In the early nineties, as starving artist in San Francisco, I found myself with two income sources: Working as a server at Bubba Gumps Shrimp Restaurant and drawing portraits of tourists on the street, illegally.
Being a go-getter, I won a big sales contest at Bubba Gumps Shrimp Restaurant. A person with ties to an art gallery told them about my sales and my portraits and they hired me as an art consultant, so I quit Bubba Gumps to join the art world.
On being an art consultant in an Art Gallery in San Francisco:
A disclaimer: I am sure not every Art Gallery is as tritely, cheesily, transparently money-grubbingly used car-salesmanly crass as the one I worked in. I am sure there are wholesome, philosophical, lovely galleries full of genuine art-lovers out there. But this one… was supercheesy. Classy like an Atlantic City Casino.
I was bad at being an art consultant. I am an anti-materialist and a Bohemian. The salesmen and women who trained me were of the shiny rolex-watch wearing, fast talking, “I could sell a freezer to an eskimo”, coke snorting badda boo badda bing kind, and I’m embarrassed to say I tried to fit in with them. To this day I wonder why the hell they hired me. Towards the end I asked, and they said they were trying something new with a genuine art guy. I only ever sold a couple paintings, and am haunted with guilt about them.
On luxury Items salespeople: We had salespeople come and go weekly. They drifted between luxury sales jobs, selling pianos, cars, home theatre systems, furniture, etc and they all called themselves master salesmen and not con-artists. Never, in their descriptions of themselves, were they anything but super rich and successful ( they weren’t). They boastfully knew nothing about art but knew how to sell, kid. One fellow was very proud that he wore a bowtie every day, said it disarmed people. Because of him I don’t trust anyone wearing a bowtie.
The clients who came in liked and expected the big sales routine. Qualified clients acted a gross caricature of rich people and I now wonder how many were in manic upswings, being on vacation, drinking, and blowing money. Men in their older sixties men wearing antique suits or Hawaiian shirts would strut in with aging Jessica-Rabbit bimbos and do a big man act of buying everything while buying nothing, and everyone was in on it, the salespeople too. It was, on reflection, stupid. I remember being astounded, over and over, that each time this happened (and it happened a couple times a day) everyone seemed to know each other beforehand. They didn’t, they just knew their rolls, and names were less important than the big “AAAAAAY” act. There were many other kinds of clients, too, but the “AAAAAAAY” ones stick out in my memory, twenty years later.
There were some tricks the salespeople taught me.
Choose your clients wisely, look at the shoes, the car, the watch to see if they have money. These ‘master salespeople’ believed in this to the point that if I was in a conversation with a genuine art person like an art history teacher or an aspiring artist, the other salespeople would come over to interrupt the conversation and tell me that I was needed in the back, just to ‘get me out of it’. They’d do this as a kindness. It was absurd: The gallery would be empty for hours and we’d standing there bored to tears and someone would finally come in and I’d be relieved to be able to talk about something genuinely art-related, and the other salesperson would come altruistically ‘get me out of it’.
A ‘Coconut’ is a person who walks in off the street and just buys a painting, without any salesmanship or negotiation, because coconuts just fall out of trees and into your hands, right? Coconuts, while lovingly discussed with great nostalgia, don’t exist.
At least three or four people coming into the Gallery on any given day are artists who’s work are showing. He or she is checking to see if anything has sold, please god, has anything sold?
Once you finally did get to talk to a ‘Qualified client’ (someone putting on the rich-person facade) anything the client said they liked about a painting became what that artist is famous for, and isn’t the client a discerning art-critic for noticing it? THE CLIENT HAS A GENIUS ARTISTIC EYE FOR NOTICING IT, THE CLIENT IS AMAZING, THE CLIENT IS PRACTICALLY AN ART GOD
Skin tones, gradients, plunging diagonals and triangular compositions are great art compliment catch-phrases. It is great to use names of art phases of history as long as you don’t go into explaining/lecture mode: Boredom is the death of sales, don’t analyze art, people hate that. But those art catch-phrases (‘Rococo’, ‘Expressionist’, ‘light-source’, ‘forced perspective’) were very popular with other salespeople: They’d say them for days afterward, incorrectly, with much better flair and self-confidence then I.
Get the client into the viewing room! Any painting looks good if you raise and lower the lights on it: The highlights pop out, everything changes, and it’s freakin magical. In the viewing room are drinks, music, comfortable chairs, and everything but a lock on the door to keep people in there while the consultant works them over.
Of course the client does not want to go to the viewing room, so here’s the trick: While they are looking at the painting, start telling them about what a genius they are for pointing out whatever they pointed out, and lift the painting off the wall (turning your back to the client) while talking. Don’t stop talking! Mumble so they can’t hear you and march the painting into the viewing room over any objection, acting like you can’t hear them. The befuddled client will follow from politeness and curiosity, and before they know it they’ll be in the viewing room with the lights trick and the drinks.
Get them talking about their house and where the painting will go when they buy it, and won’t it be magical? Won’t they be classy? The style, the sophistication! Get them to picture it in their minds and make it a part of their self-image. I don’t know if this works or not but every salesperson talked about it endlessly so okay.
In those glorious internet-free days, every artist is a rising star, very soon to be absolutely famous, and the artwork is always a wonderful investment sure to be worth much much more on auction in the near future. Didn’t you see that article about that painting from (make up name of painter) selling for 10 million the other day?
When the client counter-offers, (gallery prices are negotiable, you know) you have to go call the art gallery curator about that. You don’t call anybody about that, you just go hang out in the other room for a while and let them sit with the precious painting, nervously.
There was also lots of advice about negotiating art prices but I never got there, I awkwardly chased every potential buyer out long before negotiating happened, muich to the disgust of the other consultants. I think I never really understood my role in those transactions. I’d have done better pretending I was in improvisation theatre playing the role of cheesy salesperson. I only lasted a few months and became a waiter again.