Growing the Pie: Selling Art Beyond the Boundaries of Northeast Ohio | Part Two: Individual Artists Making their Own Way
It’s been a key point in discussion of the Cleveland art scene that a low cost of living here makes it easier to have an art career. But that low cost of living is a result of the fact that there’s just not as much money in this region as there is in other part of the country. But using affordable Cleveland as a base, some artists have landed gallery representation and built clienteles in other cities. That can be a key part of building the individual artist’s career, and also of sustaining the strength of Cleveland’s art scene. But how do individual artists get a foothold outside their home town? We talked several who have successfully done that to find out. – ed.
NORTHEAST OHIO’S BENEFITS for artists are well known. Rent and studio space are inexpensive. You can learn—or teach—at quality institutions like the Cleveland Institute of Art or Kent State University. The attitude between artists is more collaborative than cutthroat.
That said, any creative setting up here is faced with one challenge: Cleveland isn’t a seller’s market. Many artists have small but loyal local collector bases; but a small base is still a small base. Consequentially, some artists cultivate a presence outside the region.
An artist might be intimidated by displaying her work in distant locations, but doing so is not fundamentally different from exhibiting and selling locally. Granted, great distance between a home base and a display space creates additional logistical hurdles. Artists may be tempted to turn to art dealers to do leg work, but this might actually make a career less viable, as many charge prohibitively high commission fees. Therefore, it is often most prudent for artists to manage their own careers, despite the hard, frustrating work this entails.
“For an artist, the work itself is the fun and rewarding part. Going around with your portfolio is excruciating. [But] no one is going to do it for you,” said painter and fiber artist Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson.
Securing representation or exhibition is not about being “discovered,” but is instead a relationship in which both artists and curators are active participants. Early in her career, painter Amy Casey submitted work to a biennial curated by the owners of Chicago’s Zg Gallery. After the exhibit, she was contacted by Zg to discuss representation. “We sort of met half way,” Casey said. She has shown with Zg for ten years.
Young artists taking the MFA route who want to display out of town can begin planning while still in school. Students are typically required to submit to a minimum number of exhibits. They should not be intimidated from applying to the galleries that appeal to them most, not just the ones closest to campus. If students have the means to travel (or, even better, if expenses are paid), fellowships and other abroad learning opportunities are excellent opportunities to spread a reputation and make connections. Besides networking opportunities, professional development organizations like the Ohio Arts League also provide exhibiting opportunities for even emerging artists. In 2010, for example, portraitist Frank Oriti won Best in Show at OAL’s juried show, a year before completing his master’s.
After school, the next step for would-be cosmopolitans is to put down roots at home and establish rapport with local institutions. Many Cleveland artists complain that the region’s museums rarely showcase local art. However, offering exhibiton space isn’t the only way an institution can uplift neighborhood creators. For example, MOCA Cleveland hosts a Visiting Curator Program, in which curators from around the country tour the studios of select local artists. Jónsson has participated in the program several times, and describes it as an “invaluable” means to connect with minds and movers throughout the U.S.
Engagement with local arts scenes obviously creates opportunities for networking, but also to practice discussing one’s own work. Discussing their art, many artists adopt stances of real or put-on humility. Art concerns emotions or abstract concepts, and few people discuss such things in mixed company.
This awkwardness needs to be overcome as early as possible. Even the strongest artwork cannot speak for itself. Established artists underline the need to be present when work is unveiled. A creator exhibiting out of town, then, must budget for travel. “It’s important to actually be there. People have questions, and they want to see artists,” says painter Arabella Proffer.
However, beyond explaining one’s own art, traveling to shows allows artists to see art they’ve never glimpsed in person, and meet colleagues they’ve previously known only by reputation. “It’s a really cool thing to see where people are going. I love the back-and-fourth encouragement and community,” Oriti said. “It’s a great thing to meet the people who were interested enough in your work to make you a part of it.”
