January 5, 2008
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST IN A PROFESSION OF DREAMERS
By Bob Chuvala for the Fairfield County Business Weekly
Remember this name: Sandy Garnett. And remember his long-term goal: To have his art displayed in prestigious museums around the world.
That goal isn’t some delusion brought on by the hunger pangs of a starving young artist. His work already hangs in a variety of museums and public, corporate and private collections. And since he began selling his numbered work when he was a junior in college 16 years ago – he’s just signed painting number 895 – he has broken the $1.5 million career art sales mark, a sum many artists only dream about making over the course of their careers.
But its not just what The New York Times has called his “cutting-edge art” that is helping Garnett earn a comfortable living out of his South Norwalk and Manhattan studios. It’s his almost uncanny early vision of artist-as-businessman. “Very early on, I realized that in order to survive, I would have to achieve fluency in a number of ways of seeing and making art, and that I would need to create a structure that would be sound from a business perspective,” Garnett said.
When he was 21 in 1991, his godfather – a Greenwich lawyer – formed an S corporation for Garnett the young artist called Graphics 2000 Inc., “which at the time I thought was a forward-looking concept,” he said. “But that’s in the past now, of course,” he said of the 2000 part. “It should have been Graphics 2100.”
In any event, he downplays his corporate name “because people have only so much room in their minds about what I do,” he said. “I’m just myself now. I do business as Sandy Garnett Studio.”
The idea of marrying art and business began jelling when he was in high school and he began designing and selling Grateful Dead T-shirts and posters. He was 16 at the time, “and my friends and I would sell the T-shirts and posters in the parking lot at Grateful Dead concerts.” The shirt and poster sales would pay for tickets to the concerts and travel money to get there, he said.
“I realized the Grateful Dead was too big for me, so I started making art for local acts,” creating T-shirts and posters for garage bands. He carried that fledgling business to college with him, creating posters, backstage passes, fan mailers and graphic designs and illustrations for regional rock ’n’ roll bands traveling the college circuit with names like Blues Traveler, Widespread Panic and Fish. “I got my first CD cover illustration while I was in college,” he said of his artwork for the band, Savory Truffle. Remember them?
Professional, Diligent and Organized
Garnett was seeing more than just creating T-shirts and CD covers for the bands. “I was intrigued by the collaborative and creative systems that musicians managed in order to make a living” – hammering together their creativity in hard rock with some hard-headed business fundamentals. “I liked the idea of tapping into this collaborative-creative world,” which he first began to understand when he was in high school. “I realized little bands had little systems, and that the larger the band, the larger the system” to make it run as a business, he said.
“In order to make art for the larger bands, I needed to be professional, diligent and organized. I needed to have contact information and I needed to be competitive because there were people and talented artists flocked around the bands. I had to set myself apart, and I did because I was always professional. A lot of artists aren’t.”
And while Garnett was doing pretty well with his graphic art for rock bands, “my ultimate goal was fine art painting and sculpture,” he said. “I found it was much more alluring than commercial art or graphic design, so I realized I needed a plan to get there.”
For starters, he had business cards printed up when he was 20. “I think it may have had something to do with the business-minded nature of a lot of people in my family and community,” he said of his hometown, Darien. “There were no professional artists in my family, so I qualified my art pursuits with a business card. In my community, people understood a business card.” People also understood business formation, so when he was talking with his godfather lawyer about being an artist, “he suggested I form a corporation because I was concerned about setting up a business.”
Once that was in place, Garnett could concentrate on his goal of being a lasting voice in fine art. “The apex of my business is that you see the work hanging in museums,” he said. “Very quickly I set my sights on making a contribution to contemporary fine art.”
Making Relevant Statements
Garnett graduated from Darien High School in 1988 and from St. Lawrence University in upstate New York in 1992 with a double major in English writing and fine arts. After college “I rented my parents’ garage for a year and a half,” he said. “I had one electric baseboard heater and spent a lot of time painting with my gloves on.” His first solo show of 25 of what he called neo-pop paintings was at the Palace Theater in Stamford in 1994. “I sold three or four at the show, which was unexpected and significant,” he said. Especially significant was that two of the paintings were purchased by Donald Kendall, retired CEO of PepsiCo, who was responsible for the famous Kendall Sculpture Garden at PepsiCo’s headquarters in Purchase, N.Y.
“That was a coup for me, and it afforded me my first art studio, where I worked and lived, illegally, on and off for ten years in Stamford,” he said. Today he’s living legally and working in a South Norwalk live/loft studio. He also has his primary work space in the same building. “I do detail work upstairs and make the mess downstairs,” he said. A few years ago he began sharing a studio in Manhattan “to meet with collectors in the city.”
Garnett said he is working on four distinct bodies of work concurrently – contemporary portraiture he calls the Fingerprint Project, “an exploration of identity in a contemporary way; a decade-long series of nudes; a series of 190 paintings he calls the Reconstruction Series, “working on reconstructing the figure” after a century of deconstruction by the art world; and traditional portraiture – which is about 10 percent of his annual creative output but 20 percent of his annual income. Another 25 percent of his income comes from fine art commissions, “and the balance would be collectors coming in and buying my work.”
“I realized early on that I would need to reach a particular collector who responds emotionally to a work,” Garnett said. Today he has about 500 such collectors, and “the dialogue I have with them is very intellectually intimate,” he said. “They’re very important and sustaining, not only by supporting my vision financially, but intellectually as well.”
“I think I’m making some relevant contemporary fine art statements, and I would like to expand my horizons in term of larger projects,” he said. And, “I’d like to achieve some boarder institutional and curatorial interest.” But to do that, Garnett will need some help. “I’ve had interns the last two summers because there’s so much around setting the stage for creativity. In a 60-hour week, I might be on the easel 20 or 30 hours. The rest of the time is preparation, sales, running a business. I’ve always got numerous projects I would like to pursue and often times it’s just about manpower.” he said.
“I’ve got a list of things I could be doing for years and, if I had the support, I’d like to expand this little heartbeat I’ve built on my own. My goal from the beginning was to make art for a living, and to a certain extent, I’m living in the dream I had a long time ago.”