By Carolyn Edlund
Jay Etkin is the owner of Jay Etkin Gallery, with locations in both Santa Fe, New Mexico and Memphis, Tennessee. Specializing in local, regional, and international contemporary artists and vintage African tribal art, his client base ranges from individual collectors to corporations.
We recently spoke about his view on the changing world of gallery sales, based on his experience from forty-plus years of selling art, through economic booms and hard times as well.
Overall, Jay Etkin is very optimistic about selling artwork. But, he also feels that the future of galleries is shifting dramatically. “I’m old-fashioned enough to appreciate a brick and mortar,” he says, “but the way selling is done is changing.”
“One of the major issues that galleries have is that the owners tend to be older folks who can be very stuck in their ways. It’s like the classic definition of insanity. They are doing the same things over and over, expecting different results. They sit there in their galleries, waiting for a miracle to happen. You can no longer do this. You cannot create a business around this model.”
What is the key to his continued success? Etkin believes in creating a network. For him that entails getting out of the gallery and on the road, putting thousands of miles each month on his car. He does consulting work for museums, galleries and corporations, connecting with business owners and decision makers. “I never think about finding buyers,” he replies, “I think about building relationships.”
Traveling to meet with private collectors is a priority. “If the client is within a reasonable distance and you have an opportunity to visit, you get a better understanding of them,” he says. “Making a trip can deepen a relationship, and help you to understand their backgrounds and collecting habits.”
Nurturing those relationships is the key to doing business. He asks, “Would you rather have a person buy one painting from you today, or a client for twenty years? Over the years, we do a lot of repeat business with collectors. This goes for corporate buyers as well.”
His view of the future? “My business does not begin or end within the gallery walls,” he states. His business model focuses on the work he does with artists, other galleries, corporations, private collectors and other contacts. “It’s all about collaboration. I’m trying to be a part of a healthier new economy, which includes rational buying. The old one won’t be coming back.”
Etkin is an artist as well as a gallery owner. His studio adjoins his gallery space, but his work is not shown front and center. In all the years of exhibitions, only one has featured his art.
What are the biggest mistakes he sees other artists making? He laughs and recites an anecdote. “An artist walked into the gallery without an appointment and said, ‘My work is better than anything in your gallery.’ That’s insulting.”
“Please, make an appointment first. Don’t walk into a gallery opening to pitch your own work. And keep in mind that presentation is key. One artist came in with paintings that had the frames popping off. He had secured them with double-sided tape. That’s unprofessional.”
Another issue he sees is the artist with an inflated sense of the value of their work. He feels that in general, there is way too much artwork out there that is “disconnected to the real world.”
“Get some advice,” he suggests, “Speak to dealers. Educate yourself, and get realistic about the value of your work in the art market. Let go of your ego. Listen and learn.”
Etkin finishes up his interview, ready to walk into another appointment out on the road. One gets the impression that he will continue to do this and build his gallery business for a long time to come.