Despite all the wild money flying around the art world right now, with collectors and dealers aggressively raiding the art schools looking for the next big thing and with so many new artists casually joining the million-dollar-per-painting club at auction, there are still lots and lots of artists who are not invited to the party. What are they doing wrong and what are the winners doing right?
Art World Observer
One very common mistake that emerging artists make is overpricing their work. While it is true that some emerging artists can successfully command five-figure prices at their debut shows, especially if they're in hot trendy galleries with lots of buzz, this tends to be exception, not the rule. Sometimes to make millions you might have to sell works for as low as $100 each at the beginning -- just to get a real business going.
Some emerging artists see John Currin paintings go for a million and figure, "Hey, I'm just as good -- I should get at least $20,000 for mine," and then they get depressed when nothing sells at their debut show, except the one small painting in the back room that Uncle John mercifully bought for $2,500.
Basquiat and Warhol both sold their work at extremely low prices at the early stages of their careers. One of the artists in "Greater New York," who was featured in New York Magazine as one of the ten artists most likely to succeed, sold a painting a few years ago to a friend of a friend of mine for $100.
I, Mark Kostabi, am a famous artist. I make millions. But I frequently see debut shows of unknown artists with prices that are double of mine. With a lot of effort they might even sell some work. But what they're really doing is barely getting by and helping me sell 1,000 paintings a year effortlessly, because they make my paintings look like such a bargain. Thank you to all the egotistical art students!
I have learned from your past columns that it's better to sell art in bulk to European dealers, and get paid up front, than to play the unfortunately obligatory nightmare consignment games that American dealers play. So I now routinely sell 20 or 30 paintings at a time to European dealers and get a nice check or a stack of cash. However, I've discovered new games, like every time dealers visit -- they want bigger discounts, and since they have the power to hand me wads of cash up front, they seem to feel comfortable insulting the quality of my work and they badmouth my other dealers. How should I deal with this?
Rich but Irritated Artist
Dear RBI Artist,
It's an old trick. Second-generation European dealers are taught by their fathers, who founded the family gallery, never to praise an artist's work too much directly to the artist. They beat you down a little, and will do anything to rattle your self-confidence so you'll feel grateful for their "support" while they're really tricking you for a bigger discount.
Sometimes they'll say, "I like most of these except these three, but I'll take them all if you give me a special price." Or you may hear,"Look at this auction catalogue -- your paintings are being sold at Luigi's Auction House for one fourth of the retail prices! How can you expect me to compete with these low public prices? You have to give me a much bigger discount and promise not to sell to Edoardo anymore because he's the one dumping your paintings to Luigi's auction. Obviously you've been giving Edoardo a better discount than me and I refuse to be insulted. I'm a serious dealer with a serious gallery and I can't afford to compete with these low level people. I don't sell carpets."
This kind of abusive and manipulative talk is usually accompanied by the explicit sight of five separate thick stacks of cash, each with a double rubber band around it, or ten slightly smaller stacks of newly minted cash fresh from the bank, with the tight little paper strap holding the crisp bills snug. So it all gets complicated.
The trick is to not lose your cool. Don't get into an argument. The dealer is usually bluffing. Just smile and say that you appreciate the information and advice but you simply can't adjust your price any further.
Another strategy is to tell the dealer before the appointment that you don't want to discuss the price in person -- that everything should be clear on the phone before he comes to the studio, and that the appointment should just be a selection process, and be reserved only for pleasant art talk.
Occasionally, a dealer will get mad and actually walk out without buying anything. This can feel uncomfortable, but look at it this way: rejection is God's protection. For every ten hustlers there's one decent person out there, and it's worth it to search for the saints.
Years ago I showed with Leo Castelli. I have enough money from other sources to be comfortable, but for decades my work has been out of the loop. I'm having trouble getting people in the new art world to visit my studio. It seems like dealers today are only interested in art students. What do I need to do?
Feeling Older and Irrelevant
Jerry Saltz and Roberta Smith have both recently written about the current phenomenon of art students showing in serious Chelsea galleries. Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times that "art in Chelsea sometimes looks like student work, because it is." Jerry Saltz wrote in the Village Voice that "these days it's not unusual for grad students to fret if a dealer hasn't picked them up yet, or for people still in school to already be making tens of thousands of dollars off their work while their critic-teacher is making next to nothing. Not long ago, in a group crit at Hunter, I was blathering to a student about how his work was skillful but kitschy. Throughout, he maintained a benevolent grin. The next day I learned that he had just signed with Leo Koenig and that Larry Gagosian wanted to buy a batch of his paintings."
