ASK MARK KOSTABI
by Mark Kostabi
We’re at the beginning of a dramatic market downturn. What observations and advice do you have for artists in a time like this?
--Artist in a time like this
Dear Artist in a time like this,
Clean your brushes. I mean that literally as well as metaphorically. I don’t like seeing people lose their jobs and I’m worried that more joblessness will lead to more crime, but so far, for me, the downturn has been a blessing in disguise. It’s clean up time. I, like most everyone else, have decided to cut back on expenses. I laid off four employees. Also, throughout this past year, four of my employees found other work and I decided not to replace them anytime soon. I went from a staff of 24 to 16. (I heard Jeff Koons laid off 15 people.) Then I checked to see if I could reduce my art supply bill. Producing 1,000 paintings a year, I am the biggest client at New York’s flagship Utrecht store on 4th Avenue. I discovered that my bill automatically went down dramatically because some of the people who I laid off were the ones who were burning through their brushes by not cleaning them properly. We artists know how expensive good brushes are.
Another benefit from downsizing was that I gained a lot of extra personal time, because now I don’t have to issue nearly as many time-consuming painting corrections, which were largely required by those painters who left. And now, without any additional expense, I get a lot of freed up studio space to store all the masses of accruing paintings that I won’t be selling until 2010. That’s another benefit of the downturn: I get to live with my art for a while, instead of it flying out the door while the paint’s still wet! I also heard that the people I laid off are happier with their new jobs. Being unemployed is bad, but being misemployed can be worse, because at least when you’re unemployed you know you have to change something.
Another blessing from this economic wake-up call: I took a look at my $1,700 per month New Jersey storage bill and finally asked myself, "Why? Why have I been paying, for more than two decades, to store all that furniture I bought in the 1980s, all those unresolved paintings, all those boxes of books?" So I rented a 24-foot truck and hauled a lot of the material in storage back to the studio, to either use, sell or give away. I also managed to throw out some absolute junk right there in New Jersey. Additionally, I noticed that many boxes that could hold 20 paintings only had 10 in them, so I packed them more sensibly and removed many empty boxes. I had the storage people install shelves to raise the height of my area, which led to less wasted space. I got the bill down to $1,000, and I intend to go for round two in the near future.
Another blessing: People have always asked me why I had two apartments in Rome. When I bought my big apartment in Piazza Vittorio in 2000, I didn’t want to give up my smaller rental in Campo de’ Fiori, which I’d had since 1996, because it was inexpensive and I love the street life of the charming Campo de’ Fiori neighborhood. But the rental really wasn’t that cheap, when factoring in the extra bills for phone, gas, electric, trash removal, etc. Plus all that travel time and expense going between apartments. The economic downturn made me realize it was time to simplify my life and only have one apartment in Rome. The smaller one was also misleading in terms of my image as a successful artist, since I brought all my clients there, out of previous habit, and collectors and dealers want to buy art from an obviously successful artist.
I also had the advantage of preparing for this downturn before it happened. A couple of years ago, when some artists were still routinely selling works for eight figures, I noticed some red flags. So I moved out of my big, slick SoHo studio into a scrappier, smaller, cheaper, but more strategically located Chelsea space. I went from paying $10,960 a month for the old Josh Baer Gallery-later-PPOW space on Broome Street to $9,765 for a top floor and roof of a building across the street from Metro Pictures and Barbara Gladstone.
I remember well the recession of the early ‘90s when just about everyone, including myself, thought the glory days of the ‘80s would go on forever and we just kept on spending and expanding, even when the red flags went up. We didn’t bite the bullet, so we bit the dust for a couple of years. My delusion was ego-driven but I also had the well-intentioned if naïve desire to avoid contributing to artist unemployment. So when my accountant told me that I had run out of money, I had to fire 17 people (almost all of my employees), including the very good ones who did a lot more than clean their brushes well. I had to stop art production totally for a while and focus solely on selling my vast inventory of ‘80s-scaled, 8 x 6 ft. paintings. I sold them in bulk for $1,000 each to bottom-feeder dealers who wore sandals. They said they weren’t buying them to resell. They were buying them for their cousin. In recent years I’ve bought back many of those works at auctions, to protect my prices, for a lot more than the cousins paid.
