Trials, Tribulations and Successes of a Gallerist
John Pancake, who is the Arts Editor at the Washington Post, once told me that he felt that running an art gallery was a heroic act.
I don't know about that, but running an independent, commercial fine arts gallery certainly takes a lot of commitment, truckloads of patience, an understanding of what running a business really means (while hopefully contributing to many different understandings of what a cultural discourse truly represents), an ability to share both in the triumph and failure of artists, an immense poker face when telling an artist who has just been destroyed in a review: "Don't worry, a bad review is better than no review at all," endless gritting of teeth from refraining in choking to death the next person (who's never run a gallery) who insists on giving you nonsensical advice on how to run a gallery, and the great sense of relief that floods in when one of your artists does well and succeeds.
A few days ago, as I was driving home after meeting with our accountant and reviewing the year and preparing for 2006, a few things popped into my head about some of the trials and tribulations and successes since we opened the first Fraser Gallery in 1996 in Georgetown.
First, this popped into my head:
Now is the winter of our discontentSo I shook my head to clear Will out of it and then recalled...
Made glorious summer by this sun of York;
And all the clouds that lour'd upon our house
In the deep bosom of the ocean buried.
Now are our brows bound with victorious wreaths;
Our bruised arms hung up for monuments;
Our stern alarums chang'd to merry meetings,
Our dreadful marches to delightful measures.
Grim-visag'd war hath smooth'd his wrinkled front;
And now,--instead of mounting barbed steeds
To fright the souls of fearful adversaries,--
He capers nimbly in a lady's chamber
To the lascivious pleasing of a lute.
- The know-it-all art hanger-on who walked into our first gallery in 1996, looked around and said: "I give you six months."
- Our second show ever, by a brilliantly talented printmaker named Grant Silverstein. We sold dozens and dozens of etchings and thought to ourselves: "WOW, this gallery business is going to be a piece of cake!"
- A huge article in the Washington Post announcing the opening of our Georgetown gallery. We then thought to ourselves: "WOW, it's great getting all this newspaper coverage!"
- How we managed to survive one long summer in 1997 without a single sale! Thank God for our financial backers: Mrs. Visa and Mr. Mastercard!
- How, every year since we opened in 1996, has seen a rise in sales and 2005 was our best year ever.
- The time that a couple came into the Bethesda gallery, he complaining of the price of an omelette at the Original Pancake House, and then he buying out the entire exhibition!
- The artist who complained because we were selling too much of the artist's work.
- The photographer who didn't want to exhibit his work because his photograph didn't sell immediately in a previous group show.
- The young man, who while looking at black and white infrared photographs of Scotland actually asked if everything in Scotland was really black and white.
- The hundreds of people through the years who stand at the front of the door and ask how much does it cost to come in.
- The photographer who shipped a massive photograph, framed under glass in a flimsy cardboard box without any protection and then almost had convulsions when informed that his work had arrived nearly demolished.
- The painter who shipped his small painting is a massive wooden crate meriting inclusion in the Fort Knox Hall of Fame, and paid more for shipping than the painting's price.
- The joy and pride caused by the first time that a museum acquired one of our artists' works.
- The guy who knocked a framed piece down, broke the glass in the fall, and then said: "It was broken before it fell."
- The afternoon before that night's opening when the entire ceiling in the gallery space collapsed because the air conditioning unit's drain pan had been installed backwards. Somehow the entire ceiling was rebuilt in a couple of hours and the opening took place without any problems.
- The time that it rained so hard in Georgetown that the Canal Square flooded and there was a foot of water in each gallery and we ran in and out to rescue the artwork; all the while electric wiring was underwater and hot.
- The time that we arrived at the new gallery in Bethesda to find the new $15,000 wooden floor completely flooded by rainwater.
- The time, after the foundation leaks had been fixed, and a new wooden floor installed to replace the damaged one, when we arrived at the same gallery to find the new floor flooded again from a new hole in the foundation.
- The time that the gallery flooded a third and fourth time from (a) the wrong filter for the A/C unit or (b) leak in the roof.
- The many times that we thanked God because in all these floods not a single piece of artwork was damaged.
