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Artists Make Money By Forgoing Traditional Galleries

It isn't easy to make money as an artist these days, but three crafty New Yorkers are managing to sell their work — and make a living — outside the traditional gallery system.

Nancy Smith, 57, is something of an artistic wheeler-dealer. She embroiders, paints, draws, makes collages and photographs her family. She also runs, an advertiser-supported Web site about the New York City art scene, and she'll sometimes barter with artists, trading Web coverage for works of art that she later sells to help pay her bills.

Most recently, Smith is showing several of her watercolors and banners at Other Music, an independent record store in Manhattan's East Village.

Though she had never shown her work in a music store before, she says loves it: "I think it's much more fun than showing in a gallery. ... People come in and they're much more able to see my art as art than in an art gallery because you can understand: Here's music, here's graphics and this is art."

So far, two of Smith's banners at the record store show have been sold.

An Artist-Run Cooperative

Painter Phillip Levine, 65, wasn't so lucky when he exhibited in restaurants. His own painting does not pay the rent, so for the last 16 years, he has made his living arranging painting workshops abroad, mostly in France.

"I'm not making much money [selling paintings] ... And I'm not sure I ever want to do that," he says. "I think I always want to have part of my living coming from sources related to art, like my business. What is a goal is to get my work out more. I want more people to see it. I want people to love it and appreciate it and value it."

Levine paints figurative street scenes, characterized by expressive brush strokes and vivid colors. He shows his work at the Pleiades Art Gallery, a 20-member co-operative in Manhattan's Chelsea art district.

Co-op members pay monthly dues and have to volunteer around the building: installing shows, advertising exhibits and updating the gallery's Web site. Every month, two co-op members get to mount their own solo shows.

The artists have to cover the cost of their openings themselves, which can run a couple hundred dollars between wine and cheese and mailing invites. That's fine with Levine because, unlike commercial galleries, the co-op does not take a cut and offers a measure of independence the commercial galleries don't offer. (At his last solo show, Levine sold a painting for more than $2,000 — the most he has ever made on one piece.)

Levine also likes the independence the co-op gallery affords its artists: "I'm the one who decides what to show, without being restricted by somebody, without anyone else standing over me and telling me what I can and can't do, without somebody telling me what to price the paintings at," he says.

EBay For Artists

Matthew Cumbie sells a lot of his paintings on eBay — more than 1,000 over the past 10 years — but he's not about to give up his day job making brass mounts for three-dimensional objects at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The 29-year-old painter started selling paintings on the Internet auction site for as little as $5 each when he was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. But he's found that as a venue, eBay has its own demands and restrictions.

"EBay does not allow you to spend a whole lot of time working on one piece ... just because of the low prices things sell for," Cumbie says. "I generally spend two to four hours on a painting."

Initially, Cumbie did folk art knockoffs, which never sold for more than $50. Then he started doing abstract and graffiti-style paintings, which he sold for $99. Eventually they went for as much as $300.

"It was very exciting and gratifying that people were responding to the work and were happy to buy it. People were buying from Japan, Sweden, Germany, Italy."

Cumbie may be selling a lot of paintings through eBay but he makes no secret of his aspiration to eventually have his work picked up by a commercial gallery.

"I'm hoping that my other work — my non-eBay work — will pick up and that I will be able to be a gallery artist eventually," he says.

In the meantime, Cumbie says, it's getting harder to attract eyeballs to his paintings on eBay. When he started selling in 1998, he estimates there were 10,000 paintings listed, but now he says that there are five times as many paintings up for auction — many likely the work of other artists in search of alternate venues for their work.

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Jon Kalish
[Copyright 2024 NPR]