Director, SPECTOR Gallery/Projects
Adjunct Instructor, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Tyler School of Art and University of the Arts
I teach at several art colleges, and I ran SPECTOR Gallery for seven years. In learning the ins and outs of being an artist there is the constant question, “What should I charge for my work?” I usually say that to start out, make it as inexpensive as possible; it shouldn’t hurt, but should be a notch above painful. When and if it sells you raise the price a bit, and so on. That way, instead of collecting your own work, you start collecting collectors. It’s kind of like art training-pants. Eventually, the price hits a ceiling and you keep it there for the time being. There’s a little concern in there about making things so cheap that people don’t think they are good, but it’s always better to raise prices than to lower them.
A dozen or so years ago I decided to experiment with the cost of my work based on how long it took me to make it. I wasn’t going to consider materials or thinking time, just the hours I physically worked. I had for a while been selling work in galleries and had done many commissions, so I already had an idea of what people would pay for it.
I usually work on a bunch of pieces at the same time so I hung up a time-clock (a piece of scrap wood and a pencil) for each piece. Before I walked out of the studio every night, I would put down a hatch mark for each hour spent. When the time came to price the work I counted the hatch marks that by that time had completely covered the small wood blocks. I decided to give myself minimum wage, something that someone who works in retail or maybe tears movie ticket stubs might make.
I multiplied the hours by whatever minimum wage was at the time, and I realized there was no way I could charge that much for the work. It was so high that no one would ever pay it. That was even before I added in the 50% gallery commission. The impetus to make things isn’t really about money, but it was still a downer. So I went back to the prices that I had been using, raising them a bit just to make myself feel better.
The other part of the money discussion is that people want to haggle. It’s pretty common for galleries to give their regular collectors a discount. Generally this does not come out of the artists’ 50% but it definitely speaks to what people are actually paying for the work. I am of the mind that you can put any price on a work, but until someone actually gives you the money its value is not established.
Around the time of the time-clock fiasco, I came in contact with someone who was interested in acquiring one of my pieces. I was not really working with a gallery at the time, so he dealt directly with me. He immediately confessed to being a serial bargainer. I have no interest in negotiating price except when it comes to buying cars or houses, which I not only enjoy but also am very good at. He kept trying to get some kind of deal and I kept saying no. It’s not like we were talking about a huge amount of money. I think it was $900, and he could afford it. I had already discovered the pittance I would take away and I was determined to keep it all. Although it was hard to say no, he had already told me he was going to buy the piece, which meant although he was an experienced bargainer, he wasn’t good at it.
But just as he had told me, he couldn’t help himself. He would ask for a discount and then apologize right after, as if he had burped or farted. I was actually enjoying the encounters. He was a nice guy. Finally, I said I would give him $25 off. He was so happy that the amount didn’t even matter. He insisted on taking me out for Chinese Food with the money he saved.
I thought about getting in touch with him to let him know I was going to write a story about him. Even though more than a decade had passed, I knew he most likely still had the piece and would remember me. But after some thought I realized he probably wouldn’t even remember our little volley. To him, it was just another notch in his belt of bargaining conquests.
Previous Artjaw story
I didn’t really make a conscious decision to open my gallery. A series of events in ’98 and ’99 pointed me in that direction.
First, I found a great space. I needed to move my studio somewhere that was conducive to bringing a baby to work with me. My daughter hadn’t been born yet when I walked by 510 Bainbridge Street one day. The building had a nice, sunny former retail bakery in the front, perfect for napping infants, and a huge raw space with a loading dock in the back where I could put my woodshop.
I snagged the space immediately and got to work. The back space would be power tools, noise, chemicals, wood, paint and all my unsafe studio stuff; the front, a quiet, clean, pristine environment for the baby and my finished pieces. For the next 6 months, I redid the floors, put up lights and walls, painted and repaired. But it wasn’t until the following spring, when I saw a show of Adam Wallacavage’s photographs at the Drake Hotel in Philadelphia, that I actually shifted into gear and started to think of the space as a gallery.
Adam was doing some of the freshest work I had ever seen, but the show was hard to look at. It was put up with black masking tape in a hodge-podge, devil-may-care aesthetic, and it didn’t help that the place was about 110 degrees. I think it may have been the boiler room. All these things aside, the work got me excited enough that I asked him if he wanted to have a show in my new space.
When he stopped by to see the space he brought with him a packet of photos of paintings by his friend who he said was “really organized.” It was Jim Houser, and he was more than organized — he was an extreme and motivated talent. He was enthusiastic to put a show together really, really fast. We talked for less than an hour. I think Jim’s first show, and the gallery’s first show, “Earthman,” opened about 3 weeks later.
I called CityPaper to ask the editor, “How can I get some press?” He asked me what the lineup for shows was, and I rattled off an entire fall schedule. This was a pivotal point in the gallery’s existence, because I made it all up on the spot. But I am not a liar, so I presented all those shows, including one with Adam, and SPECTOR came into being.
It all sounds very casual, I know, but keeping a gallery afloat is a major hustle. My instincts said to go with it. I like to work hard, and I did. The gallery is a seven-year time capsule, not just of Philly’s turn of the century bursting art scene, but also, and maybe even more importantly, of the personal lives that are attached to it. It became a home full of life, love, friendship, birth, milestones and tragedy. My daughter, the reason for the move to the space, grew up there, as did her little sister.
But the same instincts that told me to make it happen also let me know when to let go. As the time to renegotiate the lease came closer, things like leaky windows and crumbling walls started to worsen. Ventures into the higher art world gave me a glimpse into a place that I found uninspiring. My artists, my two little girls and I were blossoming and ready for something new.
A few days after I announced the closing I was in Baltimore, visiting a college were I would be teaching. In one of the school’s galleries, I saw a series of beautiful graphite on paper drawings. I got a rush of excitement; the uncommon kind of feeling that both opened and fueled the gallery. It also helped to keep me motivated for seven years.
I made a mental note of the artist, knowing that at some point I might like to work with him. In that second I had forgotten I had no upcoming fall or spring schedule. When I remembered, for a minute I was sad, disappointed that I might be missing something, but it passed very quickly. That was all that happened, and for me, someone who has made up schedules out of thin air and spent enormous amounts of time, money and energy because of that same feeling, I saw it as a great sign.