NAME: Shon Taylor
OCCUPATIONS: Owner of God Hates Robots Gallery
LOCATION: Salt Lake City, Utah, USA
LINKS: godhatesrobots.com | Instagram @godhatesrobots
God Hates Robots is not your typical gallery. For one, they give artists 80% of sales, far above the more typical 50-60%. The gallery also provides a unique opportunity for emerging artists and those seeking to experiment to show their work.
In our conversation, Gallery Owner Shon Taylor shares useful tips on how to get ready for a show, common mistakes he sees & how to make shows go more smoothly.
Can you give us a brief overview of who you are and what you do?
I own three businesses in Salt Lake: a software development company, a ticketing company that sells tickets to concerts and events and an art gallery called God Hates Robots.
When you started God Hates Robots in 2015, it sounds like it was your other businesses that enabled you and your gallery partner, Ray Childs, to have the gallery.
Is that still the case?
The gallery doesn’t pay any of its own expenses. It basically can afford to buy its own beer but it’s fully subsidized.
God Hates Robots is not what most people would consider a typical gallery, so can you tell us a little about your philosophy and why you chose this different approach?
Well philosophically, we have two motivations with the gallery. One motivation is for the artist and the other motivation is for patrons of the arts.
For the artist, our goal is to be able to provide exposure to emerging artists or experimental bodies of work because these have a hard time getting placement in traditional galleries, often because they don’t have a sales history, a following or things along those lines.
From a patron’s point of view, it’s hard for new patrons of the arts to walk into a traditional gallery and look at something on the wall that’s $1,500 to $5,000 and say, This is where I’m going to start purchasing art. It’s unattainable for most people.
So our philosophy with God Hates Robots is to merge these two concepts together with a set of three primary rules. The first rule is, artists have to be locals only, generally from Salt Lake or the surrounding area. The reason for that is because we need artists to be able to promote their own events as well. If artists do a good job promoting their event, they’ll bring in their friends, family and people who are interested in them to view the art and potentially purchase the work.
Then there’s a $400 price limit for any individual piece in a show for two reasons. One, if you are an emerging artist or it’s an experimental body of work, you probably shouldn’t be overreaching the value of the piece. If it’s the first time you’ve done this, pieces might have lower price points. But we also do this to make the work affordable for first-time purchasers or early collectors.
And the third rule is, we provide artists with 80% of the sale price. Most galleries go 60/40 with the artist keeping 60% of the sales, or 50/50 with the artist keeping 50%. While that’s useful for a lot of galleries who need to sustain themselves as self-propelling businesses, we want to provide the artist with the lion’s share of the profits, knowing that A) our gallery is subsidized and B) the more an artist can collect and feel good about their work, the more motivated they might be to produce more work and, generally, make the world a better place.
So now that it’s been about four years, has it been a good model for you guys?
It’s a terrible business model but our intent was never to be a profitable business.
So that said, it has been great to be able to work with a lot of incredibly creative people who are either new artists or artists that we know who are quite established and are using the rules that we’ve put in place to come up with creative outcomes. It’s nice for us to be able to have more known artists in the gallery every once in a while who are reflecting or planning against the rules that we put in place so that their work can be sold for our price point.
What is the process like for getting into the gallery and how long do the shows typically run?
We have one submission window every fall, in September and October. From that submission window we select all 11 shows for the following year.
So by November 1st of the year prior, we’ve picked all of the shows for the next calendar year. That provides us with two things. One, it means that our process is defined and locked in a box. We don’t have to worry about receiving submissions all year long. The other thing is it gives the artists who are participating a chance to prepare for their shows.
Who is involved in the selection process?
We have a small jury that changes annually just based on who is around and what their availability is. To select shows that are coming up a few of us run through all the submissions and vote it out.
You mentioned you sometimes have some established artists mixed in. Do you aim for a percentage of pros versus more emerging artists?
