Ask Mark Kostabi

SELLING ART IN HARD TIMES
by Mark Kostabi
 
“Anyone who can sell a painting today deserves a gold medal.” Those were the words I heard this morning from Giuseppe Orler, my biggest client, a dealer based near Venice. With his brothers, Giuseppe owns four galleries and ordinarily sells vast quantities of art via television infomercials with call-in numbers.

But Galleria Spagnoli, headquartered in Florence, to which Orler consigns art, deserves hundreds of these medals. How so? How does Spagnoli prosper in today’s art market? Listen closely, because I’m about to tell you a tale unlike anything you’ve heard before. It all went down last week at  the Hotel Baia di Conte, a vacation resort in Alghero, Sardinia.

Renzo Spagnoli is a seasoned Italian art dealer who invented what you could call the “resort system” of selling art. He has six galleries in vacation resorts throughout Italy, and anyone who buys art from them gets invited to one of his all-expenses-paid one-week resort vacations. Skiing in the winter, beach in the summer.

During the week, which is called “Settimana dell’Arte” (“Week of Art”), in addition to offering free hotel rooms, free meals and free vacation activities, Spagnoli puts on art shows, lectures by visiting art critics (like Vittorio Sgarbi and Luca Beatrice, who have both curated the Italian Pavilion in the Venice Biennale) and auctions.

Guests aren’t obligated to buy art during the free vacation, but if they enjoy two consecutive free vacations in a row without buying anything, they won’t get invited back (unless they are normally very big spenders, in which case they may get a third free pass).

Renzo Spagnoli, via his daughter Beatrice, an athletic beauty with short hair and three tattoos (one on her neck, one on her ankle and one that I have only heard about), had been imploring me to attend their latest “Week of Art.” She claimed that if I failed to attend, the gallery would still have success selling my paintings -- but if I did attend, sales would definitely double.

Since I don’t sell directly to Spagnoli (he gets my work on consignment from Orler and other dealers), I felt no obligation to go. After many calls, however, I finally said yes when the company agreed to pay me a special cash fee upon arrival on Wednesday. Once I showed up, I only had to remind them one time about the cash-filled envelope and it appeared as well. I prefer to get the envelopes at the airport after baggage claim, or if it’s an especially fat one, after check-in at the hotel, so it can go straight into the safe in the room.

After I got the envelope the fun began. Actually, there was no work for me the first day. Just a private dinner away from the resort. They said I had to be unseen, kept away from the eager clients, until the perfectly timed, dramatic “moments of privilege.”

The first “moment of privilege” came at 2 pm on Thursday, after the gallery clients had been sufficiently spoiled with a free lunch. Four of my paintings were displayed on easels on a set with two armchairs, where an art salesperson, Veronica De Blasi, interviewed me for a one-hour “talk show” in front of about 200 attendees, all qualified art collectors.

At the end of the talk, the host and I invited the audience into the “Sala Kostabi” (Kostabi Room), where about 40 of my paintings were on display, salon style. In the Sala Kostabi I discussed several works, the ones I felt most confident analyzing.

At the end of my remarks, many of the guests wanted to talk with me and be photographed with me, which I would have been happy to do -- but I was whisked away to rest in my room, which created further demand. It was announced that “Maestro Kostabi will be available for photos and to dedicate purchased paintings on Friday at 12 noon.”

The second “moment of privilege” was scheduled for 10 pm Thursday evening. After the clients had again been sufficiently wined and dined, they were herded to an outdoor amphitheater. The show began with a video projected on two large screens flanking the stage. Galleria Spagnoli itself had produced the video last year, for a previous “Week of Art” (which I could not attend) in Tunisia.

The video was a portrait of me, primarily giving a tour of my Rome apartment and underlining key tabloid points of my career, like my designing album covers for Guns n’ Roses, having 60 solo shows in New York, being collected by major museums and directing Kostabi World, my New York studio known for its numerous painting assistants. The video also showed me playing my concert grand Hamburg Steinway, since many art dealers like to add the information that I’m also a composer. It’s all part of the “Renaissance Man” marketing angle.

After the eight-minute-long video ended, curtains majestically parted while music from my latest CD, The Spectre of Modernism, enveloped the amphitheater. Dazzling colored lights moved across the stage amid billowing smoke while a large white cut-out of one of my signature angels slowly rose upwards towards the heavens. (They don’t do this stuff at Chelsea gallery shows).

I watched the spectacle from the front row of the darkened audience. Suddenly, Beatrice, the tattooed hard-body, clutched my hand and ushered me backstage. I was told to emerge as soon as I heard my name, MARK KOSTABI, dramatically announced by Veronica De Blasi (who is, by the way, another hard-body). They told me not to trip on the cables.

After Veronica prefaced my impending emergence with an epic tabloid preamble, I heard my name, MARK KOSTABI, thundering into the packed amphitheater. Two handlers gave me a little nudge. I was careful not to trip on the cables and, feeling like it was my first David Letterman TV appearance, smilingly sauntered onstage, waved to the masses (all but invisible to me behind blinding stage lights), double-kissed Veronica, who wore a bright red dress, and slid into my armchair for interview number two of the day.

This interview had to be only 10 minutes long, however, not an hour like the 2 pm talk show, because the real event was the auction that was to follow. I focused and gave the best interview I could, especially since it was handsomely paid for and I wanted more of the love.

Whatever I said must have worked, because the audience applauded several times during the session. Suddenly it was over and I was quickly delivered to a dinner for two (me and another salesperson, who was supposed to bond with me in order to ensure his future sales credibility) at a restaurant far from the resort. The organizers didn’t want the artist -- me -- to witness the details of the actual, possibly bloody, auction.

The third “moment of privilege” occurred the next day, the moment of truth, Friday at 12 noon, as promised. I showed up five minutes early to the Sala Kostabi, which was empty of people though two stacks of about 20 of my paintings, in gold Baroque frames and tagged with Post-It notes, were leaning on the walls.

“Wow! They sold all these last night?” I unspooled my China Marker to prepare to write the personal dedications on the backs of the canvases. Suddenly the room filled with the clients who had bought the works, appearing like angels. I patiently dedicated each painting to each collector, explained the ideas behind the works, posed for the photos you’re seeing alongside this Artnet Magazine article and asked each collector where he or she lived. Torino, Torino, Milano, Palermo, Roma, Roma, Roma, Roma, Roma, etc. I live in Rome and show in Rome but most of my Roman collectors buy my work from other places.

This story illustrates a basic truth about selling art in a shrunken economic climate: It’s all about events and preparation. That’s why you still hear about success at art auctions and art fairs, which involve theatrical selling, while the picture for regular gallery sales (and in Italy even TV sales) is bleak.

What’s more, events are not enough. To sell art now, you need high quality work. (Sorry for using this cliché. Everyone says that quality is the key to success in tough times, and while it’s not the only necessary ingredient, it is important.)

For anyone who thinks my success is primarily due to hype and theater, I wish it were that easy. Most people agree that the quality of my work ranges from genius to slightly less than genius (except for Donald Kuspit, who has said it’s all worse than bad).

The collectors at the resort in Sardinia were very careful to choose the best paintings, the ones that could be sold in flush times in a matter of seconds by anyone. They enjoyed the party, had an art experience they can remember all their lives, got a good deal, and are now enjoying the new paintings in their collections.


MARK KOSTABI is an artist and composer who lives in Rome and New York. He produces and stars in The Kostabi Show, a television game show. Please send responses and questions to askmarkkostabi@yahoo.com