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Making Art Work for a Living

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  • Michael Tonn

Vermont has one of the highest percentages of artists per capita in the U.S., according to numbers touted by the Vermont Arts Council. Evidence of that is rampant; just about every public space — from coffee shops to banks to the Supreme Court lobby — has visual art on display. It's outdoors, too: Burlington is tattooed with murals. Granite sculptures proliferate in Barre. Contemporary art dots the campus of Middlebury College. We could go on.

Vermont is rich not only in natural beauty but in human-made art of every kind. So why isn't the place known as an art market along the lines of, say, Santa Fe?

Unfortunately, the Green Mountain State ranks among the poorest for art sales. While Vermont generally and Burlington specifically often make national top-10 lists for quality of life, a wealth of commercial galleries is apparently not one of the considerations. A handful of them prosper in Stowe, but that is not the case in the state's largest city.

An unknown number of established artists make a living by selling work outside the state; some have gallery representation in New York, Boston or LA. But here at home, many artists survive much as other Vermonters do: by diversifying their revenue streams. The most obvious option is holding down one or more part-time jobs — or a full-time one that provides health and other benefits. Teaching is a natural route, whether at an institution or in private lessons.

As creative people, artists find any number of ways to make their craft work for them, such as selling directly at artists' markets, seeking public or private commissions, and applying for residencies that allow them the time and space to make work. Some artists develop a moneymaking niche, such as pet portraiture. The best advice artists usually hear is to take a business approach to their craft when they step out of the studio.

When they do so, what kinds of resources will they find? For this week's Money Issue, we take a look at the state's largest granting agency, an institutional collector and the business of pricing art for sale.

The State as Patron

"She Was Fun at Parties" by Michelle Saffran
  • "She Was Fun at Parties" by Michelle Saffran

For artists making a living from a variety of income sources, grants from arts-focused nonprofits are one patch in the quilt. Though they're often low in dollar value and competitive to get, they can provide crucial support for artists.

The Vermont Arts Council is one of the state's only grant-making organizations for artists. While it is committed to distributing $665,000 in 2016 across a variety of artistic disciplines, individual artist development grants generally range from $250 to $1,000; the standard amount for creation grants is $3,000.

Grants in the former category are geared toward professional development, such as receiving training in a new photography process or hiring someone to build a website. The latter category is specifically for the creation of new work, be it sculpture or a collection of poetry.

These creation and artist development grants are the only ones individuals can receive from the VAC. For groups and organizations, the council offers grants that support artists-in-schools programming, improvements of arts facilities, training for arts nonprofit staff and more.

The VAC awards its artist development grants throughout the year; in 2015, 36 such grants were distributed. So far in 2016, 15 artists have received funds, and the VAC expects to award a total of $15,500, or roughly 30 grants.

Photo-collage artist Michelle Saffran is one of those recipients. An instructor at Saint Michael's College and Community College of Vermont, she recently received $600 — the third such grant she's received from the arts council. This time Saffran used the funds to attend a North Country Studio Workshop at Bennington College on iPhone photography, processes and printing. She said the workshop "brought up a lot of questions about process, why someone would choose one [photographic] process over another." For example, "the way I [traditionally] make my work is a part of the message of the work," she said. Her methods include photo collage and sewing on top of her images, both by hand and by machine.

Saffran aims to use what she learned to produce a smaller, more marketable collection of images. The workshop helped her to connect with other artists in her area, she said, and to keep pace with the ever-changing field of photography.

The VAC's 2016 creation grants were actually awarded last summer. Of the 11 creatives who received the $3,000 sum, three were visual artists.

Kira Bacon, communications and outreach manager for the VAC, acknowledges the limitations of those funds. "Obviously, we're only funding a tiny part of the creation of any particular [artwork]," she said. "We think of it as giving [artists] a tiny bit of time and space to stretch themselves."

Bacon suggested that three grand can "enable a choreographer to rent a space or pay her dancers, or a novelist to do research on a book."

