These days, not a week goes by that I don’t hear Peter Lik’s name. More often than not, I hear someone mention his name in one form or another while I’m exhibiting my work. If you’re a color landscape photographer who deals with the public, you may know what I’m talking about. The fact is, Peter Lik has become widely known from his many galleries and more recent television show. Up until now, every time I’ve heard his name over the past 7 years, I haven’t mentioned a thing about having known him, worked for him, and having a good understanding of his work, ethics, or general photographic gallery offerings. I have chosen to not be associated and to not give his name more weight by repeating it aloud. Well, it seems that much of the world now knows Peter Lik, and for good or bad, my time with the Peter Lik Galleries is part of my photographic journey…it’s part of my story. In an effort to be more open to my audience through this blog, I have decided it’s time I tell my Peter Lik story.
At the Beginning
As a dedicated young photographer some years ago, near the beginning of my photographic journey, I began to understand and explore the many possibilities and career paths that I could follow with the camera. I had been having small successes selling my own photography during weekend art fairs. Most of these photographs were of temples, landscapes or portraits from my trips to Southeast Asia. I had a good eye for this style of travel photography, and was having my first taste of talking-photography with the public and with representing and selling artwork.
Near that same time, a mostly-unknown photographer was opening the doors to a new gallery in town. Peter Lik, a photographer with a number of galleries in his home country Australia, had already made multiple attempts to gain success in the U.S. and had failed in both Monterey and San Francisco. Now I watched as he made another attempt in my hometown of Lahaina, Hawaii. Front Street Lahaina was in need of something new and different and the Lik gallery stood out right away. I was totally impressed by the gallery – the size and presentation of the individual pieces, the total gallery space, it was all fabulous and very inspiring to me at the time. Although I had considered following the avenue of “travel photographer”, the Lik gallery was inspiring and I was now considering a new path as a “landscape photographer”. As I began to explore the landscape more in depth in my own work, the decision became clear. My love of nature and the outdoors, of solitude, and of a desire to pave my own way and to eventually work for myself, became clear. I was to be an artist!
As a passionate photographer, it wasn’t long before I decided I wanted to work for the gallery. I wanted to learn the fine art gallery business, and I wanted to be around photography as much as I could. I made monthly visits into the Lik Gallery and spoke to various consultants and the gallery director – Jesse Donovan. I remember feeling I know more about photography than any of these guys working here, so was surprised to hear Donovan say that photographic experience didn’t necessarily matter much in selling the work, and he typically hired people that did not have photographic experience. Really!? I thought. (It wasn’t until later did I understand this reasoning more clearly.) I continued my visits and made it increasingly clear that I wanted to be a part of the gallery.
Nine months or more had passed. I continued working nights at a local restaurant while working hard to sell my own photography in local art fairs. One night while at the restaurant, Jesse came in and sat at the bar. I went over to say hey while adding in some comment about wanting to work for him, and finally my persistence had paid off – he was actually there to tell me that an opening had become available and if I were still interested, I should come in and talk with him further. A week later, I was employed by the Peter Lik Gallery and my professional art consultant career had begun.
Working for Peter Lik Gallery – Lahaina
It was a very exciting, and very interesting time to be working for the Lik Gallery. The gallery was essentially self-sufficient and was operated by director Donovan, an accountant/bookkeeper, and about six of us art consultants. When I started there, I think the gallery had been open about one year, and the sales graph was moving consistently upward. At that time, the sales were approximately 100k-160k a month.
Jesse worked with me and another new consultant quite a bit and began to teach us the sales strategy involved. I remember how awkward it felt initially to take a piece of art off-the-wall and into the viewing room to discuss with the prospective buyers. I certainly wasn’t born a salesman. In fact, I never much liked pushy sales people and the thought of being one was an early challenge to overcome. But as the weeks went by, this wonderful thing was happening – between the way Donovan was teaching and the passion I had for photography, I was discovering a way to sell without being one of those…salesmen. I was figuring out a way to be true, honest, direct and authentic with my prospective buyers, while lacing it all with genuine enthusiasm, and what do you know, I was starting to sell! And, starting to sell pretty well, I might add!
