I manipulate metals and minerals and bonding solutions in order to provoke emotional responses from people I will usually never meet. That which happens in the process some people call art. My talent for creating icons and illusions turned into a lifetime of manipulations... in various pigments, bronze and steel, some quite large, which loom in museums, schools, collections and public places all over Texas. Here on this blog you can watch my creative actions and insights unfold...

Friday, September 20, 2013

Boutwell: Tectonic Changes in the Art World

George Boutwell
I went to see George Boutwell to discuss the significant changes in the art industry in the past decade, which have brought me to a career crossroads. I wanted see him, and hear how he was facing these changes, because I knew he would have the most positive outlook, if not the solution, already in implementation. As usual, talking to George is an education. It was well worth the trip.

George is now in his 70’s, but still, as always, seems younger than me, with great hair and complexion, and has not changed. He has no plans to retire. I found him at his notorious modus operandi; Sitting quietly, intriguingly at work with a watercolor painting in his lap, seemingly oblivious to the world, in the midst of a grand display of his varied, colorful Texas scenes, plunked down in the heart of a crossroad of middle-American commerce.

For over forty years, George made his living from a huge customer base, which became a monster emailing network. He has thousands of active names of customers. He uses Catalogue sales very successfully, travelling many weekends out of the year to some kind of event, meeting and selling to his collectors personally. How could that go wrong?

First we discussed the death of the so-called “art show circuit.” George was one of the most aggressive, successful artists in that circle. Most conventional art shows that artists depended on for decades are now gone. Many Invitational art shows are gone, and charity art shows are no longer around… they gradually died out, as did the volunteerism and public support that fueled these prestigious art shows.

The Texas Wild Bunch we helped to get started is no longer active. So he is doing fewer shows - and is no longer focused on regional art shows and mall art shows. He only does a few pure art events these days, as they became too political right before they became unprofitable.

Changing American values, increasing travel costs, and a shrinking economy have made the veteran artist think leaner and meaner. He no longer travels out of state. He has to work harder to capitalize on a shrinking market in his target area. Turf has become much more important, and he notices that local artists are becoming much less collegiate, less magnanimous. Many art leagues have disappeared, and fewer people are getting into the business. And artists who move into his region are not finding a hospitable environment. The American art pie has shrunk, galleries have gone south and protective cliques have replaced clubs.

George had to stop buying back, or brokering his work for his collectors… which he had always done in the past. His collectors got desperate and pushy, and ungrateful for this unusual service, which he had taught me to provide to my customers. A lot of his collectors have died… And because of the shrinking middle class, they are not being replaced by the next generation.

George no longer uses many of the old sales strategies. Everything has become a crap-shoot. More and more he goes to shows where sales are flat, and it is very hard to break even. As a businessman, he has had to discontinue many of his travels and associations that he enjoyed.

What happened?

Even with his technologically sophisticated system, he is not enjoying the growth and profits he has earned.

So I just asked him:  Is the art market flattening due to the economy, or are we watching something die?

He did not even have to think about it:  “We are watching something die.”

America is going through a major realignment of values and priorities and art, artists, art merchants, art suppliers, and art appreciation over all are the big losers. As a general in this increasingly difficult battle, George has seen a lot of casualties, and he has shown amazing determination and resilience.  

George went on to explain how he has had to re-invent himself a couple of times over the years to keep up with the changes in our social and cultural landscape. And he admitted at this point, nobody knows where it is all going. He does not know what to do about what is looming on the horizon. But he is far from quitting.

George has always been a survivor. And one of his strengths is that creative mind which loves to take shattered things and put them back together.
Nowadays he does flea markets, trades days like at Canton, or Fredericksburg every month, and Round Top twice a year; anywhere there are people shopping. They may not be looking for art... but they have not yet met George.

His paintings still hearken Americans, Texans to enjoy and take pride in their rich heritage, and a few still find in his work a reminder of the memories in their personal hard drives that they want to relive.

And in this re-invention process, George continues to find new audiences.

He has learned to appreciate the advantages of non-art venues; shows where he is one of few,  if not the only artist present.

Like Bre'r Rabbit,  he hustles the central Texas region, his own brier patch, reading his market with a flexible attitude, and stocking up with prints and canvas gicles, which he prints and frames himself.

Boutwell's prices have not gone up much in a long time. They are certainly not rising with the cost of travel expenses. A smart collector can still buy a George Boutwell major original for less than $2500.00.  I was stunned at what I saw in his booth. George wisely never let his prices leave the middle market. Therefore his business is still going, where many others have faded away. His work is the steal of the day... grand works, done by an official Texas State Artist… Texas treasures, for the price a big screen TV. Outrageous.

George clued me in to his current world, which I have thankfully avoided for the past thirty years. He graciously agreed for me to share his observations with you. Here are a few changes he (and I) will be grappling with:

 Huge change in demographics:

*Young Americans (20-30 yrs) don’t buy much art at all. But when they do, his nostalgic renderings of vintage classic cars are the bridge over the generations.

*Malls are aimed at a very young clientele, and are no longer a good place for an art market.

*90 % of his originals are sold to Hispanics; They are now the rising class of professionals, optimistic, living the American dream. Hispanic clientele has been the source of some of his MAJOR purchases and repeat business. One Hispanic gentleman called him one day and ordered over $18,000.00 worth of art for his offices in South Texas.

*Although representing only about a quarter of his inventory, 40% sales are prints of vintage cars… These subjects have always done well… but George is most famous as a Texas bluebonnet painter. His booth is crawling with giant paintings of Texas longhorns, farm houses, wonderful storms, Texas country life in hundreds of different scenes… That has been his “pigeon hole” but that is changing. Vintage cars are a cultural link to our youth, who are all about TECHNOLOGY.

*He does not see the white, upper middle-class thirty-something male entrepreneurs collecting art anymore. They are almost extinct.

*His buyers are now much older, well over 40, male and female, and from diverse backgrounds, and diminishing.

I will keep in touch with George as we try figure out how to survive in what appears to be an American Dark Age on the horizon. There will always be art and artists, and George, ever our vanguard, will no doubt lead the way. But I’m sure he would agree that it would be tough for him to try to do what he did in his career again, under today’s circumstances.

And that is bad news for tomorrow’s next generation of painters.

Well, that wraps up my research. And my rant. I told everyone of the artists I interviewed that I wanted to be wrong... and please change my mind. Each found more concerns about the concept than I had. I have provided these opinions purely to make available the best information from real, professional artist's points of view.

Maybe we are full of prunes. But I cared enough to ask around, from the most qualified people I knew, and not rely on my own knowledge or ignorance.
Good luck to the City Fathers, whatever they decide to do.
And thanks to my friends who generously discussed these questions with me. It was great to visit with all of you!

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