After my recent letter about the art market returning to happy times, I received a lot of personal emails. Some were from folks who said I was a spoiled brat and out of touch with the misery of today’s painters. Others told me I had a better grasp of economics than J.P. Morgan.
I admit there was something I missed in my letter. It was about rarity.
Art is like lobster. Ten years ago lobstermen were selling lobster off the boat for $6 a pound. These days they are lucky to get $2. It seems global warming has caused a bloom that has made them altogether too available. Lobsters aren’t rare anymore. It’s all about supply and demand. In the meantime, restaurants struggle to keep prices high and convince gourmets that lobster is still a luxury. It isn’t. Anytime soon, lobster could be as cheap as chicken.
These days, many painters are stuck with large inventories. There are many reasons. With all the workshops and learning opportunities now available, more painters are alive and well than ever before. Since 2008, fewer galleries are working to represent artists, and fewer customers are ready to buy their art. Further, with the advent of the Internet, the number of do-it-yourselfers online has flooded the market. Paintings aren’t rare anymore.
To sell art effectively, you need to keep things rare and fair.
Rothkos, DeKoonings and Pollocks, for example, fetched mighty prices because they were “controlled rare.” That is, dealers got hold of them and made sure the work got to the right places in a timely fashion. Unfortunately, these painters are also remarkably easy to fake. Recent events focusing on Ann Freedman, president of now defunct, formerly prestigious Knoedler and Company, managed to sell 63 Abstract Expressionist fakes, including the names mentioned above. U.S. authorities have charged Glafira Rosales with employing an elderly Queens resident Pei-Shen Qian to paint them.
In changing times, “economic disequilibrium” can be the norm. Throw in rotten lobsters, and things get even more out of whack.
The phrase “supply and demand” was first used by James Denham-Steuart in 1767. Pioneer economists Adam Smith and David Ricardo both used the term. For artists who might continue to thrive, rarity needs to be built in to what we do, both in our understanding of our times and the daily conduct of our creative lives.
PS: “If desire for goods increases while its availability decreases, its price rises. On the other hand, if availability of the good increases and the desire for it decreases, the price comes down.” (14th Century Arab scholar Ibn Taymiyyah)
Esoterica: What’s an artist to do? Working through reliable galleries tends to stabilize prices and manage availability. Dedicated artists are naturally going to produce more or less work at different points in their careers and spanning varying economic conditions. But the competitive (and welcome) free-for-all taking place right now is a challenge to some of the better galleries. Like lobster restaurants, they try to maintain choice, quality and price. They also stand behind their loyal artists and stay out of trouble.
Different situation in Australia
by Shirley Peters, Putney, NSW, Australia
Your style of gallery is a rarity here in Sydney. Our galleries show one artist at a time. I had my show in July, and I’ll be lucky to have another one at the same time next year. I can’t just deliver work and expect it to be hung next week. You have said in the past that your work is spread over a number of galleries? I suppose you have them in different places throughout the country? Was that hard to organize, or did an ‘agent’ do it for you? With one show a year, internet sales are the only way to sell.
(RG note) Thanks for that information, Shirley. In my case I used no agent to distribute my work to galleries in other cities. The galleries took them in one place because they were accepted in other places. I try to give my galleries exclusivity in their areas and I don’t worry about them if they don’t do any business for awhile. Some have shows and others never do.
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Reverse psychology in supply and demand
by Richard Gagnon, Knowlton, QC, Canada
Supply and demand is a funny thing. Typically, price goes up as the supply (rarity) goes down. In some items this tails off. There is only so much someone is willing to pay for chewing gum, assuming it does not contain heroin. Yachts, cars and paintings seem to be the exception although even in auctions for such as a Monet or a Bugatti Royale, buyers will only pay so much.
There was an interesting episode a few years ago (yes I’m dating myself) when Chivas Regal was a regular Scotch selling for about $6 a bottle. The manufacturer decided to up the price by 50 cents a bottle expecting that demand would drop off but that over all they would make more. It didn’t happen as expected. Supposedly the added price made it appear to be up scale and distinguished the buyer as someone who could afford the ‘best.’ It was still the same whiskey. The price was raised another 50 cents and the same phenomenon occurred. This repeated itself until the price hit in the order of $13.50 a bottle at which point the sales did tail off a little and the increases were stopped. It was still the same whiskey.