No, no, we try not to overthink it. If there’s a great submission from somebody who is established, but it’s a great creative concept, it’s obviously going to get a lot of attention from our review process.
For instance, we had a show last year— it’s one of my favorite shows we’ve ever had — with a woman named Mary Toscano. She does wonderful illustration work that normally wouldn’t be available at this price, but she approached us with the idea of doing one 15-foot-long drawing that was 2.5 feet tall and selling it for $10 per linear inch.
So you could purchase a 1-inch slice for $10 or you could purchase a 5-inch slice for $50. It was just such a creative way of working under the confines of our rules, right? To say, You’ve got rules? Great, I’ll take those rules and I’ll make something totally crazy. And what we ended up getting out of it was an incredible 15-foot long drawing with hundreds of nails in the wall to denote the inches that were available. But the people who came in didn’t know that this was the gig, right? They’re just going to an art show but then they’re like, Oh shit.
She sold all of the inches in an hour and a half. You couldn’t pick a middle slice, right? It’s continuous. So everyone got really excited about it and it became a thing like, If I want this part, I’d better buy it right now.
She had more rules than we had and in doing so, it was just very exciting and a super creative outcome. That was just a nuts concept and I think if anybody would have approached us with that kind of concept, it would have been something we’re like, Woo! And Mary pulled it off perfectly.
But yeah, it’s just fun when people have creative ideas. So it’s not necessarily, Well, we’ve got to make sure that we slide in a couple of established artists this year. It’s more, Well, that sounds like a good, fun show.
In general, how successful are people’s shows? Does it run the gamut or do they tend to sell out?
It runs the gamut. Some shows sell out, some shows sell very little. A lot of factors are in play: the artist, how they are promoting the show, how great their work is, what the price is like and, frankly, how the opening night went, because most of our traffic happens on opening night. Because we don’t have any real money for the business, we have terrible hours.
So we throw an opening night, which is from 6 to 9 p.m. on the third Friday of the month. After that it’s 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. So our hours are awful and if you don’t sell something on opening night it’s less likely to sell over the course of the next three weeks. If on opening night it’s raining, it’s snowing— there are factors that are both within and outside of the artist’s control that influence the success of the show.
Do you help with promoting?
We’ve tried flyering and I can tell you that I don’t think we’ve ever attracted one person from a flyer.
Now we do the exact same set of stuff for every show. We send a set of press releases out to a group that we curated who we know generally care. And we promote events on Facebook and Instagram pages, which I personally disdain. I just don’t care for social media, but it is what it is and that’s where people look for things and do stuff.
How about pricing? Do you coach them at all, especially people who are new?
I try not to because I think it’s impossible for me to have an opinion about the value of something that I wasn’t involved in creating.
That said, almost everybody says, What do you think about this price and what do you think about that price? There are times where I might have something to say about it, but for the most part I think artists have a good feeling about the value of their things and an understanding of how they want to be perceived pricewise.
Having a price cap creates an interesting psychological thing where a $400 piece in our gallery is expensive, which in every other gallery anywhere $400 is going to be cheap. But in our gallery it’s like, Fuck, that’s a $400 piece, they’re reaching for the stars.
If you’re hemming and hawing about whether it should be at $215 or $190, I mean, I’ll say certain things about how I would approach it. But it’s certainly up to the artist to decide what they want to value their work at and we support it, whatever it is. As long as it’s under $400.
We’ve learned from artists that figuring out how to price their work is one of the hardest things to do. Either from your point of view or from what you’ve heard working with so many artists, what are some of their biggest challenges?
You know, I think pricing is huge. I always wish that I had a better answer. If you make it $50 more, you’ll make more money. If you make it $50 less, you’ll sell a hell of a lot more.
Anything under $400 is achievable for a lot of folks who come to our place if they really like something. But it’s hard for me to know who is going to show up to the gallery and what they perceive the value of the stuff to be.
