Thursday, February 28, 2008

Egalitarian Issues in Art Buying

There are two great articles on art in the House section of The New York Times today. First is a fabulous profile of the amazing Ms. Jen Bekman:
[Bekman had] two clear goals: to help emerging artists become more appreciated, and to encourage a broader swath of people to feel comfortable buying art.

To further those aims, she initiated several online projects, including Hey, Hot Shot! (, a regular competition for emerging photographers that offers winners representation by the gallery; and, a blog about photography, design and current events.

In September Ms. Bekman introduced another Web site,, which sells limited-edition high-quality prints of photographs and fine art for as little as $20. Almost at once, the site was in the black and gaining attention.

Five and a half months later, it counts among its customers art collectors from around the world, dozens of magazine writers and editors, a MoMA executive and many artists, including well-established ones like Brian Ulrich and Alec Soth.

In May the Griffin Museum of Photography, in Winchester, Mass., will honor her with its Rising Star award, given, the museum says, to an emerging force that the photographic community is watching with great enthusiasm.
The fact that Jen's goal of encouraging "a broader swath of people to feel comfortable buying art" is apparently bearing fruit makes the other article, on the anxiety of buying art, a rather odd companion piece, but it's worth a read all the same. Titled "The Terrible Toll of Art Anxiety," it outlines the reasons people who clearly have the money and wall space don't take the plunge and make the purchase:
Art paralysis: It is a widespread and often crippling malady, striking everyone from the new college grad in his or her first apartment to the super-rich banker, lasting anywhere from a few months to a lifetime. How many are affected is not known, perhaps because the victims are often too embarrassed to come forth. Who wants to admit that "I’ve had these posters since college, I know that as one of the American Top 10 Orthodontists I should get some real art, but I don’t know what that means"? Or that "It’s not that I’m trying to make a minimalist statement with these empty white walls, I just don’t know what to buy"? Or "I walk into those snooty galleries in Chelsea and feel like I just don’t belong"?

The article goes on to detail a litany of complaints about buying from galleries, like no prices available, too many galleries to know where to start, intimidating staff, the awkwardness of backing out of a purchase after the gallery has poured on the hospitality, etc. etc.

There are other causes of art anxiety discussed as well, including:
  • there are those worried about making an unfashionable choice
  • those obsessed with investment value
  • those who return to a gallery for months, even years, never buying a thing. (Some of these suffer from a form of art paralysis that Stephen Nordlinger, the president of the Foundry Gallery in Washington, calls red dot syndrome — a desperate longing only for those pieces bearing the red dots that show they’ve been sold.)
  • there are the people whose reasons make no sense at all, at least to those doing the selling.
Appearing in the House section (i.e., not the Fine Arts section, which is forced to take all this more seriously) the article permits its author great leeway in swaying back and forth between an insidery understanding of how it all works and a little posturing as the champion of those poor intimidated, defensive souls. One person interviewed summed up the sentiment I'm talking about:

Joseph Higgins, a 43-year-old portfolio manager in New York with a $900,000 mini-loft in west SoHo and a house in the suburbs, is one of the rare sufferers who will speak openly about his art paralysis. He blames it on galleries, and overcame it, he said, by breaking free of their grasp.

“You’re going into an intimidating space and having a curator or a gallery owner ask you ‘Do you like this style or this art’ when you have no idea what the price tag is,” he said. “It’s hard to say, I’m browsing, after someone spends time with you in a gallery and tells you ‘I’ll put it under a light for you’ and sets you up in a little room and brings you a cup of coffee.”

Mr. Higgins started out by using, a Web site that sells the work of hundreds of artists from around the world in categories ranging from landscape to “fantasy.” He has bought 14 paintings there and has little patience with those who would sneer at such a site. New York may be a world capital of modern and contemporary art, he said, but he finds the same “edginess” online that he does in the galleries of Chelsea, at much lower prices.

I'm gonna try Mr. Higgins' patience a bit here, I'm afraid, because here's the thing: Mr. Higgins is projecting his own insecurities onto the actions of the gallery staff and, more than that, he's being a bit disingenuous IMO about why many of the people of his socioeconomic stature feel the need to buy art in the first place. Portfolio managers and others who might mingle with "One of the American Top 10 Orthodontists" feel social pressure to announce their superior tastes to their peers. As such, I'm not sure why the "intimidating" galleries are considered the culprits here.

