Margaret Hair: Money, cash, hopes for art

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Margaret Hair

Margaret Hair's column appears Fridays in the 4 Points arts and entertainment section in the Steamboat Today. Contact her at 871-4204 or e-mail mhair@steamboatpilot.com.

Art is expensive.

For his display at the Artists' Gallery of Steamboat's featured show this month, local mineral artist Leo Atkinson has $225,000 worth of work in the front door.

In part, Atkinson has to price his work that way to cover the cost of making it. But the game of selling big, elaborate works in a resort town isn't quite that simple.

"A big piece like that, if it's not priced right, the customer could walk," Atkinson said, drawing on years of experience selling his work at art fairs and road shows around the country.

"If it's worth $14,000 and you put a $4,000 price tag on it, that customer could walk, because they will not put a $4,000 piece in an area they've got designated when they're used to spending $5,000 or $10,000 or $20,000," he said.

Those estimates come from traveling outside of Steamboat to sell his work - something Atkinson does partially to track down the rare rock specimens that make up his portfolio, but mostly because he can't sell enough to live if he stays still.

"There are three things you have to do if you want to make a sale at one of these big art shows. A: You have to have something that's sellable. B: You have to find the person who will buy it. C: You have to get to that person," Atkinson said.

It's a different and often trying style of making money in art - a whole other game from, say, hanging photos on a wall in a gallery and selling prints of them.

If you do it right, selling big pieces on the road can be wildly lucrative. But for the most part, it's hit-or-miss at best. Banking $20,000 in one weekend doesn't mean much if you've spent $4,000 to get to the show and are already $15,000 in debt.

A typical show costs Atkinson $2,000 for travel. If he's gone big on the source material for his pieces, another $2,000 goes into raw costs. As the numbers stack up, it's no wonder large pieces can cost $5,000 and more.

"Let's say I sell it for $5,000. I've got two (thousand) on the amethyst, two (thousand) on the show - and that $1,000 you've got left doesn't go very far. Everything is so relative in selling art," he said.

Starting in early spring, Atkinson will haul a trailer filled with his work from Charlotte, N.C., to towns across Colorado, up to Minnesota and down to Arizona.

He might sell well, and he might not.

Even if he has established relationships with well-to-do clients, most of those are second- or third- or fourth-homeowners. It's enough of a gamble to hope they'll be in town at all. For at least one show - a trip to Houston made specifically for a handful of loyal buyers - Atkinson has lost that hand.

"I had one client who was in Chile, one who was in China and one who I think was in Spain," he said.

At some point, he hopes not to have to play this game anymore - where he lugs tons of rocks around shows and chances weather, tourism and buyers.

"Could I give those shows up? Absolutely. In a heartbeat."

He's hoping that some of those buyers will come to him - and the 25 other Artists' Gallery members - as construction clears up downtown and second-homeowners move into multimillion dollar abodes large enough to house a 5-foot-tall mineral sculpture.

"Timing is everything. It's like chance favors the prepared, and we happened to be prepared," he said.

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