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Archive for the ‘art buying’ Category

Most of the Northwest Coast art in my townhouse is in the formline style favored by the Northern First Nations in British Columbia. However, I am always willing to learn more about other coastal traditions, and slowly that’s what I’m doing. The only trouble is, relatively little is written about these other traditions, so most of my knowledge comes from looking at what working artists like Kelly Robinson are doing.

Robinson is a young artist of mixed Nuxalk and Nu-chah-nulth descent who is exploring both sides of his ancestry. In the last year or so, much of his wood carving (he is also an accomplished jeweler) has explored Nu-chah-nulth forms. In particular, he has built on the work of artists like Joe David and Art Thompson who revived the tradition and elevating it into fine art based on his time at the Freda Diesing School.

Fortunately for me, “Ancestor of Today” became available when I had just cashed a few cheques from editors. I first saw the mask in Cathedral Close, the garden outside the Bill Reid Gallery in downtown Vancouver, and, a couple of hours later, I was taking it home on the Skytrain in a bag I was clutching in a death-grip.

The inhabitants of the west of Vancouver Island, the Nu-chah-nulth (formerly called the Nootka and the West Coast) were in a position to be influenced by both the Kwakwaka’wakw, Nuxalk, and Heiltsuk to the east, and the Haida to the north. In fact, unlike most first nations around them, by 1900, Nu-chah-nulth had at least two different styles, a newer one based on formline, and the older, original style. There also seems to have been a third style reserved for the curtains used in the ceremonial mysteries, although I am not altogether certain.

At any rate, these mixed influences may explain the mixture found on “Ancestor of Today.” On the one hand, the mask includes elements that are universal in the coastal traditions, including the U-shapes and the labret that indicates high status. The hair, too, is arranged in a buzz-cut that I have seen in works from every nation.

On the other hand, the facial features all seem to me to be typically Nu-chah-nulth origin, from the raised eyebrows to the high forehead and the nose that swells around the nostril. One of the strongest distinguishing features are the outsized, shallow eye sockets. Unlike in the northern style, the eyes themselves are barely distinguished from the sockets. Here, they are no more than crescents indicate a closed eye, although they would probably not be much more detailed if the eyes were open. The eye sockets join the high cheekbones – another distinguishing feature – not in a plane, as in a northern style, but in a single line.

The painting, too, differs strongly from the northern style. The traditional red and black are the primary colors, but, they cover most of the mask, rather than being used only to highlight features like the lips, nostrils, and brows. Moreover, instead of the designs being painted across the face without much regard for the carving, the way they would be in the north, the designs on the bottom of the cheeks are on their own planes. Between the lips and the nostrils, a different approach is taken, with the inverted U-shape merging into the top list, and the unpainted border on each side of it into the nostrils.

(The mask’s use of gray and the unpainted wood as additional colors is also untypical of the northern style, although they may be Robinson’s innovations rather than indicating any particular tradition; I’ll have to ask him next time we’re in touch.)

The overall impression is of a simpler, bolder style than would be likely to come out of the north. It is enhanced by the slightly rough knife-finish – Robinson’s first effort at this technique, he tells me. To my modern eye, the closed eyes give it Buddha-like sense of calm dignity in keeping with the mask’s name, which asserts a claim that the tradition is still alive and evolving today.

I admire Robinson’s Nuxalk style work, especially the “Four Carpenters” and “Mother of Mischief” paintings, which hang in my living room. However, his Nu-chah-nulth work has its own fascination, especially since he is one of the few artists in the tradition who is trying to evolve the tradition. With “Ancestor of Today,” he manages the difficult trick of re-introducing the tradition while adding first-rate finishing and the steady hand on the paint brush that modern buyers expect. I’m looking forward to what he does next in this style.

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Sometimes, you may find an artist whose work you admire, but have trouble finding the exact piece you want to buy. Or maybe the artist is selling privately, and few of their works are available on the open market. In such circumstances, you might consider commissioning a piece – but be sure you know what you’re doing before you go ahead. The financial arrangements, the decisions about the subject matter, and how and when the finished work is delivered all require careful thought before the commission goes ahead.

