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...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Picking my mentor's brain... about the art market

Of all the artists I have met and befriended, Jimmy Dyer has been the most influential on my career. We met at a Texas Wild Bunch show at Buffalo Gap, Texas around 1980. It was obvious from his choice of subjects we were kind of like soul mates. I would look at his paintings and think... I would have done that, or I have done that! I guess he thought the same thing. But he was a newly-wed and had his cute little wife with him... I did not want to bother him too much... Still, a friendship was begun.

A few years later, around 1986, out of the blue, Jimmy made a phone call that changed my life. "What are you doing? he asked, with something up his sleeve.

Jimmy Dyer painting in Santa Fe, New Mexico

I started a pitiful explanation of how I was going broke the hard way... TEACHING ART and not painting that much... Just trying to make a living in a failing economy... manufacturing crates on the side for Gates Rubber... to contain variable bore rampackers. No kidding!

He did not flinch, but said he was up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming painting. He told me if I could get myself up there, he thought, he was SURE, that he could help me make a big difference in my art and thus my art career.

I borrowed a car and went, driving up there by myself. I brought along an art box which I planned to bolt to a tripod... Jimmy had been hanging out with Wayne Wolfe and Tom Lovell, and was going to show me how to PAINT OUTDOORS. "Plein air" as they say.
Tim Lawson and Jimmy Dyer painting plein air near Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

From that trip on, I was what I called a "born again painter." I spent the next twenty years developing my new style and teaching others. The improvements were obvious to me, and my view of art changed drastically. He and I have stayed in touch... more or less, and I have always considered him my best and last painting mentor.

A few months ago we drove all around Austin looking for a good art gallery. I needed a place to put my new bronze, he was looking for representation since he lives nearby, on Lake Travis. We never found a decent gallery, but had a chance to catch up and talk about the art world... I called him the other day to verify my impressions from our conversation that day... and ask him a few more questions...

Jimmy Dyer teaching Plein Air techniques at Independence, Texas.

Jimmy is a fierce competitor, a driven achiever, a great artist and a thinker... all of which makes his opinion matter to me. I told Jimmy about the plans the City of Navasota had to renovate a Victorian house to make it into apartment/ studio/ gallery space for emerging artists. Like the other artists who I have approached about this, he was not very encouraging.

"Artists are barely scraping by" he said flatly. "Everything is about saving money!" In other words, people are not buying art at present. It's a bad time to get into the art business. He did not think offering free rent to artists was going to be enough. Beginning artists cannot afford to stay in obscure places where there is no ready opportunity to sell their works. And unless there are some serious other benefits, they will not stay long in that kind of environment.

What they need is an inspirational environment with lots of moneyed walk-by traffic, so they can create and sell a few pieces to pad their wallet.

Jimmy went on to cite Texas towns who have tried to build an art brand by having competitions. Marble Falls has done the best job of it. But it also has the Hill Country lakes and scenery and German folklore attractions to build on. It is already a resort area. Still, after several years of diligence, it has not rocketed to success. It takes many years and fortuitous geography to make an art town.

Granbury, a striving "wanna be" art town where Jimmy lived for awhile, touted itself as the "next Taos" thirty years ago, but still cannot support an art gallery, even today after decades of trying to capitalize on the lake and its proximity to Dallas - Ft. Worth. Even galleries in Fredericksburg, the supposed end-all of Texas tourism, struggle to survive.  Texas has never panned out as an art state.

Jimmy pointed to the most staggering evidence, at least half the art galleries he knows about have gone under. The 50% still in business find the market less profitable, sales having been flat for the past five years. The art market has been changing drastically, and requires more prudence and discipline than ever. So Jimmy has been experimenting with new venues, drawing upon his most reliable strategies.

Jimmy and I were raised by Texas rednecks, who said, "When the going gets tough, the tough get going!" But rednecks also have no time for bullshit.

He sees the Artist Project at the Horlock History Center in Navasota as the first part of a much larger plan, which would only work if it includes large commitments to advertising. He also worried that it could easily devolve into a money pit, and a management nightmare.  

"There is no visible art presence in Navasota. There is not enough traffic. You've got no reputation as an art market." He wondered if the City had the experience and knowledge needed to create those things in time to help the artists staying in the house... We kicked around the idea some more... until it just felt like beating a dead horse.

The problem Navasota is heading into, ( my opinion ) especially offering free rent to artists with no visible means of support, is these fledgling artists will not have, nor are likely to develop the work ethic or profit-driven motives of most mature businessmen.  They will be more like fraternity rejects than artistic geniuses. The art they produce while under the City's wing may have absolutely no cultural, economic or aesthetic value, and during the worst economic conditions for artists in over fifty years. There is a good chance that the program will go through many artists before it hosts a successful one. This is no formula for success, and it could be a very expensive public relations nightmare. 

My suggestion? Art is everything about ideas… World views. BEFORE the City of Navasota does this major overhaul of a historic structure, the whole city council should visit the art galleries in Houston or Austin to see what kind of culture you are inviting to staff your flagship. It will probably not be artists from my genre (landscape, Americana). It will probably become the home of a lot of very contemporary art, which will not easily relate to the population hosting it.

But beyond art, and styles and tastes...

How will you provide these artists with the resources, community, and financial support to sustain them? If their stay in Navasota is uninspiring, unprofitable, or even miserable, word will get out and the program will be short-lived.
Major Questions:
How are you going to screen applicant artists to insure success in the program and limit embarrassment to the program and the City? (tough!)
Once occupied, how will you then nurture art that will be a positive reflection on the program and the City? (almost impossible!) Walk through any college Art Building and you will understand my point.
How does the City ever recover the money invested in this venture? I realize it does not have to. But wouldn’t that be a better goal?
Inspiration, Sales and Atmosphere; Don’t bring them here and then start thinking about this. If you do not create a positive, inspirational experience for them, you will find them taking out their frustration on the house.



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