What Happened to the Art World I Knew?

Okay, so help me out here. Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, as an artist I was able to find shows and representation all rather easily. All I needed to do was look in various art publications, find galleries looking for artists/art, send slides in to them, get a response, get them the artwork, and all is good.

Need an agent? Ditto. No costs for either as it was all on commission. Want to have a co-op art gallery? Easy. Find a group of artists, establish a rather meager monthly fee to join, and spaces could be found pretty much anywhere and everywhere for little to no money (as a non-profit).

Me in 1979
Me in 1981

Okay, so this was my life back then. Member of a co-op that had pretty much free space in a building that was part of UC Riverside’s off-campus housing/commercial property, had an agent in LA that worked by commission to get me in shows, sell my art, and so on, was in various shows in SoCal that cost me nothing other than time and any commission for pieces that sold, and was in two “to the trade only” design stores for my tables where I sold directly to them, and then after that they made their sale to a designer for their client.

Inland Empire Art Gallery 1978

Okay, so life gets in the way and I find myself devoting all my time and energy to other things. Art takes a backseat till I retire some 36 years later and at that point, here I am back into the thick of things as an artist trying to get back into the art world.

One of my tables from 1986
One of my shows from 1982

Yeah, A LOT has changed in all these years.

A co-op? Maybe, but expect rents to be a rather decent amount, meaning that monthly dues will need to be a decent amount too. Possible? For sure as there are co-ops existing today and doing well, but it takes a lot of work and scoping out the right location that combines affordability with viability. Doable for sure.

Agents? Forget that, unless you want to pay a fair money every month for some form of  “representation.” Not going to be for commission unless you are in demand and selling like crazy – and if you are, then do you need an agent anyhow?

Getting in a gallery or a show? Well, one needs to either hustle (most artists are not hustlers, I certainly am not), know people who can help with that (other artists and so on for connections), be in the right place at the right time, or be willing to pay to play. It seems that the competition, combined with the dearth of galleries, is making it rather difficult if not impossible to get into a show… unless you know someone or are someone. Of course, hard to be someone without shows and exposure… and so no one knows you… sigh.

Which leads to pay-to-play. We all know about artist calls; send us an image or two for $40-$60 to possibly be in an upcoming show. The gallery gets several hundred entries and sadly you don’t get selected. In the process, the gallery just made a whole lot of money. And if selected, you still pay them a commission and/or a gallery fee. It makes it hard to justify the expense for artist’s calls where the chances of being selected are slim with the high number of artists also scrambling for shows and exposure. Unless you are somebody, but then you need the exposure to be somebody and… Well, that is a Catch 22.

I have done this with the outcome being the gallery just made over $14k for the month without having to do much other than offering an artist’s call. What the heck has happened? Why pay to play?

Fewer people buying art

Fewer galleries to sell art because fewer people are buying art making it harder to get into a gallery as they only want the artists that are well known and selling. Agents needing money upfront because less people are buying art which makes it harder to get an agent unless you are an artist that is well known and selling. And so many galleries needing money upfront because fewer people are buying art regardless, and so how to cover their costs? And while these galleries are less likely to have well-known artists, they are a venue for unknown or lesser known artists to become possibly better known. Like me today.

So for me, the big question is why are there fewer people buying art? At least that is how it appears. And I want to preface that with art that costs more than a few hundred dollars. For sure people buy art at pop-ups or art fairs, but at galleries? So with that in mind, I am thinking from $800 and up to several thousand dollars – which is not readily disposable income for the majority of people who are the potential art buyers that I run across at galleries.

The answer I come to is stagnant incomes, shrinking middle class, inflation of housing costs, student debt, etc. all mean that people have less money to spend on art. Toss in lack of awareness and art education and here we are. I see a lot of people at openings, but who is buying? Are they buying art? It appears not. Does it matter since this is the new (to me at least) norm?

Can we change this? What are your thoughts?

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