Making it in New York … or New Hampshire
Granite State artists talk about selling in the city
By Heidi Masek email@example.com
Andrew Moerlein, sculptor and faculty member at The Derryfield School in Manchester, has seen large, expensive houses in New Hampshire with little or no original artwork on the walls. In contrast, there are small apartments in Manhattan with thousand-dollar paintings squeezed next to each other in the little available space.
The difference might be due to money or mindset. Moerlein said young New Yorkers with money are looking to art as an investment. “They tend not to buy boats,” he said. “In New Hampshire we’re pretty much a consumable society. That’s the feeling I get.” He hasn’t shown work in New York.
New Hampshire sculptor Gary Haven Smith echoed the sentiment. “There are a lot of people in New Hampshire who have a lot of money,” Smith said, but they might have more conservative tastes, or they might buy snowmobiles or jet skis rather than art. “I think [buying art] just goes more with urban sensibility,” Smith said.
Intimate, small homes, old Colonials, “just can’t handle aggressive art,” said New Castle artist Dustan Knight, who attended graduate school in New York and returned to New England at the end of the 1980s. Nonetheless, Moerlien is concerned that many people who buy large homes are content to cover bare walls with reprints.
“I think that is one of the big complaints of the area. But it’s probably just as prevalent in Long Island as it is here,” Knight said. True, it’s not just a New Hampshire thing; Moerlien recalls seeing plenty of “cranked out” art in Alaska, where he grew up, always featuring the same scenes and mountains.
In New Hampshire, Moerlien said, “You just don’t see much art at all, basically.”
He thinks this might be due to the “Yankee sensibility” that says “art is superficial and superfluous and we don’t need it.” But he also thinks that’s changing.
Dustan Knight agrees. She says there’s been a “remarkable” change in New Hampshire’s gallery scene in the past ten years and she sees galleries trying to educate people about the benefits of art. “I think they are doing a good job, but I think it’s hard going,” she said.
Smith noted that no matter how much things change, abstract work can still be a harder sell here than paintings of pastoral scenes. Corporations buy a lot of original artwork, “but it’s not, well, you know, it’s not meant to be cutting-edge confrontational work,” he said.
“I have been an abstract nonrepresentational artist all of my life. It has always been kind of an uphill climb,” he said.
New Hampshire buyers might be “more informed by what they see in museums,” Knight said, and are probably used to American impressionist work, realism and a certain amount of modern art, but less cutting-edge work, or what she calls “pigs in formaldehyde.”
So is there a market for original artwork in New Hampshire, with or without formaldehyde? Can artists make a living here, selling within the state? Or do artists need to go to New York to make it?
Smith spent a lot of time focusing on getting into a gallery in New York in the 1980s, “as if it was a stamp of approval,” he said. But as one dealer told him, his work was good, but the dealer could walk 100 yards in any direction and find good artists. He’s had three shows in New York, which he said have “done quite well,” perhaps because of the higher concentration of people. But, “that having been said, I think there’s a lot of people who have shows in New York and don’t do well,” he said. He doesn’t keep much work in New York except during shows — it’s hard to move it around. He’s found that people buy it when it’s there, but won’t travel to New Hampshire to see it. “It’s really fabulous he’s being recognized down there,” said Sarah Chaffee of McGowan Fine Art in Concord. When prices on his work go up, “for us it’s real confirmation for us that we pick good artists ... and some might outgrow us,” she said.
Smith’s work ended up in New York through Spheris Gallery in Hanover, which is partnered with Reeves Contemporary in New York.
Amparo Carvajal-Hufschmid of Alton also showed at Reeves. “I think they have a market for the type of art that I make,” she said. But she’s also worked with several galleries in state. Hufschmid doesn’t find it challenging to work from a rural area. She can send digital images of her work to a client in five minutes and ship the piece overnight. “I think the major thing is more for the artist to be connected to what is going on. You have to make the effort to go out,” she said. She’s lived in New Hampshire for 20 years; she says winters give her time to work and she doesn’t mind car trips. She was in New York just a couple of weeks ago, and then in Boston to see an exhibit. She also shows her work in Colombia. Interestingly, those who buy her work from New Hampshire galleries are often from out of state, she said. Hufschmid, however, prefers to concentrate on the making, not the selling, of art.
Mary McGowan has sold art in New Hampshire for almost 30 years. “Mary’s managed to build a base of collectors,” Chaffee said. Chaffee said she’s pulling people from Boston who are willing to come up for McGowan artists.
“I’m not trying to negate the fact that it’s hard to sell art,” Chaffee said. She jokes that this is a “not for very much profit” business. But she said people are still looking, “despite the lousy economy.”
McGowan also represents Catherine Tuttle, whose traditional watercolors are a consistent seller. Chaffee is trying to help the Bedford High teacher find more galleries. “It would be nice to broaden my horizons but I haven’t really had the opportunity,” Tuttle said. She thinks the market here does lend itself to her New Hampshire landscapes and Maine scenes (she’s also done paintings of Alaska landscapes). She’s found it’s tough to get watercolors into galleries. Oils fetch a higher price. But she loves “the immediacy of the media” of watercolors and “just being able to push the color.” She can work up a watercolor in a few hours, whereas it takes her weeks or months to create an oil painting.
Chaffee said McGowan brought work to an annual art fair in New York for about five years; McGowan also carries work from out-of-state artists, including some from New York. It makes good business sense for artists to spread out their art geographically, Chafee said. She tends to give preference to northern New England because there’s more opportunity to develop a relationship between buyer and artist. For example, McGowan organizes a tour of Smith’s studio almost every year.
In New Hampshire, most artists live a fairly meager existence, Moerlien said. Those $5,000 grants and fellowships are important for people’s careers. But high auction prices elsewhere — such as an Andy Warhol portrait of Marilyn Monroe going for $17.3 million — are a sign that people are appreciating art in general, Knight said. And that includes New Hampshire.