You are one of the relatively few artists in the world who, year after year, consistently makes lots of money selling your art. And you also seem to have a great time doing it. What are the absolute, most important principles that you use for your ongoing success?
Dear Let's Cut the B.S.,
The best new customer is the repeat customer. If someone is a good customer (and in my case it's mostly dealers who buy paintings in quantities of 10 to 100 at a time), I do everything possible to keep that customer coming back. I give them many copies of my many self-published books. I offer to dedicate the books to their best clients, in large, joyous, celebratory letters, with China Marker: "FOR GIUSEPPE AND ROSY, WITH MUCH LOVE, MARK KOSTABI."
I tell them if they can't sell certain paintings, I will be happy to trade them in for credit towards others. I publish my dealers' names and phone numbers in art magazine ads. Most galleries take out ads listing the dozen-or-so artists they represent. I take out ads listing the dozen-or-so galleries that represent me. I still live by the Kostabism from 1984: "A dealer should not have a stable of artists; an artist should have a stable of dealers."
Okay, lets cover some other important principles. I make genuinely desirable work. I know it's desirable because I constantly ask for feedback, both casually (from my friends and studio visitors) and formally (by conducting official surveys, via e-mail) to find out which are the most successful paintings. And I use that feedback to inform my next brushstroke. People really want my paintings in their homes.
Also, I make oil paintings on canvas. I don't mess around selling color photos guaranteed to soon fade, or black-and-white photos that can be instantaneously mass-produced and all have the same surface. Granted, there's a lot of money in photography, but Richard Prince's recent $1,248,000 auction record for a photo is still a small fraction of the price for the most expensive painting: $104,000,000 for a Picasso. My Conceptual Art is embedded into the weave of tough cloth wrapped around sturdy stretchers, signed on the front and back and protected by an authoritative frame.
Now let me repeat something very important. I make genuinely desirable work. I listen to my audience. I don't pander to them but I am in dialogue with them. I can sell a painting with an anti-gun theme to an NRA member, or an anti-smoking painting to a devout smoker, not because they agree with my message, but because they understand it. There's dialogue. Dialogue sells. Too much art just hangs on the wall. Stimulate thought and you'll be bought.
Since I make genuinely desirable work, and I stay in touch with and help my best repeat clients in many different ways, my only problem now is how to fend off the endless requests to buy my work, do shows, give lectures and interviews, and so on. My biggest problem is how to satisfy the constantly growing demand for my work. You might think I'm joking or bragging (and I probably am bragging), but it's a real problem! I can't go anywhere without selling a painting.
For example, I recently went to art dealer Molly Barnes' annual Christmas party at her home in Beverly Hills. Molly is a repeat customer, and I wanted to give her a painting as a present. However, knowing full well what it's like to get an artwork as a gift that someone else chose for you, I brought her a selection of 10 works to choose one from. Molly asked several friends and family members to help her with her selection. Before I knew it, I was hosting an impromptu show-and-tell in the living room, spreading paintings all over the carpet, and within seconds Molly's friend, Rosemary, bought one.Dear Mark,
I have shown in many galleries over the years. It seems like after one or two shows at such-and-such's gallery, sales of my work slow down and I end up moving to another gallery. It seems like the dealers have initial enthusiasm for my work, but after a few seasons they move on to their next new artist.
People do not do what you expect -- they do what you inspect. I've had this problem myself. Often dealers have a group of core collectors, who are in fact repeat clients of the gallery, but not of the artists. They get excited about you at your first show and maybe your second, but then they're ready for the new flavor, and so is the dealer. If you don't make yourself the anchor artist of the gallery, like Roy Lichtenstein was for Leo Castelli, you might get dropped, or worse, become the victim of benign neglect and end up with a teaching job -- with nothing to teach!
Without making a pest of yourself, you have to visit your gallery regularly to make sure it often has a piece of yours hanging in the back room, whether or not you have a show up out front. Every time you visit, bring some good news, so your dealer always associates you with success and positive energy. Never complain. Bring in your latest clipping or a new catalogue of your work published in a foreign country, or business cards of people you met at a party who expressed interest in your work. Suggest that the gallery follow up, or at least add them to their mailing list. Or bring in an actual breathing collector who might be doing the gallery crawl with you that Saturday.