Instant communication has not lessened the need for face-to-face conversation. Artists agree the internet is an important tool for self-marketing, though perhaps not in the way younger creators expect (or hope). Having one’s work discovered on Instagram, watching it go viral, and waiting for the exhibition invitations to roll in isn’t a viable career strategy. A web presence should not be counted on as a means of growing an audience. The internet is more reliable as a means of maintaining and deepening relationships formed offline.
Casey has maintained a website since 2004, and sharing her work online has earned her decade-long relationships with pen pals as far away as South Korea, and even exhibition opportunities at two California galleries. Even still, she does not count on her social media interaction as direct means of connecting to buyers.
“It’s pretty rare that it leads to a sale,” Casey said.
Instagram and Facebook are thus better suited for keeping a profile high among people who already know you. Pictures of works in progress can be shared, questions and feedback requests answered immediately. To a lesser extent, it can be used to prod friends to attend openings and talks. But given the ease with which digital invitations can be sent, special effort has to be exerted to stand out in the crowd. As stated bluntly by painter Arabella Proffer, “People are flakes, so you have to hammer [that] you have a show coming up.”
Persistence can pay off, even when it looks like it’s not working. Jónsson does not use social media except to promote her exhibitions, and admits to needing to overhaul her website. However, she does keep far-flung friends, gallerists, and curators up-to-date with regular emails and images of her current work. Most recipients don’t write back, but silence does not necessarily mean indifference. Jónsson said that several times she’s been invited to exhibit by people she’s been sending updates to, but otherwise hasn’t been in contact with for years.
“Even if you don’t get a response for ten years, that doesn’t mean they’re not looking at it,” Jónsson said.
An artist exhibiting in a new city will always be at a disadvantage because she does not have a robust network of friends and collectors she can count on to attend and discuss her show. “A solo show out of state can be crickets. It can be you and the director and two other people,” said Dana Oldfather. She says that group shows, which mix locals and out-of-towners, can be better attended. She observed this when she exhibited in St. Louis for the first time alongside two other artists.
Traditional media like newspapers and magazines can also boost the profile of an exhibit, if their attention can be captured. Sending a press release to publications in the city where exhibits take place is obviously logical, but artists can think bigger, too. Proffer sends press materials to national outlets whenever she opens a show, on the off chance her story gets picked up. Oriti submitted for years to the journal New American Paintings, and in 2012 was finally featured. A few months later, he was approached by RJD Gallery in New York’s Hamptons. He packed up a few paintings, rented a van, and showed them his work in person. He’s since had two solo shows at RJD, and many group exhibits.
Most coverage of particular arts exhibitions takes the form of the review. Critics often do not interview artists, and contextualize what they look at by reading artist statements. A good statement contains vivid, specific descriptions. CIA associate professor Barry Underwood uses the example of the word “abstract” as a term that’s a good starting place, but not enough by itself to create an image useful to the reader. (Is the abstraction colorful, or does it use a limited number of shades? Is it made of geometric figures, organic forms, or color fields? Emotional or intellectual?) However, specificity ought not be achieved through use of jargon. Underwood recommends artists have their statements read through by people unfamiliar with the art world to test readability for general audiences. If an exhibit is reviewed by a mainstream newspaper, readers might be turned off if all the quotes from a statement are full of arty shibboleths. An outsider’s feedback in the writing process can avert this.
However, sometimes a writer will seek a more human angle and want to interview the artist. Journalists’ practices are somewhat opaque to those outside the press industry, so artists are not equipped to take full advantage of media opportunities. Many artists want to conduct interviews via email, so that they can reflect on a finite list of questions and carefully craft answers. Most journalists, however, insist on live conversations conducted over the phone or in person, so that they can ask for follow-up questions and clarifications in real time.
However, this doesn’t mean an interviewee can’t take time with her answers. If an interview is scheduled in advance, an artist can write down a list of questions she expects to be asked, and practice answers in advance. If an interviewer doesn’t ask about an important issue, an artist ought not to hesitate to bring it up themselves. Journalists are often looking for a “hook,” a novel or dramatic element to draw readers into their writing. Therefore, if an artist tells a reporter about any exceptional circumstances pertaining to the work, there’s a decent chance the resulting article will be built around that.
