The Artful Collector: Are Conventions a Good Place to Buy Art? (Part 1)

Well . . . .Once upon a time, and by that, I mean Art Collecting BDE (before the digital era) local, regional and “world” SF/F conventions were not just good places to find great SF/F art – they were just about the ONLY place to find it.  Now . . . not so much.  How did that happen?  And what are our prospects of finding great art there, today?  To answer that question, I think a bit of strolling down memory lane would be helpful.

Speaking as someone who has bought some of that art over the past 40 years (and like to think, sold some of it, too :)) I know, times have changed, and art shows at SF genre conventions have had to change with those times. Cons still seem able to attract attendees in numbers sufficient to justify their existence, but the art shows – especially at the “literary” focused World conventions (SF, Fantasy, Horror) – aren’t the same as they used to be. Speaking as a dealer, and collector who is always spending a substantial part of any convention in the art show, they seem less and less a viable source for acquiring substantive art . . . and certainly are not a good place for discovering new talent . . . or are they??   And the same can be said for San Diego Comic Con – or other comic, media or game-based cons, where the focus, for attending fans, is NOT on art, and the price of admission for artists (booth or alley) is stiff, and the competition is keen.

Once upon a time, SF/F conventions were the only public venue available for artists aspiring to work in the field to display and (potentially) sell their original illustrative works.   That was a lousy situation for artists, but it also made conventions  – especially the larger ones, and the World Cons – a marvelous place for seeing and buying the best in contemporary fantastic art.   Today, artists have many more options for selling their art.   Has this affected convention art shows?  You bet. But in what way?

Until the mid 1970s, when conventions became popular, the importance of art to the marketing of science fiction was known – but the art itself was not readily “accessible.” Sure, you could buy the art directly from the artists – if you could find them.  We found them only by writing the publishers, and having them pass on our letters of inquiry to the artists (maybe).   Sure, you could buy occasional pieces from book dealers – if they had the connections.  Gerry de la Ree (book row 4th Ave, NY, then Saddle River, NJ) was one of them.  Through Gerry you could get CA Smith doodles for $25 each; Finlay B/Ws for a song; the occasional Bok, Bergey, or Fabian or any other artist he happened to like.

Erle Bergey "Princess of Pakmani"
Our very first oil painting, acqured from Gerry de la Ree early 70s.
Earle Bergey’s “Priestess of Pakmari” Thrilling Wonder Cover, Summer 1944

But you’d have to show up, get Gerry’s attention, and be deserving of such ownership.    Really.  Deserving.  [that could be a great topic for another post –eh?]
Then came the rise of genre conventions.   Although that didn’t mean art was routinely sold in those venues.  Mainly because artists were unaware that that such art could have value beyond the rights purchased by publishers.   So, the majority of them stayed home.  And even many of those who tried cons….would opt-out after the experience.  Conventions are not for everyone.   Even for fans!

But conventions were a break-through for many others…..because the art shows provided freelance illustrators with a relatively cheap way to attract the attention of art directors, editors, and publishers who could hire them for literary/print assignments.  Relatively, because most of the first art shows were located in the Northeast, and thus favored those artists living near literary publishing centers…whence the term “Connecticut Ghetto” for artists living within 3 hours of Manhattan (even if they lived up in Woodstock/Red Hook, long known as an artist mecca).  I confess, I’m more familiar with East Coast cons, but I’m sure local and regional conventions everywhere provided the same incentives for artists to attend, and show their art.

As a result of conventions, however, many of the artists who were (or wanted to be) successful in the genre gravitated to this (at the time) “only show in town.”  Especially during what I call the “New Golden Age” of  SF/F illustration art, the 1980s,  they were showing off their newest commercial assignments, or best portfolio works, at conventions like Boskone (MA), LunaCon (NY), Philcon (PA).  Even Southern and not-so Southern cons like Balticon (MD), LibertyCon and Chattacon (TN) attracted artists.  Out west, there were cons like WesterCon, NorwesCon, BayCon, LosCon and many others – for Gamers, there was GenCon and Origins (and, later, DragonCon) Indeed, cons were the glue that bound fans together.  Every weekend, somewhere in the country, there would be a convention you could go to and if you attended the same cons regularly, you’d see the same folks, and artists.  And where you found the best artists, you soon found the most enthusiastic collectors.

We started collecting in the 70s, and it was a great time to be buying at conventions.  SMOFs hadn’t overtaken the running of cons, and art shows were still in their infancy.  As a result, artists weren’t confined to showing only their own work. . . . which is how we ended up buying this Hannes Bok “Loss of Gravity” in 1975, at the Playboy convention in Great Gorge NJ – which we learned came from the collection of Jack Gaughan.

Hannes Bok
Hannes Bok “Loss of Gravity” Marvel Science Fiction Magazine cover, Nov. 1951

I’m not going to tell you what we paid for it, because it would only sicken collectors reading this blog.  But I can disclose what I paid for  Michael Whelan’s “Werewolf” at a Boskone convention 1978, which we purchased when he was still showing his work as an amateur.  $45.00.

Michael Whelan "Werewolf"
Michael Whelan “Werewolf”

By 1980 we owned 29 original artworks.  And we looked forward to cons all through the 80s and 90s as a source for buying original art.  It wasn’t until the late 1980s that I realized how surprisingly successful these conventions also had been in retarding the growth of the field.  And that, along with major social changes like the digital revolution, have contributed to the uncertain status of art shows today, in terms of attracting professional artists, and collectors.

See Part 2 for a continuation of this discussion . . . how – through time – convention art shows became less important, or even relevant, sources for art, and how this trend is being reversed, today.

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