Monday, March 10, 2008

The Lazy Artist and the Puritans

The heights by great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight
But they, while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In recent weeks, we advertised our services as an artist’s representative, or artist’s agent, or artist’s manager. In one day alone, we were bowled over when we received over 75 inquiries from as far north as Connecticut to as far south as Miami. All artists of different walks of life seeking representation! Great, here's a big need.

One might think this was a huge success for an agent, but because our business structure is a bit unconventional for the arts world (we charge on a flat fee per hour basis), we had to turn down several artists who could or would only work on spec. We never take commission off the artists work - we simply don't believe in it being artists ourselves.

Let me take you back a step. Shauna Lee Lange Arts Advisory has been seeking to position itself as the premier art acquisition specialists in the mid-Atlantic corridor. We want to place fine, important, and exciting works of art in homes, the places you work and play, and in corporate enterprises. And in the commercial development world, when you need to fill 40 – 60,000 square feet, that’s a LOT of art.

Our hope is to turn finance people, development people, commercial real estate agents and others in this specialized market from strictly business to quintessential art connoisseurs rather than modified interior decorators. And to do that, we need to be able to show the commercially savvy images of art works they may not have ever seen before. We need to emote them into becoming collectors and more importantly, turning them into advocates for the arts.

That’s an incredible amount of effort, gathering up a stable of individual, attitude-less, talented artists with unique voices and I don’t mind sharing that we’re working literally around the clock to do it well and do it correctly. Of the 75 artists who responded that one day, we found a few sad truisms which we hope to offer to all aspiring artists who wonder why oh why aren't my works selling?

Here’s the example of one respondent, the “exceptionally talented artist” who’s looking for gallery and personal representation (but only in Chelsea). When artists limit the scope of their exposure, they limit their possibilities. Or take the girl who, "only wants to paint all day long." Well, gee, me too, and when we win the lotto, then that's what you'll find us doing.

The truth is, painting or drawing all day simply isn't real world for the working adult artist with responsibilities, a sense of community, or a desire to help teach what they know. For instance, here’s another example of an artist who steadfastly and quite pointedly informed us that she was “mid-career” and not an “emerging artist.”

In our view, art is always emerging because our focus, our eye, our interpretation changes as we age and grow. However, it is important to know the difference between an agent, consultant, and representative and to know whether you want someone to advise you on your art career or someone to help you market specific works. So fine, be mid-career. Is that helping you place your works with people who love them any better?

And to a degree, it’s understandable why artists find it difficult to find the right agent. We had another fellow tell us within five minutes in the telephone conversation that, “I get easily discouraged and I haven’t produced a new work in at least three years.” He didn’t need an agent, he needed a counselor!

It’s important for the artist and the agent to clarify vocabulary at the onset of the conversation. The role of the artist agent, representative, manager, or consultant is just like everything else in the art world, it’s changing and changing more rapidly than most of us can understand.

We recently had the opportunity to purchase a variety of art books at a local fundraiser for about $1.00 each. One of the jewels in our catch is now an out of print 1977 publication, “Art America: A Resource Manual,” by Philip Cecchettini and Don Whittemore. And it's funny how one isolated event directly impacts another totally unrelated one. In our discouragement (yes, agents can get discouraged, too) I read:

The Puritan colonists of New England certainly laughed more than we think they did, but probably less than they might have, had they not been so anxious to work and prosper in the eyes of God and man. Their frugality, expressed in the proverb, 'waste not precious time,' has permanently marked the American character. Still, they appreciated the colorful artifacts which help make life pleasant and this interest, however slight, brought American artists their first patrons.

Wait, their hard work and their interest brought sales? So here’s what you pay your artist rep to do. To work on your behalf. And whether that’s through commission or flat rate, it doesn’t necessarily matter as much as the most important key ingredient in this partnership effort. The artist agent’s efforts will only manifest themselves (given that you have a good agent) directly in proportion to the effort YOU as the artist extended, extend, and will extend in the future.

Take for example, the case of the young man who emphatically told us his works “would not sell in DC. No gallery will pick me up.” To which we asked, well what have you done to show your works in different locales? The answer, “nothing.” Everyone needs a boost, and sometimes we all could use a kick in the pants, but by Golly George, you’ve got to get out there and try.

And we know it can get frustrating, and we know you want to wake at 2pm, go to an opening, and maybe pick up some charcoal around 3am, but until your works are selling in excess of $25,000 or more and you’re selling 4 or more works a year, odds are, YOU are going to have to keep that day job. And if you're so lucky to be able to MARKET YOURSELF during the day because you don't have to do the traditional 9 - 5, all the better, but you have got to be your own best voice.

So how do you paint and market at the same time? You hire an agent who will work with you to achieve your goals, you schedule yourself like there's no tomorrow, you read and research, you talk to others, and you look at calls for submissions. Prepare. Invest in yourself as your greatest gift to yourself. And work and produce and persevere and keep a great attitude.

The same authored work gives us another example in John Frederick Kensett who came to painting by way of the engraver’s craft. “In the summer he traveled, sketched and socialized; in winter he painted larger pictures based on sketches, attended to business matters and socialized.” In the middle of the late nineteenth century, artists considered themselves respectable businessmen, and like a good businessman Kensett kept in touch with his clients. He worked often and hard. After his death, over 600 works remained in his studio.

What are you doing as an artist/business person today, how many works are sitting and collecting dust, how do you picture yourself working with an agent who has your best interests at heart, how do you picture yourself?