Saturday, May 17, 2008

Capitalist Enterprise/A Golden Era

During the Summer of 2000, at the prime age of 23, I ran my own art gallery. I was living in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, once a thriving rivertown on the upper Mississippi.
Economic changes over the previous decades had left many spaces empty, and rent was cheap. The building was small, built in 1880.

For a measly $100 a month, I rented a small portion, 500 square feet or less, with a lofted office and a basement with a bathroom.The space had been a gallery before, and was being passed to me with the stipulation that I call it "The Satellite Gallery." It would serve as an extension to another, larger gallery up the street, at which I was a c0-director. I came up with a logo and began filling the window with art. Certain sculptures, like this one, called, "Industrial Cupid", would become fixtures. I set up a work area in the back, and began making sculptures during the day while I kept the place open. Most of the work I initially made depicted various animals, and the first window display was mostly fish and birds. This was a deliberate attempt to present the startled viewers with something that didn't disturb them as they passed my window. LaCrosse was not expecting artwork from dolls and bones, and many passerbys were taken aback.
I felt that by making wildlife art, I'd be playing it safe. I didn't know what to expect from the smalltown artmarket, and my entrance into it was largely experimental. I must have been convincing. In time, the banks even wanted to see me expand, tempting me occasionally with a business credit account.But I wasn't after expansion. I just wanted to make and show art. My greatest desire was to become well-known, and my focus became advertising and self-promotion. My first posters were black and white, text only. I hung them at the local colleges and coffee shops.

This was cool, and got people's attention, but I needed posters that incorporated an image. I was, after all, an artist. In keeping with the outerspace theme of the gallery's name, an alien sculpture I had made in 1999 became the eventual mascot.
When I built it, I thought I could achieve fame by selling it on the air to talk-radio host Art Bell. I gave up after trying for many weeks to contact him. I was young and ambitious.The Alien would serve as the gallery's posterchild around town, beginning with this color flyer, and would be featured prominently in the window. The next poster had more information, as well as a bold new money-making plan.By this time, I had determined that I couldn't rely on sales of artwork to pay my bills. I needed an enticing way to make an income from my creativity. The idea of sculpture rental was born.Everything was done with a certain measure of humor. It was to be entertaining for me and others. I printed out and signed a certificate certifying myself as a certified sculpture lending facility. I would deliver and install artwork in people's apartments, and for $10 a week they could keep the piece nearby. I came up with a number of convincing arguments to convince people that they should rent some art. Posted next to a decorative mask made from antique dolls, the public appeal read as follows:

Who in their right mind would want to rent a sculpture?!?
Great for:

-Offices or Cubicles
Impress your boss and maybe get that raise you deserve.
-Businesses or Waiting Rooms
Boost morale and give he customers something better than Better Homes and Gardens to look at while they wait.
-Restaurants, Coffeeshops, or Taverns
Stand out from the rest, plus bring them back with their friends.
Teachers: these things are great for motivating discussions about creativity, and what's more, kids love'em.
-Dorm Rooms
Be the envy of all your co-eds and the one whose room everyone wants to hang out in.
-Houses or Apartments
Until you've lived with original art, you haven't experienced original art. Think you could sleep at night with one of these in the room? We dare you.

Other Ideas:
-Give a friend the unexpected gift of art with a weekly or monthly gift certificate. Nothing says "I love you" like a sculpture rental.
-Get one for a unique conversation piece at your next party. Find out if they get better the more drunk you get.
-Get one for someone stuck in the hospital so they've got something more interesting to look at than their IV tube.
-Bandmembers: rent one or two the week of a show and impress the crowd with your stage props.
-Art Students: rent one the week of finals and try to convince your instructor you've made it yourself. An easy A.