I don’t want to be at the mercy of the dealers in sandals again, so I have made sure that I have plenty of money saved up so I can coast through 2009 while preparing my 2010 line. It’s all about preparation.
In the meantime, I do intend to sell some art. For example, I sold a blocco of 10 small paintings last week, to one of my Italian dealers, Pio Monti, who wears Diego Della Valle shoes, also known as Tod’s. I’m more accustomed to the 100 painting blocco, but now we take what we can get. Back when you still had to pay $80 million for a Green Car Crash, the buzzer for my charmingly romantic but extra Via del Pellegrino studio and home was abuzz every day, sometimes thrice a day, with dealers enthusiastically walking off with between 10 to 130 rolled-up paintings which they’d throw (correct verb) into the back of their station wagon, or else into the big white truck full of an assortment of de Chiricos, Boettis and Chias, while the large guy in the driver’s seat kept guard.
Those double espresso days are gone, however. Now I have to make the calls. And when I did, just last week, Pio Monti didn’t rush right over with that prompt enthusiasm like he used to. But I was determined. I rolled up 10 small paintings, jumped in a cab, believing I was Kostabi the famous artist, but knowing I was really a traveling salesman, and landed in Pio’s exquisite gallery located in front of the Turtle Fountain in Piazza Mattei. "You brought me a gift!" He smiled. "No, you have to pay for these," I replied, even though he was right, based on the low price I eventually had to accept. I’m known as a bluntly honest and revealing writer but I can’t bring myself to tell you how much he paid. I’ll go as far as saying it was very, very low. Not as low as the sandal dealer days, but going towards summer sale. He wasn’t expecting my little surprise art ambush so he didn’t have the money on hand. We agreed I’d meet him again, the next day. He said I could leave the paintings overnight. I might be desperate but I’m not a total fool, so I said, "I’ll bring them tomorrow when you have the grana."
Then, rolled paintings in hand, I walked to Camponeschi, Rome’s current Cedar Tavern, where the likes of Enzo Cucchi, Achille Bonita Oliva and Germano Celant can be found debating heated art issues into the wee hours. I found art impresario and scene maker Umberto Scrocca (electronicartcafe.com), who quickly ushered me into the hidden private dining room for a strangely decadent dinner, where everyone was asked to wear funny, ornate hats. Enzo Cucchi politely declined to wear a funny hat. Umberto introduced me to several young women art students from RISD and with two of them we went dancing at a nearby club called St’a (short for Sant’ Andrea) and then stopped for what seemed like a vegetarian hot dog at 2 am at a sandwich place on Corso Vittorio.
All while I was carrying my 10 rolled up economic downturn paintings in their one layer of bubble wrap. I almost forgot them at the deejay booth at St’a. The next day Pio asked me to meet him at the Lawrence Weiner opening at Gagosian Rome, with the paintings, and he’d bring the check. This time I put the roll in a recycled black Stefanel shopping bag, thinking it would be extremely desperate-looking to show up at someone else’s art opening with an obvious painting delivery. After I congratulated Lawrence Weiner, he told Rome Prize artist David Humphrey that "We met helping kids." Weiner was part of a charity event for kids that I hosted at Kostabi World in the ‘80s.
Suddenly Pio Monti popped up, smiling mischievously and whispered into the bearded Lawrence Weiner’s ear, "A man without a beard is like a woman with a beard." Pio also likes to say "A dealer who never stole from an artist is not much of a dealer," but he didn’t say that then. He just tried to prove it when he asked me to follow him into a discreet corner and tried an old trick: "Mark, I feel terribly embarrassed. I know I agreed to [blank price] but I only have a check for [blank price minus €500 Euros]." I said, "That’s okay. Pay me the €500 tomorrow." He said, "Oh, that’s so embarrassing, it’s such a small amount. Why don’t we just round it off and make this the full payment?" I said, "No, I’m not embarrassed (even though I was), I’ll accept the €500 tomorrow. I’ll take this check now and you can have the paintings now." He said, "Thanks for the trust." And I replied, "I should be thanking you for the trust. You haven’t even seen the paintings." He bought them sight unseen.
