Hecho a Mano owner Frank Rose jogs out of his gallery and into the elements to toss me a parking pass. It's easily the coldest day of the season so far, and finding a spot on Canyon Road is never easy even in the best conditions. Rose has just opened Grabados Oaxaqueños, a collection of prints from printmakers based in in Oaxaca, Mexico. The show is indicative of Rose's overall style, namely, he mainly shows hand-done prints (hence the gallery name) and often works with Mexico-based printmakers, but it also proves another tenet by which he has run his business since it opened seven months ago: his entry level price points are affordable.
"It kind of spans the gamut and is hard to nail down," Rose says. "I mean, you can spend $6 or thousands here."
Rose offers prints, works on paper, jewelry, ceramics and even clothing from time to time, meaning buyers find a more varied and informal price range than at many other Canyon Road galleries. It's less common overall in a city like Santa Fe where art rules the day. Even as consumers' tastes lean further toward experiential art and smaller pieces—while modern architecture eschews walls for windows, making the hanging of artwork even more challenging—far too often those who wish to start collecting wind up looking at art, but rarely buying. A survey from SMU DataArts at Dallas, Texas' Southern Methodist University in August stated that Santa Fe's art market ranks at the top of arts vibrancy for mid-sized communities throughout the country, but who does that impact the most?
Blue chip galleries dot Santa Fe's streets with massive pieces carrying obscene price tags, and while nearly everyone you meet is an artist in some capacity, kickstarting a collection seems a daunting task for everyday appreciators. How might someone who isn't rich or well-versed in the art game begin? What are the right reasons for buying? Should the investment angle be a part of it?
The latter is a particularly tough concept, especially at a place like Hecho a Mano, where Rose isn't just trying to buy and sell art; he's trying to build a community with local-minded prices and a pipeline to other states and countries. Galleries are evolving, and that thread wends its way in some form through the established system, into the DIY spaces, through artists' studios and iconic Canyon Road spaces to the very edges of the Southside. Thus, for our purposes, we'll address the concept of art collecting as personal enrichment rather than as a commodity bought to flip at a profit down the line. With a mix of gallerists, artists and collectors, the idea is to help average schmoes understand that it's not as difficult as they might think to amass a collection. In most cases, it just takes a little research and a whole lot of questions.
"I'm showing 75% to 80% local artists because I'm local," KEEP Contemporary
co-owner Jared Antonio-Justo Trujillo tells SFR. "It's an amazing thing to be surrounded in Santa Fe by so much art and culture and history, and for me, it was imperative I showed the locals, and not only the locals, but the ones who don't have a voice in the conservative art market."
KEEP has been open a mere two years, but Trujillo has worked professionally in art sales for 14. When it came time to pursue his dream of opening his own gallery, however, he balked at the narrow definition of so-called "fine art," instead choosing to focus on lowbrow works, the unexpected and a healthy percentage of up-and-comers. Future Fantasy Delight founder Nico Salazar, for example, has shown at KEEP since launch, and the walls also feature works by SFR 2019 Best of Santa Fe cover artist Sienna Luna, local graffiti artist Wonky, painter Katy Kidd and countless other Santa Feans alongside icons such as HR Giger, Elizabeth Leggett and Lee Moyer.
For Trujillo, the idea wasn't just to provide a platform for locals, it was about creating a space accessible to everyday people, where those who don't have deep pockets might find something they love and purchase it without careening into debt. Granted, some of KEEP's works can reach into the tens of thousands of dollars range, but Trujillo says he also carries pieces like prints and limited
T-shirts for as low as $20.
"There is something for everybody," he continues, "and I think that's rare, which sucks—art shouldn't be only for rich people."
Indeed, of all the hurdles to art collecting, exorbitant costs often keep would-be collectors at bay. But in the galleries across town, newcomers might not know that the artists themselves most often set the prices. They're based on a number of factors, from labor to materials and all points between. And whereas most artists concede that the whole thing would probably be much simpler if artists could just sell directly to the people, that's not always logical or realistic. In many cases, galleries act like agents; though with a standard 50-50 split (which, of course, can vary), galleries have incentive to market, promote and otherwise sell as best they can. Gallerists also often bring connections and years of networking into the mix. For pros who want to spend time creating, working with a gallery can be a godsend.
"Professional artists oftentimes have contracts with their local representation," local artist Nina Tichava says. Tichava shows exclusively at Turner Carroll Gallery on Canyon Road, and boasts years of experience working within the gallery system.
"It's against the rules to sell on the DL," she continues, speaking to would-be collectors reaching out to gallery artists directly (more on that later). "That undermines the relationship with the gallery—the more traditional gallery route that's existed until now."