One thing an artist should not do is go into the studio with the intention to create work with the broadest possible media appeal. An artist might be tempted to soften the individual quirks of their work to give it broader appeal in diverse marketplaces, but this would be a mistake. In the American art world, engaged consumers are in contact with many of the same taste-shaping influences—the same major art blogs, and similar MFA curriculum material, for example. Therefore, aesthetic preferences do not vary predictably by geography.
“I haven’t particularly noticed that my work is received any differently from place to place. From person to person, maybe. I haven’t changed direction due to reactions that I can recall,” said Casey.
Appreciators of particular styles of art will seek out work that interests them. Therefore, instead of altering one’s art to mesh with the sensibilities of a particular region, artists should seek out galleries already in synch with their style. A mature artist understands what is unique about her own work, but is also able to situate herself in a genre or sub-genre. Proffer identifies her niche as “pop surrealism,” and shows in kindred galleries as far-flung as San Francisco and New Orleans.
But even if an artist finds a space that shares her aesthetic, a cold call to the gallerist is not the best introduction strategy. “You can’t just walk in off the street,” said Jónsson. Personal connection, again, goes far. If possible, artists should ask for introductions from a mutual friend, or even a friend of a friend.
If an artist has local representation, it is of course basic courtesy to inform them if she secures separate representation in another city. Though gallerists foster close relationships with their artists, few insist on exclusivity. Many artists with broad geographic reach partner with two or more galleries, each far enough away from each other that competition and jealousy aren’t an issue. Even still, if an artist’s time and attention will be divided between two cities, she is obliged to inform the gallerist who has invested so much in her.
Every partnership requires negotiation, but an artist wishing to display commercially should establish some non-negotiables. Oldfather, for example, sets a bedrock minimum price for her work. Even if an artist doesn’t commit herself to an exact figure, she should at least price her work comparably wherever she displays it. Any advantage that different pricing in different regions might have had was erased by the internet. Oriti points out that a buyer will feel cheated if he buys a work in his home state, and later sees a comparable work for less in another region.
However, this only applies to commercial galleries. The equation is different for artists doing work in media for which there is not a traditional buyer’s market. Sarah Kabot, a CIA assistant professor and installation artist, says she usually works with museums, university galleries, and nonprofit organizations. She says there is no firm minimum budget she insists on, but that organizations seeking installation art are usually very up front about what resources they can offer. If the host institution’s budget can’t cover what Kabot wants to do, she will apply for grants. Despite the labor involved in grant writing, Kabot says it can sometimes be necessary to realize a project.
“If I were really smart, I would only ever work in their budget. But you want to make the best artwork possible. That’s why I’m negotiating in the first place,” Kabot said.
This is the second 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 Ohio and to bring them here. Our intent is to help you understand the possibilities, and learn from what others have tried and learned in the process. Growing the Pie is supported by a project grant from Cuyahoga Arts and Culture.
Artists interviewed for this story, and the galleries that show them outside of Northeast Ohio:
Amy Casey Zg Gallery, Chicago, IL
Foley Gallery in New York, NY.
Hildur Ásgeirsdóttir Jónsson Pierogi, Brooklyn, NY
Studio Stafn, Reykjavik, Iceland
Sarah Kabot Mixed Greens Gallery, New York, NY
Dana Oldfather Zg Gallery, Chicago IL
Red Arrow Gallery – Nashville, TN
Duane Reed Gallery in St. Louis, MO
Frank Oriti RJD Gallery, Sag Harbor, NY
Arabella Proffer Gauntlet Gallery, San Francisco, CA
Parlor Gallery, Asbury Park, NJ
Boxheart Gallery, Pittsburgh, PA
HyperClash, Santa Fe, NM
Barry Underwood Johansson Projects, Oakland, CA
Russell Hill Rodgers Gallery, San Antonio, TX
Sous Les Etoiles Gallery, New York, NY