As a passionate photographer, I loved being in the gallery. I loved viewing the work, talking about the work with visitors, putting on the white gloves and pulling out the beautiful prints that were in stock. Before too long, I knew every shot that Lik had taken, the title of the piece, the location, and back-story and techniques involved in each shot. I could talk to the customers for hours, if need be.
One of the things that made this time so very interesting, is that it was in this period when Lik was changing all his limited edition prints from the traditional Ilfochrome prints hand-printed by a master printer in Australia, to Fuji Supergloss prints being printed by a machine. It was in this first year that I worked with the gallery, that I was able to see the entire collection in both Ilfochrome, and Supergloss! The difference was B I G. Some of the images that I thought were so beautiful turned garish. Two of the images I remember changing the most were Kapalua, and Serenity. Both were absolute stunners as Ilfochromes, and afterwards…not so much. Well, to be fair, not to my liking. It seemed I preferred the artistic decisions Lik made prior to switching to digital prints.
Another thing that made it such an exciting time is that we began to break new records for Lik. Within that first year I was at the gallery, we broke 200k in a month for the first time ever for a Lik Gallery, and then started doing so consistently. It was around this time, and directly from the success of these 200k months that we were achieving, that allowed for the next big step in Peter Lik’s career.
Working for Peter Lik Gallery – Las Vegas
Soon after the 200k months in Lahaina, Lik was able to negotiate his way into a space into the Forum Shops at Caesars in Las Vegas, a longtime goal of his. Rumors began in our gallery about Donovan, the-now International Gallery Director, and a couple others heading out to Vegas to help get the next chapter going.
A number of factors were at play for me, but I found myself wanting to be one of the staff that moved out to Vegas. I had been getting island fever on Maui, felt confident that the gallery would be a success in Vegas and felt that it would be a great learning opportunity. After discussing the possibilities in-depth with my wife, we decided it would be a good opportunity and we’d go for it. I approached Jesse with a desire to go and he welcomed me aboard.
A month later, we’re in Las Vegas with all of our possessions, a new apartment, a car, a new wardrobe, ready to go to work. There were four of us from the Lahaina gallery, plus a few others brought on from Lik’s earlier San Francisco gallery, and a couple other rogue consultants, in addition to Lik himself, who was leading the charge. A handful of us worked with Lik to help finish the gallery and the floors and ready everything for the Grand Opening.
Before we knew it, we were opening the doors to Las Vegas and a new chapter in Peter Lik’s career. Up until this point, breaking 200k in a month was a gallery record. Now, I was personally selling 100k a month! And so were others. I think this gallery was doing 700k+ those first months. It was nuts! As an art consultant, I’d go to work expecting to do 10k a day. I’d talk non-stop for my entire shift and be disgusted with my own voice by time I was off work. It was constant – one presentation after another for your entire shift. With the way money flows in Las Vegas and peoples impulsive behavior while visiting Sin City, it was an obvious recipe to success – not to mention the fact that the gallery and work was stunning and unlike anything most people had seen before. It was a huge hit.
Up until this point, Lik had given Donovan a lot of control as to how the galleries and sales strategies would be operated. Donovan had proven success and the sales strategy we used were ethical and fair to collectors, and producing for the galleries. Good for the clients, good for the owner, good for the staff. It was all good and it worked well. Lik’s prices were reasonably set and ranged from $800 to $4500. You could purchase a nice big beautiful framed 60″ print (1.5 meter) piece for above your sofa for around 2600 bucks. Fair enough.
While most of us were a good strong crew of genuine people who simply wanted to work hard and earn a good living, there were a couple that were simply jockeying for position and feeding the insatiable ego of the artist to get ahead. As the months went by, good staff began to fall victim to the moves played by others, including Donovan, and a more suspect type of person came into control. This began another very interesting time for the Lik Gallery.
Value of Art?
