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The NEW Art World (Let’s Face It)

07/01/2015 03:08PM ● By Cristi Smith

It’s no longer arriving…it’s here.  If you’ve been hiding behind your easel, gallery door or mindset wondering how or when things are going to get back to “normal”, you’ll be waiting awhile.  This is the new normal.  It’s time to step out of the shadows and embrace the changes within our industry that are ushering in new ways of doing business at every level.  

Historically, the art industry has had a tendency to cling to tradition rather than ratify technological or philosophical evolutions.  Whether it’s music, photography, books or movies, each of these creative industries is usually dragged, kicking and screaming, from traditional methods toward modern business practices that are now considered standard. The Internet has provided more opportunities for art exposure than ever in history. Concurretly, print-making and publishing have radically evolved.  Some people in our industry have mixed and passionate feelings about that.  There are those who believe that they have lost control while others have found the changes both to be valuable and liberating.  Is anyone right or wrong?  I'd like to examine that in this two-part series.  

Not too long ago, photography had it’s own metamorphosis. Technology caused legions of traditional photographers and art departments stay in their darkrooms and pooh-pooh the rising digital age as something less noble than their craft.   Today there aren’t many of them left (old school photographers or darkrooms), and even in the most prestigious photography circles, digital is the new standard.  It’s progress.  We don’t drive on wooden wagon wheels anymore, either. 

Before the photography revolution, the graphic arts were squaring off between drawing tables and desktop publishing.  In the 80’s, when I began my career in advertising, there weren’t too many graphic artists who embraced the idea of creating art or design on a computer.  Many typesetters and design artists stubbornly held onto their Exacto-knives and rule tape while claiming “integrity” against those who did.  When’s the last time you heard of a job opening for a typesetter?       

It seems a little pointless now, doesn’t it? 

An example in our own industry happened when Ford and I entered the visual arts 14 years ago.  We didn’t know much about the art business, but we knew we had great paintings.  We were sternly advised by a number of artists and galleries that giclees were the devil and that once an artist makes a print, he’s selling out. 

Okay, really.  In the most literal sense, could someone please explain to me why an artist selling out is a bad thing?  Or if you licensed an image, you’ve “gone commercial”, among a host of other dire warnings from self-proclaimed “real artists” or professionals.    

The interesting thing about these “If you...” admonitions is that none of them were proven to be true.  Not a single one. 

They didn’t make sense to us.  There are universal and unshakeable marketing principles that we decided to employ and we’re grateful that we did.  If you translate just two of these myths into logical, free market thinking, they go something like this: 

Myth #1:  Printing giclees is “selling out”. 

You’d think it would be obvious, but it should be repeated that fine art prints are affirmation that the artist’s work is sought-after and there are large numbers of people willing to buy a print just to live with the imagery.  Until you’ve sold a print for thousands of dollars, don’t knock it.  It’s a tremendous honor for any artist. 

Furthermore, giclees serve to liberate artists and expand creative freedom.  With giclee print-on-demand technology, there isn’t a large, upfront printing investment like there was in the “old days” of lithographs and serigraphs.   Therefore, no one is “owned” by a publisher who invested thousands of dollars to print the entire edition at once and therefore has the artist under strict contract obligations. 

Not to mention that “misses” no longer gather dust over the years.  If an edition doesn’t sell, you haven’t got 295 more of them in storage somewhere. 

The more prints that are on the market and in collector’s homes, the more exposure an artist has and isn’t exposure the most critical marketing goal of any artist?  It’s a big world out there. What you see every day as an industry insider is not what the general public sees.  When you make the art available for viewing, there are people every day experiencing it for the first time.  I can’t begin to tell you how many original paintings and limited editions we’ve sold through galleries because someone spied a print on the open market. 

Myth #2:  Licensing an image means you’ve “gone commercial”. 

Let’s get literal again.  For an artist who wants to make a living in the art world, I can’t imagine a better description for success.  If you look up the word “commercial”, it is defined as profit making, monetary, or supplying, among other positive financial terms. 

Licensing can serve to open up markets and exposure you could hardly achieve on your own.  It’s usually not a big moneymaker for the artist, but it’s a valid marketing tool if employed, and ought to be respected. 

We used licensing as a way to brand Ford’s distinctive style of landscapes to his name.  It was a marketing strategy that brought immediate, global recognition and also served as de facto copyright protection, which has come in handy over the years.   Artists who can prove that their intellectual property was publicized and exposed first have an easier time shutting down would-be infringers.   

Further on the subject of “going commercial”, one might consider that the Beatles had every intention to play “commercially”--with as many owners of their recordings (aka: prints) as possible.  Their immense popularity didn’t make their music any less noteworthy or their live concerts less attended.  People know the difference. 

Books are a similar example.  People who own an original manuscript from a well-known author understand the value of that acquisition versus the reader who picked up a paperback copy of the same book.  How fulfilling for the author to know that so many people have enjoyed the story.    

How would you estimate the value of an original manuscript of a story that was never published at all?  Pursuant to that line of thinking, imagine a writer penning an entire book for one person to enjoy.  It seems ridiculous.  Why are there people in the art profession who believe it’s perfectly acceptable for an artist to be kept “hidden” from a wider audience?  It makes you wonder why. 

You could imagine that there was some professorial swami in a high, holy art land declaring these arbitrary—and often illogical--commandments that artists must subscribe to lest they be considered (gasp!) a sellout. 

There are philosophical differences in the art world and not everyone is going to agree on the journey an artist, gallery or publisher chooses.  The Internet has created new opportunities for exposure that are changing everything about how we conduct our business. It’s exciting to consider how to harness the power of it, and trails are being blazed every day.  Those pioneers should not only be observed, they should be applauded.   

While the art world has played by a labyrinth of unwritten rules for decades, many of them may not be relevant for marketing to today’s art buyer.  Therefore, Part Two of this series will focus on the direct impact of technology and social media on today’s art professionals and consumers.

Guest Post by Cristi Smith at Ford Smith Fine Art
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