The power of shows

April 5, 2011

Dear Rodney,

I once had a solo opening on a day the stock market happened to fall out of bed. 
Arriving late, I was surprised to find a lineup in the street and a crowd of 
eager buyers inside. "What's going on?" I asked my dealer as he rushed back and 
forth with his dots. "It's always like this when the stock market goes down," he 
said. "People put their money into art. And when the stock market goes up, they 
have extra money so they put it into art." The event was one of my first insights 
into the remarkable phenomenon of the art show.

Being flock animals, humans gain confidence when everyone else is flocking to a 
kill. Also, being predatory, we like to tear off the best cuts, preferably in 
front of others. It's called "conspicuous consumption," a term first used by the 
sociologist Thorstein Veblen in 1899 and in evidence ever since.

Over my lifetime, shows have become more subtle and nuanced. In a lot of areas 
they are less frenetic and perhaps less effective. I've had shows where there 
were no sales at the openings; people discreetly phoned their orders the following 
morning. Perhaps there were sociologists in the crowd, but it may just be a 
Canadian thing--the desire not to expose our fangs in public.

Bringing artists and public together is a main function of shows. Actually, 
customers turn out to be real people, as do artists, humility and all, and George 
Bernard Shaw's dictum, "When you know the artist, you think less of the art," is 
often, but not always, laid to rest.

Then there's the modern miracle of the Internet-telephone axis. Once a potential 
client has agreed to receive a show by email, a dealer in Toronto can sell work 
to a keener in Kapuskasing. The best galleries send their virtual shows to 
favoured customers just in the nick of time--like an hour before the opening. 
Nowadays, when you're sipping your Chardonnay and the gallery phone rings, you 
know that foreigners are crashing the party. 

And that reminds me of booze. Everyone knows it loosens the tongue. It's a wallet 
shaker as well. Once, late in the evening when we had pretty well run out of 
cheese, a fellow said to me, "Thish is your worst show yet, Robert--I'll take 
that one."

Best regards,


PS: "I must discount the possibility of a show since I have nothing worth 
showing." (Claude Monet)

Esoterica: The printed, mailed invitation, with its expensive postage and all 
that folding and licking, is currently going the way of the Tasmanian Devil. 
Evites are now acceptable and a lot cheaper. General online announcements viralize 
your efforts as well. Today, to help you and your galleries, we're introducing a 
new feature on the Painter's Keys site. It's called The Art Show Calendar. 
Please take a look--it's easy to put your announcement in, and you can include a 
piece of your art. For only ten bucks, about 250,000 folks will know about your