Wandering around the Brewery Art Colony in Los Angeles with Len Mlodinow, we met Bruce Gray, a sculptor who works there. I was amazed how much the Web helps him sell his work. Later I interviewed him about it.
ROBERTS What were you doing before you were a sculptor?
GRAY I was living in Boston and I was working in advertising as a graphic designer and I also worked as a photographer.
ROBERTS When did you make the transition?
GRAY January 1989. I moved out to Los Angeles and I pretty much jumped right in with both feet. I got a studio and just started making stuff. It just took off from there.
ROBERTS What gave you the confidence to do that?
GRAY Probably lack of planning and thinking things out. I donâ€™t know if it was actually the smartest move to try to do something like that. Itâ€™s certainly been a bit of a struggle. But itâ€™s the kind of thing that when you have a dream of something that you want to do bad enough, you just have to make it happen. Â I think thatâ€™s kind of half the battle and there was nothing that I wanted more than to try to be able to make my own art creations and make a living off that.
ROBERTS Had you gone to art school?
GRAY I went to school for design and photography and of course I took all kinds of art classes as well–design and illustration and sculpture, photography.
ROBERTS Where did you go to art school?
GRAY University of Massachusetts.
ROBERTS When you were doing the photography and graphic design, you took other peopleâ€™s ideas and executed them.
GRAY Right. And thatâ€™s what I kind of got tired of, actually. I really do like doing graphic design–things like logos and stuff. The interesting jobs were few and far between and I wanted to do something that I had more control over, and also something a bit more permanent. I just wanted to make my own legacy, I guess.
ROBERTS How did you manage to sell your first sculptures?
GRAY Well, it wasnâ€™t easy. I really didnâ€™t even know L.A. hardly at all, so I went around to galleries; I went around to a lot of the high end furniture stores were really my first big clients, near the Pacific Design Center. Thereâ€™s a lot of high end furniture stores down there and a lot of those guys became clients pretty quickly and it got to the point within, oh, just a year or so, they were ordering quite a few of my early pieces at a time and thatâ€™s been keeping me quite busy.
ROBERTS So they would place your pieces next to their high end furniture and their customers would buy some of them. Is that how it worked?
GRAY Right. Also, a lot of what I was making at that time was more furniture–a line of unique art furniture, like my red, angry dog table and my s-shaped aluminum form table. Things like that were very popular. I think I sold probably fifty of those form tables, mostly all back in that time. But people have a very different view about furniture than they do about sculpture. Itâ€™s way easier to get money for sculpture, comparatively to furniture, and a good is example of that is: I had one furniture store, and I had a very interesting table that I had made, all these intersecting shapes and aluminum and it was kind of expensive and they were having a hard time selling it. They decided that it just looked so cool that they would put it up on the wall and see how people reacted and it sold within just a few days of doing that.
ROBERTS You mean they took it off the floor and they put it on the wall and it sold quickly?
GRAY Exactly. And thatâ€™s just the difference in perception. People think, â€˜oh well, for that many thousands of dollars, how much can I get at IKEA,â€™ or whatever. I donâ€™t know how they think about it, but they certainly have a much harder time spending the comparable money for furniture over sculpture.
ROBERTS Wow! I would have thought that it was the opposite. You can use the furniture.
ROBERTS When did you learn that lesson?
GRAY It was quite a long time ago.
ROBERTS Within the first year of selling the stuff?
GRAY Within the first three years, probably. But then Iâ€™ve gotten more into doing the sculpture stuff instead. I still like to do the furniture pieces, but Iâ€™m also not going to kill myself to make pieces that I have to sell for less than I think theyâ€™re worth just because thatâ€™s the way the market works.
ROBERTS So youâ€™re saying that with sculpture itâ€™s easier to get the price you think itâ€™s worth.
ROBERTS So you shifted from the furniture-like stuff to the sculpture-like stuff. Is that a fair description of what youâ€™ve been doing since then?
GRAY Yes, but I still do some of the furniture stuff, just not that much and mostly by commission. If someone sees something that Iâ€™ve done that they like or they like my work and they want something custom done, then Iâ€™ll do that, but theyâ€™re going to be paying my sculpture prices for that stuff.
ROBERTS When did you get interested in the internet?
