Painting By Numbers
The Internet is revolutionizing the business of art.
Thursday, April 1, 1999
Climbingthe narrow corridor that leads up to artist Kevin Cromartie''s tiny attic workspace in his Pacific Grove home, one envisages a starving artist, slaving away in the cramped isolation of his garret room; rejected by the art establishment, he struggles to win recognition in the face of public indifference.
Looks can be deceiving, however.
In the case of Cromartie, what appears to be a self-imposed prison is, in fact, a kind of command center where Cromartie, with the help of a computer and his own Website, has built a very successful business promoting and selling his artwork to a worldwide audience.
For many local artists like Cromartie, as well as many top Monterey area galleries, the Internet is revolutionizing the business side of art--creating new and unimagined opportunities to sell work, develop an audience base, and, for younger artists in particular, establish an identity free from the constraints of mainstream gallery representation.
"If I were [a young artist] and I had the opportunity and access to a computer, the Internet is a credible way to do it," says Cromartie, who closed three of his local retail gallery spaces in order to concentrate full-time on selling his work on the Internet.
"It''s an amazing, cost-effective tool for marketing your work worldwide, and does free up your time to do more art," adds Cromartie. "You can reach a huge amount of people for a nominal fee, and it''s better than paying a gallery 50 percent."
For as many opportunities as the Internet creates for artists and galleries, it also poses many challenges that promise to redefine the relationship between the artist, buyer and gallery. Although it isn''t fully clear how it will ultimately affect the art world, the Internet promises to reshape the primacy of the art gallery as the essential link between artist and buyer, theoretically putting the artist in direct competition with the art galleries.
"I''m an evangelist about the Internet, but I can easily imagine other gallery owners who might object because of the traditional ways of doing business," says Robert DeFord of the Martin LaBorde Gallery. "You need to break the rules in terms of the rigid traditional relationships artists have with galleries. I would want my artist to have a higher profile and encourage the artist to market himself. I don''t see a conflict in my personal philosophy short of the artist opening their own gallery."
"I do think [the Internet] is changing the way certain people do business, and that will raise a lot of contractual issues and could undermine galleries," agrees Chris Winfield, owner of the Winfield Gallery in Carmel.
"For example, if I''m doing the front line work, maintaining the [gallery] space, paying insurance and promoting an artist so someone could see the work, I would be angry if I found out that a customer saw an image at my gallery and then went on the web and found another gallery that undercut me. Things like that could come up."
The degree to which local artists and galleries are jumping on the Internet bandwagon, or sticking with the traditional approaches to marketing art, is being determined partly by the type of art being promoted, as well as the type of customers targeted by galleries and artists.
"I''m looking into [my own Website] and have registered a few domain names," says Steve Hauk, owner of Hauk Fine Arts in PG, who is contemplating starting his own Website. "You won''t find people buying $50,000 paintings on the Internet, but the upside is a lot of collectors looking for paintings are more mechanically sophisticated, and if you have a client in New York or Kentucky and they trust you and your taste, if they see a painting over the Internet you say you think they''ll like, they will take it on approval, and that can save time."
Part of what concerns artists and galleries regarding the value of the Internet as a marketing tool is how well the particular work of art translates on screen. In addition, to those for whom art is a genuine passion, the Internet can seem alienating and antiseptic.
"I think [the Internet] is going to be the future, but right now it''s financially more rewarding for certain types of galleries," says Winfield. "No one has to explain what a photo looks like, but unless you know what an artist''s style looks like, you won''t know how it translates. It''s a visual concern, but I do think the Internet provides an advantage to people who know an artist''s work. It''s a way for people to track down and research an artist and who handles the work."
"It is hard to get a feel for a painting over the Internet, and I know people who have been hurt on that," agrees Hauk. "To me a virtual gallery is not very interesting or passionate. I like people walking in and reacting to a painting, even if they react badly."
For Hauk and other gallery owners, one definite upside to the Internet, at least from the artists'' perspective, is the opportunities it can create for artists, who, because of intense competition, can''t secure direct representation from a gallery.
"We get a good artist every week coming in here [we can''t represent], but it''s not an issue of talent," says Hauk. "One great thing about the Internet is maybe it will be more of an outlet for artists who have no other place for their work to go."
Just how profound an impact the Internet is having on the art world isn''t lost on Zantman Gallery president Steven Huish, who says his gallery''s presence on the Internet has boosted Zantman''s worldwide presence, both in positive and negative ways.
"The most positive thing is getting our name out worldwide," says Huish. "The only downside is our visibility is out there now, and we''re getting unnecessary e-mail from every artist and his brother who wants to show. A lot of artists are contacting us from all over the world."
Despite the deluge of inquiries, Huish nevertheless says that the Internet may make it possible for Zantman to take on more artists by representing them exclusively on the Internet.
For more established artists, one of the blessings of the Internet is its usefulness in generating commission work.
At Carmel''s Loran Speck Gallery, associate Paul Franklin says the Internet has been indispensable in allowing Speck, noted for his vivid, beautifully rendered still lifes, to increase sales of commissioned work.
"Where the Internet has been functional is as an excellent tool for working up compositions," explains Franklin. "The Internet shows the quality of Loran''s work and stimulates the creative imagination. A customer can dial up the Website and, in vivid, beautiful colors survey Loran''s past and present work, and pull up items to create their own composition. When you go to a Website and see the expert design of the Website and the vivid colors that are created, that brings home that the artist is solid, real, updated and current."
Although no one is willing to predict that the Internet will render traditional art galleries obsolete, they do concede that the dynamic between artist and gallery is undergoing rapid transformation. Given the subjective and transitory nature of what qualifies as "fine art," however, it is likely that artists will continue to seek gallery representation for the cachet and validation such representation confers.
As Carmel artist Paxton Mobley, who has his own Website and is represented by the Martin LaBorde Gallery notes, "It adds clout saying you''re represented by a Carmel gallery."