Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Bigger Picture, aka Someday I'll Buy Art from a Gallery in this Town

pictured above, Herron School of Art, Indianapolis and at left Gagosian Gallery, NY

For those who have not yet read Jim Walker's article in Nuvo The Big Picture, make sure to do so. If you have time, listen to the mp3 interview as well. It's kind of long, but well worth it if you have any interest in the arts in Indy or learning about the history of the gallery system in Indianapolis. Basically, it's a conversation with Mark Ruschman who opened Ruschman Gallery on Mass Ave over 20 years ago and continues to remain one of the keystones in the local art scene. Mark is a figure that anyone with a gallery or aspiring gallerist should admire. Surviving, let alone striving in the art world for 20 years is a feat not often accomplished by many people outside of 24th Street in Chelsea. For that Mark, many kudos.

My problem with the galleries in Indianapolis is not the work that is shown, which can be quite good, nor the people who run them, many of which are incredible. My problem lies in the fact that more often than not, galleries emphasize making the sale rather than fostering a career. This may not even be a conscious decision on the gallery owners part, I just often wonder if some of them have ever visited other galleries outside of I465. Maybe the market here wouldn't support any gallery 'model' other than the one that currently exists, but I have also found that every time I have questioned our art-viewing public, they constantly surprise me and invigorate me about the possibilities.

Hanging salon style 5 to 10 artists for each show is certainly not the way to best showcase some of the great work being made in this city. And how, if you represent 30, 40 or even 50 artists, could you possibly be working at making connections with both regional and national curators that could potentially put your artists into shows that will cause the market for their work to skyrocket? Not too mention other gallerists throughout the world who may have an interest in helping promote Indy.

The first thing we need to demand if anything is ever to change, is that our tax-supported local university start an MFA program immediately. I keep hearing rumors, but until the first grad students walk through the doors on their first day of class, I'm not sure I will believe it. We also must demand that a top-notch faculty be put in place at the graduate level. People often complain that the artists here often leave after finishing undergrad - well of course they do. There is nothing left for them here after their last critique.

I think you would be amazed as to what would follow in the coming years. More artist-run spaces would open up showcasing wonderful, almost completely non-commercial style work. Then, a handful of professional galleries would catch on and open as well, picking 8 to 12 of their favorite artists and give them a venue in which their creative expression could be showcased at it's best. What happens next you ask? Places like the IMA, the CAC and the MCA start noticing what's going on here and then who knows, maybe the Whitney Biennial (gasp).

I must end this post on a high note. FLUX space in Fountain Square. With only a couple of shows under her belt, Deanne has already put together the most exciting program in the city. Please take note all other aspiring gallerists, it must be out of love. You won't make any money for a long, long time. But with passion and a little elbow grease, it can happen.

According to Jim's article, he quoted Jeff Martin as saying "if everybody in the city who went to an opening bought one piece of art each year from any gallery, it would have a significant impact on the local art scene." Well, of course it would. And if everyone who went to their local coffee shop would also by a bagel, Starbucks might not take over the world. But many of us are not looking for pretty pictures just to hang above the couch. I first of all must love the work, then I will decide if I truly love the artist, then I must be assured that the dealer is exposing this work to as broad an audience as possible, locally, nationally and internationally. I am proud to say I bought two pieces at Art Basel Miami last week, I hope at some point I am proud to say I just bought two pieces in Indianapolis.

5 Responses to “The Bigger Picture, aka Someday I'll Buy Art from a Gallery in this Town”

westguy3 said...
December 18, 2005 at 9:49 AM

It's a matter of money.

While your post is articulate and somewhat knowledgeable, it is also vastly naive. There is no interest in promoting Indy as an artistic center because there is barely enough interest in art here to keep the current galleries alive. Without a few key buyers and the interior design community, the few true art-only galleries that have been successful (Ruschman, Editions Ltd, etc.) would not survive. As well, according to the Mallons, without framing sales and hanging services as well, Editions would have gone under years ago.

Indy suffers from two simultaneous symptoms.

The first is a public-as-a-whole that could care less about art. No matter what great venue you show in and no matter what the content of the show, the "art scene" cannot survive in a city unless someone buys the art. Jeff Martin speaks the truth. Having witnessed firsthand the crowd of "20-to-30-somethings" meandering thru openings yet not purchasing anything above the 100 dollar mark, I don't see how any fresh, new, cutting-edge gallery would stand a chance here. That same crowd WANTS art and they LOVE art but they are not willing to SPEND on it. They love viewing it and being social around it, but they feel they can't afford it. Yet, they will spend 300 dollars on a couch, Pacer tickets, dinner at Ruth Chris', etc. They simply don't care enough to cross that line. Not when they can get a nice print for 50 bucks at Linens and Things. There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, but not enough of them to constitute an "art scene" that is thriving. And that takes education and time. The city needs to grow up and be cultured. It's happening, but very, very slowly.