You can commission art either through a gallery, or directly from the artist. Going through a gallery gives you the advantage of expert advice, and could make getting a refund easier if too many problems arise. It is also considered proper etiquette to go through the gallery if it has introduced the artist to you.

However, one problem with commissioning through a gallery is that you will usually pay more overall. Some galleries, too, are so anxious to preserve their position as go-betweens that they will will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent you from meeting the artist, even with a gallery employee. This attitude means that deciding the subject matter is much more difficult. In fact, in one case, it caused the artist and I – both of whom were originally perfectly willing to observe proper etiquette – to make our own arrangements.

By contrast, a direct commission usually takes less time to arrange. You may receive a price closer to the wholesale price – but don’t count on it. You may also have trouble contacting the artist, although these days so many are on social media that is less of a problem than it was a few years ago.

But the most serious problem with a direct commission – for both you and the artist – is whether you can trust each other. Bad faith and outright theft sometimes happen on both sides of a direct commission, so before any money changes hands, you should learn what you can about the artist’s reputation (if they are experienced, they will be doing the same about you). After all, you could be spending thousands of dollars, and, if something goes wrong, your only recourse may be small claims court.

Whatever way you approach the artist, the subject and the design should be a balance between what you want and the artist’s interests. Personally, I see no reason to commission a standard mask such as a Hamatsa raven or a sculpture based on Raven’s theft of the light unless you have an interesting variation in mind. For me, the whole point of a commission is to get something unusual, and to give the artist a chance to do something the market might not otherwise allow them to do.

For that reason, I like to suggest a general subject or design, and hope that the artist will be intrigued enough to develop it in their own way. If possible, I ask for sketches to approve before the final work begins. What I am looking for is something that both intrigues the artist and will satisfy me.

Before the commission begins, you also need to discuss the financial arrangement. Some artists may expect no money until the commission is finished. However, a more common arrangement is for the buyer to pay one-third when the deal is accepted, one-third when the artist finishes, and one-third after any final adjustments requested by the buyer. This arrangement minimizes any possible loss for the buyer, and compensates the artist for their time if the buyer walks away from the deal.

Another matter you should specify is the approximate delivery time. Despite all the jokes artists make about “Indian time,” an increasingly number of artists these days take a professional attitude and do their best to meet their obligations, but, even so, the emphasis here is on “approximate.” You are dealing with art, not utilitarian manufacture, and by definition artists are perfectionists. As a result, a strict deadline would be almost meaningless even if you insisted on it. With the best of intention, slippage may happen, and, so long as you are kept informed, shouldn’t be a matter for concern unless it drags on indefinitely.

Even if completion is delayed, you may be content to wait. One commission took two years to complete – so long that I sometimes concluded that it would never happen. However, I felt reasonably sure that the artist meant to meet his obligation, and, in the end, he delivered a piece that I regularly describe as breathtaking.

As I said, it all comes down to how much you and the artist trust each other.

Speaking of which, it can’t hurt to write down the terms of the commission and have both you and the artist sign it, especially if the two of you have never worked together. In many cases, though, a commission is a verbal agreement, aside from any receipts you may receive from any gallery involved.

With all these considerations, commissioning can be an exhausting experience – and, sometimes, a harrowing one. So why attempt it? The answer is simple: a commission is a mental collaboration. As the buyer, you may not raise a carving tool or dip a paint brush, yet seeing the completed work can be an exhilarating experience. It gives you a small taste of what the Medicis must have felt as patrons of Renaissance Florence – a mixture of pleasure and pride that, indirectly the piece of work in front of you would never have existed except for you. Despite the many setbacks that can happen, that is an addictive feeling that you can easily come to want again and again.

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Paintings have never been a large part of modern Northwest Coast Art. Since the 1960s, artists have preferred to release limited edition prints instead. Recently, though, this trend has shown signs of changing.

Ever since the 1960s, limited prints have been far more common than paintings. The reason is simple economics: A limited print costs the buyer anywhere from half to one-tenth the price of a painting, which pleases buyers not interested in an investment. If a run of a hundred can be sold, the artist makes much more than they would from a painting – enough, with luck, to allow them to earn a living from their art.

