Monday, February 20, 2017

The Writing On The Wall

Since prehistoric man first applied colored clay to the walls and ceilings of caves in Lascaux, France, humans have been painting pictures of animals and horses. This morning, I think I heard the death knell sound for sporting art. The reason? I was just informed that Bonhams, one of the largest auction houses in the world, is no longer hosting it's annual "Dogs in Show and Field" art auction in New York City. Instead, it's being included in their Sporting Sale in Edinburgh, Scotland in May and October later this year. I was disappointed since it's one of the events I look forward to during Westminster week in NYC, but it didn't really surprise me. In the last decade there have been many warning signs of the decline of sporting art and when I heard Bonhams had finally given it up, it seemed like the end of the line for a wonderful tradition. They were the last survivor of a species on the brink of extinction - an auction house with a stand-alone sale devoted exclusively to equestrian, canine or sporting art.

The history of sporting art goes back centuries. The list of art dealers and auction houses who've fled the once profitable sporting art market is a long and distinguished one, but I'm only going to focus on the major forces of the last century or so.

The Past
Once upon a time there were two giant auction houses, Sotheby's and Christie's, which dominated the art market. One area in which they excelled was sporting art when it was thriving in the 1970's and 80's. Twice a year, they'd hold their annual sporting art auctions of paintings by such renown artists as George Stubbs, Sir Alfred Munnings, John Frederick Herring and John Fernelely. These auctions were usually held in June and December in two locations, New York and London. They were very popular due to the competitiveness of the art market. Not only did the buyers frequenting these sales want the fastest racehorses and best hunters, they wanted the most expensive sporting paintings as well. This often resulted in record breaking prices for paintings by Sir Alfred Munnings, the newest darling of America's "old money." When the market softened in the late 1990's, Christie's and Sotheby's (and many smaller firms) merged the sporting art with their Old Masters sales, and this is the model they still follow today.

For the last twenty years or so, smaller auction houses and galleries in New York City have rolled out the red carpet for the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show at Madison Square with special events to coincide with its arrival in early February. Dog art exhibits, special previews and "Barkfests" - brunches and cocktail parties where owners are encouraged to bring their dogs - were hosted by the cream of New York society. These events were fun for the dogs and gave owners and competitors the opportunity to preview the artwork before the dog show. Alan Fausel created the specialty dog art auctions when he worked for Doyle New York. They held their auction on the afternoon of the second day of the dog show, but that proved to be too much a conflict for dog owners who wanted to be ringside when their dogs were being judged. Buying paintings of their favorite breed had to take "reserve" to watching their canine champions parade around the ring. When Doyle discontinued their auction in 2009, Bonhams found they had a monopoly on the market. Their changed the sale to the day after the Westminster Dog Show, giving dog owners and fanciers the opportunity to attend the auction without missing a single minute of the dog show.

An earlier casualty of this downturn in the market was Frost & Reed, the British art dealers who've been in business for over two hundred years. They completely quit the equestrian art scene in 2004. I'm not even sure if they're still in business. The firm got its start in Bristol, England, publishing high quality art prints and engravings in the 1800's. In 1908 the firm moved to London, where they began selling originals as their reputation and the demand for sporting art grew. This was due to an increase in the demand for racing, foxhunting and polo pictures by wealthy American industrialists who now enjoyed the same leisurely past times as their aristocratic British counterparts. Frost & Reed attributed their success and longevity to "...consistently aspiring to keep abreast of change." They didn't rely on auction sales, where bidding wars could send prices artificially soaring or plummeting. They initially sold to galleries, but eventually sold directly to clients with whom they had carefully cultivated relationships over many decades.
They began an earnest and well-planned takeover of the American market in the late 1960's, exhibiting paintings at sporting events in New York, Pennsylvania, California and Kentucky, where wealthy horse owners gathered to watch their horses compete. In 1979, they settled on a permanent venue in Saratoga Springs, New York, where racing's elite converge every August to host lavish parties to celebrate their champion racehorses' victories on the turf. Twenty-five years later, in 2004, after what can only be described as "a very good run," they pulled up stakes, never to return. They saw the writing on the wall. They knew it was time to get out. They kept their new gallery on the upper East Side of Manhattan open as a way of maintaining a presence in the States. The gallery featured mostly contemporary art, with a few dog art and one-man exhibits thrown in, but it was closed in 2007.
The Present
William Secord has always done a nice business with his gallery dedicated exclusively to dog art on East 76th Street. He also wrote five books on the subject of dog paintings and they're essential for any dog lover or painter. I suspect it was another sign of the struggling market when he moved his wonderful gallery from the upper East Side to his loft on 15th Street near Chelsea a few years ago. The new space is sleek and modern, but I loved the cramped little rooms tucked away on the third floor of an apartment building, with creaking floorboards and an elevator that barely fit two people. The new space sharply contrasts with the antique dog paintings in ornate gold frames by such revered masters as Arthur Wardle, Maud Earl and John Emms. It speaks volumes about the need to downsize in a shrinking market.
The Future
Looking forward, I was very encouraged by the return of many faithful clients and a good number of sales when I exhibited in Saratoga for the first time in a decade last summer (see my August 2016 blogs). The gallery scene there has always been cyclical. There are always fewer galleries in Saratoga in the lean years, and if last year was any indication, it's been tough going for a while. As the market picks up, which it invariably does, more and more galleries and artists will appear on the scene. Eventually, the market gets flooded with too much art, too many artists and not enough clients. Galleries start falling by the wayside until once again, there are only a handful left. Very few dealers are willing or able to take a financial hit for three, four or five years. The market is still depressed and I haven't any idea when, or if, it will ever recover.
So, what's a painter of dogs and horses supposed to do in such an unpromising climate? A niche market that has enjoyed only limited success is now in further decline. Animal painters have never been regarded with the same respect as artists of other genres. Artists like George Stubbs and Alfred Munnings are considered mere "horse painters" in some circles, in spite of their considerable talent and the astronomical sums of money their paintings command.
The art market is changing. More people have direct access to art and artists than ever before, thanks to the Internet. This is great news! Gone are the days when only a wealthy patron could afford to commission an artist to immortalize his prize hunters, or an artist was at the mercy of an unscrupulous dealer! Social Media, which has done so much for so many, is the answer. The Industrial Revolution has given way to the Tech Age, and artists need to go along with this new wave if they want to survive and flourish. Twitter, Facebook and a website are all tools to be utilized to maximize exposure and sales. If you don't know how to create and regularly update your own website, hire someone who can do it for you. Don't like Face Book? Too bad. Use it anyway. It's one of the best ways to get your work and ideas OUT THERE! Make a "How to Paint _______" video and post it on YouTube. Write a blog. Don't know how to Tweet? Ask Donald Trump what he thinks of Twitter. Got the idea? Familiarize yourself with all the options and decide which direction to go in. Sooner or later you'll find the right mix of social media outlets that work for you. Who knows? Perhaps we'll engineer a comeback for sporting art!

Postscript: I spoke with Alan Fausel of Bonhams about the factors influencing the sporting art market and he said there are many complex issues at work. The banning of foxhunting in Britain, Millenials not being interested in conspicuous consumption, dogs and horses relegated to pet status as opposed to having jobs (herding, ratting, hunting) and protests by animal activists groups such as PETA against purebred dogs (as opposed to shelter pets), have all contributed to the decline in the market. He feels what an artist should be most concerned with is trying to get their viewer to see what they see themselves, or show the viewer something they've never seen before. I think it's great advice!

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