The point of this story is to illustrate our new reality: we now have to expend a great deal of effort, a sometimes humbling effort, to make a sale. Pio told me he is still selling lots of art, because he’s on the road, reaching out, making house calls, with his car full of Mario Giacomelli photos, Tano Festa confetti paintings and the occasional Julian Schnabel work on masonite. He says that the proactive survive, while those who sit in their galleries waiting do not.
It seems like I spend most of my time trying to get paid by dealers who owe me money. How can I put an end to that?
Dear Unpaid Artist,
Tell me about it. People use the word commitment like it was inherently a good thing. But it’s not. It’s only good if you can keep the commitments. But we haven’t. We’ve made too many. We’ve made a mess because we can’t say no. Too many projects, too many loans, too many promises, too many risks. A lot of people like to blame a few "powerful" people for the economic crisis. The predator lenders. The greedy rich and powerful who tricked everyone into buying houses and stuff they couldn’t afford. To some extent, I think that’s just playing the "blame game." We are all responsible and I certainly include myself. I wasted my money on an extra house. My stress cough came back because my schedule was overloaded with too many business and personal commitments. I like to make people happy so I said yes to the frivolous lunch date, yes to the artist who wanted a private advice meeting, yes to the 35th documentary film maker who wanted to make a movie about me and then tried to get me to pay for it. Maybe I was also afraid that I might become lonely and unloved if I turned everyone down. But saying no can actually make you more attractive. Playing hard to get is phony and ultimately a turn off. But actually being hard to get is fascinating.
Don’t make so many commitments. Don’t make so many loans. "Loans? What loans? That’s what banks do. Not artists." That’s what I used to think, too. Until I realized, during a recent conversation with a health care worker in California who had nothing to do with the art world, that I was mistaken. She asked me why I had to rush back to Italy so soon. I told her I had to collect some money people owed me. I was referring to art dealers. She said "Oh, I know what it’s like. I stopped loaning money to everyone, except family members, years ago." Then I was about to "correct her perception" of the situation and say "No, I didn’t loan money to anyone -- I gave paintings on consignment," but I suddenly realized, after being in the art business for 27 years, that she was right. All those nightmare consignment agreements I’ve made over the years, were nothing more than loans to people who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, pay me back and who made me feel like they were doing me a favor by accepting my loans. In fairness, I have worked with some dealers who did always pay me properly in consignment deals, but if I were running for president of the American art world, I would campaign to take a cue from a common European practice and encourage artists to resist consignment. Tell the dealer you’ll give a generous extra discount if they buy the whole caboodle up front. There will be many beneficial side effects to everyone involved and we’ll also see fewer artists defecting from galleries.
I have been working with a well-known gallery for the past two years and we’ve spoken many times about a solo show of my work. But every time we’re about to choose a date, the gallery director decides to postpone it. What should I do? Leave the gallery or wait patiently?
Dear Postponed again,
I’ve been in similar situations. Don’t leave the gallery but don’t sit around and wait either. Be proactive. Since it’s a well-known gallery it means the gallerist probably has many options and knows the definition of commitment, and doesn’t want to take any risks. Persistence breaks down resistance. Keep making in-person appointments and always bring some good news. Never complain. Tell the gallerist about what you can bring to the table, besides your work. Offer your mailing list if it’s impressive. Offer to pay for some ads if you can afford it. In addition to your private appointments with the gallerist, bring friends to the gallery to see the other shows and introduce them -- preferably collectors, or at least financially successful people, not other artists desperate for a show. Show the gallerist that you’re part of the team. These days, sales are event driven. Tell the gallerist that a few weeks after the opening, you’d be available to have a collector’s brunch at the gallery where you would give a short walk-through explanation of all the works, followed by a Q & A. If you have some jazz musician friends ask them if they’d play at the brunch before and after the verbal presentation, while the guests are mingling. Christie’s has that feature at their preview brunches. Make it clear that you want to help the gallerist sell your work.
