Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The "Quality" Component : Open Thread

In first listening to the NPR interview with David Kestenbaum last Friday in which I discussed the way emerging art is generally priced, I thought the information provided was solid, but in reading through the comments on the NPR website for that interview, I realized that perhaps the full context of my statements isn't as clear to others as it would obviously be to me. Indeed, after reading one commenter's response : "why shud i be surprised that quality was not one of the criteria cited by your expert?" I was more than a little surprised myself. How did this listener translate my statements to conclude that quality was something unimportant to me?

So I went back and listened to the interview again and, well, there it was...in digital sound:
Winkleman: "OK, so there really is a system."

Kestenbaum: "Yep, a system for pricing art. At least for new emerging artists, like the artists at Winkleman's gallery. And it has almost nothing to do with how good the art may be."
In hindsight I think there's a bit of interpretation bias in the commenter's response, but I'll leave that at that.

My statements were specifically offered in the context of all else being equal and an emerging artist having essentially no market of any note for their work yet, but the wider context (the one I presumed everyone would know that I was considering this question within) is the gallery itself. In case it's not clear, this is a context in which after looking at thousands of works of art over the past few decades, doing untold hundreds of studio visits, and continuously looking, reading, and talking with curators, critics, collectors, and artists about contemporary art, I (or a curator or exhibition organizer I have good reason to trust) make choices that I believe (strongly) reflect extraordinary quality among the artwork being created today. That's the only way a work of art makes it onto the walls of our gallery. To my mind, by simply being there, my accounting for its high quality is implied.

Of course, this still leaves open the question of quality determining price among works by the same artist of equal size, medium, and intensity. But at this point, we're really splitting hairs.

Not that I mind splitting hairs, mind you:

Say, for example, a show includes 10 paintings of nearly equal "intensity" (that is, how much work obviously went into them...hyper-detailed work sometimes warranting a higher price, but not always) and each sized exactly 24" x 36". Generally speaking, I'd encourage the artist to price each of those works at the same price, even though a viewer (or the artist) might feel that painting 5, for example, is much, much better than painting 8.

I've had the conversation with artists. "Painting 5 should be more money," they'll argue. "It's a much better piece." And often, in my opinion, they'll be right about that. It's rare for any exhibition with multiple works by the same artist to be of the exact same quality from piece to piece.

On the other hand, while the artist and I and perhaps a majority of other people will agree painting 5 is the best in the show, others might disagree...for some, painting 2 might be their favorite. At that point, rather than potentially insult their tastes and, more importantly, rather than creating some byzantine system for adding to or subtracting from the price according to mostly subjective criteria, it simply makes life much easier all the way around to keep the prices the same.

Of course this is in the primary market and for artists with emerging-artist-sized markets. Once there is serious widespread demand for the work and especially in the secondary market, perceptions of quality begin to separate out the more expensive from the less expensive works by any artist.

Consider this an open thread on splitting hairs in pricing art.

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13 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"... And it has almost nothing to do with how good the art may be."

Taken out of context like this that comment does sound a bit odd. However even without taking into account the highly selective process it takes for an artist to get on the walls of a gallery, how do we measure quality of new art? Certainly we're not talking about the art with the best craftsmanship, nor would it be entirely accurate to say and that the best art adheres to a certain ideal of what art is. I think it is entirely fair to say that the quality of a work of art is largely determined over time. When it comes to established artists, we use their own personal history to help determine quality, but even that doesn't always hold up in the long run.
I think "how good the art may be" is still an unknown for most new art. Of course, those of us who have been around in the field a while know enough about the past and present currents to be able to pick out what is more likely to be good now, and in 10 years, and in 100 years, but we may or may not be right.

I have certainly had the experience that something I initially thought was crap snuck up on me at some point & surprised me with how good it actually was ... and visa versa.

-Saskia

6/29/2010 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Good point Saskia. Especially with artist intentionally pushing the envelope, determining what is "quality" requires a bit of a gut check. Relying solely on craftmanship would be nice and easy, but what only looks well-made today might look entirely obvious or boring tomorrow despite the skill involved. Art needs to have staying power to be truly high quality. That certain "it" factor.

6/29/2010 10:27:00 AM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

Something that I have heard of is collectors – especially less experienced ones – going with a less expensive work by a given artist to limit their exposure and then later wishing they had gone with a more expensive one. Not because they would have gotten greater appreciation, but simply because they “really wanted” the more expensive work. It may be a “quality” issue, or it may simply be a size issue. Either way, maybe they’ll go back and buy more – or maybe they’ll let their sense of regret sour them on the artist and not come back.

