The realities of art-selling as a spotlight on our culture: are we ready to evolve yet?

It was interesting to receive an email this week from a couple showing interested in purchasing another painting and to be led through their perspective as potential buyers. They had bought one of my paintings 5 or 6 years ago, from a gallery near where I live, and had since moved several counties away. Their quite reasonable question was whether my work could be found in any galleries close to where they live, deep in the West Country (I live relatively close to London) and the answer was no.

When I took the time to explain why I don’t even approach galleries that I can’t get to in an hour or so, it forced me to fine comb some of the fundamental difficulties about selling original art in my own mind. I explained the complex and expensive practicalities of transporting multiple artworks long distance, first to show galleries at an initial meeting, then to deliver them for exhibition, not to mention transporting artworks back home again if they don’t manage to sell. Add to this the at least 50% of the proceeds that the gallery take from each sale, something which is getting increasingly difficult to absorb even before transport costs, and they could quickly see my point. Its “nice” to have work hanging in a gallery but it can often be an expensive exercise in vanity.

At the end of another tax year that shows I made a crashing loss at my art I am faced with owning up to the fact that its (still) no more than a glorified hobby; which frustrates me deeply after nine years on some pretty lovely gallery walls and a lot of hard work. When the last remaining local gallery closed last August, I vowed to put all my efforts into internet selling…and so I have, and yet still things are still painfully slow. The difficulty with the ever-growing online marketplaces is that just SO many artists sell their work for next to nothing, setting a precedent that the career artist can’t afford to match. This makes me gnash my teeth as it feels like such an energy of collusion and turning a blind eye when the whole flock drops their prices to match the few who started the trend rather than standing up for what we all believe our art is really worth. Even in our silence on this, we become complicit in a state of gross inequality that is playing out in our internet-based culture, making artists, designers and other creatives and craftspeople the obvious cannon fodder of the ever more open market place since, unless we accept these terms of business, we sell nothing at all. The reality is, most artists are allowing themselves to work for far less than the minimum wage and yet very few people speak up about it, which is why I am opting for such transparency in this space (which is called “Light on Art, after all).

With online commissions still to pay, and a growing public expectation that originals (even in oil!) should be obtainable at under £100 before I take my post-commission portion, I am left facing some very important decisions about how I allocate my time and where to put my best effort. The era of spending weeks working on an original feels like it is in recession since, once done, these take up so much storage space, are very easily damaged and take just so long to sell; in fact, sometimes it takes years to find the right buyer (the three most recent sales were canvases I painted up to five years ago). And as this couple last week amply conveyed to me, so many people just don’t feel comfortable purchasing an expensive artwork without first seeing it in the flesh (and I can’t say I blame them). Although the website I use (Artfinder) offers guarantees and returns, there’s a mindset that seems to get stuck when the art is priced over a certain bracket and its slowing down my flow pretty badly. Nearly 4000 “loves” later, I’ve sold just three artworks in five months, including one to Australia, but that’s not going to put food on my table. So where to go next?

Since the beginning of the year, I’ve been setting up a photography sideline (well, not really a sideline since its where my whole art-practice began). Yet in all these years as a practicing artist, I had never taken this side of my work too seriously, nursing some kind of snobbery that made me think it was second-best to an original painting. Well, if people want something beautiful but at far less cost, I guess its the obvious way to go and so my new website was born last month, with Giclées available straight off the page. Certainly, the traffic it is getting is pretty impressive; far higher than this page has ever seen but still no orders…yet. Its certainly one place where I intend to put more energy.

The other sub-plot is to license my work, which I have been doing for almost three years. Its seen my work in magazines, on well-known adverts and on the front of greetings cards (it was a great feeling to come across one of these in a high-end card shop one day) and so the cheques coming in vary but are very welcome. It’s a side of my work that I intend to make more use of, including the photography and it makes use of both those oil-painted masterpieces as well as the much more off the fly artworks that might catch the eye of someone somewhere. Of course, its desperately unpredictable as an income source but I hope it has scope to grow over time.