Once again, even if you're in the right, never complain. Whiners are not winners. You want to be associated with positive feelings. About 90 percent of people are complainers. They play the blame game. I've been tempted myself. It's easy to be the victim and blame others -- it almost feels good, like many unhealthy addictions. Some people even get paid to complain (like a few readable but crabby art critics who come to mind, though they don't get paid much). Don't fall into this trap. When someone starts complaining, guide the conversation in a positive direction.
Make a list of the positive things in your life that make existence wonderful. When you feel like complaining, think about that list and think about the most effective behavior. Complaining is a turn-off and usually just makes the problem worse. Complaining will get a crying baby a bottle from mama, but not a show at MoMA.Dear Mark,
Last year I visited Kostabi World. Initially I felt a bit accosted. Your absence from the studio was exhibited through your art. I thought of you as your own self-proclaimed prophecy. Your popularity seemed to stem directly from your self-adoration. Perhaps I was just a young idealist, but it seemed almost sacrilegious to have such a production line. I felt offended and I couldn't help but think of that scene from Hannah and Her Sisters when Max Von Sydow said, "I do not sell my paintings by the yard."
After my first visit to your studio, I had a number experiences that altered my outlook. I met with Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the Metropolitan Museum for a private lecture. This was prior to the actual construction of The Gates. When speaking to Jeanne-Claude, I asked her about conceptual artwork and its relevance to their project. Much in her style, she snapped, "Christo and I, we do not make Conceptual Art, you can see it -- it is there!"
I remained extremely skeptical of her sincerity and involvement. After all, Christo handles the art and she the money. After waiting in Central Park at 6 am to see the first gate unveil, I understood its beauty. I realized that art and money will inevitably collide, but never really unite. I believe art's worth is measured in its vision.
Last winter I also visited the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea to see Damien Hirst's "The Illusive Truth." I was thrilled to see his work as a painter; and after viewing the exhibition I was content. But soon I learned he did little of the painting. I felt like the attraction of his art was snatched from me. He was noted for saying, "If architects don't build their own buildings, why should I paint my own paintings?" But why did I feel so betrayed? Rubens often did only the finishing bits of his work, but that didn't alienate his audience.
Last summer I took my first trip outside of the states. I am a serious artist and art history student, but I'm only 17. I had won a travel grant, and I decided to travel to Spoleto. I arrived the day after the festival ended. The town was rather empty but everywhere I looked I saw signs and posters advertising an exhibition you were having at a gallery there. I never thought that one visit to your studio would stick with me as much as it did.
After all this, I have learned that you do indeed have your own vision. I recently had an interview at Barnard, and the interviewer asked me what I thought constituted a masterpiece. I told her that I thought that every culture gets the art it deserves. Caravaggio is no greater than Picasso. I believe that a masterpiece transcends art by affecting all people. I talked a bit about Abstract Expressionism and universal beauty. But I'm curious of what you think.
I will continue to explore the fine line between artisan and artist. Although I am still unsure of the style of your work, I would really like to thank you for making me stop, reflect, imagine and feel.
Your letter inspires me to be more ambitious. I'm flattered that you've written about me in the context of Christo, Hirst, Picasso, Caravaggio and Rubens. And I'm happy you were reminded of me in Spoleto with my posters on all those gorgeous Italian street corners. I am sorry that I was absent from Kostabi World when you visited. I am impressed by the intelligence of your letter, and your statement, "Every culture gets the art it deserves."
You've helped me realize my cultural responsibility, so I'm really trying to improve my work, even though improving it is not necessary to keep selling it, because it seems already perfect for our culture as is. But your idealism, and your passion for reflection, feeling and universal beauty has inspired me to raise my standards.
