My book discusses Vanity Galleries amongst other places you may be tempted to display your artwork. This article discusses another variation of the old theme that has popped up in Portland, Maine. As always with Vanity Galleries – Buyer Beware!
New gallery draws competitors’ ire by charging artists for exposure
Portland Art Gallery requires artists to pay a membership fee in return for promotion and exhibit space.
Street-facing windows reveal paintings full of exuberant colors and scenes of Maine. Wood floors, high ceilings and white-washed walls evoke living-room calm. Soft chairs invite people to sit, stay and relax.
Since its summer opening on Middle Street, the Portland Art Gallery has brought New York flair to Maine’s largest city. But the commercial gallery, which is owned by the team responsible for a trio of glossy magazines that promote Maine life and culture, has become a divisive wedge in the art scene.
They do things differently at Portland Art Gallery. Artists pay for exposure, and that often means access to advertising and editorial coverage.
The gallery has alienated other art dealers, who view it as a threat, and some artists, who object to the gallery’s pay-to-play model. On the other hand, it’s given dozens of artists, many of whom had never shown in a gallery setting, the chance to show and sell their work during a down time in the local art market.
Kevin Thomas, whose company opened the gallery in late July, said he’s not trying to alienate anyone. He’s just trying to find a better way to connect artists with buyers.
“We’re all about selling more art,” Thomas said. “The old gallery model is getting in the way of selling art, so we’re trying something new in order to attract a new generation of art buyers.”
Instead of vetting their art with a gallery director who applies personal aesthetics to the selection process, artists associated with the Portland Art Gallery pay as much as $300 a month to show their work on the gallery’s related website, Art Collector Maine, and hope their paintings also end up on the walls.
While not uncommon among artist co-ops and nonprofit art collectives, the pay-to-play arrangement is less common in a commercial setting. It rewards artists who can afford the monthly fee and bypasses the time-honored curatorial process.
Complicating the situation, the gallery is owned by the same people who publish Maine Home + Design, Old Port Magazine and the magazine Maine, which feature art prominently in their pages. Many of the artists who show in the gallery and through Art Collector Maine also end up in the magazines as subjects of profiles and feature stories.
Meanwhile, many galleries that advertise in the magazines are rethinking their marketing strategies, and some have stopped advertising with the Maine Media Collective.
“They’re our competition now,” Boothbay Harbor gallery owner Martha Gleason said.
APPLYING MARKET KNOW-HOW
In addition to the Portland Art Gallery, Art Collector Maine operates the Gallery at the Grand in Kennebunk.
Thomas and his business partner, Susan Grisanti, own the art and publishing businesses and work on Art Collector Maine with Jack Leonardi, who hatched the idea.
The opening of the Portland Art Gallery comes during a time of upheaval in the Portland-area gallery scene, as major players have closed or moved. As the Portland Art Gallery gains exposure, it could provide a business model for existing galleries that are struggling to sell art or others considering opening.
Pay-to-play galleries, often referred to as vanity galleries, are becoming more common, said Joanne Mattera, an artist from New York who blogs about art trends. While still a small part of the art market, they are more prevalent in major cities across North America now than they were five years ago. When she blogs about vanity galleries, Mattera said she receives a tremendous amount of feedback. She is not surprised the Portland Art Gallery has caused a rift.
“In a smaller city, they are going to be a glaring presence,” she said.
Since Thomas and Grisanti began Maine Home + Design in 2007, they’ve adopted Maine art as a central editorial theme, along with food and architecture. Art Collector Maine was a logical outgrowth of the publishing business, they said, because Maine Home + Design and its sister publications established ties to the visual arts community and art buyers, particularly those who live out of state.
“The art market just seemed too fragmented,” Leonardi said. “When you are looking to buy a house, you can go to a website and see everything that’s for sale. Why not something centralized for Maine art?”
It began as an Internet-only gallery. In the three years since it launched, Art Collector Maine has recruited about 120 artists. They pay between $158 and $300 a month to upload images of their work and their biographies, as well as links to their own websites. Art Collector Maine also promotes its artists through social media, events and pop-up exhibitions that are organized by the magazines.