But let me back up and discuss the first thing: projecting of insecurities onto the actions of the gallery staff. First and foremost, it's their job to create an atmosphere in which you can quietly contemplate a piece you'd like to consider. The quiet room, the coffee, the extra lighting...none of these things obligate you. If you can't accept these niceties and still leave the gallery without a purchase it's not the gallery's fault. Many galleries are actually just happy to discuss the work with a sincerely interested collector. Each such conversation helps the gallery staff member practice selling the work, so in one sense you're doing them a favor. I don't advocate wasting their time on work you're not interested in, but most galleries appreciate that making decisions on art can take time. Enjoy their hospitality, thank them for their time, say you're going to think about it, and leave. Seriously. It's that simple.

But back to the idea that spawned my title. There's something rather incongruous about the notion that those with new money want both the comfort of making purchases they might find in a local department store and the societal prestige of having good taste in fine art. I totally understand why they want the comfort (and many a good gallery is deft at making each individual feel personally comfortable in their space), but to get as defensive about the "sneering" galleries as Mr. Higgins seems to, when the entire point for many people who find themselves in need of the social prestige good art lends them is to announce to their Masters-of-the-Universe peers that they are their equals in the elite playgrounds, as much as in the boardrooms (in other words, that they are not common folk), well, it makes me want to recommend they just suck it up. If you're gonna talk the talk, then walk the walk.

OK, so I should give Mr. Higgins a break here. I'm unfairly using him as my example. I don't know why he buys art. Perhaps it's because he really loves it and he's right to avoid situations that might make him love it less. But for those in the category of "one of the American Top 10 Orthodontists [who] should get some real art," well, since their motives are suspect to me anyway, I don't have much patience for their moaning about the atmosphere of galleries.

Labels: art galleries, Collecting


Blogger David said...

I read the article on art anxiety before checking your blog. As a dealer you must find this is the way of the world. I know one collector who has built a wonderful collection over many years and I've found him to be one of the sharpest guys I know. He works in finance but his passion is for building his collection, which ranges from right out of the studio contemporary to modern masters. He educates himself, he knows what he likes when he sees it, he buys from a network of galleries all over the world when he travels on business. He buys on a budget and often buys drawings if an artist's prices are out of his league. I've learned more about art from this collection and this collector than I can say.

2/28/2008 09:36:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Many collectors I know are nothing short of absolutely brilliant about art, David. More so than most dealers and even more so than many artists. I assume in general that one must have something going on in both the gray matter and the old ticker departments to be able to afford and still want to collect art.

I may not have made my point in the post very well, but I do take offense that there are certain "collectors" who want the prestige that important art will lend them, but are not only too lazy to learn about the work so they can make such choices, but blame the galleries for making them feel aware that they don't know it all automatically. That's their insecurity and arrogance, not the gallery's snootiness, at play there, IMO.

I've actually seen some really brilliant collectors who started out thinking they had to act as if they were well versed in contemporary art go through this stage where they realized that my job was to answer their questions...not to test them on what they know. One spent about 45 minutes asking me questions about a recent exhibition on the phone. It was a thrill to see he had changed tactics, but more than that it was one of most enjoyable conversations I've had in my entire gallerist career. I live to talk about the art we exhibit...and I never spring a pop quiz on anyone.

2/28/2008 10:06:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

I understand your point Ed and you're right to take offense. There will always be snooty galleristas and snooty (insecure) clients too, but the smart ones, and the smart clients understand its about a shared passion. Sharing passion about art is always the more interesting activity.

2/28/2008 10:29:00 AM  
Anonymous sharon said...

I love Jen Beckman's approach. I discovered her after I started my site, and felt immediately that approachability in art was enough of an issue that plenty of people in the art world are taking notice and trying to bridge the gap. I am excited by what she's doing, and happy to see others are too.

The first thing out of my friend's mouths who are not involved in the arts always seems to be something about feeling alienated or not understanding. It cripples the arts as a whole. If people feel left out and not in on the "joke" as it were, how can the arts continue to be a vital part of our culture?

This is such an important factor-- the dissonance between art and most people. Thanks for bringing it up.

As for people buying art and feeling excluded for the wrong reasons? I think there must be a grey area in there somewhere-- I do believe the art world forgets the upper hand they have in terms of knowledge and history and how intimidating it can all be. A little work needs to be done on both ends, I would guess.

2/28/2008 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous BT said...

I am a huge fan of Jen Bekman. 20 x 200 is brilliant art propaganda.

But this is a good segue into another topic regarding art anxiety that has been bugging me of late.

