Archive for August, 2008

Lenny

The Trawick Prize

In 2002, the Bethesda Arts & Entertainment District, a non-profit organization in that Maryland city created The Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards, a juried art competition awarding $14,000 in prize monies to contemporary artists in the Greater Washington, D.C. area.

The founder, Carol Trawick, is committed to honoring contemporary visual artists with this award. Concerned because in the first few years of the Prize painters were being ignored by the jurors, Ms. Trawick three years into the Prize generously made the same commitment to area painters by creating a separate Bethesda Painting Awards(also funded by Ms. Trawick).

I cannot say enough good things about Ms. Trawick and the fact that in an area dominated by some of the largest and wealthiest corporations in the world, it has been a small business owner who has taken the challenge of ponying up a considerable annual cash prize to recognize an area artist and hopefully place the region on the national fine arts map, is the kind of act that makes one feel good about the generosity of individuals.

Over the years the Trawick Prize has gained momentum and recognition as the top contemporary art prize in the Greater Washington DC region, and some of the area’s premier curators have served as jurors.

In 2004 David Page of Baltimore, MD was the Best in Show winner of $10,000. The next year, Jiha Moon, then of Annandale, Virginia and now residing in Atlanta, Georgia won the top prize. In 2006 James Rieck of Baltimore, Maryland won top honors and last year Jo Smail from Baltimore, won top honors.

Last night I dropped in to Heineman-Myers Contemporary Art in Bethesda (where the show will he held this year) to get a preview and an early first look at the fifteen artists who have been selected as finalists for the 2008 Trawick Prize: Bethesda Contemporary Art Awards.

The work of these 15 finalists will be on display from September 3 – September 27 and the prize winners will be announced and honored on Wednesday, September 3rd at a special press event held at the gallery. As it is the norm, the Best in Show winner will be awarded $10,000; second place will be honored with $2,000 and third place will be awarded $1,000. A “Young Artist” whose birth date is after April 11, 1978 will also be awarded $1,000.

The entries were juried by Molly Donovan, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Gallery of Art; Irene Hofmann, Executive Director of the Contemporary Museum in Baltimore, MD and Leah Stoddard, former Director of Second Street Gallery in Charlottesville, VA.

Depending on who amongst those three jurors is the “leader of the pack” or the guiding hand for the other, will determine who will win the prize. Five will get you ten that the DC area artists in this show were muscled in by Donovan, Baltimore’s by Hoffman and so on. I’ve been on many “art-by-committee” panels and know how they work. As Jose Marti wrote: “I know the monster well, for I have lived in its entrails.”

This is why it is important for artists to ensure that they are known and their work visible, to their local area curators.

This particular jury committee did a really good job in selecting the 15 finalists. The exhibition is among the best Trawick Prize finalists exhibitions, and it is an crucial mix of art and conceptual ideas, a little play on kitsch themes by a couple of intelligent artists and even a touch of what’s trendy and slicky in the macro art world today.

If Donovan is the leading voice in the jury panel, then I believe that well-known DC artist Maggie Michael will be the winner. I have seen loads of her work and even curated some into past exhibitions. Her entry into this competition is by far the most complex and interesting work of hers that I have seen to date. In the gallery piece by Michael, she has combined all of her previous elements of poured paint, then she peels some of the layers back and nail some of them, with an interesting distressing of the substrate by drilling a big hole in the center and also by adding a graffiti like spraying on the background. I could be off slightly in my guess and Donovan may lead the prize to Maggie’s talented husband, Dan Steinhilber.

If Hoffman is the leader in the panel, then all roads lead to Baltimore’s Tony Shore, whose dark brooding works on black velvet play off a working man’s view of art as an intelligent and creative play on elevating a kitsch substrate to a high art level; the working class’ artist as hero is what Shore is all about.

If Stoddard has the leading voice in the panel, then the prize goes to my good friend and talented artist and blogger from Charlottesville, Virginia Warren Craghead III.

