Thursday, September 23, 2010


There's a new buzzword being bandied about these days by professional artists as a mantra for surviving in a sputtering economy.

No, not "plastics." The word is "commissions."

At the Capitola Art and Wine Festival a couple of weekends back, a potter, a glassblower, and a mixed-media painter ran into each other in one of the booths and started comparing notes on coping strategies for artists in the new recession. What they discovered they all had in common, Numero Uno on each one's list, was commission work. Sales may be sluggish at outdoor shows or in galleries these days, but commissions appear to be on the upswing; some are for public art, but most come from private collectors who know exactly what they want and aren't afraid to ask for it.

Understand, by "collectors," I don't mean billionaires in stretch limos, or swanky nobles, à la the Medicis, throwing around purses of gold (not that every artist alive wouldn't love to have a patron like that, but let's try to stay on track, here). In real life, especially here in Santa Cruz, collectors are ordinary working folks with mortgages, families, and property taxes, just like the rest of us. In tough economic times, an artist's best friend can be the collector who already knows and appreciates his or her work. They've been affected by the economy too, and with less disposable income to dispose of on art, it makes sense for them to save their money for a piece over which they've had some personal input, something the artist makes just for them.

Not every piece of commission work has to be a strictly lifelike rendering of a person, place or object—or the Sistine Chapel. It can be abstract, edgy, a flight of fancy, whatever fits in with the artist's unique style. (Just look at some of the amazing things d hooker does with mixed media, paint, and photographs of her client's facial features.) If a collector already loves an artist's work, he's generally willing to trust her instincts. And artists shouldn't fear commission work as Art by Committee. Think of it more like a jazz improv—the collector plays a riff, the artist adds a little bass, harmony, a certain syncopation, and with a little savvy and a little alchemy, voila! Behold art.

If there's one artist in Santa Cruz who knows commissions, it's Liz Lyons Friedman. Not only was she asked to design the cover art for this year's 25th Anniversary Open Studios Catalogue/Guide, her original artwork has graced posters for the Sausalito Art Festival, Capitola Art and Wine, and the Begonia Festival. Catch up with Liz at the York Gallery today, from 5 to 7 p.m., where she'll be signing copies of this year's OS poster featuring her image, "Studios by the Sea." Posters sell for $20 at the shop, $30 signed.

The York Gallery is located at 2724 Soquel Avenue (831 426-0313), in beautiful, unincorporated Live Oak.

(Top: Capitola Art and Wine 2008, poster art by James Aschbacher)

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