Displaying Prices in Art Galleries
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.Why is it that the law does not apply to commodities displayed in the window?
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.
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.
She was probably indignant because she knew you were asking only to make a point of asking.“I do not,” she said.
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.