The New Exhibition Reminds of Old Heartaches
Any enterprise involves risks and many worries. Today, I have very few worries in business but too many other worries for children, world and FREEDOM, DEMOCRACY, FAIRNESS and JUSTICE on our planet. I am doing my bit through an exhibition that speaks of all the main ideals our world should be governed by.
Vasilis Mastoras, A painting of the 1992 show
Constantine Maleas, The Parthenon, March – April 2015 Exhibition
8th March 2015
My blog entry tonight/tomorrow morning is about exhibitions and about how hard it was was to have a major show for the first time a long time ago!
Exhibitions – A New Direction
Selling primarily at auction and the odd painting privately was good business in the 1980s. However, the 1990s necessitated dramatic changes and new initiatives in trading. In addition to investing heavily in Greek art and in artists of lesser value, organizing selling exhibitions merited the effort, time and expense. I was determined to go through fire and water to maintain the venture and make it a success.
Trading art is immensely challenging, satisfying and rewarding. It is a world of dreams where one gets drunk in hope and expectation of making millions, even though only a few manage to turn these dreams to reality. The recession of the 1990s put a halt to such fiery, unbridled thoughts and dreams, although it never extinguished them. Yes, the recession was raging, interest rates were sky high and I was defenceless. It was a horribly bad time for a commodity that nobody wanted to know about in hard times. Art was undesirable at that moment and time and there was a lot of thinking to be done and a lot of soul searching to do. The investment was seriously big and failing!
In spite of all the positives and all the emotional rewards, maintaining a collection and paying the expenses to keep it was another matter. By late 1991, I had a collection of one hundred paintings, a significant overdraft and loans, plus a few thousand owing on credit cards. That meant about one thousand two hundred pounds outgoings per month just for the business in addition to the mortgage. It was difficult to service everything and keep the household and business going.
Was I right to continue with this art venture or did I mess up the whole family? That was my major concern with two youngsters to think of and a newly established household with a significant debt of my making. Frankly, I was endangering the wellbeing of the family for a passion that had proved highly rewarding in the 1980s but was clearly leading me to disaster in the early 1990s.
It was time to sit down and think of the future, if disaster was to be avoided. Introductory commissions were already in place as was supply teaching, but what else could I do to change the course of events and lead myself to the promised land of riches?
Exhibitions are not for the faint-hearted
Courage does not only refer to soldiers’ outstanding deeds. It also refers to any other form of human activity where a person shows fortitude, perseverance, faith, belief and outstanding spirit to survive and overcome what is threatening his/her existence. One part of the new direction I was pursuing was the idea of holding a major exhibition in London. I had the stock, and I also had the connections to borrow additional works of art and sell on commission. I needed to put in the effort and time, which I was prepared to do. Besides, I was doing very little else – even supply teaching was sparse.
By November 1991 I had decided to launch a major exhibition in the spring of 1992, May being the most suitable time. It was a small gamble, but even two thousand pounds, my initial estimate of expenses, was significant in those tough times. Adding 100% more to that initial estimate was another lesson learnt during this experience.
Hallam Fine Art Gallery in Pimlico was available for renting. One week for £1,000 was reasonable and I could afford it, just, even if I sold nothing. Fortunately, the money was not demanded in advance and that helped me to feel less pressed financially. The gallery was excellently located in an area of antique shops and galleries and offered large, new premises with a double-fronted window. Over sixty paintings could be exhibited comfortably.
This was a top London location with Eaton Square, Sloane Square and Victoria just a couple of minutes away. Many Greek shipping tycoons also resided in the area and I reasonably hoped the show would attract them as well as many other Greeks of central London. Greek art was doing well and the exhibition was 90% Greek in content. Planning a show was not a bad idea, but could I pull it off successfully, on my own and in the middle of a recession? There were a myriad issues to deal with but the two most important ones were:
a. Did I have the right stock for sale?
The major attraction would be the painting by Alexandra Exter, the Russian artist who was also half Greek on her mother’s side. Exter had auction record sales close to a million pounds and the painting I owned was of museum quality. Good quality works by Maleas, Economou, Thomopoulos, Tsoclis and Parthenis would also form part of the exhibition alongside drawings by Ghika. I also had stock of about forty paintings by Zenetzis to draw from and impress Greek collectors (more on this artist later). Zenetzis’ art was magnificent, impressionist art of Greece and Cyprus with very popular subjects. Some interesting English and European paintings would also be in the mix. By the time I was ready to print the catalogue, I had sixty paintings for sale estimated to the value of half a million pounds.
If I could not sell a few paintings in a major show, then I was no good for that line of business. Could I sell 10% of those paintings and move on? That would cover my expenses and give me some profit too. Exhibitions work on a 300 – 500% profit, but I was happy working on 100% profit or less, if need be. Anything I sold would be a bonus, provided I covered my costs first.
b. Did I have the right contacts and potential buyers?
Connections and a wide circle of clients are imperative to the success of any exhibition. That was my major problem as I had no permanent venue, and thus contacts and connections were limited. Knowing that, I had already decided that advertising and hard selling techniques had to apply, if I was to sell anything. What I did not appreciate fully were the high expenses involved in all the advertising I needed to do; the printing of catalogues, leaflets and posters of Exter, plus travel expenses to try and get the best deals.
