The Art Business, A Few Thoughts

Written in response to questions about the art business from artists and their partners, especially Joey, who wrote in this week-

When I think back twenty years on the early days of working in the galleries in New Orleans and Carmel, California, I remember the frustration of wanting to do things a certain way but not being able to because I was employed by George’s agent, and it was not my business. In those pre-computer times, I hand-wrote notes to clients on a daily basis and made weekly runs to Carmel Camera Center for photographs. Sandra (my co-worker) and I used to clip the new silkscreens onto a suction cup on the front door, waiting for the right light to take a photograph, because professional photos from Louisiana could take four to six weeks to process. In photos of original paintings, anyone who looked closely enough would see the base of the front door, as well as the sidewalk in the background.

A client called with questions, and in the time it took for us to take photographs, write letters, and process the mail, it could be five or six days before they received available images. And by that time, especially in the case of originals, paintings sold, and then we faced apologies and excuses. It was a hands-on business, not a mail order one. Because George never has wholesaled his work nor sold to other galleries, people dealt directly (as they do today) with the Carmel or New Orleans gallery to make a purchase. For several years I was one of five people in the world that might help someone purchase a Rodrigue. I think this process humanized not only us, but also George, and it’s the reason why, in these current days of Pay Pal and on-line shopping carts that we avoid selling on line. We’re old-fashioned, and we enjoy and value that personal contact with our clients, something lost with today’s ‘point and click.’

It’s interesting to me that many evenings when I scroll through that day’s QuickBook receipts (a process quite different from the hand-written records of yesteryear, or rather, three years ago…), I recognize names from the old days, people I sold to in New Orleans or Carmel between 1991 and 1996, the years I worked day-to-day in the galleries. I remember almost all of these clients! —A fact I attribute to those hand-written notes and regular personal correspondence, so different from today’s mass e-mailers. (George points out to me that it was not only a lot of legwork, but also luck — how the ball bounces. Pictured painting is unfinished.)

Recent purchases by those clients tell me that George’s art stands the test of time. Just last month a doctor purchased a large painting from the Carmel gallery, and I recognized his name.

He was a medical student from the Midwest who came into the Carmel gallery in 1991 and fell in love with a large canvas (size 48×36), the same size as his recent purchase, but priced at that time at $7500. We had a great conversation, full of a genuine passion for the art on my part (not yet the artist, HA!), and a genuine curiosity by this young man who recognized a brilliant painting and was desperate to have it. He convinced me, and I took a chance on him. He mailed me a check each month for $100 as he worked his way through school, and with each receipt I included a note about George’s latest projects. Several years later, once finished with his residency, he sent the small balance and took possession of his painting. Since that time he’s purchased two additional canvases at ten times his original purchase price.

There are many stories like this in the Rodrigue Galleries. As the years pass, people don’t tire of it, but rather crave more of it. And the personal connection with Sandra or Mary in Carmel or Lawrence or Rhonda in New Orleans or Dickie in Lafayette is an important part of that process. If we lose that, then we might as well close the galleries and ship everything to E-bay or QVC. We might as well quit caring, trusting, believing. (pictured, Mary, Sandra, Lawrence, and Rhonda)

Trusting is probably the biggest obstacle in a business like this. I’ve seen George burned many times over the years. Galleries, business partners, agents, and even friends have stolen from him, and if the betrayals weren’t so painful (sad) I’d give a few examples here (although I do recount one incident below).

But George taught me something valuable:

1) Let it go and move on. Harboring grudges or hatred or thoughts of revenge are useless and, more important, exhausting. Those feelings hold you back and make you bitter and unproductive. It’s far better to take the loss, learn from the situation, and do your best to avoid a repeat down the road.

2)That said, you can’t stop believing in people! You have to take a chance! I often am shocked with the trust I see George place in others, just on the heels of a theft or betrayal. And yet, he trusted me. He trusts his sons. He trusts our small gallery staff. He trusts the carpenters and painters at the new gallery. He trusts everyone he deals with. As a result, sure, sometimes bad things happen. But also as a result, wonderful things happen. Most people can be trusted, and in my experience, it’s worth taking a chance.

At the same time, it never pays to be stupid. If you are an artist who places your work with a gallery, you have no choice but to trust that agent or that director. Do your research first. And always, no matter how much you hate to do it, drop by unexpectedly and count your paintings and check on those sales. (pictured, Rodrigue warehouse)

I say this because of personal experience, most of which I can’t repeat here. However here’s one example:

In the late 1980s George had an exhibition of one hundred Blue Dog and Cajun works in California. The show was a sell-out. The gallery owners closed up shop and skipped town. George never found them and never was paid. Two year’s work was lost. (However, he did receive bills from their framer and caterer; bills he ended up paying to avoid a lawsuit).

But I still say (as would he): TRUST, but BE CAREFUL, and yet I’ll repeat, TRUST. George is the first to admit that the best things in life have come his way because he took a chance on people.

