The Dynamics of Buying a Work of Art

After setting up hundreds of art shows in galleries over the years, and dealing with both novice and experienced collectors, I am sometimes still amused by the dynamics that go into the decision to buy (or more often than not pass) a piece of art.

And I have detected a pattern most easily seen at an art fair.

Put together a few thousand people, paying an entry fee to enter the fair, an assortment of dealers, and a huge diverse variety of offerings and it’s an education in people watching.

The married couple:
“Do you like it?”
“Yeah, I like it- it’s just what we’ve been looking for.”
“Where would we put it?”
“We have a couple of spots that it’d fit.”
“Do you really like it.”
“Yeah, how about you?”
“Yeah, I kinda of like it.”
“Should we get it?”
“If you want it.”

(five minutes later)
“Let’s think about it.”
[To me] “Do you have a business card?”

The couple (not married):
Her: “Do you like it?”
Him: “Sssoright”
Her: “Where would we put it?”
Him: “Dunno.”
Her: “Do you really like it.”
Him: “So’OK.. Yeah, how about you?”
Her: “Yeah, I kinda, sorta, really like it.”
Him: “Dunno though”
Her: “What? You don’t like it?”
Him: “If you want it.”
(five minutes later)
Him: “Let’s think about it.”
Her or Him: “OK” [To me] “Do you have a business card?”

The Single Woman (SW) with a Woman Friend:
SW: “WOW! Now, I really like this!”
Friend: “Yeah… it’s nice”
SW: “It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
Friend: “I have a friend who does work just like this…”
SW: “I am really drawn to it!”
Friend: “Are you really sure you like it?”
SW: “Uh - yeah!… why? Don’t you like it?”
Friend: “Yeah… it’s OK”
SW: “I think it’s really good… I think it’s the first piece in this whole show that I really like.”
Friend: “There’s a few more booths we haven’t seen.”
SW: “I think I’m going to buy this.”
Friend: “Are you sure?”
SW: “Uh - yeah!… It’s a good price too…. why? Don’t you like it?”
(five minutes later)
SW: “Do you have a business card?”

The Single Woman (SW) with a Man Friend:
SW: “WOW! Now, I really like this!”
Friend: “Yeah… Cool”
SW: “It’s exactly what I’ve been looking for!”
Friend: “I think it’s a lithograph” [it's actually a charcoal]
SW: “I am really drawn to it!”
Friend: “Are you really sure you like it?”
SW: “Uh - yeah!… why? Don’t you like it?”
Friend: “I have something like it… I got it cheaper though…”
SW: “I think it’s really good… I think it’s the first piece in this whole show that I really like.”
Friend: “You like lithographs?”
SW: “I think I’m going to buy this.”
Friend: “Are you sure?”
SW: “Uh - yeah!… It’s a good price too…. why? Don’t you like it?”
(five minutes later)
SW: “Do you have a business card?”

The Single Focus Dream Buyer:
[Walks straight up to one piece, never looks at the rest of the work in your booth]
“I’ll take this”
[Me] “Thank you… it’s a very striking charcoal drawing - will be that be a check or charge?”
[Me] “I can send you more information on this artist…”
“That will be great - I love this work - it’s exactly what I’m interested in!”
[Me] “I have a few more pieces here, would you like to see them?”
“No, thanks…”

The “I’m glad you’re here guy (IGYHG)”:
IGYHG: “Hey! I’ve been looking for you!”
[Me]: “Hi, how are you?”
IGYHG: “… been walking this whole fair looking for you!”
[Me]: “Yeah… lots of dealers this year… glad you found us!”
IGYHG: “Howsa been goin’?”
[Me]: “Yes… quite good actually…”
IGYHG: “Well, let me look at what you’ve got!”
[three minutes later]
IGYHG: “Well… I’m glad you’re here… see ya next year!”

The “I Shudda Bought It Last Year Guy (Shudda)”:
Shudda: “Hey! You’re here again!”
[Me]: “Hi, how are you? Yeah… It’s our 7th year here…”
Shudda: “… been walking this whole fair looking for you!”
[Me]: “Yeah… lots of dealers this year… glad you found us!”
Shudda: “Howsa been goin’?”
[Me]: “Yes… quite good actually…”
Shudda: “Well, let me look at what you’ve got!”
[three minutes later]
Shudda: “Where’s that really good watercolor of the fill-in-the-blank?”
[Me]: “Uh… I sold it last year - but I have a few more pieces by that artist.”
Shudda: “Ah! - I really wanted that one! Do you have another one?”
[Me]: “Well, no… it was an original watercolor, and I sold it; but I have —”
Shudda: “I really wanted that piece; and it was a good price too…”
[Me]: “Maybe you’d like some of his new work…”
Shudda: “I shudda bought it last year”
[Walks away]
Shudda: “You gonna be here next year?”

