The Art of Selling Out

Walking into As You Like It doesn’t feel like stepping into a hair salon. There’s a small room between the front door and the salon proper, where a sign asks visitors to remove their shoes and refrain from cell phone use. Unusual requests for a hair salon, and perhaps they are somewhat unusual for an art gallery.

The facade of "As You Like It"
The facade of “As You Like It”

As You Like It, however, is a melding of the two. In the waiting area, catalogues of haircuts are lined up side by side with bookshelves of literary fiction and studies on the work of Cassatt and Van Gogh.

Patt Murray opened her first salon in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1979. Since then she has had four other locations, one other in Little Rock and three in Chicago. And in every location, the mission of the business has remained the same: to showcase artwork and educate people about the reading of art.

Of course it’s seen some changes over the years.

“My first gallery that I had was just a gallery and it was just me. It was a group of artists including myself. About half as big as I had now. It had walls you could easily put things up on and we would have group shows,” she said over the phone. “It was less formal than it is now.”

She’s been successful at her business for over thirty years, but not everyone in that area of work has that good fortune. Since 2009, over forty art galleries have closed or changed their business model radically, according to a page on Chicago Art Magazine’s website. This doesn’t even factor in the amount of artists who might try to set up their own independent businesses or support themselves through working from home. And it’s worth noting that this particular magazine published its final editorial in 2012; even this particular form of Chicago arts coverage had to close its pages.

In 2009, the Arts Index, a data project of the non-profit organization Americans for the Arts, lists “Creative Industries” share of business in Cook County as 5.34 percent. While this number was well above the national average of 2.9 percent, it’s still a rather low number, and may well have seen some drastic changes since the data of 2009 was collected.

What sets Patt’s gallery apart was that she had a plan from the very inception of her business. She modeled her gallery and hair salon after the old French notion of the word ‘salon’: a place where people gather for ideas and exchange of those ideas.

At first glance a hair salon does not seem like a likely location for such a goal. The art gallery side of her current location on Chicago Avenue is not as immediately obvious as the hair styling. Once inside the place proper, the eye is immediately drawn to the mirrors, chairs, and hair drying stations that stretch back to end of the store.

But the front desk, where customers check in for their appointment and confirm their schedule provides the first hint that this is not an ordinary hair salon. The desk is dark wood, almost spindly compared to the block counters standard to most hair care establishments, with no computer in sight. Liquor at the top of the desk provide the next hint that there is something more to As You Like It than just hair care. The drinks may be a small touch, but they are a signal that walking into the salon is an experience, one that will reach beyond the mirror and chair.

For those in the waiting area, it becomes clear what that experience will be. A catalog of the artworks on display is available, placed on the low table beside the style magazines. All around are discrete reminders that the pictures on the walls are not there for mere decoration.

“Usually when people are coming for their first time, we introduce them and say this is also an art gallery and show them where the information is about the artists,” Patt said.

The biggest obstacle that she encounters in her customers is, oddly, timidity.

“People are afraid to buy a work of art; they don’t have the confidence to look at a work of art and say ‘that really speaks to me’,” she elaborated.

With that in mind, she has the artists she showcases write about themselves, the work on display, and their art making process. The background information makes it easier for customers there for a haircut to comprehend the deeper meaning of the pictures on the walls.

Patt’s commitment to facilitating better communication between artists and buyers is evident in her conversations with her customer and the arrangement of her store. And that dedication is likely a factor in the success of As You Like It.

According to Lisa Canning, Executive Director of the Institute for Arts Entrepreneurship, arts business owners have to incorporate their personal values and their passions into their business models.

“Society can see a fake and smell a fraud,” she said in a phone interview. “Part of the problem is that if they don’t act with authenticity, they become manufacturers.”

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This can be a major problem for artists, she explained, because artists are expected to produce work that goes beyond simple crafting. Her example: if you are a chicken painter and make a series of portraits of chickens in bright colors and unusual contexts, you have to identify those who will buy such things and explain your own love for the paintings.

“I have to make sure I communicate with you everything about why I love chickens and how I was raised on a farm and what the value of chicken art means to me. If you can’t communicate with that kind of authenticity, you can’t build an audience.”

Audience has always been crucial for artists looking to support themselves, but the rise of the internet has brought that audience closer and simultaneously muddied communication between artists and their supporters. More and more artists, both well-known and obscure, are turning to crowd-funding websites such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo to provide funding for their projects.