After visiting the show, and after considering in depth the work that I saw, here’s how I would give prizes in this show:
By Joseph Barbaccia
I would give a very good look and consideration to the shiny, elegant and very sexy forms by Joseph Barbaccia, slowly but surely becoming one of the nation’s capital area iconic sculptors. What Barbaccia does to contemporary sculpture is a three dimensional version of what Shore does to painting. They are both using kitsch elements and substrates of the contemporary world to create smart and intelligent works of modern art. Barbaccia’s spectacularly gaudy “Every Man’s Dream” is a glorious achievement of color and sequins and shininess and it is certainly worth of a very close look for the top prize and perhaps setting this artist’s career on an upswing.

Washington’s Molly Springfield is not only one of the nicest persons that you’ll ever meet, but also one of the most amazing talents in the DC area’s art scene, and her technical work is so superbly perfect that we fixate on its tiny imperfections to reassure ourselves of its creation by hand rather than machine. But she goes beyond that and marries her graphite drawings with interesting ideas, concepts and clues about her own sense of growing up and becoming an adult.
Art by Molly Springfield
Molly, at one time or another, has been on almost every finalist’s list for almost every prize in the area for the last few years, and it’s probably due to strike soon.
Painting by Heide Trepanier
Although I am not familiar with Heide Trepanier’s work, there’s something powerful and exciting about the piece illustrated here, which although tends to remind me a little of some earlier Maggie Michael, nonetheless leaps from it in the way that Trepanier has isolated the paint with lines to almost reveal to us Boschian figures and animals and aliens in her work.

My prizewinners would be:

Best in Show: Molly Springfield
Second Place: Joseph Barbaccia
Third Place: Tony Shore

A public reception will be held on Friday, September 12, 2008 from 6-9pm in conjunction with the Bethesda Art Walk. This is easily the best art show in DC this month - don’t miss it!

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Bill

Tale of a Lost Leger

It’s a tragic story, one that institutions everywhere should heed now that remodeling, renovation and rebuilding seem to be a nationwide phenomenon.

According to WCVB’s website, Wellesley College seems to have lost a painting by Fernand Leger.

Here’s how this unfortunate event appears to have unfolded:

Painted in 1921, “Woman and Child” had been on loan to an exhibit at the Oklahoma Museum of Art. When it was returned to Wellesley, the college’s museum was in the midst of a construction project. So the crate sat around someplace, apparently. The sense one gets from the article is that it was just chucked in a corner, more or less. I realize that sounds harsh, but so, to all of us, is the loss of an artwork by an acknowledged master.

Finally, with construction complete, it came time to assess where things were. And no one knew where the Leger was. Talk is that it might even have been thrown away with a bunch of similar, empty crates.

Ladies and gents, the facts are clear: had this multi-million-dollar treasure of an artwork been stored in a high-tech art storage facility such as Mind’s Eye, it would continue to bring pleasure and inspiration to future generations. And at what cost, anything even remotely comparable to the loss sustained by Wellesley College? I think not.

As these museum reconstruction programs continue, I hope that those in charge are giving serious consideration to the temporary storage of their works of art. This is no task for interns or do-it-yourselfers.

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Lenny

Pricing Artwork

Recently I had an interesting email exchange with a very well-known artist, whose work I have sold (in my capacity as an art dealer and gallerist) many times in the past, including to American and Latin American museums.

She was giving me prices for her new work, and checking up with me (and all her other dealers I assume), because she had noticed that some galleries were selling a particular limited edition etching for “$3,000 each, when the gallery price should be $5,000.”

I’ve never seen this work listed for under $5,000, but I digress.

She affirmed that the gallery price for that particular work was $5,000 and that only she could sell her own work in her own studio for $3,000.

What?

This is a harsh lesson that most artists need to learn very quickly: An artist cannot afford to compete with him/herself when it comes to prices.

Nearly all emerging artists, when first dealing with a gallery encounter the business fact that a gallery has to make a commission from the artist’s work in order to make ends meet as a business. The first reaction of the artist is sometimes to “bump” the price to meet the gallery’s commission.