Nevertheless, I had the drive, I was determined and above all I believed in what I was doing. I believed I had what it took to attract the buyers to the gallery. Quality of exhibits and persuasive talk were aplenty and I felt I was up to the task. However, believing is one thing, doing what was required to succeed was another! I was swimming in deep waters with that first major exhibition. Would I drown?
A cliffhanger show with Alexandra Exter as the star
There were no major collectors on the book. Nevertheless, there was a hope that one or two would attend the show following the extensive advertising undertaken. I felt I had done enough to make the exhibition known to a wide audience and was quite confident about the event’s success. Was that an optimist on a confidence boost journey or a pragmatist judging objectively?
Whatever initiative and major advertisement I spent money on, I always had in mind the best painting in the show, the Exter. Alexandra Exter’s work was punchily priced at £250,000, which might have been too steep, but there was room for negotiation. There were collectors of Russian art all over the world although no Russian billionaires yet! Who were the potential buyers then? The Greek shipping tycoons and other wealthy Greeks! I hoped the marine content of the picture and the fact that the artist was half Greek would be major factors in attracting their interest. Perhaps a rich investor with a far-reaching view on events unfolding in the art world and Russia would come forward to make an offer for the painting.
May 1992! The opening of the exhibition was a major success. There were more than seventy people in the spacious gallery which included a number of new faces as well as many people I knew and expected to be present. Friends came to support me and it was one of those friends who bought the first painting in the show – a beautiful, nostalgic painting of occupied Cyprus and the Monastery of St Barnabas by Vasilis Zenetzis, the impressionist contemporary artist from Greece. The sum of £1200 was small (just enough to cover the reception costs and catalogue expenses), but it was important for me to sell at least one painting on the opening day, although one usually expects to make most sales the first day of an exhibition.
The Exter painting was impressive in the middle of the gallery and I hoped at least one of the important people who had made the effort to come to the exhibition would show some interest. The visitors had their drinks and canapés; they chatted and looked around, but no inquiries for anything major, which was not encouraging! A whisper in my ear informed me that a rich Greek tycoon and his wife were interested in the Exter but that came to no fruition.
Nothing else sold that Sunday afternoon. It was an ominous beginning that concerned and worried me enormously! If I did not move into another gear and mode quickly, I would end up with egg on my face and a threatening call from the bank. Come Monday I and my assistant started the hardest telephone campaign of all times; telephone calls, invitations to visit on the phone, information on the sale and more catalogues sent. I called the people that mattered once, twice and three times and I managed to get a promise, “we will come and see your exhibits.” I had to promote the exhibition and the paintings further. There were only six days to go and I hoped they were going to be the best in my art business venture.
A week of despair!
The whole week was nearly over. It was Saturday already and the only painting sold during the week was a small Zenetzis for £350, barely enough to pay my assistant’s wages. Alexandra Exter remained unsold, as did the other major paintings in the exhibition. It was really a hopeless situation and a nightmare scenario. The art was good, but even the best paintings had attracted no interest and I had just two days to resurrect a dead show. I could do no more.
I left everything to Lady Luck! She was in charge. I was a passenger that last weekend. Only a miracle could save the sinking boat and it was sinking fast! The bank manager was demanding sales and deposits in the account. The creditors were sharpening their knives, ready to decapitate the wizard kid of the 1980s and bury for good the achievements of the earlier decade. Was it possible to recover my expenses at least and save the business?
Exhibitions have major targets to achieve. The exhibition of 1992 had only one major target and a couple of secondary ones.
· Primarily, sell as many paintings as possible and raise cash in order to balance the books
· Make the acquaintance of important collectors and establish constant selling relationships
· Exhibit the paintings thus enhancing their value, especially that of Exter and the Zenetzis collection
Two days of the exhibition left and only the third target had been achieved. No major collectors had crossed the threshold of the gallery in order to buy. That was dismal, heartbreaking and very, very upsetting. Feeling low cannot adequately describe the way I was feeling. It was far deeper, far more complex than that – it was hopelessness, depression and despair. Failure was tangible, inside me, engulfing me, eating away my confidence and business acumen, if I ever had any that is.
Hope, expectation, drive to succeed, planning to address all issues and problems had all been done, and there were no results to touch and feel the pleasure of. I was miserable, despondent, ready to surrender and raise the white flag! What else could I do? I did not know! The desperate last minute calls over the week had taken place and only one thing remained to do. Wait! Wait and wait! Hope, hope and hope!
By Saturday morning I had virtually given up, even though Saturday was an important day. Perhaps a miracle might happen! I needed just one good collector to drop in and purchase an important painting. The profit margin on any one of those paintings would have turned losses to profits. If only I could work the oracle and make things happen! I arrived at the gallery before 10.00 am and sat thinking, waiting and praying for mercy really. Would anybody come? Would any passers-by come inside the gallery? This was a business where I depended on the buyer now. As a seller, I felt, I had done my