Karin Wilson: The Art of Selling Art
In 1962 they were 21 Canadian artists worthy of note on the cover of Issue No. 78 of Canadian Art. Among them, William Kurelek, a young Albertan whose surrealism caught the attention of the art world and later become one of the country's most honoured artists when he died in 1977.
Those were days when Canadian art barely scored an international note. For Kurelek, and others, those days are long gone. Canadian art now commands prices well into the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. Auction houses like Heffel Fine Art Auction House in Vancouver have seen their sales grow exponentially from $2.5 million in 2001 to $11.8 million last fall. But it's not only Canadians that are starting to value our art; the international community is taking note as well. Media baron Kenneth Thomson put the world on notice in 2002 that the Canadian art world was changing when he paid $5-million for Paul Kane's Scene in the Northwest. Not too long after, an Emily Carr painting went for $1.1 million and works by Lawren Stewart Harris now regularly surpass the $1-million mark.
Clearly, selling art in Canada has changed, and it's having an effect on how galleries in Kelowna look at both artists, and the art of selling.
"It's like there was a glass ceiling on Canadian art," says Stewart Turcotte, owner of Hambleton Galleries. "Every other nation has their great artists - Manet, Monet and Degas in France, in Spain Miro and Picasso, Holland has Rembrandt and the U.S. Jackson Pollock. Works from these countries have been going for $50-million to $200-million. But now we're just breaking through the $2-million mark. Clearly there is a lot of room for growth."
The art lies in determining which artists are worthy of investment, and when the big auction houses like Heffel take in the obvious artists, that leaves smaller galleries with the challenge of finding their own niche.
"It's a bit learning curve," admits Peter Werner, who left the oil patch industry to pursue his passion for the arts seven years ago with the opening of The Art Ark.
Every three to four months, Werner sits down to review various portfolios with his committee. They examine the work for technical skill, and then try to determine if it fits the gallery's niche which sits in the rather broad category of contemporary. Outside of the few photographers he represents, Werner shies away from realism. The 50 artists he works with are all based in Western Canada, so the images they paint tend to reflect the regions - an attractive quality for the tourists who make up 60 per cent of Werner's clientele.
In contrast, realism makes up a large part of the art available at Evan's Gallery, which is now in its 21st year. Like Werner, limited edition prints are largely passť. People want art they can touch, and see the brush strokes. But the subject matter itself is realistic, which seems to satisfy the Evans' more conservative clientele.
"We carry very little modern," says partner Wayne Evans. "The valley is traditional, traditional. It's very conservative. There have been times that we've made numerous attempts to move away from that, but it's still pretty conservative here. Abstract is still out there somewhere." Realism works because it fits in with other aspects of the home, but there still needs to be a unique quality. Wayne and Julie Evans find that by selecting local artists such as Laila Campbell and Robyn Lake who interpret valley themes such as wineries and landscapes through a soft lens.
Werner believes there's an arch of sorts to the art buyer. People tend to start out with realism - there's safety in buying something that is recognizable. Then as people push their own artistic boundaries, colours and shapes become more extreme, and before too long people land in the abstract. The fly in the ointment is North American culture which still tends towards wondering what others will think about what's on their walls, and as a result realism has a stronger hold here than elsewhere.
But when it's all so subjective, how can any gallery owner know that they are picking out something not only worthy of attention, but even investment.
Turcotte says it's really quiet simple. One of his favourite arts - Robert Genn - developed a list of characteristics that every painting should have and he rattles off the points - graduations that attract, enfold and please, curves that are more sensual than straight, patterns that fascinate, involve and deceive, symmetry, whorls and vortexes, soft edges, even spikes and spines that provide elements of discomfort and unease. Those are just aspects of the painting itself. The design has to hit a further list of high notes including harmony, elegance, control of the viewer's eye, strength, and personality.
"You have to look and be quite analytical," Turcotte says. "You've got to have all the good points. I can't let my personal opinion overpower my professional opinion."
There's no question, Canadian buyers are becoming more sophisticated, and the ones with money want to spend it wisely. They're not interested in art "under glass". They want originals. They want texture. Galleries are trying to deliver that, while at the same time trying to remove the stuffy exterior that sometimes prevents people from walking through the door. It's a tough sell. After all, art isn't exactly on every street corner. Our banks are plastered with posters selling RRSPs rather than paintings that evoke feelings. But the fact that people around the world now consider Canadian art, even abstract Canadian art, worth millions, times could be changing.