One Gallery’s Story
Living the Artist’s Life: Updated & Revised
by Paul Dorrell
Excerpt from Chapter 7
Before I discuss how to get your work into galleries, it would be useful for you to know a little about what it takes to run one. Why? Because the more you know about the challenges of the art business, the better prepared you’ll be. The story I’m about to tell is pretty candid, but I find that deeper knowledge often springs from candor, while virtually nothing springs from insincerity.
A Common Enough Beginning
I grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, but found the conformist tendencies of suburban life oppressive, so tended to rebel in fairly extreme ways that I’ll not bore you with here. Let’s just say that the local cops knew my buddies and me pretty well.
Once I decided to pursue the arts, specifically writing, my dad was baffled but reluctantly encouraged this choice because he respected me. My mom? She believed in my writing completely and urged me to give it all I had.
I attended the University of Kansas with an assortment of outlaws, wrote my butt off, and was mentored by a group of eccentric professors who gave me abundant guidance. My university days were marked by earnest study, earnest partying, and an inexplicable involvement in the boxing club. I normally owned a motorcycle then, as I do now, and often took long bike trips during the summers, eventually wandering through each of the lower forty-eight, picking up odd jobs as I went, once even working for the Hepburns in Connecticut.
After college I went to Alaska to work on a halibut boat, survived a shipwreck, then later moved back to Connecticut, where I took a job as Director’s Assistant of Hill-Stead Museum near Hartford. This storied place, once a private estate, housed masterpieces by Monet, Manet, Degas, Whistler, Hokusai, Cassatt and Durer, to name a few. I kept that job for several years. It was insanely inspiring, allowed me time to write, and provided me with beautifully forbidden places in which to have trysts, since I had the keys to the joint. It was also close to New York and Boston, where I often spent weekends. More even than Alaska, this experience altered the direction of my life.
Then I went to Europe, backpacking everywhere I could.
Then I returned to Kansas City. There I met a dark-eyed beauty named Annie, she took pity on my proposal of marriage, and we moved in together. Annie believed in me as a writer, just as everyone else did—a thing you can never really repay. I preferred self-employment to working for the man, so I started a lawn service. We had two boys, moved to Lawrence because we loved its bohemian atmosphere, and proceeded to have a great life there.
Lawrence—where I’d lived when I went to college—is of course home to the University of Kansas, Jayhawk basketball, and thousands of college students. William Burroughs lived there at the time. I used to mow his lawn while he watched from the porch, pistol on hip. Afterward he would sometimes offer me tea, show me his shotgun art, and complain about publishers…
The First Space
I finished renovations and opened for business a few months later. We weren’t opening in the Country Club District or the flush suburbs of Johnson County. We were opening in the old Hotel Savoy, in the midst of what was then a neglected downtown. The urban core needed renewal and I wanted to play a role in that, however minor.
Two months later my banker, Glenn, called to inform me that I was overdrawn by $5000. I owed an additional $3000 on ads, phone bills, and expenses. By now I’d sold three paintings for a total of $4750, half of which I’d kept, the other half going to the artists. In other words, we weren’t breaking even. The buckets of money we’d hoped for had turned out to be teaspoons.
Glenn, a patient man, asked if I had any contracts pending. I told him I’d landed Jim Brothers a commission to execute a monument of General Omar Bradley. The fee we were to be paid was $95,000. I would make $25,000 and Jim would get the rest. Glenn, relieved to hear this, advanced me $10,000. And so began my dance with debt.
I thanked him, hung up, and tried again to devise a marketing plan for selling art, because the art just wasn’t selling and I didn’t understand why. The problem was I couldn’t see my mistakes. I had run ads in the best magazines, my gallery had been written up in all the papers, my location brought in reasonable traffic, and yet no matter how many people came through the door, almost no one bought. I didn’t get it. What was I doing wrong?
Plenty. I hadn’t learned to network, to reach out to prospects, or develop the corporate market. Also, the regional boom in art-buying that I would help inspire hadn’t begun yet. But I knew none of these things yet. I honestly believed—and this is the funniest part—that I only had to open a great space and the work would just sell.
