On Becoming an Artrepreneur

VCG

The Good, The Bad, and The “Meh”

As we announced on social media, we’re officially going to be a mom and pop art gallery business.  It’s also official however, that we’re closing.  Suffice to say, life priorities change and call it what you want, Vestige Concept Gallery as it is known at 5417 Butler Street will be closed on 12/31/2023.  (Almost made it to that 4th year…)  It’s not a defeat or going out of business financially, so much as it’s having to perform the only selfish act that we have ever done (i.e. closing).   (Note: that “I” use “we” interchangeably, as this business includes Kelsey (who may not endorse these opinions), and the business entity itself). 

$200 and a Credit Card

Awards should be given for this type of bootstrapping and along with it, the segue into ending up on the cover of Pittsburgh Business Times (Headline: Guy Creates Successful Business With $200 and a Credit Card) or the 40 Under 40 List (I’m currently 39- so close!)  These dreams have sadly not come to pass (at least not yet).  Hundreds of art pieces and tens of thousands of dollars paid-out-to-artists later, things are just as they say “business as usual.”  There’s no award for years staying open.  Although it’s not a compliant, our take of sold art is just unfortunately not enough to muster the further energy in the face of rent and fixed cost.  Custom works of art where we take 100% sales also require a large amount of energy to produce.  People that understood “unique” (as opposed to mass produced) knew where to look, and chances were that on any given day you would have a free painting demonstration if you walked into the gallery.    

Truth be told, we started a successful art gallery from nothing, with the basic premise to provide immediate opportunities for people who are tired of waiting around for the wank at the pseudo-art-elitist jerk circle, or have to write a novela and give a blood sample to take a shot at a grant, with “waiting around” being the general lament.  As it began in December 2020, an art gallery is like having one long party, where the host has to continually make things interesting for people to attend.  In Zoolander, when he says “That Hansel is so hot”- is kind of the idea.  You and your gallery are either hot (or not).  In order to keep the party fresh, we opened up the place to anyone interested in showing with the caveat that it was curated.   As many have probably noticed, there was always some sort of “party” happening at the gallery.  Suffice to say, it has all taken a toll on my personal health.

 

We worked fast, and are a great gallery if you are looking to make a quick and decent buck.  Above us, there are definitely much slicker galleries, and below, you have a booth. Take your pick.  We truly appreciate the artists who invested their time, money, and energy on us.  While we’ve been accused of “pay to play” (which is true), we’ve always felt that it was more “pay it forward” and after all, someone needs to run the whole show.  The only real money came from Sales, albeit inconsistent for the higher priced pieces.  Unlike a day job, there is no salary direct-deposited every week.  Trying to guess at the tastes of everyone is also quite difficult.  Not every piece of art was amazing, and not every show was a runaway success.  It happens, and you learn to live with it.  In the end, it’s not my art and we tried to make things fun and interesting.  

When under the gun to constantly pay rent, you don’t get infinite chances to experiment and take risks on seemingly unknown artists.  Truth be told, we don’t really like a lot of artists out there, and a lot of it is just not that interesting. Heck, you probably already DIY, and hurrah for that, you’re among endless legions of competitors looking to sell their art (somehow).  The flip side of all of this, is that so-called artists of “caliber” aren’t knocking on our doors to be represented.  That’s not to say that we haven’t had artist’s of caliber (there’s been plenty) it’s just that investing thousands of dollars into another person that is not ourselves is a risky endeavor- when we would rather invest the money in ourselves and play it safe.  A case could be made for taking greater risks in business.  Sure, it’s been easier creating a situation where people come to us, when it’s no secret: there is a larger demand from artists to be seen than there is from consumers for the art itself.  However, we’ve done more than due diligence in both.  It would be one thing to never open or sit there and do absolutely nothing.   