Yours is the kind of probing, enthusiastic energy that I seek in selecting jury members to participate on my television game show, Name That Painting, where acclaimed art critics compete to title my paintings for cash awards. You can see it in Manhattan every Wednesday night at 8:30 on Channel 56. If you would like to be on the jury, judging the wordsmithery of New York's top art critics, please contact me at email@example.com.Dear Mark,
I've got a dealer from Chelsea coming for a studio visit next week. This is the first dealer I've had in my studio. I'll clean, have a few refreshments. Any other suggestions?
Well, don't talk the dealer's ear off. It's considered overbearing and a turn-off. Make sure he or she is listening and definitely wants to hear your explanations. If the dealer starts talking, let him or her finish before responding. On the other hand, you shouldn't be wordless either. Let them discover things and then you reinforce their discovery. Dear Mark,
I realize that the New York art world is a young person's game and accept the fact that they will probably make a lot more money a lot faster than I ever will. But here's my question. I'm in my 50s and couldn't devote much time to painting until four years ago. My work is good and should be out there for people to see (and buy) but I don't have time to connect and paint, so I just paint. I really want to support myself through my work and not have to hold a day job. All I ever wanted to be is an artist, now I'm starting to panic. Any suggestions?
The New York art world is not a "young person's game." On the contrary, unlike in sports, rock music and modeling, the older you get, the more dignity, credibility and value you have. Potentially. That is if you don't screw it up like you're doing here by playing the blame game, here blaming your age as an excuse for failure. The dealers who have the most money and power are not 20-somethings: Larry Gagosian, Marian Goodman, Barbara Gladstone. Ditto the artists: Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter, Louise Bourgeois.
If all you ever wanted to be is be an artist, go right ahead. But realize that almost all the art historical giants managed to "connect," too. Picasso had a telephone. Photographer Baird Jones told me that Louise Bourgeois often called him to get copies of the photos he took of her posing with Andy Warhol. She knew the publicity value of such photos. And one of Baird's photos of Louise and Andy together was recently published in a Sotheby's auction catalogue, used to illustrate Louise's art historical "connection," importance and hence market value.
Art is your day job. Making those calls, going to those openings, are just as important as washing your brushes, buying your supplies and deciding which shade of Gamboge you slather over that half dry and bumpy coat of Payne's gray you so lovingly smeared onto the burlap in the wee hours last night.Dear Mark,
I am a former studio painter of yours. I made the difficult and possibly foolish but nevertheless necessary decision to leave New York and move back upstate in order to help my family and find myself again. I am now living in Buffalo, where I have developed a few series of paintings. I have done well in shows and sales in the smaller galleries here and would like to start approaching larger galleries in New York and Toronto to show there. Could you give me some advice?
Thank you for the experience and great memories in New York. I hope to be able to move back soon.
The key to your success lies in your closing sentence: "I hope to be able to move back soon." It's tough enough getting a New York gallery to show your work even if you live in New York full time. You're making it ten times harder by living in Buffalo. When Picasso wanted to make it in the art world, he didn't stay in Malaga, where he was born. He went to the center of the art world -- Paris -- like most every other artist who made a living selling their wares.
If your family's survival depends on you living in Buffalo, then do so, but plan on being in New York at least one month every spring and one month every fall, and go to as many art openings as possible, armed with your business cards, which should have your website address. How to behave at these openings is well covered in my previous columns, which you can find here.Dear Mark,
I would like to hear your take on something that recently happened to me. I am a painter living in Indianapolis and was contacted via email by a gallery in Chelsea, which asked me to send it slides of my work to be considered for inclusion in its "family of artists." Shortly after I in the mail received a follow-up letter and application form. I smelled a marketing campaign but was curious to see what would happen.
I sent my materials and soon received a letter of acceptance along with a contract. Here's the deal: For $1,650 annually, the gallery guarantees me one exhibition a year on a 10 x 10 foot wall space in their gallery, inclusion in an annual group show and a page on the gallery website. The gallery takes 40 percent on any sales.
The following week I got a phone call from the gallery owner. I was surprised. She was initially very friendly. But then I started asking questions like, "Where did you see my paintings? How long has the gallery been open? How long has she been representing artists?"
She seemed annoyed, cut off the conversation, told me to let her know if I was interested and hung up. Three days later my slides appeared in the mailbox. I didn't even get the time offered to make a decision. So, I ask you, what kind of gallery is this in the New York art scene? Is this a kind of "rental gallery"? Are these galleries considered legitimate? What's the deal? Thanks for your time. I have enjoyed reading your column.
The art market has become so hot that now there's room for all sorts of opportunistic scams to lure the naive. If your work is genuinely desirable, you won't need to feed these cockroaches. At least they returned your slides. Now use them properly. Slides are not used to submit your work. Use yourself, socially. First sell yourself, as an interesting, agreeable person, at art functions, with the goal of getting dealers and other artists you admire to visit your studio. Slides are for your archives, for eventual magazine and book publication, or to give your dealer after you already have a working relationship. Dear Mark,
I am a sculptor living in New York and have an unusual background. "Unusual" meaning that I didn't go to grad school. And without the proper connections in the art world, I have struggled. I missed out on the opportunity to benefit from the practice of "art studentism," as you call it.
But lately I have been invited to better and better shows and seemed to be on the verge of something, and I thought the pain was over. My good friend, who is a pretty successful artist, "confessed" to me she really thinks everyone thinks an artist with no MFA on the bio looks sloppy. I would love to go to grad school but I can't afford it. Is there no other way?
Sometimes I wonder if I had gone to grad school, would I now have billions, instead of mere millions, in the bank? But then I remember that I'm often asked to lecture to grad students, so in a way I am in grad school. I'm definitely not against formal education -- I went to art school and loved it, but I didn't get any kind of degree, except a high school diploma. I was taught, at Cal State Fullerton in 1980, that a degree didn't matter to make it in the art world. So before finishing college, I left California and enrolled in the New York art world, which was like going back to high school, with all its cliques and social games about whom you're seen with and what dinners and parties you're invited to.
But that was then and this is now. Except for occasional reverent musings about guru John Baldessari at Cal Arts, few people in the 1980s ever talked about the importance of art school or which school you went to. That was contrary to the opulent '80s party mood. To put the words "Basquiat" and "Yale" in the same sentence would have been like writing gibberish in two completely different languages.
Today, however, I'd say that you should arm yourself with anything you can to make you, your art and your resume as impressive as possible. The climate has changed. Collectors and dealers now respond to words like "Yale," "Columbia" and "Hunter." But it's not mandatory. Ultimately collectors are not hanging your diploma. It's true we all know that John Currin went to Yale, but how many people can tell you what school Picasso, de Chirico or Caravaggio went to?
Artists are ultimately remembered for their original artistic achievement, not for the prestige of their degree. Art Studentism really isn't the only way to enter the art market. Since you're already in shows and can't afford grad school, focus on those shows. Build on those relationships and the successes you already have. Talk to the people who are already supporting your art and let them know you'd like to work together to amplify the business -- but not just for you -- help them succeed with your work too.Dear Mark,
When I discovered your "Ask Mark Kostabi" archive on Artnet, I devoured all your columns in one sitting. They're so helpful and encouraging. I was lucky enough to meet you at Mark Tansey's opening at Gagosian Gallery a while back. It was a pleasure to talk with you. Now I'd like to ask just one question: I'm showing some art at the Scope Art Fair. This is my first time exhibiting work and I want to make a good impression. I also want to sell some pieces. Is professional framing absolutely necessary? Or is it okay for me to sandwich the drawings between archival board and Plexiglas? Framing is out of my budget, but I could put it on my credit card. Plexiglas is cheap and easy to do at home. I hear from some people that frames make the work more salable, but from others that buyers like to use their own frames. What do you think?
What you see is where you see it. A frame gives a painting context, just as a gallery or museum does. Because of the casual, fresh, avant-garde atmosphere at the Scope Art Fair, people don't necessarily expect to see formally framed works, unlike say at the Art Dealers Association of America's Art Show uptown. In general, but with notable exceptions, dealers have found that it's more effective to offer works to collectors framed, knowing full well that collectors often request frame changes. Frames depend on your frame of mind.
