BUSINESS

An artistic bottom line

Art dealers find new ways to fuel sales

PATRICIA CHISHOLM March 27 1989
BUSINESS

An artistic bottom line

Art dealers find new ways to fuel sales

PATRICIA CHISHOLM March 27 1989

An artistic bottom line

BUSINESS

Art dealers find new ways to fuel sales

When Toronto businessman Ted Simon moved into his first house 25 years ago, he had little money left over for pictures to brighten it up. But he says that the bare walls bothered him so much that he decided to create his own art. Using wallpaper, aluminum foil and dried flowers, he made an image that he says “stayed hanging over the couch for a long time.” That experience con-

vinced Simon that there was a strong demand among Canadians for reasonably priced art. Now, Simon runs a $2-million art publishing company that he says is growing dramatically by selling so-called limited edition reproductions of original art. The popularity of such reproductions, which are signed and numbered, is a clear indication of the growing appetite among consumers for original art and highquality reproductions. Said Hamilton art consultant Karen Mills: “More and more yuppies think art is the cat’s pajamas. It’s part of having something better than their parents had.” Record-setting prices at the world’s leading art auction houses have made headlines in the past year, but Canadians of more modest means are also buying art in unprecedented numbers, many for the first time. Records show that the average value of a painting sold in Canada has increased by 300 per cent in the past 10 years, with much of that increase coming in the past five years. Said Andrew Sylvester, director of the Equinox Gallery in

Vancouver: “Growth in the last few years has been astonishing.” To take advantage of that burgeoning demand, sellers are using a variety of new marketing techniques to promote their products. Galleries have become more specialized, targeting customers by restricting their offerings to particular areas of interest, including native, regional or folk art. High-quality photographic reproductions, such as those sold

by Simon, have become a $20-million-a-year business in Canada, up from almost nothing a decade ago. Still, selling art is not easy. Artists, gallery owners and art consultants struggle constantly to increase the public’s awareness about the art that is available for sale. To help overcome the sense of intimidation that sometimes discourages new buyers, lunches, cocktail parties and other social events in support of artists are becoming more frequent. Art rental programs, which give neophyte buyers an opportunity to try out a painting before deciding to keep it, are becoming more popular. But once bitten with the art-buying bug, purchasers seem to become addicted. Said Sylvester: “People are more concerned about their environment at home. In the last few years, we have noticed that they are spending more on each piece and buying more pieces. And once they get one, they start to buy more.” Knowing what to buy, rather than cost, is the biggest hurdle for many new collectors. Mills said that, typically, they begin with conservative art and progress toward more challenging works. She added that buyers may be committed to buying what they like, but they are also concerned about receiving good value for their art dollar and are cautious about their choices. And Ian Muncaster, director of the Zwicker’s Gallery in Halifax, said that even though Canadian consumers are becoming more sophisticated because of better education and increased international travel, “representational art is still what sells to the mainstream art purchaser in Canada.”

A growing number of buyers are renting before they buy, in an effort to avoid mistakes before making a major financial commitment. The Art Gallery of Ontario has offered an art rental program since 1964, but in recent years the number of patrons using the service has increased dramatically. Clients may rent for up to six months at prices ranging from $6 to $110 per month. As an incentive to buy, part of the rental cost can be applied against the purchase price. Most of the works are contemporary Canadian art, including many abstracts. Said gallery volunteer Marjorie Lenz: “We encourage people to live with a painting first, to see how it fits into their environment—and to see how much grief they get.”

Whether buyers of art know what they are buying and are receiving good value remains a matter of controversy, especially in the market for photographically reproduced limited editions. Critics argue that the public frequently mistakes such reproductions for true original prints, or lithographs, which are usually produced individually by the artist and which may require several months’ work. When the edition is completed, the plates used to make the prints are usually destroyed, making further prints impossible and preserving the value of the existing prints. Photographically made reproductions, on the other hand, are made mechanically and large quantities can be produced quickly. They are signed and numbered, as are handmade prints, and are called “limited editions” because the photographic plate and film used in their reproduction is destroyed.

The enormous success of such reproductions is due partly to their issue price—typically between $200 and $700—and the huge popularity of the artists whose works are reproduced. Les Tait is a Toronto-based watercolorist who is known for his unpretentious images of Toronto street scenes. His paintings have been collected by the City of Toronto as well as several corporations. But Tait, who is married with one child, said that he still needs to supplement his income by authorizing the photographic reproduction of his paintings in limited editions. Tait said that the technique is a “good way for artists to gain an audience for their art—and that is the hardest thing for an artist to do.” Added Tait, who produces only about 10 paintings a year, and whose exhibitions usually sell out quickly: “This way, everyone can get the one they like.”

Simon defends the technique, adding that buyers of his company’s reproductions are informed about what they are buying and that

the resale value of copies made from popular works often climbs into the thousands. Said Simon: “It makes normally unaffordable art affordable.” Yuppies are his biggest clients, Simon said.

Large corporations have also noticed the potential of photographically made limited editions. The consortium building Toronto’s new domed sports stadium, including Trilon Financial Corp., has commissioned a painting of the Dome by Tait. A series of limited edition copies, published by Simon Art Ltd., will be sold for about $300 each at the Dome site, with the proceeds to be donated to charity.

Still, many artists, dealers and consultants agree that the old rule, “I may not know much about art, but I know what I like,” remains a reliable one for most buyers of art. Said Tait: “Art should be a personal experience. You should only hang something on your wall if you are drawn to it—not because someone else tells you it’s great.” For most buyers of art, that remains good advice. Appreciation of a work’s dollar value is, for most, merely a pleasant bonus.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM with JOHN DALY in Toronto

JOHN DALY