No good!

The exact same editioned work can’t be sold for $1000 in DC, for $4000 in London, for $800 in Brazil and for $500 bucks in your studio. The same size painting cannot wonder all over the price scale depending where it’s being sold.

See what that does?

1. It can damage the reputation of a dealer. Imagine the collector who pays $1,000 in London and then he sees the same work for $500 elsewhere? The immediate reaction is “that dealer ripped me off,” not realizing that the artist is the one who is ripping everyone off by creating price confusion and trying to pass the gallery commission off to the collector. A good artist and gallery relationship is a symbiotic one, not a money struggle.

2. It will damage the reputation of the artist and will always bring the “real” price of the work down to the lowest price, when the idea is for art dealers and artists to work together to raise demand and thus prices; not have prices wondering all over the scale.

This is very different from the secondary art market, where auction prices can wonder wildly all over the place.

But artists must be consistent in their pricing and accept the fact that if they are going to work with an art gallery or art dealer or both, then they can’t have them competing with each other and also with the artist, because a good art dealer’s job is to protect both the artist and the collector.

Of course there are nuances to this process… both dealers and artists should have a specified leeway to give collector’s discounts to ahhh… collectors, and also offer discounts to multiple buys when someone buys several works at once.

But not discount your own work by 50% just because it is being sold out of your studio.

That just drags your prices down and will cause your art dealer to scold and educate you, or even drop you.

Of course, like some artists that I know, if you do not need an art dealer and can sell your own work all the time, then — since you are the only one selling it — you control prices and can do whatever you want, and hopefully won’t be having art “sales” where you’ll be “discounting” the work that you sold to collectors a week earlier for a specific price, to a much lower price.

It’s a little complicated at first, but once you truly examine the issue, then it should be clear to see that the idea and goal is to expose your artwork, get it seen, commented upon and — if that’s your goal — sold for a fair and reasonable price, and letting the laws of economics take it to where it should be.

But definitely not under the “blue light special” of your own studio.

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Joanne

“Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today” at the Peabody Essex Museum

Maori Tattoo Today\

Banner for the exhibition “Body Politics” at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts

Salem, MassachusettsTo look at the face of an elderly person in any culture is to see their history. Assuming they haven’t been Botoxed or lifted, every wrinkle, every line is part of the narrative—hard living etched into place, overindulgence gently plumping out the creases, and gravity, over time distending cheeks and jowls.  The mostly youthful faces of the Maori shown in the photographic exhibit,  “Body Politics,” at the Peabody Essex Museum here, contain more than personal history. They are writ large with the symbols and messages of their culture.  

Writ, as in inked.  Inked as in tattooed.

 

Lauren (Piata) Heenan: “My moko is the moko of a woman proud to be a wahine.”

 

To be honest, it’s a shock to see.  A filigree in blue black ink is like a curtain over facial muscles. Is that a grimace…or the ink? How do I match up what’s in the eyes to what’s on the skin? These faces are fierce!  But I’m imposing my New England-bred, New York City-honed identity on people who have an entirely different life and culture. (Yes, of course I’ve seen plenty of tattoos, but on the face, not so much. And certainly not with such an urgent sense of  culture and self.)  The decision to receive moko, to be tattooed with the symbols and stories of their culture—indeed, to receive the specific patterns of their familial ancestors—is not just personal among the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand. One’s entire family and iwi (tribe) are involved. Permission must be granted from the elders, a design drawn up and accepted.

Moko is not new.  For hundreds of years it has been part of the culture. Organic spiraling designs feature fernlike shapes that symbolize new growth as well as ancestral roots. Each design, customized so that its whorls and eddies fit the contours of its wearer’s face, is unique as a distinct record of whakapapa (genealogy), whenua (land), and personal accomplishments. New Zealand has been under British rule since 1840, according to the wall text, and in 1907 the colonial government banned Moko and denied Maori access to their language, land, and beliefs. Gangs revived the tattooing initially, not so much with tribal patterns but with words like “Mongrel” and “Outlaw”  to assert their independence over authority. That rebellious spirit pervaded the larger culture, and regular folks took the ink.

