June 19th, 2006

Shag - Red Wahine

Ars gratia ... money.

Happy birthday, becka_kitty! Which reminds me, since she's an artist having trouble pricing her work, I had occasion to tell her a Jim Hicks, Man of Concrete story the other day, and I meant to share it with the rest of you.

The Man of Concrete was, in addition to being an electrician and a general contractor and a cabinet maker and a blacksmith, an artist. He'd worked in a lot of forms, media, and styles over the years, but his preferred medium and style was suburban and near-rural landscapes, in watercolor over India ink on high-rag-count paper with his own custom frames. He had a job that took him all over eastern Missouri and southern Illinois, and wherever he got a glimpse of a view that seemed to him to be beautifully composed, he would shoot a few Polaroids and/or make a few quick reference sketches. There was always something in progress on his easel, and even though he kept plenty busy with other things, he still produced probably an average of a painting a month. They tended to accumulate. New paintings would sometimes replace older paintings on the walls in the house, but as often as not they went into cabinets, and when the cabinets overflowed they went behind furniture, and when there was no more room behind the furniture they'd pile up under the stairs, and when there was no more room left, Mom would have a fit.

When it got to the point where Mom felt that the house could not contain another painting, she would deliver an ultimatum to Dad. So every couple of years, she would make him pick out a dozen or twenty paintings that he was willing to part with. Then would begin several evenings of negotiations. Mom would ask Dad to price each one as high as he could conceivably imagine it selling. That would be her starting point, and she would spend the next several days ruthlessly and relentlessly bargaining the prices ... up. The final price as far as Dad knew was usually about twice what he thought any reasonable person would pay for it. Mom would then spend a couple of weeks driving around to galleries all over town, making cold calls and asking to see the manager. How she got away with that, I have no idea, but it generally took her no more than a half dozen gallery visits to move 10 to 20 of Dad's paintings, a few per gallery. She was offering them to gallery owners at twice the price she quoted Dad, and told me that she usually got it, cash up front not consignment, no questions asked. Nor should there have been much bargaining; the few times she spot-checked and found the paintings still hanging, the galleries had priced them at twice what they paid her. And it was hard for her to get that data, because they generally sold in at most a couple of weeks.

Now, the Man of Concrete was good, but he wasn't great. He had a flair for composition, and a draftsman's precision, and exquisite line work, and good control over his colors, and the frames were things of beauty in and of themselves. No professional frame shop I've seen yet has had a framing jig as sturdy or multi-functional as Dad's, and as a cabinet-maker he knew a lot of woodworking tricks that most framing shops never learn. But he wasn't famous, had no credentials, wasn't working in a particularly popular medium or in anything like a then-popular style, and there were probably dozens of artists who could have produced work as beautiful as his who never sold a painting. And even with all of that against him, the paintings flew out of Mom's hands, alighted only briefly on gallery walls, and landed in the hands of art collectors at lightning speed ... for 8 times what Dad thought they were worth. Nor was he foolish with money; in his contracting and blacksmithing and cabinetry, he was a shrewd bargainer who found places to buy materials for free or cheap and commanded top dollar. He just had, like every other artist I've ever met, no idea whatsoever what art was actually worth.

I'm convinced that the main reason that this mostly uneducated working class housewife representing herself as the artist's agent was able to sell his paintings so quickly was that she didn't bargain-price them. It literally never occurred to her to do so. She knew that people who buy original art for their homes are, generally, not poor or working class or middle class. That art was generally selling to people who made vast multiples of what we were living on, people who wouldn't hesitate for a second to drop $1,500 on a framed canvas to hang in one of the guest bedrooms just because they liked it. When you offer an art lover a framed painting and you price it the same as a cheap poster from the head shop, you're telling them that in your considered opinion as a professional artist, you aren't any good. The thing is, artists are generally not especially well off. Most struggle to sustain a working class standard of living, and as such find themselves surrounded by other members of the working class, with a smattering of poor and maybe middle class friends and acquaintances. When they try to imagine what someone would pay for a work of art, they base it on what their average friends could afford to spend on art. Which is, frankly, insanity, since with few exceptions people in their socio-economic bracket don't buy original art.