The second symptom is our artists themselves. Naivete rules supreme. Where did this fluffy dream of continued showing of great art without sales come from? Sorry, kids, but it takes Money to make things happen and keep scenes alive. Why do galleries emphasize "the sale" of art? Gee, I dunno, perhaps because they need to STAY OPEN? In order to do so, they need to sell art, and it has to be art that will sell easily and sell fast to a specific group (let's call them Buyers) which is very small and has very particular tastes. Most of these Buyers don't even do so in Indy, they would rather go to Chicago or somewhere else because there's this pervading notion among them (trust me on this, I've met and dealt with them) that there is no "panache-factor" in buying local art. It's much more impressive to their friends if they can show off something they've purchased in a larger, trendier market.

What do Indy's cutting-edge artists do? Things like the Erotic Arts Ball, Fringe Festival and Oranje. While perhaps interesting and even talent-ridden work is shown at these events, they are not events tailored to entice The Buyers. Attendance may be high, but look at the demographic. It's the young crowd who love to look and drink yet not buy. For the most part, a 40-to 50-something empty-nester with a few thousand to toss at a large piece of art is NOT going to go to an event like the above. (again, there are exceptions to the rule.) However, they will go to an event like Editions Limited's grand opening in Broadripple where there is champagne, a jazz group and an atmosphere that appeals to high-end buyers and a targeted mailing list to those households that contain same.

As well, the demographics in Indy are easily the largest part of the problem. We simply don't have a job market here that pays the kinds of salaries which allow a 30-something to purchase high-end art. Most of them are already stretched to the extreme in terms of credit and actual liquid cash. Throw in a child or two and you've just taken away any possibility of an art sale. Our cost of living here is low and the salaries match. Simply loving art and viewing it does not grease the skids. Besides, there's a pair of Prada shoes that we want more, right?

Fact: Unless you have a high percentage of easily SELLABLE work at any given venue, you will not attract The Buyers. Why is Penrod attended so heavily? Answer that and you'll have a piece of the conundrum known as the Indy Art Scene.

The art scene cannot be self-sustaining without sales. Period. Eventually, any cutting-edge gallery will close unless they can afford to do smart marketing (which includes PR, advertising in specific vehicles, large mailings and, yes, showing SELLABLE merchandise) over a long period of years because without the right customers and plenty of them, the rent cannot be paid. And smart marketing takes money. Short of huge grants or a very rich silent partner, there is always going to be that brick wall known as Money that all venues will run into eventually. And, without sales, artists cannot afford to continue to create. Moreover, many artists will not feel inspired to continue at a losing game. They'll either leave this market or quit altogether.

Think about it: each year Herron spits out 50 or more new fine artists with degrees. Where will these artists sell their work? How will they survive? Grants? Teaching? Working at a gallery? Flipping burgers? The odds are against them to continue their craft indefinitely. Count the number of working artists that make their living at art ONLY here in Indy and you'll have another piece of the conundrum known as the Indy Art Scene.

There simply isn't a good market for art here. In a recent national survey, Indy ranked No. 3 from the bottom of the list in sales of original art. And without sales, there is no fostering of a scene. It simply won't happen from the bottom up.

But please, please, please prove me wrong. I want desperately to be wrong about this.

Christopher said...
December 18, 2005 at 5:09 PM

Thank you for the insightful comments. I agree with much of what you said, so let's get right to the heart of your point. Money.

I consider myself a moderate collector. I own appx. 30 pieces ranging from works on paper to video. I am also incredibly compassionate about contemporary art and it pretty much consumes my entire life. All that being said, when I make the decision to buy a piece of art, it is very much an investment. While I have never sold anything in my collection and don't plan to in the near future, the thought that it may increase in value never leaves my mind.

Artists in my collection are also in the collections of MoMA, the MCA in Chicago, the Whitney, the Saatchi Collection in London, among many others. And as a consequence of being in these collections, the value of my work has gone up immensely compared with what I paid for it. I also love every piece I own, but love alone is not going to give me the collateral I need to buy a house.

