SELL AIN’T A FOUR-LETTER WORD
Part 2: Deal Me In
Last issue, we mashed up art and commerce with three artists, asking the question, “What sells?” This issue takes the same question to four art galleries and dealers.
One slight variable: COVID-19.
We spoke with artists in February, before the pandemic brought our juggernaut world to a halt in March and closed all art galleries in the way that we knew them. So Part 2 also asks, “What’s next?” The virus now reaches into every corner of our lives, changing both the experience of art and its purchase.
THREAT = OPPORTUNITY: FRAMED GALLERY
Stacey Bartels represents contemporary African American and Black artists in her gallery on Waterloo Road, but eighty percent of her sales have consistently come from collectors outside of Northeast Ohio, who find her online. Bartels opened her gallery in fall 2018, to be a bridge from an art therapy practice to an encore retirement career. It has exceeded her projections, with steady growth of both featured artists and customers.
Recent sellers include bright, figurative works by Tiffany Glen, a young artist from Florida, and Evita Tezeno, whose gallery show opened at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. “Glen’s Unbreakable Bond speaks to where we are now,” says Bartels. “People want colorful, bright, uplifting pieces right now. I think since people had to be home, they wanted something pretty to look at all the time.” She notes that while customers are asking about large, expensive pieces, they are purchasing smaller pieces, for $2,000 or less.
As Ohio shut down in March, Bartels ramped up her digital presence. She began an artist interview series on Instagram Live, which she will continue and coordinate with live events as her gallery reopens. She also added her gallery to artsy.net, a global marketplace online gallery, offering her a robust database, auction visibility, and backend online support. Bartels believes that increasing her digital presence brings greater exposure and recognition for her artists. She plans on using her gallery space as an artist showcase, featuring two to three pieces from an artist, instead of the usual fifteen to twenty pieces, and adding a computer kiosk in the gallery for viewing more pieces from each artist.
“I think the way to sell art will be digital, and I want to provide my artists with those platforms that sell the art, whether it’s the gallery website or Instagram, or through sites like artsy.”
Framed Gallery is at framedgallery.net and artsy.net/framed-gallery.
CUSTOMERS ARE KINGS AND QUEENS: BONFOEY GALLERY
Venerable Bonfoey, connecting artists to collectors since 1893, sells almost exclusively to individuals and corporations in Northeast Ohio. Gallery Directors Marcia Hall and Diane Shaffstein note that “what sells” depends mostly on the client and their collection, with Bonfoey acting as a guide to quality artists, especially those from Cleveland and Northeast Ohio.
“Collectors have a connection to a specific piece of artwork both visually and spiritually,” notes Hall. “We represent a large number of quality artists; because of these relationships, we can offer collectors a wide range of work.” Bonfoey often travels to the homes and offices of collectors to better understand the physical space where the artwork will be shown, bringing a range of pieces along to show the client. The gallery also loans pieces on approval and offers presentations to corporate committees purchasing art.
Hall and Shaffstein note that they are selling more contemporary works, usually representational, featuring soothing landscapes and florals. Currently, customers are choosing works with clear, vibrant colors. Bonfoey closed in March, under state lockdown guidelines, and began opening by appointment in June. They’ve increased their email marketing and are considering how to proceed with three shows scheduled for this fall.
“With the new normal, I think it’s going to be interesting to see how clients react to coming to galleries. We hope it will be still possible to wander around and find something they’ll love, and not be afraid,” says Hall.
Find Bonfoey at bonfoey.com.
LOVE MADE VISIBLE: KENNETH PAUL LESKO GALLERY
Ross Lesko strongly connects what sells with what is loved. The gallery opened in the 1970s, featuring mostly American and European Modern historical artwork, and began representing and exhibiting contemporary artists in 2005. He posits that galleries are opened because their owners love art, and hope that the art that resonates with them will resonate with the client. Lesko’s clients ripple outward from Northeast Ohio, reaching across the US to Europe, Australia, and Asia.
“In the art world, ‘what sells’ is as much a philosophical question, as it is a practical question,” says Lesko. “A predictive algorithm might forecast that twelve-inch orange and black dodecagon geometric abstracts, rendered in egg tempera, casein and asphaltum, would sell at a ninety percent success rate, but at that point, a gallery might as well be selling widgets.”
Instead, Lesko believes that a connection between art and viewer lies in the investment of the artist in the creation of their work. “With time, an artist develops to a level of competency—understanding the fundamentals of composition, value, color, use of their chosen media, tools and materials—but moving beyond competency takes dedication. Years of studio practice leads to breakthroughs, which continually help artists attain higher levels of achievement. These artists are passionate about their work, and it is that passion that has kept them dedicated to honing their skills and mastering their craft; that passion is imbued within their creations, and it emanates from their work. These are the artworks that tend to sell.”
Currently, Lesko sees a trend of clients wanting to live with art they love, and enjoying those works daily in their homes. While COVID-19 closed the gallery during lockdown, the gallery remained connected to clients through email and social media. They resumed regular business hours in mid-May, following state guidelines for sanitizing, masks, and distancing.
Visit Kenneth Paul Lesko Gallery at kennethpaullesko.com.
PERSONAL CONNECTION: HEDGE GALLERY
For Hilary Gent, what sells is that which pulls emotionally. “People will say about a piece of art, ‘I just can’t get this out of my head, I love it so much!’ My job is to help figure out how a person can have that piece in their life.” HEDGE currently represents fifteen artists. All, except one, live in Northeast Ohio—where most of her customers live.
Gent notes that in addition to purchasing art through a gallery, collectors may also commission pieces after seeing work featured there. HEDGE also offers payment plans, believing that both the gallery and the artist want to see a piece of art in someone’s home, out in the world.
In March, Gent changed her email newsletter from a monthly to a weekly update, in order to stay connected to her customers. She linked HEDGE’s ecommerce page to their social media platforms to decrease purchasing friction. And she opened up her personal collection on social media. “Working at home, I turned my personal Instagram page into a story about our own collection. I’ve posted once or twice a week, talking about why we purchased our art, how we use it in our home, framing styles, and tips for how someone can incorporate art in their home.” Online sales have followed this increased online marketing.
HEDGE relaunched gallery previews in mid-June, inviting seventeen people into the gallery every 45 minutes, disinfecting and cleaning between shifts—a far cry from hosting the 100 to 1,000 people during a pre-pandemic opening night event. “Experiencing work at a gallery is so important and essential to experiencing art. There is something in meeting the person behind the work, and seeing the work in person.”
HEDGE gallery is at hedgeartgallery.com.
THE MAGIC ELIXIR
Personal connection + love + access = sales. Styles of art, platforms, and communications vary widely, but the result is the same: art sold by galleries to people who love it. And no virus can destroy that.