Galleries : The Business of Art
Photographer Lisa Brown lights up when she talks about meeting and greeting customers at her Vineyard Artisans Festival booth all summer long. Landscape painter Kib Bramhall unabashedly admits that he is completely uncomfortable selling his own work. Realist painter Andrew Moore built his own gallery adjacent to his Harthaven home to create an environment he could control.
The paths that artists take to share their work are as varied as the work itself. They can seek representation from a gallery, exhibit their work at a variety of shows, the ongoing Artisans Festival, or develop their own spaces.
Photo by JJ Gonson
Making the right match
"I don't have a good location for my own gallery and I'm so uncomfortable representing my own work that I need a middleman," Mr. Bramhall says. The well-known Island artist depends on Carol Craven's marketing expertise. Mr. Bramhall has shown his work exclusively at the Carol Craven Gallery in Vineyard Haven since she opened her doors 14 years ago. Although he has relied on other galleries in the past, both on Martha's Vineyard and in major cities across the country, Mr. Bramhall focuses all his energy on Martha's Vineyard.
"Martha's Vineyard is my prime subject matter, so it works," he explains. "I enjoy showing at the Craven Gallery because Carol brings something unique to Martha's Vineyard - a breadth of high caliber work from New York that you just don't see at other galleries here."
While it's important for artists to feel comfortable with their gallery environment, gallery owners have their own well-delineated criteria for selecting the artists they represent.
Ms. Craven reviews the artists' work and looks first for technical mastery. "I want an artist who knows how to paint, draw or sculpt - someone who has the ability to be the best at what they're doing. Many of my artists are self-taught but they have wonderful ideas they can execute." There also must be a thread that joins that artist with the others in her gallery, she says.
Cindy Kane, a self-taught Island artist who is known for her remarkable paintings and installations, also shows her work at Carol Craven Gallery. She, too, applauds Ms. Craven's high-quality cadre of artists and her support for their evolution. "Carol gives me lots of room to develop as an artist and even provides a venue for my work that is unlikely to sell," says Ms. Kane.
Photo by Tyson Trish
Abstract landscape painter Wendy Weldon and Nancy Shaw Cramer of Shaw Cramer Gallery have developed a close and rewarding partnership over the past seven years. Ms. Weldon, whose luminous acrylic canvases attract a capacity crowd for her openings each summer at Shaw Cramer, located in Vineyard Haven, has been showing her work since the late 1960s.
"The key to our relationship is that we get along well, we communicate openly and honestly with each other." Ms. Weldon says.
Ms. Shaw Cramer concurs: "You and your artist are a business team. It's a fine balance. You need integrity on all sides."
Emerging artist Max Decker of West Tisbury and New York has found this balance in his relationship with Michael Hunter, owner of PIKNIK Art & Apparel in the Arts District of Oak Bluffs. At 26, Mr. Decker is a Vineyard native and a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He is one of Martha's Vineyard's younger artists, but one who has attracted a great deal of buzz.
Photo by CK Wolfson
Mr. Hunter, the enthusiastic force behind PIKNIK, a boutique and gallery featuring an eclectic and high-end array of contemporary art, decorative accessories, jewelry and clothing, spotted Mr. Decker's exhibit at the Vineyard Artisans Festival several years ago and recruited him. "I enjoy showing the work of younger or emerging artists," he says. He is unmistakably proud of Mr. Decker's work and clearly an aggressive advocate of his talent.
Mr. Decker credits Mr. Hunter with enabling him to paint fewer but higher quality works. "I used to generate a ton of paintings to keep up with demand at the Artisans Festival," he says. "Now I can paint more carefully. Michael has helped me figure out a direction without imposing."
Elizabeth Eisenhauer of Edgartown's Eisenhauer Gallery uses her highly developed instincts to choose artists for her downtown gallery. "I have to have a knee-jerk reaction," she says. "I look at an image and have to love it and want to own it." Beyond her response to the work, she says she has to feel an emotional connection to the artist.
Holly Alaimo, owner of Dragonfly Gallery, also in the Oak Bluffs Arts District, echoes Ms. Eisenhauer's sentiments. "I have to really connect to the artist's work and to them, and vice-versa," Ms. Alaimo explains. "My relationship with my artists is very friendly and informal so that comfort level is important. Beyond that, their work has to fit into the work of other artists in the space."
In 1990, Andrew Moore opened the doors at his own gallery in Harthaven, Oak Bluffs. This highly acclaimed realist painter says he'd had great experiences with Island galleries but that his manner of painting dictated his choice.
"I may only produce four paintings in a year, so giving up 50 percent commission just doesn't enable me to pay my bills," he says. In addition, Mr. Moore relishes the creative freedom he has as his own gallery director. "If I want to spend all year on a single painting, I can. It may not be practical, but it's my choice." Although he acknowledges that an outside gallery might broaden his exposure and allow him more hours to paint, he feels that his choice is the right one for him at present.
Lisa Brown, a fine art photographer who markets her work as L.A. Brown, has relied on her entrepreneurial talents to create an image and promote her products and services. Although she has shown her fine art images at several Island galleries, Ms. Brown has opts to represent herself at the Artisans Festival. "I really enjoy my client relationships," she explains. "I've sold more work on an ongoing basis due to personal rapport than I think I would at a brief show at a gallery. People buy from me because they know me and like to support my work."
Although she says she has felt pressure from other artists to seek gallery representation for more status, Ms. Brown feels she is careful about her image and is simply being a savvy businesswoman. "I'm not beholden to how someone else wants to represent my work. I like being captain of my own ship," she says.
Although Martha's Vineyard may be small, it offers a plethora of choices for artists seeking to show their work. All it takes, according to this handful of artists and gallery owners, is commitment, confidence, and a little experimentation.
Karla Araujo is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The Martha's Vineyard Times.