As a result, limited prints have long been the norm in Northwest Coast Art, despite the forgeries that have been periodically discovered. By contrast, artists interested in painting have often found selling their work to galleries difficult. A few exceptions exist, such as Robert Davidson in the last decade, but they are exceptions because of their fame.

A better indication of the status of paintings in Northwest Coast art is the fact that even an artist as accomplished as Lyle Wilson could only manage a show consisting entirely of paintings this year – and at least two-thirds of the pieces were completed decades ago and had never sold. Meanwhile, an artist’s first limited print is still seen as an important step in their career.

However, the days when prints could be counted on to fund an artist’s career are rapidly coming to an end. Hundreds are entering a market that once sustained dozens, thanks in part to the relative cheapness of producing a print from a computer compared to traditional silk screening.

Perhaps as a result, the average price of a print has declined or remained static, with many prints available for well under a hundred dollars unless the artist is well-known. Moreover, where, thirty-five years ago, so-called limited prints could have a release of five or six hundred copies, now releases of a hundred, or fifty, or even twenty have become common, partly to reduce forgery and partly to ensure that artists are not left with a large inventory of unsellable prints.

At the same time, Northwest Coast artists are more closely connected to other schools of art than they have been at any time in the last sixty years. Artists like Dean and Shawn Hunt have succeeded to some extent in selling canvases outside the usual Northwest Coast markets, and new artists – an increasing number of whom have attended art school – are becoming more interested in painting as well. In fact, I know several young artists who began working on canvas and only learned carving and metalwork later.

Whether on wood, paper, or canvas, painting has suddenly become semi-respectable. The Douglas Reynolds Gallery has been showing an increasing number of high-end paintings over the last couple years. Similarly, Lyle Wilson may have had to go to the suburb of Maple Ridge rather than downtown Vancouver to mount his recent Paint show, but the point is he managed to have the exhibit. And, as I write, I have just returned from the Lattimer Gallery’s opening reception for “medium: Painting on Canvas,” an exhibit of over fifteen canvases by both new and leading artists.

Slowly, painting is becoming acceptable in Northwest Coast art. It still has a ways to go – according to Peter Lattimer, for many of the artists in his exhibit, working on canvas was a new and not wholly comfortable experience. But the change is coming, all the same.

Most likely, painting will not replace limited prints. A handful of top artists are still doing well with limited prints, and will probably continue to do so for years. However, a day might come within the next decade when most limited prints are viewed as tourist wares and no longer as fine art.

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I’m at the point where I tremble when Gary Minaker Russ comes to town. I know that he will have at least one outstanding piece of argillite to sell, and that if I so much as glimpse it, I will be unable to resist the temptation to buy it, even if I can’t really afford to. That’s the story, really, of “Haida Shaman,” the latest piece I’ve bought from him.

When Russ first brought it to town, he sold it to the Inuit Gallery, where I admired it regularly. But no one bought it, and Russ prefers not to have his work languish for too long in a gallery. So he swopped it for his latest piece, and when we met at the Rhizome Cafe that afternoon, he hadn’t resold it.

A quick trip across the street to the bank machine, and it was mine, the balance to be paid  over the next month. One nervous Skytrain trip later, I had it beside my computer workstation.

“Haida Shaman” is a traditional piece. I mean that description in two senses, both complimentary. First, the pose is one that has been widely used throughout the hundred and eighty years of recorded argillite carving (as opposed to the unknown amount of time – decades? centuries? millennia? — that argillite may have been carved far more rarely, before it became one of the first cultural exports for the Haida).

The proportions, with the head a third of the body height, and the stance, one arm uplifted and the other in front of the chest, can be seen in any number of pictures, if you search libraries or even the Internet for pictures of argillite. So, in one sense, Russ is working in a very set subject, in much the same way a Renaissance European painter would be when painting a Madonna and child.

What you won’t see – at least today – is this pose done in the amount of detail that Russ has lavished on “Haida Shaman.” You’ll see the basic proportion and posture, yes, but not the detail. Most modern argillite carving is closer to engraving. It is covered with embellishments of inlaid precious and semi-precious stones, with the shapes hinted at rather than fully developed.

