Wall St. And Business Wednesdays: Exclusive Q & A With Norman Parish, Owner, Parish Art Gallery Re: "The Business Of Art"

Norman Parish is one of the most respected and influential Black art gallery owners in the world. Yet, perhaps paradoxically, he and his fine art gallery represent an oasis of untapped wisdom and commercialized novelty of which the majority of Black Americans are totally unaware. Over the past twelve years his Parish Gallery in Washington, D.C. has featured the work of some of the most important and prolific artists to be found in Africa and the Diaspora. This was most recently made clear by the Parish Gallery's showcase of the paintings of the legendary Herbert Gentry, just weeks ago, and the ongoing display of the Nigerian watercolor master, Tayo Adenaike. That tradition will continue with an exhibition, beginning on September 12, 2003 featuring the work of the late-renown Romare Bearden, whose paintings reflect Caribbean and Black American culture. Steeped with over four decades of professional experience in the art industry, Norman Parish has consistently focused on the creative fine art produced by Blacks in Africa, the Western Hemisphere, and around the world. Professionally-trained as an artist, in Chicago, the New Orleans, Louisiana-born businessman has a unique perspective on both the creative and marketing side of artistry, in America, and around the world.

BlackElectorate.com Publisher, Cedric Muhammad, recently visited the Parish Galleryfor an exclusive conversation with its owner, to learn more about the elusive "business of art",its mechanics and nuances; and the unique evolution of the industry where Black Americans are concerned.


Cedric Muhammad: Mr. Parish, I would like to start with a basic question. What are the categories of art as you see them - the primary areas - and what area do you specialize in?

Norman Parish: Well you have commercial art - art done primarily for commercial purposes, that really does not have the long-term or lifetime value. And the other area would be fine art. With fine art, you have people that understand the value of the art and the background associated with it; these are people who are also very much in tune with the "business of art". And that term - the business of art - is a Eurocentric idea, in the sense that in Europe people actually assigned value to art, and a market was created for people to buy art. Now back on the commercial side - the business of it revolves around volume, where multiple duplicates are sold.

What I do at Parish Gallery are four things: First, there is painting. Second, is sculpture, which is probably not as popular. Third, is photography, which a lot of people don't understand or are not ready to grasp like they are with paintings. The fourth area is original print. This area is somewhat misunderstood because although it is an area of fine art, it is an area that is done through silkscreen, woodcuts, linoleum blocks, lithography - all of this is referred to as original prints. The fundamental principle of the gallery is that it is designed for artists from Africa and in the African Diaspora. That would mean that we focus on artists that are African descendants. A key to this collective process is that we are actually developing, in this area, the key elements of the "business of art". Those elements would be the curators, art historians, galleries, and museum contacts. These are the basic components necessary to make the fine art business what it is.

Cedric Muhammad: What is the state of these essential components among Blacks in America? Do we have them in ample supply?

Norman Parish: Yes, there are more than enough African people in art curatorial activities and historians. There is enough of that. And there are several that have come through the Parish Gallery that have worked as art historians and done quite well. They are in key positions out there. One in particular, is Jane Carpenter, an art historian in Johannesburg, South Africa, working with government art projects. That infiltration by Blacks is significant. See, you need a working system in this business. You have me, selling the art; you have artists making the art, and then you need other roles filled that result in the education of the public. That is a major concern - educating the public, letting them know what is happening and why they should be buying art. For example, people need to know why they should consider putting their money in art as opposed to the stock market. Aside from the obvious current volatility in the stock market, you know that the more one understands the art market the more likely they will be able to identify what class of investment art is and that when you purchase art it doesn't depreciate at all.

Cedric Muhammad: So, more narrowly, how does the art gallery business work?

Norman Parish: The very basic step to the process is the education of the public about the business of art. I go about that through direct mailing, getting newspaper articles published, and using the Internet. Then once a "buzz" is created and you are getting the word out about artists and people are able to identify them and their contributions, you are able to do business. And this all goes back to the artists and what market categories they are in. You have certain categories of art that are more sought after than others. And I would say this happens in 10-15 year cycles. For instance you have the WPA-era [U.S. Works Progress later (Work Projects) Administration] artists. The ones that are collecting art are looking for artists that appear in certain periods of time. The WPA is one such era and then after that you have the Harlem Renaissance era and demand for that body of work by different art collectors. We are really talking largely about a very young stage of art. In many cases we are talking only about art that has come about since the 1940s. You can see where it is still developing but these two eras have created the necessary commercial interest for people to feel comfortable investing in them.