To the extent this is true, I’m thinking the best strategy for the artist/gallery is to avoid price differences as much as possible within a single body of work and offer no temptation to the collector to buy anything other than the piece they like the best (of what’s still unsold). That would mean avoiding multiple sizes of the same basic work (dramatic differences are probably OK, like one or two mural sized pieces next to a larger number of “normal” sized ones); and it would certainly mean avoiding pricing pieces differently within a size based on quality in the sense of “the ones people are going to want the most”.

It seems to me that if the artist/gallery really wants to have multiple price points they should do it by putting out multiple bodies of work (sets, series, projects, whatever) that are different enough that a collector will first decide which one they are most interested in and then buy what they want most within that one (or, better, buy from more than one).

I also think the same kinds of reasoning might apply across artists as well. If a collector is out to buy something from a new artist and they narrow it down to three they are interested in, if the prices are all comparable they will have no temptation to avoid the “overpriced” or go with the “bargain” and they can simply buy what they like best and be happy with it.

Apologies if most of this is straight out of Edward’s book (or somebody else’s book for that matter). I’ve read so much about art pricing in the last few months that I can keep straight where my ideas on the subject come from.

6/29/2010 11:52:00 AM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Look at every other industry, from fashion to automobiles to snow blowers. There are the high-end products, the more affordable mid-range products, and the economy lines. There are also store sales, clearance sales, factory outlets and job lots.

I'm not for a moment suggesting we go that complex route, but the idea of a range of works in a range of prices, and perhaps multiples, give both the artist and the dealer some flexibility, as well as the collector (and that's not even taking into account the inevitable "courtesy" discount).

I couldn't imaging pricing same-size works differently, even though I may love one more than the other. The bookkeeping would be daunting, and as Ed points out, "favorite" is in the eye and mind of the beholder.

BTW, when artists and dealers discuss art, we tend to take certain concepts for granted, like integrity and quality. That's the problem with discussing art with a lay audience. Just because we don't talk about it doesn't mean it isn't a primary concern. (We don't often talk about breathing, but that doesn't mean it's not essential.)

6/29/2010 01:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Nico said...

I buy 'cuz I fancy the piece, not because I think it has a place in the market or that it might increase in monetary or historic value. ( Besides, even if I could move my one or two pictures that are almost "sellable", I just couldn't do it.)

Maybe I'm naive, but for me pricing simply comes down to the notion that an artist (and dealer) should ideally be able to make a living from making (and selling) work. For better or worse, the market has its' way of refining the pricing of labour and things.

6/29/2010 02:27:00 PM  
Blogger StephenTruax said...

The 'quality' of the work (This painting is a much better piece than the others.) is secondary to the significance of the work to the artist's practice. Even in young and emerging artists' work, there tend to be seminal or turning-point works that mean a lot to the artist. Those, to me, seem to indicate a higher quality of thinking and exploration, and thus should equate a higher price. I would like to see a move away from superficial likes and dislikes of collectors or peer artists.

6/29/2010 02:43:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

[BTW I am enjoying hearing the artist’s side of this issue and am not trying to antagonize anyone, just trying to share what I’ve heard.]

Joanna, I question how much art really is like any other industry, especially when talking about works (products) from a single artist (manufacturer). I can see two tiers, but not three – the artistic analog of the economy line in particular seems very dubious to me. I heard Alex Soth (the Gagosian-represented photographer) say last year that he regrets letting cheap versions of his work get into circulation because they have created “confusion” in the marketplace.

Also, I was under the impression that art doesn’t allow – or at least strongly frowns upon – the equivalent of the store sales, clearance sales, factory outlets and job lots that you mention. Unless maybe this has changed since the last crash.

Stephen, I think it makes sense to increase prices of an artist’s new work as it becomes better (more evolved, more sophisticated). But I think you can do it once the baseline price has been set by actual sales, or is clearly in a difference category (different size, different medium, different “intensity”). If an artist starts with level A work and doesn’t sell much of anything and then moves on to level B work and does sell, does this create a market for the level A work, or does it relegate it to the status of juvenilia (i.e. before the start of the artist’s real work)?

I hear what you’re saying about wanting to sell to people who can appreciate the work at a sophisticated level, but I’m not sure how realistic that is for the majority of buyers, especially at the lower end.

6/29/2010 06:19:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

@ John: I certainly wouldn't want to be with a gallery that had store sales, clearance sales, factory outlets, etc. My point is simply that there are many ways to market what we make--and if we as artists and dealers want to sell enough to earn a living, we need to be aware of how the marketplace works.There are methods that we might adopt. The alternative for many artists is to work crummy, dead-end, soul-sucking jobs to support themselves instead of being inventive about how to get their work into the artworld and actually earn a living from their talent.