The artist Saltz was referring to is named Tom Sanford. Gagosian didn't actually buy the batch of paintings, at least not to Sanford's knowledge, who says that since his production is not vast, he can keep track of where his paintings end up. But Sanford did sign with Koenig and will have a one person show there in December. Sanford is a student at Hunter College, where I encountered the influential collector Norman Dubrow at a recent open studios event, praising Sanford, with typical Dubrow exuberance, as the most promising student.
Perhaps Jules de Balincourt, another current student at Hunter who's already had two sold out shows at Zach Feuer Gallery, was already old news. Kravets/Wehby Gallery shows four Hunter students: Sidney Chastain-Chapman, Andy Cross, Ezra Johnson and Aya Uekawa. Lyons Weir shows one: Justin Allen. That's a total of seven art students from just one art school showing at legitimate New York galleries, a list that I was able to compile simply from casual conversations. My guess is that it's just the tip of the iceberg of the new movement we could call art studentism. (I want credit for coining the term here.)
When I told the great painter Enzo Cucchi about this historically unprecedented phenomenon, he laughed and said soon dealers will be showing artists that are still in the womb. I met Tom Sanford at the Tim Lokiec (pronounced "lock-itch") opening at Zach Feuer recently and he said that Norman Dubrow was instrumental in getting him into the Leo Koenig Gallery. Sanford also said that he likes my Artnet Magazine column and that he's been lobbying to have me speak at Hunter.
These are all the right things to say to win me over, but I would have praised his interesting paintings anyway. They marry an Old Master painterly esthetic to current pop cultural imagery, with earnest well-wrought brushwork. I especially like his DEFosition and The Entombment. With all due respect to Jerry Saltz, I'd say the work was about kitsch, rather than being itself kitschy. I kind of consider Tom Sanford an art star already, so it was really surreal that after we said goodbye, I heard him say to another person at the opening, Sapna Shah, an art consultant who happens to also be a Hunter art history student, "See you in class."
My advice to you, Feeling Older and Irrelevant, is to temporarily stop trying to get people to visit your studio. You're the one who should be visiting studios. Show some interest in the current scene. It's no coincidence that Chuck Close, an artist of your generation, is one of the top-selling artists at auction and he hangs out with and makes portraits of people like Inka Essenhigh and Cecily Brown. He stays in touch and obviously expresses a great interest in current young art. Maybe Chuck Close will paint Tom Sanford next, while you organize a brunch in your comfy 6,000-square-foot SoHo loft and hope that Lawrence Weiner shows up. I say get back in the trench.
I look at the catalog raisonns of artists like Picasso and Warhol
and feel bewildered by the amount of work that they were able to turn
out during their careers. Do you believe that a strongly disciplined
routine is important? Or is it inspiration from experiences that is more
Out of routine comes inspiration. Michael Kimmelman recently wrote a great article about Chris Ofili and routines for the New York Times, where he relates the way that artists as diverse as Twyla Tharp, Chopin, Beethoven, Morandi, Chuck Close, On Kawara, Philip Pearlstein, Philip Guston and Eric Satie all had specific routines that nurtured their greatness. You can read it here.
Since I make and sell 1,000 paintings a year, I routinely sell 83.3 paintings a month. Out of this selling routine I find great Zen-like inspiration.
I am a successful photographer. A gallery wants me to replace one of its customer's prints. This is a gallery I don't remember working with, but their customer has one of my prints and needs to replace it because of damage. I was thinking of doing it if they sent back the original, so that it could be "remanufactured" with the same edition number. If it costs me $250 to get a print made, and they sell in galleries for $17,500 (retail), how much should I charge? $500? $1,000? More?
Phil in the Flash
As a painter who has signed many editions of serigraphs (not photographs), I have worked with publishers who regularly produce un-numbered "replacement prints" in advance for just this kind of thing. For your question concerning photography, I called Toby Jurovics, the director of exhibitions at the prestigious Howard Greenberg Gallery. He explained that it would not be unreasonable for you to make a replacement print for the damaged original as long as the original was destroyed.
He also advised you to indicate in writing on the back of the print that the new work is an authorized replacement print by the artist. Obviously this will reduce the value a bit. But Toby also said that you have every right to say the print is irreplaceable, and that you can charge any amount you want for the replacement print.
In the end, for your situation, Toby felt that if you were to charge a modest price to cover the cost of reprinting, framing, shipping and your time, it would be a very reasonable solution. He also said there is a well-established practice in the world of color photography for artists to replace an original print that has faded after 10 or 15 years, for only the expense of printing, because the fading of color photography is a result of the inherent vice of the medium, and not the fault of either the artist or the collector.
Your question raises issues about the ambiguities and artificialities of the print and multiples market. Some artists think of their artworks almost as their children, to the point where it breaks their heart to part with the work. If your adopted daughter was in a serious car accident, would you be content to send back part of her to the adoption agency's clone lab to get her remanufactured with the same edition number?
