Selling Out a High-Profile Gallery Show
One traditional model is a gallery show that sells out. A friend, Ellen Gallagher, is an example of this tactic. After being in the Whitney Biennial, Mary Boone asked her to have an exhibit. At that exhibit, huge paintings that were often eight by ten feet in size were all sold for about $10,000 each. That began her career and created value. But there were other factors. Ellen Gallagher had a story and a way of describing her work that appealed to art buyers and gallerists. Ellen Gallagher is biracial and has very dark skin. Her work looks minimal, and in the beginning, it looked a bit like Agnes Martin’s work from a distance, with fine lines often making a delicate grid that looked like lined paper.
How did she talk about her work, and how was it sold? In her work, there is a language of her own that she has embedded into the lines. If you look closely, you see eyes, lips, and other forms that look like doodles, and together, they make up the lines in her work. All those tiny images have meaning that is social and political in content. They are about the history of the African American experience, from minstrels to riffing on the clichés that are often derogatory. Her work has a wonderful aesthetic to it because from a distance you see this beautiful canvas of lines, and up close, you see a personal history about the black struggle in America. As an artist and human being, Ellen is very easy to talk to and is approachable. She speaks well, refers to historical examples easily and, as a black woman, is a representative of the achievements that African Americans have made in the United States in the visual arts.
In summary, what gave her work real value was a show with Mary Boone with low-priced paintings that sold and, more importantly, a way to discuss her work that revealed its inner workings. She was able to tell an engaging story with her work that taught all the viewers something about her experience as a biracial woman in America. That was a story that writers could easily write about and that gallerists could use to sell her work. While this is all marketing techniques, it should be mentioned that, at a distance, her work was very minimal and often calming in contrast to its close-up content. Her work is and was beautiful and delicate and yet had a more intellectually confronting aspect upon closer inspection. To many, this story may seem like winning the lottery, and it is true that luck played a role here, but also her story and images worked very well together, so that the system could easily consume and digest her work.
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