|Magazine Home | News | Features | Reviews | Books | People | Horoscope|
|Ask Mark Kostabi
by Mark Kostabi
Now that so many dot-coms have become dot-bombs, are you still optimistic about selling art through the Internet? Or will you soon go back to kissing up to dealers?
A Dark Voice from the Past
Dear Dark Voice from the Past,
It's not a question of optimism or cynicism. I'll just give you the facts: Because I've been selling my work through a combination of my own website, eBay, Artnet.com and Sothebys.com, I've been able to purchase a 3,000-square-foot apartment in Rome with 15-foot-high ceilings and huge windows overlooking a lush park -- without a mortgage. I could not have done this during my years as a slave to the old gallery system. I am expecting the Christmas rush of e-bidders to afford me a nice new crib in the Big Apple as well.
This is nasty. Not only does the magazine want payment for the "review" but they also want you to be their unpaid ad salesperson. However, the only reason you shouldn't do it is because their style is too blunt and unrefined. The New York Times and all the prestigious art magazines basically do the same thing: Bigger advertisers get bigger and better reviews (with a few pans thrown in just to maintain the illusion of objectivity).
In the United States if an art magazine blatantly asks an artist to help pay for a review it's a dead giveaway that they are novices without much circulation. In Italy the big magazines can get away with the direct approach because the Italians have so much style and the offers are always accompanied with the finest pasta, artichokes or mozzarella di bufala. Plus they're not so crass to ask the artist for cash directly. They love art -- they want paintings.
I recently gave five paintings to a major Italian art magazine for a cover story. In the interview, which I had total control in writing, I specifically praised my favorite Italian dealers. After publication all the dealers came ringing the bell at my Camio de' Fiori studio and cheerfully bought twice as many paintings than usual. Afterwards I paid for the pasta.
A bigger problem for some artist friends of mine has been when their beloved old art dealer suddenly leaves town in the middle of the night with all their work and all their money, leaving them holding the bag for their bad debts and shipping expenses.
I was wondering, has this happened to you and, if so, what did you do about it? And, lastly, if all else fails, what is the best method for extracting revenge and spoiling the lives and happiness of your enemies for generations? How about some practical Kostabi pointers for beginners? Truman Capote said "Anybody who says they haven't fantasized about murder is a God Damn liar. What's the next best thing?
artist and host
The Douglas Kelley Show
Some dealers are known thieves but they stay in business due to their charm. The art world values charm so highly that it automatically closes an eye when new evidence of misdeeds is introduced regarding a charming dealer. Or maybe it's that most everyone's a crook and when one gets caught -- instead of saying "good riddance" -- the art world emits a sigh of collective sympathy for one of its own.
I've been ripped off by dealers many times -- but not anymore. I learned years ago not to rely on even the most prestigious dealers.
The most common violation to artists is "the nightmare of consignment."
Basically, many dealers bite off more than they can chew and get into debt. They foolishly believe that it's okay to pay the artist last and use the artist's money to pay the rent, which allows them to "keep the gallery open" and get into further debt. It would be more intelligent to pay the artist first (that's where the collector would want the money to go when an artwork is purchased) and if they don't have enough left to pay the rent: close the gallery and start over with a more sober plan.
For artists, the best way to avoid getting ripped off by dealers is to stay in touch with other artists about who's trustworthy. I do this frequently. For example, a dealer recently asked me to do a special project, gratis, and mentioned the name of several other established artists who had participated in the past. Two of them happened to be my friends who I immediately called for advice. One said the dealer was a "jerk" the other said "megalomaniac." Guess what. No special project. Cash and carry only.
In the beginning however, it's hard to demand full payment up front, and most of us are obliged to play the consignment game for a while. When you do get ripped off (and you will), call the dealer's mother to complain. This usually embarrasses the misbehaving merchant to cough up the cash.
