Introduction – Where Does the Line Lie?
Establishing one’s own gallery may be the ultimate dream of the incalculable art-lovers and artists out there. Yet before jumping into the romantic idealization of such, one must acknowledge that running a commercial gallery may not be as free and simple as acquiring personally-favored works to hang in your apartment. After all, galleries do not merely display and share, but make profit from selling artworks; and if running galleries is a business that requires monetary return, then gallerist and professional artists, except leisure or part-time painters, must never forget there is a market out there that needs to communicate to.
Business is about how products communicate with consumers. In the case of the arts, gallery can be the bridge between the two.
‘As a gallerist, I see running State-of-the-Arts Gallery as communicating with artists and viewers, or in other words, art producers and markets. And I hope artists can see the significance of communicating with our gallery and the local market. Otherwise, an artist will never know what to create in order to sell.’
It has long been viewed as a taboo to mention terms such as ‘market’, ‘products’ or ‘profit’ in front of an artist. Joseph Schumpeter argued, ‘capitalism leads to creative destruction[i]’; art historian Meyer Schapiro also warned that collapsing the differences between artistic and commercial value is harmful to the artistic development of a community[ii]. Yet artists should not be afraid to see audience as ‘market’ and gallery as ‘marketer’, because no matter how reluctant art-lovers are to accept, from a gallerists’ point of view, gallery is a commercial art platform that presents decorative arts to potential buyers, surviving in the sphere of supply and demand.
However, as art-lovers ourselves, we understand that art is personal, subjective and emotional; we fall in love with a piece of work not simply because of an artist’s techniques or qualifications, but sometimes, a mere rush of adrenaline. To be concise, many gallerist adopt a subjective and emotional attitude towards artists, collaborating with artists they ‘like’ and rejecting those they ‘don’t connect with’.
So what have we learned in the past 12 years trying to establish State-of-the-Arts Gallery as a sustainable business amidst the commercial market? Despite the arts being a subjective experience, we, as gallerist, have learned to adopt a systematic approach to support this business that we run in order to pursue our interest and living at the same time.
Defining Work Quality and Communication Approach
Every month we receive hundreds of emails from artists worldwide looking for a place at our gallery, it is therefore essential for us to screen through the incoming offers and select what we needs.
‘What I am dealing with is hundreds of artists with different cultural backgrounds, languages, personality and artistic style; it is not an easy task. With such vast options, I cannot afford to be emotional. This is why I evaluate the artists’ work quality and communication approach right away as the systematic ground for the gate-keeping process.’
Work quality and communication approach are the evaluation groundwork in this subjective industry.
How to define work quality?
- Personality – artists’ passion for the arts, and personal philosophy of their messages on the canvas
- Artistic Technique – style, colors, brushstrokes, medium choice, and above all, uniqueness
- Innovation – works that are not easily replicated and reflect the artists’ evolution of techniques over years
- Intensiveness & Comprehensiveness – ability to capture attention and reflect passion through various medium
- History of artist – portfolio, previous representing gallery, scale of past exhibitions, and public recognition
- Potential – artists’ willingness and initiative to compromise and improve their style in order to develop themselves and their markets
How to define communication approach?
- Attitude – artists’ passion for their life value and beauty of the arts, readiness to work with the gallery to boost sales, proactive manner instead of complaint-orientation
- Responsiveness – ability to work with the gallery as a team member instead of mere art supplier
- Discipline – capability to meet deadlines for logistic arrangement
- Language – special concern with non-English speaking artists who are difficult to communicate with without translation support
- Consideration of gallery and local market – artists should consider the taste of local market before developing their own works, and should remind themselves of the importance of communicating with the gallery
Let’s not misunderstand. Our gallery does not see artworks simply as commercial products that cater to whatever consumers ask for; and market is not measured by monetary value, but what the public enjoys and why. Acknowledging and reflecting on the local market do not necessarily limit creativity, but enhance the communicative power of artists to the public.
There are thousands of interpretation of the term “artist”, and I believe “product supplier/creator” can be one from a marketing management standpoint. Yet how many artists are willing to accept this? What I have learned in the past 12 years is that many of them are aware of this but reluctant to admit such role. This definitely harms the artist’s collaboration with our gallery and his connection with the public.
