Helping clients find right art for their walls

October 14, 1990|By Jean Thompson | Jean Thompson,SUN STAFF

Buying an art work to cover the empty wall over the mantel is no easy task. It's not enough to know what you like. Knowing where to find good-quality, affordable and original paintings, sculpture and photographs is the challenge.

"There are literally hundreds of artists; there are only a handful of galleries," says James E. Dockery, 53, a drama professor turned art consultant. He's added to the Baltimore art marketplace a service that will be unconventional in its method of linking Maryland artists with interior designers and homeowners. Artshowcase, located at the Baltimore Design Center on Howard Street, is designed to marry traditional gallery marketing with the conveniences of one-stop shopping and computer technology.

Customers aren't limited to the watercolors and oils that will hang on the walls throughout the design center and in his office. They may make use of his "library" of color slides of up to 1,000 works by Maryland artists. The slides will be cross-referenced on computer by subject, main color, style and price range. If his concept succeeds, an art lover will peek into artists' studios statewide without leaving Mr. Dockery's office.

His system is designed to work this way:

The shopper, with or without an interior designer in tow, sits with Mr. Dockery for a brief consultation. He'll ask the client's interests and preferences: abstract or realistic, photo or sculpture, acrylic or oils. He'll ask where the work will be displayed - over a mantel, in a hall or bedroom. He'll want to know the room's dominant color or motif. And he'll inquire about size limitations and budget.

Then he'll search his computer data base for art that fits the client's needs. He'll pull the corresponding slides from his files and project them onto a screen in a private showing, he says. And if a piece meets the customer's approval, he'll arrange with the artist for delivery to the center, where the buyer can examine it before committing to a purchase.

This arrangement recalls the sales methods common in other interior decorating services: Customers routinely review libraries of paint chips and fabric and wallpaper books before selecting designs for the house. But the concept isn't typical for an art gallery. He says no other commercial resource like his slide collection exists in Maryland.

There are, however, governmental and non-profit slide registries.

The Maryland Arts Council maintains a slide bank of works by and resumes of more than 1,000 Maryland artists. Curators, art consultants and the public may peruse the slides and contact the artists to commission or purchase works, says Carol Fox King, public information officer. The state agency doesn't get involved in sales.

Although the artists are encouraged to keep slides up to date, there's no guarantee a specific work seen in the Council's registry will be available for sale, she adds. Mr. Dockery, on the other hand, plans to have contracts with the artists so that pieces viewed by clients can be purchased. She says she doesn't consider his venture competition.

In Baltimore at Maryland Art Place Inc., a nonprofit artists' organization with a slide registry of more than 1,000 artists from the region, the response was similar. "The more opportunities for artists to place their work, the better for everyone," says director Susan Badder. "He's going to make a concerted effort to connect decorators and interior designers with specific artists and match them up."

Meanwhile, some commercial gallery owners in Baltimore are watching the venture with mixed curiosity and skepticism. A few, who asked not to be quoted, said he'll be a competitor with an advantage in that he's more like a broker or artists' agent than a gallery owner. With slides, he potentially can represent more art than some galleries could display; they're concerned that some customers might use his business to skip the step of visiting shows.

A few added that he's taking a risk. His concept will fly or crash depending on his skill at satisfying both the artists and the customers, two very different groups.

Mr. Dockery believes it will work. He says his venture grew out of his gallery experiences. He currently curates shows at the Katzenstein gallery on Pratt Street at the Inner Harbor, and has mounted dozens of exhibits around town during the last 10 years.

He says he's watched shoppers appreciate an artwork, but leave empty-handed. They tell him, "I like this, but everything else in my living room is blue," or "What I really need is something that's 2 feet by 2 feet." Mr. Dockery says these shoppers make up a neglected market for original artwork.

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