Art For Sale 

The business of representing contemporary artists in Idaho

Over a thousand painters, sculptors and other visual artists seek representation by contemporary art galleries across Idaho every year. Most of them get turned away.

Representation is a contract between an artist and a gallery. It spares artists from the "business" side of the art business--an area most artists admit they have no talent for--and frees them to focus their time and energy on the creative process. The gallery takes responsibility for marketing, showing and selling the art of every artist in its stable.

The gallery also assumes all the risks of any other business. They must buy or lease space, as well as pay staff, heating and electricity bills, insurance premiums, and the gamut of other services required to operate a brick-and-mortar operation. They also incur frequent advertising and promotion expenses, and must cover many specialized costs associated with representing artists and their work: shipping, framing, lighting, painting, art fair fees, conservation, record-keeping and more.

In order to meet these obligations and stay in business, galleries must sell art. Most of them maintain an extensive database of potential buyers--individual collectors, corporations and major museums among others--and actively solicit them to purchase work in inventory. They must also make every effort to increase an artist's visibility. Whether on a local, regional or national scale, galleries are constantly working behind the scenes to get an artists' work into exhibitions and reviewed in important publications.

It is therefore not surprising that galleries are very selective about the artists they choose to represent. After all, they will likely invest considerable resources in them for years to come. Successful galleries don't pick artists based solely on the likelihood of short-term sales, but rather seek artists with whom they can form long and mutually satisfying relationships.

In general, galleries keep 30 to 50 percent of the price of a sold artwork. If the commission seems high, consider this: Computer chip giant Intel's profits per dollar of sale hover around 65 percent--and that's for a sterile piece of silicon that rolls off an assembly line. Successful galleries walk a much finer line. They must stay profitable without forgetting there is a beating heart and soul behind every work they sell. Furthermore, since prices for established artists tend to be higher than those of up-and-comers, a gallery's long-term success is dependent on nurturing the potential of every artist it represents.

Idaho galleries exist outside of major metropolitan art markets such as Los Angeles and New York, and this introduces additional challenges. Given the limited number of established art institutions actively promoting art and educating the public, an Idaho gallery's pool of built-in potential buyers is reduced. Furthermore, exhibitions in smaller markets are less likely to be reviewed in the prestigious art magazines that spur potential buyers to visit a gallery.

Nonetheless, contemporary art galleries in Idaho are holding their own, and several are thriving. Here are the stories of three of them: J Crist Gallery in Boise, Gail Severn Gallery in Sun Valley and The Art Spirit Gallery in Coeur d'Alene.

J Crist Gallery

"I think the most important thing a gallery can do for an artist is to provide the liaison between the art and the collector, leaving the artist free to make the art," says Jacqueline Crist, owner of the J Crist Gallery.

The J Crist Gallery has been fulfilling its role as liaison since 1995, the year Crist and her husband, Charley, launched the business. Located in Boise, the gallery specializes in contemporary art (work created after 1945) and includes a coterie of artists working in a wide variety of mediums. About 75 percent of Crist's artists are local.

"I think in general our clientele likes to buy from who they know," she explains. "Also, it is easier in most cases to work with an artist whose studio is down the street than to ship, although that is getting easier and does not seem to be so much of an issue anymore."  

The gallery typically represents about 25 artists at any one time, and is forced to turn away about 150 others each year. Crist bases the decision to represent an artist on several different criteria, including whether the work will sell now or in the future, and whether the work meshes with the aesthetic sensibility of the gallery. She also assesses the commitment level of the artist and only agrees to represent them if she believes they will work as hard for her as she intends to work for them. She says, too, that her decisions reflect her clientele's desire to see a diversity of styles and genres at the gallery.

Crist firmly believes it her responsibility to make the community aware of her artists' work. She says this can be accomplished through regional and national exhibitions, advertising and art fairs, as well as simply making the work available to gallery visitors. She also encourages collectors to visit the artists' studios.

"It helps to engender a more intimate knowledge of the art and make the collector feel closer to the ideas producing the work," she says.

Further, the J Crist Gallery maintains a database that tracks clients' favorite artists, their likes and dislikes and the type of art they're currently collecting. "It is critical to know your market," Crist says, "offer them what they want, but also keep raising the bar."

She believes that consistency has played an important role in the success of her business, too. The gallery keeps regular hours, presents quality exhibitions and never slacks on marketing. 

Crist holds a master's degree in art history and museum studies from the University of Southern California, and worked as a curator for the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles for almost 10 years. She adds, "I must say, though, that nothing really prepared me for running a gallery as much as the business mentoring I sought from other business owners in my own community."

Crist strives to make her gallery a place that everyone can enjoy, no matter how much or how little they know about art. She says gallery staff always introduce themselves to visitors, talk about the work displayed and encourage questions. In the summer and early spring, exhibitions usually change every two months. During the other seasons, they rotate on a monthly basis.