- The famous multimillionare who (after attempting to haggle for a photograph selling for $300), said: "If I have this delivered to Great Falls, can I save on the sales tax?"
- The California collector who bought an $11,000 painting on the Internet, sight unseen.
- The three different curators from a museum out West, who flew on three different occasions to see an artist's show, and were gagga over a particular sculpture (priced at $2500) and then, after spending God knows how much money on flights and per diem, asked that it be donated to the museum, as they were short on acquisition funds.
- The art critic who made 61 cell phone calls over a 24 hour period to ask (and re-ask) some very basic questions which could have been answered by reading the press release, and killed my cell phone minutes allowance for that month in one day.
- The many people and writers and critics who made appointments on Sundays and Mondays or during odd hours and then never show up.
- The lawyer from New York who keeps calling trying to find certain gallerists no longer in business who have ripped off his clients years and years ago.
- The poor artist(s) who always show up at a crowded opening and want you to look at his or her portfolio.
- The super rich artist-wanna-be who always shows up at a crowded opening, wants you to look at his or her photographs of an African safari and asks: "What does one have to do to sell stuff in this store?"
- The delight in the face and eyes of an art student making his or her first gallery sale ever.
- The first time that we got a review in a national art magazine.
- The artist who planned her American debut for an entire year and then wasn't allowed to travel to the US for her opening, which sold out before the show opened.
- The time that the man hole cover blew up in Georgetown in front of the gallery, starting an underground fire, closing the neighborhood down and ruining the opening.
- The second time that another man hole cover blew up in Georgetown in front of the gallery, starting an underground fire, closing the neighborhood down and ruining another opening.
- The time that an electrical power outage shot down all of Georgetown and ruined our Frida Kahlo exhibition's opening.
- The first time that a show sold out before it actually opened up to the public.
- The people who ask every once in a while: "Does anyone actually, ever buy art?" And the many times that we actually ponder the same question.
- The time that the really expensive magazine ad had the wrong opening date.
- The local museum curator who never comes down to DC galleries, but who acquired one of our artist's works while it was on loan to another gallery in another city.
- The first time that a museum asked to borrow work for an exhibition.
- The collector who said on the phone: "Just pick one of her paintings that you'd think I would like and put a dot on it."
- The first time that one of our artists received a review in the New York Times.
- The time that the city fathers of Washington, DC wanted to prohibit galleries from serving wine at the openings.
- The many times that someone offers us money to host their exhibition. And the many times that we then see that "artist" exhibiting that vanity exhibition in another gallery in town.
- The first time that a museum in another country acquired work by one of our artists.
- The first time that a museum asked for one of our exhibitions to travel to the museum.
- The rich "artist" who wanted us to exhibit her really ugly paintings; each one boasted to have over $60,000 of precious stones embedded into the thick, impasto paint.
- The grubs who come to the opening, look around the space (not at the art) and then ask: "Where's the food?"
- The time that Sotheby's asked us to become an Associate Dealer, and how we managed to create over 800 secondary art market sales for emerging DC area artists.
- The time that a collector wanted to buy a nude painting of a man, but wanted the artist to paint over the genitalia.
- The amazing number of times that it either snows or rains on opening night.
- The time that a furor was created in Bethesda over our exhibition of huge paintings of very large, nude women.
- The first time that one of our exhibitions was featured on television.
- The first time that we got a review in an international art magazine.
- The time that I handed back a photograph to the photographer who wanted me to look at it. He/she dropped it a few minutes later, broke the glass and scratched the photo and then wanted to have our insurance pay for it.
- The dozens and dozens of "collectors" from Nigeria who email us everyday and who want to buy everything in our "art store" if only we send them our banking details so that they can wire the payments to it.
- How, after nearly ten years as a gallerist, there are still art critics or writers, who apparently write about DC art, DC artists and DC galleries, and yet I've never met and as far as I know have never set foot in our galleries.
- The many times that someone walks either into our Bethesda gallery or our Georgetown gallery and says: "I didn't know there were any galleries around here."
- The invited curator who "curated" a show of mostly his friends and colleagues.
- The other invited curator who put together one of the most amazing juried shows ever staged in our gallery.
- The still incredible fact that our website gets over a million hits a month, and every month it kills my bandwidth allotment.