WHAT PRICE ART? A show where buyers could, should they wish, purchase a piece of art any price they like, and a show where we. as artists (or as the gallery) couldn’t negotiate. Whatever the buyer said went, no debate, no reaction in any way other than to accept the offer (with a thank you and hopefully a smile) and hand over the piece, sold for whatever price the buyer should deem fit (I would say what the buyer deemed the piece to be worth but clearly some people were paying what they could afford rather than what they thought the piece was worth – brilliant, I liked that that was happening).
The show (the exhibition? the event?) ended a couple of hours ago now (I started writing this, intending to put it up on the gallery blog page on the Sunday evening, straight after the show ended, too burnt out though, needed a little down time last night, this Cultivation business, as I have said before, really is a 24/7 thing, I’m tired!).
What Price Art? A four day show – no late night private view, no plying people with wine (well that’s what private views are about aren’t they?) just a gallery space open regular gallery hours – starting on a Thursday morning, running over a long weekend and ending at the regular closing time of 6pm on a Sunday – an always open gallery door policy late on on a Sunday afternoon in November is a serious brass monkey situation, it gets cold in there in the winter!
This wasn’t the first What Price Art show at Cultivate, last time around it was more of a publicised group affair, a show flagged up in plenty of time for artists to get involved and for (the few decent bits) of art media to react. Last time was interesting, last time felt like artists taking the opportunity to offload bits they didn’t really regard as significant work, a chance to offload pieces hanging around that they didn’t really care that much about anymore – that was fine, nothing wrong with a good clear out and we artists are very good at quickly loosing regard for our own work once we’ve done with making it, doesn’t mean others feel the same. Last time it was artists clearing out, this time I needed it to be just a little bit more than just that.
This time I (mostly) wanted to do it myself, a last minute word of mouth thing with pieces I really did regard as significant – recent pieces, favourite pieces if you like, some of my bigger canvas pieces (and bigger wooden packing-case pieces), as well as a selection of smaller canvas works, a couple of which I’d really quite like to keep for myself. Some smaller pieces that I might actually regard as being more significant and of worth than the bigger pieces that people seemed a little shocked to see in the show (bigger isn’t necessarily always better, isn’t always worth more). So this time around What Price Art was pretty much a solo show – a general last minute invite was left in the air for other artists to come join in should they be of a mind, only Julia Maddison did, that was fine, really didn’t want other artists forced out of their comfort zone. Last time around, the only time I really got out of my comfort zone was when another artist’s piece of work sold for a ridiculously low price, I was perfectly happy dealing with it in terms of my own pieces, but that really did make me well-up with anger, “she’s put far too much in to that piece for you to be buying it for so little!” is what I wanted to yell at the buyer – but rules had been set and anger had to be suppressed (ended up giving the artist in question a big piece of my own work, that I know she has previously said she had wanted to buy, gave it to her by way of an apology as I gave her the £7 paid for her piece).
And so, WHAT PRICE ART was announced on social media and such on the Monday, put up on the Wednesday and opened on the Thursday morning
Day one proved interesting, lots of healthy debate, some rather positive sales, people arriving early to get first pick, healthy responses and, well, lots of questions in the gallery that I kept saying I would not answer until the end of the show (like the constant question of what prices people were paying, was anyone taking the “piss” and such). I really didn’t want to answer any questions until the end, I didn’t want to influence people’s decision making, people were wanting to find out what others had offered before naming their own prices.
The rule was people could buy one piece of work for any price they care to offer, no debate, no negotiation, no response other than a polite thank you. The situation was clearly far more of an uncomfortable one for the viewers and especially for those who wanted to buy – and especially with the artist who working they were buying actually in the room – “it would be far easier if you weren’t here” said one person who in the end couldn’t name a price. The one piece rule really was to insure no one came in and bought the lot for a penny each, someone could easily have come along and cleared out the gallery on the morning if day one if they had been of a mind to, could have taken it all outside and has bonfire for less than a pound if they had wanted to, so we had a one piece only rule.
WHAT PRICE ART – THE RULES.
