Wednesday, July 30, 2008

the grass is always greener

In a world where $100,000 buys you a not-amazing painting by a developing artist, there are many. That same $100,000 can be used directly, as patronage: as price inflation for paintings continues to rise, the economics of disintermediating the dealer makes a lot of sense for both artists and collectors. Here's Thompson:

For a mainstream gallery, and for an oil painting on canvas by an artist with no gallery history, £3,000 to £6,000 ($5,400 to $10,800) is about right. This is high enough to convey the status of the gallery and not cast doubt on the work or the artist, but low enough that, if the work is promising, it will sell.
If the first show sells out quickly, the dealer will say the pricing was correct. The artist may be underwhelmed, because even selling out one show a year at new-artist prices means she is still living below the poverty line.

Below the poverty line? If you sell a dozen paintings at $8,000 apiece, and the gallery takes half, that leaves you with an annual income of $48,000. The poverty line, by contrast, is $10,400.

But to give you an idea of the inflation going on here, check out the great Dave Hickey, writing in 1997:

When I was an art dealer, any biggish work of art was worth five hundred dollars. Any littlish work of art was worth two hundred. Today, a biggish work is worth a thousand dollars and a littlish work is worth three hundred.

Now, it seems, a biggish work is worth $10,000 and a littlish work is worth $5,000. This changes things for both artists and collectors enormously. For one thing, that new artist really can live on the proceeds of her work, where there's no way she would have been able to do so ten years ago.

More to the point, an investor with $50,000 to spend on one artist has a choice: she can either buy a middling work from a middling artist at a middling dealer, or she can directly support an artist outside the gallery system entirely, buying pieces as necessary, maybe giving her a couple of thousand dollars to live on now and then, possibly helping out with studio space, that sort of thing. That kind of relationship is generally far more rewarding for the benefactor, and might well enable the artist to stay outside the gallery system for long enough that she has the time to develop a real artistic voice before being thrust blinking into the art-world spotlight. For the collector, the non-financial returns are much higher, while the financial returns can be equally large: what's not to like?

Back in the days when the cost of a middling work from a middling artist at a middling dealer was an order of magnitude lower than it is today, this kind of math didn't make much sense: it was much more expensive to support an artist directly than it was to simply buy their work at retail. But now things have changed, and serious artists who want to concentrate on their work more than they want to become the next branded megastar can support themselves by selling directly to a handful of devoted collectors, who might well consider themselves to be getting work on the cheap.

Felix Salmon on Paradoxes of the Contemporary Art Market, at


Anonymous said...

I thought Hickey's point was that however much a biggish work claimed, a smallish work would remain at something like the cost of materials and labour at minimum wage. What gets bigger is the discrepancy between anonymity and recognition.

As for your broader point, I wonder if acquiring a benefactor early in one's career would tend to dilute one's originality.

Ithaca said...

I don't think he's talking about anonymity and recognition at all (unless that comes up in the rest of his piece, which I haven't seen); I think he's just talking about the size of the piece. I think that's pretty standard among gallerists: a small painting costs less, it's a little crowd-pleaser that tempts new buyers into taking the plunge.

Salmon's broader point, do you mean? He seems to have thought a young artist would stand a better change of developing a strong "voice" if he or she had the support to work outside the gallery system for a while.

Anonymous said...

It looks like I have misread the piece on two counts. Oops.

eeeeeeeeee said...

To resolve this problem you would have to define a bliss point for the size of printed art (for both the suppliers and the demanders), which is ludicrous. If you assume no bliss point, then it just means the world is getting richer.