Thursday, June 30, 2011

Does This Painting Make Me Look Rich? || Open Thread

Bambino Murat and I had a very interesting conversation with an art dealer in Berlin when we were there. Unlike many Americans, who tend to only buy art once they've run out of other things to spend their disposable income on, many middle-class Europeans, he said, will make a point of saving up to purchase a good piece of original artwork for their home. It's a similar priority to how many middle-class Americans buy a sports car. A status symbol, for sure, but one that usually only gets purchased after life's necessities are taken care of (a home, the children's college fund, a solid nest egg, etc.).

Still buying original art is a priority in those middle-class Europeans' lives. Unlike in the US where buying original art is generally seen as a rich person's game.

Of course, there are the occasional efforts to democratize art here, efforts to focus on volume rather than value, but they're usually marginalized or seen as mostly insignificant by the power brokers in the art world. The main focus of the art industry here is on raising value, thereby raising prices with an eye on raising profits (which is fair enough, the art business being a business like any other). But in the short-run that is accomplished via more investment (more catalogs, more lavish parties, larger art fair booths, more cash incentives for the hotter artists to defect to your stable, more travel to keep up with the NetJet set, etc. etc.), all with an eye on generating demand among the very wealthy. Art for the middle-class is simply not a priority. It really can't be in this system.

Of course in the example our Berlin friend provided, art for the middle-class is a priority in Europe because the demand was already there. Generations of families saw acquiring at least one work of original art as simply what you do with your money. The middle-class here overwhelmingly prioritizes a sports car instead.

I had a conversation with an artist the other day, someone I've known a long time and seen his career ebb and flow, and after a while he asked me point blank: "Why do they do it? Why do collectors buy art? I still can't figure it out." He asked as if he hoped my answer would, I don't know, either provide solace that he's not selling much (i.e., the whole thing is illogical, so don't worry about it, it's not you or your art) or provide direction on whether to cater to the market or finally decide he never would. We eventually agreed to agree that loving what you do in your studio is the only reason to ever be an artist, but we got there via a wide ranging discussion on why collectors do buy.

You need look no further than at what the galleries are selling to understand why collectors are buying. Of course there is no one-size-fits-all answer to that. But there are several categories of answers.

I once had a conversation with a young man who had, for about three months I think, been the director at a very hot emerging gallery with locations on two continents. He said it took him about three days to realize that the gallery was not really selling art (although a lot of product was being moved), but rather they were selling a life-style. I immediately recognized the truth of what he had said. Whether it's hipness or intellectualism or warm-and-fuzziness or a quiet reassurance that there are transcendent pockets in this rocky road we call life or, rather, a blinding rock-n-roll-ish exuberance, nearly every gallery I know is selling a particular life-style to their clients. Via the art they show, sure, but still.

You can zoom out from life-styles, though, to see the broader categories of what galleries are selling. Some galleries are selling prestige. Some exclusivity. Some are selling history. Some are selling opportunities (for cashing in or simply being first). Some are selling simple, sublime distractions from the pressures and anxieties of their clients' hectic lives.

Art is fabulous, because it can be a vehicle for all that. And yet, we expect it to be so much more than that.

I read an article recently about a collector who admitted that he hadn't actually seen a good portion of his collection. Most of it was in storage. I know many collectors who have more work than they have wall space to hang it on at any given time. Many such collectors end up opening their own museums or exhibition spaces, which I love and greatly admire them for. Such collectors tend to evolve into philanthropic figures within the art world. They're not so much merely "buying" as "supporting," ensuring that there's enough money in the system to provide real opportunities for the artists still struggling to reach their full potential. Clearly not everyone has the resources or even interest to be an art world philanthropist, but there's no higher reason for buying art, in my humble opinion.

Consider this an open thread on why people buy art.

Labels: art collecting


Anonymous Elizabeth said...

Another factor really depends on a society's tax structure, distribution of wealth, etc. The US has a large wealth divide, but in Europe the middle class is healthier due to more social programs and higher taxes evening out the wealth gap. And in Europe there is little stigma or pretension associated with contemporary art, whereas in the USA many seem to view it with some suspicion of elitism.

In Australia their Superannuation retirement savings (similar to 401K's in the USA) can be invested in art, so most of the middle-class has significant income that can be invested in art, along with stocks and other investment options. This has led to a very healthy art market, the expansion of the auction houses there, and, occasionally, mediocre artists who manage to sell their work for high prices because people like to 'buy Australian'. When the government considered exempting art from the Superannuation program, the Australian art market temporarily crashed, then revived once the government decided to leave well enough alone.