Therefore, for all of the questions we’ve fielded for “why don’t you do more solo shows?” and “why do you keep doing these mixed/theme shows,” that is the simple answer.  The more complicated answer is that we’re just not that into your art, specifically.  The times we have brought in art pieces by the names that a buyer or collector says, those same buyers and so-called collectors don’t even show up to look at it, and we throw away money on shipping.  With that, I say that we have tried risk.  One of the worst parts of the dying breed of Main Street businesses is that overall customer loyalty just well… sucks.   The time and energy to invest in highly particular artists can be reserved for the leftover 1990’s/2000’s Pittsburgh scene “A-listers,” and silver-spoon galleries who open a handful (or spoonful) of times per month, and while we don’t doubt that the artists they host make “ok” art and both gallery and artist probably make a lot more money than us, their work is akin to what The Clarks are to the Pittsburgh music scene.  If you’ve been around Pittsburgh for as long as we have, you’ll understand what that means. 

I’d rather be out of business than deal with hack-abstract artists and even bigger egos in let’s face it… Pittsburgh.  I can say that only because I’m from here.

We’re just regular people- perhaps part of the enduring appeal of whatever it is that we’re doing, and part of why we have never received the golden anointment from one of very few keyholders in the Pittsburgh arts community at large.  Most of those keyholders are boring and have shallow personalities and as I believe, shun us.  We called bullshit for what it is and tried to provide people at least with some sort of other alternative.  

Pittsburgh: Some Place Special (Or So We Pretend)  

Being from Pittsburgh (80’s, 90’s… to today) it is my dubious honor to present my opinions on the pros and cons.  Outside of here, I lived in Chicago for roughly 8 years and have been to multiple countries, continents, world heritage sites, and the like.  I’m sure that in the end, a lot of cities and towns are the same that with over time, you would find the same sorts of things (i.e. the mundane).  And heck, there are probably a lot worse places than Pittsburgh.  On top of that, everyplace has its cheapskates, undercutters, spiers, haters, phony-wannabes, so-called “cultured” women that basically only fuck rich guys, “cultured” men that are misogynistic asshats, douchebros, rednecks, hood rats, etc.   I’m sure we’ve all experienced these people at some point.  

The problem with Pittsburgh is two fold:  it’s a fair weather bandwagon city where in order for anyone to appreciate something new, there has to be at least some sort of majority already doing it.  In a city of hundreds of thousands of people, roughly 80% of them won’t do anything that doesn’t involve a football, or a dancing food item or condiment.  Hell, the city is best known for football and a fucking condiment.   It elects Baron Batch (was he a Steeler?) as it’s best artist, and a yellow bridge as it’s art-du-jour.  So-called “culture” is confined to a limited number of institutions and key-holders.  I’m the “so and so” virtue-signaling curator at the Carnegie, Mellon, Frick, this or that-institutions named after wealthy old white men that literally worked people to death for very little pay.  Therefore, It’s also a hard working town, where undoubtedly, you have to earn some sort of respect or reason why people want to spend their hard earned dollars on you.  

The second problem with Pittsburgh is that it’s full of haters, but not a lot of critics.  “How can that be,” you ask? Hating on people can be anonymous, and shitting on ideas (and businesses, etc.) is easy.  Critically, the circle of “importants” is so small that you can’t say anything remotely honest or critical of anyone or anything without being ostracized.  Art critic Jerry Saltz once wrote that in New York City for instance, you can afford to lose 50 followers because you can gain 100’s more.  It’s easy in a large town, but not a small one.  What does this lead to?   This leads to a scenario where “everybody gets a turn” and everyone’s stuff is treated equally and without criticism (until it’s not).  Everyone is forced to play nice to each other.  This sort of egalitarian stupidity is why the city has barely (if not ever) produced any superstars by way of art or music, and I’m not talking about George Benson, Wiz Khalifa, or Donnie Iris.  People in Pittsburgh cannot simply be allowed to give their time or energy to back one really good thing that doesn’t involve a food item or the playoffs.  That is, until that thing moves away and becomes much more successful- then everyone in Pittsburgh takes credit for it (i.e. Andy Warhol or Michael Keaton).

That’s not to say that Vestige Concept Gallery is the holy messiah of the art world, after all, it’s just a small business. But with all of the art-loving, virtue-signaling, cultured people out there, the visitorship and community support could have been a whole hell of a lot better.  When I say “community support” what I mean is that the support for our gallery came from everywhere else other than the actual community where the gallery resided.  It makes sense to put your business in a “hip” neighborhood on “Main Street” next to million-dollar condos, and a soon-to-be- Michelin Star restaurant, and what a lucky deal you have!  Sure thing right?  Wrong.  As an art gallery, we’ve been for 3 years more like Pusadee’s Personal Parking Lot.  Watch my Escalade take up two parking spots while I go stuff my face full of $600 worth of seafood (and then say you can’t afford a piece of fine art).  That’s your prerogative, sure, but answer me that in 25 shows, with hundreds and hundreds of pieces of art, that you can’t even manage to venture inside and look?  And looking is 100% free.  Fuck it, I think I’ll buy it Online and then wonder what happened to all the retail in my community. 

One story I remember in particular.  It was our first Christmas as a business, December of 2021.  We installed a miniature railroad in our window display.  Two kids wanted so badly to watch the train before douche-daddy grabbed them and told them “get away from there” before tossing them into the back of a Range Rover.

What of those million dollar condos?  3 years- maybe 2 people?  $100?  Everyone else that you might call “foot traffic” are just dog walkers and joggers.  Dog walkers and joggers, dog walkers and joggers.  And COOKIE TOUR people: THE WORST OF SOCIETY.  (i.e. “Where’s your free cookies?”- never looks at the merchandise).  Like I said, if it doesn’t involve food, condiments, or sports, you’re SOL.  When you work in a shop long enough to see enough dogs take shits and the humans that follow them around cleaning it up, you realize that perhaps fine art is just too overwhelming for that type of brain.  Meet me at the Dog Brewery in yoga pants, Brad.  Oh well.  I doubt I am the first human to have these thoughts. Take that same art gallery or shop though and put it in a foreign country- and it’s the coolest place you’ve never seen before.  

Not The Bitter End

Suffice to say, although being stuck in the same room for three years lends to both positive and negative experiences, I have to say that the overwhelming amount of experiences and support have been extremely positive.  There’s no manual for doing things the right or wrong way, and a lot of running this has been trial and error, and a TON of fun.  The party is over though.  What counts in the art business (like any business), is having the clientele.  We’ve had great clients, just not enough, consistently.  Advertising is also risky and very expensive.  What many never realize, is that we sold a lot of art that was never even in the gallery or on the walls and these experiences (a.k.a. home decoration) are where a gallery can really begin to turn a profit.  Getting a client to trust you with that judgement can be tricky, as we live in a DIY world where people can shop art online or buy it through other channels.  I was once asked to provide references (which I did) and then never heard from the person again.  I believe that they did it to feel like a big shot.  

Emerging Art and Artists are an “you get what you see and pay for” kind of endeavor.  What I mean is that typically the price reflects exactly what it is and who made it.  If you like the artwork, you are trading what you are willing to spend on something that you enjoy and makes you happy.  The likelihood that an Emerging Artist is going to become “big” and the piece increase in value is about the same odds of winning the lottery.  If you wanted to sell the art, you would probably get what you paid for it, less, or only slightly more.  Vestige Concept Gallery for consumers was about providing the highest quality art at a realistic price.  If you spend thousands more someplace else, you probably let the smoke get blown up your ass.  But, the art world exists in that sort of way for a reason.  In the end, anything is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it, and if you like it, you like it. 

If you have bought art from our Gallery, we thank you sincerely and hope that that you continue to appreciate the work for many years to come.  We will likely continue in some shape or form, as it has been a major time and energy investment into running the business and to the community.  For all of the other visitors and supporters- thank you as well! 

-Alex   

 

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