In several  pieces, the result is so abstract that only the posture is recognizable and there is little else to indicate that a shaman is depicted. The modern argillite market does not reward taking pains, and, in too many cases, the quality of the carving has declined while the cost of the raw materials have sent the prices soaring.

By contrast, “Haida Shaman” shows the attention to detail that I associate more with nineteenth century argillite pieces. Russ himself describes it as being more in his original – and preferred – style, and not the simpler style he has moved towards in the last decade and a half in order to make a living as an artist in an increasingly obscure art form.

This is the second sense in which the piece is traditional – in the pure sense of craft that has gone into it. For a style that is only partly representational, “Haida Shaman” packs an extraordinary amount of detail. Some of it may be hard to see in a picture, but the carving is full of realistic detail like the definition of the muscles on the arms, or the braiding of the rope the shaman wears, or the mass of hair in his topknot. I joke that the sculpture is a “traditional Haida action figure,” but behind that rather flippant comment, there is nothing but respect for the care that has gone into it.

These details are enhanced by the sparing use of ivory to contrast with the darkness of the argillite. Unlike many modern argillite carvers, Russ has not produced a gaudy piece, valued largely for its inlays. Nor has he added so many inlays before starting to carve that they get in the way of the detailing. Instead, the ivory appears where it doesn’t hide or overwhelm the details. It is used sparingly, with a restraint that allows it to work with the argillite, rather than against it.

You might say that “Haida Shaman” is an artist’s piece, done to satisfy Russ’ sense of how he should be working, with little regard for what sells. I am not in the least surprised that it didn’t sell while on display because, amid the other argillite extravaganzas available in the local galleries, “Haida Shaman” is an understated piece, with an emphasis on the craft of carving.

It’s because of pieces like “Haida Shaman” that I secretly look forward to Russ’ visits to town, not knowing what wonders he will quietly unwrap to tempt me with. I only know that most of what he brings to town will be wonders, and I will be tempted to bring at least one of them home.

Now, if I only didn’t have to explain that I wasn’t buying from a drug dealer when I deposit large sums of cash in his account, I would have nothing to complain about. I am both soothed and honoured to have pieces like “Haida Shaman” in my townhouse.

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Every piece of art, several collectors have told me, comes with a story. Gradually, as I’ve bought art, I realized that this statement is true, so on my spreadsheet for insurance purposes, I’ve created a column where I can type the story of how the piece was acquired.

I have no trouble remembering the first piece of serious art I bought. It was a three inch copper bracelet by Tsimshian artist Henry Green. I’d wanted such a piece for years, and suddenly realized I could afford one. I still remember my breathlessness as I approached the gallery to pick it up, and my sigh of relief when it proved more awe-inspiring than I could ever have hoped.

A couple of months later, I saw that the Bill Reid Gallery was selling canvas banners from a set that had been stored in Bill Reid’s house since 1991. Trish and I bought one, realizing that it was our best chance of affording any work by Bill Reid, then quickly bought another to balance the wall where the first one hung. Soon after, we bought our first mask, a moon by Ron Telek that is both eerie and strangely modernistic.

More soon followed. There was a Beau Dick sketch of a mask, unusual in that, with his carver’s eye, he depicted planes, not lines. The Lyle Wilson pendant Trish won in a raffle at an exhibit – the best $5 that either of us had ever spent. The small Telek mask that I fetched from the South Terminal of the Vancouver airport by walking from the end of the bus line and back again. The Gwaii Edenshaw gold rings we bought for our anniversary. The miniature argillite transformation mask by Wayne Young that I trekked over to Victoria for after Trish’s death and repaired and remounted because it was so magnificently unique. The wall-hanging commissioned by Morgan Green to help her through goldsmith school. And so the stories accumulate, so far as I’m concerned, as innate as the aesthetics of the piece.

For instance, there’s Mitch Adam’s “Blue Moon Mask,” which I saw in 2010 at the Freda Diesing School’s year end exhibit. It was labeled NFS, bound for the Spirit Wrestler show for the school’s graduates a month later. I happened to mention to Mitch that I would have written a cheque right away had it been for sale – not hinting, just praising – and a few hours later he came back and said the piece was mine if I were still interested. I was, and immediately became the envy of half a dozen other people who also wanted to buy it, but had never had the luck to ask. One of them still talks enviously when we meet.