A creation grant helped printmaker Katie Loesel study nontoxic printmaking methods at Zea Mays Printmaking in Florence, Mass. Loesel teaches at Champlain College and Burlington City Arts and is a production assistant at New Duds Screen Printing & Illustration in Winooski. The two workshops she attended helped her to "get back to her roots as a maker," she said, and delve deeper into printmaking. This was the first time she had applied for a grant from the VAC. 

Not everyone is so lucky. Artist, writer and teacher Rebecca Weisman said she's applied for creation grants from the VAC "maybe three times in the past few years." She hasn't received one yet. Weisman, who teaches art at Burlington College, works with video production and installation. She recently collaborated with Dana Heffern on an installation at 339 Pine Street for Overnight Projects.

Of the creation grant, Weisman said that, apart from art sales and other jobs, "It's really the only funding source for [Vermont] artists to be making new work. I feel like we all just keep applying, even though it seems pretty inadequate in terms of what's available to support artists. And it's not [the VAC's] fault; it's an issue of funding and having the money."

Weisman does wish that the arts council would diversify its funding, genre-wise. "I'm not seeing as much experimental or conceptual work being funded," she noted.

Perhaps like attracts like? A panel of 10 Vermont artists and art professionals, most of whom have received arts council support in the past, selects the creation grant recipients. The visual artists on that panel this year are painter Kate Gridley, Carving Studio & Sculpture Center executive director Carol Driscoll, Vermont Studio Center program director Kathy Black and printmaker Brian Cohen.

In fact, visual artists did not receive the majority of creation or artist development grants this year. Others went to poets, documentary filmmakers, novelists, dancers and musicians. And, according to the VAC, that's a good thing. "We want to support as broad and deep a group as we possibly can," said Bacon.

Asked if the arts council tends to support a specific type of art, Bacon said no. "It's a reflection of who applies," she said, especially in the case of the development grants. "You might get one year where there's a lot more choreographers than composers, so the results might be skewed in one direction." Regardless, Bacon emphasized that the primary goal of the VAC is to help artists continue their work.

"Whether it's developing a website or hiring a lawyer, [these grants] are one more way for us to help artists in the business of supporting themselves," she said.

— Sadie Williams

Courting the State's Biggest Collector

"Emma," by Ethan Bond-Watts, in UVM Medical Center's intensive care unit - FILE: MATTHEW THORSEN
  • File: Matthew Thorsen
  • "Emma," by Ethan Bond-Watts, in UVM Medical Center's intensive care unit

The University of Vermont Medical Center is the state's largest private employer. Technically speaking, it also runs the state's largest restaurant, which served more than two million meals in 2015, according to vice president of hospital services Dawn LeBaron. As it turns out, the medical center is also the state's most substantial art collector.

UVM Medical Center "is probably the biggest corporate collector [in Vermont]," commented Kerri Macon by phone. Macon, who manages Vermont Metro Gallery and is Burlington City Arts' director of sales through its leasing program, added, "We don't know of any other organizations that collect on that level and with that mission." She estimated that the hospital's collection currently numbers about 500 works and counting.

In a state with few collecting institutions, the medical center has quietly become a major player in the local arts economy. According to BCA, the hospital spent upwards of $100,000 on artworks in 2015. Annual spending, however, varies dramatically depending on specific projects. In 2014, the medical center put about $14,000 toward art. Those numbers do not account for works commissioned for particular public spaces, whose budgets to date have ranged from $10,000 to $29,000.

While not all kinds of artwork are suitable for a health care environment, many Vermont artists view becoming part of such a collection as a significant opportunity. The impact is twofold. First, artists receive income from the initial sale. Second, as Amy Lilly notes below in "What's Art Worth?" being collected enhances the ascribed value of artists' work.

For the past two years, Macon has worked closely as a curatorial consultant with the hospital's Artwork Committee, which LeBaron chairs. Macon takes into account criteria put forth by the committee, such as the purpose of the space in question, budget, and safety and fire code requirements. Then she suggests artists or works she considers a good match.

