As a young artist with visions of a prosperous future, I needed to clarify this business of gallery or dealer representation. I knew this involved paying commissions, and that many artists were resentful of this, but I thought that if the percentage I had to pay got me real services that I couldn’t provide for myself, well then, it would be a fair exchange. So, I set out on a quest to discover how galleries in my environment went about representing their artists.
One gallery I visited had gigantic photographs on display. The photographs had two subjects; majestic, very remote northern landscapes under luscious skies or very rich, expansive castle or mansion interiors, beautifully detailed. What they had in common besides the scale was the absence of people; the viewer was given privileged access through the photographer’s eye. They also generated a subtle feeling of disquiet, as if that access was somehow permitted the artist but trespass on the part of the viewer. Still, I suppose that was meant as part of the thrill for the viewer. After all, by showing the work, the artist shared his permission; the viewer lived it vicariously.
Technically, I could imagine the effort the photographs took to produce. Access to remote locations by boat or helicopter, permission to set up equipment in castles and mansions, by the look of them all in Europe, and then getting the images printed to that scale and to archival standards by a reputable lab… Even the frames were impressive. Altogether, these things justified the photographs’ price tags.
That’s when I noticed not one but numerous red stickers on the price tags for most of the images. This surprised me. A salesman that had been keeping an eye on me came bounding up to me as if on cue. He very eagerly pointed out that each photograph came in a limited edition of ten, each produced through a very expensive process that made it ‘as good as a canvas painting’.
Ok, editions of ten, I thought, ‘as good as a painting’. This was the beauty of it, he continued, each time a copy sold, the price of the next copy went up: for instance, if the first one sold for say 30 thousand, the fifth would cost 25% more and the 10th 50% more (or something like that). He meant to titillate me. I guess that sales style worked well for him. In my innocence, I was shocked. I understood that the work got more expensive not because of its aesthetic or cultural value but simply because of the supply and demand principle. Clearly, people who saw the red stickers accumulating were expected to do a fast calculation about how much the work had already appreciated in value and reach for their wallets.
I thought, hey, the person who bought #1 can wait until #10 sells, then put #1 up for sale and make money. Number 1 doesn’t even have to leave the gallery, since the seller who takes a 50% commission from the artist (plus of course the cost of framing, plus maybe 50% of the cost of any catalogue, plus ) will be happy to resell the work for an additional commission. As for the other nine versions, they were not even printed yet; they’d been sold but would be delivered, I presume, hot off the press.
Everyone, hopefully the artist as well though it’s doubtful, and probably not the salesman unless he’s on commission too, everyone else walks out and drives away in his/her Mercedes.
I should have been impressed. I should have been jealous of the artist and desperate to get my work represented by that gallery. Perhaps if I made works in a material that lends itself to reproduction and to limited editions, photographs or bronzes or prints, I might have felt an envious itch. Instead, I felt… what’s the word? Let’s say ‘discouraged’. All I saw was that the gallery would have no interest in one-of-a-kind work such as mine.
However, what really bothered me the most was that not a word of my exchange with the salesman was about the photographs as art. The image was in fact irrelevant, he expected me to love it on sight – who doesn’t love dramatic landscapes and opulent still lifes? Not a word was volunteered about the artist either, after all, there was his name on the tags, what more did I need to know? The technique was relevant though only insofar as it made the photograph ‘as good as a painting’, whatever that meant. I felt sorry for the artist.
I walked out of the gallery actually relieved that there was no point in my approaching it to represent me. Onward I went with my quest.