Making art more accessible

Justin Brake
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Celebrated Newfoundland artist Bill Rose is moving his art from the gallery to the Internet in the name of “Artocracy”

St. John’s artist Bill Rose holds one of his latest pieces, a transposition of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s face on a John Lennon “Imagine” vinyl. — Photo by Justin Brake/Special to The Telegram

“Doing the work is rewarding enough, but you do have to live and it’s a business, and … you learn as you go along,” says Bill Rose, the Newfoundland visual artist best known for his unique rubber-stamped grid pieces that synthesize realism and abstractionism into a unique and often political form of pop art.

Four decades into his art career, Rose is embarking on perhaps his biggest learning curve yet.

On March 30 he posted a statement on Facebook, tinged with humour, to announce he had parted ways with the Christina Parker Gallery in St. John’s, where much of his work had sold in recent years.

“In recognition of the 63rd anniversary of Canada joining Newfoundland and in anticipation of the downfall of the traditional and outmoded art gallery system, I have decided to declare my independence,” the message read.

The past eight months of his six-year stint with the downtown gallery were marked by poor sales, a result which could be attributed to a number of factors.

According to Parker, attendance rates and sales at her gallery were up in 2011.

“The fact that his work didn’t sell was not as a result of this gallery working on his behalf,” she said. “I think it’s more a reflection of what’s going on with him and his work.

“We work really, really hard here and we have a lot of success with some of our artists.”

Admittedly, Rose acknowledges any number of possibilities for his decline in sales.

“It could have just been a bad year for me. Sales were down in 2011 and I could have stayed there and they might have been up this year,” he said.

“But I couldn’t take a chance on that, you know?”

And so he joined a growing number of emerging and established artists extending their creativity to the business side of the profession.

Friend and business partner Peter Coombs is “Artocrat Artocracy” on Facebook and, on the world’s biggest social networking site, is helping Rose show and sell his work.

Artocracy refers to the burgeoning worldwide movement seeking to democratize the production and sale of art by operating outside the gallery system which, in Canada, customarily takes 50 per cent of sales.

“Most galleries have a 100 per cent markup,” said Rose. “If I bring a piece to a gallery and say I want $1,000 for it, it immediately goes to $2,000.”

To account for commission, advertising and other expenses entailed in promoting his art independently, Rose said there will still be a markup on his work, but nowhere near gallery levels.

“We’re trying to figure out what works best and based on what my work has sold for previously,” he said. “I still feel I have a commitment to people who’ve bought my work in the past and I don’t want to slash the prices, but we’re looking at probably in the range of a 15 to 25 per cent markup.”

Rose said he will keep select pieces on display in private galleries in Montreal, Que.,  and Fredericton, N.B., but that the vast majority of his work will now be sold online or at occasional “pop-up art shows” he and Coombs plan to hold in St. John’s.

“I’m an artist and even I don’t feel real comfortable visiting commercial art galleries when I travel. I go to public galleries,” he explained. “Because I know what the deal is — they’re looking at you, ‘Is he going to spend any money?’”

Rose said he also wants to interact with collectors more, hear their thoughts and discuss the intricacies of his work.

“I see my work as a dialogue, not just pretty pictures for the living room, although they can be,” he laughed. “I like the idea of having a dialogue.”

And that’s just what has been happening on Facebook.

Each week Coombs posts several images of Rose’s works on his profile and, just two weeks after declaring his independence, Rose made his first sale.

The buyer was a first-time collector from Ontario who saw the painting “Orange Rumba” on Coomb’s Facebook page.

In the comments section under the image, the buyer, Rose and others shared in a discussion. Rose explained how the work was made and the collector responded, “This is my very first fine art acquisition and I am so proud it is one (of) yours.”

Rose said the nature of social networking permits constant dialogue, while the main opportunity for discussion at private galleries is during an exhibit’s opening.

He likens the Artocracy movement to past trends in the music and movie industries.

“When you look at what happened in the ’90s with the indie music movement, I mean, before that you were at the mercy of record companies,” he said.

“Now a lot of traditional art galleries are doing sales online, so they’re obviously getting clients that way. I think it’s begun here,” he continued. “I’m probably getting some attention because I’m a senior artist doing this (but) I think a lot of the younger artists are doing it because they have to, because it’s really hard to get into a gallery when you’re out of art school.

“I’ve heard from a few senior artists who are interested in the whole process. So, who knows, it might build.

“There’s sort of a disconnect between artists and art dealers in a way, even though we need money to survive. The dealer (is) mostly interested in making the sale. I’m mostly interested in doing a piece of art that really satisfies me,” he continued.

“If I just want sales, I know exactly what to paint. But I mean I’ve got Harper’s face on a John Lennon (record) called ‘Imagine’. That’s a very narrow audience that’s going to be interested in purchasing that, whereas, if I had a big landscape with seagulls or a painting of your grandfather’s long johns floating on the clothesline in the backyard in some outport — I could sell that pretty quickly, I think.

“I want to sell, but on my terms. And in that way the dealer and the artist will always clash, because they have slightly different aims, even though both want to sell. One is interested more in the sale than the art, and the other is more interested in the art than the sale.”

Rose’s first pop-up art show, “Can’t Leave Well Enough Alone,” will take place on his birthday, June 9, at a banquet room at the Marriott Hotel on Duckworth Street.

The event will run from 2-5 p.m. and will feature several of his works and the launch of a new website, “a kind of virtual gallery,” he said.

Organizations: Marriott Hotel on Duckworth Street.The

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Canada, Montreal Fredericton Ontario

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