While Canning acknowledges the power of such direct support, she cautioned that for many artists, the funds they will receive from a Kickstarter project will not be enough for a long-term source of income.

“The average Kickstarter raise for aritsts is 8000 dollars. They’re by no means easy,” she said. The rise of social media has made sales more difficult, Canning thinks, because it’s much harder to get people’s attention about whatever artists are trying to communicate. That’s why, in her view, sincerity is so key for artists who are attempting to start their own business. “If you don’t have a clear understanding of who you are and why you do what you do, you will not be able to make that sale.”

For another gallery owner, Eve Alfille, there’s very little doubt about why she does what she does. Her business is a jewelry gallery, and she is well aware of the strangeness of casting necklaces and brooches as art. On the right-hand wall of her store, between the Pearl Room and Diamond Room, hang two posters asking “Can Art Be Worn?”

Eve, a Frenchwoman by birth and former field archeologist, is adamant that it can. Her store reflects this belief; on the left-hand wall behind one of the display cases hang lists of the themes that have inspired her art. Sparkle and shine greets those who enter the store from all sides. There are wire trees strung with beads of all types, and specific areas that showcase Eve’s passion for expressing herself through her jewelry.

The construction of the store mirrors her dedication to her art and her vision. The framed themes that dominated the left-hand wall of the store are framed with painted and cleaned gutter pipes, whose shine hides their humble origin. Her diamond room, where engaged couples are interviewed and consulted on the design of the ring, is lined with tubes filled with crushed glass and flanked by fabric in a pattern designed by Eve’s best friend. The store has collaborative elegance, much of it stemming from the hand-picked and handmade displays and arrangements. For Eve, a hands-on approach is much more than a means to display; it permeates her store.

This does not mean that all of her customers see that side to her work.

Like Patt Murray, Eve often has to deal with incoming customers who are not necessarily interested in the artistic aspects of her business. “They come in with a dress, come in and change, and ask ‘What will go with that?’” she said, her eyebrows knitting a little. “And at that point, I am not longer an artist; I have to be a designer and stylist.”

She’s not blind to the fact that her art calls on her to blend creativity and utility, but her series “really have to do with the concept and ideas of art.”

As a result she doesn’t look at what other people in the fashion industry are doing. “Maybe I should be,” she said with a laugh. “But I don’t.”

With twenty-five years of experience showcased in the themes that hang on her wall, her approach to the art of jewelry seems to have worked. “I took a chance,” she admits of starting the gallery as its own business. “It’s what I wanted to do.”

That passion is evident to her customers, if the excited way they ask her about her themes is anything to go by. Her degree in business also gave her a grounding in the nuts and bolts of procedures- something many artists aren’t familiar with.

Not many artists realize that they have to have a detailed business plan to make their work succeed. To that end, the Chicago Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection set up a table at the Chicago Creative Expo, where David Staudacher stood to offer advice to artists looking to arrange their business. He was there to provide counsel about potential steps to anyone milling about the Expo who wanted help.

“A lot of times, they’ll have an idea, but not a business plan,” he said at the Expo on March 1st.

And Lisa Canning, while she didn’t specifically cite business plans, would agree that artists need to learn how to represent themselves as a business. “In terms of the actual way that you price and sell a product, it’s a matter of comparing your product to whatever else is in the market.”

She cited the lack of marketing training for artists as one of the biggest problems aspiring arts DSC01216entrepreneurs face.

“The real issue is that artists are not necessarily conditioned to do market analysis to compare in terms of their persona and their brand,” she said. “Which is very much how other industries do it.”

But since artists face the additional problem of communicating their values and deeper message, it can make a business model that much harder for them to implement. “They recognize that they need business skills, but they don’t realize that it’s intimately tied to their personal lives,” Lisa said.

She also holds that artists have to learn how to synthesize their creative skills with the work of other disciplines. She despises in particular the notion that artists have to be starving or alienated. “Artists have not very highly perceived economic value because they don’t have the skills to represent themselves with authority.” Those interested in that field need to grow in confidence and understand that they have greater skills, Canning explained, and that their skills can be extended to science, technology, math, and other seemingly incongruous disciplines.

Patt Murray, for her part, feels that artists are facing an uphill battle. “I think the role of artist in our culture is very confused and ambivalent and we don’t know what our artists do for us,” she said.

But for her, the answer to the implied question comes easily. “Artists teach us how to relate the world to our souls.”

The struggle is proving to the world that that’s an endeavor worth supporting.

Photos: Margaret Flynn

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