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Mission Possible: Putting Starving Artists on the Payroll

By Ellen Wexler

Montgomery Gazette

June 11, 1999


June Linowitz has looked at life from both sides now. Having worked as a visual artist for most of her adult life, Linowitz has been leasing and selling other artists’ work for the past 2-1/2 years.

“The level of completion and satisfaction I get from working as an artist isn’t matched by anything else”, she says. But her business, ArtSeen Inc., is an expression of a cause in which Linowitz believes passionately. She calls it one of her “crusades” to reduce the number of starving artists in the region by increasing the number of people who appreciate and buy fine art. Her approach developed out of what she observed and experienced as an independent artist and director of District’s Studio Gallery.

Like most academic institutions, Chatham Collage, a small liberal arts women’s school in Pittsburgh Linowitz attended, taught art history and technique. “They don’t talk to you about the art business and that’s what you really need when you get out. Everyone seems to like the starving artist myth. It’s what you think you should be doing,” she says. In fact, she adds, when artists make money, they often feel guilty about “selling out”.

Linowitz learned the art business on-the-job at the Studio Gallery, where she installed and curated shows and sold the work of 30 member artists. Within those six years, the idea of ArtSeen occurred to her. “The traffic in the gallery was going down. Every year there were fewer and fewer people,” she recalls.

Linowitz has several theories about why people “tend to be less connected to and more intimidated by art.” She attributes it in part to schools, where art is offered only as an elective or extracurricular activity after the elementary level. She also thinks that people mistakenly feel that fine art is unaffordable. While acknowledging that some galleries do not make people feel welcome, Linowitz places considerable blame locally on the D.C. government, which gave no support to its galleries—effectively putting a third of them out of business.

“D.C. had the reputation of being unsafe . . . people weren’t comfortable on Metro and even if they did go [into the District], there was no parking”, she says. As Linowitz thought about what could be done to counteract the downward spiral, she settled upon exposure as the key. “People spend 70 percent of their waking hours in their place of business,” she reasoned. “If you want to impact people and expose them to art, that’s the place to do it.” Thus, Linowitz embarked on a mission to persuade businesses to display original art instead of framed reproductions and posters. “The counterfeit drives out the real,” she points out. Linowitz is convinced that once employees become accustomed to “the experience of living with original art,” they are likely “to seek out art in their personal lives too.”

A leasing option makes her proposition less threatening to businesses. “They feel more comfortable being adventurous because they can change their minds if they find out they don’t like a particular piece of art,” she says.

Creating the business was a great deal more work that the novice expected. Already well connected in the arts community as an artist and a gallery director, Linowitz started out representing 50 fine artists. Now she works on behalf of more than 200 mostly Mid-Atlantic are professionals who create paintings, sculpture, photographs, drawings, prints or crafts. About a quarter of them reside in Montgomery County, she says.

To keep current and add to her offerings, Linowitz does some jurying and curating “around town”—in locales like the Torpedo Factory in Alexandria and for the Montgomery County and Rockville art leagues, and goes to shows where she can “see what people are working on and look for what’s unique and different.”

Of the five to 10 artists, who approach her each month, generally referred by other artists, Linowitz says she takes on about half. “I always respond with a personal letter fairly quickly. I treat them with the respect I always wished people gave me,” she says. With a proven track record, she can be increasingly selective, even cutting off artists whose work is not selling.

One of her greatest challenges, Linowitz says, is that many artists are willing to hang their work in businesses for free. “We live in a culture where people do not value what they don’t pay for,” she insists. “I try to get artists to think about what they’re doing,” she says. Linowitz is always working both ends.

A firm might call, she says, with an offer of a “great opportunity . . . they’ll say they just did a couple million dollar build-out of a space, with all new furniture and carpeting, and then tell me ‘you can show your art and if it sells, we’ll take a percentage.’” In truth, it turns out these companies have no funds in their budget for art. Linowitz dutifully enlightens them on the error of their ways.

Law firms have become her easiest sell. “They know that having art makes their business look successful and established and creative, all the things they want to say about themselves,” she says. Other business people—like doctors, except plastic surgeons, she says—often are hesitant about appearing too successful.

Linowitz meets many potential buyers through networking groups, where she has an opportunity to get past their biases. “People are scared of art. They won’t have anything to do with me. But after they get to know me, they realize they like the art and it doesn’t cost as much as they thought,” she says.

Linowitz believes she is gradually educating the local business community to recognize they can have quality art affordably. And once it works in the business venue, they tend to want her to work on their residences. It’s a logical progression, she says. “They learn to live with art at work, then they begin to collect art for their homes. They buy from the artists and the artists can support themselves. That’s the whole program. It ought to work, right?”

While representation comes at no charge, ArtSeen takes between 30 and 40 percent of each sale. Since the standard for most galleries and consultants is 50 percent, Linowitz says, the artists she represents get the money they deserve. Ironically, Linowitz claims to be adept at selling everybody’s art except her own. “The only way I can sell my work is if I give myself a nom de plume. I have to talk about myself in the third person,” she says. “While I can be eloquent talking about others’ work, when it comes to my own, I’m completely tongue-tied or I end up blithering like every other artist.”

For Linowitz, who maintains both her ArtSeen office and a studio where she can create sculpture, paintings and prints in her home, having dual occupations gives expression to “both sides of my brain. I switch back and forth easily,” she says. Thus far, a focus on growing her business has been at the expense of her art. But with ArtSeen’s success and the resulting well-placed confidence, she has resolved to “make a point of doing the art again within a few months . . .I have ideas for what I want to make”. And when June Linowitz has ideas, she is apt to work diligently to put them in motion.

Reprinted with permission of Montgomery Gazette.

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