Friday Tips: My First Gallery, Bottle of Bourbon, and Going Broke, 1995

(Excerpted from Living the Artist’s Life)

Opening the gallery did two things for my writing: first it stole from it, then it fed it. Initially I was so busy I had no time to write. For a full year I didn’t write, which was very hard, and built up a lot of internal pressures that I had difficulty bearing–just as it would for any of you. Then a book burst out of me in a way that no book ever had before, and, despite the dire state of my finances, I felt fulfilled again. Not fulfilled in the way that my children’s laughter, my wife’s touch, or long trips alone fulfill me, but only in the way that artists truly can be: by doing their best work.

In the mornings I would come in, look at the sunlight as it lit paintings, and with the glow of all that color around me, I’d set to work, writing for maybe three hours before people began wandering in. Then I’d concentrate on gallery business until late at night, knowing that my real work had been done, and that I could go back to it the next day, and that it would still be there, waiting.

That book, my fourth, was a breakthrough work for me. In writing it, I learned more about how I wanted to handle prose than I ever had before. I even sent it to the literary critic for the Kansas City Star, Theodore O’Leary, who called to congratulate me, then invited me over for drinks. He wasn’t sure if the book would get published in today’s parlous market (it didn’t), but he felt it showed great promise, and urged me to stick with it. I told him I would.

It would be two more years before I’d land my first agent, but after Ted’s encouragement, I knew I was on my way. As with most artists there was no course I could follow, and no map, but I believed my intuition would guide me, and that continued hard work would pay off. Deep inside, in that place where our dreams live, I could feel the certainty of it. That wouldn’t make the coming hurdles any easier to cross, or the pressures easier to bear, but it did give me hope in those times when things often seemed hopeless. What I didn’t know was that the feelings of hopelessness were far from over; in fact the worst of them were about to begin.

My gallery by now was two years old, and I at last had a reputation of sorts. Many people recognized the gallery’s name, and even seemed to respect it. Scores of these people would come in to visit, browse, satisfy their curiosity; as usual, few would buy. All the other galleries in the city were convinced I was doing a bang-up business. In reality I was at least as broke as they, and often more so, since many of the other galleries were underwritten by wealthy owners, or had framing to fall back on.  I didn’t want to frame; I wanted to build an art-consultation business, promoting Midwestern artists in large-scale projects, executing world-class works.  But as yet I had no large projects, and few clients.  As as consequence I was still slowly, inexorably headed for bankruptcy, with apparently no way to stop it.

No matter how hard I worked, I couldn’t seem to break through that middle-class attitude in America, where so many of the prosperous spend hundreds of thousands on their homes and cars, then put framed posters on the walls for art. Regardless of their income level—the upper-class included—this tends to be the overall practice. And if you think this is just a Midwestern phenomenon, I’ve got news: it ain’t.

It isn’t that the average American doesn’t enjoy real art, they’re just too busy, or indifferent, to recognize it. If I can help them see it when they come in the gallery, frequently they’ll become impassioned about it—assuming they’re open enough to see things at all.

Even if they can’t afford the work, helping them respond to it is my first priority. The difficulty lies in getting them in the door, and getting them to slow down long enough to comprehend what it is they’re viewing. With my current level of accomplishment, and list of clients, this is no longer a problem; in fact I’m gratefully amazed by the amount of business that comes our way now. But in those lonely early years I still had much to learn about the process, and the resulting poor rate of sales was driving me mad.

What also drove me mad was the fact that the two oldest galleries in the city frequently sold work that I felt was mediocre, and they sold it like candy in a dimestore. In these galleries illustration passed for painting, and overdone canvases passed for depth. The works were normally uninspired, flat and shallow. But because the gallery owners hobnobbed with the city’s elite, they never lacked for buyers. Their openings were always packed, with everything selling off the walls. My openings were packed too, mostly with wine-sipping bohemians who loved the gallery, and loved the art, but could afford none of it. Consequently I held several openings where not a single work sold.

The lesson to be learned? Connections will sell anything, including bad work. I had no connections. I had a small but growing list of clients who trusted me, and I trusted them. Initially I had thought that would be enough. It wasn’t.

It was at about this time that a large jug of bourbon began to appear in one of my desk drawers. It would show up on Wednesday and be emptied by Saturday night. I never hit it during the day, but in the evening as diners filled the adjoining restaurant, and hence my gallery, I’d take snorts off that sucker and watch the non-buyers file through. I was going broke, I was enraged at the position I had placed my family in, and at thirty-eight I still hadn’t written a novel of the power I was trying to attain. That’s what angered me the most. I blamed myself, I blamed the art business, and especially I blamed the crowds of non-buyers who took up my time. I had begun to despise them:

A wide-eyed suburban woman coming through the gallery, staring at all the work without seeing a single thing, then turning to me and saying: “Oh my. Did you do all this?”

Me sitting at my desk, my feet up, shoes off, a glass of bourbon in my hand. “You bet, ma’am. I painted every painting in here. Did the sculptures too, but only in my spare time.”

Still the wide eyes, the kind but vacant expression. “Ohhhh. You must be very creative.”

“Why thank-you, ma’am. I sure try to be.”

Or a gaggle of similar men and women, squinting at the work and muttering among themselves about the prices, one of the men finally turning to me and asking the same question that the suburban woman had.

Me blearily looking up, taking a sip of bourbon and saying, “Buddy, I couldn’t draw flies with my shoes off.”

All of them filing out in bewildered silence.

Or the occasional New Yorker, Texan, or Kansas Citian who was a serious collector, but me often too embittered to give them appropriate attention, they sensing the bitterness, and leaving as quickly as they had come.

I would think of opportunities missed, opportunities that never came, the thousands of phone calls and letters that had never been returned, and my bitterness would deepen.  Then I’d soddenly go home to watch a movie with my family. My kids on my lap, too young to realize my condition, me holding them as they watched It’s A Wonderful Life, weeping inside for the thing I’d done to their future. Me thinking about my life insurance policy, wondering if they’d be better off. And don’t think I didn’t consider it, but as I said earlier, I’m just not made that way. Either way, I’d sunken into the trap of self-pity, which leads to inaction, which leads to failure compounded. I was so mired in depression that I couldn’t seem to realize I was living in the wealthiest country in the world, with multiple opportunities at my fingertips, if I’d just fine a way to tap into them.

My wife watched my descent from aside, uncertain if she knew me anymore, and a little afraid of who I was becoming. A wall of miscommunication had begun to grow between us. She felt it. So did I. Neither of us said a word about it.

Owing to stress, overwork, and looming financial disaster, I had begun to forget to do the little things: soft words, caresses, the taking of walks, sitting and talking, flowers for no reason, the occasional seduction before the fireplace, phone calls midafternoon just to ask how she was, what she was doing. I had begun to forget those things, and so had she. I knew then that our marriage, and my gallery, would either have to undergo an evolution, or not. The problem was, I didn’t feel capable of an evolution, either within myself or without. I needed one though. I needed one badly.

Little did I know it, but one was coming–and not in a welcome form.

Business debt at this stage: $90,000. Other debt: don’t ask.

7 thoughts on “Friday Tips: My First Gallery, Bottle of Bourbon, and Going Broke, 1995

  1. This is something like what is happening with me, minus the indifference to potential customers. I look at everyone who comes in as “the one who’s going to bail me out of my hole”. Not that I jump all over them, it’s that I always have hope (that is until they walk out without buying anything “oh your work is so wonderful!”) and then someone else comes in, and a new cycle of hope followed by despair. I don’t know the people I need to know, and frankly, I don’t have the education or even the clothes…those people don’t even look at me at art fairs, they just walk on by. Can’t wait to hear how you got out of your hole!!

  2. DB: More later.

    Judy: To be honest, rare is the artist who is comfortable socializing with clients. Yet without those relationships–and please note the relationship comes first–it’s very hard to advance a career. The funny thing is, many of those clients feel just as awkwardly about socializing with artists. Both sides are simply looking for acceptance, but are unsure of how to cross the gulf of miscommunication. That is sometimes where gallery owners come in, which is fine, so long as they don’t muddy the waters, or create unnecessary complications.

    How did I get out of my hole? One step at a time, but not before sinking much deeper. Hope you enjoy the book.

  3. WOW – I can’t believe I found your blog – complete accident, but a great one! I read your book this Winter and found it very helpful. I’m an artist who is terrified of gallery owners, and this let me see things from your point of view. Someday soon I’ll get enough courage to find myself an gallery! Thanks for writing it – it’s on display in my studio.

  4. Pingback: Paul Dorrell’s Blog » Friday Tips: Evolution Comes Knocking

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