I consider it part of my duty as a member of the art community to buy at least two pieces of art a year. Not expensive, as I don't make tons of money, but pieces I genuinely love or by artists that I see as worth supporting (sometimes two very different things).

At the art fairs this past December, I asked a number of directors and dealers what, if anything, they had acquired. Most said they didn't buy at fairs (fair enough), but many bragged about not buying art in years. "Artists give me things," one dealer bragged.

To me, this was just as sad as when one collector informed me they decided to get bew windows instead of a painting they had on hold.


2/28/2008 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I do believe the art world forgets the upper hand they have in terms of knowledge and history and how intimidating it can all be. A little work needs to be done on both ends, I would guess.

I think that's fair.

We do sometimes forget. And it behooves gallery staff to be patient with inquiries.

There are other factors at play too, though, like visitors who treat the gallery staff rudely (again mostly out of misplaced insecurity) and then those truly arrogant types who make the gallery staff defensive through their obnoxious behavior.

I had a family of about 7, five adults with two kids in tow, rush through the gallery and out the other entrance into the tunnel, one saying to the apparently anxious kids, "We're almost at the tunnel, it's ok."

They proceeded to run through the tunnel yelling for a while, and then, apparently tired of it, headed straight back through the gallery to the street, without so much as a glance to their side to see the work on the walls.

I notified them at the door that there was a passage way just the other side of the gallery that they could use. One of the men snarled, "Give me a break. We have kids, and it's cold outside."

I stepped outside to watch them continue half way down the street to their mini-van, never once taking any caution to protect the kids from the elements (and it wasn't very cold). They merely felt they were entitled to walk through any space they wanted to get where they wanted to go.

Incidents like this make gallery staff a bit defensive. We're trying to create a context in which interested folks are comfortable slowing down to contemplate the work installed. Having rambunctious families stream through, treating the space like their own private thoroughfare, disrupts that context, and annoys me no little bit.

It's a pet peeve of mine I'm working to get over, but seriously, it would have taken them an additional 10 nanoseconds to use the actual passageway (which is actually easier to get their stroller through). We've had folks come through with luggage carts (yes the type you use at airports) complain that we have steps at the other entrance...again, not even looking at the art.

That's the public, I understand. But it explains in part the attitude of frustrated gallery staff trying to secure an appropriately tranquil context for the folks truly interested in contemplating the artwork.

2/28/2008 11:15:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Most said they didn't buy at fairs (fair enough), but many bragged about not buying art in years. "Artists give me things," one dealer bragged.



I love when artists give me things...I won't lie about it.

But Bambino and I do buy about 6 works of art each year, slowly working our way up the cost ladder. We do have storage issues, though, which might be more what eventually stops that practice for some dealers than anything else.

Any dealer not buying art is missing a great opportunity, in my opinion. Most dealers I know see their own collection, at least in part, as their 401K plan.

2/28/2008 11:19:00 AM  
Anonymous bt said...

Good to hear.

Just curious, do you buy more of your own artists or from other galleries or from artists themselves?

2/28/2008 11:48:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Of the last 5 pieces we purchased, two where of our artists (through the gallery, though), one was from another gallery, and two were through benefits. I can't recall back before that, but that mix strikes me as average. We're conscious of the fact that we need to support of fellow galleries more and buy through them.

2/28/2008 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The art anxiety article, as you pointed out, was in the House & Home section, a tipoff that it wasn't going to be very deep. So I was only mildly surprised that no one brought up the question of WHY people buy (or look at, or experience) art. The "anxious" guys were basically decorating their McMansions. So hire a decorator, and hire an art consultant. I don't have any sympathy for the poor (hah!) intimidated hedge manager or Top Orthodontist who doesn't know what or where to buy. It strikes me as similar to the tragedy that occurs when a society lady wannabe makes a fashion faux pas at an important event. The horror!

No one talked about what it means to look at art every day, to live with it, to learn from it, to get to know artists, how it changes one's life (did they? I don't think so). The NYT is going downhill fast with more and more fluff sections. But H&H; is especially schizy; that article about the former gang girl had nothing to do with the other articles in the section. And the column about the woman who discovered "linkedin"? All fluff except for the one on Jen Bekman, which was very good.


2/28/2008 01:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Ken Hagler said...

For what it's worth, I would consider the sort of environment Higgins describes to be quite intimidating myself. If someone offered to set me up in a private room, I'd probably say "no thanks" and rush out, never to return.

Of course, I'm not really in the galleries' target market. :-)

3/03/2008 01:02:00 PM  

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