The next obvious way forwards is to look for products that could use my designs so an on-demand business with high-end merchandise seemed just the ticket, especially as it came recommended by a friend. Yet even this stopped me in my tracks with its exclusivity clause and a mere 10% cut of the proceeds which means it could take the sale of many (many) scarves before I make enough to pay for my weekly groceries. Of course I’m not going to tie one of my prime artworks to its exclusivity clause only to make something under $10 with each sale; I’ve got to work my best art much harder than that. By this point, having done the math, I was almost so jaded as to not bother signing up at all but have decided to use the opportunity to fuel a whole new wave of creativity, designing product-specific artworks just for this website and especially using digital art. These won’t be the painstaking masterpieces I used to pour myself into but needs must and a part of me is excited at playing this little commercial game to see where it leads. Of course, my friend who is a hobbyist is delighted at her income from this source but then it’s not the same for those of us who have chosen to make this a livelihood. This is how we are let down by a world that doesn’t support artists in their best efforts to make their primary talent into the thing from which they make their living; how is this fair? How would any mathematician, scientist or engineer like to be told they have to do art every day to make a crust while earning peanuts for the maths or science they are forced to do from a shed in their spare time? It’s the very same thing and its time we started calling this gross imbalance out to a world that largely turns a blind eye.

philipp-berndt-173197I just wanted to share these thoughts out loud as I suspect a lot of artists are having them. I’m certainly having to undergo a personal evolution in terms of how I work and where I put my effort and many career artists are facing similar. Yet we also await a world that needs to evolve in order to meet us more fairly where we are at; we should not be the rather sad and desperate subset that we currently are given that, as a culture, we profess to value left and right brained skills equally. Tell that to the millions of gifted people that feel like the choice of a creative career is the same as signing up for a lifetime of poverty (my gifted daughter, for that reason, has just decided not to pursue her top talent any further once she leaves school). How can this be the sign of a world that is healthy and balanced? I have friends with art degrees who work very hard at what they do and who are barely breaking even or who are only just keeping their head above water because of one lucky stroke with the right gallery that is prepared to take them under the wing or a certain corporate client that commissions work many times over. It feels like a fundamental imbalance in our world that talented people working this hard using their best skills are still finding it next to impossible to generate a living income from what they do and its a topic I have just discussed in more detail in a post on my other blog if you want to delve deeper from an evolutionary perspective (see That Place in the Middle). We should really take time out to imagine a world where art has quietly slipped away or wizened on the bough  – imagine, if you can, all that blankness – and then be very careful what we wish for.

What’s any this got to do with evolution, you may ask. Well, I tend to use our attitudes towards “art” (as in, right-hemispherical pursuits in general) as an important benchmark of how generally balanced we are as a society, in the same way that I would use our treatment of women to do this very same thing. When we are not supporting this aspect of ourselves, we find clues of this pervading mindset at every level of our existence, from the importance given to the arts in schools to the expectations maintained by the receptive public.  If art is undervalued in our culture then its a mindset perpetuated by those who buy the art yet quibble about the price of it. We routinely pay our plumbers and electricians a hundred pounds or more for a job that takes well under an hour or even to get our hair done (for instance; there are plenty of other examples) and yet we most often aren’t readily prepared to pay similar for the much longer time taken to produce something beautiful that will bring us joy for many years to come. Why? Because our world makes it possible, in fact easy, to avoid rewarding artists fairly and so on and on it goes, perpetuated in the exact same way that any unfairness or discrimination is allowed to keep going – because it remains unspoken and unchecked. Any culture that leaves fifty per cent of its people unrepresented and open for abuse, without a means of thriving using their most innate skills (and in this I include all the right-hemispherical people who struggle to make a living doing inherently left-brained jobs because they feel they have no option but to conform) is desperately out of sync and so I look forward to noticing signs that conditions are getting better for our artists some time very soon….as they really must if we are going to have a “new” and inherently balanced world in our sights within the next generation.



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