July 2010 Archives

There's No Money Anywhere


Studio in Gowanus

My former studio in Gowanus, Brooklyn.

About a month ago I opened myself up for Facebook chat and within moments good old EAG started typing to me. His first words: "hey ex-blogger". If I was an ex-blogger a month ago I don't what that makes me now. A forgotten ex-blogger, I suppose.

But I don't consider my blog closed. I just haven't been involved with anything art-related in a while. I closed down my studio in Brooklyn at the end of June, which took some time, and since then I've been busy with summer vacation type things, like going to Hershey Park and riding the log flume. Every so often I run down my newsfeed's list of art blogs and simply cannot bring myself to care about any of it. Paddy et al are still posting almost minute-by-minute reports on Work of Art, so that's well covered, which is good because I watched about seven minutes of it before wishing I could obliterate all of mankind with the power of my mind. I won't be watching any more.

In lieu of writing anything about actual art, though, let me write about some things I've been thinking about the art world, just to reactivate the blog so all seventeen of my regular readers will remember I'm alive.

One of the reasons I had a studio in Brooklyn for two years was to have studio visits. It was my idea that people would be more likely to visit me in Brooklyn than at my home in New Jersey. Not just people -- I mean art dealers. Because although in pure linear distance my house is closer to mid-Manhattan than Coney Island, in travelling distance it's a lot farther, and New Yorkers would always rather go to Brooklyn than New Jersey. So I thought, if I met a dealer and wanted to ask them to visit my studio, they'd be more likely to do so if I were in Gowanus than in suburban Bergen County.

The reality, however, was that the dealers I invited would not only not visit my studio, they wouldn't even acknowledge that I'd invited them. My studio might as well have been on Mars.

I had better luck getting other artists to visit but even then I wasn't looking to install a revolving door or anything. I had a couple of people come by. And each time was really great, I don't want to knock it -- I got a lot out of those visits and enjoyed the time we spent together. But it didn't happen often.

Coincidentally about when I was shutting down the studio I also returned to Facebook and that put me in regular contact with a number of people I hadn't been in touch with much, and so I decided, as one last hurrah, to invite Loren Munk to visit my studio. I expected he'd come by for a few minutes on his way to somewhere else, because he strikes me as a busy guy. Instead Loren stayed for a couple of hours and looked at a lot of my recent work and talked about it in some depth. It was very generous of him and really worthwhile. It made me a little sorry that I was moving out, actually.

On his way out Loren said a few things that really turned my head around. He gave me a little epiphany, which was followed a while later by another little epiphany. As I walked Loren down to his bike I thanked him for the visit and complained about how I couldn't get any dealers out to my studio. He told me not to worry about it, basically, because after all, there's the Internet. I replied that the Internet was wonderful in a lot of ways, but the big problem is there's no money on it. Loren answered me thusly: "There's no money anywhere."

Which I knew. In fact I'd written about this before, how we like to think that New York art galleries are making money and selling art but it's all an illusion. Loren added more anecdotal evidence to that, telling me how he'd spoken to an art dealer about the most recent round of art fairs and the dealer said they'd had a good year -- the gallery had made back half of what they spent on attending the fair, whereas the previous year it had been a total loss. Loren went on to say the same kinds of things I've said before: Many art galleries are supported by external means, like day jobs and working spouses and trust funds. Just like artists are. Dealers aren't making money from their profession any more than artists.

Even though Loren didn't say anything new to me, somehow the juxtaposition of art and the Internet struck me for the first time. I realized I'd been dismissing the Internet in relation to art because there's no money on the Internet. Except if there's no money in the galleries, either, what's the difference? It seems to me that artists are looking at the galleries as something of a fallback position: Here I am on the World Wide Web, I've got a domain name and price tags on my paintings, I post on eBay or Etsy or wherever, I've got viewers but I'm not making any money. So I need to break into the New York City art world! That's where the money is! Except it's not.

Obviously some few people are selling art. A small number of artists do break through and reach a point where they're supporting themselves through the sale of art. But very, very few. As Loren was speaking I was thinking of the artists I've known who'd grabbed the brass ring, who'd had a solo show in a Chelsea gallery -- only to fail to sell anything, only to go back to their day jobs. Although they didn't have to go back: They'd never left their day jobs. All those artists, all those dealers, and let's not forget all those critics, all of them teaching, speaking, writing books about art dealing, doing graphic design, illustration, computer programming, computer network administration, art handling, furniture restoration, waitressing, all those day jobs, everyone standing in as their own patron, or leaning on someone else.

I find this strangely liberating. If no one anywhere is making money from art, then it doesn't matter if I'm not making money from art. The goal has moved. There's no point in chasing after gallery representation any more than it's worth playing the state lottery. And as a mathematician once said about the lottery, yes, someone will win, but that someone isn't you. If you're looking to a gallery to provide a salary you might just as well start calling yourself a professional state lottery player or maybe a natural lightning attractor.

I'm still unsure of where this revelation leaves me. I have no idea how it will affect what I do or how I do it. But I'm still absorbing it. I'll get back to you.

The second epiphany came some time after the first. I was mulling over the lack of money in the art world, thinking through its implications, when I realized this: It had long mystified me how few people are really willing to say negative things about the art they see, and how angry people get when someone does. But if there's no money to be had, this makes perfect sense. Because the currency of the art world is good will. No artists are selling much, no dealers are making much, and everyone has a day job, so all they're really getting out of the art world is a warm fuzzy feeling of belonging. And no one wants to ruin it with a negative word. My negativity is like a turd in their punch bowl.

Thinking about this a bit more, it does sort of call into question these reviews I write. My reviews are predicated on the assumption that art is something of a professional enterprise, that people are trying to display that which is good in the hopes that someone will buy it. Removing the capitalist underpinnings, however, changes everything. Now what we have is people who like to belong to a club and are willing to sacrifice time, effort and money to do so. It doesn't matter if the art is good or not -- what matters is that making something and calling it art, or taking art and putting it in a room for which you pay the rent, gets you membership in the club. No wonder everyone gets so mad when I come in and tell them their art stinks -- that's like telling a golfer his pants are ugly. Sure they are, but it's beside the point. All I'm doing is showing myself to be rude and out of touch.

Again, I'm not sure what this means for me. I'm still thinking about it. At the moment my plan is to return to the art world in September when the new art season begins. Maybe in August sometime I'll finish my imaginary gallery. And otherwise I'll be setting up my home studio. Let me know if you want to visit.


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