Wednesday, May 11, 2011

How do we measure success?

A Moment of Peace in Venice, 2002

Although I would hardly put myself in the company of some of my friends whose artistic endeavors are far more serious than my own, I’d be lying if I didn’t concede that there is a part of me that yearns for some kind of artistic recognition.

There was a brief discussion the other morning at a friend’s Facebook page about the merit of gallery shows, the bottom line of which was that while we all used to dream of gallery shows and may have had them, promoting our work through galleries has become an increasingly inefficient model because of the increased cost of producing gallery shows.

This conversation took me back to deeper questions: What is about a gallery show that appeals to us? Why do we want them so bad? What do they do for us?

To be sure, gallery shows used to be an important rite of artistic passage. Getting a show in a respected gallery was a mark of arrival, of affirmation that what you were producing was worthy of being shown, and shown as art. The combination of a gallery show and a few sales could make you feel successful.

Galleries also took on a lot of the responsibility of promoting your work, an important service, to be sure.

Some galleries still do all of these things quite well. They look for good work to show. They look for work that will sell and make their investments of time, space and promotion worth the while. If they’re really good, they’ll have created relationships with collectors that can be invaluable in introducing you and spreading the word of your work.

Like many other retail categories, however, the gallery business isn’t what it used to be. More of the production and promotion burden for a show has been transferred to the artist.

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that the balance of artists and galleries is out of whack. The universe of photographers with presentable work is growing at a very fast rate. Meanwhile, the financial record of galleries is troubling, especially outside of the major urban art markets. I was talking to a commercial realtor the other day who told me that his landlord clients will not rent to galleries now unless the galleries have an exceptionally robust business history and deep financial pockets.

To which I ask, do we really need gallery shows any more?

To be sure, there’s nothing half as fun as having a bunch of your friends admire your work in an attractive gallery setting. It’s even nicer when you can see a lot of little red “sold” dots on your work.

But any more we can find many of the same attributes of the traditional gallery experience here on the Internet. I suspect some of us have far larger and more geographically and socially diverse networks of friends and followers at places like Flickr than we could ever have in a bricks-and-mortar gallery. Yes, the virtual gallery experience is different. But even in the vast world of Flickr users it’s uncanny how good work gets recognized and talked about.

And isn’t that what you really want?

The tricky part is the business of selling art. But again, I’m constantly amazed at the number of art buyers, especially commercial art buyers, who regularly troll the pages of Flickr and Fotolog and other photo sharing communities in search of specific kinds of photographic work to buy or license.

That leaves only the promotional part. A good gallerist can connect you with buyers you’d never know about any other way. But the business of getting your work “out there” and promoted is still your responsibility. The good news, though, is that there are probably more of what we marketers would call “points of distribution” than ever. Unless you live in New York, LA, Miami or Chicago, the number of galleries in your town is probably smaller than it used to be. But there are countless specialized online galleries and zines like aCurator that are constantly looking for good work to showcase.

Not that I’ve been all that diligent about doing any of this. I seem to be somewhat bipolar in my promotional efforts. Sometimes I’m exhilarated by something I’ve got to show and enthusiastic about promoting it. Other times I’m counting on luck and providence to carry me along. Fortunately, I have other means of making a living. I’d be a starving artist for sure if I had to depend on my photography for a living. I’ve seen La Bohème enough to know I wouldn’t do well spending a long cold winter in an unheated artist’s garret.

I sometimes wonder how long I’d last if I dropped everything else to pursue photography seriously. But right now is not one of those times. I’d rather think back to the quiet moment, above, in Venice.


  1. That is a wonderful shot, Chris! Somewhere during the days of my misspent youth, I heard or read that success was being able to afford your vices. Money never really meant a lot to me but I've usually been able to afford the things I'm passionate about (except bigger camera glass) so I guess I've been reasonably successful.

  2. I think it's wonderful that you can keep the photography as your passion, anyway. If it became your means of making a living, you might come to resent it.