Friday, December 14, 2018

Why you might not want to work with galleries


There’s something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. It’s whether or not I should work with galleries. I really don’t want to sound like sour grapes but I do believe that for most artists it’s a bad idea to work with galleries. There are exceptions to this rule and I want to explore them here. Let me begin by saying that I’m going up start with the negative aspects. The three main reasons why I think working with galleries might not work for most artists are economic, emotional, and career building.

The most rational thing to base my decision on is money. However, I want to point out in the beginning that the main reason is really economic. I’m 53 years old and I’ve been showing with galleries for around 25 years or so. With the exception of two or three incidents I have never made back the majority of the money that I’ve invested in any one gallery show. This includes group shows.

Let me lay out the finances for you in my situation. For the last 10 to 15 years each year I’ve sold somewhere in the range of $20-$30,000 worth of artwork. In the last two years I’ve been able to say that I’ve been able to pocket two thirds of this money. This is because in the last several years I started selling my work on line through several venues which include, etsy.com, eBay, Amazon, and several other venues. I’ve found that the most successful venue has Etsy.com.

Before this, I’ve had shows in some really reputable galleries that include, Karen Jenkins Johnson in San Francisco, Klaudia Marr in Santa Fe, as well as several galleries in Dallas and other parts of the country. Those are just the most reputable. I don’t want to trash talk the galleries that’s not what this is about. I do however have tons of horror stories about working with galleries.

The empirical evidence is that whenever I’ve had a gallery show I have ended up spending almost all of the money that I made from sales in that gallery on the following, shipping the art, helping with gallery promotions such as catalogs and postcards, and travel expenses. I am leaving out the costs that involve making the art including the art supplies. In each instance I usually sold between 2 to 7 works of art and sometimes these works of art went for as much as $5000. So my art was not cheap and sometimes on a show I would sell around $10-$15,000 worth of work. Sounds good doesn’t it? But it wasn’t. The gallery, which is standard took 50% on each sale. I don’t begrudge the gallery because they are paying overhead expenses and their investing in me. That would leave me with around $7000 left. Shipping art to a gallery especially out-of-state can cost as much as $1000-$2000. So now I’m down to about $4000 that I’m putting in my pocket. Next factor in airfare if it’s out of town and hotels. I think you get the point. At the end of the year I got hit with taxes.

I want to bring up one notable exception to this. It took me about five years of work but I completed a graphic novel and each one of the panels was a separate watercolor. Just after I retired a community gallery in Tracy California, whose directors named Will Wilson, contacted me and offered me a show. Included in the show was a stipend, which was pretty considerable, as well as extra money for painting a mural and they took care of most of the other costs. This even included a hotel if I wanted. So I walked away from that show with a considerable profit. Thank you William Wilson!

So even though it looked like I was a successful selling artist I was only really pocketing at the most, and this includes studio sales around $8000 at the end of the year. I am so lucky I had a tenured teaching position at a community college. In fact, I use my art career as a write-off at the end of every year to decrease the taxes I pay. At the time, I was making about 110,000 year teaching at a community college. My wife and I are not big spenders and I managed to put aside the ton of money in retirement which I won’t touch till I’m 62 or 63 in 10 years. At the age of 52 now I have “retired” and I paint full-time because for the last five years or so I was able to figure out my finances well enough by selling work online that I can afford to paint full-time.

Okay so I think I’ve laid out my more pragmatic or economic reasons for not working with galleries. Your company emotional ones.

Again I don’t want to sound like someone who’s overly negative or complaining about specific galleries, although I could tell you some horror stories but that would make me look like an kind of Dick. So let me talk about it in the most general ways I can.

In the most basic way working with the gallery is a collaboration between the artist and the gallery director. Gallery directors have a different point of view about what kinds of art the artist should make and also what kind of shows should be offered in the gallery. It’s their right they own the gallery. This kind of stuff, and it really makes a lot of artists very bitchy, can really add up by the time you get to the opening reception. Especially if the artist is bit of a prima donna. I also know this from personal point of view because I ran a gallery for about five years at Ohlone college in Fremont and believe me artists are really tough to work with often have an attitude that far exceeds the quality of their work. So this is not a slam on any particular gallery director it’s just pointing out that collaboration is really hard and can lead to a lot of hurt feelings and conflict.

Emotionally, I’ve also personalized the lack of sales at galleries because I have seen the gallery director what I consider to be fumble a sale or not make enough effort. Whether or not this is true, in my subjective perception that is how I felt. And you have to think that most artists are going to personalize the experience of showing their work because the artwork is themselves. So let me just say I feel that a lot of gallery directors have not sold work when I thought they could and I’ve had a strong emotional reaction to that. Many of the artists that I’ve talked to often describe an angry or irritable relationship with the gallery directors who represent them. Often, I am surprised by the vitriol and anger that some of the artist will express about gallery directors even though I think the gallery director has worked really hard and is a good person. They mean you no harm in fact they’d like to help you but often we as artists have bad reactions to stuff.

Here’s another kind of drag emotionally about galleries and that has to do with gallery receptions. Unless you really like a party and you like art receptions and find it really easy to talk to people, gallery receptions are a nightmare for people who have a hard time being the center of attention and or have any kind of social deficits and problems. That type person is me. You wouldn’t know about it reception because I appear to be very outgoing and I also know how to schmooze people. However, inside I am just crawling with anxiety. My armpits are soaked my suit jacket. My little bald head is sweating. The experience is a total freak out for me and I really don’t like it.

That brings us to the next and final idea of why I think what you shouldn’t work with the gallery. I’m in a basic on my experiences and I will also bring in the experiences of two or three other artists and their stories. I will not name the artists to protect the innocent.

Case study number one. This artist is way better than me and managed to wrangle an exclusive contract with a very important gallery that worked with some other “blue-chip” types of artists. The experience that this artist described in terms of whether or not that gallery built this artist career is that it didn’t. The gallery had promised to promote this person’s work, take care of expenses, and you have the artist really did have some nice shows and was able to do some cool stuff at the gallery but according to them they didn’t: a profit and over coffee the artist was constantly complaining about the lack of promotion and the lack of empathy gallery had. In short, the gallery promised to represent this artist and to really promote them and make them into being is important artist and they didn’t. I’m not blaming anyone, this gallery actually have to shut down even those pretty famous.

Case study number two. During the studio visit to an artist studio while I was director of the school’s art gallery, again over coffee and during the visit, one artist complained about the gallery that they’re working with for nearly 2 hours. I don’t begrudge the artist, the I guess I do a little bit, but the gallery according to this artist didn’t sell enough of the artists work even though they sold everything they made and often cock blocked them when they had studio sales and wants as a percentage of the profits from the studio sale. I don’t really know what the reality is because my experience of the gallery in general was pretty positive because I also showed with them. However, I understood how the artist felt.

Both of these artists, in my opinion, are top shelf artists. Honestly, they are so good that I’m jealous of their work and yet the gallery itself didn’t really, or wasn’t able to because they didn’t have the juice, to make their career. In fact one of the artists has gone off on their own and has been getting shows all over the world and has started their own organization and is doing fairly well by promoting their own work. They are still going to gallery root however, they don’t have an exclusive contract with a so-called important gallery again. I think they’re happier for it.

Okay, I have a lot more experience and a lot of anecdotes that I could share to back up all of my observations, but I do want to make one sort of positive comments about working with galleries.

Occasionally, galleries really to make an artist’s career. Historically, there artists like Picasso and Basquiat who have had very fruitful and excellent experiences working with impresarios and art galleries that have given them salaries and promoted them as artists and literally made their career at times. Art history is full of these notable exceptions. Perhaps some of the artists that I really appreciate, such as Bo Bartlett and Macolm Liepke, have had some really good experiences with galleries and have had come out to be a career building experience for them. I do think that in the contemporary world now, because of the egalitarian nature of the Internet and the fact that people can buy stuff online, this might be less possible. I’d love to hear your opinion.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Bonaventura Berlinghieri, "St. Francis Altarpiece" tempera on wood 60' x 42' (approx. 5" x 3.5) Byzantine Style (maniera greca) painted during the Gothic Period

Bonaventura Berlinghieri,  "St. Francis Altarpiece," tempera on wood 60' x 42' (approx. 5' x 3.5') Byzantine Style (maniera greca) painted during the Gothic Period

The main reasons why this altarpiece is studied are because it is an excellent example of the Byzantine painting style during the late Gothic period, it also represents St. Francis who is a historical religious figure who represents humanistic changes in culture during the late Gothic period into the Renaissance.

This is painted with egg tempera on wood panel. The medium of egg tempera is quick drying but very prominent in terms of color. The style that this was painted in, sometimes referred to as maniera greca, which literally translates as “in the Greek style or manner,” is a very flat not very illusionistic style of painting that is probably closer to what we think of as a cartooning style than a style that is meant to depict light and shadow or shading. If you look very closely at the figure and how things like how the facial features are rendered, you’ll probably notice that there is an attempt at shading however, it is not based in observing how light shades an object.

The way in which the people or figures are painted is also not very realistic and also closer to what we consider a cartoon rather than a realistic depiction of the bodies’ proportions and anatomy. The figures tend to be elongated, the posture is stiff and unrealistic, and the proportions of the face are unrealistic as well. For example, the eyes seem to be placed a little too high up into the four head, the nose is too long, and the mouth is placed further into the chin than his realistic.

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The creation of space, and the relationship of the sizes of the buildings to the people in the pictures is also not realistic. For example, the figures seem to be too large when compared to the buildings. The size and scale of the figures to the buildings to the landscape our overall disproportionate and unrealistic.

The size of the panel, which is about 5 feet tall, makes the central figure of St. Francis almost life-sized. St. Francis is placed in the center of the composition. The composition is overall symmetrical, which means that you can cut it in half and it seems to be equal on either side of a vertical line. The central figure of Francis divides the overall composition into a left and right series of six scenes are vignettes that contain images of Francis and other figures as well as environments. The scenes represent the life and times of Francis and in particular focus on his deeds.  The scenes range from, Francis ministering to the poor, to animals, and helping to save souls in general.

Francis literally takes the words of Jesus into his life by giving away all of his earthly possessions, ministering to the poor, and in general doing unto others as he would have others do unto him. The three knots in Francis’ rope belt represent, poverty, chastity, and obedience to God’s will. The subject matter of the altar focuses on the central figure of Francis and several scenes from his life that led to his canonization as a saint and amplify the concepts of charity, living a life of non-materialism, and thinking about as well as behaving in the way that Jesus prescribes in the New Testament.

In the upper left-hand scene, Francis receives the stigmata from a type of Angel called a Seraphim. This scene, explains and amplifies the wounds that Francis exhibits in the almost life-sized figure on his hands and feet that represent an honor that he receives because these are the same ones that Christ received while on the cross. Probably the next most important scene for Catholics is the scene in the middle of the left-hand column in which St. Francis delivers a sermon to the animals in the wild, because all living creatures are invested with God’s love. By the way, this does not necessarily mean that St. Francis believed that all animals have souls because this is inaccurate according to Catholic theology.

This altarpiece was painted in 1235 less than 10 years after Francis his canonization. Probably the most important reasons why this painting is taught as part of the great Canon of European late Gothic painting is because it represents the ideas that Francis represented. Since St. Francis taught several revolutionary ways of thinking about Catholicism, he’s almost like the “poster boy” for the changes that were happening in the transition from the late Gothic to the early Renaissance periods. For example, Francis represents humanism and critical thinking in the way that Francis chose to physically act out the teachings of Jesus Christ.

Previous to the life of St. Francis, the Catholic Church was the sole source of information about God for the layman (every day nonclergy).  The Church interpreted, interceded and imposed a very clear point of view about God's teachings and was the sole source of biblical interpretation.  In fact, laymen were not even allowed to own a Bible, not that they could afford one since they were hand written and very expensive.  This point of view and religious/political system meant that everyday people could not actually "know" God for themselves and supported and maintained a point of view that one was born to a place on this earth that was unchangeable.

Francis's point of view that "To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps." Breaks with this tradition and demonstrates the beginning of a point of view in which the lay person could not only have a direct experience of God but also alter their behavior in accordance with their knowledge without needing to consult the Church for interpretation.  This is important and interesting because aside from the ideas exhibited in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, this represents the beginning of a change in the way of thinking and the stirrings of individual critical thought.  The art that follows, after the Byzantine period and in the late Gothic and Early Renaissance exhibits a new and critical point of view of the world.

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Tuesday, December 11, 2018

I make art for other people, not for myself. (Not a misquote.)

I grew up with so many of my art friends and educators telling me that “a true artist always make art for themselves. Artists do NOT make it art to for other people. Self-expression and artistic integrity are more important than selling your work.

When confronted with these clich├ęs I always wondered why I couldn’t have artistic integrity and make a good living making art. I also wondered what was so wrong with making art directed towards a particular audience or client and still be a respected or good artist.


I totally get how that kind of conventional wisdom sounds right, especially after being fed the romantic ideas about artists that when exposed to a close inspection just don’t make sense. Cases of artists accused of selling out who I’d like to be: Norman Rockwell, Velasquez and John Singer Sargent.

A person who couldn’t sell work but is cited as having a fantastic career and maintaining artistic integrity, we all know many of these artists personally. I don’t regard them as being particularly happy people nor as successes and I don’t think other people will celebrate them after they are dead.


How about a famous “success” story that we have all been taught, “Made art for themselves and maintained artistic integrity at the risk of being a financial disaster.” Examples, Modigliani, Gauguin, and his room mate Vincent Van Gogh.


Vincent Van Gogh was making religious art. He also made art with the intention that he would like someone to buy it and no one did while he lived.

I suspect that if he were given the choice between being,

1) a happy person and a selling artist

2) an unhappy person not selling his art


Vincent probably would have chosen #2. He probably would have chosen to be happy.

I’ve never read anything in all his letters that expressed the idea that all his suffering was vindicated by making art not did he ever really express ideas concerning artistic integrity and uniqueness. Read his letters and documents they are available online. He complained an awful lot about money to Theo.


Remember, crazy people often make poor decisions that are self-destructive. Maybe romantic ideas about artists are harmful rumors rather than helpful advice.

Here’s my story. I’m not a Blockbuster level artist but I make art and make a living at it because I think about my audience or subject matter that I think might be enjoyed by other people.

I think about an imaginary, sometimes real people who are collectors, pop in to my head, and I make something that I think both my audience would like and I would enjoy making art about. Example, I make art about Leather Daddies because I think they look cool and I also know that other people think so too.

I make paintings of older hairy men, “Bears,” because I know that there is a demographic of men and women who find this attractive and want to engage with the subject, I love the subject because that’s how I look and it makes me feel good to paint men who look like me, and I love painting the male figure, mainly because I’m better at painting them than almost anything else.

I first started painting and drawing heroes because I wanted to make pictures that I could share on Facebook that I thought might friends might get some inspiration from. I was hoping that my pictures would counteract the negative stuff going on in the world and express a hopeful alternative. I actually did not start making them to sell, they were meant as disposable art that I would put in storage. When I put them up for sale I was surprised at the popularity.
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