When Charles Saatchi's maid unplugged the refrigerator, causing Marc Quinn's famous sculpture -- the self-portrait head made of his own frozen blood -- to melt away, the artist refused to make a replacement blood head, saying the artwork was gone forever. On the other hand, one could say that a replacement print is just another degree of restoration, not unlike all the Old Master paintings that we love even though we are only looking at only a fragment of the original work.
I went to an artist's studio yesterday and he invited me to be in a show with him (he's looking to find a museum to show our work together). His work is substantially different from mine but has similar themes. He's a naïve artist in many respects but his work is selling like hotcakes, and while many in the art community disdain him, I think his work is appealing. Is there a downside to showing with an artist who's getting buzz but is taking critical flok from inside the industry?
Dear L.A. Artist,
What you see is where you see it. Perception is reality. You are judged by who you're with. That said, in the long run you will benefit much more if you endure the temporary snubs and jabs and stand up for who you believe in. If you sincerely like his work and if he's a nice person who would also stand up for you, then start your own scene. There's nothing like a point of view. Confidence and decisiveness will conquer wishy-washiness.
I am about to have my first show in a serious gallery. Can you give me some advice on how to talk to collectors at my opening? Do collectors of famous artists expect a different discourse than collectors of emerging artists? I'm concerned about saying the right things.
Artist on the Verge
Whether a collector is talking with an emerging or famous artist, he or she basically wants to feel good about him- or herself, the artist and the art they're considering buying. While I was an emerging artist, I was not consciously concerned about "saying the right things" to collectors. I was more focused on selling myself to dealers and assumed that they would take care of the collectors, which is pretty much what happened.
I just used common sense during the relatively few times that I met my collectors. I tried to be nice and appreciative. In retrospect I can see how it would have been even better to think the way you're thinking now -- to consider every possible angle to help sell the work, which I now do. Even though I became extra famous (or maybe notorious) for jokingly insulting my collectors in the media, I am now an expert (relative to most artists) in dealing with collectors. I feel I can sell my work to anyone, if not in five minutes, then six. Even though my attitude might seem manipulative, the most important thing is to be 100 percent sincere. I really believe in my work and in no way think I'm taking advantage of anyone. I feel generous when selling my art.
The important thing is to have tremendous confidence while being simultaneously pleasant and flexible. Collectors are usually thrilled to have a five-minute conversation with an artist they admire. One of my standard, sincere lines is "What's your favorite painting in the show?" followed up by "Why?" This usually leads to interesting, mutually beneficial conversation. Every picture has a story, and if you can tell a short, memorable one about a painting, it usually helps sell the work.
I often ask, "Where are you from?" and after they've agreed to buy a painting I'll usually ask, "Where will this painting be hung?" and "What other artists do you collect?" I often ask the collector(s) (they often come as a couple) if they'd like me to write a dedication to them on the back of the painting. Usually they're thrilled and say yes and I'll unpocket my China marker and write on the back of the canvas, "For Mario and Teresa, Mark Kostabi," and add the date and name of city where the show is. Often someone has a camera nearby and I always agree to pose with the clients for a photo, either holding or standing near their acquisition.
The most important thing is simply to be nice and appreciative and at the same time give them the hint that you're a winner so they believe they've made a good investment. It's simple common sense but you wouldn't believe the amount of artists that botch everything and ruin sales by saying all the wrong things to potential clients. The worst thing you can do is to have an arrogant, know-it-all attitude or say things with the demeanor of "I don't need to explain my work -- it speaks for itself." Best is to share your enthusiasm with the collector's enthusiasm for the work, and discover things together.
I'm a big fan of your work, including your articles in Artnet Magazine. But it's been over a year since you've published anything new. Are you going to write any more "Ask Mark Kostabi" columns? Is there anything in particular that has contributed to the delay?
I have given so much advice that I thought, in order to stay fresh, that I should wait a while to accumulate new experiences. Plus, I've been busy with my TV show, Inside Kostabi: Name That Painting, a game show where art critics compete to title my paintings for cash awards. You can see it every Wednesday night at 9:30 in Manhattan on Time Warner Cable, Channel 34 or on RCN, Channel 107, or globally on the Internet at mnn.org, Channel 34, on Wednesday nights at 9:30, New York time.
I will write the column more frequently now. Thanks to everyone who has communicated their appreciation of it over the last year. Readers are encouraged to submit questions to email@example.com.
MARK KOSTABI is an artist who lives in Rome and New York. His next New York exhibition will be at the Adam Baumgold Gallery in the forthcoming art season.