And sometimes that faith lies in just encouraging the artist’s passion, the profession. George has always believed in supporting other artists, particularly local ones. (pictured, Jacques Rodrigue with artist Bill Hemmerling)

If you’re personal in your approach, you’re miles ahead of the rest. (pictured, the gallery of artist Ran Horn, who paints Van Gogh (in his own outrageous way) in Van Horn, Texas)

There is no manual (or none that I’ve tackled without being bored to tears) for the gallery business. When hiring people, you might be surprised to know that for me, art experience is not a reason for employment. However, retail, or any other sort of experience in working with the public, is Number One. If you’re too shy to start a conversation with a total stranger, than you shouldn’t be working in a gallery. If you’re too snobby to treat the person in shorts and a t-shirt with as much respect as the one in the Armani suit, than you’re not for us. (pictured, typical Rodrigue collectors at Mardi Gras)

After that, an art history degree is great, but just as important is a passion for this particular artist, in our case George Rodrigue. Without a manual, we have to teach it all to you anyway, so the best thing you can start with is a love of the art. (pictured, Rodrigue collector Don Sanders in his Houston office, with Jacques Rodrigue)

We have very little turnover among our staff, because we treat them well, not only in terms of salaries, but also time off, anything they need regarding their families or to take care of health issues or (following Katrina) housing issues. We trust them and respect them, and in turn they treat our business with the same care they might treat it if it were their own. (pictured, in the French Quarter Gallery, September 2005, between Hurricanes Katrina and Rita)

We can leave town for months and know that our staff is taking care of things in a way that makes us proud. And on that rare occasion that we hire someone new, George and I panic about the integration with the others. Will that person who’s been with us fifteen years be happy with this addition?

Furthermore, when it comes to our staff versus the public, we back our staff every time. This is different than the ‘customer is always right’ mantra from most retail establishments. We know our staff that well, and we’ll back them in any client disagreement or that rare complaint, knowing that the worst case scenario is a simple misunderstanding or an honest mistake, something never worthy of reprimand because, let’s face it, it happens to all of us.

And finally, when it comes to the business of art, I recommend fastidiousness. Don’t jump on some idea on a whim. And unless you really need it, don’t jump on it for the money either. Let the art (and the artist!) guide the way. The times I’ve seen George least happy is when he followed the whims of others, when someone pressured him into something. If he’s doing something for the money, the money has to be so great, and the need so important, that any artistic compromise is worth it. In that same vein, if he’s doing it for an alternate cause, like a non-profit, or a hometown honor, it had better be worth it and strong enough to endure public criticism and in some cases disdain and/or jealousy.

There’s a reason there are no Blue Dog t-shirts floating around out there. There’s a reason Blue Dog posters don’t pop up in every corner shop and Blue Dog galleries in every shopping mall. And yet there’s also a reason that George agreed to 17,000 New Orleans Jazz Fest posters in 1995, 1996, and 2000 (and believe me, as any Jazz Fest poster artist will tell you, it wasn’t the money).

So if you’re an artist or an artist’s partner, and you want to make it in the business world while retaining the romanticism and bohemianism of the art world, I don’t have sound advice nor a rulebook, but I do know what’s worked for George:

Trust your fellow human beings. Take a chance on people.

But be smart and follow up with thorough but non-threatening checks on your art and business.

When it comes to projects, remember your long-term goals and follow your instincts.

Become comfortable and open (even slightly vulnerable) with the public, and surround yourself with people who are the same. If you’re genuine, most people will respond favorably. But if you fake it, they will know.

And if you are the artist, PAINT, CREATE. George tells artists all of the time: “You aren’t painting enough.”

It’s almost religious, isn’t it? Trust, believe, and tackle the disappointments as lessons, even gifts, that they may grant you the courage to continue and the empathy to understand your critics while strengthening your resolve.

As I read this to George he reminded me that the art business, or any business if it’s your life’s calling, above all else, should be fun! (pictured George Rodrigue with Paul Prudhomme and Pete Fountain)


For more on The Art Business, see the post Two Publishing Stories.

6 thoughts on “The Art Business, A Few Thoughts

  1. wonderful and timely advice. your blog is a kiss.
    thank you for letting me/us into your world. thank you for being vulnerable. i too desire to have my own gallery one day. i have resisted the temptation to do prints, tshirts, and posters… fearing i would never be given a new ORIGINAL painting to create. it was nice to read that i'm not alone in my "old fashion" way of thinking too. (and i'm only 35)
    ps. george is the reason i paint dogs. you both came to atlanta for a book signing at borders. i had just moved there a year earlier after i graduating from LSU in 1998. i saw him paint a blue dog live. i was inspired to go home to paint "the green great-dane" (thinking i would just get it out of my system and move on) then someone saw it, i was commissioned, and 11 years later… i still paint dogs! (four legged jesus' really)

  2. Hi Hope,

    Thank you for writing in. And I just had to tell you how much I enjoy your website — especially "Laundry-line." Also, I was reminded by something with your 'green great-dane' comment:

    In 2002 George began a series called "Hurricanes." He painted seventy of these mostly round, abstract canvases in a row and described it as something he had to 'get out of his system.' I was planning on a blog about it down the road, but an earlier mention seemed appropriate in response to your note. Sometimes great things come out of that very feeling.

    With kindest regards and best of luck to you-

  3. Thank you for the inside perspective Wendy. There are not enough people who are honest enough about the 2 sides of being an artist – Business and art-making, equally elusive and valuable. Your words are becoming the bridge. with gratitude,

  4. Wow. So happy to have found your blog, wendy. you also helped me buy my very first blue dog in carmel '93. i was then working in retail and the $750 "spirits in the trees" silkscreen i fell in love with was priced well out of reach. but you helped me set up a monthly payment that made sense and i have been a proud blue dog owner ever since. thanks for the great insight and info. love your perspectives.

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