Saturday, September 26, 2009

Becoming Part of the Story - Myth, Reality, Talent and Dirty Socks

Much of the rationalization for why people buy art is the story behind the piece, or the collector’s discovery of the piece. As beautiful or special as a collector finds a work of art, at the end of the day he or she is fundamentally looking for a story to tell. Something that communicates why the work has personal value to the collector or what makes it stand out within a larger collection. Sometimes a collector will have a powerful personal response to a work - a reaction so strong that they have little choice, but to acquire it. More often, the decision to invest is a combination of appreciation on the part of the collector, salesmanship, and the mystique of the artist.

It’s a funny thing to realize that Steven’s personality is a marketable commodity, but we’ve been in the business long enough to know that it’s a fundamental part of the game. More polished galleries play the artist card as the ultimate trump play to close a big sale or to woo a new collector. Since Steven’s studio is an active part of the gallery, we don’t have the same opportunity to communicate a sense of exclusivity or reserve. While Steven would like nothing more than to eventually mature into an eccentric recluse who barely supports visits by the public in the midst of a cider and glam-rock haze, the reality is that we currently balance the need to preserve an aura of reverence about his personality alongside his remarkable accessibility.

Our frequent compromise is that Steven works in the gallery, while other staff approaches visitors to speak about him with appropriate distinction and deference. It’s through this practice that the legend of “Steven Whyte the Sculptor” or “The Artist Steven Whyte” has developed. While compiled of facts regarding commissions, training and accomplishments, the myth we share with visitors is a marketing tool and is a world away form the flesh and blood reality of the man who seems physically addicted to leaving his socks in the hallway of the house.

I think it’s for this reason that it’s such a funny surprise when the myth takes hold in a powerful manner. We had a couple of remarkable visitors walk in the door this week that can only be linked to growing reputation and word of mouth - truly contacts that Steven has dreamed of making for the entirety of his career. And just like that, myth and reality become one and the same.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Waiting and Creating

One of the things that often surprises people about our work in the gallery is how similar it is to any other business. Since we also have the studio component, our business plan is different than most traditional galleries. Beyond simple retail sales we spend a huge amount of time pursuing contracts for large scale public and private commissions. In these efforts, we are like any other product-based business. We make phone calls, draft proposals, try to identify new venues and in the end spend a lot of time trying to pitch our work.

What makes it slightly different is that rather than just send off a proposal, Steven almost always creates a model for every perspective project. By the time we’ve discussed the possible design, researched the site and subject, and the model or maquette is finished we’ve become pretty attached to the whole concept. It’s not just the idea of winning the project for its financial benefits, although that’s certainly always there, it’s also the desire to be able to see the creation take shape and to have the vision become reality.

The fact that we make figurative work just adds to the bizarre sense of creation and stalled gestation. The studio is full of the scale models of possible monuments, 1/6 scale figures that never got to assume the heroic scale for which they were meant. Sometimes, we just break down the clay and use it to build something else. Other times we’ll hold on to it in the belief that we’ll find a home for the idea at some unknown point and place in the future. The end result is that we have a workspace full of homeless unfinished figures. If we weren’t so busy, it could be a little depressing.

Some of the figures are merely waiting, designs for contracts that are “just about to be” finalized. Here too we’re like any other business – waiting for the initial contact to take shape, judging if there’s enough interest, and enough funding. A series of exciting phone calls can have us celebrating for a week. But, even then, the reality of making massive bronze structures is that there are still site considerations, planning permission and frequently several civic or governmental organizations that have to be convinced. It’s a long, drawn-out and delay-prone process. Steven often says that the sculpting part is the easy part. It’s certainly less time consuming.

You constantly feel as though you’re on the precipice. This summer and fall we sit waiting for decisions on three projects that would fundamentally change everything. It’s an exciting time that is wonderfully ripe with possibility. But, there is always the waiting, the fear and the memories of past experiences that weigh equally between successes and ideas that just faded away.

At least now the projects we’re waiting for are much bigger than they used to be.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Auction for the Arts: The Difficult Balance of Creativity, Finances and New Traditions

We participated in the first annual Carmel Treasures Auction for the Arts events this weekend and the aftermath is such a mixed bag of tricks. The event was beautiful and well organized, but not particularly successful in terms of sales or fund-raising.

The whole night was very symbolic of a current trend in so many industries, where nothing can be launched, sold, or introduced without the presence of food and wine. Steven and I are both semi-professional appreciators of tasty drinks and dishes, but living in a community like Carmel, which is equally celebrated for fine food and fine art, it can be difficult to focus attention on the art work and distract from the concentration on food and wine.

Art seems to suffer particularly from this connection, paintings and sculpture are appreciated passively and museums and exhibitions often add to the perception that art is there to beautify and appreciate, but isn't necessarily something that you buy. The difficultly is that without collectors and patrons new art would cease to be created or produced.

It’s a conflict in many ways, even for those “in the business.” As artists or agents you can quickly appreciate the value of a piece its creativity, skill level, quality, or collectability (code for investment value) of an item, but that’s not the same thing as being able to afford a piece. The result is that when you go to an auction as a participant, not as a bidder, you spend a lot of time yearning for the $40,000 painting, that is a steal for $25,000 and sharing empathy with the painter or agent since today’s economy means that they won’t even earn the asking price. The skill is being able to communicate your knowledge and perception to an appropriate individual, but sadly such folk are a little hard to find these days.

The Treasures event also had me pondering the difficulty of establishing new traditions, particularly in the current economy. The Central Coast has a couple of occasions that mark the calendar year and bring locals and visitors out into restaurants, shops, etc. They’re institutions now, the kind of events you block out a week for every year, but I wonder if they also struggled at first and how they managed to keep on and eventually succeed. When the first Concours d’Elegance was held at Pebble Beach, did people think it was ridiculous to drive a bunch of pretty cars out to park on a bluff by the ocean?