Then there’s Shawn Aster’s “Raven Turns the Crows Black,” a painting that we had discussed in 2009, but didn’t seem to gel in his mind. After a year, I had stopped expecting him to finish it, and took to calling him a promising artist, because he kept saying that he was still working on it. But he did complete it – making it a Chilkat design (which I had not expected), and showing a promise of a different kind.

Two other pieces were commissions in memory of Trish after her death: John Wilson’s “Needlewoman” and Mike Dangeli’s “Honoring Her Spirit.” I made “Needlewoman” a limited edition of twenty, and gave it to family members for Christmas 2010. Mike’s painting, more personal, I kept for myself, carrying it up Commercial Drive from Hastings Street on a chilly January Sunday, because cabs wouldn’t come to the Aboriginal Friendship Center where I picked it up.

Other pieces were gifts from friends: a print of “January Moon” by Mitch Adams in return for some advice on galleries I gave him; a bentwood box Mitch Adams made and John Wilson carved and painted in memory of Trish; a remarque of Ron Telek’s “Sirens” print, and an artist’s proof by John Wilson and another print by Shawn Aster, both apologies for the late delivery of other pieces.

Of course, such stories mean that I can never sell any of the pieces I buy. The associations have become too much a part of me. But since I never buy to invest, only to appreciate, that is no hardship – my appreciation is only deeper for the personal connections.

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I spent the afternoon at the opening for the Northern Exposure show at the Spirit Wrestler Gallery. This is an annual show for the Freda Diesing School of Northwest Art, featuring the graduating class and the pick of the work by first year students. Besides giving students some extra cash, the show also teaches students how to deal with a gallery and an exhibition. So, naturally, when I was talking to the students, a common topic was whether they should try to place more pieces in galleries or find other ways to make a living from their art.

The question, I found, is hard to answer in the abstract. Not only does the answer depend on the galleries involved, but I suspect that the details of the answer are starting to change.

On the one hand, a gallery that is enthusiastic about an artists’ work can be the best advertising that the artist can have. The gallery staff can draw visitors’ attention to the artist to increase their sales. The gallery can act as an unofficial agent, passing commissions on to the artist. I’ve heard of gallery owners advising artists about what is selling, and the prices that buyers are willing to pay. They can promote an artist in a group show – or, better yet, a solo show. Artists can’t expect a gallery to promise to buy regularly (“That would mean we were taking on responsibility for an artist earning a living,” one gallery employee remarked to me), but an unofficial agreement that an artist will give a gallery first right of refusal for new works can benefit everyone.

On the other hand, horror stories about galleries are common. I have on good – but strictly anonymous – authority that certain gallery owners regularly break verbal agreements, all the while insisting that written contracts aren’t necessary. Some, too, delay payment for months; in one case I know about, the artist had to wait ten months for over ten thousand dollars. Artists who ask about such delays have had gallery owners scream abuse at them.

However, regardless of how a gallery treats artists, all of them have one thing in common: They stand between artists and their audience. This relation has the advantage of freeing artists from having to promote themselves. But it also means that 40-60% of the total price of a piece goes to the gallery. Considering that literary agents charge 15-20% for the same services, artists may feel that the price is too high, no matter how good the services are.

Fortunately, for artists who feel that way, the Internet provides some alternatives. Websites, Facebook fan pages, and microblogs like Twitter all provide ways for artists to interact directly with their audiences, bypassing the galleries entirely, if they choose. With free software content management systems like Joomla! or Drupal, artists can even conduct online auctions, using Paypal or credit card services for payment. As for pricing, artists can charge more than the wholesale price they receive and still offer prices that are lower than a gallery would charge.

And, increasingly, artists are taking full advantage of these alternatives. One senior First Nations artist says that 80% of his sales come from the Internet. Another estimates that about one-third of his sales are online, and is trying to boost that fraction every way he can.

