For Some Artists, Marketing Limited Edition Giclees Makes Dollars and Sense

The one thing I am not is the Pope of Prints, which means I am far from infallible when it comes to my opinions. While I make my case for open editions, I also realize there are many who still use limited editions as a viable way of getting to market and making a living at it too.
In the art business, when it comes to the subject of limited edition giclée prints, there are those who feel as strongly about using them as I do about not. While I remain opposed to the practice for most artists, I fully understand the argument for using limited edition prints from those who rely on them to complete their business.

I do not wish for my opinions on not limiting giclee prints to stand in the way of anyone who is being successful, or to deter them from doing those things that help them get to market. Rather, I applaud those who make it work. Certainly, history shows there are innumerable successful visual artists who exclusively market their work using limited editions. Still, I believe there is a better way today.

A year ago, I wrote a post titled Five Opposing Thoughts on an Art Career. and used a famous quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald to illuminate it. I find the same quote apropos to today’s post. And, once again, with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald, I offer you this thought:

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless yet be determined to make them otherwise.
~ F. Scott Fitzgerald

To be clear, while I have not softened my stance on using marketing giclees, or digital fine art reproductions, as open editions, I merely welcome other voices. To that end, I have summarized a thoughtful insightful retort regarding my posts on this subject and present it to you here.

The reply comes from one of the industry’s most well regarded giclee printers, Gary T. Kerr of Fine Art Impressions LLC in Davidson, North Carolina. Let me know if you have your own opinions to add to this lively conversation.

Hi Barney,

I am always in alignment with you on your writings, but this one I would like to influence you on as follows:

We have a case study where one of my artists sold a giclee for $33,000. It has a 10 page contract stating how the buyer can hang the piece and that they have licensed only one hanging position and that the other 3 ways it can hang are considered derivative uses and not allowed. The artist attends the installation of these diptychs which are 10 x 16 feet. Now comes the edition issue… these prints are editions of 13. Question, do you think the buyer would write the check for $33,000 in these were “open” editions?

Galleries drive the decision to use limited edition giclees

The facts are it is galleries that have pushed us toward limited, not our artists. The galleries want “exclusivity.” I agree it is a coercion of value. But in this world of marketing, they (galleries) need some sales pitch for the floor, limited editions have given them that hook (albeit a weak hook today).

Regarding later made prints being better… Not necessarily so, not in the vast majority of cases. This is due to the fact that the quality of a reproduction stems from the capture process not the quality of wide format printer technology. Files coming out of our studio can be printed on a $99 inkjet from Officemax and blow away many marketplace prints. That’s because our capture process is second to none — I’ve got the magazine articles and white papers to prove that (but I’m sure you already know).

The pace of progress on improvements in digital fine art printing has slowed

I also think we are seeing the end of era with pushing printer improvements. Getting more ink channels, DPI, and color gamut is not happening at the pace of 5 years ago. Although improvements will be made, it will be at a far more gradual pace and meaningless when it comes to improving quality greatly. The quality of my prints has barely changed in 10 years! And we have been through every generation of printer technology here. Why? Because the capture determines 90% of the quality, not the printer make and model.

And if you have all the latest gear and the artist doesn’t like what they see, who cares how good the printer technology is! The music is in the pianist, not the piano. I have the same set of golf clubs as Tiger Woods, how come I’m not in the PGA?

Again, I always find your articles and blog amazingly accurate and informative, but my response today should provide some nuance that only the guy doing it for a living may see — hope you can reasonably parse my view.

My reply went like this:

Hi Gary,

Thank you for your informative reply. In my estimation, by virtue of your stellar reputation, you are one of the premier master giclée printmakers in the industry. As such, your thoughts carry great weight with me.

I am not the Pope of Prints

The one thing I am not is the Pope of Prints, which means I am far from infallible when it comes to my opinions. While I make my case for open editions, I also realize there are many who still use limited editions as a viable way of getting to market and making a living at it too.

As is the case in the art business, there is no one size fits all formula for making a booming career. In the many years I worked for Decor magazine, I marveled at how top selling artists could approach their marketing in vastly different ways and still manage to be successful.

Of course, I realize the collector who bought a $33,000 limited edition giclée would not have ponied up such a princely sum for an open edition. One can only imagine if the print sells for that price that the artist’s originals are well in six figures. These price points make the exception, not the norm. I would not expect any artist who commands such prices taking much interest or heed in my advice or opinions. It is emerging and mid-career artists who are most likely to benefit by following my advice. If an artist is already established, they most likely have their very strong opinions about open vs. limited editions.

Championing Unlimited Editions Is Foremost a Financial Decision

To my way of thinking, most artists will make more money from prints in the course of their career if they offer them in open editions. That is the rationale for my pressing the case of open edition prints. I want artists to be more successful and make more money. If they can be more profitable in the long run by selling more open than limited edition prints, then printers, reps and galleries also will benefit in the success.

There are those rare artists, such as with Terry Redlin, who are able to print open, limited, and mega-editions and make it all work. But, like your artist mentioned above, Terry Redlin is beyond the pale for most artists who might try to approximate the success he has enjoyed. He was there at a time when limited editions on paper were sold in the thousands upon thousands.

A New Era Calls for New Ways to Do Business

Terry Redlin’s heyday of selling 10,000+ editions is a bygone era. Today, we are dealing with a new paradigm and new market realities. The trade publications and shows are on life support. Galleries are struggling to meet the new challenges coming at them from all sides, and artists are trying to figure out what they need to reliably get their work to market and keep their sales repetitive in the process. If there ever was a time to shake up the status quo, it would be now.

With your permission, I would like to publish your email as a guest post on my blog to make your case. I always will welcome a differing perspective on important issues and think it would be healthy if others chimed in as well.

Getting more voices in the conversation can only enrich the process and make everyone think a little harder about how to utilize this wonderful print-on-demand technology to advance the careers of visual artists. Not just at the cash register, but with respect towards how they and their legacy will be perceived by their actions and decisions to employ fine art reproductions in their business.

Related posts:

Milton Glaser Post Goes Viral – A Lesson for Not Limiting Giclees

The Case for Open Edition Digital Prints – Part Two

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