The “Where’s That Piece Guy (WTP)”:
WTP: “Hey! You’re here again!”
[Me]: “Hi, how are you? Yeah… It’s our 7th year here…”
WTP: “… been walking this whole fair specifically looking for you!”
[Me]: “Yeah… lots of dealers this year… glad you found us!”
WTP: “Howsa been goin’?”
[Me]: “Yes… quite good actually…”
WTP: “OK… last year I saw this piece… it was a fill-in-the-bank and I should have bought it then! “
[Me]: “Yeah… that is a nice piece.”
WTP: “I’ve been thinking about it for a whole year”
[Looks around the booth and doesn't see it]
WTP: “Do you still have it?”
[From here there are two paths...]
Path One -
[Me]: “Uh… I sold it last year - but I have a few more pieces by that artist.”
WTP: “Ah! - I really wanted that one! Do you have another one?”
[Me]: “Well, no… it was an original watercolor, and I sold it; but I have —”
WTP: “I really wanted that piece; and it was a good price too…”
[Me]: “Maybe you’d like some of his new work…”
WTP: “I shudda bought it last year”
[Walks away]
WTP: “You gonna be here next year?”
Path Two
[Me]: “Let me get it for you… I have it in the back!”
WTP: “Great”
[I bring it out and give to WTP]
WTP: “Yeah this is it! It’s great!”
[Me]: “This artist has done really well this last year and —”
WTP: [Handing it back] “Excellent! I’m glad you still have it… until what time are you going to be here?”

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Art Santa Fe… and Art Basel Miami Beach

I know that I had promised to report from Santa Fe, where last week I was wearing both my gallerist and artist hats at the Art Santa Fe art fair. However, the best laid plans of mice and art dealers often go awry when you arrive at your pristine white booth and the crates full of artwork await your unpacking, review and hanging.

An art fair is a demanding event for an art dealer – there are the long hours on your feet, the science of hanging the work on the limited wall space, arguing with your partners as how and what to hang, and attempting to figure out what will best represent your gallery, dealing with the thousands of people, day after day, and hoping for the best return on the massive investment that participating in an art fair can be.

And in spite of nearly flawless delivery by the organizers of Art Santa Fe – and kudos to them and to all art fair organizers; it is a complex and demanding job and I am always in awe of the people who organize it well – the fair was not a commercial success for most of the participants that talked to me.

But the talk at the dealers’ break room and at the aisles was the same: low sales.

Like any art fair, I am sure that some dealers did very well; however, I spoke with many gallerists who were very disappointed by the low sales and the crowd composition.

“This is the worst Saturday that I’ve had in ten years of doing art fairs,” said to me a New York gallerist with a lot of fair experience.

The fair started with a vernissage on Thursday evening. “Don’t expect sales to night,” warned a local gallery which had done Art Santa Fe several times. “Tonight is a social gathering and chances of making a sale are less than 1%.” A video of the grand opening, courtesy of Vernissage TV can be seen below:

Unfortunately she was right, but for many spaces her prediction eventually applied to the entire four day event. As the last day approached several dealers confided in me that they had not made a sale yet. Sunday brought a few sales from that same sample group, but in low numbers. A British gallery only sold $900 worth of art in the entire fair, while an Asian gallery didn’t sell a single work the entire four days.

A New York gallery that had sold a $2500 painting on the opening night (and thus hit that 1%) went through the entire next three days without a sale other than selling a catalog. last year they had sold seven paintings on Sunday alone. But on this Sunday the gallery assistant went to the break group, grabbed a couple of apples, and when he got back to his space, tossed one to his boss. “Thanks,” he said acidly, “that’s a $20,000 apple.”

The low sales at Art Santa Fe appear to reflect anecdotal evidence that the art fair market has certainly put the brakes on. The fair organizers seemed to have done everything that was demanded of them to make the fair a success, although one local dealer commented that it was crazy to set the fair on the same weekend as the Fifth Annual International Folk Art Market,” the largest international folk art market in the world, an event which was taking place at the same time as Art Santa Fe. I’m not sure what, if any effect this had on the low sales experienced by most of the gallerists and dealers who confided in me, and in fact it seemed to me that if that other art event attracted (as I am told it does) collectors from all over the world, then perhaps some sort of complimentary ticket factor, where your ticket to the folk market gets you into Art Santa Fe, and viceversa, may have worked out wonders in adding some actual art buyers to both fairs’ visitors.