Art only starts to live when someone else takes a closer look,’ says Gérard Knabl[iii], our Austrian gallery partner. We cannot agree more. A piece of art needs an audience to complete its meaning. This is why communication should be the first priority of an artist. However, many artists lack such view, therefore neglect the need to communicate with our gallery and the market.
Even if I personally admire the artist, as a gallerist, I always have to remind myself that we are both participating in a business partnership and we have our own responsibilities and roles. In order to communicate to the audience and let more people appreciate their works, our gallery needs to know the artists’ cutting edge and marketing strength. A responsible artist should strive to help the gallery make profit in order to achieve a win-win collaboration, instead of personal artistic pursue. He must also learn to compromise with market when necessary.
A piece of art on its own does not do all the talking.
Our gallery holds on to our belief that we communicate with our artists and understand the story behind their canvases before we find the best way to communicate their ideas to the public.
We hope our artists feel the same way.
Customizing our approach
State-of-the-Arts Gallery, in our 12 years of experience, has of course met artists of various qualities and communication styles, because they are, after all, individuals with their unique characters. Our gallery’s relationship with every artist is a personal and special one, requiring us to adopt specific ways of communication. Our experiences tell us that communicating with artists generally falls into the following scenarios, according to their work quality and communication style.
‘I am aware that artists may be frustrated at times when their collaborations with galleries do not work out as expected, especially when the communication process in the art industry is not a transparent issue.’
We therefore hope to share our views on the possibilities in the communication between galleries and artists, offering alternatives that may help artists communicate with gallerist and viewers more effectively.
Communicating with Mature and Commercial Artists
Artworks with high quality consolidate our gallery’s confidence in maintaining a sustainable relationship with the artists, as they mean positive public and media attention, as well as satisfying sales. Mature artists tend to understand the need of addressing commercial concerns, and thus, are more ready and proactive to communicate with the gallery to discuss issues such as cutting edge for advertising, media exposure, and audience feedback. Comprehensive and tight communication includes telephone, emails and meetings if possible. These circumstances provide a perfect opportunity for our gallery and the artists to exchange artistic and market information that is crucial to finding the appropriate way of reaching the public.
‘It will be ideal if an artist is able to listen to Hong Kong’s market feedback and maintain his own style and quality. Communicating with our artists, Emil Herker and Sanae Takahata, for instance, is a pleasure. Not only are their works creative and inspiring, but they are also willing to confer with us on alternative painted subjects in order to increase their communicating power with their audience. Our business relationship has now developed into a personal one, with us visiting each other in their home countries and Hong Kong alternatively.’ s
With such delightful interactions, sales return and foreseeable potential, galleries have no reason not to develop an ongoing contract with these artists, investing on payable advertisement, public events such as art fairs, and other exhibition venues. In return, we can see that artists gradually build up confidence in our gallery and the advice we offer, thus are motivated to create innovative works. Controversial figure Takashi Murakami sees money as an essential support for artistic creation and a point out that in the world of contemporary arts where concept outweighs technique, communicating an artist’s idea with the market is even more important[iv].
High work quality and communication approach contribute to healthy and open relationships between artists and galleries, alleviating the tension between artistic and profit pursue. We believe communication is the key to an agreeable collaboration between our artists and us.
Furthermore, it is also our gallery’s responsibility to encourage our artists to be innovative and reach out of the box in which they currently stand.
Mature artists should aim to transcend their limits from time to time. It is ideal for an artist to deliver a new series every 3 years and to adopt a fresh style every 5 years, because being experimental and innovative are qualities that we look for in a “good” artist, similar to the idea of “product-life-cycle” in the market place. Although consumers do not always critically evaluate an artist’s evolution path, professional collectors do consider it a plus that can increase the value of his collection.
However, this is not an easy step to take, as many successful artists are reluctant to let go of their ‘peak’ and refuse to change their artistic styles. This is perhaps especially problematic in the current Chinese ink painting sector. Some established masters even think galleries have ‘regular customers’, who would purchase their works as long as they hold exhibitions.