“The revival of Moko for many of us is really exercising our rangatiratanga—our fundamental right to exist,” says Tame Wairere Iti, whose image is on the banner I photographed in front of the museum (top). He is a robust man with shoulder-length hair, ink-blackened lips, and a frond-like facial pattern that swoops down to the chin and up to the forehead from a starting point on the bridge of his nose.  An accompanying video shows him as the host of a Maori language radio program and identifies him as a Maori Cultural Advocate.

Maori culture not a closed loop. Contemporary wearers of moko live contemporary lives. While the patterns typically come from or are inspired by one’s ancestors, their wearers are attired in fleece sportswear and Nike logos, and there is at least one groups of practicing Rastafarians with dreadlocks to accompany their moko.

Photographer Hans Neleman has documented some of this revival. The Dutch-born, New York-based photographer visited New Zealand in 1997 and was inspired to record the faces of  the people he saw. Receiving permission from the Maori elders after agreeing to work within their cultural parameters, he returned the following year with an 8×10 camera and a crew of three to travel the country, “capturing the renaissance of ta moko,” he says. His sitters approved their images, and each shared something of her or his story, which accompanies their large-format photograph in the exhibition.

 

  Piri (Dave) Iti

“I am the only member of the New Zealand Army to wear a full face moko,” says Piri (Dave) Iti, who sought the approval of his wife and family before taking the moko. He is photographed in his uniform.

 

Kimiora Ereatara Hohua

“The bottom of the design represents my mountains, the sides my whakapapa, the curls at my lip my children, and the top spirals each side of my family,” says  Kimiora Ereatara Hohua, whose chin moko is complemented by larger tattoos on her upper arm and thigh. Women’s moko tends to involve the chin rather than the entire face, though some women are additionally tattooed on the forehead.

 

  Dion Hutana

And the gang members? For some, moko has changed their lives. Dion Hutana, photographed in a suit, says, “Originally I put the moko on as part of the gang experience. Then it changed with my life. Now I’ve got no choice but to speak the body language.”  

That body language typically means, says one sitter, ethnic pride and  “a healthy context for my body: no drink, no smoke, no drugs.”

The exhibition consists of large-format color photographs installed in the museum’s photography gallery, a second-floor wraparound balcony overlooking a collection of Colonial American objects. It’s an effective exhibition space. A wide perimeter encourages both intimate looking and step-back views while affording wider vistas of the exhibition across the balustraded opening.

After my initial apprehension, I enjoyed reading the faces and the snippets of story that accompanied them. But the photographic style is just a little too reminiscent of the Gap ads from that period. I guess this is what happens when a commercial photographer ventures into territory that embraces sociology, portraiture and fine art. Still, if you’re in the area, go see the exhibition. (Just don’t go in late October, when the area around the museum turns into a Halloween horror show).

“Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today,” organized by Karen Kramer Russell, PEM curator of Native American Art, will be up through February 1, 2009.

Photographs (except top image) by Hans Neleman, courtesy of the Peabody Essex Museum 

. . . . . . . . .

Museum postscript:  Founded in 1799, the Peabody Essex Museum is the oldest continuously operating museum in the United States. It began as the East India Marine Society, when Salem was one of the largest trading ports in the country. Its members, Salem-based sea captains, returned from their Asiatic voyages with objects to establish the collection, which also consisted of objects and artifacts of Native America and New England marine history.

The soaring lobby of the Peabody Essex Museum

The lobby of the Peabody Essex Museum

If you visit Boston, drive up to Salem—or take the commuter line from North Station (about 30 minutes), which will bring you to within a short walking distance of the museum. Recently renovated by architect Moshe Sadfie, it boasts a new lobby whose soaring spaces and strong curves are reminiscent of the sailing ships that brought back the early acquisitions. If you are an architecture buff, the museum contains the 200-year-old Yin Yu Tang House, recently installed after a piece-by-piece dismantling in China (the video is informative and quite moving); as well as three nearby properties: Salem homes from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.  And if the weather is nice, walk Derby Wharf, a half-mile jetty that runs straight into the hah-bah (you know, where the boats are) where a recreation of the 18th Century “Friendship,” a three-masted schooner, is docked.