“We are applying our market know-how with how we do galleries,” Grisanti said.
THE NUMBERS BEHIND THE ART
Early on, Art Collector Maine recruited artists through the galleries and co-ops that represented them across Maine. Art Collector Maine established a sliding fee scale to make it more attractive to groups of artists who joined through their galleries.
Artists who join in groups of 20 or more pay $158 a month each, or about $1,896 a year. Individual artists pay up to $300 monthly.
Citing proprietary reasons, Thomas declined to say how much art Art Collector Maine has sold. But it has turned a profit in three years, he said.
Leonardi, Art Collector Maine’s managing partner, continues to recruit artists, promoting the website as a democratic means of reaching buyers from Maine and across the country. Rather than filter artists through the personal tastes of gallery directors and curators, Art Collector Maine attempts to treat all of its artists equally, Leonardi said.
His pitch involves the clout of both Art Collector Maine and the magazines: an “engaged email” list of 10,000 people; a social media audience of 250,000 people; 5,000 unique visitors monthly to Art Collector Maine, half of whom live outside New England; four-page ads in the magazines and additional ads in Art New England and Art News; and an annual catalog mailed to 21,000 people.
After the Gallery at the Grand hotel in Kennebunk opened in 2013 and the Portland gallery opened this past July, some Art Collector Maine artists also had their work featured on gallery walls on a rotating basis based on the tastes of Leonardi and his team, and the popularity of the artists with buyers.
Paintings sold through the website are not subject to a commission. Art Collector Maine keeps 50 percent of the price of paintings sold directly through its galleries. That percentage is about on par with what other galleries charge artists when they make a sale.
ALIENATING OTHER GALLERIES
The success of the website prompted the decision to open the galleries, Thomas said. “We had no intention of having a physical space when we started Art Collector Maine,” he said. “But 2½ years later, we were open to changing our minds. Things lined up.”
Many galleries embraced Art Collector Maine when it began as a website and encouraged their artists to join. Some of them began pulling away when Art Collector Maine opened its storefront galleries.
“They are alienating other galleries, who they are now in competition with,” said Peggy Greenhut Golden, owner of Greenhut Galleries, which is just a few doors down from Art Collector Maine on Middle Street. “It’s a small town.”
She stopped advertising with the magazines when she sensed she might lose business to the new gallery. She likes the magazines, and she appreciates the effort of the editorial staff to feature artists she represents in the magazine pages and on the Art Collector Maine website. She also appreciates the magazines’ support of the arts in general.
She was concerned about what she called the “blurring of the lines” between the magazines’ efforts to promote Maine art and Art Collector Maine’s effort to sell art in its galleries in Kennebunk and Portland. “It’s a free world. They can do what they want, but I don’t want anything to do with them,” Golden said. “Why do I need them to reinvent my website? I can do that on my own.”
Gleason and her husband, Dennis, made a similar decision. They advertised with Maine Home + Design and were pleased with the results. “We were very impressed with the magazine and wanted to be in it,” Martha Gleason said. “It’s so slick, it makes you want to be a part of it. But the gallery changes the relationship. The gallery feels like it’s taking business away.”
‘IT JUST FEELS LIKE A BIG CLUB’
The Gleasons strongly discourage artists they represent from doing business with Art Collector Maine, and they “don’t appreciate that Art Collector Maine is actively pursuing” their artists.
The Gleasons closed their Portland gallery, Gleason Fine Art, in 2013, after a six-year run on Congress Street. Annual sales didn’t reach the $150,000 they needed to cover their expenses, though that’s “a tiny fraction of our gross here in Boothbay Harbor,” Martha Gleason said, noting that the Boothbay Harbor gallery marks its 30th year in 2015.
