Date: Fri 04-Jun-1999
When Artists Become Mass Marketing Experts
By Daniel Grant
AMHERST, MASS.-- To many artists, art galleries and dealers are the
gatekeepers of the art world, leading to exposure, sales, a place at the
table. That gate also strikes some as a barrier, lessening their chances to
show and sell work and keeping away many consumers that might otherwise be art
From time to time, artists look to create a system for showing and selling
their artwork outside "the system," perhaps putting their work in malls or on
sidewalks or on the World Wide Web.
After seriously trying to get into the traditional art market, and feeling as
if they were beating their heads against the wall, husband-and-wife Bob and
Michelle Kennedy of Key West, Fla., decided to open their own galleries --
Kennedy Galleries, for painting, and Kennedy Studios for prints, photographic
reproductions of the paintings.
The works have sold well. "Just in Key West, we do $2 million a year," Bob
Kennedy noted. Beginning in the 1980s, the two started to franchise their
names. Around the US, there are 42 Kennedy Studios and five Kennedy Galleries
-- all displaying the work of the two artists.
"I didn't want to have to tip-toe around dealers," said Michelle Kennedy. "I
didn't want to convince a gallery owner that my painting works." She also
didn't want to wait a long time to have her work displayed and an even longer
time to see any sales.
Her experience with other galleries and dealers had left her frustrated for
other reasons as well. "I had been in other galleries, but they all tended to
pigeon-hole artists," she said. "When something works, they're afraid of
anything different. Some artists find their bliss and keep repeating it, but I
don't want to rely on a style." Her work covers a wide territory in terms of
subject matter and style, from academic realist still-lifes to abstract
landscapes and satiric images in the style of German Expressionism.
For reasons of marketing, dealers generally want the artists they represent to
have a defined look, which further turned off the Kennedys to the traditional
gallery world. "If I work in one style one day and in another style the next
day, it never seems to have bothered the people who buy my work," she said.
It is because of the popularity of their work, especially Michelle's, that
would-be gallery owners have proved willing to pay between $25,000 and
$100,000 to franchise the name. Most of the gallery owners exhibit the work of
other artists as well and are not required to purchase either Bob or Michelle
Kennedy's work, although they all do, paying 35 percent of the suggested
retail price; contractually, they must also pay an annual royalty fee to the
Kennedys of three percent of gross sales.
Monterey, California sculptor Richard MacDonald's complaint with galleries was
simply that they didn't work hard enough at actually selling the pieces on
display, and he believed that the problem was that dealers were content to
consign rather than buy outright the artworks they represented, which limits
both their risk and their incentive to make sales.
"What kind of business relationship is this, where the artist puts out all the
effort and money, and the gallery does nothing?" he said. "A car dealer buys a
certain number of cars and has a certain amount of time in which to sell them.
That drives the market. Why shouldn't art dealers meet the same kinds of
Unlike the Kennedys, MacDonald did not start his own gallery but fashioned a
relationship with the 70-plus galleries representing his work that largely
takes over their operations. The galleries handling MacDonald's work are
referred to as "subscribing galleries," as they sign on to purchase -- rather
than take on consignment -- a minimum of ten sculptures "I need to show enough
of my work to have free expression," MacDonald said. "If someone has only
three of my works on the floor, they're not representing me."
When a gallery expresses interest in representing MacDonald's work, "someone
from our staff flies out to visit the gallery, in order to make sure it is
compatible with the work," the artist's son and business manager, Richard
MacDonald, Jr, said. "Is the gallery large enough for sculpture? Will the work
be given its own space? We don't want my father's work mixed in with other
Both MacDonalds look to see that the prospective gallery is well capitalized
by running credit checks and demanding to see financial records. The demand
that MacDonald be the principal sculptor in whatever gallery he is
represented, that his work be shown in depth and without the distraction of
various other artists, upends the traditional artist-dealer relationship, but
his subscribing galleries play ball.
"When you're doing $1.2 million in sales, which is what my galleries average
for my work annually, you can get what you want," he said. "Success leads to
Marvin Carson, director of New York City's Gallery Revel, which represents
MacDonald, noted that "every dealer asks himself two questions about the art
in his gallery: Does it have integrity? -- and, certainly, Richard's work has
the quality -- and can you make money from it? Richard's work does sell. There
are so few saleable sculptures in the world, and his work captures peoples'
hearts. It's so pretty."
In addition to purchasing outright a minimum of ten pieces, contracts between
MacDonald and the subscribing galleries stipulate that they sell a certain
number annually. Whenever a sale is made, a reorder is placed immediately.
"Nothing leaves the floor until a replacement arrives," MacDonald said. The
galleries are required to place local advertisements regularly. Each ad must
be approved by MacDonald. "They can't run an ad without our shooting the image
and OK'ing the text".
For his part of the deal, MacDonald not only provides the artwork but runs
national ads in magazines. "The yearly advertising budget is in the six-figure
range," MacDonald Jr. said. It includes marketing brochures for all galleries
handling the artist's work, photographs of each piece, cards with a history on
the back for each piece, letters for galleries to send out to prospective
buyers (the artist employs an in-house writer) and videos on the artist and
his manner of working to show to collectors.
When an agreement to sell to the gallery is made, a sales training seminar is
conducted for gallery staff, describing how to present and light the work, how
orders should be filled and what should be said about each piece. A mock sales
presentation takes place. MacDonald runs a medium-sized corporation, with 45
employees that include a sales force of 28, six account representatives,
several supervisors and support staff. His rent for studio and office space
amounts to $70,000 per month.
A somewhat larger operation is run by Monterey, California painter Thomas
Kinkade, whose Media Arts Group has approximately 420 employees in separate
departments for accounting, customer services, legal affairs, marketing,
public relations, sales and warehousing. Media Arts Group is listed on the New
York Stock Exchange.
These employees work with the investors in Media Arts Group, and with the
almost 30,000 members of the Thomas Kinkade Collectors Society, a membership
which costs $50 per year. Being part of the society enables members to
purchase Kinkade print editions only available to society members. The large
staff also works with the thousands of people seeking tickets ($75 per person)
for the artist's appearances at the galleries showing his work, as well as the
dozens of licensees who create products which use Kinkade's imagery for coffee
mugs, greeting cards, jig-saw puzzles, mantel clocks, night lights, plates and
stationery, etc. Media Arts Group employees also keep up with the needs of the
hundreds of galleries that represent the artist's work.
Approximately 200 of these galleries are referred to as "signature galleries,"
a generic term for spaces that exclusively represent one artist, and they only
handle prints -- photographic reproductions of the Kinkade's paintings on
paper or transferred onto canvas. The original paintings are rarely sold and,
when they are, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many of these galleries,
however, also carry the licensed merchandise.
Those looking to sell the work of Thomas Kinkade are required to undergo a
week-long training program in Monterey (known as the Thomas Kinkade
University) run by the Retail Development Group of Media Arts, in which one
learns about inventory control, marketing and sales. The layout, lighting
(dimmer switches mandatory), wall paint (teal) and carpet color of the gallery
is also decided by Media Arts, and the physical space must be approved by a
district sales manager before it is allowed to open.
Reginald Simmons, company representative of the Share the Light program of
Media Arts, which runs the signature gallery program, noted that Kinkade "is a
regular guy, very unassuming, very easy to talk to," but most of the gallery
owners have little to no relationship with him. Gallery owners talk with sales
representatives within Media Arts, to discuss inventory, marketing and what to
say about the art.
Occasionally, Kinkade does make visits to various signature galleries for an
event, such as the release of a new print edition or a signing, but the
galleries themselves must pay him a stipend for his time and efforts.
Just as with Richard MacDonald, Media Arts does not consign work to galleries
but sells it outright, and a gallery's initial purchase must be at least
$40,000 wholesale (with 60 days to pay) with a performance agreement to buy
between $50,000 and $100,000 annually after that. Media Arts stipulates that
galleries must mark-up their prints 100 percent for retail sales. "You cannot
discount. If you do that, they'll cut you right off," said Stan Brown, owner
of three East Coast Thomas Kinkade signature galleries.
With so many galleries relying specifically on them, the Kennedys, MacDonald
and Kinkade need to be highly productive. In the mid-1990s, the limited
edition size of Kinkade's prints was approximately 3,000. More recently, as
the number of signature galleries has expanded, the number has topped 10,000,
divided between canvas and paper prints, and they are limited in terms of
being "signed and numbered" or "galley proofs" or "publisher's proofs" or
"artist's proofs." (For the works released exclusively for members of the
Thomas Kinkade Collectors Society, the edition size is at least 30,000.)
According to Media Arts Group's 1998 annual report, "tiered" retail prices for
"reproductions of Thomas Kinkade wall art range from $50 to $250 for a small
framed gift print, $175 to $300 for an unframed paper lithograph, $300 to
$1,200 for a canvas lithograph, $1,500 to $6,000 for a canvas lithograph hand
signed by Thomas Kinkade and $5,000 to $15,000 for a canvas lithograph hand
signed and highlighted by Thomas Kinkade."
Cheryl Cohen, owner of the Leonard Gallery in Springfield, Mass., which
features but does not exclusively represent the work of Kinkade, noted that
"Kinkade is very popular, and we sell a lot of his work, but my personal
opinion is that he's coming out with too much product. I'd worry more about
that if I only showed Kinkade."
Recognizing this as a problem, MacDonald has reduced the size of some of his
editions, from 175 to 90 and a few editions have gone as low as nine or ten
While large editions mean that more people are able to purchase an artist's
work, there is also a downside in terms of the artist's lowered reputation in
the mainstream art world. "Serious collectors are serious snobs," Marvin
Carson said. "They want to buy works where the edition is eight or fewer. They
see someone like Richard MacDonald putting out works in editions of 90 or so,
and they say, `That's not a real artist.'"
The need to keep putting out "product" also can be quite wearing on an artist.
According to Bob Kennedy, who tends more to the business aspects of the
franchises, Michelle produces "around 100 paintings a year, maybe two or three
a week," and the majority of them are turned into limited print editions (980
photographic reproductions and 200 giclees). "Sometimes, I feel it's a curse
to have to keep the studios well-stocked, but it's also very motivating," she
said. "I produce a lot because I know I have to." Her one lament is that "I've
never been able to build a body of work. As soon as I've finished something,
it's out of here."