Speaking of pronunciations, you’ll be marked as a tourist for sure if you pronounce Peabody as pee-body. Everyone in these parts call it pee-b’dy.

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Bill

Art versus the Olympics — a losing competition?

This is from a Wikipedia entry, so take it for what it’s worth:

Art competitions formed part of the modern Olympic Games during its early years, from 1912 to 1948. The competitions were part of the original intention of the Olympic Movement’s founder, Pierre de Frédy, Baron de Coubertin. Medals were awarded for works of art inspired by sport, divided into five categories: architecture, literature, music, painting, and sculpture.

The art competitions were abandoned in 1954 because artists were contended to be professionals, while Olympic athletes were required to be amateurs. Since 1956, the Olympic cultural program has taken their place.

Art competitions turn my stomach, truth be told. I don’t care whether it’s kids’ work or juried shows. It seems ignorant to me to treat artworks like Holsteins at the county fair. “Well, Bob, Glenridge Thunder’s got great head carriage, wrecking-ball testicles and a topline you could split wood on, but I watched him walk into the ring, and — bad news — he’s sickle-hocked. Sorry, Son. Maybe next year.”

In a short paper (pdf), Beatriz Garcia, a doctoral student at the Center for Olympic Studies at the Autonomous University of Barcelona — yes, with all the world’s other problems solved, the A.U. of B. has gone on to tackle the desperate issues presented by the Olympics –  tells us about a clause in the Olympic host city contract that requires the production of an Olympic Cultural Program. But this provides little reassurance to that city’s arts organizations, which will now be competing for the attention the visiting hoards will lavish on the Games.

Ms. Garcia goes on to inform us in another, more-detailed paper on the subject (pdf), that Olympic Cultural Programs are wildly inconsistent from city to city, lasting from three weeks to, in some cases, four years. And here’s the kicker: proposals for cultural programs that were presented by cities during the bidding stage are often not followed through on once a city has been selected. There’s no mechanism in place to enforce promises made during bidding, apparently.

Funding for Olympic Cultural Programs is spotty at best. This makes sense, even if I wish it didn’t, considering that they compete for (incredibly exhorbitant) investment resources with the games themselves.

Perhaps the arts have only themselves to blame if people are apparently more interested in seeing the Torch Relay than in attending a show of Olympics-inspired artwork.

But that could be some seriously funny artwork. Let’s take a fantasy-walk through just such an exhibition, shall we?

John Currin’s stretched-out Neo-Mannerist women, cackling wildly while snapping their backs on the uneven bars.

Picture an Olympics-inspired Richard Serra — thick rectangular mega-tons of steel to suggest the airy flight of a gymnast.

“Tara Donovan’s installation, Mound, consisiting of ten million jock straps arranged into a forty-foot heap, suggests the myriad ways in which our male-dominated culture flaunts its testosterone-fueled fantasies while absolving itself of all responsibility.”

Here’s an Olympics-inspired Damien Hirst: a kangaroo split down the middle, posed in full running extension in a tank of formaldehyde.

Murakami could make giant fiberglass statues of his body-fluid-squirting boy and girl engaged in a competition for distance and accuracy. Perhaps they could be directed at a Bill Viola video of swimmers in ultra-slow-motion.

Maybe the host city’s museums win during the Olympics, and maybe their arts districts get extra visitors, too, and we should all be happy for that. But as far as the Olympic Cultural Program, Ms. Garcia makes it sound like an afterthought at best.

And really, artists of all stripes out there, when have you ever benefited from what the jocks are doing? Didn’t we always eat on opposite sides of the cafeteria?