Finally I said Screw it, put on my inline skates, and went out into the April air. I skated down to the River Market, back up to Allis Plaza, then farther up to the Lewis and Clark bluff, where I sat panting among the hip hoppers and their booming cars, looking out over the Missouri River and wondering what the hell I was doing in the art business. Then, sweating, I cruised back down the hill to the gallery, to wait for the evening diners to appear and try to coax them into buying. Many people would appear; none would buy.
I was home by 10:00. Annie was waiting. I went into the rooms of our two little sons and kissed them as they slept, trying to forget that their lives were passing by while I worked twelve-hour days. Then I poured a bourbon and joined Annie on the battered sofa. She was tired too, since she ran a daycare to help make ends meet, and so she could stay home with our rascals.
“How was your day?” she said.
“Not bad. Yours?”
“Oh. Little kids and diapers. Sell any art?”
“No, but I got some leads. Some of them should pan out.”
“Do you have mortgage money?” She asked this kindly, as compassion was Annie’s nature.
I took a drink of bourbon. “Sure.”
“What about taxes?”
I took another drink. “You bet.”
“And you’re saving for college?”
I drained the glass. “Like clockwork.”
That was three lies in a row, but I figured they were forgivable. Of course she assumed that I was progressing like any other disciplined entrepreneur. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the art business wasn’t like any other; she had enough to deal with.
She sensed my stress and put her hand in mine. “You’re okay?”
“Would you like a massage?”
Upstairs I lay on the bed while she lit a candle and spread a satin sheen of oil across my shoulders. I felt her hands, and thought of how I’d made her and the kids hostages to the arts. They deserved better. It was then that I vowed to make this gig work, no matter what it took out of me. We were never going to be a frame shop. We were going to be dealers in original art, like galleries in New York or London. By God we were going to do it.
She finished, then I massaged her, then she looked up at me and asked, with the candle still burning, was there anything else she could do?
In the morning I rose early to go get groceries. When I got back Annie and the boys were up. My sons and I played in the yard, meaning basically that the collie and I chased them around while they yelled, then they chased us. Afterward I kissed the boys, kissed Annie, and went off to work…
…The hotel manager called to ask if I was watching the news.
I asked why?
He said because my gallery was on fire.
I let the words sink in to be sure I understood them, but of course didn’t, so he said them again. As he paused, I could hear men shouting in the background and the sound of gushing water. I told him I’d be right down.
I parked on Central and walked up among the fire engines, firemen and cops. Smoke was billowing out the gallery door and water pouring down the steps. When everyone realized I was the owner, there were quiet words of consolation. Then a platinum blonde with a microphone in her hand, and a cameraman at her side, walked up. She asked if I wanted to be interviewed. I looked at her tense, career-driven face and said, no, I did not want to be interviewed. Then I went inside to look at the gallery.
The fire had started in the storage room behind my space, where someone had left a smoldering cigarette in a napkin. It destroyed half my gallery. Most of the art, thankfully, had been moved out by the firemen. Everything else—files, computers, furniture—was ruined.
I looked around at the mess as the fire captain came up, a big dude with a handlebar mustache. He expressed his sympathies. I thanked him, and thanked him also for having moved out so many of the paintings.
“Aw, we were happy to do it. But man, I sure hope you got good insurance. Your business is a wreck.”
My policy had lapsed three weeks earlier, since I’d opted to pay other, more pressing bills. I’d been planning to renew it in another week.
“You bet. I’ve got real good insurance.”
When I finally got home Annie asked if everything was okay. She was sitting up in bed looking worried, certain we’d been ruined. I told her about the damage and the extent of it. She asked if the insurance would cover us.
“Oh sure. It’ll pay off the debt. We’ll open a new space. Everything will be fine.”
She kept watching me, as if trying to be sure that what I said was real. Finally she smiled and said she was glad. Just seeing that smile was worth the price of the lie. Later she went to sleep and slept very soundly. I got to sleep at four, then rose at six to go downtown and face the mess I’d gotten us into…
Business debt now $90,000. Other debt: don’t ask.
