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ART : Playing the Game to Get Into the Gallery

March 19, 1995|JANICE ARKATOV | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Starving artists can learn a thing or two from Molly Barnes.

In her new book, "How to Get Hung" (Journey Editions, $16.95), the art dealer/curator does not mince words when she advises not-yet-discovered artists how to market their work. "This book is about the practical side of art," she notes briskly in her introduction, "about playing the game, about getting out of the studio and into the galleries. It is about the nuts and bolts of selling art."

The advice takes several forms: from creating a thematic body of work, to choosing a signature look (Barnes describes her own as "Junior League--a little too many buttons, a little too much hair"), to wooing the gallery owner. "Flowers are always appreciated," she states. "Some people say it's kissing up, but I like it. And I always tell artists to rent a car and pick up the dealer for lunch. Artists love the studio because they're in charge, but in the marketplace, no one's going to come to their door. They have to present themselves."

Local artist Thom Dower met Barnes a year ago, and has taken much of her advice to heart.

"When I met her, she gave me suggestions about the cohesiveness of the work, how to get myself out there, let people know this work exists, let them know who I am," says Dower, who works in oils, acrylics and assemblage. "Since I've read the book, I've realistically applied those principles, which are very straightforward. And some good definitely came of it: I had a show last year at (the now-defunct coffeehouse) Colloquy in Beverly Hills--and it wouldn't have happened if I hadn't met her."

For renowned artist Laddie John Dill, Barnes' revelations have a ring of truth--and familiarity.

"The book has credibility, because Molly was there (in the changing art scene of the 1960s and '70s); she had a clear view of it--and she's out there, very honest," says Dill. "My only difference with the book is her idea of a game plan, which there's never been for me. It's a weird way to make a living. The game and the rules change all the time, people go in and out of vogue . . . . I got my first show in New York in 1971, when I was two years out of school, so I got to leapfrog over the whole system. The point is, I was lucky."

Barnes herself doesn't dismiss luck, but she definitely believes that charting one's career in the art world also takes a lot of skill and perseverance. And what she calls "applied sociology." Says the author, "Since the book came out, more and more people have been calling me, saying, 'I wish this had been mandatory reading in art school--this is the stuff no one talks about.' Most artists are isolated, and some think it's beneath them to go at this like it's a business. But it is."

A native of Los Angeles, Barnes studied acting and art at UC Berkeley, and soon after married her first husband, a CBS executive. It was while living in New York, teaching and studying painting, that she decided the solitary life of the artist wasn't for her, and began pursuing a career as a dealer. "It was a relief to find something I could do well," says Barnes, who subsequently took classes from the Ford Foundation on how to buy art. "Painters face a lot of rejection, they always have to worry about getting ripped off; they have to put up with so much stuff."

Not that being an art dealer is a bowl of cherries.

"The art world is really tough," says Barnes, who admits she once planted herself in front of a post office for 10 successive days to meet Willem de Kooning. "Everyone is after your job, everyone doesn't want you to succeed." Often traveling between New York and Los Angeles, she ran the Molly Barnes Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard for 17 years. There she counted such collectors as film director Billy Wilder and TV producer Norman Lear among her clients. She also claims to have discovered artists Mark Kostabi, Gronk and Robert Cottingham during that time. In 1988, Barnes closed shop in Los Angeles and resettled in New York. There she spent two years running a gallery for Kostabi; since 1992, she has been the art curator of the Roger Smith Hotel in Manhattan, which contains a gallery.

Three years ago, she also made a big change in her personal life. After 20 years as a single woman, she married art director Mauro Caputo; between them, they have five grown children and lead bicoastal lives. "My husband got three shows at Language of the Heart (a bookstore and art gallery) in Santa Monica by using my book," she says proudly. Her business savvy has also served Barnes well: In 1991, she bought a New York apartment with her commission from the sale of a painting by John Baldessari.

Barnes believes one of the keys to success is seeing and being seen.

"I say in the book to go to an art opening once a week by yourself," she notes, referring to the necessity of regularly making new contacts--and keeping old ones. Nor does she shy away from the harder-edged aspects of her profession. "I feel like a salesperson, sure. You have to make money, you have to be nice to the buyers. . . . Most art dealers have traditionally been women, probably because of the nurturing qualities. It's changed, of course, because now there's so much money in it."

The bottom line for Barnes, she stresses, is much more personal. "I love artists," she says simply. "I love being around them. I think they're the most innocent, spiritual people in the world."

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