Cedric Muhammad: Now, in terms of the marketplace, is there a typical art customer and what is your most profitable market segment? I mean, is this an industry where only 100,000 people are doing all of the buying or is it a situation where you have 1,000,000 people buying items at $5 a pop?

Norman Parish: No, for fine art it is even smaller. 99.9% of the people would only look at the commercial side of art rather than the fine art area. In the area that I specialize in -African/African Diaspora- I would say it is 0.5% who really understand it. And this is across the board - not just the Africans, or African-Americans but it is the Europeans as well. There is not really a broad acceptance of the African-American and African art category. It hasn't happen on a broad level yet. So, it is a small percentage and it really revolves around only 100 artists.

Cedric Muhammad: So the supply is small, that helps with...

Norman Parish: Yeah, well like I was saying, that is because the artists were taken from the WPA and all of a sudden we had categories of artists that were collectable. That generation filtered through the art market, at a time when Whites were able to do a lot more than Blacks in developing the art market in the United States. And there were only five or six artists that came through that era. But since then we have been able to develop more artists that are identifiable and whose work is considered valuable. Now, of course, in the more contemporary era there are more people but it is a new wave of art. But this commercial fine art era, right now is still developing. You will see that in the next 40 years, these artists will be developed, popular and accepted. It takes time.

Take Herbert Gentry for instance and the show we just did for him. He is 84-years old and has spent his whole life painting, but just within the last few years is he getting the real recognition for what he has done. And there is Romare Bearden at the National Gallery of Art and look at the years that he put in before he received recognition. He is one of the first African-Americans, they say, to get that type of attention. And then there is Jacob Lawrence who had produced a major work - the migration series - back in 1937; he is getting recognition now. He has a big name. He is collectible and cuts across both the WPA and Harlem renaissance eras. Those are the kind of people that are sought after now, and the more contemporary artists now, the ones I call the "career people"; they are the ones who will replace these great ones, whose work it has taken decades to become this popular.

Cedric Muhammad: Well you know I know the music business and I would like to take you through one of the more typical ways in which we take an artist from the early stage on up to the stage when product comes out; and ask you to compare that to what goes on in your industry - the fine art area.

Norman Parish: Ok.

Cedric Muhammad: Say I am a manager, I find a raw talent, I put together a body of their work and combine it with a bio and pictures. I take them to a record label where somebody likes them. Then a recording contract is signed. At that point the record label takes over, by creating an image, recording an album, marketing, promotion, everything - so it is a pretty standard process and then they put out a CD album that is priced in a rigid range. Then the artist will get a booking agent, who will get them live shows, from which they earn an income. And they keep doing albums, so there really is not that much in the way of derivative income for artists, although that is changing more and more, as the music industry continues to be in an upheaval. But the typical successful artist will have a manager, a lawyer, a business accountant, a booking agent and that is really it. What is the typical process for a fine artist?

Norman Parish: Well, it is basically similar but there are some grave differences [laughter from both Cedric Muhammad and Norman Parish]. For one thing, there is no lawyer involved. There is no real booking agent, either. Now, there are artists that will come to me and say that they have an agent. But that is not really necessary. The agents can't really make money on an artist that I am taking 100% of the risk on. Most artists don't have the money to promote their own art. In the music business, I do know, now, that there are artists that are able to invest in themselves and take care of the expenses of promoting and marketing themselves at an early stage. But the fine artist can't do that, and if they do do that, the irony of that is that they will not be considered a fine artist, within the community. See, they have to go through the established system that says 'you are an artist in the fine art area'.

But if an artist comes to me, of course he has the art, but I do recommend that the artist go to school and get a formal training. Once that happens they develop their own style and develop that uniqueness. Once that is obtained, the artist pretty much follows the path of the musician. Instead of a tape, they have slides, bio and a portfolio. They have to start building a history by associating themselves with art venues. But you have to build a name and a history and chronology of your work in order for me, as a gallery owner, to justify spending time with you.

Cedric Muhammad: So you are actually in the position of a record label and store, in how you handle the marketing and positioning of the product in a way that is accessible to the consumer.

Norman Parish: Sure, sure. And we know most of the people who are willing to buy. That is our network, so we know where the money can come from. But we don't know how to make those that come into the gallery walk out with a specific piece. We can't control that. They have to internalize that themselves, as customers.

Cedric Muhammad: Do the customers come with a predetermined disposition to buy a certain artist, or do they come because they like your gallery and trust your judgment?

Norman Parish: I think it is a combination of both things. They do like the fact that the gallery is in a certain physical location and there are people that trust the gallery's significance and reputation. That has been my experience in my 12 years in this, which is considered a long time, although I still consider myself to be an infant in this.

Cedric Muhammad: Let's take the categories and how artists are viewed.

Let's take fine art photography to start. I have heard people say, 'he's the best' or these are the top ten or twenty fine art photographers. Is there a definitive ranking system of artists or are these distinctions just more anecdotal than empirical in nature and indiscriminate, where people are just reflecting a personal preference in how they praise or criticize an artist?

Norman Parish: No, it is a very systematic process. It comes from the business of art. There are a lot of good artists out there, so I can't say that it is a case where every good artist or photographer is duly recognized. You could have good quality, work and art, but the thing that is going to make you different than the next guy is the promotion that is behind the artist. And keep in mind, now, that is not the artist's doing. A lot of artists can do things to promote themselves but you have to be made by the dealership in art. You just can't make yourself be at the top. You have to get their acceptance, the critics have to review your work and talk about you. You have to get that "buzz", as you and I discussed in music and art. That is the thing that will separate one from the other. Sure, it is about the ability to do beautiful work. But if you were to look at the names of those who are the top ten photographers - you are looking at probably 5 photographers in the group who have made some very important inroads into some business areas and support areas that have pushed them to the top.

Cedric Muhammad: So, like in college basketball - the NCAA - you have the top twenty basketball teams ranked. It is official but unofficial. It is experts saying these are the best teams and this is why.

Norman Parish: But the reason that they can make that specific judgment is because they have activities related to that which can be counted. You can't count the activity that creates the intrinsic value of art. There is no counting system for that...

Cedric Muhammad: But do the dealers have say, ten categories, and they rank different photographers in each one, like say 'originality' or others?

Norman Parish: Yes, they would do that, but it is part of an unspoken word...

Cedric Muhammad: Among themselves...

Norman Parish: Yes, because when these people look at art they already know what they are looking at.

Cedric Muhammad: Yes, because I am trying to isolate that. People say that Gordon Parks is the best photographer...

Norman Parish: Now, there again, you have to go back and look at his career. He was working for Life magazine years ago, which meant that he was in a position to do some real interesting things and catch great (subjects and moments). The ability was there, but then, there was that positioning of him in places where he was able to capture certain events at certain times. Sometimes, events of a lifetime. That is the thing that lifted his qualifications to the level where he is considered the artist that he is. He is creative, yes. But the truth of Gordon Parks is that he was doing so many things in the business that were publicly known, that the name got out there, in many cases, before even his photography did. I knew him from the Chicago South Side Community Art Center. And this was in the '70s. And this goes back to a point we were discussing earlier about the categories. The South Side Community Art Center was one of the art centers that was created in the 30s and 40s, with Eleanor Roosevelt, and she was even the person to dedicate it. And it was dedicated to the cause of improving the arts and other things. And that was part of the WPA days - with the work programs...

Cedric Muhammad: So, not to deviate off of Gordon Parks, but you are really saying that the Black artistic industry in America can owe a lot to the New Deal programs of the Roosevelt administration?

Norman Parish: Sure, yeah...

Cedric Muhammad: It wasn't a private market initially, but rather, is a private market that was created by the U.S. government?

Norman Parish: Yes. And it was done with the White artists as well, but they were already in the marketplace. For us, there was no other road to travel. The South Side Art Center had art fairs that were our only forum. Just think, what were these artists doing with all of this talent? It was idle because there was no real great appreciation or market. That is why Herbert Gentry had to go to Paris - that was the only place where he could be accepted as an artist and live a life as an artist and where his art could be promoted and sold. But the South Side Art Center gave African-Americans a place to create art, have a place to show the art, and then develop this whole little system and business because there was a board there that took on promotion responsibilities and developed the community. And I can remember as a boy, when I went there, Gordon Parks was one of the photographers that was coming through the system there. But Gordon Parks was lucky enough to get to New York and get a good job as a photographer for Life magazine. He was one of the few that got out.

Cedric Muhammad: This is interesting because essentially what you are saying is that, it is just like anything else. There are great basketball players, great rappers, and great singers, but unless there is some type of marketing arm, at some point, where some respected person is established and says 'I am going to give you an opportunity', it is very hard for the work on its own to be so good to knock you off of your feet. The work doesn't sell, it is the reputation and marketing of the artist.

