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What's a Contemporary Fine Artist to Do?

Previously published in the Spring 2017 edition of Art & Museums Magazine

Art, it’s everywhere, and yet how often do we pay attention to it? The industry behind the thought- provoking pretties is a $66 billion (yes, t hat ’s billion with a “b”) behemoth that is traditionally a very exclusive, relationship-driven, face-to-face business. Pieces range in price from a few dollars to a few hundred million dollars and can be difficult to sell, regulate or even understand. Much like t he music and publishing industries before it, the future of fine art may be changing.

Divided into categories, art is what you hang on the refrigerator, buy at a festival and purchase at Hobby Lobby, to differentiate your first apartment from your old college dorm room. Then there’s the gallery-find known as“fine art.” Smart, fine painters and sculptors are turning to the internet to boost gallery business or bypass galleries altogether. Just like iTunes and book self-publishing, illustrators, landscapists, and the like, can now erase the gate keeper also known as the broker, and break the gallery mold by posting directly online.

“Most gallery owners [and fine craftsmen] only know the old model,” according to mixed-media guru and author, Kris Gebhardt. Gebhardt has been immersed in the industry for the last ten years or so. He is highly prolific and needed somewhere to display — and maybe sell — his large format pieces. Following that archaic system, he and his wife, fellow visual creator Angela Gebhardt , opened a gallery in t he NuLu district of downtown Louisville, Kentucky. For the Gebhardts, it is not just about the sale, but “it’s about getting the art to the right person.” Online displays mean better service for the aficionado and a much wider audience to appreciate, connect with and admire pieces. Like dealing with any product, the Gebhardts must study their audience and know how to target their message to increase awareness and ultimately sales. Then, they must have a vehicle or many vehicles for broadcasting that message.

They found gallery ownership came with a high overhead including maintenance, staffing, marketing and the usual expenditures that accompany owning any business. Many galleries are little more than a tourist attraction. Urban areas and trendy downtown districts have been known to subsidize galleries as a destination to bring people for art trolley trots and something to do on a Friday night. But few galleries have this arrangement, and even fewer visitors make purchases, being more interested in the free canapés and a moment of Zin.

So what’s a contemporary fine artist to do? Hit the internet, of course. Websites like Saatchi Art, Artsy, artnet, Artspace and others have come on the scene and showcase high-end pieces for sale. When asked why he posts online he said, “We just needed to get [our] work to a broader audience.” Internet art sites, Gebhardt says, “... are more international — urban even.” It no longer made sense to operate a gallery in NuLu, with few visitors daily, let alone yearly, when he could post to the Saatchi site and reach people all over the world, 24 hours a day. In addition to digital displays, the Gebhardts have increased their social media presence, as well. Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn have all proven to be successful means of sharing their wares. “I have 7,260 connections on LinkedIn alone,” said Gebhardt.

These sites by themselves may not sell paintings, but with the great reduction in overhead, it doesn’t hurt. It ’s also easier to change out inventory and add to one's virtual gallery —especially when dealing with large format pieces. In addition to playing “talent” daubers must also be a marketer, publicist and social media strategist all wrapped up in one. It doesn’t hurt t o be a bit of a salesperson, too.

There’s still a need to take the product where the buyers are. That’s why the Gebhardts also display in prestigious shows like Spectrum, Red Dot , Art Miami and Pulse. It’s not a cheap endeavor, but a potential buyer will hear angels begin to sing when standing five to seven feet away from a painting that, “gets” them.

While the art enthusiast might have a moment with your masterpiece on the five-inch screen of an iPhone — if the fruit of your labor stands over five feet tall — like many of the pieces by both Gebhardts — nothing beats seeing that powerful piece in person, for it to be truly appreciated.

Layers of Life Angela Gebhardt

The offerings produced by both Gebhardts really seek a particular owner. Not everyone will want a Gebhardt, but when the connection is made, it is often like falling in love. That painting and that person are meant to be together. Using online tools just helps the Gebhardts increase the exposure to those who may not be in the NuLu area.

As far as Kris and Angela are concerned, the future of the industry for painters, sculptors and others who want to build a brand for their creations that they control and build a following at the same time, includes a digital and traditional exhibition. All roads that put their work in front of potential buyers are fair game. Like the music industry and publishing, the art world’s time-tested avenues aren’t always the best route, but technology offers a number of new paths just waiting to be forged to create awareness and maybe even sell a piece or two.

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