6/29/2010 07:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with you Nico, I've got a collector friend who has several pieces he could make money on, but refuses to sell. He also has several pieces that have dropped in value but mentioned that he doesn't care. He bought the work simply because he connected with it and likes it, regardless of its current "value". Its not necessarily about treating art as a stock.
Maybe this is too simplistic but a car dealer once told me that it has nothing to do with what something is worth, it has everything to do with what someone will pay for it.

Tom

6/29/2010 08:30:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

Joanne, I totally agree with you that artists should have as good a shot as anyone else at making a decent living from the profession that they have committed to. The problem is, there just doesn’t seem to be enough work. Leaving aside government subsidies, there are three logically possible solutions: (a) increase the cost of art, (b) grow the market for art, or (c) reduce the number of artists.

Of the three I think (b) is both the best in terms of maximization of benefit to society (less artists semi/unemployed, more people enriching their lives with art) and the most practicable. The biggest untapped market segment at this point is the American middle class (not to exclude other groups.) If the average American household would spend on art what they now spend for game consoles and flat screen TVs, the world would be a better place.

But is it possible? First, is it possible for artists to address this audience and still retain their status as participants in the “real” art market, with its high prices and avant-garde pretensions. Can it find a channel for their work where it can maintain its identity as art and not be lumped together with the lines of massed-produced anonymous hangables and table toppers that decorate the showrooms of Crate & barrel and IKEA (or Anthropologie)?

And second, can artists make work which will sell to an audience which knows little if anything of art history and rarely if ever ventures into art galleries? To do so they need to embrace accessibility and produce work which appeals to unsophisticated buyers on the basis of aesthetics and subject matter and does not depend on insider knowledge to be “gotten” – or at least no more than what can be gleaned from a fashion or style magazine.

I know this sounds like a dummy-down if not an outright sellout, but I prefer to think of it as getting back to basics. Art that’s only about art is an academic exercise. It has to be about life to be genuinely meaningful. It doesn’t have to be literal, but it has to touch the human spirit in some way.

I have two young adult daughters and both are attracted to handcrafted objects. They pick up an aura from them that they don’t get from machine-made goods. They want to know who made them, where and in what kind of setting (e.g. what kind of working conditions). They’re aware of technique and aesthetic sensibility. I can see them buying art, if it was being sold in a place they where they are comfortable, from the artists themselves or from people who knew them. Anything from a fleamarket or stall to an independent boutique or design store would work for them. At this stage of their lives I think they would pay up to the cost of a pair of shoes. I can see the limit going up as they get older, but I doubt it would pass the cost of designer label boots. (Though I could be wrong about that.)

That’s just one datapoint (or should I say two) that I know first-hand, but it does say to me that a market is there, if there were only a way for artists to reach it without sacrificing their status and ambitions as “real” artists.

6/30/2010 08:01:00 AM  
Blogger Tracie Thompson said...

First, is it possible for artists to address this audience and still retain their status as participants in the “real” art market, with its high prices and avant-garde pretensions.

John, thank you so much for this.

I want to break down the barrier -- largely created by the Art World itself -- that keeps average people away from, and afraid of, art.

For myself, I choose that middle-class audience. I know it means I'll never be the big star, but it does mean I get to make things that have meaning to me.

6/30/2010 12:34:00 PM  
Anonymous John Legweak said...

I talked to an artist friend at an opening last night. He is about my age and has two daughters about my daughters’ ages.

I threw up the idea of reaching the middle class with art and he gave a pretty pessimist response. His main points were:

Most middle class people have no interest in art.

Those that do think of it as something to look at but not to buy.

Artists who sell through channels aimed at middle class buyers run a high risk of losing their status as “real” artists and getting lumped into a separate category that generally commands little respect.

Of his two daughters he said one is already involved in art and will probably stay involved and other has no interest and probably won’t develop one.

I suggested that changing middle class attitudes towards art might have to be a generational thing, something that will happen in coming years in the high school and college years, but he was doubtful.

I left the show soon after feeling mildly depressed.

7/01/2010 01:23:00 PM  
Blogger Tracie Thompson said...

Having spent ten years as a painter of murals, mostly in middle-class homes, I have a different take than your artist friend.

I think most Americans aren't disinterested in art, so much as frightened of showing interest because they fear showing their ignorance. The first thing I always had to do with clients was get them to understand that it was okay to talk to me, that I didn't think their questions were stupid, that I was just a regular person with something of an unusual job. The insecurity I've run into -- even in people who've built million-dollar businesses from scratch and are incredibly intelligent -- is astounding.

And in my opinion, that entrenched belief that "those people" don't like/care about/buy art is a huge part of that problem. People perceive that negative attitude on our part, and respond to it with more insecurity, and the cycle continues.

I think they care a lot more than we art types imagine; it's just that they don't feel it's safe to engage with us. A little respect for our audience would do the art world a lot of good.

7/01/2010 02:03:00 PM  

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