Supply and Demand does not always work as expected. If it did, my paintings would be exorbitantly expensive as I have not produced any in many years. Perhaps I should get it in gear.
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Viva free enterprise
by Stevie Denny, Mesa, AZ, USA
Robert, I think your post about today’s art market compares apples to oranges. Although I’ve painted as a hobby for many years, I never really had time to pursue it passionately until I retired from my banking career five years ago.
I know that I will never be a Robert Genn or a Richard Schmid, and that my work likely will not be in a major gallery. But does that mean I shouldn’t try to sell my work because the prices I charge may affect the rest of the art market? (By the way, I hardly think that the prices for my little paintings will affect anything.)
You’re right that there is a flood of artists trying to sell work right now; and one reason is there are many retiring Baby Boomers like myself who are now in the position of being able to pursue their passion. So be it. Maybe this is part of the natural evolution of art.
I see many different markets for art. Your audience may be the upscale, serious art collector who primarily purchases from galleries and enjoys that entire personal experience; while mine may be the less-sophisticated mass market, maybe younger, who don’t mind purchasing a piece online. There will naturally be very different price points for those two audiences.
I think there’s room for all of us, and that one shouldn’t necessarily be critical of the other. Viva free enterprise!
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Substandard work widely available
by Rick Rotante, Tujunga, CA, USA
There will always be those who see the cup half empty with no idea how to fill it. We are all subject to news of others’ successes. While it may sting a bit to see others thrive while some languish, your comment on rarity is an important fact.
Obviously, artists will experience like situations if one does this long enough with sincerity and commitment. The dilemma I would like to pose is the fact that there may be too many “artists” presenting art work that doesn’t measure up (I can hear the naysayers now — Who determines what is art?) But, in fact, too many inferior works from less experienced artists are now clouding the waters. Anyone reading this will admit they have been in shows or exhibited in galleries where some of the work they were hanging beside shouldn’t have been accepted. This is a problem that will not soon disappear.
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Lobsters thrive with fewer predators
by Jim Kingston, ME, USA
Regarding your lobster analogy: Lobsters are less scarce for sure. But why? Global warming probably plays a role but the diminishing stocks of their predators, hake, haddock, halibut and cod are more than likely the cause. We have fished these species to nearly the point of no return. My advice as far as lobster goes: Don’t eat lobster in a restaurant. Go to Maine: $3.49 lb.
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Availability encourages joy
by Estelle Goldblatt, Austin, TX, USA
Was the world of music better off when young children were encouraged to play a musical instrument, and people played chamber music to entertain their guests, and couples danced to live music… Or was it diluted? I think that the ready availability of music elevated everyone who came in contact with it. Of course, those who make a business of music may “hear” things differently. Commerce is not really about love… now is it?
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Taking a vow of poverty
by Sharon Knettell, Woonsocket, RI, USA
Ah, yes — selling them. My first thought day in and day out is doing them – which is probably why my bottom line has always been a bit wobbly. Manet (my favorite painter) sold little during his lifetime and endured heaps of rude criticism. A final insult was that the model for his famous painting “Olympia” was accepted into the French Salon, when the painting was originally not. I could add two underpaid compatriots in the same bateau: Van Gogh and Paul Cezanne.
My most important teacher, Eugene Tonoff, said artists have to take a vow of poverty.
In a query to artists in the New York Times by the critic Holland Cotter, the question was, “What inspired you to go into the visual arts.”
One person wrote, “I always wanted to live in poverty and be maligned and devalued by society and the business world. I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”
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The fatal flaw
by Phil Chadwick, Southampton, ON, Canada
The law of “supply and demand” has a fatal flaw when it comes to artists. Living artists easily create a supply of paintings while the demand from the 3% of the populace that purchase art can be easily over-satisfied. Dead artists don’t paint nearly as much so if there is any demand, the remaining supply is quickly consumed with the resulting upward pressure on prices. Many artists find they can make a pretty good living from their art after they are dead.