Norman Parish: That's right. Exactly. And as I said, yes, it has got to be good work, there is no question about that! But there are a lot of good artists and there is a very thin margin between those that are able to be successful and picked. How does the saying go? Many are...

Cedric Muhammad: called, but few are chosen.

Norman Parish: Yeah (laughter). And that is how it works. And you never know. There were artists that I grew up with that I thought were good, but they never went anywhere with it.

Cedric Muhammad: Let me ask you this, because a lot of people make fun of your business. A person may look at a painting and say, 'well, that is just squiggly lines'. Is that just a misperception? Or is it because, a couple of powerful dealers, galleries or a handful of critics are able to push an artist that really is not that exceptional - in sculpture, photography, or painting?

Norman Parish: Well there is a good example of that. In New York, in the 1980s a lot of that stuff was being done. You had a situation where a person had a refrigerator and took the doors off of it, put it on display and called it "art". That is the thing that stopped the art endowments. And it got to the point where that eccentric, Eurocentric mind to do all types of crazy things...

Cedric Muhammad:...the abstract

Norman Parish: Yeah. So people can go two ways on that - they can say it is great or that it is ridiculous. It is the same thing that people can do with anything in life. They can take things negative and positive. So, it happens in art, there is no question about it. This is a lesson that I learned, when I was first going to the art fairs as a young man out of art school - you will get people who will look at you and your work - and of course they would see that you are a Black man and there were only 5 or 6 of us in the program - and they would be amazed that we were there; and then they look at the type of work you were doing. But it always struck me that I could have some people who would look at my work with amazement and others would be like, 'well what is this?'. But the one thing that I would do to deal with that - is that at the end of the day I would have to take a count of the reactions, and there would be like 50% who liked what I was doing and the other half that didn't like it. So, I was the carry-over voter! (laughter)

Cedric Muhammad: (laughter), so you made the majority.

Norman Parish: Yeah, and I got to know that that was how you had to look at your own art. You are going to get plenty of people that don't like your work, but that is not at all a condition for me to view my work. I try to explain that to a lot of these artists. First, you have to be faithful to yourself and truthful in what you are trying to do and if you can do that, nothing else matters. Critics are going to say things that are not kind and pleasant but that is what this whole thing is about.

Cedric Muhammad: You earlier listed the four areas that make up fine art - painting, sculpture, photography, and original prints - where is the money at in all of these areas, where Black art is concerned, and what are the trends?

Norman Parish: The money is in the painting. There is more money spent there than anywhere else and people understand how to buy it. And the trend is in what I discussed earlier. For those that understand, they buy collectible art - they buy the older artists. In fact I had one buyer tell me that he is only looking for artists that are going to be dead in five years. These are the principles used. And they all say that they are not collecting as an investment, but yet, they want art that they feel is on a good investment side. They all say, 'well I have to like it', which they do, but yet I notice how they think about it as an investment before they buy. They have to. In our Herb Gentry show, we had $14,000 paintings. And that is not money that the average art buyer is just going to dispose of. In fact, for many of them that is the price of a car. Then, after paintings, you get into original prints. Then the money is in sculpture, and the last area would be photography, because people still; have not gotten into understanding how the photographer has value in what he has done. And the technology now is coming so fast, and people are able to do so many things, that very few people understand what a good piece of photography is. Only because the technology has now given capability to the amateur and they can stand up and take a good shot...

Cedric Muhammad: So is the money there in a derivative area like greeting cards?

Norman Parish: There is always that. Any of these areas can be commercialized outside of a gallery and outside of fine art. All of these areas, and with original prints, you would have people buying reproductions...

Cedric Muhammad: and you still see people paying high dollar...

Norman Parish:...yeah, well, they are, not understanding what they are buying. Because the quality sometimes is not that good. But yes, there is money there in terms of volume, more volume. In sculpture they can get casts made and reproduce like 5,000. And those can be sold at $5 per, and the volume, again is where the money would be. And so, in photography, they are suffering because anyone can get a digital camera and get on their computer. I have even done it. I can get on my computer and I can make a print-out on a computer and it is a good quality print, for the sake of me having it and my own purposes...

Cedric Muhammad: Well, as I see this painting of Tupac on your wall (in the Parish Gallery), the thought came to me, as soon as you said that - as we are selling a Hip-Hop photobook that has pictures of Tupac all in it - is that it seems that it is the subject of the photographer that dictates demand in the fine art photography market.

