For Art's Sake - Bargain bin

Navigating the dodgy business of art

You wouldn't walk into a lawyer's office and "bargain" for their services. Or go to Tiffany's expecting the salesman to give you a sweet deal on that tennis bracelet you've been eyeing. And yet, apparently, people do it all the time when it comes to art.

It often seems like the fruits of artistic labor are not treated with the same respect as other goods and services in a country that otherwise reveres and often pays top dollar for its Stuff.

A local art dealer recently alerted me to a trend I was perhaps naively ignorant of.

Some of the well-heeled people who buy art - a luxury good, by the way, not a necessity like prescription medicine - also apparently want to get a deal, and they negotiate discounts without shame.

An informal survey of some Atlanta curators and gallery owners confirms that deal making, often for the 20 percent discount given to designers or other industry folk, is just one way galleries do business for good and for bad. As one gallery owner told me, "It's rare for someone to open their checkbook and write it for the full amount."

Sometimes galleries reduce their rates, hoping to encourage buyers to come back, or to foster support for younger, less proven artists. Serious collectors are so rare in this city, says one dealer, that anyone who buys consistently will probably be rewarded with a better deal.

Wheeling and dealing is in many ways just a fact of gallery life, an incredibly complicated and psychologically fraught business. But what troubles me is the implication in some art buyers' minds that art should always be a bargain.

To cite a specific example: the fundraising auction. Several times a year, artists are hit up to donate artwork to charity auctions for private schools, nonprofit organizations and museums. The artists will often retain a small cut of proceeds from the sale of their work, but the practice is like asking an Afghani to donate some of his paycheck to tsunami relief.

Don't get me wrong.

The auction, especially one like the annual Art Papers event (Feb. 5 at Mason Murer Fine Art) can be a wonderful fundraising outlet and a way of increasing the art scene's profile. Artists, most of whom are hardly rolling in it, often demonstrate an admirable spirit of goodwill and community by offering a piece of their work for a good cause. But I have a nagging feeling that some of the buyers are taking advantage of the cut-rate art once a year and perhaps not supporting galleries and nonprofits year-round.

A new gallery seems to open every couple of months in Atlanta, and you hope they can hold on in what many gallery owners describe as a tough market. The recent opening of Function Gallery in Decatur, owned by partners in a marketing and design firm, seems to foretell a new trend. More galleries are being operated by entrepreneurs and business people.

Orange Hill Art at 331 Elizabeth St. in Inman Park (www.orangehillart.com) is one such venture: a folk art gallery started by a local entrepreneur. Owned by president and founder of Empire Tickets, Robbi Raitt, Orange Hill is managed by Elizabeth Patrick, who previously worked in the High Museum's photography and folk art departments.

The most striking thing about the gallery may be its design. Orange Hill has a completely different vibe than the white cube look of most galleries. With its muted lighting, walls painted in warm earth tones, cozy overstuffed furniture, exposed wood beams and worn elegance, the space looks more like an art-filled living room than a gallery. It's a nicely down-to-earth venue for work by a variety of artists including Thornton Dial, Lorenzo Scott and Butch Anthony, who are featured in the gallery's inaugural exhibition Fresh Squeezed Feb. 10-April 15.

And on the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum is Kendall Fine Art (www.kendallfineart.com), a new gallery at 425 Peachtree Hills Ave. in Buckhead dedicated to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Father and son owners Steve and Matt Kendall are both from the business world. Matt Kendall should be especially well equipped for the job considering his diverse training. He studied art history at Cornell and runs his own marketing agency.

Coming up this spring is another of the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center's Artist Survival Skills series. Beginning April 20, artists can get a crash course in the kind of behind-the-scenes workings of the art world you don't learn about in art school.

Workshops throughout April and May will help artists publicize their work, hear from successful artists about how they developed their careers, and learn practical matters like how to frame and ship their artwork. Admission is free for members and $5 for the general public. For information, visit www.thecontemporary.org.


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