My friend Shanan Campbell Wells owns Sorrel Sky Gallery in Durango. We talked recently about the gallery business and her new venture SCW Art Consulting.
“The art business is a really tricky, tricky business because you do what you love and what your passionate about and what you believe in and what your behind and you have to have a good pulse on the market and a pulse on what your clientele wants and you act as a mediator to those two worlds and you try to be true to yourself. I can’t just put up everything I love because not everyone has my duplicate taste,” Wells said, then paused. “But I certainly can’t represent stuff I don’t love.”
It’s a delicate balance that many business owners understand. A business can’t be everything to every person that walks through the door; they must be focused. A business can’t sell only what the owner likes; they must understand and provide what the marketplace, the community and their client’s desire.
“It’s a lot about relationship, the people, the experience,” Wells said. “When I first opened [four years ago] I definitely looked at the artwork on its own and now, before I even consider the artwork, I want to know the person—the artist—because I want to deal with really, really great people.”
Wells confessed that she’s had some heartbreaks over the past four years as her business has grown and changed. She represented an artist that she personally loves, but couldn’t maintain the sales levels necessary to keep his work in her gallery. He couldn’t tie up inventory in a gallery in Durango, Colo. that wasn’t selling enough of his work. She also candidly said that she had represented some really great artists who were difficult to work with, so difficult, that she now chooses not to deal with them.
What makes the art business different from any other business is the reason the buyer makes a purchase. Buying art is different from buying anything else.
“It’s not about price, it’s about what makes you feel right,” Wells said. “It’s always about that experience. It’s about something different, something bigger, something else. A lot of it is about deserving. There is so much energy associated with a work of art.”
We buy art because of the energy, because of the heartfelt passion that goes into the work and resonates from the canvas or the clay or the bronze or the silver. I purchased a piece of art this weekend at the Durango Arts Festival—a ceramic vessel fired in a wood fuelled Anagama kiln. It was different from anything else at the festival. The hands of a young woman from Oregon, Terry Inokuma, shaped each piece. Terry and I spoke about art and her desire to capture something as impermanent as fire onto something as permanent as stone; about the ancient art form she is using and the incredible effects fire has on the glaze. Inokuma’s work has an organic feel; her vessels are shaped like pods and seeds, fired under ground for up to 100 hours, they are imbued with the spirit of the earth.
As Wells said: “You don’t become an artist to get rich. You become an artist because you can’t stand to do anything else. You can’t do anything but what you are doing. And then you work your tail off and put your heart and sweat and blood and tears into it and maybe you become successful and maybe you don’t. An artist isn’t doing it because there’s a bunch of money to be made; they are doing it because it is heartfelt.”
It is that passion and energy that we bring into our home when we hang a work of art or install a sculpture. It is that energy that fills the new Mercy Regional Medical Center.
“Art is like having a baby,” Wells added. “If you don’t have one you never will miss it. But once you have a child you can’t imagine your life without them.”
Brad Cochonnet, COO of Mercy Regional Medical Center told Wells recently that he never dreamed what an impact the art would have on the hospital and the community. It’s what everyone is talking about. They aren’t talking about the 2.5 million dollar CT scan machine they are talking about the art.
“Art is typically the last thing on your budget and it’s the first thing that people will remember,” Wells the art consultant said. “You have no idea how impactful it will be to your business unless you have it. But if you’ve never had art you don’t know what you’re missing.”
Yet art is almost always controversial. There are other gallery owners upset because Wells got the job and they didn’t. There are artists upset because their work wasn’t chosen for the hospital. All of which is amazing to me.
Why do artists feel they are entitled to have their work displayed just because they are local? Why does the community feel it can co-opt artists and galleries and art centers? Why do we think art has to be chosen by committee? The fact is—art chosen by committee is usually ineffective. It is the least common denominator and something everyone could agree on. It’s typically so politically correct that the work chosen has no resonating energy.
Interior designers, who either are part of the firm selected to design or build the structure, often choose the art placed in hospitals and office buildings. In the case of Mercy Regional Medical Center, Wells spent five months sending proposals, following up with phone calls and letters and working diligently to get the job. She did this three years ago long before many in the community were aware that a new hospital was being built.
Hospital executives didn’t hire a local construction company to build the hospital; they hired a company experienced in building hospitals. It was the same with the art. Bids and proposals were submitted and a professional was selected to work with the hospital to understand what they wanted and needed and what type of art was appropriate for the many different uses of the building. Wells’ team of experts determined how each work was matted, framed and hung on the wall.
Perhaps if the local artists who were not selected for this project and the other gallery owners who don’t seem to understand the professional process would stop whining and start acting like qualified experts, they might get their work selected for the next project that SCW Art Consulting manages. And with more than a dozen proposals out, SCW Art Consulting is poised to become a major force in the art consulting arena.
“I look at art in a more professional sense as a business that has heart,” Wells said.
I agree. Let’s all be professional and treat art as the serious business that it is.