Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008

Seminar takes artists where they ought to be

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Laurie DeWitt/The Gazette
Kate Fraser, who teaches a class for artists on marketing their work, poses in her namesake gallery in Bethesda.

It takes heart to sell art. And while Kate Fraser happily spends most days working at her namesake Bethesda gallery, one problem persists: pesky artists who call, drop in or e-mail requesting advice, inspiration or compliments. Not among her stable of artists, these favor seekers often don't know anything about her gallery. Fraser says this happens about 10 times a day.

Artists-on-a-mission are easy to spot.

"Usually they don't say a word, skirt the gallery and as they are leaving, toss down a CD," she says, concluding that these "so full of themselves" artists are behaving in a "disrespectful and unprofessional" manner.

Fortunately the British-born businesswoman has figured out a way to preach and make money at the same time. This epiphany of sorts dates to the 1990s when she also owned a gallery in Georgetown; the constant stream of artists asking for advice stunned the budding art dealer. Maybe Fraser should have rebuffed them, but instead, she offered 15-minute primers on the business of showing and selling artwork. She had just about had enough when her mother suggested Fraser make some money by teaching a class on the subject.

Her 20-point plan of attack may seem obvious to some, but Fraser has learned artists often hate filling out forms, talking contracts and requesting someone cut a check. Right from the start of each class, she lets her pupils know in no uncertain terms, she isn't about to play Mama. Instead she "builds a path for them," but then they do the work themselves.

About four times a year, Fraser offers a six-hour seminar; the next one is slated for Sept. 28 at in Glen Echo Park.

From that very first seminar, the composition of the group surprised Fraser.

"I thought the classes would be loaded with students fresh out of MFA programs," she recalls.

But she found that the emerging young artists "already think they know everything." Instead, an older crowd of second careerists or people who don't want to be categorized as Sunday painters enrolled. Young or old, the seminar is made up of "people who have been around the block and are open to suggestions."

Questions aren't allowed, "or we'll be here to midnight," she says.

Rather, Fraser hopes to dispel a persistent misconception that galleries are made up of snooty dealers working in some sort of secret "network system," and artists who step into this secret society will be "crossing to the dark side."

In fact, gallery owners have their own tastes and ideas about what kind of work they are willing to sell. Fraser's gallery focuses on contemporary realism. It's her, niche period and if an abstract artist asks for representation, she knows he hasn't done his research. Artists, she insists, need to know a gallery, and if an owner risks taking on an artist, maintaining a good relationship means attending other artists' openings, sending the gallery new images. In other words, she explains, "Artists shouldn't sit back and wait."

Galleries aren't the only answer. Fraser believes emerging artists shouldn't always focus on gallery representation. She recommends getting the work seen by submitting to the scores of juried shows throughout the region. First, she suggests taking the time to learn about the show and juror, then making sure the work is properly framed and the forms are filled in and on time. And if accepted into a show, send a thank you note.

It is a bit like dating. If a juror repeatedly rejects an artist, it's time to face the fact that to paraphrase a book on dating, maybe the juror just isn't in to you.

Working with juries over the years, Fraser is amazed by the plethora of poor presentations.

"Art professors are the worst," Fraser says. "They think the work speaks for itself and they bring out a battered dirty frame, often in an acidic matte and on scratched Plexiglas. Why would any of my clients spend $2,000? And even if the work is good, it looks like an amateur did it."

When people profess poverty, she points out that buying framing materials online is surprisingly inexpensive.

And finally, Fraser says, "If you are looking for a review or article, the press is looking for edgy. They are not excited by watercolors of the Chesapeake Bay."

If edgy is impossible, being really young means seriously marketable.

"I tell them ‘If you are young, you have to do it now.'"

Kate Fraser's "Seminars: Success as an Artist" is set for 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 28, at PHOTOWORKS, Glen Echo Park's North Arcade Building, 7300 MacArthur Blvd. The cost is $80. To register, call Fraser Gallery, 301-718-9651.