How to Succeed as an Artist Without Relying on ‘The Art World’
At Miami’s NADA art fair, which closed on Dec. 10, the booths are small and the aisles narrow, which means galleries do their utmost to set themselves apart.
So it was unusual to see paintings by the same artist—John McAllister, a Louisiana-born, Massachusetts-based artist—hung in two separate booths. One, on display at the Shane Campbell Gallery, was on sale for $30,000 and sold in the first two hours of the fair’s opening.
The second, which was 14 feet wide, was at the booth of James Fuentes Gallery, and by the end of the fair sold for $70,000 to a trustee of the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh.
Most of McAllister’s art doesn’t end up at fairs—but recently you could find it at solo exhibitions in six galleries on two continents: Almine Rech in Brussels, Wentrup in Berlin, Carl Freedman in London, Shane Campbell in Chicago, Richard Telles in Los Angeles, and James Fuentes, who was McAllister’s first dealer, in New York. “I fell in love with the work,” says Fuentes. “Its scale, its luminosity at the time, really grabbed me.”
Beyond dealer representation, McAllister has a devoted group of collectors. In 2009, at a solo show in his Lower East Side gallery, “a couple of key figures came to his opening and got turned on to the work,” says Fuentes. “There were like five people in the room, but among them were [Bed Bath & Beyond Inc. co- founder] Marty Eisenberg, [contemporary artist] Mary Heilmann, [poet and writer] Max Blagg, and [critic and curator] Matthew Higgs.”
Other collectors of McAllister’s work include the German aristocrat Gloria von Thurn und Taxis and the Puerto Rican art collector César Reyes.
As opposed to most artists in a similarly anointed position, though, McAllister has garnered all of this goodwill without significant institutional support. Aside from the Rubell Collection in Miami and the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, McAllister has been left out of museums’ permanent collections and—with the exception of a few group shows—has largely existed outside of the world of curators and foundations.
McAllister is therefore an extraordinary anomaly in today’s art market, flying in the face of the conventional wisdom that says emerging artists need the so-called establishment imprimatur to survive.
“He hasn’t necessarily gotten the museum support yet, but I think that will come in time,” says Robert Diament, a director at Carl Freedman Gallery. “But it’s an unusual case, definitely. He’s got representation in Brussels, London, it’s unbelievable really, he’s all over the world.” If and when that institutional support comes, his loyal collectors could see an extreme boost in the value of their holdings.
McAllister isn’t exactly an outsider. Born in Louisiana in 1973, he got his MFA at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., in 2007, studying under the superstar artist Mike Kelly, alongside future art-world darlings including Sterling Ruby and Aaron Curry.
But while those artists were all making, to varying degrees, what could be considered conceptual art, McAllister was making paintings. Pretty paintings.
“Just the optimism of the work, in light of the deeply ironic art that was coming out at the time,” says Fuentes. “It made a lot of the other stuff, even work I love, just feel so heavy.”
Initially, McAllister painted wildfires (an unpleasantly precocious, if currently topical subject matter) and made work on a massive scale. After discovering that his art was both prohibitively expensive both to ship and to sell, McAllister scaled down his paintings— which in 2008 were selling for about $7,000— and made smaller, more salable works, turning his attention to landscapes and paintings within paintings.
McAllister met Fuentes shortly after graduating and began to show with him in 2008. After a sold-out show at Fuentes’s gallery in 2009, where paintings were priced at $2,500, McAllister was the subject of a flurry of press and enthusiasm. “We sent out an email with an image [of McAllister’s paintings], and it was the first time since I opened the gallery where the phone was ringing off the hook,” says Fuentes. “We placed every work before the opening of the show.”
Other Galleries Catch On
Soon after, other galleries began to approach Fuentes about representing McAllister in other regions. In 2013, McAllister had solo shows at the Richard Telles gallery in Los Angeles, the Carl Freedman Gallery in London, and the Shane Campbell Gallery in Chicago. “The first show we did was really great,” says Diament, of the London gallery. “We had six small canvases, and they sold out immediately. It wasn’t because he had a big name, it was because people connected with the work.”
The next year he had another solo show in London and one in New York; in 2015 he had yet another solo show in New York and branched out to Hagiwara Projects, a gallery in Tokyo. In 2016 he had solo shows in Brussels and Berlin, while this year he had yet another show in London.
Supply and Demand
Despite all that, there isn’t the typical market frenzy surrounding McAllister’s work that would lead most collectors to fear they’re buying into a bubble.
His art sells for about $20,000 for a small painting, $30,000 for a midsize work, and $70,000 for a massive piece. Despite the sold-out shows of yore, his art has never once sold at auction, and his collectors rarely ask Fuentes to resell their works. “All the resales, for the most part, have come back to me,” Fuentes says. “And we’ve done a total of 10 or so over the last 10 years. People aren’t really letting them go.” Currently, he says, there are works available for purchase, which means supply is meeting though not eclipsing demand.
“We don’t want to push his prices to a crazy place,” he says. “Once you inch past $75,000 and get to $100,000, it seems like it’s pushing it.
“I would say maybe once an institutional response comes around,” Fuentes continues, “then maybe such a price would be warranted.”