What else. I think that I always try to coach or guide new artists who haven’t shown before or haven’t shown a lot to temper their expectations at 6 p.m. I say, When the show opens, nobody is going to be here. It feels like an eternity and nobody comes is, but it’s just because maybe there’s nice weather, or they go get dinner or go home after work. If it’s a new artist and they’re tense I’ll say, Just to relax go get some dinner, go have a drink, don’t sit here and be tense.
Also, overpreparing for printing. If it’s a reproductive piece, I’ve definitely seen some people get themselves into a hole by making reproductions unnecessarily. Either overestimating what’s going to sell or just thinking, Hey, if I have a piece on the wall and I make a $5 reproduction somebody is going to want a $5 reproduction of it. I don’t think that’s always the case. In fact, I think most of the time it’s not the case and sometimes people can get themselves into a funny spot. My advice is, Hey, if you want to do that, great. Let’s sell the $5 reproduction and, just like the piece on the wall, it’s available to pick up at the end of the show. We’ve had photographers who are doing hand-printed pieces say, I’m going to print all 20 editions, 20 prints of this thing. Then at the end of the show they might be sitting on 20 of them.
So don’t overbear yourself. That’s the nice thing about being in a gallery as opposed to being in an arts festival or something like that. In an arts festival, it’s now or the buyers are gone, right? Here it’s like, we sell it, we can tell them to come get it in three weeks and that’s totally cool.
How about for you and the gallery — what are some of your biggest challenges?
Probably every year we have at least one show not happen for whatever reason. And that’s frustrating for two reasons. One is, I know that there are people who would have taken that place. We have four times as many submissions as we have shows, so somebody wanted that show, but you got that show and for some reason it didn’t come together and that’s a bummer.
And the other reason it’s a bummer is because we’re in some form of continual conversation with artists through email and always stating, If your show isn’t coming together, let us know. We can reschedule your show, find somebody else to take your place, whatever it is. We contact people at least three months before their show. They know when their show is. It feels like it’s a big missed opportunity for somebody else.
Do you know if an artist’s involvement with God Hates Robots has helped them book additional shows at other galleries?
I don’t know that I would know. Some of the more established folks have shown in other places around town. Like, you’ve talked to Trent [Call], he’s had two shows here. But he shows all around town, right? I think it’s more about somebody who is motivated and out there doing it.
Who do you bounce ideas off of if you have questions about something?
When we opened I talked to a lot of people I knew who made art, both in Salt Lake and other places, and a few people I know who have owned galleries before. Along with former teachers in the art department of the University of Utah.
Any business relationship is a trust thing, but I think it’s harder for galleries to some degree because we’re on a trust relationship with people who are exceptionally good at producing art but have less business sense because business is not what they’re focused on. For the last 20 years all I’ve been doing is trying to run a business, you know what I mean? I never tried to make art. I’d do a terrible fucking job at it.
So I think that there’s an onus on us to be as useful to artists as possible and help them understand how this is going to go, what to expect and make sure everyone is cool about what’s going on. Because I have the outcome of their creative potential on my wall and some of them heavily invested themselves into it and I want them to feel like that was an okay decision.
That was a lot of what I was seeking guidance on early in our planning phases. And you know, I’m still surprised that there are galleries who charge for the wine served at the opening. That’s pretty lame.
So yeah, I heard a lot of stories about things that I didn’t want to do, so I just wanted to make sure we didn’t do those things.
Do you think the traditional gallery/artist relationship is faulty?
I think there’s a purpose to the existing gallery/artist relationship. I have a very good friend who is a very successful artist and he would not be a successful artist had he not found the right gallery representation, all the way across the country from him. They changed his entire situation. He went from, I sell a piece every three months to I sold 200 pieces this year, and have been getting six-figure checks. It wouldn’t have happened without a great gallery representative.
There’s the ability for galleries to take advantage of younger or emerging artists, but I think some of that onus has to be on the artist. You’ve got to use your head to think about what is going on.