But artists pay a price when taking control of their sales in this way. They have to learn marketing skills, which can make them nervous and uncomfortable if they are inexperienced or introverted. They have to learn the principles of commercial design, which are very different from the art they create. They not only have to create their initial web pages or Facebook pages, but keep them constantly replenished with new content, because nothing looks less professional than a long outdated web presence. If buyers are unsatisfied, they have to deal with the problem themselves. Most important of all, they either have to spend time on business and promotion – perhaps as much as a third of their working hours, especially at first – or find a sympathetic friend or family member or maybe a consultant to do the work for them. With these demands, some artists might feel that the price for taking full control of their career is too high.

Yet another problem is that an artist can make a living promoting themselves, but, in doing so, they become invisible to the traditional art market. If that happens, then the artists may not be mentioned in art books, or approached by governments and other institutions for large commissions.

My own suspicion is that, despite the disadvantages, an increasing number of artists will start to market themselves. Most Northwest Coast artists I know are doing some online promotion, although none (so far as I know) are doing all they could. In the future, galleries will continue to exist, but they may have less control over artists than they have traditionally had, because the alternatives will be too well-known.

Whatever happens, artists today have a choice that they didn’t have fifteen years ago. However, what choices they should make depends very much on their own skills, personality, and preferences.

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Yesterday in a local gallery, I saw a Northwest Coast mask selling for $22,000. The price surprised me, because, ordinarily, only a recognized master could ask this sort of price. However, the carver was an artist I would characterize as an experienced journeyman – someone known for his skill an with a growing celebrity, but lacking the years and a sufficient body of work to be considered a master.

Tentatively and politely, I suggested to a gallery employee that the mask was over-priced. I was told that the carver had originally planned on asking for even more.

This was not the first time I have seen artists asking higher prices than their reputation would justify, and it never fails to arouse mixed feelings in me.

On the one hand, an artist’s ability to command a price is not tied absolutely to their reputation. If an artist can find someone to buy at what I consider an inflated price, then in the most basic sense, that is all the justification the price.

Moreover, why shouldn’t artists get the best price they can? The typical Northwest Coast artist starts by selling so cheaply that the price hardly repays the price of their labor. Part of me argues that, after years of underselling their work to keep the gallery system going, artists deserve a little bit of compensation later in their careers (although, personally, I’d like to see fairer prices for newer artists).

On the other hand, the hierarchy of prices is well-established for Northwest Coast masks. New artists’ work usually sells for less than $1500, usually with 40-60% of the retail price going to the artist. As artists become better known, their prices gradually rise, although the size of a mask and its finishing details can also affect the price. When their prices hit about $4000 for an average-sized mask, you know that the artists are starting to be respected. When the prices rise to $6,000-$8000, you know you are dealing with well-respected artists. Over $10,000, and the artists are recognized as masters. At prices above $20,000, artists have international reputations like those of Bill Reid or Robert Davidson.

Exceptions exist to this rough outline – for instance, as acknowledged masters, both Beau Dick and Henry Green could increase their prices by fifty percent or more and probably still sell. However, this hierarchy is the norm, and recognized by most Northwest Coast artists.

To go outside this pricing scale is dangerous for an artist. Prices that are set too high can condemn an artists’ work to gathering dust in the gallery. But, just as importantly, when artists set their prices higher than their status, it seems to me a form of boasting. For instance, the mask I saw yesterday seems to proclaim that the artist considers himself the equal of all the great names in Northwest Coast art – to which I can only answer that he might be some day, but he isn’t yet. The mask was certainly skilled, but it was hardly outstanding, either. I have seen (and bought) masks at a fraction of the price that I considered better works of art.

Possibly, I’m showing a middle-class crassness with these reactions. At the best of times, I find a system in which even mediocre works by a major artist are worth more than an outstanding work by an unknown artist. But I do know that I would feel foolish buying a piece at an inflated price. Even if I could afford such prices, I would feel in the back of my mind that I had been conned, and that would diminish my enjoyment of the art.

So maybe it’s just as well that the price I saw yesterday was beyond what I could afford, and that I wasn’t overwhelmed by the mask. In this case, the question of putting my money where my ambivalence is doesn’t arise. But I wonder what I would do if I see a similarly over-priced piece that I really would like about the house.

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