For 25 years I've been going to the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I had never noticed until a few months ago, when Italian art dealer Ermanno Orler pointed out to me, that the equally valued Picassos, van Goghs and Cézannes at the Modern and Met are framed completely differently. The Met's masterpieces have ornate, hand-carved $300,000 frames, while the Modern has very high quality, simple but relatively less expensive frames.
As an artist, you might want to consider making your own custom frames. Many works are valued specifically for their "artist's frames" -- which require just a little carpentering and maybe some handicraft and some paint. Of course, some do tend to fall apart over time, as Curt Marcus once said about Mark Innerst's beautifully crafted but perhaps too delicate handmade frames. But many others have stood the test of time, like the hand-painted frames by Georges Seurat and Giacomo Balla, or the beautiful and eccentric ceramic frames by Enzo Cucchi, who sometimes only frames a corner of his painting. And then there's nothing like relishing the spiritual integrity of a vintage Abstract Expressionist painting in a simple, no-budget, wood strip frame, with its barely noticeable but obligatory scuffs, dings and nicks and its slightly off corner joints, and one nail sticking out just a little bit.Mark,
Would it be fair to call you a Salvador Dalí rip-off, a self-aggrandizing artist whose worth is more in marketing and self-promotion than it is on the quality of your assistant-executed neo-neosurrealist art?
I appreciate your negative energy but it would not be fair to call me that, although I am truly touched and warmed that you do at least consider me an artist, even if it's a low quality one. Ex-art dealer Nico Smith once told me, sitting at a weathered wooden table at the Pink Pony on Ludlow Street late one night, that I wasn't even an artist -- just a businessman. That really hurt.
I have in fact been inspired by Dalí, but only in a small fraction of the 15,000 paintings I've made so far. I did a series of Dalí-inspired paintings recently, all published in a book called Omaggio a Dalí. You can get it on eBay by searching for "Kostabi." Gee, maybe I am a marketer and self-promoter. It just comes naturally to me. Marketing and painting are the left and right foot of walking.Dear Mark,
I'm about to have my first opening. Any advice on how to look like a winner? Expensive clothes?
I recommend Prada, Issey Miyake, Calvin Klein, Armani or Comme de Garcons. I would look for a salesperson who you get a good feeling from and ask him or her to recommend a whole outfit. Tell the salesperson that you are an artist and need to look good for the opening of your exhibition. Of course you have to like the clothes, too, and it's extremely important that they fit perfectly.
Whenever I go to an opening in Brooklyn, I'm always amazed to see artists at their openings dressed to look pretentiously unpretentious, as casual as possible, always with a beer in hand. And I think about how elegantly dressed artists like Picasso, Duchamp, Basquiat, Barnett Newman and others that we all admire were. Collectors want to see their artists dressed for success. Even Caravaggio wore the finest black velvet clothes, although they say he wore them till they were rags. But he didn't wear jeans and sneakers, with beer in hand, to the unveiling of The Calling of Saint Matthew at San Luigi dei Francesi in Rome.Dear Mark,
I've taken your advice and gone to lots of art openings, with my business cards that have my website address on it. I've traded many business cards with all kinds of people and many of them have enthusiastically said, "Let's get together." The problem is, not one person has followed up by calling me, not even the ones who said they would. Do I have to make all the calls?
Yes. No one ever calls you. Unless you're Saint Matthew. All you can hope for is that they will respond when you call them. We animals, after we leave the protection of our mothers, have to hunt for our food. We have to go out and make the moves. In 1986 I called Jean-Michel Basquiat and asked him if I could visit his studio. Even though I already knew him from many art openings, he responded by saying, "That's very aggressive," but said okay.
During my two-hour studio visit, while his maid washed dishes, he talked with me in between spurts of painting, giving instructions to his painting assistant and receiving numerous phone calls from pursuing women, calls that caused him to roll his eyes. He told me that he never called anyone -- they always called him -- implying maybe that he was too good, too big a star, to reduce himself to the groveling gesture of reaching out.
