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Artists Find Success Selling Their Work to Tourists

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"All politics is local," the old politican said, and perhaps all art is, too. Walter Gonske of Taos, New Mexico found that out when he placed his paintings of the American Southwest in galleries in California and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. There were no sales. After six months, the gallery in Hilton Head Island, a resort vacation destination, recommended that Gonske "come on out and paint some scenes there." Eventually, a few of his paintings that he had painted of the coast of California and included palm trees and commercial fishing boats, "which could be from the area," sold in Hilton Head, "but no adobes." All of this led him to the conclusion that "works sell best if they're of the area where the gallery is. Paintings of New Mexico and Colorado sell in New Mexico and Colorado."

Fortunately, they sell very well in Santa Fe, New Mexico and Vail, Colorado, where tourists flock and the well-to-do buy second homes. When the out-of-towners come, they often buy art that will remind them of where they have been. Gonske creates approximately 100 paintings per year -- half scenes of Santa Fe in the Summer and the other half Vail in the Winter -- and sells the majority of them. "I'm not free to just paint at my own pace," he said. "I prefer working on large canvases, and I can just lost in my work and forget the time, but then one of my dealers calls, wanting a certain number of paintings by a certain date, so I have to drop everything to paint a bunch of smaller works for him."

Vacationers and second home owners are a major source of collecting for a great many artists who paint or sculpt regional scenes. Often too busy during the rest of the year, the out-of-towners devote a day or two to shopping (in many instances, it is the last day of the vacation), leisurely visiting stores and art or antiques galleries, feeling freer with their money than they might back home.

"They have more time to do things that they don't allow themselves to do in their own cities," said Arthur Rogers, a gallery owner in New Orleans, 60 percent of whose buyers are from out of state. Looking at art is something that perhaps they were too busy to do back home, but now they have the time. "When you're on a holiday, you'll break your rules a little bit. Buying art is one more fun thing to do that they might not do otherwise."

In addition, husbands and wives on vacation shop together -- a rarity the rest of the year -- which allows them to purchase artwork more quickly, since the one doesn't need to check with the other before buying. Sometimes, there is a helping hand in the process of generating art sales of out-of-towners. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce, for instance, sets up gallery tours for spouses of convention goers, busing in people to the gallery-rich Union Square district. "People find it pleasant to shop when they're on vacation," said Leah Edwards, marketing director of HANG galleries, half of whose sales are made to tourists and those in town at a convention. "They're not on a schedule."

There is no one style of art, or one subject matter, that is bought by vacationers and second home owners, but the predominant realm of sales is realism that clearly conveys a sense of a particular place, or corresponds with the collector's feelings about the place. Shirley Rabe Masinter's (of Covington, Louisiana) paintings of old cemeteries and once grand neighborhoods in New Orleans "have an old world feeling; they seem very exotic to people from Ohio," while Alan Flattman's (of Madisonville, Louisiana) paintings of the bars and restaurants in New Orleans' tourist-drawing French Quarter are "popular, because the particular places are popular." On the other hand, Ed Dwight, a sculptor in Denver, Colorado, whose work features noted jazz musicians through a negative and positive space mix of head, horn and hands, is also popular among New Orleans visitors who associate the city with its musical legacy. "People go to New Orleans to be transported," he said. "They get enthusiastic, drink some of that crazy juice down there, and want to bring something home with them that reflects their experience. Buying my work is an extension of their trip."

Various tourist destinations have their own associations, which the most sought-after artwork tends to capture. "My art reflects a lifestyle people have come out here to enjoy," said Linda Loeschen of Basalt, Colorado, a painter of Southwestern landscapes and cowboys. "It's the outdoors, the natural life, the freedom of a cowboy." She added that her paintings offer an "escape" for buyers who have to go home to more crowded cities. Originally from New Jersey herself, having moved to Colorado in the early 1970s, Loeschen said that "the same thing brought me here, the appeal of being alive, of feeling nature and indulging in it."

At times, buyers go to great lengths to insure that the artwork mirrors the particular place, sometimes commissioning artists to paint a specific bridge or dune. Carol Turner, a painter in Albany, New York, who takes period trips to Cape Cod in order to take photographs and "get immersed in the light and the smells" that will be turned into paintings for a Wellfleet (Cape Cod) gallery, stated that she doesn't like commissions but has taken some: "There was one person who wanted a painting of a certain bay in Truro, with a certain boat, with high tide at a certain time." At the end, she felt lucky the person eventually bought the work, because the painting seemed to be more about the buyer's personal memories than her artistic vision.
"My buyers want something that says Cape Cod," said Sue Carstenson, owner of Birdsie-on-the-Cape, a gallery in Osterville, Massachusetts that sells three-quarters of its artwork to second home owners or their guests. "They don't want scenes of Venice." Tight realism tends to be the most favored style of painting, but some buyers prefer whimsical work that is done in a primitive or naive style. "They've bought this house in order to have fun, and they want fun art in it."

Second home art is taken less seriously than what they might purchase for their primary residence, Carstenson noted, and "there is a price point of $5,000 at the top end. No one is going to buy $25,000 art for a Summer home." She keeps close tabs on her buyers and frequently passes on information on what does and doesn't sell to the artists whose work she represents. "Sue tells me that people don't like orange-y sunsets," said Neil McAuliffe of Centerville, a year-round Cape Cod resident and the gallery's top selling artist. "She also tells me not to do things that are yellow-y, because people can't match it with their decor. The main colors should be pink, green and blue -- hydrangeas, water and sky." ("Blue and rose are colors that always sell," Carstenson said. "Put in the beach roses, it'll go; put in the hydrangeas, it'll go.")

Realist artists who specialize in a popular tourist destination not only compete with each other but also with countless postcard snapshots, readily available in numerous convenience stores. There is always a search for the unusual, unfound and untrite. Alan Flattman noted that he regularly takes trips to New Orleans' French Quarter to find "different angles, different perspectives" in the interiors and exteriors of restaurants and bars at different times of the day. Subjects that are dramatically lit and "rainy days with a lot of reflections" help him create more dynamic compositions, and "both seem to be popular with buyers." William Berre, a painter of Western images in Santa Fe, moves from one series of pictures to another -- dotted hills, Western sky, Northern New Mexico churches, fence posts with landscapes behind them -- as a way to "push myself and refresh my perspective."

Success in reaching and selling to a particular market, however, also has the potential of placing artists in a bind: Selling principally to nonresidents, they often do not receive direct feedback on their work from collectors and only find out what sells from dealers -- those dealers may only want more of the same rather than an evolving artistic vision; they probably do not want to paint the same image -- or variations on it -- again and again, but low prices require them to be prolific, working from a formula; they also don't wish to lose sales and incur the wrath of a gallery owner by finding different subjects. McAuliffe, for instance, traveled up to Acadia National Park in Maine, where he painted a number of scenes, but Sue Carstenson's response to those works was a clipped "Don't you bring me paintings of Acadia National Park. That's for galleries in Acadia to sell," the artist recalled her saying. McAuliffe looks forward, he noted, "to branching out, but right now I'm just doing what people want."