JERRY GOROSKI is the consultant appraisar to whom I refer inquiries about Scriver bronzes. He is formally trained and certified to do assessments and knew Bob Scriver as well as working for the CM Russell Museum in Great Falls. His gallery is called "Open Range Art."


Friday, September 16, 2005

The Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel

The Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel was a phrase I just made up for purposes of kidding around, but now I find that it is -- and maybe always was -- a real phenomenon: a connected ring of artists, dealers, and curators who try to control the price and nature of Western art. I’m not surprised. People tell me that in Santa Fe they walk down the sidewalk almost crowded into the street by the plethora of eager cowboy art galleries, most of them crammed with work that looks pretty much alike. Art is like rodeo -- a way for a hopeful to try to make enough bucks to save the ranch. Hard to blame them for that.

The Cowboy Artists of America is definitely acting like a cartel. (Dictionary: “An association of businesses aiming at monopolistic control of the market.”) For two years they have been engaged in sniping at, a database website that lists American and some Canadian artists, supplying biographies, bibliographies, galleries, and so on. The registrar is a highly art-educated woman who works from a home office. Thousands of artists are listed, most of them historical. Also supplied are essays on important groups of artists, explaining who they were and why they mattered.

One of the most popular essays had been the one on the Cowboy Artists of America, originally an exuberant group of artist friends, inspired by helping on a ranch, that developed an association. The group was taken in hand by Dean Krakel, then creating the Cowboy Hall of Fame in Oklahoma City, and quickly became a spectacular success. The idea was that they would show all together at the Hall of Fame, attracting high class customers and patrons, then the Hall would award purchase prizes and thereby develop a fine collection while making the CAA artists famous and certified.

Bob Scriver was an early member as were Harry Jackson and Ned Jacob, but the latter two quickly pulled back out. The three had dominated the prizes. Jostling increased and CAA left the Hall. Krakel, always quick on his feet, organized the National Association of Western Artists, starting with all the CAA prize winners. (Not all the original CAA artists were that great as artists -- they were just great friends.)

What everyone who bought art wanted to know was which paintings and bronzes were good, in the sense of good investments? Many of the customers were capitalists -- that is, they managed large amounts of money, moving it around to places it would create profit. You can tell them to buy with their hearts all you want -- since their checkbooks are chained to their hearts for security purposes, they still want to know if the value will remain or increase so they can keep loving it.

The next step was the Great Falls Ad Club’s 1968 invention of the annual Charlie Russell Auction to benefit the CMR Museum. Aside from the benefit to the museum, the auction bloomed, then exploded into a major social event, a festival. Other auctions sprang up both in GF and in other cities.

After thirty-seven years enough of the original CAA artists and collectors had aged enough to die, giving rise to estate auctions. Now even the big auction houses like Christie’s were taking notice. Western art increased in value by leaps and bounds, because it was a portable form of storing wealth -- almost as good as gold or diamonds. No taxes, as required on real estate.

The second tier of CAA members had been east coast illustrators left adrift by the death of the magazine story-and-illustration combos that used to fill Redbook, Colliers, and the women’s magazines. These people were highly trained, disciplined, business-savvy but not cowboys, though some were Westerners. Moving to the SW, they built atmospheric studios and were soon busy looking leathery and grizzled.

Then there was a shifting third-tier of ambitious younger men. Not very worldly but VERY ambitious. Their fortunes went up and down, which was apparent to those who tracked auction prices. Bob Scriver despised auctions and did his best to hold his work out of them, knowing that they were sometimes highly manipulated. But the capitalist buyers used auction results like stock market indicators. supplied those auction results, along with images so a person could tell what sold. They are the same images that appear in online catalogues, since so many galleries and auctions have been putting the works online to attract email and telephone buyers who can’t get to the actual location. (One man told me his practice is to go to see the actual art ahead of time, but then always to bid from his car phone in the parking lot, so people can’t tell what he’s up to! He buys antique guns that way, too.)

In 2003 one of the third-tier artist’s wives -- perhaps prompted by slowing sales -- decided to attack the messenger: She felt her husband’s work was being erroneously reported and therefore damaging sales. She was asked to make the corrections, but refused, saying, “ You’re making money on reporting this stuff -- YOU find out what the right sales figures are!” So AskArt simply deleted the artist from the database.

Pretty soon that artist became the CAA president and attacked AskArt on behalf of the whole organization, claiming that there was something illegitimate about them posting an essay about CAA, though it was exactly the sort of thing one would find in an art magazine. (I downloaded it and have it around here. It was no different than the articles on California art or flag paintings or the “Trashcan school.”

CAA demanded that the photos of works be removed, as AskArt didn’t have permission to use them and the photos were copyrighted. They accused AskArt of “trademark infringement and unfair competition” and “infringing the copyrights of CAA’s members and CAA itself by providing high quality reproductions of its members’ works without permission.”

So AskArt took off the website all the CAA connected material: keywords, individual artists (unless deceased or requesting to be kept), images, and so on. There were about two dozen artists, a very small percentage of the total database. Though CAA fills the entire mental screen of the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel, the people back east still have only heard of Russell and Remington.

Other database websites that monitor auction results exist, but I haven’t looked at them. Frankly I never look at the auction results on AskArt either, not even for Bob Scriver. In Bob’s case, the bronzes that circulate constantly through the auction houses were commissioned by speculators who bought the right to reproduce and had huge editions (a hundred castings) made by small town ceramic shell casters with indifferent patinas. The prices of them are not going up, though they fluctuate a little.

Evidently the “masterpiece” bronzes (the big rodeo pieces, the major Blackfeet pieces like “Transition” or “No More Buffalo” that Bob cast in our own Bighorn Foundry) are not coming to the market, or if they are, they’re moving through galleries and individuals. There is another set of bronzes, mostly the religious pieces and other portraits Bob made for himself, that are one-of-a-kind and therefore priceless. They are at the Montana Historical Society. The several monuments, of course, stay where they are.

A high proportion of Bob’s work (a total of a thousand sculptures) was never cowboys or Indians, but wildlife. I’ve seen little of it go through the auctions. The funniest phenomenon has been the tourist trinkets Bob made when he was first starting out -- mass-produced plasters that originally sold for $4.95 -- that are now showing up on eBay for less than a hundred dollars. Some people are buying them, casting them in bronze, and thinking they have Scriver bronzes. It SAYS that right on them!

Art must be valued according to its quality, but if people are not educated to recognize quality and cannot be persuaded to buy art because they love it -- good or bad -- then they can expect disappointments. Repeating a formula over and over, depending on secrecy and bluff prices, and trying to threaten anyone who counsels the buying public are great ways to shoot oneself in the foot.

You’d think cowboy artists would know better.

No comments: