The art biz ain’t what it used to be

Tom Fletcher, whose 40 Mill Hill Road gallery is now in its 26th year, spoke five years ago about how the art market was shifting towards auctions. He talked about the various ways that would be good for Woodstock’s arts legacy, and keep long-time art dealers like he and his friend and competitor Jim Cox in business for some time to come.

This past Monday, Fletcher spoke at length about a successful weekend that saw the curator from the Norman Rockwell drive over from the Berkshires and buy one of the Julian Allen works he’s currently exhibiting, the various connections he was able to make among illustration dealers to publicize that show (Allen having been one of the field’s greats during the 1960s and 1970s, and this being the first major exhibit of his work since his death 19 years ago), and the inauguration of a gallery Instagram account that pulled in a pile of hits almost immediately.

Yet he also expressed considerable, thoughtful dismay at the changes  he’s been witnessing in the art market of late. And what those changes said of our culture and society in general.


“The middle class has dissipated. Those buyers are gone,” Fletcher said matter-of-factly while talking about a shift away from 20th century art movements towards something more decorative and contemporary, along with a major drop in disposable incomes once dedicated to art. “It feels like I’ve woken up on a different planet that I don’t recognize.”

Yes, Fletcher — who built his gallery from scratch, using his own sense of judgment for success, along with some luck and chutzpah-driven leaps of faith (a Peter Max show, myriad friendships with those holding key artist estates) — still has some strong exhibits lined up. At the end of October he’ll open a new estate of 50 unseen Rolph Scarlett abstracts from the 1940s and 1950s. People have gotten more adept at pulling strong deals from the regular auctions he and Cox run.

“Word gets out,” he said. “It just happens in totally different ways now.”

The same goes for getting work, especially from Woodstock artist and other estates.

What’s worrying he and other dealers is the aging of the collecting clientele that he and Cox built their businesses on, people “with good careers and a bit of money” who were in their early 60s…25 years ago. That generation was really interested in the art that came up before and after World War II, Fletcher said, and the stories behind the artists themselves. Things had impact…but now that’s fading fast.

“For younger people with money now it’s post war where it starts. Many of us dealers have been left in between,” Fletcher said. “Younger people may go back as far as the Abstract Expressionists, if one can find them — they still know those names.”

As an example, the dealer talked about Eugene Speicher paintings selling at auction for $15,000 fifteen years ago being lucky to get $3000 now. But also a deeper aesthetic shift behind the way new art is getting collected. He and the dealers he knows across the country all talk about how the economy shifted post-2008, removing a sense of ease about money. Real estate costs more now, making for less room for paintings. Those who have money now have more of it, and want “better things.”

“Me and Jim, we used to sell works in all price ranges. We’d sell works on paper, prints, to regular middle class people” Fletcher says. “Now, people want the best, but in terms of Woodstock art, say, the big estates are no longer around. When I came to Woodstock you’d make friends with the artists themselves, or their family. That generation’s disappeared.”

Asked about contemporary artists, who Fletcher has shown regularly over the years, he said he’s similarly heard that “the scene is actually bad,” although he was reluctant to name names.

“I ask people how things are,” Fletcher said. “I hear that younger people seem more concerned about decorating; they want their living spaces to look better but you look at a lot of traditional Woodstock art from that perspective and it comes across as somber. I think that’s the reason good abstract art is more desirable right now. It matches the function people want for their art.”

Taking that idea one step further, the gallerist talked about how certain older artists with “good lines, good color” can still sell. But he admitted that’s a big change from five years ago.

Similarly, he’s realizing that to sell now, you need a more active online platform; the big ones he’s been looking at include Artsy and First Dibs. The latter costs $500 a month, but seems worth it for the increased potential for traffic, and sales.

And yes, the increased traffic for auctions from an only-online audience has helped. Although Fletcher said that phenomenon also bothers him, given the numbers of people he keeps meeting who now do everything online, from food shopping to looking at art. Even art magazines are now looked at on phones, in hand, rather than in print, or even on a regularly-sized monitor.

We talk about how this shifts the way we analyze things, or give time to pondering our likes, or our purchases. People make more snap decisions. They look at visuals via Instagram, and not as actual objects seen in real life.

Fletcher talked about another sale from the weekend. A young couple came by, telling him how they’d seen a picture of three nudes in the window. The gallerist explained how it was by the Chinese artist Hongnian Zhang. He pulled out several other works and they ended up falling in love with one and purchasing it for several thousand dollars.

“They’d never looked at art full-on,” he commented. “They’d grown used to seeing things online only.”

We talked about whether the culture, and people’s vision, could ever shift back to what it was only five years ago, let alone a generation now past. Fletcher spoke about “needing to do a better job selling what I do now,” but then went back to his earlier questions.

“Are we going to just keep expanding into this new technology,” he asked. “Are we becoming a new species?”

There is one comment

  1. Maryk

    Strange to hear, as, driving around New England we run across amazing art – unique paintings and fine crafts not available online.

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