Other than the curious fact that the art storage was closed and not manned during the fair’s hours of operation (so that if one had the rare sale and wanted to replace the sold work, then you had to fill a work order sheet to get someone to open storage in order to get a new piece for your booth), the fair organizers operated the complex chess game of running an art fair pretty well and deserve well-earned kudos for organizing it.

One last thing, not just for Art Santa Fe organizers but for nearly all art fair organizers in the world: invest in a dozen community ladders that can be borrowed by the galleries as needed. It will make installation and deinstallation flow much smoother.

Thus overall, in my impression the art fair was a commercial failure underscored by lack of significant sales by the majority of participants – the galleries which did well (and I am sure some small number did ) will probably return next year, but I suspect that Art Sata Fe 2009 will see a lot of new faces in a year.

Money is not everything in the decision to participate in an art fair, but it is the most important factor. It is expensive to do an art fair, as booth costs are in the thousands and rapidly climb into the tens of thousands. Then there’s shipment costs, hotels, staff salaries, transportation and food. By the time that you add up all those costs, even the smallest booth often means investing more that $10,000, and if expand just a little, you can easily end up with a $20,000 apple… or $30,000 or…

But another key factor in fair participation is exposure, and in this aspect our presence there was a successful one.

In the crowds, although collectors seemed rare, artists were plentiful and tourists enjoyed the visual show, and we did manage to connect with two separate top notch collectors, and we hope that as we develop a relationship with them, that it will translate into some future sales.

And the networking facet of this connection has many ramifications. Collectors with connections are possibly as important as a good sale. In one case of a collecting couple, he is not only a major photography collector about to become a collector of contemporary Cuban art (on the advise of his art advisors), but also he is on the board of a major American museum. He is very interested in acquiring some important pieces by some of the Cuban artists who we represent and we have begun a cyberspace dialogue with images, prices and details. His wife is a major collector of glass, and also on the board of a major school. At Art Santa Fe we exposed her to the groundbreaking work of Tim Tate and this may be the beginning of a long relationship.

For a gallerist interested in promoting his artists to other markets and dealers, art fairs are also very good, and we were able to begin cementing a relationship with three separate galleries for one of our key artists, including his first gallery representation in the United Kingdom, as well as representation in Santa Fe and New York.

And thus, although we didn’t sell a single piece of his work, we will now be working with him to get his work represented and exposed to Europe, New York and Santa Fe.

There is a lesson in there somewhere as to why a good artist-gallery relationship often encompasses a lot more than sales. In this case the artist walks away with three new dealers, while the gallery walks away with a huge bill, but the good feeling of knowing that it helped the artist grow. As the artists grow, hopefully they will help the gallery grow.

Networking and information exchange are good for business and gossip, and Art Santa Fe yielded some gems!

Not only the overall feeling that American art fairs seem all to be doing fairly bad this year, and that the “brakes are on,” as far as the art fair market is concerned, but also that we may see an associated reduction in the number of fairs in 2009. We also heard some horror stories about some “hotel fairs.”

And yet the Miami December art fair weekend, which in December 2008 hosted 22 separate art fairs, and in spite of seeing some of those fairs not return in 2009, will nonetheless have some new fairs in the schedule and I’m told around 25 art fairs will take place in the land of exiles, sun, sand and mojitos.

One lovely Santa Fe evening we had dinner with some gallerists from Europe and the US, as well as a few other artsy folks - a fair organizer, a curator, an art magazine editor, and someone who has a business of constructing the booths at the fairs; all of them insiders into the fair scene and name-dropping, connected art nobility.

It was lively conversation as arguments erupted about the art centers of the world, and the discussion of LA as future emerging art center for the developing marriage of art and technology.

It was here that I dropped a bomb of a rumor that I have been hearing for months from people who do not want to be quoted.

“I’ve been hearing a rumor that Art Basel Miami Beach may be pulling out of Miami Beach and relocating to Los Angeles,” I said.

“Nonsense!” said a very, very connected curator from Miami. “ABMB and the city have a six year contract - ABMB is not going anywhere!”