Once Donovan left and a…different type of person took over, a lot changed. The entire sales strategy shifted. Initially, sales dropped. In order to continue making deals happen and having good daily numbers, they started giving away the house. Buy one, get one free. Hell, buy one get two free! Whatever they could do to get the deal done. They didn’t know how to achieve the same success as before, so they improvised. By giving away all this work to get the deals done, it at first appeared to management that the numbers were good, but of course the numbers were all funky and the margins were out of whack. In order to compensate, drastic changes started happening. Staff received huge pay cuts for one. Obviously, this didn’t go over well. Pricing and limited edition changes to the artwork quickly came next. There was a significant price increase across the board to the artwork, and Artist Proofs were suddenly born (added to the regular editions) and priced very high – like $25+k. Before long, a number of things were being realized to these people – mostly regarding the cost to the customer and what they could get away with, and the entire dance became about value.
This focus on make-believe value was another interesting shift in Lik’s career. Soon enough, they realized that having the $25+k Artist Proofs (AP) helped sell the $3k and $4k pieces. Someone would fall in love with a piece that was being showed as an AP and be told is was $32,000! Their heart sank knowing they could not afford that, and then they’d offer you a “regular edition” piece for only $3700. What a bargain! You were sold.
My Time to Move On
Seven months seemed like 2 years. I had gone from being very dedicated to the gallery, to having trouble even talking with customers about the work. I had sold over $700k of Lik’s artwork in those seven months, but now couldn’t stomach it any further. Without notice, I quit the Lik Gallery.
What happened? Well, the shift I discuss above and the myriad of aftereffects from it were a big part of it. This whole shift toward selling the work on a false-value seemed like a load of shit, to put it simply. I always prided myself on being able to successfully sell while being honest and genuine to the collector, and suddenly I felt like I had to feed people a bunch of lies. I know the subject of art and value is a touchy and sensitive subject, and I know there’s plenty of foolish people that will pay a ridiculous amount of money for something solely because it’s priced at a ridiculous amount of money, but at the end of the day, I have to be able to make sense of it and explain it to myself in a sensible way. For me, it is important to believe in the product and to use my knowledge and enthusiasm to successfully sell it. When the knowledge and enthusiasm wasn’t enough to sell the now-high-priced work and the discussion with prospective buyers had to become about value, I was done…because I did not believe in the value of the product.*
Secondly, the new directors of the gallery were a big part of me leaving. I was not accustomed to working with, or amongst, these type of people. I remember feeling that my days had become a chess match and I had to be careful with how I played my moves. This isn’t the sort of living I like, nor the sort of people I like to share my bubble with. This was very clear to me.
Finally, Peter Lik. You might have noticed that I didn’t mention him much. That was no accident.
It’s so bizarre for me to look back on all this and realize that Peter Lik’s work had an influence early on my photographic journey. With that path becoming so objectionable, it’s not been something I’ve reveled in. Yet, this period of time did teach me a lot both professionally and personally. I learned the how-to’s and how-not-to’s to opening and running a gallery honorably, forming a sales strategy ethically, managing a staff respectably, among many other things. I suppose I would not have learned much of what I did if it had all been peaches. And, I suppose looking back on it all, I’m thankful it was a “landscape photographer” that came to town and influenced my path over another – my love and passion for my path, and my work, has been unscathed and burns bright. There isn’t a day that passes that I’m not terribly thankful to be doing what I am doing, to earn the collectors that I have, and to be doing it my way, as respectably as I can.
* Value for the product: I have no problem with artwork selling for high costs. In fact, I am very happy and excited to see that photography has finally been accepted into the art world and we now see photographs fetching high amounts of money. These are photographs proving to be very valuable. 2 of the 5 most expensive photographs ever sold were by Andreas Gursky, a living artist. Last year, his Rhein II photograph sold in auction at Christie’s for 4.3 million making it the most expensive photograph ever sold. It was an edition of 6. Gursky’s 99 Cent II Diptychon, a two-part photograph, fetched 3.34 million a couple years earlier in a Sotheby’s auction. It was an edition of 6. Cindy Sherman, a living artist, is also on the Top 5 Most Expensive List for her Untitled #96, which sold at auction at Christie’s for 3.89 million. It was an edition of 10. I could continue to list photographs of value and there are going to be a couple common threads throughout the list – have you noticed what they might be? They are sold in auction – not by the actual party. They are small editions. Scarcity fuels real value and the auction house brings a certain legitimacy to the sale.
(More thoughts added on this HERE)