Communicating with Established Artists who Lack Sound Sales and Communication
Established artists, due to their worldwide recognition and artistic technique, tend to drive their prices high while producing a relatively low quantity of oversized works. As an art-lover, State-of-the-Arts Gallery in no way denies their artistic achievement and quality, however, as a commercial gallery, we cannot be oblivious to the possible risks they bring to our gallery, because they require a high level of time and effort input but speak ineffectively to market needs. Too often, an artist is too indulged in the world he encodes and forgets the world that decodes his message, as a result, the bridge between the artist and the public is broken and communication fails.
Failed communication leads to a sense of disconnection between artists, gallerist and markets. The gallery is then forced to give up the artists’ contracts as they do not appeal to the audience; although, in some rare cases, high work quality and personal preferences together may lead to ongoing collaborations.
In the past 12 years, State-of-the-Arts Gallery has realized a challenge dealing with international artists – language barrier. Very often, mis-communication is not intentional, but inevitable, as many artists do not speak English and require translators or art managers to speak for them.
Speaking through a translator or manager is a possibility, yet this definitely inhibits the direct communication between the artist and our gallery, and thus, the trust development between us. Gallery is a cultural industry. Gallerist, as marketer, needs to know what they are selling, preferably explained directly by the artist.
As Takashi Murakami puts it, communication works such as translating artist statement for the gallery is a basic responsibility of an artist who aspires to reach overseas market[v]. It is always painful for us to realize that the beauty in an artist’s works is neglected in the cases of mis-communication. To overlook such beauty is to overlook an artist’s creativity and strength; and this is what we want to see least in our gallery.
In retrospect, there are many talented artists, namely Thoma Ryse, Gina Intveen, Isabel Garfias, Coplu, Herbert Fuchs and Christian Hofman, with whom we would have space to perform better in boosting sales if they had been more proactive in communicating. We acknowledge that it is a time- and effort-consuming process for both artists and galleries to negotiate, contract, prepare showcases and evaluate afterwards, and such process involves certain expectations and responsibilities. Yet no matter how the sales turn out, better communication can nevertheless enhance the enjoyment of our partnership process.
Communicating with Emerging Artists
Many gallerists find it less stressful to communicate with emerging artists who are eager to establish themselves in new markets. It is undoubtedly an enjoyable experience as emerging artists usually show a proactive and sincere attitude, willing to take our advice into consideration and listen to local market’s voice, because they tend to appeal to our gallery through effective communication, such as high responsiveness and proactive attitude.
‘It is like having a friend who is willing to listen critically and speaks to me honestly. Some emerging artists may not be completely mature in their technique and style, but their willingness to communicate opens up new possibility. It encourages me to help them more in understanding the local market.’
Although the future of an ongoing contract still depends on whether our gallery sees new potential in them, an open communication approach nevertheless encourages gallerist to be more patient and understanding when developing a more transparent relationship with the artists.
While some artists lose themselves in creating art pieces and forget about the need to communicate, others are too caught up in communicating to the market and forget about their artistic pursue. Striking a balance between work quality and communication is perhaps one of the biggest challenges for a commercial artist. We understand an emerging artist being ambitious for a global coverage, especially through the means of Internet communication.
Yet it is dangerous when an artist forgets about his role as a product producer or art creator, because then he will find himself becoming a mere “marketer” that has no quality work to show the market.
We once encountered an Australian painter who was extremely enthusiastic. Not only was she proactive in contacting us and offering us promotional ideas, but also eager enough to send us DVDs showing her painting process, which took merely 30 minutes to finish one painting. When gallerist evaluate an artist’s quality and find overwhelmingly much Internet publicity and self-promotion, we cannot help but wonder: how much energy is left to develop one’s artistic work and knowledge? To many experienced collectors and buyers, these painters are not qualified to be professionals.
Communicating with Inexperienced and Young Artists
An artist is the gallery’s most intimate partner. State-of-the-Arts Gallery has been looking for the perfect partner and the ideal relationship in the past 7 years. There are times when our gallery and the artists have very different definitions of work quality and communication, resulting in mistrust, dispute, misunderstanding, and finally, failed collaborations.
What is more important than mourning for the failed relationship is to reflect on why it fails. I have met artists that lack focus on their works and rarely communicate with the gallery. It is an impossible task to manage them and sell their works in the market.