Norman Parish: Absolutely. It is not the photography itself.

Cedric Muhammad: Yeah, so if I am somebody that has 200 photos of Tupac never seen before, it is his person (Tupac), as the subject of my photo, that drives the demand and price...

Norman Parish: Yeah, exactly. And if Tupac is hot and that is what people want then that is what the market demands. It has nothing to do with the quality of the photo. But, now, again, that is on the commercial side. Now, the only way that happens on the fine art side is when people know of an artist that is hot, and it is known that he is hot, then you can see a flurry of people that can, afford to get in that market and try to buy his stuff. That happens but not very often. The fine art end of making money is slow. It is a methodical thing. You make the name, build the work, it ages, and takes time. Then...

Cedric Muhammad: It sounds like wine (laughter)

Norman Parish: Yeah, that is exactly right - "it is not good until its time". Because a lot of guys have tried to rush it...

Cedric Muhammad:...you can't microwave the process...

Norman Parish: No. You can't do it. No way. In fact, I often tell a lot of artists to try and find something else to do with you life. Don't make your life effort revolve all around the money you are going to make in art. If you do you will miss a lot in life. I tell them to go and find other ways to get some money, do something else in life, keep working on your art and you will find yourself a lot happier. A lot of artists are thinking that way nowadays because they have gone to school and they are able to do a lot more things than just art. They become curators. They can work in museums. They can become information gatherers. They can teach. They can do so many things now because they have an understanding. But you have to do something in the process of building yourself as an artist. I do not know many artists that just live solely off of their art. There are some, of course, like Richard Hunt, who is a sculptor. He taught but did not have to because he was getting large sums of money based upon work that is commissioned. But when you come into an art gallery and want to place a sculpted piece it is difficult because there are not that many sculpture collectors. There are many art painting collectors, however.

Cedric Muhammad: So when you refer to commissioned pieces you are referring to somebody who will pay big dollars for someone to make a special piece?

Norman Parish: Yes.

Cedric Muhammad: So, let me run this down in the area of fine art photography. The photographers are everywhere, but their market value is determined by their subject matter and the ability to build their name up over time; the sculptors are a smaller market but they can be paid by a government or a wealthy client or corporation to do a special work? Paintings are the most in demand, with a good supply of collectors. And with the original prints, you can make a lot with one hit but there is no room in fine art for the duplicates of 'original prints'.

Norman Parish: Yes. There is some volume with a print, but it is not like the reproduction...

Cedric Muhammad: ...yeah, because like with an oil painting...

Norman Parish: ...it is only one.

Cedric Muhammad: yeah.

Norman Parish: But that is what the commercial side does. They will get that painting and make reproductions and if they can sell 5,000 of them at $50 a painting, then you can see where they can make the money.

Cedric Muhammad: You and I spoke earlier about your fine art customers. And this is interesting. An economic recession generally speaking has no effect on the fine art customer. Why is that?

Norman Parish: Well, usually the people that buy fine art tend to have their money placed. They are cautious in a recession but they will not stop buying. In fact, there are even people who will attempt to get better deals during the recession. And what you find is that these clients are buying more based on time than anything else. If there is a timeliness to a certain category or piece, they will buy it - whether there is a recession or not. Just like the people who are smart in the stock market. They wait and they will actually buy when the time is right, and that happens quite often in a recession.

Cedric Muhammad: Yes, they are the value investors...

Norman Parish: Yes.

Cedric Muhammad: Lastly, Mr. Parish, how do you grow this Black segment of the art market, in terms of demand? Is there an untapped segment there with 1 million Black people out there, who you think, that if they just knew about fine art, and had the disposable income, they would buy it? Or do you think that the market has matured sufficiently?

Norman Parish: No, I think it is growing and that is mainly because it is an untapped market. And in our segment it has just been untouched. As more education takes place, it will happen. Because as I have said, we have all of the components that we need to make this industry - we have the administrative people, the sales people, all of the things that are related to business. And that is one of the main things that we have needed to make this work. Like in Hip-Hop, it did not just pop up overnight as an industry, you had people over time develop as business professionals in it. So the industry is there and the rap artist only has to create and make that music. So fine art is now getting to that same stage, where you have people who have the tools and able to work a system. And as far as the Africans and African-Americans that are in it now, it is a global market that has not been tapped. So now the opportunities are there and it is a whole different game than it was for much of last century.

Cedric Muhammad: Thank You Mr. Parish.

Norman Parish: Thank You, very much.

Wednesday, July 23, 2003