Monday, February 05, 2007

The Economics of Art?

So we got the majority of my show hung today. I had the great fortune of having a friend who was willing to drag the multiple boxes of framed prints through the subzero temperatures and to the gallery. Also, there was a very skilled and experienced gallery representative to get it right (who's salty at me for some comments I wrote in a previous post). For those of you who have never had the pleasure of hanging a show... it's an arduous process. As I've mentioned previously, presentation is hugely important. Everything has to be measured precisely and true, while you try to make accomodations for the limitations of the space you are working in. And it's somehow got to look like it put itself up in the most natural and appropriate way possible. People are only going to notice the flaws.

As we were working I had a bit of time to reflect upon my chosen pursuit. I absolutely love making art. It transports me to a different time and place, and fulfills me at a very deep level. I love thinking about art too. The conceptualization of a new project is invigorating. The happy accidents that arise within the process are wondrous. And the completion of something in a way that meets or exceeds prior expectations gives me a high unlike any other I experience in my life. These stimuli, along with the reactions that the art elicits, are the reasons why I continue to create.

But there are other aspects that come along with the actual making of art that remind me that the irritations of life are inavoidable. One of the most poorly understood dimensions of the art scene is its economics. In the United States, everything is supposed to find its value in monetary terms. Art is not given a pass- like anything else it eventually finds its reduction to commodity. The activities of the art world are all financed by money. Its display depends on a physical space that has its own price. Galleries are funded by a variety of sources, many of which parallel streams that one finds in any other business. There are both publicly-funded and for-profit galleries. Non-profits find their financial backing through corporate foundations and government grants. There are numerous bureaucratic hoops that have to be negotiated if one intends to start up such a space. The search for money seems to be governed by some arcane and convoluted system that one must study for years- or otherwise one must know the "right people" to facilitate its origination. And even when such a concern has gotten off the ground, politics can change and arbitrarily put an end to it all.

On the other end of the spectrum there are the dreamers, visionaries, disgruntled artists, amateur entrepreneurs, fools, and lucky exceptions that actually believe they can make a gallery pay off. They are astoundingly unconventional individuals, as those more in step with the priorities of our particular society wouldn't play against the overwhelming odds in favor of failure. If we establish a hierarchy of needs for typical US citizens, art would be the most dispensable of all luxuries. It would come somewhere after alcohol, porn and cigarettes. Most likely it would also lag behind greeting cards, holiday decorations and geegaws (whatever the hell those are). There is a very small market demanding the production of art, other than the objectionable "painter of light" version found in strip malls and tourist traps.

In any city other than a few cultural metropolises, the few serious collectors must be courted like upper class debutantes (and often they are of that particular species). And they must be pursued with a sophistication that belies the desperate need to trap them. You don't attract them with 50% off or Memorial Day-sale blowouts. No cold-calling, door-to-door mailings, or radio ads are going to bring you the cash. You must put on elaborate and costly opening receptions, with complimentary alcohol and food. Then you have to convince someone of the value of an object that is often designed to test ordinary sensibilities. Finally you must have in place several creative and indulgent payment plans in order to close a sale.

For profit galleries either take a percentage from all sales, collect showing fees upfront, or both. They are subject to all the same fluctuations in the economy, but don't enjoy the benefit of a corporate media intent upon creating an artificial need for their product. They require a particularly educated and culturally aware consumer base. They deal regularly with suppliers that feel obligated to live up to their reputation as difficult and eccentric mavericks. And they enjoy the dubious pleasure of having these artists undermine and exploit them by selling directly to buyers. In short, art is one of the toughest sells in society... and ultimately often requires alternative supports to boost income. Take a look at the most successful and longest operating galleries in your own community. Most likely many of them are non-profit, and many of the remaining rely on supplementary services such as framing or boutique sales. Perhaps others are owned and operated by individuals of independent wealth or someone looking for a tax write-off.

It's a tough market segment in a narrowly understood product line. Good luck and happy returns if you decide to take the plunge. Me... I'll stick with the "misunderstood artist" role.


Blogger Lee said...

Interesting stuff here. Art seems like a luxury (or investment) to those who buy (or collect) it and simply a way of life to those who make it. When I make "art," I am not thinking about it's economical value, something that I suppose most makers of products do. (Except for Jeff Koons, who amuses and repels me.)(The Painter of Light just repels me.)

I have a block when it comes to selling or showing my work. I don't sell it. It feels strange. I don't mind people seeing it, but placing a monetary value upon it make me very uncomfortable. I'm very attached to my pieces. I don't like other people to have them. I've got a long way to go.

I wish you success (whatever that means to you) with your show. Congratulations!

7:18 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...

I'm also not thinking about the economics when I make art. It only becomes inevitable when you do decide to show (and put it up for sale).

That is, unless you are trying to make a "living" off your art. I expect to tackle that idea in an upcoming post.

I've mostly sold multiples- so I don't really have to consider the implications of saying goodbye. The one-of-a-kind piece I sold (a drawing) went to a stranger who was a serious collector... so I know it's in good hands.

Thanks for the well-wishing!

11:16 AM  
Blogger Lee said...

BTW, I was thinking about the male/female making of art post and I seriously cant imagine coming at a work with just emotion...and no idea. I do not know how that would work. I agree with you, suggesting that one has to make "art" a certain way because of gender is limiting.

12:15 PM  
Anonymous jefg said...

I just want to use a little of this space to wish you all the best for your opening, and for the period of your show. Sorry I can't be there at the opening, but I will be making it over to see the collection next month. In the meantime, lift one or more for me! (ummm..that'd be a glass of something, not one of your photos, and send me the tab)

8:41 AM  
Blogger Merge Divide said...


Thanks a lot!

11:24 PM  

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