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Buy on fleeting availability
by Diane Overmyer, Goshen, IN, USA
When I owned a gallery I realized that local people nearly always were more interested in art by the artists who lived in other parts of the country or world. I sold local art more to the travelers who came through the gallery than the people from town. Seldom did I ever sell a piece of art to a visitor who lived in the same area as an artist that I represented. I found this a bit curious, but I thought about it and realized that I also sold more work through our changing exhibits than I did from the art that was in the year-round gallery. I never went this far, but I often wondered if I had only had changing exhibits with different artist’s work if I would have hit the perfect way to sell even more work! I think people would have been even more enticed to purchase work, if they knew that they may never have a chance to see it again in person.
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Facts of the current art market
by Mary-Ann Jack-Bleach, London, ON, Canada
I wasn’t surprised to read that people took you to task about the art market being in happier times again. I do agree with you, however, that people are once again buying art. However, with the enormous number of artists out there peddling their wares, purchasers do have more to select from and they certainly are being picky. The fact is that mediocre art will not sell. If a painting or sculpture appeals to someone, they are more likely to buy it. However, even if they like the subject matter, if the frame is “off” or cheaply put together or there is a part of the painting that just doesn’t seem right, there will be no sale. It has to be superb, different and have an appeal that translates into a feeling inside of someone that screams out, “I want to take that painting home; I have to possess that.” Art is an impulsive buy for the most part, and that is why we have a policy of letting patrons take the painting home as soon as they have purchased it… before they get a chance to think about what other necessities of life they need.
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Lessons from a challenging time
by Deborah Strong, Langley, BC, Canada
Your letter articulated what for me had been a self-taught suspicion. I have always maintained a part-time art practice but five years ago I left my “real” job to pursue my dream of life as a full-time fine artist. Although the timing was good in terms of my own circumstances, it coincided with the global economic downturn and my first year as a full-time artist was dismal. I brought in less art-related income than previous part-time years. However, I kept my head down, kept making art, kept focusing on making art that was true to my own passion and vision, and kept putting myself “out there.” I worked very hard, learned a lot, and now things are better. I also kept telling myself if I could make it through this rough patch and establish myself, I’d be in clover when the economy improved. Last year I had what was for me a promising financial year, and this year I will shortly surpass it so I am realizing last year wasn’t just a fluke. Given artists are the proverbial canaries in the economic coal mine, I figure things must be turning around. And to my joy, it’s becoming evident that making a living as an artist — and a decent living, not just scraping by — is possible!
One of the things I learned over these last challenging years was about unique-ness. I have worked to ensure my art stands out from the rest, that it portrays my own particular view of the world, and that it is, if I do say so myself, good. With all the art that’s available, by artists with widely ranging levels of skill and talent, not to mention the abundance of giclee prints that only serve to confuse the general public, my conclusion has been that the way to make it in this business is to stand out while being true to yourself, and to keep prices fair. My prices could stand to go up and they will if my sales continue to be as brisk as they have been, but I’m not rushing it. And I will continue to devote myself to getting better at making the art I feel so passionate about. That is my life’s work.
I have three quotes stuck to my computer monitor that help me maintain my focus. One is by Emile Zola: “The artist is nothing without the gift, but the gift is nothing without the work,” one by Steve Martin: “Be so good they can’t ignore you,” and another by Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss and the life you should be living is the one you are living.”
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You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Darlene Winfield of Richmond Hill, ON, Canada who wrote, “Have you dealt with the topic of being at a show where people sell incredible art for next to nothing, and then you realize it is a giclee with some paint? That makes a bad economy look like a piece of cake!”
And also Nancy Unsworth of Lunenburg, Nova Scotia, Canada, who wrote, “Lobsters are my favorite subject to paint and your article really hit home. Thank you for your bi-weekly letters. They are always so full of humor, philosophy, and great tips.”
RG note) Thanks, Nancy. And thanks to everyone who sent paintings of lobsters. Thanks also to the Mawhinney’s of Saint John, New Brunswick, who sent the two live lobsters in a crate. Unfortunately Purolator Courier didn’t notice that the elastic had come off the main claw of one of them and unfortunately the other lobster was gone, quite dead actually, leaving just an excellent exoskeleton. We kept the other one as a pet for about an hour but he got off the leash so we decided it was best to eat him, which we did, with drawn butter and a bit of seasoning. We’re finished with chicken.
Enjoy the past comments below for Rare and fair…