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Old 03-05-2004, 11:31 AM   #1
Cynthia Houppert Cynthia Houppert is offline
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Location: Blue Ridge, GA
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eBay - art gallery or department store?

Since the introduction of eBay, I've been rather fascinated with the vast selection of goods on its site as well as the availability of basement bargain prices of items that enhance my personal collections. As one who basically despises shopping, malls, and all that with which it's associated, eBay allows me to shop in a virtual department store without all the hassles.

It is the latter that keeps taking me back to their site. One category that has caught my attention is the number of artists using it to replace the traditional gallery. The question to ask, is when you visit a department store, do you expect find Fine Art?

In replacing the art dealer, how does eBay benefit the artist? It provides space for hanging the work, for a fee, albeit it a small one. Do they promote the artist, locate collectors and drive collectors to your site?

The difference in eBay and working with galleries is worthy of examination. Take for instance one art dealer and one artist, and how the commissions work. The artists creates permanent works, and the standard split is 60/40. The artist,
of course, tells the dealer how much they want for the work, over the costs associated with making the work. I mean the profit that the artist expects to make.

If there is no money to be made, there is no point in being in business, and work without pay is tyranny. The dealer then figures out, based on that 60 percent, how much the piece should sell for. As an example, let's say a work sells for ten thousand dollars. That is the low-end for paintings by contemporary artists in
the gallery trade.

Since a single full-page ad in ArtNews is $10,000.00 + for one month, the dealer has to sell three paintings at $10,000.00 to recover the advertising costs. That does not include the retail space, employees, shows or the numerous other expenses associated with a retail gallery.

How much does the artist profit? $6,000 per painting, and remember that's profit times four paintings is $24,000.00. Assuming the artist, can produce one a week, that's a very nice income. Nice enough, to work at it full time.

Let's consider, for a moment pricing on eBay. If my assumption is correct, that you are striving to become a professional artist, you will need an annual income that
meets the demands of your current financial obligations.

Just for example's sake, place a painting for $100.00 on eBay. The United States Department of Health and Human Services has determined poverty level for a family of four at $18,400.00. http://aspe.hhs.gov/poverty/03poverty.htm

SOURCE: Federal Register, Vol. 68, No. 26, February 7, 2003, pp. 6456-6458

How many paintings do you have to sell over the course of a year to even reach poverty level standards? That would be 184 paintings per year, or fifteen and a third pictures per month or three a week. The figures given here do not include the cost of paints, canvas, labor or ongoing continuous costs such as rent,
electricity to keep the lights on, water for your brushes, the cost of a live model or the advertising itself.

If your average work is $500.00 then to make poverty level, you only have to sell 1/5 of the number or approximately 37. To reach middle class you need to sell 74 to make $37,000. When marketing on eBay, value to you, as an artist is
determined whether or not you can get your price within the allotted time. In talking to other artists, paintings at that price rarely sell.

A picture selling for $1,000.00 means the artist will have to sell 18.4 pictures a year to reach poverty level standards. With many of the art "sweatshops" now selling on eBay, the expectation of making such sales is diminished. The lone
artist can hardly be expected to compete against mass manufacturing.

What about the jurying aspects or unveiling a work on eBay? There are none. Collectors often shy away from venues where anyone can hang regardless of the merit of the work as long as there is an ability to pay. In that sense, isn't eBay equal to a cooperative? Will eBay instill a jurying process? Probably not;
that's not what they do. They give people space to sell their wares, period.

How do the auction aspects of eBay compare in regards to Fine Art? Surely, the artist benefits by auction at such houses as Christies, Sotheby's, and Bonham & Butterfield, when a collector has decided to "flip" a work that is already in the
marketplace. In that instance, the auction serves to benefit the artist by driving up the overall intrinsic value of the artist's work if the work remains comparable in quality. Plus, they also guarantee the authenticity of the work and the work was juried at one point or another.

Unveil the work on eBay? It doesn't have that capability. By defying the traditions of the art market, in failing to understand human nature and the reasoning behind the "unveiling" of the work, then the Internet or any other technological venue will
not change human nature or the high-end collector's abhorrence of previously viewed works.

For thousands of years, human nature has remained the same. The Internet, although it is, as we know it, in its infancy, lacks the ability to affect human nature;
it is only a machine and as the old saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Director, Art Struck Gallery, Blue Ridge, GA, Faculty Member, Atlanta College of Art, Community Ed., and Author of "Art Gallery Safari: Bagging the Big One"
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Old 03-05-2004, 12:08 PM   #2
Michele Rushworth Michele Rushworth is offline
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Dear Cynthia,

Interesting article. I would never have thought of eBay as a place to sell my art, and your article serves to remind me why!

I am wondering about some of the other assumptions you make in your article, though, especially some of the ones about an artist selling their work in a traditional gallery setting. You wrote:
As an example, let's say a work sells for ten thousand dollars. That is the low-end for paintings by contemporary artists in the gallery trade.
Now, I live in Seattle, which is not SoHo or even San Francisco when it comes to higher priced art, but Seattle is a metropolitan area with a population of two million or so, and has a thriving art and gallery community. Very few paintings appear, even in the high end galleries here, with prices above $10,000.

If you're talking about well known artists who have long term New York gallery representation, that's a very small and select group, and not at all the same group of artists who would consider selling on eBay. That would be rather like looking at what Oscar-winning actors earn and comparing it to the thousands of actors waiting tables to pay the rent. Can you tell us what you meant by the $10,000 price?

Another statement I wonder about is your assumption that an artist can create a $10,000 painting every week. On a site like this one which focuses on traditional portraiture, a major painting takes many weeks, or even months.

Even if an artist is not as focused on detailed representation or is just "banging them out," and could produce a piece of any quality each week, there are still many costs involved in being an artist. You write:
How much does the artist profit? $6,000 per painting.
In actuality, the artist does not keep the entire portion that comes to him or her from every gallery sale. My costs include countless supply items, studio space, etc.

Can you clarify some of your thoughts for us, please? I, and many others, would like to know more about your insights into the traditional gallery world.

Michele Rushworth
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