Growing the Pie, Part One: Commercial Galleries on the Front Line
Since the first meetings that led Cleveland galleries and nonprofit organizations to create CAN, our dialog has included talk of sustainability: How can Cleveland sustain its visual art scene? It is a common refrain that galleries and artists need more money, that art prices are higher in other cities, that Cleveland needs more collectors—especially collectors from outside the region. But how can local galleries find buyers in other cities? Is this a quixotic battle against the marketplace? Or is it just a matter of reaching beyond our walls?
Commercial galleries are on the front lines of the art market. They are businesses that only survive if they can pay their bills. Their bills get paid by commissions on art sales, and in Cleveland that is universally understood to be a tough business. We’ve heard assessments of the Cleveland art market in a dozen different ways. One gallerist said “There are some really good artists in Cleveland. There is just not enough art market.” Said another, “I think a lot of the buying base has gotten older . . .a lot of people have already bought their collections.” And yet another, “The price point that does well for us is from $350 to about $750.”
Asked if she thinks attracting sales from outside Northeast Ohio is important to the sustainability of your gallery, HEDGE proprietor Hilary Gent responds, “I think I need to build it, definitely, but if you ask me how, I wouldn’t know how to answer that question.”
We spoke with nine northeast Ohio commercial galleries to learn what they have been doing to find buyers beyond greater Cleveland, what has worked and has not worked for them, and why.
We found that some established galleries like Harris Stanton and Shaheen Modern and Contemporary –which sell both Cleveland artists and international artists, including in the secondary market–are working all channels: maintaining connections with dealers around the US and the world, taking art to art fairs, and working the internet. Others–especially galleries that deal exclusively in new work by artists of the region–are just beginning to develop relationships and strategies, deciding what they can afford to do.
The first, most obvious, and least expensive strategy almost universally cited by galleries we talked to is to use the internet—not just to have a website, but also social media, and for some, listing art with online services.
For Brett Shaheen, the internet primarily speeds communication among established contacts. “Before the internet, if you wanted to sell a Warhol, you would take a Polaroid snapshot and send it to someone. If they like it you would have it professionally shot and make a slide, then FedEx it. The biggest thing that has changed is the speed. The initial moment now takes place a lot quicker.”
But for many dealers—especially those hoping to introduce Cleveland-based artists’ new work to broader audiences, the internet not only a way of passing images around, but of hanging out a virtual shingle to get attention and start new relationships.
Apart from galleries’ own websites and social media, several online brokers have evolved specifically for selling art and artifacts, and their appeal to galleries and artists is that they bring a worldwide audience of shoppers. For example, Farina and Adam Tully say they have listed work on Amazon Fine Art—but with mixed results. “I think we are going to cut that this year,” Farina said. “It started out with good energy. We sold a piece right away. But now they have algorithms that require you to have a certain number of works up to get traffic.” Amazon charges a commission for each sale, which causes sellers either to boost their prices to compensate, or to net less money for themselves or the artist.
Bonfoey lists works on Artsy.com. Founded in 2010, open to galleries since 2012, Artsy charges between $375 and $1400 per month for listings on the site and use of its software.
Hilary Gent says for HEDGE, she is exploring 1stdibs.com, a New York-based website for luxury items, especially antiques and fine art. The site vets sellers through an application process, making judgements about credibility and taste. According to Crain’s Chicago, 1stdibs charges monthly subscription fees for sellers, starting at $500 to post 15 items. In April 2016, the site added a commission structure for sales.
Working with other dealers
Several of the galleries we spoke with have tried to find galleries in other parts of the country to show work by artists they represent. The pitch is a little like a housing swap. “Whenever we travel, we check out the gallery scene, and especially if their aesthetic matches ours, we look into it for artists,” says John Farina of Maria Neil Art Project. “We’ll do a show of someone you represent, you do the same.” But galleries are scheduled often a year out with shows of their own stable of artists, and they have more waiting in line. “It takes time and effort, Farina adds, “and we do this part time. We both have jobs.”
Lauren Davies of 2731 Prospect has worked the same line of reasoning with connections in San Francisco, but has found it difficult to sell work by out-of-towners in her Cleveland gallery. “That was a big lesson I learned. In San Francisco people were usually buying something because they love the object. Here in Cleveland it seems like it’s really about relationships.”
William Scheele, former owner of Kokoon Arts Gallery, and a longtime dealer in Cleveland School art echoes the sentiment. “I have found that most regions in the US do best with art and artists from that region, unless it happens to be quality abstract art or international subject matter.”
However, working with other dealers isn’t just about getting shows. It can also be about knowing what someone wants, and knowing someone else who has it. Brett Shaheen says in any given year, 50 to 90 percent of his business comes from outside the area—and that much of that comes from longstanding connections. He’s mostly talking about the secondary art market.
“If you are a collector I know in New York looking for a major Rudolf Stingel painting, I know a guy in London who knows where those bodies are buried. I call, and offer it to the guy in New York, and put together a deal.”
Neither is finding shows for represented artists only about placing them at commercial galleries. Galleries that are able to arrange shows for their artists at museums play an important role not only in getting broader exposure, but also in building the artist’s resume, appeal to collectors, and price point. Marcia Hall and Diane Schaftstein, of Bonfoey Gallery, have worked contacts to get solo shows at the Butler Institute of American Art (Youngstown) for artists including Dana Oldfather and George Mauersberger.
