What Good are Art Dealers?
Nobody likes art dealers. Artists don't like them because dealers keep half the price of every piece of art they sell. Art buyers, collectors, and investors don't like them because dealers charge top dollar. (Even dealers don't like dealers, but that's another article.) So do art dealers do anything other than inject themselves into art business transactions, jack prices, and extract money from the investment pool? They must do something. Otherwise they wouldn't be here, would they? Let's explore.
"I buy art, none of it from dealers," you say. "I don't waste my hard-earned cash contributing to art gallery extravaganzas. I do my art investing entirely outside the gallery system; art dealers and their galleries get nothing from me. Forget those oversized, high-ceilinged, space-wasting progressions of near empty rooms in expensive parts of town. I know what I like, where to find it, how to spot a good investment, what to pay, and I don't need any art dealer to tell me different."
Of course you don't. You live and breathe art. You spend eight, ten, twelve hours a day involved in art-related activities. You subscribe to every trade publication that has anything to do with the art you buy. You continually see museum shows, read books and exhibit catalogues, and talk with dealers, collectors, and others who know art in order to stay on top of the market.
You've looked at art for years and years, and have seen tens of thousands of pieces, perhaps hundreds of thousands, perhaps more. As a result, you've cultivated and refined an eye for quality, and can make fine line distinctions as well as any art business professional. You've discussed, dissected, and evaluated thousands of works of art with people in the know, and can accurately assess the significance of whatever it is you're looking at.
You understand the art market from both retail and wholesale perspectives; you follow plenty of galleries and auction houses, not only locally, but nationally and internationally. You know who's showing what, and why, and how much they're selling it for. You can spot good quality art at a fair price, and know the difference between a bargain and a third-rate piece of crap, not to mention fakes, scams, and cons. When you see art you like, you know what questions to ask, what to look for, and why buying that art represents a constructive use of your money ("Because it's cheaper than Triple-A Fine Arts sells it for" is not a good reason).
You can spot an artist with talent and potential before just about anyone else; you know when art breaks new ground. You know the difference between a leader and a follower, between "here today; gone tomorrow" and "here to stay." You go beyond what the art looks like, inspect its structural integrity, and evaluate, from a variety of standpoints, how it'll hold up over time. You can look at dozens or even hundreds of works of art by any given artist and separate out those that best represent the true range of that artist's skills and abilities.
"Exactly," you say. "Gallery junkies are a bunch of suckers, shelling out the fat cash on art I can buy for a buck three ninety-eight on eBay. Just last week, I nailed a Jackson Pollock splatter painting that the seller recently discovered in the back room of an important Palm Beach pawnshop, stored there since the sixties. I stole it for a measly seventeen grand right out from under the noses of eBay's 60 million users. As soon as I get it authenticated, it'll be worth a fortune."
"I'm an artist," you say. "I spend my life making art, slaving away, compelled to express myself for all the world to see and judge. The results of my efforts sap every last ounce of my strength, so here I am, a spent amoebic blob, splayed out, surrounded by product, and ready to make money. But no, something stands in my way, and its name is art dealer. I can sell my own art, thank you. I don't need you and your gallery to take half of every dollar that my life's calling entitles me to."
Of course you don't. You've got the perfect space to show your art, right? It's a great location, convenient, with plenty of parking, and it's near other retail establishments where people who to buy art tend to congregate, dine out, entertain themselves, or shop for goods and services. Your space is sparse, expansive, well appointed, designed and lit, and when you show your art there, it looks about as good as it's ever going to look, outside of maybe The Louvre.
You're comfortable around people who buy art; you're well connected, you socialize with art buyers, and participate in activities and belong to groups and organizations that they belong to. You know how art buyers think, how much they know about art, and how to talk to them about art in language they can understand. You are an interpreter who takes complex concepts, raw emotion, or sensitive subjects, and makes them palatable to those who might otherwise shy away.
You're at ease talking about art and money; you know how to price your art within the context of its market, and can explain your prices to anyone who asks without unnerving them. You sense when someone is on the verge of purchase, ready to buy, and you know exactly what to say and when to say it in order to turn the deal, reveal the checkbook, and accept the remuneration that your art so justly deserves. As for the occasional parasites, blabbermouths, energy drains, poseurs, time wasters, know it alls, and deadbeats who hover about the art scene-- you see them coming and blow them off with ease.
Just like art dealers, you evaluate all kinds of art by all kinds of artists all the time. You continually talk about art, interact with artists, study and learn about art, read about art, decide what art is good or better or best, figure out what pieces to show, and how most effectively to display them. You carefully analyze every detail of every piece of art before it leaves your studio. You make continual art-to-art comparisons, and use your extensive knowledge and overview of the local, regional, national, international or whatever art realm you travel in to assure that your art not only satisfies your high personal standards, but can also withstand public scrutiny.
You believe in your art to such an extent that you spend thousands or tens of thousands, sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars per month to go public with your convictions, and to persuade others that your vision is a valid one. That vision attracts a wide range of contacts from throughout the art community, and energizes them to such an extent that they reward you financially, with profit, allowing you to continue to put forth what you believe to be among the most worthwhile works of art being produced today. Art critics, curators, influential collectors, and others in positions of power in the art world talk, write, gossip, trash, love, hate, sabotage, and otherwise opine on your art nonstop and in every way imaginable. These people don't bother you. In fact, they respect you because they know you'll prevail against anyone who tries to take you down.
"O.K., so maybe art dealers deserve commissions," you concede. "Fifteen percent."
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