Culture » Visual Arts

Bearing the market

Local artists paint new paths in trying to get their pieces sold


Painter Thomas J. Owen has had some success selling his - less experimental work in galleries around town.
  • Painter Thomas J. Owen has had some success selling his less experimental work in galleries around town.

T hirty-six. That's it. In 3 years.

That's the number Jason Zacharias comes up with when pressed on how many pieces his business, OpticalReverb, has sold since its inception in 2004.

That period covers almost 200 shows in gallery space, local bars and restaurants and the work of nearly 200 artists. Even when the works show in a downtown restaurant like Phantom Canyon Brewing Co., which offers plenty of foot traffic, would-be buyers hesitate.

"[People] see the works," Zacharias says, "but they downplay them because it's local. [It's like a] psychological barrier."

When it comes to buying art created in and often inspired by Colorado Springs, public interest wanes.

"People don't really view art nowadays as an investment," says artist Brett Wilson, who has shown his work through OpticalReverb.

Sometimes, Wilson says, art can be too slippery a concept for buyers. Unlike company shares and gold bars in the safe, spending money on artwork doesn't guarantee anything.

"We tend to see art as valuable in retrospect," Wilson says.


The same is true of the way in which the public views artists themselves. Local artists blame their sales troubles on the lack of name and reputation recognition they have within the community. But it's a catch-22, they say: You can't get recognition without being purchased, and you can't get purchased when you don't have a recognizable name to help reassure a potential buyer.

Lack of name recognition can especially sting when put up against out-of-town credibility. Zacharias explains: If two near-identical pieces are up for sale, one from New Mexico and one from Colorado Springs, local art buyers will pick the New Mexican piece nearly every time.

It's no surprise that selling art can be a competitive business. In Colorado Springs, though, it's a competition just for an artist just to stay in the business.

"There are more artists chasing fewer dollars," says local artist Thomas J. Owen, "It's a buyer's market."

Net losses

Most local art sales come in the form of traditional, original landscapes and glass art pieces (jewelry, vases, etc.).

Artists know and understand this. The items they sell the most are often bought as home accents. Wilson says many buyers seek pieces that will match their living room or bedroom furniture, regardless of where the works come from.

But often, he adds, they choose that artwork from chain stores.

With such mass-produced decorative art driving down the demand for local creations, the worth of a piece is thrown aside in favor of making sure it's priced to sell.


"What may be a masterpiece that is priceless or worth $1,500 will sell for $300 [in this market]," Zacharias says.

Wilson has been affected by this firsthand. He estimates that the need for competitive pricing has cut well into his income. When he divides the profit he makes by the time he spends on producing a piece, it rarely adds up to minimum wage.

And when artists show their works in galleries, their earnings are further lessened. While there are certainly advantages to showing one's work in a gallery setting visibility, marketability, credibility most galleries demand around 40 percent of the profit from each work sold.

In response, a number of southern Colorado artists, including Owen, have started showing their works out of their own studios. And at least two local studios, the Business of Art Center in Manitou Springs and the Cottonwood Artists' School, have had their spaces added to the First Friday Art Walk circuits in Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs.

Seeing art in this studio environment can also mean seeing the works that the artists are most passionate about. Whereas artists must provide galleries with what they might consider the most marketable pieces, they can show virtually anything in their studios. Owen will show watercolor and oil landscape paintings in galleries, while harboring his more experimental efforts in his own space.

"I can't be pigeonholed easily," he says, jokingly.

Market gains

At the BAC, studio artist Jay Miller is creating programs that will help artists deal with the business side of their careers.

"While there is a huge amount of arts activity [in Colorado Springs]," he says, "there's not much in the way of coordination or cooperation."


Miller says places like the BAC and the Smokebrush Foundation are successful examples of community integration but they alone are not enough.

To help show this, Miller has organized a business seminar series for artists. "Stuff Successful Artists Need to Know," which starts in October, will guide artists in landing public commissions, learning copyright and licensing laws, and determining how to advertise. Some of the town's more successful working artists and industry types will lead each seminar.

"Artists need to recognize that making and selling art is not the only way to succeed," Miller says.

Once they realize that, then maybe the buyers will, too, and will be inspired to act. It's one hope that keeps local art advocates such as Zacharias so involved in the scene.

"I still continue to put on shows because it's my passion," he says. "I still stand behind my artists."

"Stuff Successful Artists Need to Know"

The Business of Art Center, 513 Manitou Ave., Manitou Springs

A weekly, six-week program starting Saturday, Oct. 13

Tickets: $30 for non-BAC members ($150 for all six sessions), $25 for members ($125 for all sessions), $35 for day-of walk-ins. Call 685-1861 to register.

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