But I could have it all wrong. If I ever visit a host city during the Olympics — which, incidentally, would be the perfect reason for me to stay as far away as possible — perhaps I’ll find that it’s become a worldwide nexus for the arts, with musicians on every street corner, theatre troupes performing in every park, and art installations on the water, in the air, and spilling out of every enclosed space.

Incidentally, if you’re in Beijing right now and you’re reading this, first, check behind you; I think you’re about to be arrested. But if there’s time before they slap the cuffs on you, I’d be interested in hearing about the Beijing Olympic Cultural Program.

Until I hear more about the Olympic Cultural Programs in Beijing and previous host cities, I’ll have to be content merely to marvel at a world that supports a Center for the Study of the Olympics, while no nation on Earth is apparently wealthy enough to feed a small island whose people are so destitute that their children are forced to eat mud.

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Lenny

How to sign your artwork

I was going to title this post “Signature Blues,” just to be cutesy in the wake on my last post on framing issues…

In the hundreds and hundreds of shows that I have organized as a gallerist or curated or judged as a juror or curator, one of my constant pet peeves is how artists sign (or not sign) their work.

My biggest pet peeve in that den of peeves is the common artist mistake of having a HUGE signature that makes such a bold statement as to often destroy the integrity and composition of the art itself.

Some artists, such as Norman Rockwell, often signed their works in bold, and even interesting ways that were designed to still be read when their paintings were reproduced as a magazine cover. For these master illustrators, it was very important that their name was recognized once their work was printed on the cover.

But most artists should not make their signature distract from the work itself. Do not sign your work somewhere, anywhere other than in a discreet location on the margin somewhere. Never a few inches into the work itself and never, ever in gold or silver or some other ghastly color scheme.

Amateur photographers are especially fond of signing their photographs with gold or silver pens. Did you notice that I wrote “amateur?” The visual presentation of a photograph should not be marred by that kitschy practice. if you sign your photo on the front, do it discreetly on the margin; otherwise sign it on the verso, also on the margin. I’ve also seen the practice of signing the mat in pencil, and I am OK with that, although I know some gallerists and museum symbiotes do not like that practice either.

Let me be clear: the art must be signed.

If the signature distracts from your own personal aesthetic, then sign it on the back of the work. To be blunt, most collectors demand signatures and there’s ample empirical data that shows that unsigned works always get less in auctions than signed pieces.

Vatican legend has it that when Michelangelo finished his Pieta, the night before it was to be opened to the public, he hid behind some columns as a bunch of priests and cardinals admired the masterful sculpture.

“Who made it,” asked someone.

“I think it was Raphael,” replied someone else.

Michelangelo was so incensed that his masterpiece was being attributed to his rival, that once the place was cleared, he climbed atop the statue and carved his name in bold letters across the sash that crosses Mary’s chest. He carved: “Michelangelo Buonarroti of Florence Created This.”

I believe that it was the last piece that he ever signed.

And it was too big.

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Lenny

Framing Blues

Over the many years that I have been an art dealer, I continued to be amazed on a regular basis by the framing monstrosities that artists and art buyers seem to produce.

Regardless of what your framer or your interior decorator, or your mom tells you, the prime purpose of a frame is to protect the artwork and ready it for presentation and exhibition.

The dizzying array and varieties of mouldings do offer a challenge to the uninitiated, but as long as you keep in mind a simple rule, you will not screw up: Keep It Simple!

While gold rococo frames once worked well in the 19th century, and still hold their presence in presenting the Impressionist paintings that they have been guarding for over a century, they should never make a 21st century appearance in, let’s say, framing a simple black and white photograph.

Not to imply that a good gilded frame is framata non grata for all contemporary artwork; in fact they still manage to complement and make - as an example - traditional landscape paintings look good.

Colors, designs and textures that do not compete with the artwork should be the goal. I am even more severe in my own personal artwork about framing. I prefer simple matte black metal mouldings for my drawings and the thinnest and barest of light wood frames for my paintings.

A good professional framer should already know all of this.  A hack who wants to sell you an expensive, thick, elaborate moulding for your simple artwork must be avoided at all costs or your visual and monetary cost will be enemies of your art and finances.

