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`Starving artist' paintings go from assembly lines to hotel shows

By Daniel GrantSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / March 30, 1987



The ``art'' shows are heavily advertised in newspapers and on television: ``Beautiful original oil paintings, with spectacular mountain landscapes, ocean scenes, and much, much more! This is a collection of our prestigious artists!'' The ``starving artists'' business, it seems, deals in paintings and hyperbole. One is more likely to see someone trying to get rid of this stuff than actually buying it. ``Sofa-size'' paintings, which sell for $10 each and some for as low as $5 in enormous shows of largely identical pictures, are no one's idea of highbrow.

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The starving artists name is generic, referring to any group that sets up shows of art, primarily in the fall and winter.

Starving artists' companies around the country go by a variety of names: ``Struggling Artists of America,'' ``Collectors Art,'' ``Pacific Artists Guild,'' ``International Art,'' ``Striving Artists,'' ``Artists Co-op,'' and ``Traveling Artists.''

Joe Phillips, who heads Midwest Starving Artists in Indianapolis, runs an asphalt maintenance business during the summer. Both he and Bill Stone, president of the San Diego-based Collectors Art, spend time during the off-season locating art they will sell later on. Mr. Phillips says that his artists are not from the Midwest, nor are they necessarily starving.

``I get the pictures from an importer who works out of Chicago,'' he says. ``I don't know where he gets the pictures from.'' Most of the artists, he suspects, are in Taiwan, Mexico, and elsewhere in the third world.

Conceding that all of the works generally look alike, he notes that they are not created by machines but by humans. An artist will tack up five or 10 canvases on a wall and work down them like an assembly line, first doing the backgrounds, then adding grass and trees, and then something in the center. Each picture may take 15 minutes to complete.

``I go through thousands of paintings just to get hundreds to sell,'' he said. ``There are so many things that can be wrong with a painting. The same artist might have done six of the same painting but, in one, he bent the tree wrong.''

He added that ``if the art is presented truthfully and it's at a good price, then there's nothing wrong. I'm not saying the art's any good. I have some on the walls in my house, though.''

At times, truthfulness has been an issue. In the late 1970s, Southwest Starving Artists was convicted of willful violation of the consumer protection laws in Mississippi, including leading people to believe local artists were benefiting from the sale of the pictures and using the word ``sale'' when the paintings were actually being sold at regular prices.

In addition, Southwest Starving Artists made claims for the works having greater value than their selling price (which could not be proven), and that the sales were one-time events (when, in fact, they took place regularly and frequently).

Not long after, Southwest Starving Artists went out of business, but other organizations have quickly filled the gap.

The problem of fraudulent practices has remained. Newspaper and television advertisements often claim ``paintings under $25,'' but many people have found that most of the works on sale are priced at $200 or $300 with only a handful of under-$25 pictures around.

Regular art dealers say one must be careful not to be led into believing the works on sale in these shows have any real monetary value.

``I'll bet people bring me three, four, or five pictures a week that they bought in these shows, and I have to tell them that they just bought nothing,'' one dealer says. ``I have to tell them that what they have isn't worth a dime.''

She and other dealers say some people get swept away with all the promoters and the excitement of the hotel auctions into believing that the pictures are really good. Really good art, dealers claim, doesn't need to travel from hotel to hotel.