How do we encourage creativity and new traditions for our community with the understanding the immediate success in unlikely? How do you cultivate interest, appreciation and attendance alongside likely buyers? Is there an appropriate balance between the broader goal of collective appreciation and the necessity of private ownership?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Molding: Messy, Risky, but Glorious

The creation of cast-bronze sculpture is a multi-step process. Sometimes the production side of it seems to overpower, intimidate and out-cost the sculpting process. Visitors to the studio seem to generally understand that Steven develops the pieces from clay, but the stages that follow often lead to great confusion.

Granted, there is a slight Rumpelstiltskin quality to the idea that what starts out as clay somehow becomes bronze. But fairy tales aside, each sculpture has to be molded before it can be cast. It’s a messy, complicated and stressful process and we've been in the midst of it for most of the week.

Even with the mess and worry, there is a certain celebratory factor to mold making. Foremost the creation of the mold heralds the completion of the sculpture. But the more emotional side of mold making is the whole staff involvement, the related drama and risk, and fundamentally the acknowledgment that producing the mold is powerfully representative of being a producing sculptor and studio.

Only a few years ago when Steven was first attempting to produce his own work, the cost and complications of molding were a huge obstacle. One year for Christmas my parents, as a gift, helped him buy some rubber so that he could mold some sculptures. And there was a birthday party he was late for because the excitement of having finally been able to open a mold he had made was a better present than any he anticipated receiving at the party.

The mold holds the entire story of each sculpture. It protects each stroke of texture, every element of created character and evocative detail. A good mold protects the sculpture’s legacy and allows the piece to be produced perfectly for the run of the edition. A bad mold destroys the sculpture and is an expensive waste of time and materials. I’ve seen Steven boast about a mold he’s made with equal pride to any sculpture. The mold itself is itself a work of art - a series of technical hurdles and tests to champion.

These days were lucky enough to be able to mold work as soon as Steven’s completed the sculpture. It’s an achievement and the launch of a new challenge all in one, but the process brings the whole studio staff together and is a constant reminder that we’re here, we’re making art and now we always have rubber on hand.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Calm After One Storm And Before The Next

It’s a strange nervous calm the follows the conclusion of two back to back shows. The feeling is very reminiscent of Christmas when you’re young - a lot of anticipation and preparation, followed by a few moments of pure joy and the overall amazement that after months of waiting and preparing for the event, it’s actually here and then so quickly over. It can be a little anti-climatic and a peculiarly sad.

Working in a community like Carmel these events take on an even stranger feel. Their attendance is mixed with the close friends who are so supportive of everything we do, new acquaintances that we hope to build into friendships, business connections that demand attention and of course the constant pressure and need for potential sales. It makes the whole venture very difficult to digest in the aftermath. You worry that you didn’t spend enough time with those close to you or that you were too cautious and spent all of your time talking to friends and not enough time building collectors.

More than anything I just wish there was time to appreciate. Steven’s work is displayed at the Sunset Center in Carmel. It’s an interesting venue and the work has a wonderful museum exhibition quality to it – the kind of space and show we’ve always wanted to have. It’s a great accomplishment, but it’s so hard to balance that with the built in self-criticism that comes from always thinking you could have improved on well, everything.

I sometimes wonder if the day will ever come when we finally feel like we’ve gotten to where we want to be – or if the nature of working for yourself just makes it impossible to stop striving, stop planning, stop critiquing.

We also had the second of our new Fine Art First Friday events last week. The evenings seem to be gaining in momentum and they’ve been a wonderful opportunity to bring a little life to nighttime Carmel. Steven and I have both enjoyed working more closely with the other galleries and artists. Like any other industry art is complicated in that your colleagues are also your competition. It can lead you to cultivate a kind of insulated existence and while you can really admire another artist’s work from afar you’re so busy cultivating your own collector base that you don’t have the time you might like to support other artists and you can be instinctually wary of any group projects or activities.

The First Friday program has us working with three other galleries and it’s been great to let our walls down a little bit. The next one is Friday, October 2 at 6:00 p.m. – stop in and visit if you’re in town.

Show Prep: The Artistry of Glue Covered Dogs and Good Friends

Another late night getting ready for another show where I spend the whole time thinking that there must be an easier way and that you would think that after so many events like this that we would have a better a handle on things.

As always, we are saved by the generosity of our friends and the commitment of the studio staff. But the whole process is just another reminder of how strangely unglamorous and messy the whole process is. When Steven and I are both cleaned up at an unveiling or other fancy event and a new acquaintance rhapsodizes about how blessed Steven is to have this amazing talent I often flash back to these moment when we are both too tired too speak straight and everyone including the dog is covered in paint, primer, glue and plaster not because we’ve been sculpting, but because we’re building pedestals for a show that just like every other show has snuck up on us. Sometimes I think the true talent is that we don’t fall down laughing when someone waxes on about the romance and magic of it all. If they only knew that Steven’s greatest pleasure this week has not come from progress on any piece of art, but instead over his new nail gun they might start to get a taste for the reality of it all.

The upside of the chaos is that it hides the bad and can overpower the good until it sneaks out as wonderful surprise. In the midst of trying to save some shopping from the torrent of construction dust (which yes, must all be completely gone by tomorrow’s show) I snuck into the office and found a sales form for a fairly significant sale. I asked Steven about it and he shrugged that it had come through this morning. It seems like just yesterday that we would have been calling both sets of our parents to exalt a sale like that as proof that it might work out after all. Now, it’s good news, but not nearly as important as the fact that all the primer is dry and we can do the second coat.