Frequently dealers will sell your consigned work and not tell you until you ask for the work back and when you do you might hear them say that they are "very close to closing a deal on the pieces" and they only "need a few more weeks." In one instance this went on with me for years until finally I ran out of patience and sternly demanded the return of the works, at which point the dealer told me how embarrassed and sorry he was for "misinforming me" because he had sold the works years ago and not told me or paid me. Now I call his father every two weeks and get occasional little payments toward the debt.
Besides the thought of spending my hard earned money taking some vermin out to lunch makes my stomach churn. I looked up some of the artists that you mentioned and to be honest I did not care for their artwork so I can not imagine being fake and saying how wonderful they are.
Monthly I sell about $5,000 worth of art via the net and do have a instantly recognizable style. What advice would you give me in terms of "making it big" in the art world. I also have an online gallery.
I would also like information on applying for a museum show. How does one go about it?
Your family would probably be proud of you if you fully embraced and realized your dreams, even if it meant that you had to leave for New York frequently during the peak moments of the art season (October, November, March, April and May).
It's true that there are "vermin" in New York, as there probably are where you live too. Just try to keep a positive attitude and watch where you step. Go out to lunch with the many decent people and the artists whom you sincerely admire in New York. If you don't like those whom I praise -- choose your own favorites. Surely you don't think that you're superior to all New York artists.
It's impressive that you sell $5,000 worth of your art every month through the Internet. You are another example of the potential for independence from the old system for all artists.
As for getting museum shows, from my experience it's similar to getting gallery shows: social interaction and follow-up correspondence with curators.
My friend is a moralist. I'm in business and I don't see one thing wrong with this. He sent it express mail to MOCA and someone signed for it but Penza never acknowledged he received it, and it was never returned, either. We decided to let you be the final arbiter on this matter.
This cute little manipulation is a bit cheesy. Don't do it. Just because someone doesn't return an unsolicited gift doesn't mean they want to own it. I get lots of unsolicited stuff sent to me without a S.A.S.E. and frequently it ends up in the "help yourself" box or in that cylindrical container under my desk.
But your letter does raise an interesting point about "padding" one's resume. There's a wonderful moment in one of my favorite movies, Ed Wood, when the optimistic auteur's first film gets totally panned by the critics except for one tiny little phrase which said the costumes were good. Ed enthusiastically focuses only on this one glimmer of positivity and gloriously blows it up in the promotional advertising. I totally approve. Enthusiastic advertising is one thing -- false advertising is another.
I have a client who is all about hype. Every so often he shows up with an attaché case full of cash, which he uses to buy a hundred paintings or so. He also likes to show off his press kit. Years ago the New York Times featured him for one of his novel marketing ideas. The AP picked up the story and it ended up in newspapers throughout the country. So his press kit is almost a half-inch thick even though it's all basically the same article appearing in different newspapers.
Upon closer inspection I discovered that halfway through the stack was the exact same New York Times piece, with the same date, and then all the exact same articles followed. He was banking on the fact that many people don't bother reading for detail and padding and are impressed by size alone. I don't approve. It's good to portray yourself in the best possible light -- just don't lie or mislead.
We all know that the big apple has some maggots. That's one reason why I spend half my time in Rome, where I brew my own cup and create that magic moment. But I couldn't have done it so easily without first devouring the Big Apple.
Your image of Ansel Adams as a nonsocial, lone visionary in Yosemite is not accurate. He worked as a commercial photographer for 30 years and found plenty of time to schmooze with Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O'Keeffe, President Ford and President Reagan, in urban centers like New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.
Although I do plan on selling artwork on the internet, I'm also hoping for gallery representation. What sort of contracts should I avoid? And also, does, by signing a contract, prohibit an artist from selling work on eBay? Or does that just depend on the type of contract? Thanks for kicking ass.
Ultimately the kind of contracts you want go kind of like this: "You give me the money. I give you the art." Usually, the longer the contract, the greater the headaches for the artist. The only galleries who have long written contracts are the amateur ones who don't get it, or the hugely commercial art expo type galleries that want to lock the artist into a lifelong master-slave relationship. Leo Castelli, widely considered one of the best dealers of all time, never had written contracts with his artists. He had the confidence to say: " If Jasper Johns isn't happy with me -- I'd rather he go someplace else."