But there was a famous moment when Basquiat reached out, of course -- to Andy Warhol, when Basquiat went to show him his early Xerox art pieces at a restaurant, a scene nicely depicted in Julian Schnabel's excellent movie. It's true that Basquiat's phone rang a lot, but it's because he made himself attractive by calling the world with his fascinating art and by deliberately associating with the likes of Warhol, other celebrities and powerful dealers.
I don't mean to put Basquiat down. He was a great artist and could be a nice guy, but he definitely made some calls, like all successful people. Donald Trump is known for personally calling Page Six or Cindy Adams when he wants to place a gossip item. So if your phone is ringing off the hook, it's really people returning your calls. They're responding to your initial gesture of reaching out. Only a fool is too cool for school.
So you've collected a thousand business cards and given out a thousand, and no one's called you. This is a blessing in disguise. No one is hunting you. Now you can peacefully sit down with a cup of tea, flip through your business card collection and choose whom to phone up. The caller is in the driver's seat.Dear Mark,
You are an artist who has collaborated with many other artists. Why? And how much does it contribute to your career success?
The impulse began when I was in art school, as I learned about the Surrealists' celebrated "Exquisite Corpse" drawings. At the time, my primary medium was drawing. I produced them feverishly, in quantity, as I still do. The informality and immediacy of my drawings naturally led to dialogue and the collaborative spirit. "You start one and I'll finish it and I'll start one and you finish it." The practice, with all its surprises, energy and experimentation, mutually expanded our creative universes.
I naturally continued collaborating while navigating the international art world. By now the list of artists with whom I've made significant collaborations can't be counted on two hands: Arman, Enrico Baj, Enzo Cucchi, Ronnie Cutrone, Crash, Daze, Howard Finster, LA II, Rick Prol, Paul Kostabi, Milan Kunc and Tadanoori Yokoo. I plan on publishing a book devoted solely to my collaborations. The artistic benefits are meaningful and substantial. Visual artists who collaborate usually don't do it for the money. In fact, many experienced dealers will tell you that collaborations in general are a hard sell. My biggest dealer/client won't touch them with a ten-foot pole. Even if he likes the work, as soon as he hears the word "collaboration," or "quattro mani" (meaning done with four hands, in Italian), he says "pass."
Many dealers are unethically re-writing history when they selfishly mis-represent collaborations by Keith Haring and LA II as being only by Haring, because they're more salable that way. The career plus in collaborating lies in potential publicity. The Warhol-Basquiat collaborations were the talk of the town when first unveiled in the mid-'80s. People still remember that painters Georg Dokoupil and Walter Dahn joined forces in the early '80s, too. Lucio Fontana, Enrico Baj and Piero Manzoni made some three-way collaborations decades ago that people still talk about, at least in Italy. And who doesn't love the fountains done in collaboration by Niki de Saint Phalle and Jean Tinguely?
Another career benefit to artists who collaborate is that their show will have two mailing lists -- "My collectors, who maybe won't buy collaborations, will at least be introduced to your work, and your collectors, who maybe won't buy collaborations, will be introduced to mine." It's a mutual endorsement. I believe that eventually collectors will value collaborations as much as works by single artists. It's just a matter of education and destroying the unhealthy myth and marketing strategy of the artist as lone visionary genius. In the end, all acts are acts of collaboration.
Thank you for collaborating with me by reading this column. You can continue collaborating by sending feedback and/or a question to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you do as you have always done, you will be what you have always been. But, at the beginning, middle and end of the day, photography and painting and toothpaste and smoke, you and I, are all the same things: elements morphing.
Readers are encouraged to e-mail questions to email@example.com
MARK KOSTABI is an artist and composer who lives and works in Rome and New York. His television game show, Name That Painting, can be seen in Manhattan every Wednesday night at 8:30 on Channel 56 on Time Warner cable, or Channel 108 at RCN, or on the internet on Wednesday nights at 8:30 pm (New York time) at www.mnn.org, channel 56. His next New York painting exhibition will be at the Adam Baumgold Gallery in May of 2006.