6/30/2011 09:28:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

excellent comment Elizabeth...many thanks!

6/30/2011 09:36:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just one thing: what your friend told you is true for Germany, Nederlands, Norway, Denmark... But not for Southern Europe (Portugal, Italy, Greece, even France...) After a lot of years working in an art gallery in Spain, I can tell you that here the sports car is the absolute priority (tons of snobs, indeed).

I think that North Europeans could teach us to thought about art no just as an status symbol... But wait, because that might be changing for bad:

6/30/2011 09:47:00 AM  
Blogger nina said...

I am Northern European living in New York. I am also an artist.
I started out as a painter and then went into photography, because I saw it as a medium that could reach more people. I liked the idea that photography provided a multiple and that a good photograph could sometimes be found in a magazine and for a couple of dollars it could end up on my wall. That was when I was in my teens and 20s. Now in my late thirties, I crave 'the object' and I have become wary of my own medium. And I feel conflicted about market trends where you can buy a reproduction of a work at various online outlets for cheap. On one hand I think it is great to engage people with the visual and to have them actively buy. And perhaps it will inspire some to become actual art collectors. Perhaps it will be a gateway for some. On the other hand I worry about this concept of affordable art. Because at twenty to fifty dollars it is not affordable but cheap. Yes, the artist will perhaps gain exposure, but financially it is not viable to sell one's efforts at such prices.
And even if you want to give your work away for cheap or free , I feel there better ways of doing so -- like Zoe Strauss I 95 project for example.
I of course can only speak from my perspective, but growing up I was taught to think long-term and was steered away from consumerism. It was always about buying one nice pair of shoes that would last a long time instead of buying a couple that would fall apart and end up in the landfill.
This cultural attitude is a legacy of Europe having lived through two world wars and Europe having limited space and natural resources.
And I think this attitude also informs how people think and value art.

6/30/2011 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger jaisini said...

Edward, what a treat thanks for sharing your thoughts and educating others. This is a sublime critical look at the art business -- art galleries selling a life-style, selling prestige, selling exclusivity, selling history, selling opportunities, selling simple, sublime distractions from the pressures and anxieties of their clients' hectic lives. I would add to the last that people who don't love art proud of being to some degree in full denial of it somehow find their way to the very venue they thought as excessive and useless for their daily life when they endure emotional pain and need destruction. So this way add to the list gallery sells clean, chemical free medication and therapy when someone's soul is in dare need to find new environment and create new memories.
respectfully yours. eykg

6/30/2011 10:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The last art i bought was at a artist flea market .One was a black and white beautiful photograph of a massive oak tree in the middle of a field with nothing else surrounding it. The artist was a photography student.

The other work were these outstanding drawings by a crazy person who said he was inventing his own language and this was the beginning of it. You know what, I believed him.

If these drawings were supersized I am positive a NYC Blue Chip Boiler Room Gallery could sell these for the Tall Coin.

I have to see the truth in art for me to purchase it.

6/30/2011 11:45:00 AM  
Anonymous A Blade of Grass said...

Hi Edward,

Is art fabulously inhabiting lifestyle, prestige, etc... or is the context in which its being marketed and sold doing that?

I mean, if you take two identical steel sculptures and put one in a public plaza and the other in Matthew Marks, only one embodies or projects a lifestyle or exclusivity, and it does so regardless of the artists' vision, skill or intent. The other is either an obstacle or a social instrument, depending on artists' skill, vision, intent. If you put a third identical sculpture on E-bay, then it becomes something else entirely. To some it becomes less than worthless because it is art without an imprimatur. To others, perhaps it is a doorway into things like what Anon 11:45 sees... qualities that are all about the artist's skill, vision, intent.

I don't want to make an overly simplistic argument against capitalism or for some narrowly defined skill set for artists. I'm a capitalist, and enjoy being sold a lifestyle myself--I'm soaking in it. And when I say skills, I mean anything from rhetorical or conceptual skills to the ability to push paint around a canvas. Tino Seghal and Francis Alys have mad skills.

I just think that there are contexts that are more powerful for artists than the gallery--contexts in which artists can more actively wield what the art (as opposed to context) fabulously inhabits or does.

Regarding whether the middle class gets involved as in Europe, I think that it's easier to commit finite resources to something that's touching your Inherent Value button. Galleries seem to depend on manufacturing value so much that it's hard to not see it as foolish if you aren't wealthy.

That said, the Berlin gallery scene is awesome, but it isn't structurally different than ours or anything. There are obviously lots of other cultural differences (like taxes and subsidies) at work.

Thanks for a great topic!

--Deborah Fisher

6/30/2011 02:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Gam said...