The Artwork Committee was formed in 2005, in conjunction with the addition of the hospital's ambulatory care center, and linked up with BCA in 2007. At present, the committee includes a nurse, a physician and the hospital's volunteer director, as well as representatives from fundraising, marketing and communications, and facilities planning. LeBaron noted that the committee plans to incorporate patient input in the near future.

"Our real, concerted effort began when we opened this building," LeBaron said during a recent facility tour. At that time, the committee completed an inventory of the hospital's holdings and worked to develop policy and guidelines for acceptable art.

"We want to buy pieces that support the healing environment," said LeBaron. "We're careful to make sure we're not provoking — not in the health care environment. We try to be universally appealing."

The hospital's collecting efforts are loyal to local. Indeed, the works hanging in the building's hallways and public spaces comprise a who's who of notable Vermont artists. Elevator panels painted by Sabra Field in 1975 have since been dismantled and restored by Field herself; they now hang on a wall on the lower level. The so-called "Main Street Corridor" boasts pieces by Eric Aho, the late Stephen Huneck, Woody Jackson and Claire Van Vliet.

The collection also features new works by a younger generation of artists, including Burlington metal sculptor Kat Clear. After she responded to a request for proposals issued through BCA in 2008, Clear was selected to make "The Fabric of Life" wall sculpture for the care center's atrium. Installed in 2009, this 42-foot-high piece includes a rendering of a vintage sewing machine and a "quilt" of copper and steel patches that drapes gently down the lobby's limestone wall.

The Artwork Committee does not have its own budget per se. Rather, works are acquired on a project-by-project basis. Donors commission many of them. "The Fabric of Life" was a gift of former hospital CEO Melinda L. Estes and her husband, Harold H. Morris III. The couple also commissioned "Our Changing Sea," a wall-hung aluminum sculpture of Lake Champlain by Kate Pond, completed in 2012.

Recent hospital projects with an art-buying component include the new Mother-Baby Unit and the Garden Atrium café, which opened last August and September, respectively. The maternity building displays dozens of works both along its hallways and in its rooms, including pieces by Clark Derbes, Karen Henderson, Jill Madden and Dianne Shullenberger.

"We really try and assess the feeling and the atmosphere of each space the hospital is doing," Macon said, "and choose and collect work that is most conducive to the healing and mission of that particular space."

The Garden Atrium is a fitting example. As a restaurant, it surpasses expectations of hospital dining options, offering inexpensive dishes made with locally sourced ingredients. The café's art is meant to complement this emphasis on healthful, sustainability-minded meals. A highlight is three large-scale works by Mary Zompetti, a Grand Isle-based artist who is also director of BCA's photography program.

Macon has striven to emphasize the status of the medical center's art inventory as a collection. For her, this means considering both "the breadth of work that they own" and "the diversity of artists that they buy from." She noted the institution's ample opportunity to build "an authentic Vermont collection."

A leasing program falls under the purview of the Artwork Committee and BCA, as well. Through this initiative, artists are selected to display works for sale in one of three medical center locations for four months. Currently, pieces by photographer Jim Westphalen, painter Elizabeth Nelson and the late Lee Garrison occupy these spaces.

The committee itself may be the leasing program's best customer. LeBaron recently selected one of Westphalen's images to hang, permanently, in the waiting room of an executive office. The hospital purchased a series of black-and-white photographs by architectural and fine art photographer Gary Hall after a doctor expressed his attachment to them.

LeBaron estimated that nearly 5,000 people pass through the medical center daily. While it's impossible to know how many of them absorb the artwork, she attested that she sees people stopping to look at what's on the walls — and to talk about it. Said LeBaron, "The dialogue that we hear is really all the feedback we need."

— Rachel Elizabeth Jones

What's Art Worth?

  • File: Jeb Wallace-brodeur
  • Stephanie Walker

Art dealer Stephanie Walker, of the Walker Contemporary gallery in Waitsfield, constantly surfs the web for new artists. A couple of years ago, she spotted the delicate cut-paper work of emerging artist Maude White, of Buffalo, N.Y., and contacted her. The dealer recalled that the artist took the opportunity to ask her, "Do you mind if I pick your brain about pricing?"