“They have a room just for pastels. It was natural to say George should show there. That is how it happened. Same with Dana. We recommended her and (chief curator Dr. Luis Zona) liked her work.”
The most aggressive, expensive, risky, and potentially rewarding tactic for making sales to art audiences outside the local community is to participate in art fairs. CBS Miami reported in December that the major international fair Art Basel Miami last year drew 77,000 people in the first five days it was open. At major festivals like that, crowds come from around the world, specifically to buy art. Simply exhibiting in that context can boost a gallery’s profile on the international art scene, as well as its odds of making significant sales. But it’s a major outlay of both time and money.
As Marcia Hall, of Bonfoey, says, “We went to Art Chicago just to see what it was like, and the realization hit us of how expensive it is. Walking through, we thought our artists are as good or better than pieces we saw. We’d love to take the artist stable we have. But if you go to one of those shows you are talking about $50,000 investment.”
“People say you need to start doing art fairs,” says Hilary Gent. “”But do you know how much a booth is? The cheapest is like $10,000.”
Indeed, the booth fee alone for Art Basel Miami is $55,000. Dealers considering the return on investment also have to consider the cost of travel—lodging, food, the cost of outfitting the booth, and the cost of transporting the art itself. And for galleries representing artists on a consignment basis, whatever that total cost is has to be weighed against their net from commissions.
Brett Shaheen say he has participated in “a handful” of fairs, with mixed results. “I did the very first Scope fair in New York. I did the very first Aqua fair in Miami. I did Dallas Art fair, a very good fair, 5-6 years ago. We sold a couple of things.
But in a business of relationships, Shaheen evaluates art fair success on more than simply commissions. “If I broke even and developed some relationships, I would consider that a success. If I’ve done 5 fairs, on those terms I would say two or three were a success.”
Not all art fairs have quite such high stakes. Last year, Farina and Tully took Maria Neil Art Project on the road to the Echo Art Fair, in Buffalo. Founded in 2011, booth fees for the biannual fair started at just $850 in 2016. Tully and Farina chose to have an “end cap” booth for better visibility, which boosted their fee to $1000. Counting all expenses, they say the weekend fair cost them about $3000. They took works by Eric Rippert, Dawn Tekler, Michelangelo Lovelace, and Jen Craun. “That was a ton of fun. It was a lot of work. It was certainly a good step for us to get outside of Cleveland. We made a lot of contacts.” With a dozen sales, he says they almost made the cost back in net from commissions. “Take out the hotel and food, and we came out ahead.”
Meg Harris Stanton, owner of Harris Stanton Gallery, says she thrives in the festival environment. “They are a tremendous amount of work, but the energy is really exciting.” She’s been taking her gallery on the road to one of the larger fairs—the Affordable Art Fair, in New York, taking place March 30 – April 2, 2017. This will be her third year selling there. “We have to apply every time. They look at who you are, what you do, how long you have been in business. We are bringing a combination of regional and international artists,” including silkscreens by Julian Stanczak, works by CIA graduates Diane Pribojan and Phil Soucy, etchings by German artist Kurt Mair, encaustic by Cincinnati based Linda Fischer, and paintings on glass by Scott Goss.
It is not for everyone. It is kind of a big risk. It gets me nervous every single time we do it. But there is something about taking our artists into a new venue. It is . . . it is kind of terrifying.”
However, the feedback she gets from people who stop at the festival is not only gratifying for a Northeast Ohio dealer, but underscores the value of taking art of the region to broader audiences. “It is interesting to get the comments,” Harris Stanton says. “People say, ‘Who would have thought there would be a gallery of this caliber in Cleveland?”
The Cost of Festivals
In a 2012 story for Blouin Art Info (What’s a Fair Worth? Investigating the Economy of the New Event-Driven Art World) Julia Halperin cites a study indicating that dealers make an average of 60 percent of their revenue from art fairs. The study was based on a survey of international art and antique dealers. But it is no small commitment for a gallery to take its inventory on the road. Blouin Art Info also compiled this “Art Fair Cheat Sheet: Typical Booth Prices for 13 Art Fairs, From Basel to Dallas, accessible online at blouinartinfo.com.
TEFAF Maastricht: $60,000
Art Basel: $58,000
Art Basel Miami Beach: $55,000
Frieze London: $45,000
The Armory Show: $35,000
Salon of Art + Design: $35,000
Expo Chicago: $30,000
ADAA’s The Art Show (New York): $26,000
Dallas Art Fair: $17,500
Independent (New York): $12,000
NADA Miami: $10,000
Outsider Art Fair (New York): $9,000
Art Berlin Contemporary: $4,800
Echo Art Fair $850
Interviewed for this story:
The following are Cleveland area commercial galleries who answered questions about their strategies and successes in selling art beyond the bounds of Northeast Ohio.
Maria Neil Art Project
Shaheen Modern and Contemporary
Tregoning & Co.
2731 Prospect Gallery
Harris Stanton Gallery
Eileen Dorsey Studio
This is the first in a series of articles called “Growing the Pie.” Through this series, from the perspectives of commercial galleries, individual artists, major efforts like Front Festival, and other collaborations, we will explore efforts to reach beyond the Cleveland art market: to take Cleveland art to other places, to get the attention of collectors beyond Northeast Oho and bring them here. Our intent is to help you understand the possibilities, and learn from what others have tried and learned in the process.