ALL WORK WITHIN THE EXHIBITION AREA IS FOR SALE.
THE BUYER NAMES THE PRICE – NO DISCUSION, NO NEGOTIATION, NO DEBATE – we will accept your offer with no argument
ONLY ONE PIECE PER PERSON PLEASE (The one piece rule was changed after the first day, people were genuinely wanting to buy more than one piece, so the rule became that they could buy a first piece without negotiation or debate, and once that transaction has happened, offers could be made on further pieces which I could accept or decline – for the record, none were declined, more later).
Ahead of the opening the notions of What Price Art got a few people going, a healthy amount of (sometimes rather vitriolic) e.mail and on-line rebuking. What is a “Jobbing Artist”? Why was the announcement of the show be “very bad news” for you “jobbing artists”? Why would anyone ever call themselves a “Jobbing Artist” anyway? I’d be very insulted if anyone ever called me anything as mundane as a “jobbing Artist”, I’d probably exclaim if I was in the habit of doing such a thing.
“Hi Sean, Its Alex (of the butterflies) here. Love the sound of this show – totally get it – getting people to question the value of art etc. exciting!”
So a number of artists voiced their discomfort, others, like Alex there, voiced their excitement, some voiced a hell of a lot more than discomfort (the more vocal clearly knew nothing of Cultivate or of me as an artist), the agent who was “disgusted” and who claimed he really “didn’t like the sound of it from the point of view of his artists”, made me warmly smile, the self-confessed “Jobbing artist” claimed “things like this and the ridiculously stupid Free Art Friday movement were really affecting her ability to sell her own art”. I really didn’t find anything like a decent argument amongst the negative responses. The discomfort for some is understandable, but then no one was forced to take part in the show, and there really are no rules to being an artist (that. Surely. is the only rule?).
I really enjoyed the show, I enjoyed the face to face conversation, this time it really wasn’t an uncomfortable experience for me as the artist, or for me as the gallery person, it could have been when people were buying other people’s art, but no, the art sold on behalf of other artists, sold to appreciative people at what I thought was very respectful prices. It clearly was uncomfortable for some viewers and especially those who were actually wanting to buy. Some people just couldn’t handle it, some said they really wanted to buy something but couldn’t name a price for fear of insulting me, others agonised for ages (one person went outside for a smoke while she got up the nerve), some people got really emotional, one got really angry with me for refusing to name a price or at least give an indication – until someone else informed her she has seen the piece she wanted in the gallery on-line shop and told her the price on line – she then, in a delighted tone, bought the piece for five pounds more than the on-line price and delightedly proclaimed “ha ha, I beat you”. One couple said they felt pressured in to buying a piece when they really were just passing and just wanted to look, that really hadn’t been the intention and I did try to leave people to just look and not explain the show to them unless they really wanted to talk about it (you get a sense of people want to talking in a gallery or not) – there were notices about the show on the door and the wall, I was disappointed to hear they felt pressured – art galleries should first and foremost be about just viewing and experiences the art, buying should always be a secondary thing, I take great pleasure in people just coming in and experiencing my art (or the art of others that we have chosen to show) for a moment or two, if someone buys something then great, we do have to live, paint does cost money, but selling is never the priority in a gallery space, people should always feel welcome to experience the art in Cultivate (please).
Someone commented that the show was brave. Someone else said it was ridiculous, two women very loudly proclaimed there to be “nothing worth even a pound in here”, another guy agonised for ages, then paid £20 and said he was poor and it really was all he had, he said he felt awful, I told him I was delighted (I genuinely was), he came back in, said he had found another £4 in his pocket and it would make him feel better if I took it, I refused, said I was more than happy with the original payment, but he insisted. I was a piece I had painted on the Friday outside the gallery on a big piece of wooden packing case, painted on a Friday, sold to what seemed to be a very appreciative buyer who had heard about the show and made a point of coming – brilliant, I hope he’s enjoying it, I enjoyed painting it and selling it to someone who really seemed to appreciate it and indeed appreciate “being able to buy a piece of original art for once” as he put it (I went over the road and bought a celebratory pint, it as my favourite transaction of the weekend).