For do it yourself framers: learn how to frame properly and learn about conservation materials. You would not believe the number of times that I have seen badly hand-cut mats (the result of using an Exacto knife to cut the mat instead of a good mat cutter), a colored acidic mat, a gaudy, cheap frame and brown cardboard backing from your last move used as backing. They will ruin a perfectly decent work of art.

Some basics: for photography only use white acid free mats (or any light, neutral color mat) and acid free backing. Thin, let me say that again: thin, metal (black or silver) metal moulding frames (matte not shiny) or thin light wood frames. Avoid color mats at all costs and thick frames at all costs. If you can afford it, avoid frames period, and use those gorgeous frameless presentations where the photo is sandwiched between two sheets of museum quality  plexiglass re-inforced with strengthened aluminum to prevent warping (for large photos).

For paintings, I have always subscribed to the less the better and prefer the floating mouldings that allows the canvas to free float in the frame while still protecting its edges. I am also OK with gallery stretched canvasses, where the canvas hangs frameless and the staples are hidden behind the work.

Next: My pet peeves on huge artists’ signatures.

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Lenny

Types of Galleries: Cooperatives

Earlier on I discussed commercial galleries and vanity galleries.

Together with commercial art galleries, artists-run cooperative art galleries are perhaps the most important gallery components of a city or area’s art tapestry.

A cooperative (or co-op) art gallery is a for profit art gallery which is owned and run by a group of artists - or a cooperative of artists.

The artists share the costs associated with running the gallery, and often also share the task of manning the gallery - or the costs of hiring a gallery staff to run the space.

Running anything by committee is never easy, and cooperatives (in my experience) tend to have some very good, solid points, and also share the drawbacks of a committee-run enterprise (usually 10% of the people end up doing 90% of the work).

Depending on size and structure, a co-op can usually “guarantee” each member a solo show every couple of years. Most co-ops also have an area (bins or a small room) where members can always have some work on view.

Because co-ops share and spread the costs of running a gallery, they are often better equipped to survive the prodigious ups and downs of a gallery business life. As a result, a good co-op will be able to survive a market where most new galleries fail, and in my experience it is not unusual to see that in many cities the oldest galleries are usually co-ops.

Because co-ops thus dissipate financial dangers, they are also optimally equipped to present shows that are never intended to be commercially appealing, but which nonetheless offer a good contribution to the artistic dialogue. Thus a co-op can sometimes present a show that a commercial gallery may turn down as commercially impossible.

Co-ops are often also the best place to discover emerging artists, and in my experience this happens at all ranges of the age spectrum.

I am a big fan of cooperative galleries, and I strongly believe that this artist-run model for an art gallery is one of the key elements of any art scene.

Next: Non-profit art galleries

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Lenny

Types of Galleries: Vanity

Yesterday I discussed (at a very high level) the model for commercial art galleries; today we will look at vanity galleries.

A vanity gallery is an art space that “rents” or sells its space to artists in order for the artist to have a show. Thus, the main driver in having a show at a vanity gallery is not necessarily the quality of the artwork, but the artist’s ability to pay the gallery to host his/her artwork.

New York is crawling with vanity galleries, and a large number of European galleries are vanity galleries. In the US however, vanity galleries are often looked down upon by everyone who knows that they’re a “pay-as-you-show” space, since they are essentially a “rental” gallery.

A knowledgeable art critic or curator knows which galleries in his/her town are vanity galleries, and often ignore them, much like book critics ignore most self-published writers, who use “vanity publishers.”

An interesting fact in my experiences as a gallerist, is the fact that I have seen “reputable” galleries which sometimes cross the line and become “charge the artist” galleries or vanity galleries once in a while, as the mighty dollar (or lack thereof) calls.

Sometimes, when I was co-owner of the Fraser Gallery in Washington, DC and Bethesda, Maryland, we’d get a phone call from an embassy, or from the agent of a Hollywood actor who’s also a “painter” or “photographer,” or from an individual “artist,” and they would ask us how much would we charge to host a show by their “artist.”

