Monday, February 2, 2009

Starving Artists: Some People Just Didn't Get It

After seeing the ad on TV I thought, "That might be an interesting place to get a few snaps of people buying trailer trash art."

The day after I brought my cameras and a digital recorder to absorb and record the scene, I pitched the story idea to my editors and set the hook.

After it was published methinks some readers, friends and art snobs didn't quite make it to the end of the story before taking issue with the issue.

My first draft, below, had a bit more of an edge to it, which was purged mercilessly and published in a more buttoned-down version:

Local gallery owners would drool over crowds like this. Willing and eager art buyers with checkbooks in hand, swarming and snaking between row upon row of sofa-size paintings of landscapes, seascapes, European cityscapes and an occasional classical nude. And nothing over $59.

It's the annual "Starving Artist Group Art Sale," held twice this month in a swank, mid-size Marriott Hotel conference room.

Perhaps if Wichita galleries displayed art by leaning it on chairs perched on folding tables and stacked other paintings on the floor, they, too, might attract droves of art buying patrons in these trouble economic times.

A typical 30% gallery commission would only net $18 for a single $59 painting, but multiply that by, let's say, 300 paying art connoisseurs, that would net a gallery $5,400 in five hours. Not bad considering the only overhead is wine and cheese.
Of course, this isn't how galleries operate. They hang paintings on the wall; they serve hors d'oeuvres and wine at their hoity-toity openings, receptions and gallery crawls, but otherwise are silent as morgues.

Far from the gallery experience, this is art shopping on steroids.

If you see a painting you like, you better grab it now or it'll be gone on your next lap. Unless, of course, the Starving Artists Group swings back though town with a second truckload of original paintings from the Houston warehouse next weekend, like they did last weekend and the weekend before that.

Highbrow art this isn't. It's art for the common man; for those who rarely, if ever, encounter an actual art gallery.

For anyone looking for something to go with new carpet or drapes, odds are good they'll find it here, particularly if the subject matter is less important than dimension or color scheme. Looking for a Parisian cityscape? The same Eiffel tower graces dozens in a variety of colors and sizes.

Better hurry. It's only between 11:00 AM and 4:00 PM at the Marriott Hotel. Who knows when these starving artists will bring their masterpieces back to town?

The "Starving Artist Group Art Sale" certainly strikes a chord with a broad swath of art buyers. After one successful sale two weeks ago, Starving Artist Group Art Sale manager Daniel Mansour, a University of Houston biology student, brought a second truckload of paintings to Wichita last weekend to satisfy the local demand for "original" paintings. Apparently the tight economic times have not hindered the art market in Wichita.
No doubt about it, people liked what they saw.

Joanna Cassidy was looking for something to go in her recently remodeled a bedroom.

"Oh, they're beautiful, absolutely wonderful," she gushed while deciding between two paintings for a repainted bedroom. "I'm looking for colors to bring out the color of the comforter I just bought."

Tom Newman was flipping through paintings with his wife Dawn and knew exactly what he wanted.
"I'm looking for a couch-sized painting of sailing ships with a seas and skies background," he said . "I've been looking for one for years and I haven found one that I can afford." Otherwise, Tom said, they were looking for something that simply caught their eye. They clearly had no intention of walking away empty-handed.

Bryan and Andrea Blundell of Park City were scouting for some traditional, classical style paintings for their refinished basement. "I am curious about how local some of these artists are," Andrea said. "Especially the paintings we get, to know a little bit about the artist."

Sales manager Mansour said the Houston-based company he works for travels the country once a year bringing the inexpensive art to the masses.

"We brought a 28-foot box truck full of paintings," Mansour said during the first of two sales at the Marriott this month. "it's a lot of work." He estimates the total to be about 1,500 paintings on this particular trip.

"Where do the paintings come from? Um, I'm not sure," he said when quiried. "The only thing I'm here for is managing the actual show itself. I can't really tell you where they come from; I don't really know. I assume artists send them in, or, you know, I'm not sure I know.... I'm pretty sure they come from the States. I assume so. I'm not really sure where they come from."

Actually, the paintings come from Asia, most likely China, syndicated art columnist Dr. Lori Verderame, a certified fine art and antiques appraiser and east-coast television personality, said during a telephone interview.

Verderame says on her website, "...Factory workers stand, for hours at a time, in front of machines that support a long roll of blank canvas. With brushes and paint, each worker is responsible for painting one image or portion of a painting's entire composition."

During a telephone interview, Dr. Lori said the paintings are easy to spot. "They're cheap and they're the same," she said. "The materials are cheap, the compositions are alike, the way the brush strokes are put together. You can see they are done by many different hands."

Stephen Gleissner, chief curator for the Wichita Art Museum, pointed out, however, that mass produced art has been generated at least since the Renaissance. Artists like Van Dyck and Reubens had studios of skilled specialists, either students or paid sub-contractors, who followed the master's direction in filling in the details of what, today, are pricey masterpieces.

"It wasn't a fraud," he said. "It was the system." The Master, he said, would sketch out the basics of a portrait, for instance, and instruct the specialist in how he wanted the background or foreground to be painted.

The difference, Gleissner said, between Reubens's studio workshop system -- with students and apprentices working under the master's direction -- and the assembly line style of paintings produced in Asia for Starving Artists sales, is the lack of the master overseer. Rather, he said, "They're working from a formula, not from an original artist's directions."

"But if it's meaningful to some people's lives," he said, "What's wrong with that?"

Kevin Mullins, exhibitions curator for the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University was equally magnanimous.

"I think the value of art is in the beholder," he said. "It translates into how you perceive things and how you value things. If you value a painting, which normally one thinks of as a one-of-a-kind object, or if you value a painting that is one of many copies produced in the course of minutes rather than days or weeks, then that's fine. Those are your values."

Most of our clothes, sneakers and home electronics are manufactured in China, so the fact that the paintings are being produced there isn't a big issue with Mullins. "A lot of them (the painters) are classically trained artists, and this is how they make their living."
Considering that the majority of Chinese live in poverty, the "Starving Artist" claim may not be all that far from the truth.

Mullins said buyers looking for an art bargain would be well served looking at local artwork. "I'm not saying they should buy it," he said, "but at least they can see what people are doing who aspire to being called an artist."

"Every year here at WSU there are two Pottery sales of student work," he said, "and there's a print sale, and because of the nature of prints, because they are multiples, they can be sold much cheaper than a painting."

And Dr. Lori agreed. "It's an unfortunate profile of the American art consumer because you won't see these people coming out in these kinds of numbers for a student exhibit at any of the nation's major art schools," she said. "You don't see the same reaction to it, you don't see people collecting art from those students who will undoubtedly be the next Jackson Pollack, the next Gerogia O'Keefe of the next decade."

Mullins suggested people are eventually drawn to the Starving Artists sales because of successfull marketing, again echoing Dr. Lori's concerns.

"There's so much good art out there to be had," she said, "and a lot of people might say 'these are not people who would go to a gallery,' then the galleries are failing, because everyone should feel comfortable going into museums and galleries."

Dr. Lori also suggested the appeal of the Starving Artists sale is the shopping experience. "It's for the event, for the experience of going to the Starving Artists sales. It's a social event, a social experience. It's the same thing as the Wichita Art crawl. On a Friday night you can go out and see the art. No harm, no foul -- go!"

The bottom line for Andrea and Bryan Blundell was, indeed, the bottom line. "It can be so expensive, buying a nice decent-size painting in a store somewhere," she said. "It can be extremely expensive, so that's what drew us -- nothing over $59."