Prices for artwork run from $100 upwards to $200,000. This range, Crist says, means she must look for potential buyers within the Boise community as well as in bigger markets such as Chicago, Los Angeles and New York.

Crist is convinced that her artists will receive the recognition they deserve, even if it's not always in the way or timeframe she expects. "If you stay in it for the long haul, you can create a vital and challenging milieu," she says. "This is what excites me and keeps me going--the opportunity to create the possibilities and the unexpected joy of when it all comes back to you and your artists."

The Art Spirit Gallery

"I do not choose artwork or artists by what is trendy or necessarily easy to sell. I find good art in representational and nonrepresentational, humorous and foreboding, human figure and waterfowl, it just has to be well done," says Steve Gibbs, owner of The Art Spirit Gallery.

In response to the tremendous amount of quality art he saw in northern Idaho, Gibbs opened his gallery in 1997. The Art Spirit Gallery focuses on original work by contemporary artists from Coeur d'Alene and the surrounding region, and encompasses a wide variety of mediums and subject matter. About 75 percent of the represented artists are local.

"The artists are deeply committed to producing work, which leaves them little time to develop a market," Gibbs says. "The need for a gallery that would focus on and promote this talent was evident." He adds that most of Art Spirit's artists have been committed to art their whole lives and demonstrate a mature use of materials. The gallery represents about 15 core regional artists, and turns away about 200 applicants each year.

The gallery must limit the number of artists it represents because, as Gibbs explains, a primary reason for opening the gallery was to create a place where local artists could be shown on a continual basis. "We provide a consistent, quality location to find the artist's work," Gibbs says. "We continually promote the artists and their work to both established and prospective clients."

Gibbs, who has a degree in art, worked for 15 years as a graphic designer and art director. He also previously owned a design studio and managed creative projects.

The Art Spirit Gallery mounts a new show every month and showcases a featured artist. At the same time, a sampling of work by other represented artists is also on display. The gallery hosts two group exhibitions a year, the Clay Invitational and the Small Works Invitational, and these include guest artists. Artwork at the gallery averages around $500 to $5,000, but prices can go lower and much higher.

Gibbs says he and his staff enjoy discussing the art and answering questions posed by visitors to the gallery. "It is fun to gently educate viewers about the artists and the techniques they employ," he says. The bottom line is how the art makes the viewer feel. If they enjoy looking at the piece, they may enjoy owning it."

Gibbs is proud of the service his gallery provides not only to its artists, but to the local community as well. The Art Spirit Gallery was instrumental in creating an Arts and Culture Committee in the Chamber of Commerce and actively engages with public art and education programs. He adds, "I also have the extreme pleasure of sharing this with two wonderful co-workers--gallery assistants Janet Torline and Leslie Petersen--in a small downtown where we have made a difference."

Gail Severn Gallery

"Most galleries have to start small and build an audience and clients--and build trust with both artists and clients--and this takes time," says Gail Severn, owner of the Gail Severn Gallery in Sun Valley.

Severn has committed the past 28 years to building such trust at her gallery in Sun Valley. The artists she represents work in a wide range of media and about 10 percent of them are local.

Severn says, "I look for artists who have a unique voice in the way they express themselves in their work." Her gallery currently represents about 70 artists, just a small fraction of those who submit each year. "Our commitment to our artists is based on the number that we can do a good job for," Severn explains. "It is a very large commitment on both the artist's part and the gallery in [terms of] time, emotions and dollars. It becomes a real partnership."

The Gail Severn Gallery facilitates exhibitions on-site and at museums around the country, places artists in international art fairs and publishes books and catalogs that showcase its represented artists. They also handle the day-to-day interaction and pressure of dealing with sales and clients.

After graduating from college, Severn worked at the Sun Valley Center for the Arts, as well as a framing store. When the owner of the frame shop decided to sell, Severn took over the lease and opened her own gallery. She now operates in an 8,000-square-foot building with four exhibition spaces, an outdoor sculpture court and a two-acre sculpture garden.

Shows in each of the exhibition rooms change monthly. The majority of the work ranges from $2,500 to $25,000, but some pieces can be acquired for around $250. Work by artists with national and international reputations can sell for upwards of $300,000.

Severn encourages locals and visitors to the Sun Valley community to drop by her gallery, and hopes they'll think of it as a museum with no entry fee. "In rural states like Idaho," she says, "art museums are often few and far between. The advantage to galleries in Idaho is that they have friendly staff and people who are happy to just let you browse at your leisure or answer any questions you might have." She notes, too, that local collectors have the ability to build a relationship with people who live in or near their own communities. They can also easily follow the careers of the artists who interest them.

By establishing her gallery in Sun Valley, Severn has succeeded in combining her passion for the arts with her love of Idaho. She believes the resort community brings beginning and established collectors together in a warm and inviting setting. She adds that her "clients, artists and staff benefit from this unique and rich environment that fosters long-term relationships."

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