SELL AIN’T A FOUR-LETTER WORD
“Don’t make any pictures of clipper ships. They don’t sell.”
This apocryphal tidbit of economic advice for artists is attributed to the late Marvin Jones, professor of art and printmaking at Cleveland State University from 1976 to 2005. Never mind the ongoing pushmi-pullyu argument of art and commerce; most artists are makers who sell what they make.
In this issue and the next, CAN Journal asks the question, “What sells?”, leaving the coyness of art for art’s sake behind and examining the economic drivers of art in Northeast Ohio right now. We talk to three artists in this issue, and will feature dealers and gallery owners in the fall issue.
Serve Your Market: John Sargent III
“I am my own little corporation. I make nice things for nice people. This might sound sarcastic, but I mean it authentically.” John Sargent III paints intensely realistic representations of nature in oils, with a concentration on color and light. Fresh from graduate school in 1990, he had a show at the then-new moCa, and Progressive bought his work for their collection. Then the recession hit, and opportunities for contemporary art evaporated. “I was whining to my father, who looked at me over the edge of his newspaper and said, ‘Just paint something people will understand,’ which pissed me off, but he was right!”
A gallery in Florida invited him to show his work, with these parameters: use all his talent, but in sizes between 8 by 10 inches and 8 by 14 inches and priced between $300 and $500. So with some admitted snarkiness, he created obvious beach landscapes that met the gallery’s specs. And sold twenty within two weeks. “It turned my world upside down, and what I had thought it was to be an artist. My abilities were not in service of me, but in the service of my audience. That’s the reality sandwich that is ever-present: your wonderful ideas and talent are in service to the people looking at the work or not.”
He now paints landscapes and seascapes containing an association with a memory: a path through the woods, a sandy path to the beach; paintings that connect with the viewer and remind them of a favorite memory or an imagined place. Sargent sells primarily in Boca Grande, Florida, and his challenge is to paint his “greatest hits” painting without falling into mannerist boredom. For every fifty of the “nice paintings for nice people” sold, he sells one of what he calls an original John Sargent painting. And he’s just fine with that ratio. “In the end, I’m honoring the people who buy this work; that’s how I make a living. You have to listen to what people are responding to.”
More of Sargent’s work is at johnasargent.com and on Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr.
Connection through Work: Eileen Dorsey
“I don’t really know what sells. I keep making things and hope they sell eventually.” Eileen Dorsey paints landscapes of deep, dreamy color and thick impasto. What sells is complicated; she thinks that good work is that which connects with the viewer, offering stories or places that people then put themselves into.
Dorsey sells most of her work in Cleveland and Ann Arbor, Michigan, and they range from paintings featured in galleries to custom commissions that have included murals for Flannery’s Pub on Prospect and East 4th Street in Cleveland. “I am always surprised by people’s tastes. I’ll have a favorite work and expect it to sell, and it doesn’t. But people generally like pleasant-looking things.” She works in different shifts of colors, noting that her paintings featuring shades of blue sell more frequently. People also gravitate to her Hogsback Lane series that captured a western ridge of the Cleveland Metroparks in psychedelic colors.
Most of her paintings are 18 by 24 inches to 36 by 48 inches; her favorite size in which to work is about four feet wide—“a lot of my paintings end up over the mantel”—and those priced under $4,000 are more obtainable for the Cleveland market. During Third Fridays at 78th Street Studios, to appeal to the gallery visitors who range from those with extensive art collections to people just hanging out, she includes smaller items that may appeal to someone experiencing art for the first time. Dorsey recently added a series of three art pillows, bringing her art more intimately into people’s homes.
“The best part isn’t just selling art. I want to know the people, too. I have a connection to the buyer, because the work is important to both of us. It’s like matchmaking. That is my job. It keeps me going and I get to work.”
To see more of Dorsey’s work, visit eileendorsey.com or find her on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.
Diversify & Innovate: Augusto Bordelois
“Some artists might have an issue with making concessions to the market. I did that for a while, thinking ‘it’s my way or the highway’—but it gets very hungry on the highway!” Augusto Bordelois is a figurative painter who pushes boundaries of color and symbol. The point of being an artist, he believes, is to make concessions to your audience, and to be aware of your market. His more surreal work, which often features nude figures, sells better on the East and West Coasts than it does in Cleveland. And he knows this.
Research is key. Bordelois spends time at the front end finding galleries that might be interested in his type and price range of art, and then promotes himself to them. He finds that with time, one gallery might become saturated with an artist’s work, so he tries to have his work in five to seven galleries, nationwide, instead of forty pieces in one gallery. He estimates spending about four months a year promoting his work. “Cleveland is a great place to live; you can always sell in other places.”
Diversification is another strategy. Bordelois offers private lessons and workshops, and accepts mural and portraiture commissions. “Your definition of success may change. Understand you have to make concessions in the creative process to sell the artwork; you cannot entrench yourself in just one thing.”
And he’s blowing up the way people buy art. “A painting is like a piece of furniture. I am not special; I am a product-creator. I should be able to sell my product like any other thing!” So Bordelois finances the purchases of his own work, like buying a sofa on credit. He visited a repo shop to find out what it would cost to repo a painting—to the amazement of the repo men—and vowed not to put a person in a contract they couldn’t afford. Four years ago, Bordelois and a lawyer created a purchasing contract based on recurring payments over time. It’s been successful, appealing to the buyer of an $8,000 piece, who liked keeping her cash flow liquid, as well as the buyer of a $600 piece, who could afford a $35 per month payment.
“I can have a huge audience that I can reach in many ways. Technology and apps allow us to do anything and pay differently. You must change to fit the world’s changes.”
Bordelois will share his contract with other artists interested in self-financing. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information; his work is visible at augustofineart.com.
Readers who are also artists and makers: what sells in your corner of the Northeastern Ohio art world? Who purchases your art? What trends hold true for you? Post your comments at the CAN Blog and share the nitty-gritty of your art market.
Perhaps you’ll tell us that the day of the clipper ship has arrived.