonna go? Seriously?

R. Justin Stewart, 2am-2pm, copper, wood, thread, steel, dimensions variable, 2008 - image from his website and works available from Plus Gallery (Denver)

There are people who can not only afford this kind of stuff, but frankly should jump at it, but I'm still figuring that part out. And it is clear the clientele is out there. He's got commissions by Esquire and JESNA NY to name a few, but, again, in this economic climate - man - it's hard. So I'm sitting and waiting. And quietly searching for those niche clients to compliment the one's we've already got buying paintings and photos. And once I do, trust me, I'll pounce. But I can tell you that right now, I just don't have the stomach to trust that, just because I show great work, it will sell. I've got a responsibility to my artists regarding sales. The most rewarding part of the job is paying the artists. It's super gratifying and I take it seriously.

In the end though, I loved being a part of that discussion. It's always an honor to get to brain-pick some of the best artistic minds in Chicago (or in Rhona's case, anywhere) and I love that she has dedicated so much of her time to the intellectual side of stuff. I still have a ton to learn from people like her and Roy Boyd and Cathy Edelman and Kavi Gupta and Tony Wight and a lot of other great Chicago gallerists. I love that there is such diversity here and that we are all pushing really great work really hard.