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By John A. Barry And Bill Carmel

What Were They Thinking?!

Uploaded: Jan 13, 2014

In the gallery graveyard that is Danville, add another headstone: Fine Art 360, 2013 - 2013.

What were those people thinking? I tried on multiple occasions to ask that and other questions, but no one ever got back to me. So now I can only speculate when I'm not writing about knowns.

What's known is that Mike Tate, a mediocre painter with a silver tongue, got in way over his head when he attempted to open a gallery in Railroad Square in Danville. That venue lasted a few months until Tate vanished without a trace.

Not long after his abrupt departure, a sign on the door promised a new gallery, which took months to materialize. Gradually, kitsch-laden window displays began to appear, highlighting overpriced kitsch inside. (In fairness, some of the work was OK, and kitsch can often be enjoyable, if its cost is in line with what it is.)

"It has been an honor to be part of the Danville community by having a pop-up gallery location for the holiday season of 2013 at 415 Railroad Avenue." So read a flyer that was being handed out at the place in the waning days of 2013.

Fine Art 360 was no seasonal "pop-up gallery," as Randall Hunter, Fine Art 360's president, was pitching it as he prepared leave town, defeated, so it seems, by the fanciful notion that people who are looking to drop a couple hundred bucks on something to hang over the sofa or put on a pedestal are going to suddenly shell out thousands of dollars for reproductions of art by uninspiring and/or atavistic artists.

Hunter allegedly has a warehouse full of this stuff unsold in Capitola. I heard more than one supposition that the Danville location was created as an attempt to unload some of it in an affluent area. If that's the case, the ploy didn't pan out too well, from all appearances. Affluence doesn't necessarily guarantee sales of expensive commodities.

As a final offer, Hunter was shaving 20 percent off the entire inventory and asking "you and your family to come down to the gallery so that our consultants can help you find the perfect piece of art." Those sound like blandishments issued by an interior design studio, an entity Fine Art 360 appeared to resemble more than a gallery.

If it was a pop-up, it popped for only several months, about the same amount of time Tate lasted. Despite many failings (such as not paying at least two artists for their work he sold, according to the artists), Tate at least welcomed a variety of local artists and displayed their work?which was not the case with 360, as artist Kevin Davidson, whose work was on display for a while in the Tate venue, points out. On the other hand, Tate had nothing but his own stuff to show when he arrived and needed to acquire potential product. Hunter already had a warehouse full of it.

I don't know if Hunter paid for the window displays and internal construction. If so, it's unlikely he made back what must have been a high cost . . . hard to imagine he actually sold much of anything. It's possible that each decorator who did a window worked for free or at a reduced rate in return for a promotional nameplate on the display. Tate was shelling out little to nothing for the space, and Hunter may have had the same deal. In any case, it all looked more permanent than seasonal.

But, pop goes the easel.

After failing as a bike shop, this site was also doomed as an art venue?RIP. Maybe the next tenant, rumored to be a men's clothing store, will have better luck. ? John Barry

The 360% Solution

Dealer-owned private retail fine art galleries in urban centers and giant art publishing houses became common in America during the 1960s. They tried to maximize sales and cash flow by contracting with as many artists as possible to sell their work on consignment or at low royalties while employing sketchy business practices favorable to the bottom line.

Conversely, in a business model similar to franchising, artists began publishing, packaging, and licensing their images and products to galleries by subscription on terms favorable to artists. These artists created styles and bodies of work that could be packaged by agents and brokers (who oversaw the publishing and distribution) of editions of copies sold by subscription to retailers with suitable retail locations. An unfortunate consequence of this approach is that the individual style of things we purchase (artworks in this case) acquire a look and feel befitting the lowest common denominator. Most of the "international" work in the Fine Art 360 gallery appeared to be a hybrid of the subscription variety, with a few local artists on consignment.

In the 1980s, these gallery outlets matured into box stores relying on deep pockets, stables of artists, and artificially high prices?a business model similar to one in which architects sell their designs to developers who create suburban tract houses and high-density urban projects or in which fashion designers sell their ready-to-wear designs to department stores in malls. What this produces is the slight variations in "popular" styles sold in outlet stores such as Fine Art 360. These stores offer variations of a few styles and content that have been popular throughout the history of art and ignore many other viable art styles and markets. This is the cookie-cutter approach to art and galleries. Thankfully, this kind of gallery venue is vanishing, because the widespread practice of stealth ethics?in which clients are given misleading or false information about the artist, media, and potential rising value of the product?is counter to what the creative cultural community needs in order to thrive.

None of my negative-sounding observations about galleries and dealers such as Fine Art 360 are meant to imply that they are illegal, and there is nothing "wrong" per se with the paintings and sculpture in 360. Most of it was derivative, as is most art in one way or another. However, more to the point, it was no more than decorative, no matter how well done technically. Art goes beyond the content and styles of the past and includes new ideas, techniques, and points of view. Every artist knows, but won't admit, that rehashing traditional ideas and context in a personal way may be the best we can do. In my opinion, the best art takes ideas from the past and present and says something new about them. New and original ideas are rare.

Nearly every gallery in Danville has folded?some faster than others?and the reasons vary. Here's a possible explanation for the demise of 360. Randall Hunter reasoned that he could make his gallery work because wealthy collectors in Danville could still be influenced by the market forces that were in play 20 or so years ago?when he probably bought most of his inventory. He constructed a retail sales design for his showroom that was a hybrid concept?a maze of "intimate" little rooms with open ceilings and cutesy designer window displays devoted to individual artists. The commission-paid sales force engaged clients with slick pitches, glossy brochures, and VIP exclusive event invitations. But this scheme didn't move enough product. Furthermore, his concept of promoting artists and products that were "spiritual" didn't click. (Interestingly, Tate had employed a similar "spiritual" gambit.) So, six months after opening the door, 360's last "Hail Mary" was the 20% off holiday sale!

If people bought work from 360, I hope that they love the work for itself, because as an "investment," it's worth only what the resale market will bear. The time when art of the kind sold in galleries such as 360 could be an investment that appreciated wildly in value has passed. The big money is made in the auction houses, such as Christie's, which resell and resell?for exorbitant fees?mostly the work of dead artists. There always will be financial bubbles, but the auction houses have the luxury of designing and managing their very own artificial art financial bubbles that don't easily pop. They have adjusted their business model to incorporate new technology such as real-time satellite locations and online promotional campaigns.

None of the current retail art business models have served the majority of artists very well. They are designed to maximize profit for dealers. Because of historically poor and unethical treatment of artists by dealers, California has an Art Resale Royalties Act, Civil Code section 986, which entitles artists to a royalty payment upon the resale of their works of art under certain circumstances. More about this in a later installment.

In talking to fellow local artists, I have discovered that the majority have seen their ability to earn a livelihood decrease precipitously since 2001. Perhaps the next round of art sales models can do a better job for artists by being more democratic, offering a wider range of styles, and paying the artists a larger percentage of profits.

Maybe such an approach could make for a viable and financially successful gallery in Danville, an unrealizable scenario to date. ? Bill Carmel