The Second Gallery
The new space was on a quaint block in the old Country Club District. This vast area was mostly built in the ‘20s, when racism determined who would and would not live there, as was the case with similar districts in Chicago, Saint Louis, and elsewhere. Certain of the elite worked hard to maintain that policy for decades—and would have gone on doing so had it not become illegal in the ‘60s. By the time I opened, few of that old guard remained, and the racist views of those who did were normally rejected by their own adult children. Some of the surviving members even did business with me—gladly, as they were convinced I was one of them. Had they known I was descended of Cherokees and Jews as well as English Protestants, it might have been different. They all thought I was a WASP too, when actually I’m not anything, just human…
…Now I had to make a profit from art as never before, especially since my overhead had risen and college tuition was coming. This drove me to higher levels of innovation, with the requisite hours.
Why didn’t I become more proactive sooner? Simple—I never wanted to be a businessman, since to me that smacks of conformity, the kiss of death for any artist. So I had to learn to become a businessman without betraying my rebel nature, which meant I still wore jeans, occasionally injected quotes from Whitman into meetings, and refused to let the corporate world kill the teenager in me. Still I approached each project with absolute professionalism.
As a result we began to get some interesting gigs, one of which was a monument of Eisenhower for the Capitol Building in DC. Jim Brothers sculpted it and Bob Dole, a vet, loved it, standing in front of the piece getting his picture taken for twenty minutes. Nancy Pelosi was also there and gave a dignified speech. Jim and I got our photos later, after all the politicians split.
Other projects included large, blown-glass installations for the University of Kansas Hospital, several corporations, and private collectors. About this time Douglas Adams, author of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, bought two Regiers for his London collection. Other international collectors followed suit.
Owing to these projects, for the first time in years I was up-to-date on taxes, had some money in the bank, and was building up my sons’ college accounts. I knew the convention center would be well-received, and anticipated that the thousands of people who would visit it would later approach us. I assumed that all our successes would at last cause the phone to ring, and that I could quit chasing obscure leads late into the night. I still had a lot to learn.
I landed the H&R Block contract in 2006, two years after the first edition of Living the Artist’s Life came out. Their new headquarters is a sophisticated design eighteen stories high, occupying a square block. Every floor required art, but the primary focus was the ground level, with its various lobbies and courtyards. This is where the largest works went—blown glass, ceramic sculpture, paintings, bronzes, stainless steel. Some of these pieces were enormous, some average in scale. I was careful not to install too much work, wanting to avoid a sense of clutter.
This project allowed me to prove, conclusively, that the Regional Renaissance was real. The artists of my region rose to the task, some executing work at a scale they never had before. Where did I find them? Everywhere. We sent out a call across Kansas and Missouri, and were inundated with 650 submissions. The collection received national praise. Even better, the careers of several artists were advanced. I treated the structure in all media, all styles—conceptual, contemporary, representative.
The larger Block installations required boom trucks, scaffolding, hammer drills, and patience. My sons, teenagers now, were part of the crew. Annie would often come downtown to bring us espresso or Thai, which was one way of having dinner together, since I was so rarely home anymore.
After the job was done Block threw a party. The artists were treated like the other professionals, and felt honored. Convincing your region to recognize that, then support it with real budgets, is part of what the sacrifice is all about. Block had done this. Damn I was proud.
This was followed by an equally complex job for the University of Kansas Hospital, which, with their generosity, I structured along similar lines.
At last, we were breaking out on a national level. After fifteen years, we were beginning to make it. Sure, it had taken every ounce of my stamina and focus, but hell, paying that out was better than failing.
The Third Gallery
With the cash from these two gigs, we moved the gallery to our third and, I hope, last location. It’s an enormous space with great traffic and two floors. Sure it was a wreck. Sure it had to be renovated. Sure I picked up a hammer and worked with the crew. Protecting our capital had become a habit I couldn’t seem to break. As it happened, that would prove a good thing, since a year later, the Great Recession began. This, I believe, is called timing.