It certainly makes sense: See a piece online you like, email the artist about buying it. In many cases, artists of a certain level prefer to send such potential customers to the gallery which represents them. But not always. Tichava says the market is forcing the gallery world to evolve as artists create their own selling channels. And while it can be about convenience, and also getting her work in front of as many eyeballs as possible, Tichava says the future is a little murky.
"I see change happening really rapidly," she says, "especially at certain entry points—you can just follow someone you like on [social media]; it'll be interesting to see which one wins out."
Turner Carroll has been good to Tichava, so for now she's staying put. Selling direct sounds simple, yet in practice the business side of art sales is a mountain of paperwork, tax information and collectors with varying sensibilities when it comes to negotiating. Some collectors work with art-buying consultants or build relationships with gallery directors, some follow trends that are only easily understandable with the gallery and auction systems' data tracking. For other artists, however, representation can be a headache they accept as a means to connect with fans and collectors without having to trudge through the non-creative side of the business.
And then there are the in-betweeners. Show Pony Gallery founder Niomi Fawn (who uses the singular "they" pronoun) runs one of these—a space founded on the concept of art as beautifier, of artist as the priority. As a curator and artist themself, Fawn is uniquely positioned to understand all angles of the equation, and though they require a contract for the artists they show, their ultimate goal is to enrich the lives of collectors and the artists. Think of Show Pony Gallery, on the west side at 501 Franklin Ave., as a full service stop—not only does Fawn search out artists, perform their own installations and work sales, they'll gladly visit a collector's home to make sure the piece finds its proper forever home.
"We're looking at a market that has so many different buyers, and I really want my art to be accessible," Fawn says. "And I don't just mean people understand it, I mean that they can purchase it—the art world wants art to seem inaccessible because there's this weird intrinsic sense of value when something is inaccessible, but it's kind of like being a first-time homebuyer—are you buying this piece because you want to sit and drink coffee with it everyday? It shouldn't be a one-night stand."
Fawn's Curate Santa Fe has been one of the most prolific outfits in town over the last five years. With exhibits at Show Pony—both at its brick and mortar space and in its previous iteration as a mobile gallery—art.i.fact and other spaces, Fawn has shown some of the most popular locals, generally before they became more popular. Their best advice?
"People think 'I don't know enough about art to like it,'—but, yeah, you do," they explain. "You know if you do, and here's the deal: I think we're dealing with art in a very different way today … you're seeing more images in the first hour of your morning than people used to see in their lifetimes, and that's serious, that's a whole different way of viewing work. But if you see something, you just have to ask, talk to the curator or the gallerist or the artist about payment plans or discounts. The worst they can say is no."
Fawn is a proponent of the payment plan, but says many would-be collectors aren't familiar with the concept. Every gallery is certainly different, but most if not all are open to breaking up payments. KEEP's Trujillo says he prefers to start with half up front, the other half later. Show Pony works on a case-by-case basis. Much of the work there clocks in at under $1,000 but, Fawn says, even if something is only a couple hundred bucks, they're willing to work something out.
"I wish more people would ask, because it gives people a chance to get something they really want," they tell SFR. "It's my job to make those people feel welcome."
On the more upscale end, at Peters Projects, Gallery Director Mark Del Vecchio agrees a gallery should make everyone feel welcome. Of all the galleries in town, Peters Projects has a decided museum-like aesthetic. This can be daunting, particularly for new collectors navigating an imposing labyrinth of arts politics. But whereas Del Vecchio says he is aware potential collectors will certainly run into a haughty gallerist or salesperson here and there, he encourages engagement with himself and staff at Peters Projects. In a nutshell, he advises asking as many questions as possible. Del Vecchio cut his teeth working in New York City galleries and says the Santa Fe scene, while massive and every bit as renowned as New York, is a completely different animal.
"In New York, you had about a 60% chance of selling to whoever walked through the door," he says. "In Santa Fe, it's 15% likely somebody will come in and buy something."
Granted, Peters Projects is as blue chip as it gets, but Del Vecchio says the gallery sees endless traffic comprised of locals, young folks, potential new collectors, tourists and seasoned vets; the works are generally on the expensive side, but the gallery itself isn't closed off or inaccessible, nor is it meant to only appeal to the rich. All the same, over his years as a dealer, Del Vecchio says, he's seen the sales game change as well as how galleries themselves operate and how collectors collect.
"It's a different rhythm," he tells SFR. "What I feel is, we've kind of lost people who buy because they love it rather than looking at whether it's going to sell. People are afraid of doing that, and I think that's why younger collectors are a little more cautious in buying."
Del Vecchio says he still gets the occasional young buyer and/or new collector, and he loves connecting them with up-and-coming artists and their work, "because it's like they're both starting the journey together."
Like other spaces, Peters Projects offers payment plans and discounts though, interestingly, the higher the price, the fewer the number of payments are accepted. In other words, if a piece has a price tag of $100,000 (or more), Del Vecchio says, the gallery will probably prefer to limit that to two payments. Lucky then, that first time collectors probably won't start there. Otherwise, Del Vecchio also advises asking about discounts. Galleries are often authorized to offer up to a certain percentage off, and, he says, it's not offensive to inquire.
