Sunday, June 19, 2016

ART BIZ | Eternal Springs Hope

Frank Sofo, "Bicycle at Main Beach," East Hampton.
Photo by JT Marlin, by permission of the artist.
June 19, 2016–Last month's 92nd Street Y exhibit at Ashawagh Hall (in Springs, N.Y.–Town of East Hampton) was a huge success, with one art work selling for $1,800, and one artist selling $3,400 worth of art.

By comparison, the Plein Air Exhibition this weekend was a washout.

Only four items sold out of about 75 on the walls and tables. I was responsible for one of the four purchases. The median price of the three paintings sold was $200.

So red dots were prominently absent, even in the middle of the second day. This commercial failure cannot be sloughed off as resulting from a lack of effort by the artists:
  • The exhibit was kicked off with a big opening party, attracting, says one person who was there, 200 people.
  • The artist collective had 30 participants, allowing for a wide range of landscape interpretations.
  • Organizers sent out press releases and posted notices of the exhibit.
  • It's an annual event, so one would expect repeat interest, which is a big plus.
  • Substantial publicity was focused on the plein air painting of connected artists at Pussy's Pond, the Farmer's Market, the Springs Library, the Blacksmith's Shop, the General Store, Gerard Drive, Maidstone Beach, Home Sweet Home and the Pollock/Krasner House.
  • The show was staffed at all times, and refreshments were on hand.
Frank Sofo, caught in the act of painting outside
Ashawagh Hall, Springs, N.Y.
Yet the total take from the sales of paintings was $550. Ashawagh Hall costs $600 to rent for two days and there were the costs of refreshments and publicity in mounting the show. At most three of the 30 artists covered any of their costs.

I talked about the economics of the exhibit with someone who sold two of the four items that were not homeward bound this weekend–Frank Sofo.

He is a competent artist who has illustrated the covers of a dozen or more reissued Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books. He has written and illustrated several of his own books for children. His plein air sketch of a bicycle on Main Beach is shown at the top of this post, with Red Dot.

Veronica sees Vincent in the starry sky. Illustration
by Frank Sofo from Vincent & Veronica. Photo
by JT Marlin, by permission of the artist.
He was offering for sale a couple of his books. I bought one about Vincent van Gogh, who is related by marriage to my late artist mother, Hilda van Stockum–Vincent's brother Theo worked for a while at the van Stockum bookstore in the Hague. Sofo's invention is that Vincent had a cat named Veronica who loved her master and when he dies–SPOILER ALERT–is consoled by the fact that she sees his face in the sky.

So why was the 92nd Street Y show so successful in selling while the Plein Air show was not?

I suggested to Sofo these possibilities:
  • The 200 people who came to the opening party maybe didn't suspect that the artists want to sell their art and that's why they were invited?
  • Buyers are timid about buying right away
  • Buyers want to take time to make a decision, and a weekend is too short?
  • It takes more than a weekend to get reviews and then be open for post-review sales?
  • The organizers or beneficiary of the exhibition are entitled to a cut and the artists foolishly decide to avoid paying the cut (or split the difference with the buyer) by selling after the show?
  • The art is over-priced? (Not in this case.)
  • Not enough publicity? (Seems not the case here.)
  • Not enough personal word-of-mouth?
  • Artists are not sending their best work to this exhibit?
I would be interested in what you, dear reader, think might be the explanation.

I understand that some people consider art a hobby and they are happy to exhibit without selling. But art is also a profession and if artists are to be compensated as professionals they need functioning marketplaces. Galleries are great, but artist-organized exhibitions are places where artists can get their work directly in front of the public. If the public doesn't buy, it's just sad.

In response to my comments on the exhibition, Frank sent me an email, which I have his permission to quote. He said:
My own feeling about the art market is that since 2008 when the economy crashed the art market was affected badly, and hasn't yet recovered. Buying art has always been a luxury purchase for most people, and in our present economy more so. That of course does not account for the success of the 92nd St NY show. In my own case it has become harder to sell art these days. I was more successful 10 years ago.
It is true that in 2015, world sales of art were down 7 percent from 2014, to $63.8 billion. The number of art transaction decreased to 38.1 million, a 2 percent contraction. Sotheby’s reported a 2015 fourth-quarter loss of $11.2 million and predicted a significant drop in world sales in the first half of 2016.

But in the USA, $27.3 billion of art was sold in 2015, a 4 percent increase over 2014–a smaller increase, certainly, than the 10 percent growth recorded in 2014, but good news given that every other major art center declined. The USA was responsible for a 43 percent share of total sales of art by value in 2015, more than double the share of its next-biggest rival, the UK, where sales contracted by 9 percent to $13.5 billion for a 21 percent stake in the global art trade.

So if the art business seems slow in the USA, don't move somewhere else–because actually the United States is better off than the rest of the world. (And what will happen in the UK if it exits the European Union on Thursday?)

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