My dealer, who I’ve worked with for about four years, is increasingly asking me for favors, like commissioned paintings of subjects outside my style, free drawings for "very important collectors" and paintings on loan for his house, where he says he’s hosting regular dinners for collectors. Whenever I ask specific questions about these requests or if I ask for a receipt for the extra loaned paintings to his house, he says, "What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?" and he suggests I’m ungrateful with an "after all these years of me helping you, how dare you question me?" vibe. While it’s true that I’ve earned a lot of money, and some prestige, working with him, the tension is growing progressively more uncomfortable. What should I do?
Anonymous But Real Artist
As soon as someone says, "What’s the matter? Don’t you trust me?" that’s when you should stop trusting them. This is a big red flag and I advise you to find other dealers ASAP who don’t lay this classic guilt trip on you. People who resist your responsible and professional urge to put something in writing are dangerous. In Italy there’s a saying: "Ti tratto come un nemico per rimanere amici" (I’ll treat you like an enemy to remain friends).
I am an emerging artist who is trying to find a gallery representation. I go to all the openings, talk with many people about my work, organize studio visits, send hundreds of e-mails to keep in touch with anybody who seems interested on my work. . . but then I only have a little time left to paint! How should I organize my schedule to be able to do both PR and work?
Don’t work hard. Work smart. Stop going to the openings of galleries whose art you don’t sincerely like, no matter how prestigious those galleries are. Stop trying to connect with people who snub you. Go where the support is. If someone is genuinely nice to you and supportive, give that person extra attention. The unpleasant snobs will eventually beg for your attention when they see you flourishing as a result of your embrace of the nice people. Get rid of negative people and complainers. Get rid of people who are not reciprocating your kindness. Do that and you’ll have plenty of time to paint.
I assume, since you’ve had such a huge art production for years, that you buy art supplies sensibly. Where do you shop?
Low on Linseed Oil
I buy all my oil paint, canvas, linseed oil, turpenoid and most of my brushes from Utrecht. I buy gesso from Pearl Paint. I buy my custom-made stretchers (in centimeters) and custom-made "Kostabi fan blending brushes" from New York Central.
In your past columns you’ve often warned artists about unscrupulous dealers. But don’t you think artists can be just as dishonest as dealers?
Not So Dirty Dealer
Dear Not So Dirty Dealer,
Artists are certainly not above sin. Up till now I’ve been writing from the point of view of an artist. But recently I’ve worn the hat of a private dealer too, selling primary- and secondary-market works by other artists, and I’ve learned that many dealers don’t just try to exploit artists -- they exploit their own kind too. For example, some of my European clients have asked me to help them buy works from U.S. galleries by artists like Arman, Baechler, Christo, Sam Francis, Haring, Lichtenstein, Oppenheim, Pablo Picasso, Rauschenberg, Riopelle, Ruscha, Vasarely and Warhol. At first I did it as a favor to my European clients because they were buying so much of my own work.
Then I realized that it was work, so I started asking for a 10 percent commission from the U.S. dealers. More often than not, during negotiations near the close of a deal, the selling dealer would take me aside and try to get me to reduce my commission because "it was the only way the deal could happen." The usual whispered line in the back room goes something like this: "Mark, you’ve gotta work with me on this: If I give you 10 percent then there’s no profit for me –- because of my cost." The first few times I fell for it and accepted 5 percent or less. Then I wised up, after realizing that negotiating is a full-time job for dealers and they couldn’t always be earning a paltry 10 percent on every secondary market deal they do. So now I always politely stand firm and whisper back that I could always take my clients down the street to Van de Weghe, and I get my 10 percent.
I’m having trouble staying focused. I have many interests, including printmaking, drawing, painting and also video. I’m finding that when I’m in the middle of a great printmaking project, I get distracted by an equally interesting sculpture commission, and by my own ideas for new paintings. Consequently my studio is a mess of half-finished work and I feel overwhelmed.
Visionary film director Michel Gondry says, "Finish a project. Start a project." In that order. I met the Arte Povera artist Mario Merz in Rome shortly before he passed away. In casual conversation I asked him if he was working on any new projects. He said, "Projects? Projects are dangerous." Finish what you start. Accomplishment feels better than confusion.
Tell me something genuinely useful that few people in the art world know.
There is a third public restroom at Bottino that never has a line. It’s hidden in the hallway of the far left corner of the darker dining room in the back.