The Buying Game
Despite the twenty years Dennis and Martha Gleason have spent developing their art gallery into one of the most important in Maine, they both chuckle over the irony that Gleason Fine Art remains something of a mystery to many of their fellow Boothbay Harbor merchants - not to mention the general public.
"They don't know what we do or how we do it," Martha says. "In fact, they can't imagine art sells in the first place."
In a bustling, forthright, tourist town where trinkets, T-shirts, ice cream, and shore dinners abound, local folks don't blink at travelers plunking down a few hundred dollars for a motel room and a meal, a few dollars for souvenirs, maybe even splurging on a whale-watching cruise, but the idea that anyone would spend a few thousand dollars on a painting somehow remains unimaginable.Truth be told, the primary market for the Maine art at Gleason Fine Art is the community of 50,000 summer residents on the Boothbay peninsula and the wealthy "boat people" who sail their yachts into Boothbay Harbor. One brand-name corporate CEO, for instance, walked in off his boat not long ago and dropped $50,000 on paintings.
But as both Gleasons are quick to point out, first-rate art galleries aren't just for rich people. Good works by contemporary Maine artists do sell all the time to ordinary Maine people with ordinary incomes. You can still find excellent Maine art at prices generally ranging from $500 to $5,000. That the Gleasons also attract this segment of the art market is, in part, a tribute to the low-key, unaffected style that this pleasant couple brings to the sometimes effete and intimidating business of dealing in fine art.
Casual and friendly by nature, Dennis and Marty preside over a sprawling gallery where contemporary art is exhibited on one side of a central foyer and nineteenth- and early twentieth-century art on the other. They have a knack for putting visitors at ease partly because it wasn't all that long ago that they themselves were art-world neophytes unable to pay more than a few hundred dollars for the odd picture. And it also doesn't hurt that Martha Gleason is a local girl, having grown up in Boothbay Harbor where her father worked at the Bigelow marine laboratory.
"The first picture we bought," recalls Martha, "was a little watercolor by Kunishiro Mitsutani, a Japanese artist who studied with the French Impressionists. We paid $35 for it because it was strangely beautiful and cheap. We sold it in the early 1980s at auction for $4,500."
According to the Gleasons, the first hurdle many first-time art buyers have to get over is sticker shock. You may be able to buy charming little paintings at sidewalk art festivals for a hundred dollars or so, but a serious work by an artist with an established sales and exhibition record is more apt to cost a couple of thousand dollars.
The five bestselling Gleason artists are Kevin Beers, Mitch Billis, Scott Kelley, Andrea Peters, and Helen St. Clair, all representational artists of one stripe or another. Beers' Monhegan landscapes range from $900 to $3,800, Billis' impressionist paintings from $2,100 to $4,800, Kelley's Audubon-like bird paintings are priced at $6,800, Peters' coastal landscapes go for under $1,000, and St. Clair's brushy, romantic figures and landscapes run from as little as $200 to as much as $2,500.
These prices are fairly typical for living artists with regional reputations, though paintings by major artists are more apt to cost in the tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars. A John Twachtman (1853-1902) landscape at Gleason, for example, carries a price tag of $50,000, a John Marin (1870-1953) seascape $100,000, and a painting by Abbott Fuller Graves (1859-1936) is listed at $175,000.
The Gleasons confide that they have had people wander in off the street who exclaimed they were "disgusted" at the prices of the Marin and the Graves, but even these prices are modest compared to the millions of dollars that paintings by even more famous artists such as Andrew Wyeth fetch. But Gleason Fine Art does not traffic in Wyeths. "Young couples usually start by buying the best they can afford, usually a big painting for over the mantel," explains Martha Gleason, adding, "and they might pay on time."
Like most Maine art dealers, the Gleasons are willing to work with buyers by establishing payment plans. And often the prices themselves are a bit flexible. Galleries typically take a 50 percent commission, so there is usually room for a little give and take - just as there is when buying a new car.
In the Maine art market the Gleasons have found that there are generally three numbers that represent "psychological barriers" when it comes to price. Gift buyers tend to stick to small oils, watercolors, and prints that sell for under $500. Paintings that sell for less than $2,000 are often bought casually, even on impulse. But paintings in the $5,000 range and up usually engender repeat visits and a great deal of deliberation before purchase.
"Prices over $5,000 tend to eliminate all but the best-heeled and most serious art buyers," says Martha. "The $5,000 mark is a very important one. When people spend that kind of money, they think they are storing value. And we actually sell value rather than an investment."
"When you buy something as an investment," explains Dennis, "you have a reasonable expectation that you are going to turn around and sell it at some point and make money. As a store of value, however, you have a reasonable expectation that you'll only get some of your money back."
Good art, of course, does tend to appreciate in value. Until quite recently, for example, you could buy a very good oil painting by Monhegan artist Andrew Winter (Down East, December 2004) for $500 to $1,000. Now a major Andrew Winter can sell for $50,000 to $60,000.
Richard Wright, an electrician and stagehand at Cumberland County Civic Center, lives in a small seaside home on Falmouth Foreside filled with Maine paintings by artists such as Alfred Chadbourn, Mark Wethli, John Laurent, and Alan Magee. A prominent place in his living room is reserved for an Andrew Winter painting of Seguin Light that he purchased from the Gleasons.
How does he manage to acquire these paintings?
His wife, he says, once gestured at one of his artworks and asked, "Can we afford it?"
"If we used that criterion," Wright told her, "we wouldn't buy anything. If you used common sense, you'd never buy art or go to the theater.
"I'm not a speculator," he continues, "and if you buy stuff you love, it doesn't matter if it's a whole lot of money. It's nice when it appreciates in value, though, and quality does."
Having collected art on a workingman's paycheck for thirty years, Richard Wright makes frequent trips up the coast, stopping at favorite galleries and museums, "just checking in," as he calls it. Gleason Fine Art is a regular stop.
"All over Maine I find people extremely willing to share their knowledge of art," Wright says. "I'll ask Dennis, 'Who is this guy?' and he'll tell me all about an artist I don't know. Knowledge, they say, is the one thing you can give away and still retain."
Buying original art at virtually any level is acquiring something unique, real, and enduring - a piece of cultural history - in an otherwise mass-produced, throwaway consumer culture. Beyond that, says Richard Wright, "art gives you a connection to a group of like-minded enthusiasts. It expands your world."
Ultimately, the buying and selling of art is really a confidence game. A picture has no utility and no extrinsic value. It is only worth what a buyer is willing to pay for it. Art prices are based on subjective assessments of talent and beauty - at least until an artist establishes a market value or passes into history, at which point his or her work begins to acquire antique value. By virtue of their enthusiasm and their experience, Dennis and Martha Gleason are just the kind of people who create confidence in the value of owning art for its own sake. And that's what art lovers just starting out may find so reassuring.