Saturday, April 18th, 2009
On the Cusp, the premier contemporary art blog in Indianapolis, conducted an art survey to collect some facts about the local arts community and market. They recently covered the announcement of the results. The big topic of debate was around people buying art.
“Two questions sparked the most discussion. The amount of money people had spent buying art and the top figure most would consider for an art purchase hit a ceiling of about $500. Scott pointed out that there are many who easily spend $300 for a few hours of entertainment at a Colts game, but where is the mindset that an investment in original artwork lasts a lifetime?”
I speculated on this a bit in the comments and decided to repost some of my thoughts here.
Why do people not buy art? Or why are they willing to spend so little doing it?
Well, for one thing, the vast majority of places do not have a culture of art buying. Tyler Green brought this up during a lecture once when someone asked him why New York and Los Angeles are arts hubs. One reason is that people there buy art. In New York, collecting art is something one does as you acquire the means to do so, at least in a certain social set. That’s not true in most places.
Contrast this with sports. Parents most places bring their kids up to cheer for sports teams like they are instilling a religion. The number one thing that would convince people to buy art and buy more expensive art would be to be around other people who did so such that it was a normal and expected part of life.
The second reason I think people both don’t buy art and, if they do, they don’t want to spend much money on it is fear. Fear that they are are a sucker, are overpaying for something, and will look like an idiot one day because of it. Fear that they are being ripped off or taking advantage of by people much more knowledgeable than themselves. Fear that they can never get any resale value out of the work. Think about walking into a gallery like walking into a car dealership times twenty and you get the picture. Lots of angst.
The sad reality is, while these things might not be the norm, it’s actually possible any of them can be true. The art market is famously opaque. Most local artists in any city have no real established market value for their work. Indeed, it is certainly possible that they’ve sold few if any works to anyone who isn’t friends and family. And when it comes to contemporary art, there’s long been an aura of the emperor’s new clothes about the whole enterprise. The art market is caveat emptor like all others.
The average person is not an art expert, doesn’t know what art “should” cost, has no confidence in their own taste, and therefore is very uncertain. The fact that buying art is positioned as an act of monumental significance, and that you are being entrusted with some object that needs to be preserved for the ages, only heightens the angst. Note the quote above, “lasts a lifetime”. Who wants to sign up for that kind of responsibility?
Contrast with a Colts game. You have a known, well-understood commodity, with an established price in the market. Tickets can easily be resold if you can’t make the game. People know what they will get for their money. And they know that if they are getting ripped off by the prices, so is everyone else. They are confident in their choice to like the team. Plus, it is an ephemeral experience. People aren’t stuck at a football game for years. If the team loses or they have a bad time, they can psychologically write off the cost.
If we want people to actually buy art – let’s assume that’s the primary goal at present – then these are the issues we need to tackle.
The cultural of art buying will take care of itself if you can get the pump primed. One way to do that is to create a mental analogy, reinforced through the marketing of art, to a type of purchase people can already envision themselves making (see below).
The other points are:
- How do you establish transparency in the market? Perhaps a local registry of prices paid, maintained by an independent party with solid documentation, and a ban on non-arms length or related party transactions would help. Put this on the web openly for anyone to consult. This could potentially also handle the secondary market to show the value over time (most art is likely to depreciate in my opinion – which is ok, if we know about it in advance). It might also help with tracking provenance.
- How do you establish a viable secondary market that doesn’t totally destroy value? Perhaps some type of a “certified pre-owned” program, run through the same registry would help. Lots of thinking needs to be done here.
- Art needs to be repositioned as a temporary purchase. People shouldn’t feel like they are buying a Patek Philippe when they buy a piece of art (“You never actually own it, you just take care of it for the next generation”). Instead, let’s make art buying more like any other consumer purchase where the item in question has a limited life span in your possession. I suggested fashion, but Jeffrey Cufaude had an even better idea in looking at it like home furnishings or decor. People are willing to pay a lot for a sofa. They know it will be there for a while, but they will eventually replace it. Similarly, it should be psychologically Ok to get rid of art you bought, even by throwing it out if necessary. That might seem anathema, but if your goal is to sell art, then people shouldn’t be made to feel like they are participating in some momentous civilizational event and that they are saddled with something they might change their mind about later for the rest of their lives.
Could this program be embraced? Who knows. The art world establishment in major markets seems to view transparency with horror. They like inefficiency. But do we need to pattern local art purchases in most cities after the same business practices used for high end art? I’m not so sure. Perhaps we could use a more clean disconnect between the two.