Sculpture market broadens its base: though it has been hit by the economic downturns of the past year, sculpture is rebounding and attracting a new breed of collector – Special Report – Industry Overview

Sculpture market broadens its base: though it has been hit by the economic downturns of the past year, sculpture is rebounding and attracting a new breed of collector – Special Report – Industry Overview – Statistical Data Included

Rita Kasperek

Sales of three-dimensional art have been fairly one-dimensional the past year. According to several major sculpture dealers, the sculpture market, similar to the published fine art print market, has been adversely affected by the recent economic downturn.

The good news, however, is that there are more sculpture collectors than ever. “There is a much bigger market for sculpture than there was 10 years ago,” said Mitch Meisner, owner and president of Meisner Gallery and Meisner Acrylic in Farmingdale, N.Y. “There’s also much more awareness of sculpture as a collectible medium.” And, due to better casting techniques and new materials, a new type of collector is emerging from the marketplace–the low- to mid-end buyer, which, in the sculpture game, runs from about $500 to $4,000.

Sculpture traditionally has been the province of the wealthy and sophisticated art collector. For starters, sculpture buyers tend to be seasoned art collectors. “Sculpture collectors either collect nothing else, or they’re long-time collectors who have run out of wall space and still want to keep collecting art,” said Karen Johnston, president and c.e.o. of Fingerhut Group Publishers in San Rafael, Calif. “Beginning collectors buy to fill up their wall space first. And many just aren’t familiar with sculpture–how many of us, really, have grown up around sculpture?”

Another reason for its elite aura is that sculpture comes with a higher price tag than published art prints. “Sculpture is very expensive to produce, much more so than a limited-edition graphic,” said Daniel Winn, c.e.o. of Masterpiece Publishing in Laguna Beach, Calif., which represents artists who produce bronze sculptures. “The process is much more time-consuming; for example, a sculpture takes about two months to produce. It represents a much higher investment on the part of the publisher.”

Meisner agreed. “You can produce 100 prints for the cost of one piece of sculpture,” he said.

For this reason, the sculpture market is more sensitive to the vagaries of the economy, according to Winn. “When times are good, sculpture brings in a lot of money,” he said. “But when the economy is bad, it can break you.”

It’s the Economy–Still

The economic and political climates are, to no one’s surprise, affecting the sculpture market; major dealers report flat (or worse) sales that started for some as early as the election of President Bush worsened for the majority during the dot.com bust, and bottomed out for all after Sept. 11.

Bill Mack, who is a relief sculpture artist distributed by Erin Taylor Editions in Minneapolis, said galleries had almost no traffic after Sept. 11. However, he added, sales leaped dramatically in December and also this past spring. “I can’t really find a clear reason,” he said, “except that maybe people didn’t feel like buying luxury items right after Sept. 11. From what I observe, the people with money are still spending money.”

Economic downturns have the most impact on the medium-priced market (roughly $3,000 to $5,000), according to Johnston. “These people have to contemplate before they invest their money in art,” she said.

Although the higher end of the market always proves stronger, there is some indication that the average sale of even the bestselling artists, who can command up to $200,000 per piece, have dropped in the past few years.

Is recovery around the corner? For Meisner, there is “light at the end of the tunnel.” Galleries representing his artists are dependent on tourism, and domestic travel seems to have picked up. “We’ve seen sales come up in March and April,” he said.

Winn anticipates an increase in sales in the next three to six months. “The tax season is over, people are more comfortable with President Bush in office,” he said. “We believe confidence will rise.”

Johnston suggested gallery owners watch the print market. “The sculpture market typically follows the print market.”

What’s Selling

It’s always tough to generalize about what is selling in art, and with sculpture, it’s often about pure conjecture. However, there are some interesting nuggets of information that could be pointing to the next trend.

Fingerhut Publishing only this year has launched a new line of sculpture to appeal to the “impulse” buyer, gift market or budget-conscious collector. The sculpture is offered at $2,000 or under, using the lostwax bronze process with a black-diamond finish developed especially for the artist Daniel Acebo. “We’re incurring a greater up-front cost and producing larger edition sizes,” Johnston said. “The idea is to price sculpture at about the same cost as a limited-edition print. We want to appeal to a gallery’s customer base.”

Another avenue to stimulate collectors, she added, is to offer “paired sculptures,” such as Acebo’s lion and lioness.

Meisner also sees the possibility of sculpture being offered at more affordable prices-and at a higher profit for dealers. “Bronze and acrylic are still top of the line,” he said. “But there’s a process called bonded bronze that has a polyester base. Artists also have worked with faux-painted plaster.”

Meisner added, “Modern molding techniques have broadened the base of materials artists can use. It’s also easier for artists to bypass the use of a mould-maker, in some instances.”

Mack agreed that new materials, such as patina processes, are infusing new life into the sculpture market. As for his own work, he said he would rather drop the word “sculpture” from the phrase “relief sculpture” to describe his work. “I’m a third art form,” he said. “I work in two-and-ahalf dimensions.”

Gilles Heinrich of the Art Connection in Raleigh, N.C., has represented the work of French sculptors Georges Charpentier and Jean-Louis Toutain, for three years and said the technique, curve and lines of Charpentier’s polished bronze and Toutian’s bronze-and-fiber based sculpture are also quite popular.

As for Winn, he would like to see sculptural glass emerge as a media trend in sculpture. “It’s lower in cost to produce, but it commands the same price range as bronze or acrylic sculpture.”

The published art market has seen a re-emergence of still-lifes; the trend for the sculpture market seems to be in figurative sculpture or depictions of nature and animals–what some term as “romantic realism.” Meisner said that he has sold more figurative than abstract sculpture, a change that has occurred over the last 15 years.

Indeed, sculpture has been around for thousands of years, and the market most likely will continue to grow as first-time buyers seek to expand their collections, new materials and processes enliven the market and costs are kept affordable for a larger group of buyers. Still, the test of time remains on the side of quality artwork, which will endure during economic fluctuations, evolving technologies and changing trends. For Winn, this means sticking with the tried-and-true artists. “It’s important for gallery owners to focus on their existing artists instead of chasing the next thing. You want to build a repeat customer base. You don’t want to be the jack-of-all-trades, master at none.”

Said Meisner, “People want value. With sculpture, that means beautiful detail and excellent casting techniques. And the really wonderful thing is that customers really can see immediately the value a piece of sculpture has to offer.”

SCULPTURE RESOURCES

Art Connection (919) 855-1183

Danielle Anjou (808) 876-0902

Dickey Studio (813) 223-4556

Eichinger Studios (503) 223-0626

Erin Taylor Editions (952) 844-9999

Fingerhut Galleries (415) 258-8292

Gregory Editions 800-288-2724

H. Studio (818) 767-8448

Jason Art Studio (818) 765-2437

Kimmy Cantrell (404) 669-9899

Meisner Galleries (631) 249-0680

Masterpiece Publishing (949) 376-2645

Studio Fine Art (818) 430-6447

Tom Merrifield (44) 20-7431-0794

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