The point of this is that when I buy work from a gallery, I need to know the owner of the gallery is not just going to sit behind his desk and hope people come, no matter how savvy the marketing campaign. They need to be at the big fairs in Miami. London, and NY making sure the work they believe in is being seen by not only by the top collectors, but the top curators as well.

I have walked through a number of impressive collections right here in Indianapolis, and of course they are not going to buy here. It's not for lack of 'panache-factor', collectors are smart and they know no gallery here is doing what I mentioned above. Very few smart collectors would be willing to put down a few thousand dollars (or a few hundred for that matter) on a piece by an artist whose dealer is just depending on champagne and walk by traffic to sell work.

There is also a system in place for gallerists to sell work outside of the city in which they reside. There were no fewer the five satellite fairs in Miami for Art Basel Miami Beach. There are many galleries in NY that do most of their sales at the major art fairs rather than in the gallery itself. Yes it does take money, lots of money. But the biggest rewards are often given to those who take the biggest risk.

The fact remains that no gallery in Indy is taking the steps necessary to be truly successful in the international art market. You are right that the public needs to be educated. We have a vastly new and improved IMA with two great contemporary curators. iMOCA will continue to grow. The Arts Council will continue to do public art projects. And if Herron starts their MFA program, we will have the infrastructure in place to really see a change. It won't be easy, it won't happen over night, but the people in this town will slowly become aware and more educated on contemporary art.

I would love to post the survey here you spoke of ranking indy as No. 3 from the bottom in sales of original art if you still have access to it. You obviously see that as a bleak statistic, I like to see that as a completely untapped market.

Samuel E. Vazquez said...
December 18, 2005 at 6:26 PM


I agree with your observations concerning how galleries showcase artwork. The salon style is certainly not the best way to showcase art. The notion may be that the more you show the more you'll sell. What's wrong with that notion is that galleries should not operate as Walmart does. Lots of stuff, with no apparent value. The "Big Box" philosophy and mass produced work have not place in galleries. Sadly most artists think that they have to produce lots of work just for the sake of showing.

Most galleries in Indianapolis won't show work of artists that have not played their politics. The artists are only celebrated—better yet paraded only when they can look good before the governing arts organizations. They are not there to foster creativity and allow talent to come to fruition.

Money is a big factor. You have people running galleries that are not passionate about the arts. Their drive is money, not great work. So artists vowed down to the demands of the galleries and start creating commercial style work. It would be good to see what you suggest; Galleries picking 8 - 12 artists and give them a steady venue to showcase their work.

Christopher, if FLUX has caught your attention is because FLUX is doing it out of love, not merely business. My hats off to Deanne.

In closing I recently organized 25 Above Water, a national art showcase to benefit Hurricanes Katrina + Rita, with proceeds going to the American Red Cross. Many of the artists in this exhibition are accomplished including Rick Valicenti of 3st in Chicago, SpotCo NYC, Rick Diaz-Granados, Paul Sahre, Elliott Earls, and Shannon McGlothin to name a few. This exhibition also showcases Jonathan McGlothin one of the most talented artist/designer to soon come out of Herron. To see this amazing showcase of talent and support the great cause for which the artwork was created for visit:

25 Above Water has been largely ignored by Indianapolis but the world is taking notice with a few national magazine feautes and countless press including Tokyo, Seattle, Nebraska, NYC, and Florida. Sadly most of the galleries and museums I have contacted, in Indianapolis, have yet to return back to me. So the show is headed to NYC for its first public showing.

I don't blame those who leave Indianapolis. The grass is definitely greener, in many other ways, on the other side. Perhaps one day, those of us who are leaving can occasionally come back and water the lawn.

Samuel E. Vazquez

J.T. Kirkland said...
December 21, 2005 at 4:42 PM

It's funny. We say all these same thing about art sales in Washington, DC. Grass is always greener, you're right.

I find it refreshing that you speak so candily about art as collateral for house buying. That's honesty!

Anonymous said...
December 28, 2005 at 4:30 PM

You see... It's really a catch 22 situation. Art is something artists need to marinate, spend time with it, creating the concept, then achieving it through the actual art. Well, by doing that you either need to be rich, or have a job (like teaching which I hate). So it's really hard not to make somethings that will appeal to the local art buying crowd and do some compromising so you can pay your bills and keep on doing the stuff that will call the attention of the Whitney Biennial’ curators. Not being rich and disgusting teaching, I have yet to figure out what to do in order to be in institutions like IMA or IMOCA without that compromise. I mean, galleries struggle, Deanne struggle, even the commercial ones struggle. But what about the artists? I honestly would love to know what the curators have to suggest.
Thanks for the great articles so far, btw.

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