After finishing Block I thought we were safe, since for the first time major clients had begun seeking us out. Overnight that evaporated as a psychology of fear settled in, and as every project I’d landed got cancelled. So I increased my workload to eighty hours a week, intent on finding answers. In order to do this I had to sacrifice the one thing that made me an artist, and made me feel fully alive—my writing. I had to become a full-time businessman. Fuck.
I managed to line up several new projects.
In short order, all those were cancelled too.
Then people quit buying art and I had to put things like payroll and phone bills on credit cards, taking consolation in the fact that I was only one out of millions doing the same. Annie and I made jokes about it in order to hide our fear. I tried not to lose my perspective as millionaires in the financial industry got bailouts, bonuses and tax breaks while everyone else just got screwed. And there wasn’t a damn thing we could do about it; the system had become too corrupt. There would be no bailout for the rest of us. Knowing that, and the injustice of it, sometimes made it hard just to control my rage.
Saving the Ship—Again
The recession ground on, sales stagnant, consulting dead, my debt having zoomed from $30,000 to $180,000. Galleries all over the country were closing, as were tens of thousands of other businesses. Even some of the veteran journalists I’d worked with for years lost their jobs. Opening my new, expensive space coincided with this disaster. I believe that’s called timing.
I thought of all the people I’d known in the gallery world, and not one had really profited. They’d always had secondary income, inherited wealth, or framing to fall back on. What made me believe that didn’t apply to us? Simple: the business model I’d finally built provided several revenue streams. If I could just outlast this recession, I was sure my theories would prove sound. But how would I last? The stock market was in free fall, nothing was selling, and my credit was nearly shot. Man, I was so worn down by this never-ending grind.
So what did I do? Loaded my family in the minivan and drove to New Orleans via the Mississippi Delta. We listened to blues in a Clarksdale dive, saw Robert Johnson’s crossroads, saw the old hospital where Bessie Smith died, saw the general store where the Emmett Till tragedy began. We toured plantations and searched for gators and spent three nights in the Quarter, savoring the soiled beauty of the place. We ate in cheap crawfish restaurants, walked the levee in the fog, and in the evenings drank wine in the hotel courtyard. We met prostitutes and street musicians and evangelists, taking in the human swirl of the city. By the time we returned home, I’d paid out the last of our money on the gamble that the trip would sufficiently restore me to deal with this umpteenth financial hurricane. Then I stepped back into the harness.
It would be pointless, now, to detail how we once more pulled a rabbit out of a hat. But that Southern journey gave me the juice to roll the boulder back up the hill and hold it there for three more years until the storm began to calm. The workload did a number on my health, my passion for life, and my life overall—but by God we survived. The other things I figured I’d get back after the storm. Until then, all that mattered was that the ship stayed afloat.
As I went through that process, business just kept improving. Oddly, it was as though we were being guided through the storm. All I had to do was call prospects, make a presentation, and I was hired. Other times they called us. This was bloody strange. At last my reputation was taking hold.
About this time Warner Brothers contacted us and said they wanted to acquire some sculpture for the film Watchmen, specifically pieces by Brent Collins and Dave Regier. So we closed the deal.
Soon after that I was contacted by a publishing firm in Seoul. They asked if I would let them put out a Korean version of my book, I said Sure, and soon it was released. I understand it’s done well, but still can’t read a word of it.
Soon after that I won an honor from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. How? I’d adapted one of my novels to the screen—a story about a wounded vet coming home and trying to readjust. The Nicholl Fellowship, affiliated with the Academy, placed it in the top five percent of scripts that year. Next I heard from a score of producers. They all liked the script, but didn’t want to take a chance on a film about the war in Iraq. So I told them that I’d scripted a reality show, a tear-jerker that gave deserving teenage artists from various ghettos a break. One of them liked the concept, this kind dude named Adam, and soon he had a major actor interested—a man who’d won two Oscars. They wanted to have dinner, so I bought a ticket for the coast, and began prepping for Hollywood…