Recession forces art world to get creative

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It’s hard to say which booth was drawing more attention at Artexpo New York: the one with the paint-splashed naked man holding a box around his hips, or the one displaying cityscape paintings of tall buildings that resembled what you would see if the naked man dropped his box.

If, as Chicago gallery owner Woody Slaymaker said, the only thing worse than a lousy comment about your art is no comment at all, then creators of both works must have been gratified.

“I hope he doesn’t drop it. Or maybe I should hope he does,” one woman quipped as she wandered past the naked man, part of an interactive work by Turkish artists Gulay Alpay and Emre Erturk that dared browsers to peer through a hole in the box.

“I wonder where his head was when he did those?” a man muttered while staring at the phallus-dominated cityscapes in the booth of South Korea’s Gallery 31.

At a time when art sales, like other luxuries, are struggling against the lingering recession, one message making the rounds at the annual Artexpo -- which brought fine art, popular art, artists, gallery owners, collectors and browsers together in one eclectic group last month -- was that it pays to be different.

“People are more demanding than they used to be,” said Slaymaker, the president of Slaymaker Fine Art Ltd., whose 14,000-square-foot gallery deals in original works from around the world.

He said he was urging artists to be more creative to lure reluctant buyers. The recession has pared his business about 18%. Today, he said, buyers are more interested in works in the $1,800-$2,800 range, unlike the past, when $5,000-$8,000 works were in demand.

At Artexpo, the world’s largest art fair of its kind, panel discussions leaned heavily on marketing and sales tips: Keep gallery floors invitingly clean; check real estate listings to spot potential new clients; offer financing plans to young buyers who will become loyal, big-spending collectors as they become older.

Repeat exhibitors couldn’t help but notice the scaled-down scene at the expo, which this year moved out of the massive Javits Center to a smaller space on the Hudson River.

The previous spot “became too cavernous” as the number of booth rentals dropped, said Eric Smith, Artexpo’s chief executive. Booths, which range from 5-by-10-foot spots for $3,000 to bigger spaces for $50,000, used to fill 100,000 square feet. This year, they covered about 57,000 square feet, Smith said.

The art world, he said, is tied to other hard-hit industries, such as housing and construction. “We need the housing market,” he said. “We need more walls.”

Luca Battaglia, who lives and works in New Mexico, was exhibiting his “green” art -- works made from old car parts and beeswax -- at a booth half the size of his past rentals.

“Before, you could not walk through the aisles because of the crowds. I had a double booth and two assistants,” said Battaglia, who first came to Artexpo in 2003.

For many artists, the need to drum up business and catch the attention of gallery owners has changed the way they work. No longer is it enough to hole up in a studio and churn out magnificent pieces.

“You have to wear so many different hats now. You have to be a really good self-promoter,” said Sarah Goodnough, a painter in Astoria, Ore., who was at Artexpo for the first time in hopes of finding someone to represent her outside Oregon. “If you can’t connect the painting or sculpture to Facebook or Twitter and use that to promote your work, you’re not going to get the exposure.”

It’s not an approach that comes naturally to many artists, such as Battaglia, who said he would rather focus on art than selling his works, most priced at more than $1,500.

“This is the time to lock yourself in a studio and make art, so when the economy comes back, you’ll be ready,” he said, though adding that he is not convinced the future is bright. “I’m trying to be positive, but I don’t really see it coming back.”