Friday, August 26, 2016

The Demise of the Art Supply Store

I had an interesting visitor in the gallery today - a sales rep who sells frames and artists' materials to stores nationwide. We had a long talk reminiscing about the good old days when art supply stores were plentiful and stocked with real artists' supplies.
When I first began painting (back in the Stone Age), New York City seemed to have art supply stores everywhere you looked, and they were fully stocked with materials for every type of art - fine, commercial and graphic. Arthur Brown, Pearl Paint, Sam Flax and Freidman's had at least one location in the city, but typically many more. It seemed there was a Sam Flax on every corner. These stores were geared more towards commercial art. This was because all the advertising agencies and publishers needed stores close enough to be able to deliver art supplies in a timely manner - sometimes the same day. Archaic items like rubber cement, layout pads, pencils, colored markers and storyboards, which have become obsolete in the age of computers, were all standard fare back then. If an office ran out of something it wasn't a problem because you just went down to the local branch on your lunch hour and charged it to your corporate account. There were specialty stores too, like Joseph Torch, on 14th Street and Eighth Avenue where you could look through shelves loaded with fabulous handmade papers - sumptuous watercolor and pastel papers from France and Italy, drawing pads and watercolor blocks of Fabriano and D'Arches. All of this was standard fare - no special order was required. Imagine that if you can!
For everything else, there was Arthur Brown in midtown. A large, fully stocked art supply store, it was the place to go for the finest quality sable watercolor brushes, oil paints, pens, printing inks and sculpting materials. The prices were a bit steep, but if you needed something that wasn't quite mainstream, this was the place to go. I don't remember when Pearl Paints actually showed up on my radar. I seem to remember they sold house paint or something, and it wasn't the giant art supply warehouse it later became.
When they closed its doors on Canal Street a few years ago, it sounded the death knell for quality art supply stores everywhere. Even though I live within commuting distance of New York City, there is no longer a retail store devoted exclusively to art supplies. With all the mergers and closings, such as Utrecth and Dick Blick, these stores have become mega stores that substitute vast quantities of pseudo-art supplies for quality artists materials. They cater to no one. One size fits all. The only drawing paper you can find is Canson pastel paper in a limited number of colors, and even if you find a suitable color, the sheet will invariably have a dent or crease in it from someone carelessly putting it back into the poorly designed wire display shelf.
I detest the craft stores that have monopolized the market. A. C. Moore (which I consider to be the best of the lot, although by no means a suitable substitute), Michael's and the new kid on the strip mall block, Hobby Lobby, seem to have thousands of items I will never use, and nothing I actually need. There isn't a store in existence in New Jersey where I can just walk in and buy something as simple as a Robert Simmons Filbert bristle brush.
Try getting a roll of primed or unprimed linen canvas, or a bottle of turpentine, let alone a particular kind of brush. Or a stretcher that isn't an even size. It's not that the store is temporarily out of stock; they don't carry odd sized stretchers because there's not enough of a demand for them. A 15" stretcher requires a frame with a 15" measurement somewhere in its configuration, which doesn't exist in their tidy little world of standard sizes. And yet, you'll find row after row of mirrors, candles, furniture, millions of different markers, beads, popsicle sticks, rubber stamps and ready made frames. Heaven help you if you need a frame other than a 8" x 10", 11" x 14" or 16" x 20". At one time you could purchase wood or metal frame sections in any size and assemble it at home. Although they were all very basic, they served in a pinch. Not anymore. They're long gone. Your only option is to order a custom frame. All custom frame orders in these places are horribly overpriced (even after the automatic 50% discount they give on every order), the people aren't very knowledgeable, and it takes many weeks to make just one frame. This is not the type of service any serious artist can or should tolerate. Maybe it's fine if you're framing a print to go over the sofa, but an artist doing an exhibition with upwards of a dozen paintings to frame in a hurry? Never.

When I lived in New York City, things were simple and uncomplicated. When I moved out to the suburbs, I became aware of how limited the access was just by virtue of the fact that I was "no longer in Kansas anymore, Toto," but the problem was still manageable. Whenever I couldn't make it to Pearl Paints on Canal Street, I'd drive to the one in Woodbridge, NJ. Not the same company, or so they insisted, but they had the same name, same logo and most, if not all, the same inventory. It was a good alternative to driving into the city. When they closed, I discovered the Utrecht Outlet in Cranbury, NJ. They had a fabulous warehouse sale once a year, where they pretty much gave the stuff away. I bought things like sculpting, woodcutting and etching tools, with the idea of using them someday. (I haven't used any of them to date!) But the deals were so fantastic, I couldn't pass them up. One year I came away with two gigantic rolls of primed Belgium linen canvas, and a carton of four  48" x 60" gallery wrapped canvases for less than the cost of one roll of linen.
It's not the bargains I miss so much as the assortment and variety of the materials available. What do art students, amateurs and even professionals do nowadays? I'm constantly amazed by the lack of knowledge of the sales clerks in these stores, and the tacit acceptance of these stores by the people who frequent them as the go-to place to buy their art supplies. I'm often asked about materials when I'm shopping. My advice is invariably more helpful than the employees'. After all, most have never used any of the supplies they sell. What a difference this is compared to the employees at Pearl Paints, where the employees were sometimes more knowledgeable than college professors about the materials they were selling.
Art has always been on shaky footing when it comes to choosing a career. How many of you were told by your parents, "That's fine dear, but how are you going to make a living?" Or asked, "When are you going to get a real job?" Fortunately, I never got that from my parents. I was encouraged to pursue the career I seemed to want even as a young child.
I was informed by the visitor in the gallery that the last bastion of this old world order, New York Central Supply, down on the lower East Side is also closing its doors forever. What a shame!
So the odds are definitely stacked against young artists these days, as it becomes harder and harder to obtain the basic materials needed to paint and draw. There are many teachers and schools that still teach classical methods, such as Juliette Aristides in Seattle, Washington. She has written two excellent books, "Classical Drawing Atelier" and "Classical Painting Atelier". One must be very determined to become a classically trained fine artist these days. The rewards of an artist's life, however, are definitely worth the effort.


  1. This is a very vivid and accurate expression of the art supply world over the last 10 years. The only thing I can add is materials or product will need exposure for quality. If the dumbing down of art materials continues. People will never experience quality product to continue working with throughout their careers. I will add that Artist & Craftsman stores have kept this in mind and are a source for prime materials and advice. The store atmosphere is bohemian and suited to technical discussion of product.

    1. Hi Rock:
      I'm not sure what you mean by the last two sentences. Do you mean the Arts & Craft store are the place to get advice for using the materials they sell? My complaint is that they're not very helpful and are geared toward hobbyists as opposed to serious artists. Sounds a bit snobby, I know, but there is a difference, and I don't understand why these giant stores can't cater to both customers.