"I'm a dealer, therefore deals happen," Del Vecchio explains. "Let's talk about it, and we can figure it out. What I enjoy seeing is that look in someone's eyes when they fall in love with something. Will they buy it? That's another story, but that magic always excites me. Otherwise, save your money until you can buy something."
It's often as simple as that, and the idea that if we want a piece of art we do what we must to obtain it is widespread among artists, many of whom are also collectors. Ian Kuai'i (Kanaka Maoli/Native Hawaiian and Mescalero Apache), for example, who has shown in galleries like Hecho a Mano, as well as in museums around the country, both creates and collects.
Kuai'i's handcut paper portraits are complex and gorgeous and, lately, he's been creating what he calls Earthworks, un-purchasable pieces made in the wilds with any natural materials he can find. Often they'll represent mathematical or tribal patterns, and Kuai'i says he enjoys how the Earth chooses when to disrupt the piece; he never tells anyone when he'll make one or where it will be.
For his more commercial practice, however, Kuai'i wants to make it as easy as possible for the consumer. Smaller commissions can start at $350-$500 for those who buy direct, and he'll accept payment plans on a buyer-to-buyer basis for more expensive pieces.
"There are people who are alive and creating and have things that are available for any kind of pocketbook," he says. "Communication is definitely the most important thing."
For Kuai'i, it's about what speaks to the individual.
"If you see something you need to have in your life," he says, "you'll do what you can to figure it out."
This can even involve a bartering system. No, galleries probably won't enter into a trade agreement with potential collectors, but for local artist Daniel McCoy (Muskogee Creek/Potawatomi), it's a means to not only get his work out into the world, but to obtain a collection of his own. McCoy's most recent Santa Fe exhibit, the stellar Allsup's at the Hinterlands at Midtown DIY space Etiquette, found him new local collectors, and he often trades his work for pieces he likes.
"It started out for me at Indian Market," McCoy says. "You'd go and make trades with your friends or the artists you were a fan of. There was this powwow-type thing on the last Sunday before we packed up, you'd go and barter, and after a few years of doing that, I realized bartering had more value than the dollar."
But what of people who don't consider themselves artists? For Frank Rose of Hecho a Mano, that's a silly assumption.
"It's the one thing everyone does," he says. "I can't think of any civilization or society that didn't have some form of self-expression."
A number of artists interviewed for this story who asked not to be identified say they'd be willing to talk trade for website work or graphic design, for cooked meals or other services. As Fawn says, the worst an artist can say to an offer is no.
Meanwhile, more artists are striking out on their own without gallery help. Many set up shop on social media sites such as Instagram, or on Etsy, the largest online marketplace for art works made and sold by artists.
"[These are] great places to start," Tichava says. "I always say to people who are looking to collect, you can get work straight from the studios … some of the people [on Instagram and Etsy] are straight-up famous."
Avid collector, poet and former SFR food columnist Michael Wilson often buys art that way. A collector for six years, he says he's amassed over 80 pieces from art spaces and online, and that with every purchase—made through a combination of payment plans, struck deals and simply speaking with artists—he's grown more confident in his ability to obtain pieces he loves.
"I'm hesitant to call myself a collector even though I have a collection of art," Wilson says. "[The term] comes with a lot of baggage, it sort of has a lot of bougie connotations, but I certainly have an art collection, so I should get over that."
Wilson says he started collecting by buying pieces he'd see in Betterday Coffee back when local artist Jared Weiss worked as a barista there and curated a rotating selection of artists. It was an affordable and low-pressure beginning according to Wilson, and that it all came down to what spoke to him.
"For a long time I was one of those people who thought I couldn't collect art, that I wanted to support people but couldn't because I didn't have the money, but one day I just decided to buy stuff. Cheap stuff," he says with a laugh.
"It maybe feels scary," he continues, "but I think a lot of artists are willing to lower prices if they know you're really passionate. Maybe it feels bad, but it's worth having the conversation. Artists are willing to … 'negotiate' is the wrong word, but they want people to have their art."
That's the thread of community building that can connect artists and collectors. Creators and curators want to make both newcomers and longtime collectors happy.
They want to experience the magic described by Peters Projects' Del Vecchio, they want to foster accessibility like KEEP Contemporary's Trujillo, they want to make connections like Hecho a Mano's Rose and Show Pony's Fawn.
Maybe we've lost some of the magic in the commodification of art, and maybe in a town like Santa Fe there's no avoiding the upper echelons of ridiculous pricing. For everyday people, however, there's so much room to ask questions and add art to their daily lives.
"When I go home," Wilson says, "I want to look at the walls and say 'I love this space.'"