Art of the sale

28 Sep


The image of the “starving artist” as a tortured soul who chooses to live in poverty to maintain the integrity of his artistic vision has long existed in popular culture. This perception visits upon the artist a bohemian lifestyle of eccentricity and excess during a lifetime of obscurity. And, of course, as anyone familiar with the life of impressionist Vincent van Gogh knows, the impoverished artist’s work gains acclaim and monetary value only after his death.

Many of today’s fine artists, however, have shed the cliched smock of the starving artist and repainted, resculpted and resketched their images and lives. Sixty percent of artists in the United States are self-employed, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but that doesn’t mean they’re all living in squalor, surviving at subsistence levels by selling their souls one canvas or sculpture at a time.

“Only the most successful fine artists are able to support themselves solely through the sale of their works,” the bureau reports in its 2010-11 Occupational Outlook Handbook. “Most fine artists have at least one other job to support their art careers.”

Some artists supplement their income by taking secondary jobs that have nothing to do with art. Others hold art-related jobs, such as teaching privately or in schools, and a number are employed as curators at art museums or directors of publicly funded exhibitions. Still others go into the business of selling art as gallery owners, brokers or agents.

“THAT WHOLE TORTURED ARTIST THING does not work for me,” says Renee Williams, owner of Gallery 26 in the Hillcrest area of Little Rock. “I find that the happier I am, the more I end up creating. In fact, I have to stop myself from making stuff.”

Williams, a painter and jewelry maker, sells works of other artists, as well as her own, in the storefront she opened in 1995. Her art business has its own sideline, a framing workshop that accounts for about half of her revenue. When she set up shop, the framing enterprise was to be the sole business. “That was the plan anyway,” she recalls. “But then we found we had enough room for display space so we decided to open a gallery, too.”


Renee Williams and artist Delita Pinchback Martin before Martin’s opening event at Gallery 26.

Williams and other central Arkansas artist/gallery owners say, whether by intention or happenstance, they’ve found being in the business of selling art is a natural for them. They enjoy discovering and nurturing local artists, as well as introducing artists from other states and nations to Arkansas art lovers. They say having primary income not dependent upon selling their art frees them to pursue their creative proclivities without the pressure of those pursuits being their livelihood. None believe, as some might claim, that they’ve “sold out” or compromised their artistic integrity in any way by entering into the business side of art.

“It’s quite the opposite,” Williams says, explaining that sole dependence upon art to pay the bills can cause artists to question their motivation. “They have that pressure of thinking, ‘Am I doing this piece out of love or because I need to bill it?’”

Stephano Sutherlin’s vibrant paintings of locomotives and colorfully creative portraits of noted artists such as Frida Kahlo are a physical testament to his belief that “you don’t create your best work when you’re depressed. I don’t think that’s true at all.

“IF I’M DEPRESSED, I DON’T PAINT,” says Sutherlin, who owns Stephano’s Fine Art Gallery in the Heights. “I’m much happier painting when I’m happy.” One thing that makes him and other artists happy is selling their work. An artist who has a gallery finds a ready outlet for his own work, plus gets to surround himself with the work of other artists while helping them sell.

“I want every artist to make money,” Sutherlin says. “I know it’s tough out there. If artists aren’t making money, they’re not happy, and they’re not creating their best work if they’re not happy.” Sutherlin’s position differs from that of other artist/gallery owners in that he isn’t deeply involved in the business end. His wife, Ashley, handles that as well as decides how to best display their wares. He also attributes ownership of the gallery to his wife.

“I wouldn’t have done any of this if we hadn’t met and fallen in love. She’s the one who’s great with people,” Sutherlin says. “I’m OK with people but I’m better off in my studio painting.” Because of the business, however, he spends more time outside his studio. He sometimes paints at the gallery or on the sidewalk out front. He talks with clients and other artists. As an owner, he also has opportunities to teach young artists how to market themselves and profit from their work.

“The hardest thing for young artists that they can learn from old artists like myself is pricing,” he says. “If you price your work too low, it looks cheap. Price it too high and no one can afford to buy it. So it’s that happy medium. You have to know how the pricing structure in your area works.”

Kyle Boswell, owner of Boswell Mourot Fine Art in the Heights — just a few blocks from Stephano’s — is a glass blower and sculpts with glass and steel. He says he thrives on the gallery environment.

“I’M INFLUENCED BY MY ARTISTS,” Boswell says. “I’m influenced by what I carry and I carry what I like. As an artist, I feel like I have a grasp of the different mediums because I’ve worked in most of them — until I found my niche and the medium that’s best for me, which is three-dimensional.”

The marketing aspect comes easily to him, he says. “I love marketing. I love marketing my gallery and my artists. It’s even fun to design the postcards for my shows.”

Boswell says he worked in politics in Washington for eight years before burning out. “I left Washington and said I’d never wear a suit again.”

Owning a gallery “is the first job I ever had that I enjoy coming to every day,” Boswell says. Like Sutherlin and Williams, he says being content with his life invigorates him and informs his work. Running the Little Rock gallery and another in Miami keep him busy, but he makes time to create art. He’s always thinking, always imagining, so when he gets into his studio, he may make 10 pieces in one day.

Sutherlin, Boswell and Williams sell some of their own work in their galleries, but not exclusively. They also show in other galleries, usually outside the immediate area or out of state. While these three artist/ gallery owners have found that their business endeavors improve their ability to create, Greg Thompson is an artist who discovered that selling art is an art in itself.

Thompson, owner of Greg Thompson Fine Art in North Little Rock, took art classes throughout his childhood, then got a degree in art at Hendrix College. He held a job as a graphic illustrator for two years, then began exploring the idea of selling art for others. In 1995, he held his first art show — featuring the work of Arkansas artists — in his apartment and made as much money in one night as he did in a month at his job. So he quit the job and put down his artist’s tools. He no longer creates artwork. His passion, Thompson says, is in the art of the deal, in managing and finding markets for other artists.

Thompson’s gallery isn’t the typical walk-in-and-browse type. He shows one artist’s work at a time, although he represents many contemporary Southern artists as well as some artists from around the world.

“I’ve learned that it’s just as easy to sell 30 paintings to a corporate client as it is to sell one painting to one client,” Thompson says.

Does he miss creating art?

“NOT AT ALL. I LOVE WHAT I DO,” he says.

Williams says she has never felt a sense of either/or in terms of art. “I’ve always wanted to have a mixture of social interaction and alone time. You have to have a balance.”

She believes that artists need to have something other than art to sustain them — creatively, emotionally and physically — and recommends that working artists get a part-time job. “It’s really good to have some other interest or stimulation. I think artists are more successful when they have something else to work on.”

This article was published in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Sept. 11, 2013
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