In other words: EVERYBODY!!!
Everything in place, I sat back and waited for the customers to roll in.I had grand ideas for the financial freedom this brilliant idea could provide me, and I envisioned renting them eventually to celebrities for millions of dollars a week. Each time I installed a sculpture, I would take a photo of the renter standing beside it. In time, the wall of photos would feature some of the greatest people on Earth. Photoshop let me explore the idea theoretically. I envisioned Bush renting this Beetle for the Oval Office.
A portion of the rent could go towards purchasing the sculpture.Ganesha, the elephant-headed offspring of Shiva, might be rented by Fabio for an evening social.
Payment plans were definitely available.Astronauts aboard the spacestation MIR could also benefit from sculpture rental, such as this Seahorse. Stellar.
As great of an idea as sculpture rental seemed, in more than 2 years nobody ever rented one. My real income those days came from daily donations. I'd usually be able to eat dinner and maybe grab a beer by the end of the evening.
I had a sign-in book, and maintained an e-mail list of several hundred. I had many appreciative local fans.
Certain sculptures became multiples, and found themselves displayed in other businesses. I traded this spider made from Barbies for a $75 tab at a nearby pub. It still hangs in the window.
One of the great rewards that came with running this space is that I was able to foster the creative impulses of many local artists who otherwise wouldn't have had a place to show work.One local in particular, was inspired to explore painting and evolve immensely, due almost entirely to the Satellite. He first approached me with a few dark sketches and asked if he could show them on my wall. I urged him to make more, and eventually he was unstoppable.He signed everything MARCUS ROBIASON, a psuedonymn of his own invention. He became fairly successful for a while selling his paintings to people downtown.I, too, found sales eventually, mostly from the patronage of a single pub owner who's place I filled with bizarre creatures on the shelf behind the bar.He put me on payroll, and every week for months I'd have a steady weekly check.In addition, I rarely paid for beer, which became my chief source of daily calories.
Another bar, across the street, with less of a punk-rock atmosphere, yet owned by the same person, became the perfect place for a large moose head . The rustic ambiance was maintained.Early 2001 was truly a Golden Era in the advancement of my career as an artist. I was on top of a tiny world, and at home within it. This poster playfully juxtapositions one of my sculptures with a famous sculpture located a few blocks from my gallery.
LaCrosse was comfortable, but slow. Rarely did more than 5 people come into the Satellite on any given day. Most would stop and look at the window, the window, but they wouldn't usually enter. I tried lots of different things to change this. Making a new poster every month and plastering town.
This was publicity for a ceramic artist who's mugs and teapots I was selling.
At one point, in another attempt to make sales, I converted several sculptures into furniture, putting some plexi-glass table tops onto a few pieces, and adding lightbulbs to others.The logic was that maybe people would feel more comfortable buying something that seemed to have a use beyond simply being art. I made some slick vinyl lettering for the window and changed the name of the shop to "Far-Fetched Furniture."I had coatracks, tables, and chandeliers, all reasonably priced. Surely people would be interested.
Yet still, no takers. Frustrated, I came up with a drastic ploy.
In an effort to guilt the general public into not letting a cultural oasis whither and die through their unwilllingness to support the arts, I held an exhibition called "Going Out of Business Sale." During the next few weeks, I'd be getting a lot of sympathetic stares around town, another assumed victim of the two Super Walmarts that had recently come to bookend the north and south ends of the city. All prices were doubled, then reduced, and billed as half price. I plastered the window with signs that could be read by passing cars, scaring people into thinking my gallery was soon departing. Balloons in the window had clever commercial jibes, like "The Satellite Gallery honors all competitors' coupons" and "Our spring fashions are spectacular!" I sold duck-tape wallets, bearing the now-famous slogan: "LIKE ART? PROVE IT."Recycled t-shirts with hand-lettered logos were only 10 bucks. Things were slow, but steady. The cupid in the window was replaced by a Satellite child, bearing a striking resemblance to me at the time.
Mostly, during the first year or so of operation, I hung back in my workshop and listened to conversations that people had about my artwork. If nothing else, this time period allowed me to gain indispensable unsolicited feedback on the artwork I was creating. As an artist, it can be difficult to get unbiased reactions from people about your art. All too often, they'll simply appease you by telling you it's good or they like it. Most people do not discuss most art.
My eventual realization was that if I wanted to get people to react in amazement and appreciation, I'd have to build artwork that stood out.I chose to make a giant head with the Olmecs in mind. I felt that something as simple as a face was necessary to get the reaction I wanted. No person alive would be able to see it without registering the image, and by default, they'd all relate.
Set facing the street, the silver structure reflected sunlight all day, catching eyes and turning heads.
Maturity met, growth occurred. Another local artist was convinced to convert the space next door into a new gallery. It would simply be called 109, and I did some advance publicity.For several years to come, the entire building would present local and national artists to the general public. This was as close to the East Village as my town would get, and when the small circle of us left for other places, the scene dissolved also.In Memorium: THE SATELLITE GALLERY 2000-2002the bathroom when I moved out...

No comments: