Monday, January 28, 2013

Displaying Prices in Art Galleries

In the context of an article exploring the need for more regulation of the art market, with a list of examples of questionable practices in the current system, New York Times reporters Robin Pogrebin and Kevin Flynn raise again the issue of galleries not posting prices of the work for sale in their spaces.

Part of me believes these journalists simply wanted to flesh out their main topic with as many examples of "problems" as possible. By that, I mean, I don't see why this is really a newsworthy "problem." In the 10+ years I've been in the art business, I have never once heard anyone complain unprompted about the lack of prices being posted other than journalists. In fact, Pogrebin and Flynn more or less concede there is no evidence of a public outraged by the status quo:
Many in the art world insist there is no need for further scrutiny of a market that prompts few consumer complaints and is vital to the New York economy. [...] Consumer affairs officials declined to be interviewed or to detail whether any galleries were cited last year for violating the pricing law. In the past the agency’s inspectors have focused on industries that draw the largest share of complaints, like home-improvement contracting.
I'm personally not a big fan of wasting taxpayers' money to enforce laws that no one is complaining about, especially when it's not even clear to me that the law is sound. Let's leave aside for the moment the aesthetic ramifications of having to post prices on the wall next to the artwork, and look at the inconsistencies/ambiguities of the law itself:
New York New York City Administrative Code(new) - Subchap. 2 - § 20-708 Display of Total Selling Price by Tag or Sign § 20-708 Display of total selling price by tag or sign.

All consumer commodities, sold, exposed for sale or offered for sale at retail except those items subject to section 20-708.1 of this code, shall have conspicuously displayed, at the point of exposure or offering for sale, the total selling price exclusive of tax by means of (a) a stamp, tag or label attached to the item or (b) by a sign at the point of display which indicates the item to which the price refers, provided that this information is plainly visible at the point of display for sale of the items so indicated. This section shall not apply to consumer commodities displayed in the window of the seller.
Why is it that the law does not apply to commodities displayed in the window?

I can imagine two obvious reasons retailers would object to having to put prices in their windows and lawmakers wouldn't make them. First would be because it would potentially dissuade potential buyers from even coming into the store, where (had they not suffered sticker shock on the street) they might learn from the sales staff how that item differs from similar, yet perhaps inferior, items the customer is familiar with or why that item is a good value at that price. Second, though, is that items in a window display (as opposed to those on a rack or shelf) are often placed within very carefully considered compositions designed to make a statement (this sweater will make you look playful on the ski slopes or this jacket looks good next to an antique globe of the world and will make you look scholarly or sophisticated). The careful composition of the window display could not communicate this as well if it had to incorporate price tags.

Similarly, the installation of art in a gallery is very carefully considered and is often, in and of itself, a part of the artist's expression. Formal relationships between works, as well as simply the space to consider the work on its own terms (and not as a commodity, even though it might be one in a larger context) are an important part of the art viewing experience. If the law doesn't require prices in the window of a retail space because of either of those reasons, can't the argument be made that it's inconsistent to require posted prices in a gallery where both reasons are an integral part of the very gallery concept?

Now, let me note that in our gallery we offer multiple copies of a full checklist with prices and thumbnail images at the desk for anyone who wants to take one with them as they view the show. We are attempting to comply with the spirit of the law (as well as to sell art), without interrupting the viewing experience for those who'd rather not have price tags hanging from the artwork or labels on the wall.

But I've never once felt put out in a gallery that doesn't have a price list (if I'm seriously interested, I'll ask what a work costs). Moreover, I don't tend to visit the sort of gallery that posts prices next to the work. So I'm personally not sure why this issue keeps coming up in the press. Perhaps...and I'm just wondering out loud here... it's because the lack of posted prices confirms some journalists' resentment that if you have to ask you can't afford it. From the Time's article:
Perhaps nothing illustrates the art market’s laissez-faire spirit better than the way galleries flout New York City’s “truth in pricing” law. It says items for sale, including art, must have a price tag conspicuously displayed. None of 10 galleries visited at random this month had posted prices, though a few smaller ones produced price lists when asked. At the David Zwirner gallery in Chelsea a woman at the front desk seemed indignant when asked if she had a price list.
“I do not,” she said.
She was probably indignant because she knew you were asking only to make a point of asking.

Seriously, though, I can't fathom what would it do for those journalists to see prices posted next to the work on the walls. If the painting is $100,000 or $600,000 is there any greater likelihood that price is relevant to their personal viewing experience? If so, why?

If not, why are they making such a big deal out of them not being there? Again, if this practice prompted complaints to the government on a regular basis, perhaps I could see the Times' "exposé" serving some public good. As it is, though, it really seems much ado about nothing.


Blogger Stuart said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/28/2013 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Stuart said...

Hi, I read your column and the article today about the 'price' of art.
1.In reality nobody sets the price of art but the buyer. a gallery can ask anything they want but it wont sell till the buyer is happy.

2. I remember reading maybe 10 years ago that a gallery with inventory less than a certain amount (I cant recall if its 100k or 1m) is exempt from posting prices.

1/28/2013 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous Virginia Bryant said...

too. many. laws.

1/28/2013 12:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

So long as the gallery offers a price list, I am satisfied. I don't necessarily need to see prices posted next to the art, but if a price list is not available at all, it raises some suspicions in my mind such as:

(a) My presence is not wanted in this gallery, as it is assumed I am not a serious buyer and can't afford the art. ("If you have to ask, you can't afford it.")
(b) There may be one price for outsiders, and another for insiders or "regulars."
(c) The gallery, which is after all a store, is putting on a facade of being a museum, where after all nothing except the contents of the gift ship is for sale.

I don't insist on seeing prices next to the art (obviously, how can I), but when I do so, e.g. at various art fairs, I have a feeling of reaassuring candor on the part of the gallery.

1/28/2013 12:52:00 PM  
Blogger Stuart said...

The public has a right to know what something cost so they can evaluate the possibility of purchasing it. I work in a gallery and most everything has a price card with description, artists name, etc...

1/28/2013 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Totally a certain level sales aren't made to people walking in off the street. A gallery isn't a store, in a traditional sense, it's a private dealership which is open to the public.

1/28/2013 01:49:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...

Products are bought, money is exchanged, a customer departs with the goods. Ergo a store. Not all galleries are "private dealerships" by any means. Certainly E. Winkleman, from whom I have bought three pieces as someone walking in off the street, is not. I would instead distinguish two strata of galleries (just like two strata of restaurants): one type of gallery that deliberately excludes anyone beneath a highly restrictive social and economic limit, the other that follows a more democratic model and offers work that the average person has a fair chance of acquiring. But still both are stores.

1/28/2013 03:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Larry is indeed the exact kind of collector we love most to engage with and exactly why we try as best we can to be as accessible as possible.

I think there are some important differences (with regards to display) between a gallery and, say, a clothing store that might clarify my position here, though.

First (and related to the window display exemption in the law, in my opinion) is that for work in the actual exhibition, you can't simply depart with it even if you put down cash. You most generally need to wait until the exhibition is over before you can take the work home. That puts the art in an exhibition squarely in the same category as items in a store window, in my opinion. While a clothes seller may eventually take an item out a the window and place it on the racks with other items, while it's in the window it's serving a different purpose. Art in an exhibition is as well.

I know the parallel's not exact, but to my mind it excuses not having prices on the wall or at least, as I noted in the post, exposes an ambiguity within the law.

1/28/2013 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger Robert said...

I don't care about the price of a piece is when I am looking at it, to me if I like it it is invaluable. If I want to purchase something I will ask, and if it is not within my budget, which many are not, I will respect it and continue to enjoy it while I can. So in short, prices are a distraction.

1/28/2013 10:44:00 PM  
Anonymous Larry said...


Yes, there is some validity there. An exhibit is mounted to run for some time so that as many people as possible can see the work before it is sold (in which case it becomes private property and may never be seen publicly again) or retired to storage.

None of this IMO detracts from the fact that the dealer is looking to sell as much work as possible and the collector is looking to buy what appeals and what (s)he can afford.

And yet the clothing store analogy does apply pretty closely in the case of an art fair, where the duration of the event is so brief and in many cases the work is sold cash-and-carry.

1/28/2013 10:56:00 PM  
Anonymous zipthwung said...

Why does art cost so much, man. it's just not cool.
Auctions are for sad little men.

1/28/2013 11:12:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well Zipthwung, The price of Great Art is Always Blood.

The Price is always Blood . For Greatness in anything.

I have a Sculpture called The Price is always Blood . bUT ITS NOT gREAT YET.

1/29/2013 08:45:00 AM  
Anonymous Gam said...

As pointed to, it reads like a minimum 2 million annual sales exemption and Art might fall in the specialty trade exemption?

If not, maybe the NY gallery art world should talk to the comissioner to stop future bad press.

(c) Engages primarily in the sale of food for consumption on the
premises or in a specialty trade which the commissioner determines, by
rule, would be inappropriate for item pricing.

1/29/2013 11:27:00 AM  
Anonymous Alefan said...

I'm not sure I subscribe to the concept of 'wasting' tax-payers money. All government spending is good. Well apart from on Defence perhaps. But it moves money around a mite quicker than many other ways and thus helps to generate a healthy economy.

2/07/2013 10:46:00 AM  
Anonymous Bonnie Albright said...

I'd like to make a few comments about the pricing art dialogue. As I read the regulation quoted on your blog, the first thing that popped into my mind was “Of course, the pricetag in a window display doesn’t need to be visible, because the price tag is on the bottom of the product, which can’t be turned over by the customer viewing it through glass.” I was surprised that this option wasn’t one of the obvious two possibilities that you list. As I thought about this, three main ideas emerged.

First, while department stores with large window-dressing budgets may fall into the situation you describe, most small businesses grab pre-priced products from the shelves and put them in the window. Products may be priced on the bottom, or on the back. And clothing is often priced inside the back collar of a garment or far at the end of a sleeve. I would argue that a lot of products in small business owner’s display windows are actually priced, but you just can't reach in to access these prices. This is what I feel the state regulation is permitting in its caveat.

Second, in both small and large retail space careful attention is paid to merchandising aesthetics throughout the retail selling floor, and it is common for tags to be placed slightly out of view. If we suggest that any aesthetically designed display of items for sale (art, products, clothing) is exempt from visible pricing, then the need for price labeling is further blurred, and, I would argue, moves against the underlying intent of the state regulation.

Third, my personal experience is that art can be tastefully priced and this pricing is an opportunity for additional creativity (and even education of the customer, depending on the market). Unpriced art is snobbish, and it implies, whether purposive or not, that the price depends on the purchaser. This is exactly what the NY regulation is guarding against, and unfortunatly, we are not past an age of racism, anti-semitism, and elitism that would throw a barrier between a customer and a purchase.

2/19/2013 04:47:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Uh...not sure I want people handling the art in my gallery to try and find a hidden price tag or play a game of hide-and-seek in any form, rather than focus on contemplating the artist's work as they would have it viewed.

Actually I lie. I'm entirely sure I don't want that, and neither do my artists, regardless of how "tastefully" someone feels art could be priced.

I also entirely disagree that not doing so is snobbish.

For just one example of why that's a wrong-headed approach, the art in an exhibition may no longer be (or may never have been) for sale...and to avoid charges of "snobbishness" as well as interrupt the way the artist would like the work to be seen, that too is supposed to be posted somehow?

I think there are better ways.

In fact, I cite one in the original post. Multiple copies of readily available price lists with thumbnails. Anything more demanding than that is ridiculously unreasonable in my opinion.

2/19/2013 05:05:00 PM  
Anonymous Alli Berman said...

I think people are naturally curious and just plain nosy in general - and New Yorkers in particular - always wanting to know "how much did THAT cost" talking to total strangers about real estate, clothing, STUFF...

Galleries are there to sell art. That said, I love going into a gallery that gives me a museum viewing experience - some wall card info so I can try to understand the art or just a number and then I appreciate a separate price sheet - those that have a thumbnail next to the info is simple, clear and is easy to read.

I guess you could say a gallery IS a store - that's one point of view - but I would rather think of it as a space that values art and artists and wants to share their opinions and ideas with the public. The exchange of money is secondary. People who are looking at price first can always find something in Walmart or Ikea to fill their walls ... :)

2/23/2013 02:38:00 AM  

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