Friday, September 9, 2016
Should You Discount Your Work?
I'm back from my summer in Saratoga Springs, NY, after spending a week in Colorado with our son, who's out there studying mechanical engineering. Colorado is breathtakingly beautiful. I'd love to spend some time out there painting the mountains and skies. The lack of oxygen at that altitude though is alarming. I'm in decent physical shape, but hiking up the mountains was difficult because I couldn't breathe. It's a little frightening at first, but in moderation, you can acclimate yourself to go a little farther each day. Someone told me taking aspirin also helps because it thins your blood. Hopefully I'll be able to spend more time out there in the future, and make it all the way to the top of Horsetooth. It's a funny looking rock, and is the iconic landmark associated with the college town of Fort Collins. I love the name. Sort of like when I had a doctor named Dr. Withers. Hee haw!
The thing that really struck me on this visit was the lack of overweight people living in Fort Collins. Everyone seems to be on a health kick out there - even pregnant women were climbing up the mountain like goats! Lots of health food stores, restaurants and juice bars. Cars equipped with bike racks, kayaks, fishing and camping gear, tons of half ton pickups, RVs and campers going up or down the mountains to get to that favored camping/fishing spot for Labor Day. Bikers were everywhere, cycling up impossibly steep roads, undaunted by the summer heat or slope of the mountains. They take their fitness very seriously out there. I go to the gym three times a week and walk a lot, but those people take it to a whole other level. Pun intended.
The instant I set foot on the ground back in New York (Newark, actually) I was shocked to see how many people still smoke on the East Coast! I went outside the terminal to look for the shuttle and the smoke was so thick it smelled like the inside of a bar! EVERYBODY was puffing away on cigarettes, e-cigs and cigars. Nobody in Colorado smokes - at least not tobacco anyway! I couldn't help but notice all the smoke because I'd been in that clear mountain air for a week. Although I don't take my personal fitness to quite the same level as Coloradoans do, I think people would be a lot healthier on the East Coast if they just gave up their ciggies.
But let me get back to the Saratoga saga and my success, or lack thereof, with the gallery. I'd say all in all, it was a successful venture, but I'm not sure I'll be doing it again next year. The amount of work involved is staggering. I'm getting too old to do this myself or even with the help of my husband. Hiring people to set up the gallery is expensive and a bit frustrating. I had to design the layout of the gallery on the fly because the walls were so heavy that once you put two of them together there was no moving them. I actually had to figure out how a thousand square feet of space would flow from a small piece of scrap paper with X's and squares on it. Once the walls were set up (with the help of two hired hands), it was a simple matter of deciding where every painting would hang and every sculpture would go. Only kidding! It's never a simple matter; it requires a lot of thought and planning. It takes a few days to hang even a small show like mine. Then we had to hang the lights to properly light the paintings. I installed some extra fixtures myself after the gallery was set up, because it was essential that people could see the paintings properly. The space was always evolving too. A friend gave me some extra print racks, so I had to improvise a way of displaying them so people could browse through them all. Finally, I had to print and cut out labels, order posters, and hang up my shingle announcing I was open for business.
Traffic was spotty at best. People staying at the hotel seemed to be in a hurry - checking in or out, going to or from the track, going to the pool or parking garage, going out to dinner, or coming back from dinner too inebriated to look at paintings. I used to hear stories about a certain gallery owner who loved that sort of client - especially in the wee hours of the morning!
I advertised in the only paper worth reading up there - The Saratoga Special. The Clancy brothers - Joe and Sean - started it 16 years ago and have turned it into a very successful publication. They're terrific writers - smart, funny and they really know their horses. They were jockeys before they became writers. I got most of my visitors to the gallery from the advertising I did in The Special. I was very impressed with the response I got from my 1/4 page ads.
I came away with several commissions, some sales and some contacts. I don't know if that will translate into enough sales next year to make it worthwhile. The old adage, "You have to spend money to make money" is true, but spending money doesn't always guarantee that outcome, and one has to be savvy enough to know when and where to draw the line, so to speak. I think the perception people have of the galleries in Saratoga has changed. They don't seem to understand the long tradition it represents. An art exhibit is no longer a destination; it's just a diversion on the way to something else - dinner, drinks, the track. People would walk through the gallery like they were going to catch a train - hardly bothering to stop to read a label or look closely at a painting. I'd hear people out in the hallway, commenting on the beautiful paintings inside, but they rarely took the time to come in and take a better look. I just couldn't understand it.
So let's tackle the question posed in the title of this post - Should you discount your work? The answer is a complex one with no "one size fits all" solution. I'm sure you've all had the experience of putting your work in a gallery and painstakingly writing out a consignment list of the work, title, size and price, and the commission taken by the gallery. When you get your first check from the sale of one of your paintings however, you're surprised to find that the price was reduced by 15% before the gallery commission was taken out. When you ask the dealer what happened, he tells you a client bought four paintings, one of which was yours, and was given the usual 15% discount for buying in quantity. Or just that the client asked for a better price and the dealer gave it to him to "help the sale."
The day before I closed the gallery, I got a call from a prospective client about a painting he was very interested in. I was a bit surprised to hear from him. A week earlier he and his wife had come in and seen a painting they really liked. They were effusive about it. They discussed where it would go (their home or his office), how they could fit it in their car, etc., and said they'd be back the next day to pick it up. They didn't come back and I put it out of my mind. It happens a lot in this business. "I'll be back" or "I'll be in touch" is a phrase which often means just the opposite. This prospective client was now back home on Long Island and wanted to know if the painting was still available. I told him it was and we discussed the price again. I had given him a very good discount when he asked if that was my best price in the gallery. I wanted (and needed) to make a big sale. It's a very large painting and it was priced at $9,000. I offered him a 15% discount, thinking this would seal the deal. But they walked out without the painting and didn't show up the next day. It was now even more tempting to accept his cash offer over the phone. Here was my chance to make the sale. But at what cost? Essentially he was asking for a 44% discount! I told him very politely that perhaps we could discuss it in the future when he could meet my best price of $7,500. I thought that was a good way to phrase it. I hope he does call again, to tell me he has the money to buy it. It would put me in the black. But if he doesn't, that's okay too. There's a difference between negotiating a deal and giving away your work. "Suppose it never sells?" you ask yourself, as you weigh your options. That's a chance you'll have to take. It's been my experience that serious collector's who have limited funds will often ask to work out a payment plan on a work they want, rather than pass it up. Some artists don't want to negotiate at all, which I used to think was a bit unreasonable. People like to haggle. Especially in this economy. Price your work accordingly and then add 15%, so you can give a discount if requested. They do it all the time in business. Why can't artists be savvy business people too?
The bottom line is, I didn't sell the painting, even after I gave the client a very substantial discount. What does that tell me? It tells me he doesn't want the painting badly enough. I have no way of knowing whether he can afford it or not. Perhaps there are other things he'd rather spend his money on. Or he likes playing the game. Haggling is a game I'm not terribly good at playing. Perhaps I just don't know how to close the deal.
What I came to realize is that my work has a value, and selling it for way less than what I think it's worth would make me feel worse than not selling it at all. Even when the bills are piling up. An idealist? Maybe.
Jonathan Shepard, one of the most successful trainers ever to saddle a horse, came in while I was on the phone with my client. He'd overheard my conversation and when I got off the phone, he asked me if that was somebody trying to "beat me down" on my price. When I replied yes, indeed it was, he gave me some solid advice. "Stay firm!" he declared in his impeccable English accent. By Jove, I think I will!