Be nice. This simple and self-evident maxim was one of many takeaways from the PhotoPlus Expo seminar, “Your Picture on the Wall: Building a Career in Fine-art Photography,” which was held on Thursday, October 30 at the Javits Center in New York City.
Hosted by collector, curator and former gallerist W.M. Hunt, the panel included gallerists with different ideas and interests: Andrea Meislin and Sasha Wolf from New York, and Catherine Edelman from Chicago. While they may show different work, the gallerists all agreed that being pleasant and respectful goes a long way when you are trying to get a gallerist interested in your work.
Wolff told a story about an artist who came to all of her openings, was enthusiastic and pleasant, and all the while never asked to show Wolf her work. Instead, it was Wolf who asked to see her work.
Hunt recalled a letter he received from an artist who praised a talk he gave. The artist never mentioned his own work. “It was implicit that he wanted me to champion his work, but he didn’t ask for it,” Hunt says. Showing an appreciation for a gallerist’s time and the work they show, and being able to talk about how your own work might fit, shows that an artist has done some homework and has “an appreciation” for the gallerist, Hunt noted.
Appreciating the work a gallerist does also came up when the panel discussed the issue of exclusivity. Each said they preferred, and Wolf insisted, that they be the “home” gallery for the artists they represent. That means they handle responsibilities like recordkeeping, exhibition production and business for their artists. This didn’t mean they aren’t willing to have the artist show with other galleries, the panelists said. They just want all of those arrangements channeled through them. Edelman noted that she’d lost exclusive artists to galleries in New York City. She advised that artists not “use dealers” as stepping stones to larger galleries. “It’s a small world and we know each other,” Edelman noted.
On the perpetual question of print pricing, sizing and editions, Meislin suggested that photographers not offer images in more than two sizes, and said she doesn’t want the total number of prints available of a single image to exceed 10. “The smaller [the edition] the better,” she said. Wolf agreed, saying that collectors “feel good knowing that they have one of not very many.” She, too, felt that two sizes of prints was a good bet. She also added that she prices the work of artists who are new to her gallery based on the career they’ve had and what collections have purchased their work. She also looks at other artists who are at similar points in their careers. Meislin added that she also considers how much money goes into producing the work.
Artists should “have feeling about it,” Hunt said of their pricing. Artists should have done their homework and have an opinion, otherwise the conversation about pricing becomes “cumbersome,” he said.
All of the panelists agreed that image sizes should be appropriate for the work, and that big prints weren’t necessary or even preferred. Wolf talked about artist Bryan Schutmaat’s show, currently on view at her gallery. His portraits of people living rough lives in the West wouldn’t work as large prints, she said. But at the right size they are beautiful and powerful.
Edelman reminded the audience that artists can “always raise prices but can’t lower them.” Photographers should start low, and if an edition sells quickly the price should increase slowly.
The panelists also discussed making prints for special editions of books and for charity sales. Edelman said that when one of her artists wanted to offer a print with a special-edition book, she and the artist chose an image from an edition that was already sold out. That way they weren’t undercutting the market for the larger print of that image. (The print was also made at a smaller size for the book.) Hunt says that when photographers want to donate works to charity auctions, he advises them to print them differently and in “a weird size.” He also suggested they write all over the back of a print specifying that it was created for charity, and consider creating an edition specifically for donation purposes.
An audience member asked who should be responsible for framing, and all of the gallerists had different answers. Meislin said she expected artists to handle 50 percent of the production costs, and that she would front the artist’s 50 percent if necessary, but would recoup those costs when sales were made.
Edelman says she tries to get her artists to pay for production, but will ultimately pay for everything if an artist needs that. She noted that she’ll recoup the framing expenses when an artist sells a framed print if she’s paid for the production.
Wolf said she doesn’t want to pay for production, but she will. She reminded artists to keep in mind that they are not “in our league” in terms of the overhead gallerists have to come up with each month to keep their galleries open.
MFAs aren’t necessary, the panelists agreed. But they also agreed there was value in an MFA degree, not only creatively, but in the network it provides artists. Wolf noted that MFA teachers will call her to recommend artists.
To close, Hunt asked what had changed recently in the fine-art photography business. Wolf got the last word. “Tragedy abounds,” she said jokingly. “But I feel blessed, no matter what little things change.”
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