what percent work

In busy days like these, I’ll take any bit of sanity I can, any way to get my brain thinking about “smart” things (Art, Time) instead of “dumb” things (Money, Objects). Therefore, I was happy to take a much-needed break from a mind-numbing job last week to sit at lunch with photographer Jason Langer. He and I had been emailing back and forth about galleries and the current state of the photography market – as we’ve been experiencing it anyway. Discussing it in person, we kept up a quick volley between Jason’s very reasonable frustrations with the way things are changing and my stubborn (and probably rather unreasonable) optimism in the face of it.

Without a doubt, the art market is changing to reflect the polarization of incomes in the general economy. (You know, that 99% vs. 1% thing you may have heard about.) The “mega-galleries” are expanding and squeezing out the mid-size dealers (see here or here for more on this), while artists scramble to find new ways to make a living. If you are not fortunate enough to be an artist already in the top tier, there is suddenly much less support for your career. Fewer galleries can afford to take a chance on building an artist’s career over time, especially when that artist, if successful, will most likely be jumping ship to a bigger gallery the first chance she or he gets. Meanwhile small galleries are in direct competition with each other for more and more artists, and new models of selling work – especially online – are undercutting all of them. I have certainly seen a difference in my own career, noticing that the smaller collectors (i.e. the ones who buy relatively inexpensive work like mine) are now often saving their money only for bigger names on not buying work at all, but that’s just me. However, I have had a similar discussion with other artists several times in the last few years, well before Jason and I started in on it. Fact is, it’s just tougher for the little guy.

So, what is to be done? Jason identified a couple of artists he knows who have used the so-called “social media” to sell work. One artist he knows has sold quite a few prints to universities and museums, without having any gallery representation. Another sells tons of prints directly through his own website, often quite inexpensively. But I don’t think either of these options is a viable strategy for a long career. The former has her work well-placed, but no real exhibition record or other support, while the latter must sell his work at low prices without much investment (intellectually or monetarily) from his collectors. My question to Jason was, What is your definition of Success? Simply selling more prints, no matter how or how cheaply, doesn’t seem to be the point. (At least not to me.) However, it appears there is less interest in smaller contemplative work (like mine and Jason’s) that demands a little more time, perhaps. Hell, there just isn’t “a little more time” anymore.

For me, success is about Time and Attention. That means Time to stick with a long career, developing work and ideas over many years; and enough Attention to have one’s work and ideas taken seriously, by critics, curators, collectors and the public. Yes, I want it all, but I don’t need it all from everybody. One could easily argue that I am overly tied to the old model – that uncomfortable dance between Commerce and Content that defined the “old” art world. I mean, it’s not like there were never popular artists who sold meaningless things before, nor plenty of more heady works that no one would buy, but it does seem like slowness, smallness and a meditative pace are qualities that can’t survive in this climate. There is a very strange conundrum within all this: a more Egalitarian art world – something many would agree is a good and necessary thing – seems to lead directly to cheap populism; while the old, bad Elitist model may have been the last best chance for individual content and contemplation. More artists selling more work for less money means simpler ideas and more purely decorative work – easier to like or just more “sensational” and easier to notice. This is just the math of the many: the lowest common denominator of ideas, as compared to a discrete group of works and the people who get them. Meanwhile, the frustratingly closed Ivory Towers of yesteryear at least supported some more difficult subject matter, including, at times, a real critique of the system that paradoxically supported it. One might be tempted to think that the old model is still in place, just moved up a tier. But the mega-galleries can no longer afford to have a show that is difficult or doesn’t sell, and collectors are following the money. As in Hollywood, the blockbuster movie model is at play: you spend a lot of money producing big work that gets a lot of attention to sell for a lot more money. There are no small blockbusters, so smallness is out. They can’t afford it.

My own answer is the lesson I learned as an adolescent punk rocker – “build your own scene,” as we used to say. I am going to stand by what I think is important, and do my best to proselytize where I can (especially through teaching and lecturing.) I am not going to tie my work to the economy, nor change what I make in order to sell more widgets. I don’t need the adoration of millions, nor a million dollars. At some point, perhaps I will have to let go of the dregs of the old model, but meanwhile I have the support of a few good galleries, and opportunities to talk and teach all over the country (and sometimes in others…) Still, I guess I’ll have to keep the day job. Maybe I can’t get away from Money and Objects afterall, but I can make the work my way, and show it to those who care, no matter how few or how many.

2 thoughts on “what percent work

  1. Dan – Dave Puntel forwarded your excellent short essay to me and I just dispersed it to almost 80 artists creating photo-based work here in Maine. These discussions are vital to our future and I appreciate your taking the time to put your thoughts together.

  2. Heather Fredericks, the owner of the gallery that represents my work, VoxPhotographs.com, sent this around to all her represented artists. We all need to hear this sort of heart-based thinking regarding the work we do. Of course, I studied poetry before photography and poets are only seeking the love and respect of other poets, there is no other reward; few get published, and fewer get work in academia. Fine art photographers are the poets of photography. I wish I could, but I could never shoot a wedding or a news story or any of the things that “photographers” do. I am an artist that uses the camera as my medium. I have my own vision. I will never break even. But I am so grateful for my endlessly encouraging gallery, for my few local installations and for my peers who are happy to take a deep look at my work. And thank you, Dan Estabrook, for your tender discernment. Your work is also beautiful and inspiring.

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