Monday, May 5, 2014

So, What The Heck Happened?

Although I've been painting for almost forty years, it wasn't until 2007 that I decided to shuck off the mortal coils of the 9 to 5 life and try to make a living as an artist.  I had a very good track record of sales doing art part time, and I thought that if I devoted 100% of my time to my art I could only improve and better my chances of selling even more.  Of course, I didn't blindly just quit my job and jump off the cliff of faith-- I mean, you gotta be crazy to do something like that...

OK, maybe I did.

But I had no idea the economy was going to fall to pieces in just a few months after I made my decision.  I was looking at the past to portend the future.  Usually, studying past tendencies is a good way to try to assess future behavior.  In a perfect world we always assume that what was will just continue to be.  (Somebody wake me up when we arrive at a perfect world).  Ah, but we live in strange and mysterious times.  I didn't see the perfect storm looming on the horizon.  What I saw was that in the last quarter of the 20th century, art sales actually did quite well (mine included).  Now the reason of course, was because there was money to be spent.  But more importantly was the feeling of stability.  Stability in our jobs, our lives and the natural order of things.  But things were changing, and dynamics shifting.  As in so many areas of the second half of the 20th century, the Baby Boom generation played a large part. 

When the Boomers were done tuning in, turning on and dropping out they entered the work place their parents had built.  After the global devastation of WWII, America was the only country left standing that could manufacture and supply the world with what it needed to rebuild.  Manufacturing plants were still humming in the late 1960's.  Corporations were still head-quartered in the U.S.  Jobs with good paying salaries could still be had.  Oh sure, it wasn't total Shan-gri-la; Inflation was rampant, we had gas shortages, there was still plenty of unemployment.  But if you landed a job back then, the chances of you staying in it until you retired were pretty good. 

So the Boomers went to work and rose through the ranks to mid-management, supervisors and eventually business owners.  Houses were bought and walls needed to be adorned.  Art started to be bought.  By the time of the 1980's, corporation mergers created even more wealth, and conspicuous consumption was not thought of as a bad thing.  In the '90's the Dot Com industry sprang up, creating millionaires over-night.  Individual art collectors were amassing private collections as investments.  Many businesses and corporations bought art for their board rooms.  All was going well for the arts.

Case in point:  Here in Maine a large bank specializing in credit cards came in and built beautiful call center "campuses" in several coastal towns, giving much-needed work to thousands of people.  The bank owner loved maritime art.  The walls were covered with top-notch artwork done by local artists.  They bought those pieces from art galleries that were in those towns.  The owner of a gallery I'm in still waxes rhapsodic about the good old days when artists couldn't paint fast enough to keep up with the demand, and she couldn't keep paintings on the walls.

So, what the heck happened?

You don't need me to tell you that over time the businesses that the Baby Boom generation inherited relocated overseas for higher profits, the Dot Com bubble burst and "Down Sizing" entered our collective vocabulary.  After 9/11 the economy shuddered for the first time in decades, only to grind to a halt a few years later.  Housing prices collapsed.  Stocks sank.  You know the story.  And that's when the storm really set in; Art wasn't needed for houses in foreclosure.  Businesses went under, and those that remained didn't need to adorn their walls with art for the small work force that remained.  Then the Baby Boomers decided about then that it would be a perfect time to retire and simplify their lives.  They moved into smaller condos, they started to sell off their possessions-- they stopped acquiring art. 

The sons and daughters of the Boomers who are left to pick up the pieces don't have the feeling of job stability their parents once enjoyed.  Even if they still have a full-time job, they feel that the chances of it being a temporary gig is high.  They continue to worry about having a job next year.  So why buy art for a house when you'll probably be moving soon?  Wages have stagnated, with earning power far below what their parents enjoyed.  For a lot of people, discretionary income isn't "Do we buy a painting, or not?"  It's "Do we buy food, or heating oil?"  

That bank I told you about that had all those beautiful works of art was sold.  The new owners moved the operations to a different state, leaving the vast majority of the buildings either vacant or half filled by some smaller start-up companies renting the space.  The art is gone.  The galleries that once couldn't keep up with the demand are out of business, or just barely hanging on.  In today's business world buying art doesn't increase the bottom line.  Some businesses still like art though, so what they do nowadays is ask for artists to hang their work for free for a month or so.  To them, it's a win-win.  They get free art, and the artist gets "exposure".  Except the remaining employees are so paranoid that they are afraid to lift their eyes over their cubicles, and the artist rarely makes a dime because in today's lock-down world, no one else is allowed in to see it.

So, do I regret taking a leap of faith just as the world lurched sideways?  Not for a moment.  But still- things could've been a tad bit better... 

But what can be done?  Is there a way to bring the good times back?  Well, Golden-Ages never last, that's why we cherish them.  But believe it or not, there is still a ton of money out there.  Some economists say even more than thirty years ago.  The world- and mankind- does have a long history of destruction and rebirth.  The storm may finally be lifting, but the landscape has been irrevocably altered.  We know that the forces that brought the late, great golden age cannot happen again.  (And personally, I'd rather not have the world destroyed by WWIII just so we can have a thriving art economy thirty years later).  Even though history does have a habit of repeating itself, this time we have to chart a different course.

What is that course going to look like?  What path- or paths- do we have to blaze to reach a new height?  I have no solid answer.  But  I know one thing:  Art right now is pretty low on the totem pole of the necessities of life.  We need to make it a part of living again.  If art stays out of sight, it stays out of mind.  Budget cuts have eliminated many school arts programs.  That is a nearsighted shame.  Art needs to be taught in schools again so our children can have it for the rest of their lives.  Today's child will be tomorrow's business owner.  If he or she is brought up with art, maybe they'll want it in their workplace.  Art needs to be in more public spaces for all to see and enjoy.  As artists, we need to be out there doing our thing; Give public demonstrations on painting, sculpting- whatever.  Let people see what they are missing; Make them say, "I want that!" 

I know these are baby steps for the future, and won't help you or I out today.  Art cannot ensure job stability, it won't bring more money into the hands of more people.  Those things are beyond our control.  But if we use today to create the need for tomorrow, future artists may thank us.  I can think of no greater legacy than being part of the generation that set the course for another Golden Age.