"What I suggested was low, but a huge jump from what she had been charging," said Walker. "And right away she sold four pieces."

When Walker began representing White last summer, six pieces sold within a day of arriving at the gallery. Prices for White's work have risen from $800 to $1,500.

Once artists have moved past initial exposure at artists' markets, nonprofit spaces and artists' collectives — such as Steak Frites in Burlington and the Front in Montpelier — they must think seriously about how to price their art.

Kerri Macon, the director of art sales at Burlington City Arts, called pricing "a very fluid process."

For individual artists, it can be hard to know where to start. But Vermonters have a few sources of guidance on this money matter. The Vermont Arts Council runs an annual two-day "Breaking Into Business" workshop for artists. Burlington's South End Arts and Business Association hosted a panel discussion in 2005, titled "Pricing Artwork to Sell," that prompted participant Ric Kasini Kadour to publish "How to Price Your Artwork," a chapbook that was reissued in 2015.

Walker, who has been a dealer for 17 years, works primarily with mid-career artists outside the state. The Essex native has also worked as a private dealer and gallery owner in Los Angeles and Boston; she was reached by phone during a trip to visit galleries in the Southwest.

Walker named three important factors in determining prices for art: the artist's exhibition history, sales record, and inclusion in the collections of museums, corporations or other institutions. Lesser factors include artist productivity and the market rates for different sizes and mediums.

While prices in the art world may not appear so logical to buyers — particularly in the upper stratospheres — according to Walker, "it's pretty consistent. If there's an artist who's getting $45,000 a painting, they really do have a 12-page résumé," she said.

As in real estate, location matters in art pricing. Painter Blake Larsen used to live in New Mexico, which has the country's third-largest art market after New York and California. Now residing in Essex Junction, he paints nudes and abstract works. When Larsen moved to Vermont, he recalled, he brought his prices with him: $21,000 on the high end. During a recent solo show at the Bundy Modern in Waitsfield, few of his paintings sold, so now he is looking to enter the New York market.

And for that, Larsen said, he'll have to raise his prices just to interest galleries there. According to Artprice, one of several online guides the painter uses to determine his work's going rate, New York has the nation's highest prices. Vermont and Louisiana have the lowest.

It's no secret that, as Macon put it, "Vermont is a tough place to sell artwork." At Vermont Metro Gallery, she has curated shows of local artists — some mid-career and some emerging — for the past three years. "Every artist has to find their market" — that is, find the population that will "fall in love with their work," she added. Whenever that doesn't happen for an artist at her gallery, where the primary audience is Vermonters, Macon tries to steer him or her toward out-of-state galleries.

"There are a lot of [successful] artists here who don't show their work in Vermont," she noted. "There are a lot I don't have access to."

Macon said she has "done a 180 on pricing" since she began curating at Vermont Metro. "When I started, I would ask the artist, 'What have you sold your work for? And how many have you sold at that price?'" she recalled. Then she would advise the artist on market prices for size and medium.

Now Macon emphasizes building a sales record, even if that requires setting initial prices lower than an artist would prefer. When sales do start happening, she recommends that artists raise their prices.

That was the case with Mareva Millarc, an abstract painter who sold many pieces at a solo show titled "Shapeshifter" at Vermont Metro last November. "People love her work," enthused Macon.

But Millarc, who lives near Rutland, resisted capitalizing on her success. When she began painting professionally in 2007, she recalled during a phone call, she looked at the prices in galleries and realized that many people — including her daughter, who has three children — couldn't afford them. Instead of pricing her work according to the market, Millarc gave herself a different goal: getting her art "into people's living rooms." Her prices, which range from $500 to $1,500, have barely changed in 10 years.

That strategy has worked for Millarc, even on the larger market. Recently, the artist sold two paintings to a German couple who spotted her work in a Woodstock gallery.

The valuation of art may have rules or guidelines, but they vary by artist, and nothing is set in stone. As Walker put it, art pricing is "so weird and nuanced."

— Amy Lilly

The original print version of this article was headlined "Making Art Work"