Since I started selling my work on eBay and Artnet, ironically, despite the apparent conflict of interest, my relationships with dealers have only improved -- perhaps because now I have the confidence to say "no" to the dealers who give me stress. A few dealers have dropped out of the Kostabi army on the grounds that I'm underselling them -- but I keep recruiting more and more, new and better ones.
The whiners fall by the wayside while the winners buy with an eye for quality, knowing that their works are one-of-a-kind originals, available only from them -- no matter what pops up in an online auction.
Beware of the self-serving dealers who wrongly advise you that if you make too much work and show in too many places you'll spread yourself thin and flood the market.
Even the celebrated, anti-establishment art critic Dave Hickey, in his much ballyhooed book, Air Guitar, misguidingly proclaims: "As any dealer will tell you, it is perfectly possible for any artist with decent work habits to produce more work in three or four years than there are buyers worldwide who might possibly acquire them, ever. The pool of probable purchasers is even tinier."
Well that's just baloney. There are millions of people out there eager to part with their money for good art. If you don't take their money, someone else will.
I'm self-taught, producing for about three years now. I have sold quite a bit -- in shops and small galleries, privately, and at local shows. "Unique" is the comment I most often hear, with the follow-up question, "How do you do this?"
Now, this relative of mine has switched from the plain pottery bowls and jugs she had been making for years and is making pottery plates, decorating them with my painting technique and design patterns, and displaying them as I do, on stands. We are both just starting out, doing local art shows.
Last year, before this relative started copying my work, we both exhibited at the same show -- I, my plates -- the relative, her bowls and jugs. I sold several pieces at that show and my relative sold none. I think that may be the motivation for her imitating my work -- that, and she really likes it.
I'm just sick about this. And angry. The whole experience has somehow sullied the joy I have found in my work. What can I do?
Get a mutual friend to trick the relative into hiring Jeff Koons' lawyer. Then aggressively sue for copyright infringement. The lawyer will passionately defend the copycat in the name of artists' rights. The judge won't like the arrogance and will rule in your favor.
D. James Dee -- just one of the big time snappers.
Dear D. James Dee,
You are a good, highly respected art-documentation photographer. I remember hiring you many times in the mid-'80s and paying your high fees, for which I got high-quality work. After a while, as I got more prolific, I couldn't justify paying you $35 each for a 4 by 5 transparency. (Now you charge $55.) So I bought my own camera and taught myself how to use polarizing filters and how to do it myself. My photos were just as good as yours and I saved a lot of money.
Recently my in-house art documentation photographer, who is just as good as you and was making $12 an hour, asked for a raise -- to $15 an hour. I said no. He quit. Then suddenly I needed 150 paintings photographed in a crunch, before an urgent shipment to Italy. I needed four 4 by 5s and six 35 mm slides each of all 150 paintings.
My brother, Paul Kostabi, who helps me run my studio, rolled up his sleeves, got out the old black film-changing bag (with two sets of zippers), cranked up Madonna's new album and did the job himself in two days. The photos came out just as good as yours. Could you have done it in two days? According to your current price list you would have charged $21,600 (unless you charge more for rush jobs -- which is another reason artists should learn how to do it themselves). It cost me a total of $3,700 (including film, developing and shooting time). I paid one sixth of what you would have charged.
If I only wanted one of each -- I would pay less than one tenth of your price. It costs well under $5 each to create a good 4 by 5 but you charge $55. I'm not trying to put you out of business -- I'm trying to put artists in business. The only reason you got away with charging so much in the past was that Mark Kostabi wasn't here yet to shine the Tota-light of simplicity on the truth: Art documentation photography is production work. Once you've taken your light reading it's a simple, repetitive process, like working a Xerox machine.
Eager to schmooze
Visit dks.thing.net. The artist Douglas Kelley maintains a pretty good list of the best openings.
MARK KOSTABI is an artist who lives and works in New York and Rome. His next show in New York will be in December at the Roger Smith Gallery at 47th Street and Lexington Avenue. Readers are invited to email questions to: