Confessions of a Gatekeeper
And how we've now left gatekeepers behind (2023 Update)
I had just finished helping a customer choose custom frames for her newly purchased paintings when a lady walked into my gallery.
She was an artist.
I could tell by the way she intensely studied our paintings and, more obviously, by the portfolio she carried in her hand. I groaned inside. I knew what was coming. She wanted to show us her artwork.
"Who would I talk to about showing the owner my art?" she asked.
I wondered how to answer. Sometimes the answer depended upon how busy we were, who was available, or if we were installing a new exhibit or not. It was easier for us if people would leave or send their portfolios for us to review at our regular monthly meeting. But deep down, I knew I was stalling. If her work wasn't right for our gallery, or not competent enough to hang with our other artists, I'd have to disappoint her. And based on historical averages, I'd be disappointing her.
Quit stalling and man up I thought to myself. After all, I am the gallery director. Better to just get this over with right now.
"You can talk to me." I replied, "I'm the gallery director and one of the owners."
"Great" she responded and handed me her portfolio.
She was already telling me her name, how long she'd been painting, that all her friends and family said she should be a professional artist, but I was only half listening. I had heard the same story hundreds of times.
I opened her portfolio hoping to find the next undiscovered virtuoso. I opened it to the first artwork and my heart sank. Her work was good. But in the gallery business good isn't good enough. She was competent, but hadn't yet developed much of a unique style. Her work was still quite literal, and while she could fairly accurately render a landscape or a person, they were simple depictions. Nothing that really stood out as unique. Some areas weren't quite up to professional standards.
I already knew from experience that her art wouldn't sell in our gallery and, even if we wanted to try, we didn't have the space to gamble. If I had more courage back then, I probably would have shared all of this with her. While it might have hurt, it could have, if she was open, perhaps pointed her in a direction to take her art career further. But I was a younger and weaker man back then and, frankly, sometimes I was just tired of how many times I'd had to reject artists.
You never knew when someone would be offended or react badly to well-meaning feedback so it was easier to just say, "I'm sorry, your work is nice, but we really aren't accepting new artists and don't have the space at the moment to consider new work." Or some BS along those lines.
Her face fell, but she girded herself and said, "I understand."
I felt like a jerk. Nothing I had said was untrue, but I don't like to hurt people. Art is supposed to be about inspiration. That's why I worked in the art world - to be inspired and hopefully to inspire others. But I'd been through this so many times, and it had to be done. It was part of the gallery business.
After she left, I walked back to my office. There, in the corner, was a stack about three feet high of art portfolios that artists had mailed us according to the instructions on our website.
Officially, we didn't look at walk-in portfolios. I had broken our own rules by stopping to look at her portfolio. But I had to give her credit for courage. She took a chance and walked in and, in a sense, it paid off in that I did stop and reviewed her portfolio on the spot. At least she had her answer unlike the artists who were still waiting for us to review their portfolio.
Some of the portfolios in the stack had been there for months. We didn't intend to take so long in our reviews. And we did actually review portfolios at least once a month. I, along with the other two owners, would set up a slide projector and, for an hour or two, review portfolios that artists had submitted. We rejected the vast majority. And new portfolios arrived faster than we could review them. There were so many artists in the world, and such little wall space in our gallery. So we had to be extremely careful who we accepted. That was the reality and the economics of how an art gallery works.
In short, my business partners and I were gatekeepers. We stood at the gate, and we rejected nearly everyone.
Occasionally we would find someone that we perceived as a diamond in the rough, and we'd "bless" them and accept them into the gallery.
I really never wanted to be a gatekeeper. I didn't take any pleasure in turning people away or in putting up a roadblock in front of their dreams. It seemed unfair to me that so many artists were just out of luck if they couldn't get past the "gallerist at the gate."
But if they weren't part of the gallery system, what were their options? There really weren't any.
Perhaps they could show their art at various art fairs, or they could take out advertising in art magazines. But both options were extremely time consuming and expensive, especially for an individual artist. There really weren't many good options for artists other than art galleries.
But then, about halfway through my time as a gallery owner, something changed: the Internet.
The Internet started going mainstream in the late 90s. The world wide web had been invented and Netscape had created the first free consumer web browser. Even then I sensed this was the beginning of something big and rushed to be one of the first art galleries online.
By 1997, I, with my background in computers, had created a fully ecommerce capable website for our gallery. I sold a $30,000 painting off our website in 1998. Don't ever try to tell me people won't buy art online, I was selling art online over a quarter of a century ago.
And I knew instantly that the Internet changed everything. More importantly, I realized that the Internet spelled the beginning of the end for gatekeepers. And since, as I mentioned above, I never wanted to be a gatekeeper, my mind started generating ideas and plans for a new business, an online business.
“The internet spelled the beginning of the end for gatekeepers”
In 2001, I launched a new company called FASO (Short for FineArtStudioOnline), and we specialized in making it super-easy for visual artists to upload their artwork and create a website to showcase their art online.
I left the gallery business in 2005 and pursued FASO full time.
I was no longer a gatekeeper.
Now, instead of being the person who denied artists access to the art market, I was the person helping any and every artist to get their art online. We also taught artists marketing ideas and methods to help them learn how to get their art in front of potential buyers.
The internet grew bigger every day as bandwidth increased and more technology, both software and hardware, was invented. In other words, the huge opportunity the Internet represented grew bigger every single day.
So I dedicated myself to building tools, channels and resources to inspire artists to live their dreams to show and sell their art. In my new business, it didn't matter if an artist was accepted by an art gallery or not.
We were now using technology to expand the art market, to expand the channels through which art sells and to allow artists to become independent.
By "independent" I mean Sovereign.
The first definition of "sovereign" is "a supreme ruler, especially a monarch" as in "royalty." That definition suits me just fine because artists are the nobility of the emerging online creator economy.
The second definition of "sovereign" is "possessing supreme or ultimate power." In other words, a "sovereign" is a fully independent entity that answers to nobody and has the power to conduct their affairs as they see fit.
The Internet has now reached such a vast scale, and plenty of inexpensive tools and channels now exist that a visual artist today can be completely sovereign. An artist today doesn't need an art gallery. An artist today doesn't have to pass any gatekeepers. An artist today can reach nearly any other person on the planet and show that person their artwork. An artist today possesses "ultimate power" in reaching and even expanding the art market, directly.
I fully believe, with the technology that now exists, that we have entered what I call The Sovereign Artist Era.
The goal of this newsletter is to give you a practical guide that you can use as a Sovereign Artist to market and sell your art online in the 21st century.
I've left the side of the gatekeepers and become a champion for all visual artists and my goal is to democratize access to the art market for any artist who is ready to show their work.
If that describes you, there are two ways you can join us on this journey.
If you are a FASO member, you already have access to all of our ideas and content, including bi-weekly live sessions with our marketing team and myself inside your FASO account. What we teach we call The Way of the Bold Brush. It is, in keeping with the meaning of the Enso logo you’ve been seeing in this post, a holistic, non-coercive method that encompasses all of being an artist - from creating to marketing. You cannot consider one without the other. You can already can access this inside your marketing center. If you are not a FASO member and want “the full package” stay tuned for an announcement soon.
If you are NOT a FASO member and prefer to learn “The Way of the Bold Brush” via email only - please subscribe to The Sovereign Artist below as a paid member below:
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The Way of the Bold Brush
The Enso (pictured above) symbolizes absolute enlightenment, strength, elegance, the universe, and MU (the void).
An Enso is a circle that is hand-drawn in one or two uninhibited brushstrokes to express a moment when the mind is free to let the body create Enso (formally spelled Ensō).
It is a sacred symbol meaning:
"CIRCLE, or sometimes, circle of togetherness or circle of enlightenment"
It is traditionally drawn using only one brushstroke as a meditative practice in letting go of the mind and allowing the body to create, as the singular brushstroke allows for no modifications.
It also is meant to emphasize that every artwork created will be imperfect, but to embrace the perfectness of imperfection, which is the very thing that makes each artist completely unique.
It is our symbol to remind us of the sacredness and holistic nature of art, the importance of artists, and how art is not like other businesses and must be marketed with this inspiring thought in mind. Not understanding this is why most marketing coaches unintentionally lead artists astray.