Some artists see their works as consignment goods at a gallery and fail to think about ways to boost sales, co-ordinate works among regions or develop new style for local markets. In this sense, the artist loses the power to communicate and appeal to his audience, and ends up receiving negative market response, especially during his/her initial exhibitions.
‘This is unhealthy to the artist’s self-development and the communication within the art industry. Isn’t it sad to see a piece of art fails to speak and connect with its audience?’
When an artist does not accept market competition (not competition among artists as we believe there is not selling competition among artists), he does not know what he is lacking, and it is a cul-de-sac for the artist himself and his collaboration with our gallery. Without a clear idea of what and how to sell the works, the gallery has no choice but to limit its investment, commitment and support for such artists. Such relationships between galleries and artists can only end in parting.
Love at first sight? – How communication fits into the collaboration between artists and galleries?
Very often, you encounter a piece of art and fall in love with it before learning about the artist’s history, technique or reputation. It is like love at first sight. Instead of ‘solid’ grounds such as knowledge, global recognition or critiques, a viewer may realize that how he ‘feels’ is usually more powerful than what he ‘knows’.
‘I believe appreciating or buying a piece of art is an emotional process, because apart from techniques and esteem, viewers also look for passion in the piece. As a gallerist and viewer, I also look for artists and works that touch my emotion.’
Selling a piece of art to the market is like telling the artist’s story to an audience. In order to tell the story with heart and passion, we have to be touched by the story. To achieve this, the artists have to be passionate about his works and, more importantly, communicate such passion to us.
Work quality and communication may sound rather rational, but I see their close link with emotional appeal. After all, high work quality appeals to my confidence in the artist, while effective communication eases my pressure and uncertainties. Our long-term partner and friend, Emil Herker, has showed us how to maintain the balance between work and emotion. He is one of the most established artists I have met, with topmost quality and intriguing personality. He also has a firm and clear vision of his artistic pursue. During his numerous visits to Hong Kong, he communicated with our gallery in a passionate, open, humorous, and proactive manner. Everyone at our gallery shares the knowledge of and passion for his works that are more than just canvases.
Our passion for Emil’s works is reflected in the positive responses from critiques, markets and sales record throughout our collaboration, which will be maintained.
Conclusion – Striking a balance between appreciation and business
Currently there are more than 100 commercial galleries in Hong Kong, less than 30% represent solely local artists, 50% represent local and Mainland artists, another 50% represent a mixture of nationalities, while the rest represent only international artists.
It would be too ambitious for us, gallerist and curators of an international art gallery, to lecture on the survival of an industry that is filled with so much variations, possibilities and exceptions. It is true that running a gallery involves subjective judgment, because it concerns with whether the gallerist communicates with an artist happily. Yet it is still necessary to establish selection and management approaches, as there so many artists looking for limited places in local galleries everyday. For State-of-the-Arts Gallery, it is even more crucial to have such systematic approach because apart from the large number of artists, we have various languages, culture and geographical location to evaluate.
What we have learned is that communication is vital between product producers and marketers, that is, artists and galleries. Artist should not be intimidated to bring up commercial considerations, because a responsible gallery would never overrate commercial concerns and neglect artistic values. At the same time, a responsible artist should have a firm standpoint and strike the balance between commercial and personal pursue. It is only through working together with these considerations in mind that galleries and artists can join hands to enrich the art community and fulfill each other’s dream – to enjoy, appreciate and spread the passion for arts, as well as survive in this commercial world of arts.
[i] Kuspit, D., 2007. Art Values or Market Values. Talk speech given on ‘Art Values or Money Values: An analysis of Art Prices in 2006’ at the New York Studio School. Joseph Schumpeter was an Austrian economist and political scientist who popularized the term ‘creative destruction’ in economics.
[ii] Ibid. Meyer Schapiro was an American art historian known for his research on the linkage among history, society and politics of art pieces.
[iii] Written by our Austrian partner Gérard Knabl
[iv] Murakami, T., 2007. Theory of starting your art business (Translated). 2007. Taipei: Cite Publishing Ltd. P.54
[v] Ibid. P.55.