Taking Dayton artists on the road
By Jane A. Black
What does it cost you to make a name in the art world? What does it cost if you don’t even try? These questions are not just idle turns of mind for one of Dayton’s most entrepreneurial spirits, Mike Elsass, whose art career has gone from zero to 60 since he began showing his painted steel “canvases” in 2002.
“This artist from Fort Worth called me about three years ago,” he said. The Texas painter called to learn more about one of the galleries that represent Elsass. As they spoke, Elsass looked at the man’s work online and realized he was a dedicated painter but learned that, though he was in his 60s, he had never shown his work outside his own hometown. “This guy was going to go to his grave not knowing (how far he could have gone),” Elsass said. “It inspired me to take a chance and try.”
A half million dollars and thousands of paintings later, Elsass has developed a widespread market for his work. He has been to major art fairs and has work in galleries in 10 states and in Singapore. Business savvy and deeply curious, he has parlayed his traveling spirit and ebullient personality into friendships with gallerists throughout the nation. And, he has pursued other opportunities – at a price that he realizes not every artist could pay. Art Basel cost him $10,000, an Architectural Digest show in New York City was about $13,000 out of pocket. And that doesn’t count the time spent, either in the studio or learning the market in other cities.
“You don’t make money in art as you go along,” said Elsass, “You build up a price point and perception of value. It takes more than a couple of years and a couple hundred paintings.”
As he found more success, he saw the same thing most of us who are part of Dayton’s art scene have noticed: There’s a high level talent of here, but people can’t get out of circling around the one place in which they live – and that’s not enough to “make it.” Elsass realized that his resources had saved him from that fate, and thought: “Just getting myself out is not enough.” So he decided to do something about it.
Thus, “Confluence” was born: A loose affiliation of six artists, hand-picked for a mix of factors. Each had to bring to the table a significant body of work, the desire to be in retail-style galleries, the ability to develop a back-story, and a defined pricing method. Quality and salability were key concerns as well. “And they had to be community minded, team players,” added Elsass.
Even though the overarching idea was to get these artists connected to art markets in other cities, Elsass realized the group needed a local home. In January, the old Link Gallery on Fifth Street was remade as “Color 2” with a commitment of $250/month from each artist, either in cash or in-kind service, such as PR and documentation or artwork installation. With that basic structure in place, marketing Dayton artists outward has begun. With mutual support and a common goal, progress is being made.
Three of the artists, Ben Norton, Ann Kim and Darren Haper, have been accepted into galleries in Cincinnati and Columbus, and Birmingham, Ala., respectively. “I’m also looking for a sponsor to help us get to one of the big art fairs in 2012,” Elsass said. He expects three or four more artists to be added to the mix.
So, check out the current group – which includes Amanda Baker, Bob Rhoads and Jennifer Rosengarten, in addition to Elsass, Norton, Kim and Haper – at this month’s First Friday. Pop in to Color 2, before these artists are sending so much of their work elsewhere that they don’t have time to show in their own hometown.
Jane A. Black is a fiber artist and the executive director of the Dayton Visual Arts Center. Visit the gallery at 118 N. Jefferson St. or visit their website at www.daytonvisualarts.org. Follow her on Twitter @lookingabout. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.