Yesterday, I was talking with the owner of a Northwest Coast gallery when an artist entered carrying an unprotected mask. I instinctively moved away, partly because I could see that the artist was going to try to sell the mask and business needs privacy, but mainly because I knew that he wasn’t going to succeed, and probably wouldn’t want obvious witnesses to his failure.
He was far from the first artist I’ve seen arriving unannounced to sell work. If you hang around galleries as often as I do, you’re bound to see a similar scene sooner or later. It’s frequently a painful scene, because few artists know how to sell their own work. They are nervous and embarrassed, but determined to plunge ahead with the effort.
Their uneasiness reminds me of a singer whose concerts I used to attend, who would grimace to himself if his singing was the least bit off true; in the same way that I used to sympathize deeply with the singer, I sympathize with the artists and their deep discomfort as they try to do something for which they have no talent.
Another reason I sympathize with the artists is that they are almost certainly preparing for failure. While I can’t pretend to understand all the details about how business is done in the Northwest Coast art world, I do know enough to know that only well-established artists can drop by unannounced and have any hope of selling their work or placing it on consignment. Most artists need to make an appointment – and, these days, spend some time exchanging emails and photos of their work, as often as not. Someone who arrives unannounced will have no idea whether the gallery is buying, or even whether a buyer for the gallery is available. For these reasons, they may very likely have wasted their time.
But yesterday’s artist had the odds more stacked against him than most. I could see his mask, and even from a five or six meters away, I could see that its quality was too low for any gallery to buy it. He might be able to sell it on the street, the way that one artist has been selling similar masks this summer outside the Vancouver Art Gallery, but the mask simply wasn’t good enough. All too clearly, the artist didn’t have the proper tools, or else didn’t know how to use them. The mask was roughly finished, front and back, and no amount of paint could hide the fact.
Under the circumstances, the gallery owner was gentle. Perhaps, being an artist himself, he could sympathize with the visitor. Instead of commenting on the quality of the mask, he made a non-committal comment, and simply said that he was not buying right now. Then he talked with the artist awhile, joking that, because of his Hawaiian shirt, he must be a Kanaka, then – when the artist was apparently too lost in his own anxieties to get the joke – exchanging nations. I could guess from the look at the artist’s face that this was not his first rejection of the day, but he responded to the gallery owner’s efforts to draw him almost against his will. Meanwhile, I watch while pretending not to watch, and found identifying with the artist all too easy.
The encounter was over in less than five minutes. But I found it hard to forget. I came away with respect for the gallery owner’s courtesy, and a profound gratitude that I hadn’t been the one to turn the artist down. I probably would have agonized over rejecting the artist, or even bought the mask – unsellable as it was – out of sympathy. In the end, I was very glad that I was just a spectator.