One delightfully positive girl bought a piece on the first morning and then came back on the last day to say she was feeling “awfully guilty” and that she should have paid more, I was happy she bought the piece – she seemed to really appreciate it, I was pleased to see her leave with it under her arm, I was pleased to be paid a fair price for the piece.
I really enjoyed the four days, I’d would have loved to carry on for another weekend, add more pieces, make new pieces in the gallery and let the word spread a little more (I can’t we have one more show at Cultivate and it opens this Thursday, an affordable art group show called Art Is For Life, Not Just For Christmas – another show that questions the price of art, and hopefully makes original art accessible to most people – not all, some of us can’t afford to be paying even a pound for a piece of art, times are tough).
Over the weekend people bought twenty one of my pieces, along with two of the three pieces Julia Maddison added to the show on Saturday afternoon, and the last three SixOneSix knitting patterns we had left in the gallery. Julia seems happy with her sales, I though the prices paid for her work wa fair, not heard from SixOne Six but people know his prices, all there sold for £6.16. well one of them for £6, but that sixteen pence he always insists on does make people smile, and the buyer delighted in not paying it (he did put a couple of pound in the donation tin as he laughed about it). Of my twenty one pieces sold, I can honestly say no one abused the show (but then I would not have considered a 1p sale as abuse), no one was disrespectful – some pieces sold at a lower price than I would have normally priced them, some for higher prices, one for a considerably higher price. Lowest price paid for a canvas piece was £5, but to that person that was clearly a significant amount of money. Some of you knew my usual prices anyway and stuck to them. I was happy with every sale, everyone who bought a piece seemed to really appreciate it, every sale was a pleasure, it was a brilliant show to be involved in. The only time I got slightly uncomfortable was when a local junky came it having worked out he could “buy a painting for a penny and sell it outside to get my stuff man”, thankfully he decided it wasn’t viable, “don’t think I could sell it man, this stuff is too weird for me” (I don’t know, maybe that would have been interesting?), A person from another gallery did buy a couple of pieces, but hey, they were honest about what they were doing and said they wanted to be involved in the artistic process and the statement they thought I was making. I’m really sorry that some people found the process too uncomfortable, and although they wanted a piece, couldn’t name a price – we did give people the option of just putting a payment in a white envelope, and leaving it on the table, unopened until they had left, thus avoiding all discussion, no one took up that option. For those who really were too uncomfortable to take part, a lot of the smaller unsold pieces with be in the Art Is For Life, Not Just For Christmas affordable art show, at Cultivate, for the next three weeks, complete with discrete price labels. I was a little disappointed that some of the bigger pieces didn’t sell, seems, judging by what people were saying, that naming prices on the big ones was out of everyone’s comfort zones, I think I might have liked to have seen someone walking away with a big canvas piece purchased for a penny under their arm (maybe the two loud women were right and the big ones weren’t worth it). I did end up giving one big piece away to a really appreciative couple who spent ages debating which piece to buy, one argued for one piece, one for the other, they paid a more than generous price for the piece they settled on so I was happy to give them the big piece they clearly would have liked to have bought as well – they were delighted, almost tears of happiness in the gallery, I really did enjoy this show!
I really did enjoy the show, I enjoyed questioning the value of art, I welcomed all the face to face debate with people who had bothered to check out the event properly, I enjoyed the questions that made me think, I really enjoyed doing it, especially at this point in the Cultivate adventure. It was all over too quickly, done it now though, probably won’t ever do it again, as enjoyable as it was, it isn’t something that can be repeated too many times (got a few ideas for variations on the theme though, might even squeeze one of them in somewhere before the end of the year).
A big thank you to everyone who came along, a big thank you to everyone who bought a piece, a big thanks to Johnny Depp for dropping in (even though he didn’t buy a piece), thanks everyone. One more Cultivate show down Vyner Street then, I think I enjoyed this What Price Art week more than most of the weeks we’ve enjoyed in this beautifully frustrating space…