A good gallery who has good contacts, who knows work, who looks at something and says, Holy shit, this is great, we need to change the price on this. So instead of charging $500, they’re charging $5,000 for it. And they get their rolodex out and call the people they know who would want this and all of a sudden, it works, right? I mean, that’s super magic.
But that’s the right gallery who has the right relationship with the right work, the right people and everything else. It’s certainly not a Salt Lake thing. I don’t think that happens here. I think the galleries here I’ve talked to definitely underrepresent emerging artists. A gallery I respect is like, We like the emerging artist’s work but they all want to charge so much for their stuff. And I’m like, If you’re taking 50% it’s easy for that price to get inflated pretty quickly. On a $1,000 piece the artist just wants to make $500.
How do you see the gallery landscape changing now and in the future?
Specifically in Salt Lake, I think it’s going to be interesting to see if the economic changes and the influx of new people have an impact on the artistic landscape.
Salt Lake is not an inherently art-forward city and potentially new people can change that, right? I don’t have a whole lot of faith in that because most people don’t own original art and won’t ever own original art, it’s not a priority for them, so I don’t know. But it will be interesting to see if Salt Lake changes with an influx of people.
From your perspective, what can artists do better?
You know, self-promotion is— there are people who are good at it and there are the rest of us. For me, it’s not fun. I don’t think for a lot of people it’s fun, but it’s something you’ve got to do. And that takes motivation. Motivation to make it work, motivation to talk about it, to self-promote. And maybe also the motivation to have some slight business interest in themselves. If you can’t wrap your head around how the financials of some things work, it’s going to have ramifications. You’re going to get taken advantage of, like a lot of people do, either from commissions from big corporations or even galleries because it’s easier to do if you’re not paying attention to what’s going on.
How do you suggest artists work on the business side?
If you’re in school, talk to your teachers about it, talk to your peers about it. All of the working artists I know are more than willing to talk to anybody about being a working artist and I think they have a lot of the same things to say, which is, You’ve got to fucking do it, you know what I mean? To start.
What’s something you like to know about artists or their process?
It’s always very, very exciting to see the actual thing.
Our submissions are pictures on a screen so we have very little reference for the work until it comes in. We had an illustrator whose illustrations I love, but I was shocked when I realized they’re tiny. They were amazing, but they were amazing and tiny. So that’s an interesting thing.
It’s exciting to see the work when it comes in and then ask a lot of questions about the process of making it. I’m fascinated by process. It can be, Where did the idea come from and how did it become a thing? It’s very procedural, right? How did they evolve this thing and go from here to here? That concept of how it happened, especially for me, I see something that went from a screen picture to an actual thing and I’m like, Wow.
Because we’re talking about art as a manifestation of a creative process, right? And everything can be a manifestation of a creative process, whether it’s a line in a skate park or a piece of artwork. For some developers it’s a line of code. I think to some extent it’s psychology and to some extent it’s the physical process.
There’s creativity in a lot of ways and a lot of things. We assign certain levels of creativity different values, but at the end of the day I think most people are creative and I love to understand how they’re using their creativity to create this thing. I can talk to anyone about their creative process for as long as there’s beer.
What are the biggest rewards for you?
I really like it when people get to see their creative investment pay off. Some people have shows here because they want to make money, some people have shows here because they had some crazy fucking idea that they just wanted to see happen. And in either of those cases, when somebody sees their thing happen and they’re really pleased about it and it worked, that’s super fun. Because I just have a space and all I do is thank them for doing their work, you know? I wouldn’t say that happens every show, but that’s every couple of shows. And when it works it’s all that person’s outcome and it’s very rewarding. Makes me feel good.
Interview edited for length, content and clarity. Photographs by Kim Olson.
- Mary Toscano – illustrator/painter/quilter
- Trent Call – painter/illustrator/graphic designer/muralist