GRAY Pretty early on. For someone like me that can end up needing to do some research on a fairly regular basis . . . thereâ€™s a lot of times I may just need an image of a certain kind of insect or something like that, and the internet is just a ridiculous amount of searchable information. You can spend the rest of your life just looking up insect pictures.
ROBERTS So true.
GRAY As many images as I want, the videos; itâ€™s like the encyclopedia on steroids. Anything is there that I need for research. Initially I had wimpy websites, through AOL or Earthlink, those things are really kind of half-assed; they donâ€™t really do much of anything. But I quickly realized that the internet is worldwide and itâ€™s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. No one else is pushing my work like that. And I get contacts with people from others states and other countries–thereâ€™s just no way I would have had these kind of distant contacts without the internet.
ROBERTS Before the internet, how did you usually sell your stuff?
GRAY Mostly through the local high-end furniture stores, the art galleries, direct mail–I do a lot of postcards that I mail out. Thatâ€™s actually worked out to be a pretty good thing too.
ROBERTS You mailed out postcards?
GRAY Yes. The first postcards I ever mailed out, I ended up getting one of my long-term collectors off of that mailing–they ended up buying three or four pieces for their company, and then they bought another eight pieces or more over the years for their home, and thatâ€™s all from one postcard.
ROBERTS Where did you get the mailing list for that mailing?
GRAY I just looked around and came up with it myself, basically looking through interesting businesses that can relate to modern art, the film industry people, things of that nature, the Academy of Motion Pictures was actually the one that ended up buying a bunch of stuff.
ROBERTS Oh my god, you didnâ€™t buy someone elseâ€™s mailing list? You made the mailing list yourself?
ROBERTS Wow! When did you do that?
GRAY When I first started, pretty much.
ROBERTS Okay, so you were selling stuff that way, and then the internet comes along, and you have a wimpy home page, and then what happened next?
GRAY Then I decided that having a web page is the only way to fly. I just knew that this was the thing to do and Iâ€™ve always felt that I was pretty savvy with computer programs, at least things like Photoshop, but putting the web stuff together, I really didnâ€™t know how to do it, so initially I had a friend of a friend doing some of the stuff for me. He never had time, it was expensive, it would take me weeks to get any update done and Iâ€™m thinking to myself, well this is ridiculous. Iâ€™m going to be using this website for the rest of my life, Â so I might as well just bite the bullet here and buy the program and take a class or whatever I have to do. So I bought Dreamweaver and ended up paying a guy to give me private lessons for about eight to ten hours or so, and a few weeks later that guyâ€™s calling me up to ask questions.
I picked it up pretty quickly and itâ€™s been the greatest thing I ever did. Like today alone, I just took a picture of my latest wall sculpture and boom, itâ€™s already up there. I photographed it digitally and put it right up. Thereâ€™s no middleman, thereâ€™s no problems, no delays. Itâ€™s a very workable system not only for the artist but basically for any entrepreneur or sole proprietor whoâ€™s running their own business.
ROBERTS When did you figure out that this was the way to go? Why did you think, in the very early stages, that this was going to be so great?
GRAY Because it just seemed that was nothing else really like it in the world, where you could connect with people, distant people. One of my best friends has always told me that if you really want to succeed in the art world, the biggest mistake you can make is trying to rely on your home market alone. Even a city like L.A. If you try to just sell your work here, youâ€™ll probably never have your bills caught up, so you have to get your work in front of people from other cities and other countries and the web is the way to do it for free, you know?
ROBERTS Yes. Well, youâ€™re in a building with 30 or 40 other artists, right?
GRAY Well, Iâ€™m in a complex with somewhere over 300-something studios and well over four hundred artists. Itâ€™s supposed to be the biggest art complex in the world, they say.
ROBERTS Do they all agree with you? Do they all have their own web site?
GRAY I would say that just about everybody does at this point. A lot of them have taken my word for it and I had to talk them into it.
ROBERTS You were the first person.