“I’ve heard the same thing,” said a magazine publisher from Los Angeles.

“And,” added the art magazine publisher, “there’s only two years left on that contract anyway.” That info was backed by another person in the group, who also added that he thought that it was pretty much set that ABMB would be moving to LA after its contract with Miami Beach expires.

“It will never happen,” said the vigorous defender of the Greater Miami area. “Miami is a magnet for Europeans in the winter, and the crossroads for Latin America, Europe and North America… people and collectors, want to go to Miami in December.”

“That’s true,” replied her Californian tormentors, “but LA is the center point of the Latin American Pacific rim as well as Asia… and we have beaches as well.”

And thus you heard it here first… several plugged-in insiders seem to verify what I’ve been hearing about for months: that the heart of the Miami art fairs phenomenom - Art Basel Miami Beach - may be, and I repeat, may be, pulling out of Miami Beach once its six year contract ends and ABMB may be moving the American version of the European fair to Los Angeles.

The question then becomes: if ABMB does move to LA, will the other 25 satellite mini-art fairs follow ABMB to Los Angeles?

Miami is not an easy place for art fair visitors to get around, but it is still a hundred times better to get around Miami than to get around LA trying to visit a dozen separate art fairs – not to even try to visit all 25 of them – in one weekend.

ABLA may be able to re-create its ABMB success in Los Angeles, while at the same time shaking off many of the small satellite fairs that slowly but surely sprouted around it over the years. But it will – at least initially – be a lot less satellite fairs than ABMB and thus it may be a cool, calculated move by AB to reduce its competition for the stagnant collectors’ market by bringing them to a new pond with less competition.

It is no secret that part of the success of most major art fairs like AB, ABMB, ARCO and others is that on their nickel they fly in and put up a most of the top 200 or so art collectors in the world – much like Vegas does with big gamblers.

And because of this, these major collectors attract many other collectors and soon you have the core of the world’s collecting nobility at an event like ABMB. Some portion of those collectors will not only spend their Euros and dollars at ABMB, but also at the satellite fairs.

Bring them to LA, shake off a few satellite fairs in the process, and the over saturation of available art is reduced, and more money is spent at ABMB and the few brave satellites that will follow AB to LA.

I imagine that the LA city fathers and mothers are doing all they can to make the move to California irresistible for the AB people. Not only great incentives in potential location, city involvement, etc. but plausibly enough even in the creation of city ordinances and regulations which may make it impossible for a hotel fair to be organized.

In austere financial times the need for drastic action rises to the top, and so I think that this combination of factors may be the reason that the rumored ABMB move to LA may be true.

And if ABMB does become ABLA, what would that mean for the first weekend in December in Miami?

If ABLA takes place on that weekend, things look grim for Miami. I believe that there still will be room for a few art fairs – after all the foundation has been set – but we will see a handful of them, not 25 on that December weekend. But I suspect that most of those fairs would follow AB out West.

If ABLA takes place on some other timeframe, then perhaps the Miami December art fairs - a reduced number of them anyway – could possibly exist on their own, sans ABMB.

We will see. For now we have to check our bank account to see if we can afford to get a booth in Miami this coming December.

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Art Santa Fe - Day One

And so we flew in couple of days ago to beautiful New Mexico where I’m taking part in the Art Santa Fe art fair, and where we’ll be trying to find homes for lots of good artwork at the fair, which is being held this year from July 10-13, 2008 at El Museo Cultural de Santa Fe and right across the street from Site Santa Fe.

After spending a day in Albuquerque, on Wednesday we checked into the fair and checked our booth spaces. The whole area around the fair site is a whirlwind of construction as new art sites, art buildings, etc. continue to populate this area of the city.

At the fair, it was a beehive of work as shiipers unloaded crate after crate of artwork and gallerists from 19 countries checked in. All of our crates were waiting for us at booth 52, and right away I realized that (as usual) I had shipped too much work. In fact, I probably shipped about twice as much work as I should have.

Somehow though, we hired Reed (an art installer) to help us open all the crates and begin hanging the work. Somehow everything was unpacked and then we had the crates removed.

Because the storage area at the fair site didn’t open until 5 PM (memo to fair organizers, the storage site should be open and manned at all times), it was an interesting chess game moving around all the extra work while isolating what work to hang for the opening tonight.

The press preview is today at 3:30PM, and then the grand private opening for collectors is an hour later. Keep checking in - there will be lots more later as I tell you how the opening gala went!

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