Among other reasons, that’s why they were surprised and disappointed when Art Collector Maine opened the Portland Art Gallery. While other galleries struggle, Art Collector Maine brings to its storefront the weight of its marketing operation and the reach of its social network, which were built partly on the advertising dollars of galleries, she said.
“It just feels like a big club,” Gleason said. “If you want to be part of the club, you have to advertise.”
Portland lost one of its most well-established galleries when Aucocisco Galleries on Exchange Street closed in September and owner Andres Verzosa moved from Maine to Connecticut.
Verzosa has the benefit of observing the turf war from afar. He knows the Portland gallery scene from his 15 years as a gallery owner but has no vested interest since he closed in September. His primary objection to the Portland Art Gallery is its lack of curatorial oversight and the image of Maine art conjured by both the gallery and the website.
“It’s not curated. It’s based on your ability to pay,” he said. “Most people who come to town to visit in July or August will see this bright, well-lit place in the Old Port and think, ‘These guys must be somebody.’ They are trying to become the face of Maine art. But their artists may not be the best and the brightest. They just have the ability to pay.”
‘GETTING THE ART OUT THERE’
Artists have a range of opinions about the gallery and its website. Some want nothing to do with it. Others love its reach.
Dozier Bell, who recently had an exhibition of her paintings in New York and was represented in Maine through Aucocisco, is not a member of Art Collector Maine.
Running a gallery is about establishing relationships with artists and buyers, she said. Art Collector Maine is all about selling art.
“Selling work is necessary, obviously, but most artists want an art career, which is another order of business,” she said in an email. “As in so many other fields, the personal, long-term relationship of dealer to artist, which creates the best possible conditions for the artist’s growth both artistically and professionally, has taken a back seat to making as much money as quickly as possible.”
Most young artists need someone to patiently coach them on how to present themselves and their work, and how to respect dealers and other art world entities while also maintaining a necessary level of self-respect and protection, she said.
Without that, artists are reduced to wholesalers, she said.
Ingunn Milla Jorgensen, who paints dramatic barn and farmhouse scenes near her home in Kennebunkport, has been a member for more than two years. She met Thomas at a Maine Home + Design event. He bought one of her paintings.
She had a solo show at the Gallery at the Grand and sold most of the work off the walls.
She taught art in her native Norway for many years, and worked as an interior designer and operated a small gallery in Kennebunk when she and her husband moved to Maine. Art Collector Maine allows her to pursue her own art while others handle her sales, marketing and social media concerns.
“I don’t have to focus on anything but what I am supposed to do, which is paint,” she said in an interview at her second-floor studio, which overlooks an open field.
Art Collector Maine works because it gives potential buyers a chance to see hundreds of images at their leisure online. They can browse images, find an artist they like and either contact that artist directly or buy through the gallery.
“It takes the snobbery out of the art-buying process,” Jorgensen said. “It’s about getting the art out there and getting people aware and interested. They’ve succeeded in doing that.”
A GROWING ART AWARENESS
Felicity Sidwell, who paints sea scenes and landscapes from her home and studio in Phippsburg, joined Art Collector Maine through River Arts, a membership collective in Damariscotta. She pays the group rate of about $1,896 a year. She likely will renew, although she is uncertain if the investment is wise. She sold one painting this past year through Art Collector Maine, for $1,000. It sold the day it was posted on the website, “which was really quite remarkable.”
This past summer and fall, she had more traffic at her gallery in the Phippsburg village of West Point and sold twice as much art than during the previous year. She has no idea how many people came to her gallery because of the exposure she received through Art Collector Maine.
“It’s a helluva lot of money, and I don’t know whether it’s worth it or not,” Sidwell said of the yearly fee. “I did it to get my name out there, and I just want to keep putting my name out there.”
Thomas said he was perplexed by other gallery owners who object to the Portland Art Gallery’s emergence as a player in Maine. He hopes that his company’s near-decade of promoting the arts and encouraging art sales overcomes whatever concern gallery owners may be feeling right now.
“We are spending considerable resources every day to build awareness for one purpose: sales,” he said. “Why can’t that be a good thing?”