When we’d inform them that we do not rent the gallery for artists to have shows, they’d thank us and hang up. Then a few months later I’d see that “Hollywood artist” or “embassy artist” exhibiting in one of the area’s “reputable” art galleries, and immediately recognize that - at least for that month - that gallery is making ends meet by renting the space to someone.

While I understand that most galleries are labors of love, and often run by the skin of one’s teeth, I still find it somewhat distasteful, and dishonest - to appear (on the surface) to be a gallery that shows work based on merit, while at the same time showing work based on an artist, or a corporation’s ability to pay.

And it’s not just commercial art spaces. Several years ago, a local Washington, DC newspaper profiled a local non-profit, which inadvertently - in the text of their profile - admitted charging a multinational corporation a hefty fee to put up an art show at their “reputable” non-profit art spaces.

One can even make the case that even some museums sometimes cross the line and become “vanity museums.”

A few years ago I was astounded when a Culture Minister from one of the embassies in DC told me that they had finished a deal with a local museum to host the first ever retrospective of one of that country’s artists for a fee of four million dollars! To him, it was “business as usual,” while to me it was distasteful and dishonest and left a bad taste in my mouth about that museum for the longest time.

Next: Cooperative Art Galleries

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Lenny

Types of Galleries: Commercial

A few years ago a freelance galleries critic for the Washington Post reviewed a show at a particular DC gallery, and while reading the paper during breakfast with an artist friend, I couldn’t help myself.

“Can you believe that she reviewed this show?” I said to my friend, “that’s a vanity gallery!”

My friend looked at me puzzled. “What’s a vanity gallery?”

Now I looked at him puzzled. “You, know… a gallery that an artist has to pay and rent in order to have a show.”

While that particular space - the only one of its kind in DC at the time - has long ceased to exist, vanity galleries flourish in most American cities (most often in NYC) and constitute a significant number of European galleries, where the model seems to prosper more readily than the US.

There are several “models” of art galleries. I will discuss them all, but will start with the commercial art gallery, and eventually we’ll get to discuss the vanity gallery model.

First among equals is the independently owned fine arts commercial art gallery, which is usually either a heroic labor of love from someone who (a) loves the visual arts or (b) is a collector who decides to become a dealer, or (c) someone grabbing a chance to dance at the leading edge of the fine arts — in my experience by someone who is on the upper end of the well-to-do financial scale.

“If you want to make a million dollars in art,” goes a well-known industry saying, “start with five.”

Starting an art gallery is a risky, usually money-losing situation, often driven by nothing but idealism and love for the arts.  I was once lectured by a US Chamber of Commerce expert on the subject with the statistic that after restaurants, art galleries are the second most likely business in the US to fail - usually within six months.

Commercial art galleries survive by selling artwork in order to pay for their rent, utilities, advertising, shipping, opening expenses, staff salaries, etc. If they don’t sell, they close. They generally collect 50% commissions on the sale of the artwork that they showcase - on consignment in business terms - from artists that they “represent.” Some galleries, especially in NYC, may charge more, and I know of quite a few that go as high as 70%, but 50% is the “standard.”

Or, as was the case rather recently with a “power” art gallery, you can lose money consistently and indifferently if you are an owner who is independently wealthy (she got tired after a few years and abruptly closed the gallery).

Or, as was the case with a very trendy gallery that got all the reviews, and whose openings were always packed, you can have “investors.” The problem is that at some point the investors - say five years - will start asking questions and a return on their “investment,” and suddenly the gallery closes.

Those asterisks aside, reputable commercial art galleries also promote their artists and help them to grow alongside the gallery, and have no “hidden” monetary charges in their dealer-artist contracts, other than the commission of art sold - either by the gallery or through referral.

Other gallery models include artists cooperative galleries, or “co-ops,” vanity galleries, non-profit galleries, embassy galleries, alternative art spaces, restaurant galleries, library galleries and “moving” galleries… more on all those later.

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