The middle class art market
On Sunday, I went to a talk called “It’s Not About The Money, But Let’s Talk About It Anyway!” in which an art dealer and collector shared his thoughts about the business end of art. This gallery owner speaks in a refreshingly candid manner on this subject, and I’m always glad to hear his thoughts.
Last weekend, I was, however, surprised to discover that there was an aspect of the art market that he doesn’t understand. He was talking about how the supply of art far outstrips the demand in this country, and he singled out households in the $40,000 to $80,000 annual income range as being particularly hesitant in the art-buying department. He admitted he doesn’t know why this demographic does not see the value of purchasing art, though it’s something he’s interested in exploring.
As I see it, this gap in this dealer/collector’s understanding of the art market comes from an overall misconception about the value of art. He believes that just because a person loves a work of art does not mean she-he will buy it. There needs to be one other element present for the sale to be certain. He argues that the potential buyer is more likely to fork over the cash if she-he believes that the work could, at some future time, be sold for a profit. In other words, he maintains that after love, investment is the only real driving force behind art purchases. When it comes to the middle class’s art-buying habits, I think he’s mistaken. And I can talk about that demographic’s relationship to art with some amount of expertise: they happen to be my largest client base.
Households in the $40,000 to $80,000 annual income range aren’t buying art because art created for the open market isn’t usually of interest to them. Simply put, if they’re going to spend a good amount of money, they want a custom job. They want art that is special to them. This can mean commissioning a work (not necessarily a portrait) and being involved in that way in its inception, but it might also be as simple as buying art from an artist whom they’ve gotten to know or finding the one open-market piece that really speaks to them. This demographic can’t afford the big and important works of art: that kind of special is ruled out for them. So they want a different kind of special. It’s probably not going to be “re-sell-able special,” but it’s definitely “cherish-it-forever special.”
Problem: lots of know-it-alls in the fine art community think that art that’s not created for the open market—art that’s NOT purely for art’s sake—is commercial and therefore less good. There’s this weird assumption that the artist working on commission is somehow nothing more than a skilled hand taking direct orders from the financial sponsor (especially if the work being created is a portrait). I’m sure that some artists do reduce themselves to little more than talented puppets, but I’ve never done so and, what’s more, I’ve only been asked to do so on one occasion in all the time I’ve been doing commission work. I’ve actually found that patrons are keen on the final product qualifying as art and understand that, for the work to do so, they must trust the artist’s vision.
It’s strange really, when you think about it, this art-for-art’s-sake and art-for-patron’s-sake dichotomy, because, the way I see it, it neither has to be just one or the other, nor is it ever just one or the other! The artists creating art for the open market are still trying to sell their work (usually), so they do have patrons in mind to some degree. And the artists doing commission work are still making their art even if they have a specific patron in mind. And I would argue (and have argued) that making art that sells is a Very Good Thing for the work’s integrity, so, in a sense, commissioned work is more truly art than open-market art.
Michael commissioned me when he was going into radiation therapy and knew he’d lose his impressive beard—a feature he’d had since he was in his twenties. He wanted to honor that beard with a portrait in case he never got to grow it back, and, I have to say that after meeting his beard I wanted to as well!
I’ve had movie stars and corporate bigwigs commission me, but I’ve also had plenty of people like Michael do payment plans with me in order to buy my art. The power of “special” should not be underestimated, especially in its ability to make art and the art market both vital and viable for artists and their patrons.