I wonder..., the European who saves to buy art for his home and the North American who saves to buy a moving piece of art for the highway .... maybe it's just a difference of space. Is the NA's place of shared space on the open road, and the E's place of shared space in between his own 4 walls and a ceiling? One static, the other moving dependent upon where it can be enjoyed among others?

6/30/2011 03:15:00 PM  
Anonymous Damian Christinger said...

Dear Edward
I love your blog, and have read every thing you wrote, so I should start to contribute...

Of course we sell a life-style, but I truly believe that this is just a subcategory... In the end we sell ideas, and as the history of ideas shows us: ideas are about a fashion or trends or how you want to present yourself.
But they also have a subversive quality, what I want to say is this: Even if a rich snobbish collector buys a piece for the wrong reasons (status for example), deep down, he wants to participate in something he doesn't understand, in ideas that change his poor life...

6/30/2011 06:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

A viewer becomes a buyer to commemorate his relationship with the artist or the gallery. This is the only common thread I can find among collectors. It seems to hold true even for collectors with a good, independent eye. Parting with money in exchange for art is a social act, that independence not withstanding. In the long term, the Internet is going to affect the art market by multiplying the ways in which those relationships can form.

7/01/2011 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

A viewer becomes a buyer to commemorate his relationship with the artist

That deserves to be parsed a bit, though, in light of the fact that some collectors like to meet the artists and have their own personal relationship with them in the traditional sense of the word, while others prefer not to meet the artists (for a wide range of reason), leaving the "relationship" a much more abstract one.

The Internet will indeed affect the market and possibly even how collectors who prefer not to meet artists feel about dealing with them directly, but this subsection of the collecting public will likely still prefer to work through an agent.

7/01/2011 10:20:00 AM  
Anonymous Elizabeth said...

@Deborah you're right about the subsidies in Berlin. A Berlin-based journalist I recently met exclaimed, "How can American artists survive in such a capitalist system?" All the artists he knew in Berlin depended on subsidies.

Then he went on to complain how Berlin had lost their edge. (Side note, I've just started this book today, an intriguing look into the earlier years of the scene there:

@Franklin Yes the internet is increasing how collectors and artists can connect, but for contemporary art worth more than three or four figures, most acknowledge that a viewing and a dealer's stamp of approval are prerequisites.

7/01/2011 02:17:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

Note that I said "the artist or the gallery." The collector who prefers not to meet the artist is instead commemorating his relationship with the gallery. This is all the more true in the case Elizabeth brings up, that of the collector who desires the dealer's stamp of approval. I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with this, by the way.

7/01/2011 03:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Gwenn said...

When I hear people saying that the middle class art market in the US is non-existant, I'm always puzzled. The market is there. It's just being ignored by most artists and dealers because it requires a different sensibility.

In my experience, the middle class art market in the US deals in special. People at that level of income are not looking for a certain lifestyle or a status symbol or an investment when they buy art: they're interested in connection.

That might mean that the buyer commissions the art in order to be more involved in the making of the work, or it could be about finding a piece whose subject resonates deeply with them. It could even be a matter of the buyer getting to know the artist. Anything to make the experience of purchasing the art special.

7/01/2011 04:52:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting post and some equally interesting comments.
There was an article on the Guardian website by Jonathan Jones last Friday which is kind of related to this topic:
In the opening paragraph he says "Art is a luxury, the ultimate luxury. Imagine the glory of having an original work of art by a great artist on your wall. It beats the best car, the best helicopter. Art is money and if you want people to know your wealth, you must buy art."
As an artist myself I have always been baffled as to the reasons why people buy art. Although I own quite a bit of art that I have gathered over the years (mainly through swapping work with other artists), I have to admit that I have never bought a piece of art myself. And it is very rare that I have ever encountered a piece of art and had that overwhelming feeling “Oh I have to own that painting” or even a feeling of “I wish I owned that painting”. But I have been told that from collectors that I know these are the very feelings which they have when they discover a piece of art that they wish to own. A few years ago in an effort to understand this drive to collect a bit more I read all the books that I could find about collecting art and discovered that…. actually I discovered nothing. What Edward explains in this post is the best answer that I have found, basically there isn’t a single reason.

7/04/2011 05:19:00 AM  
Blogger Mark Staff Brandl said...

Some excellent comments, especially Elizabeth! (I live in Switzerland, but I am from Chicago --- I must add). And your post is on the nose Edward. Let me add a few details. because the middle class does this in Europe, they also make studio visits like curators and bigger collectors (quite enjoyable, I find). And they tend to "haunt" certain favorite galleries (good for both gallerist and artist). Thirdly, many eventually have a small collection, yet by being on art boards (such as at their work place and so on), they often help pressure, err inspire, businesses, schools, public buildings and so on to purchase work. It is a small but wonderful little situation of support.

