Who's Afraid of Jim Keirstead?

by Heather Fraser, Editor, ABM.

Originally published in Art Business, a newsletter... (Vol. 1, No. 3). Some changes have been made to editorial text in this publication.

Canadian artists have an abiding interest in Jim Keirstead.

Keirstead is renown for his tremendous success in marketing and selling his original art and reproductions. His success is in marked contrast to most Canadian artists who accuse Keirstead of catering to the masses, of suppressing his artistic ethics for money (Monet, Picasso and Warhol, to name only three, were accused of the same thing). Keirstead responds to this peer condemnation calmly, reporting that most of his paintings are created from personal desire. What he paints just happens to be popular. Still, he does admit to an influence from the market based upon experiments that have sold successfully. This he does because he believes that once you've painted to your own tastes exclusively and not made any money, the novelty wears thin.

Keirstead believes that he has found a balance bewteen his personal goals in painting and his desire to earn a living in art. An additional secret to his success is: create as many paintings as possible and hustle to get them in as many galleries as possible.

His 'print' or reproduction business developed in the early 1970's after Keirstead was already selling about 275 originals a year. The reproductions were an excellent marketing tool. They were and are chosen from originals that have broad appeal. The reproductions, he states, do certainly cater to the public. In the extremely competitive reproduction business, why would you do otherwise? While Keirstead began the business of reproducing his paintings, his family soon took it over. His primary business has always been the creation, marketing and sale of his original artworks.

When I called to interview Keirstead, he was painting in his studio....

1) What is your education/training in the visual arts? I am self-educated in art. I began painting in the 1950's. I don't have a formal education in art but I read about and observe trends in all the current art magazines including Art Business, Southwest Art, Art and Antiques. I also attend exhibitions.

2) Is your art grounded in a particular philosophy? Do you model yourself after anyone in art or in business? I have no interest in painting things like political statements. I participated in the Korean War and was an OPP [Ontario Provincial Police] officer for 11 years. I saw all I wished to of the rougher side of life. I consider the home a refuge. I am interested in paintings that are happy, pleasant. My paintings are about the joy of nature, colour, things that make you feel like you're enjoying life.

One of my goals in painting is to capture my feelings about a place in the boldest way possible... the abstract patterns are important. I prefer an Impressionist style to magic realism. What a painting suggests is more significant than a literal depiction. When I'm painting I adjust my style to the subject -- finer, bolder, depending on the subject. I don't model myself after anyone in art or in business. In business, if it worked, I did it again. If not, I changed direction.

3) What made you decide to start a business in the visual arts? Did you know that you would be financially successful? I rented a space on Princess Street in Kingston [Ontario, Canada] in 1965, a month before I left the OPP. I had that space for 21 years and called it the Up and Down Galleries/Studio. I had a few shows there of my work and that of friends. In 1963, I was represented by a gallery in Ottawa. Then, in Toronto, I was represented by several galleries including the Eatons College Street Gallery until it closed. I sold only originals during this time. By the early 1970's, I was represented by 8 galleries across the country. I was determined to be financially successful since I had a wife and two daughters at home.

When I decided to make a living as an artist I didn't think of it as going into business. Rather, I thought I was going to paint and do everything to make it work. My prices were low and I was turning them out. From the days I started in galleries I did well but the turning point was when I started to use the knife. In 1965, I was selling 100 paintings a year and decided to leave the police force. By 1970, I was selling 275 out of 300 paintings in a year. The average price of my paintings at that time was between $150. and $200., framed. I had my first four prints in 1972. They were 10.5 x 14 inch images. I didn't print again until 1975.*

4) What are the goals of your business? I haven't owned Keirstead Galleries for 18 years or so. My daughters an ex-wife own portions of it. My daughter, Brenda, runs the company and is the largest shareholder. There are 3 stores, a warehouse and 50 employees. They lost a couple of people during the 1990's recession. I supply them with art from which they create prints. Keirstead Galleries has gone from mostly prints to mostly a gift shop. It was necessary for its survival.

The print market is tough. There are thousands competing in the U.S. and Canada. It is not so much a matter of how good your business sense is but how good the product is and its public appeal. Every artist thinks he'll make a bundle on prints but 'wrong'! Using the wrong paper or not having enough public appeal will hurt your future in the business. Retailers still complain about the first limited edition we did on light weight paper that buckled. I made lots of mistakes.

The prints were and are important in marketing my originals, in spreading my name. My own business has always been creating and marketing my originals. I make 90% of my income from my originals. I've had bad times though when I've painted a whole year and none of the paintings sold. These I put aside and kept on working. I read that when Picasso died there were 10,000 unsold pieces in his collection. Artists today should worry about getting work out to galleries. Find new galleries and rotate your works.

5) Did you have any training in sales or business before you began your business? Did you feel confident that you would succeed financially? No, I learned it the hard way. That way anything you learn you know. I was positive when I left the force that I would succeed financially. In the early days, though, I put in tremendous hours. I did night shift and painted during the days. It's tougher today. You need to start young and be realistic. As yourself questions. How would you market the prints? You can't get around to all the retailers, so you need to get a supplier to sell them. In the print business, I was paid $2.50 per unit and the supplier took $5. on a $10. print.

The biggest thing is to get out and show your work and get several dealers. Your subjects have to appeal to people other than yourself. If you don't want to compromise that's fine, but if you wish to sell... Every year I turn out paintings to my own taste alone, many of them don't sell. After you've got many of these, the appeal of painting for yourself diminishes. When it doesn't work out you've got another painting on your hands. You need to price it low enough for the market as well.

6) Who buys your originals and your reproduced products and why? What are their average prices? The people who buy my originals are doctors, other professionals and small business owners. You get a following as well. The originals go for $8,000. now, and framed prints are between $45. and $250. I don't have a problem talking about prices, all my prices are on the wall. Some artists and galleries don't talk prices. Perhaps they think they have a better chance of selling art that way.

Every 6 months we vote on which paintings to print. Then we send photos to the sales rep. They look them over and decide what will sell. No use printing something that doesn't have broad public appeal. Thousands of my paintings have never been looked at for printing. Sometimes we put 3 originals in a gallery window and have people vote on which one they like. The ones we have selected and those chosen by the public have been pretty much the same thing. The print audience and orginal audience are not the same, however. The print audience is the public, the working people, with taste in having happy, pleasant things that remind them of something they know.

7) Describe a typical day in your business. How much time is spent on actually painting and how much on daily business? No such thing as a typical day. I might paint 10 hours a day for several days. Often I'm up at 6 am, walk the dog, swim in my indoor pool, eat breakfast and be in the studio by 8 am. I might be briefly on the phone, then on to painting. When I had the print business, I had to figure and plan it all out. It was disruptive and too time consuming.

8) How are you perceived by other artists? How does this affect you? Some may see me as a great artist, or perhaps a great businessman. Some would be jealous of certain aspects, some wouldn't take the time to see what makes my work sell. Of course, if you've only seen the prints you haven't seen the wide variety in my originals. They are different from the prints. My paintings have changed very much over time.

9) Do you paint with a market in mind? Yes and no. I paint commissions and special projects, but most of my painting time is spent on a personal desire to produce some mind picture. Most works are of invented places.

* by prints is meant photo-mechnical reproductions of original paintings. Ed.