GRAY I was definitely one of the first. To be honest, though, a lot of my artist friends who have done websites have told me that theyâ€™ve never sold anything from it. Even a very well-known successful artist whoâ€™s a good friend of mine–heâ€™s told me that heâ€™s never sold a single piece. A lot of it is what you put into it–you canâ€™t just throw some images up on a website and expect that to be changing your world for you. I spend several hours every week, minimum, adding new stuff and trying to get additional links and things into the site. Right now, the parameters for what ranks you highly keep changing on quite a regular basis, but the thing that is very important right now is good qualified links into your site, especially from things like publications, universities, museums, things like that. A link in from your sisterâ€™s cat website is not going to rank that highly, but valid press links weigh very heavily.
ROBERTS How do you go about getting those links?
GRAY Most of them come naturally from people whoâ€™ve done articles on me and stuff like that, and other times I go around to all the websites that are art-related and see whatâ€™s going on with those. I tend to try to stick with the ones that are free to list with.
ROBERTS You list yourself where you can.
GRAY Right, and then people who have done articles, if they donâ€™t have a link, I ask them for one, and that sort of thing.
ROBERTS Do you think that thereâ€™s something about your work that is especially web-friendly?
GRAY I think, partially, my success is due to the fact that I am quite diverse. I have a lot of different types of work that I do, so I have a little bit of an advantage as far as that goes.
ROBERTS When we visited you, you said you made about 90% of your money from the web?
GRAY Yes, definitely. Itâ€™s probably going to get even higher than that. Itâ€™s been slow. We have an open house here twice a year and several thousand people come through that, and Iâ€™ve been doing that for sixteen years, but the past five years, I donâ€™t think Iâ€™ve sold a piece during that art walk. I think that people have a hard time spending several thousand dollars on the fly like that. Itâ€™s something that they need to consider a bit more. The one thing Iâ€™m amazed at with the web is that people will see an image of one of my sculptures and then just, without even calling me up, or any letter, theyâ€™ll send me an email, ask if itâ€™s available, and next thing I know I get a check in the mail. No phone call or no discussion about it or no question about how is this going to look in person, or that kind of thing. Itâ€™s always kind of surprising to me that people will make these large purchases–$10,000 or so–over the net with just seeing one small image.
ROBERTS What fraction of the people who buy from you live in the United States?
GRAY Most of them do.
ROBERTS What fraction of them speak English?
GRAY Just about everybody. I get emails sometimes that take a bit of translation; I get some overseas calls once in a while. It gets a little tricky to deal with that kind of situation sometimes if thereâ€™s a bit of a communication problem. I do recall one time that I kind of thought I was being scammed because it really didnâ€™t sound like it was a legitimate thing and it turned out to be very legitimate.
ROBERTS Where was it from?
GRAYÂ Korea. It was actually a museum there. They ended up commissioning two large sculptures for their permanent collection.
ROBERTS Wow! How had they heard of you? What led them to you?
GRAY Through the web. They just Googled “rolling ball machine,” or something and my work popped up and they sent me a few emails and just made it happen.
ROBERTS When was that?
GRAY It was last year.
ROBERTS After you started having a nice website, or a conscientious website, how long did it take before you realized that it was going to be a big success?
GRAY I knew fairly close to the beginning that it was working. I donâ€™t get sales from it every week, or even every month. You just never know in my world. I can get five major sales in a week, and then literally nothing at all for five months; itâ€™s very, very hard to predict and plan, but I will say that the sales that are coming in are definitely from the web. The last four pieces Iâ€™m working on or that I have just finished up right now–those are all through the web. Iâ€™m trying to remember the last time I got something that wasnâ€™t.
ROBERTS These are commissions, you mean?
GRAY Yes, all through the web. This one Iâ€™m just finishing right now is going to New Jersey. Even if I had a ton of stuff in galleries over in Santa Monica, I wouldnâ€™t be doing these sales to the East Coast or to Korea.
ROBERTS I hear thereâ€™s a lot of tourism involved in art galleries.
GRAY There is. But itâ€™s still hard to make that sale if they just see it temporarily, especially if itâ€™s over a couple of thousand dollars.
ROBERTS Do you still have shows? Do you still have your stuff in galleries now?
GRAY I do shows from time to time, when I get asked to, but I donâ€™t really push it as much as I used to, partially because itâ€™s just so much of a better deal to not split the money with anybody. Thatâ€™s another huge benefit of the internet. Thereâ€™s no one taking a cut.