7/04/2011 01:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Although I had been visiting museums for decades, I never thought of buying art until about four years ago. I started collecting for what may seem like an odd reason, though I'm sure it was not the only one: I had just had my apartment painted and for the first time I felt ambitious enough to use multiple bold colors. Suddenly just re-hanging my old posters from the Met and MoMA didn't seem to cut it anymore. Coincidentally, I had recently visited the Nassau Museum of Art, where at the time they sold art by local painters. I saw a piece of folk art I especially liked, the price was reasonable (around $425), and on an impulse I bought it. Maybe I felt I had to have it. I still like it very much and think it one of the best things I've seen from this artist.

Once you buy one work, you're always ready to buy another. I don't have the money to buy a piece of art equivalent in price to a Maserati, or even a Volkswagen, but somehow over the past few years I've found a number of pieces that suit my budget and elevate my home. At this point I would have to say I could have done without a dozen things I've bought that no longer interest me. But the things I like best from my collection are like old friends whom I continue wanting to see each week.

The idea that good original art is solely for the rich is, in my opinion, absolute nonsense. But this concept has become so hard-wired in the American mind that many don't even consider starting a collection. It's not necessary to restrict yourself to the low-priced giclée prints offered by some of the better-known online galleries either, but you have to keep your eyes open for reasonably priced work, generally from emerging artists. Although I have a few expensive (for me) pieces that I took a while to pay off to several galleries, a lot of my collection consists of work under $1000, sometimes considerably so. Yet I've still been able to acquire some fine work, for example two wonderful drawings that I bought (framed) from a reputable Chelsea dealer for $175 each. (The best explanation for the pricing came from another dealer I discussed this with: the artist is primarily a sculptor and so these are his throw-aways.)

My collection is a motley thing, with abstracts, landscapes, surrealism, that piece of folk art, a few small sculptures, and even some Japanese prints and original textiles from Panama and Guatemela. For all that, I've found my collection unified by a tendency towards detailed and intricate compositions like the Shane Hope pieces I've bought from Ed or the Daniel Zeller I bought from Pierogi. On the other hand there's a lot of stuff I see in galleries that I don't like at all, and I own very few photographs, no portraits of actual people (feels too personal), and I don't like abstracts that look like just a lot of paint thrown all over a canvas. Diverse as my collection is, I have to assume that in some way it represents something about how I see myself and how I want my walls to reflect my personality.

I tend not to seek out artists directly, though I have sometimes done so. My problem is that, even with artists I like, I may find that not all their pieces stand out and I don't know how to deal with the artist in those cases. I met one artist at a reception who had 3-4 pieces I thought were outstanding, but two dozen others I considered much less succesful. What do I say? (I just concentrated on the 3-4.)

I haven't stopped collecting, but I think my most intense phase is probably over. I don't know, however, if I'll ever stop. Just tonight I found a Japanese print I had been looking for. It had been snapped up before I could buy it at a gallery in New York, and then at a gallery in Honolulu. I promised myself that if I ever found another copy I'd buy it, no matter what. And so I sent an e-mail to a gallery I found online in Venice (not CA). I really have to have it.

7/06/2011 12:14:00 AM  
Anonymous Dave White said...

I have only started selling my paintings in the past year or so, and one of my first collectors has been a native of Denmark. After reading this, I can now make the connection between this and the value northern Europeans place on original artwork. I definitely admire countries that really support and promote artists.

7/06/2011 03:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Frank Steineck said...

@ Edward Winkleman: Winckelmann, in Germany is a stellar name, for the birth date 9. Dezember 1717. "Why do collectors buy art?" Well, I know why I buy none. I can havem and do tons of art for the very same reason most of them can not have art and it becomes a "I must have that!"

7/10/2011 02:17:00 PM  
Blogger findingfabulous said...

Tiny middle class collector here. I did not set out to collect art. I can only afford pieces I cannot afford to be without. I saw a painting in the background of a photo of a loft,tracked down the owner and them artist and ended up buying 4 works and commissioning 2 came from AFrica. The works were riveting. I wanted sculptures for my garden but hated everything. Google images "abstract sculpture" looked at almost everything on the internet :-) again a background picture of a piece at Brimfield. some intense stalking and the artist traveled from texas to LA with them. I collect when I see something I feel incomplete without.Driven purely by the feeling an object imparts. If i cannot find the object it is like an itch

8/04/2011 07:41:00 PM  

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