Different Income Models for Artists
Perhaps you have had the experience of walking into a gallery or museum, and after seeing work on the walls that is clearly bad or at least of poor quality, you say to yourself, “My work is so much better, why are they getting $50,000 for that? And how did they get in a gallery?”
Those are the questions to explore, because the reason they are getting that much money, or at least asking for it, is not necessarily because the work is of high quality. The idea of objective value or objective quality is clearly slippery in the arts. There are no standards or review procedures the way there are for cars, for example. For cars, by reading enough reviews on the web, we can get a sense of a car or almost any product, but art is very different, there are no “quality” reviews that are comparable. Since we know this already, then the question of why some art in galleries is priced so high even though it may not be very good is the right question to ask, as well as why it is there in the first place. One answer is that it clearly has nothing to do with its quality! And since, as an artist, you have a sense of quality, then you know that there is truly something else at work.
The simplest answer is that a big part of what is going on is how the art is talked about, presented, and, more importantly, written about. Similar to the marketing of other products in our lives, art, at most levels, has a story of some kind to help understand it and sell it. Also, it is about being well organized when applying for grants or presenting your work. After I taught this concept in Praxis Center about how mediocre art can get everywhere with the right presentation, one member, an artist, wrote this to me which explains it succinctly;
Good one, Brainard;
Intrigued, and frustrated with this very phenomena, I discreetly asked the director of a major local art center how and why this happens [why sometimes mediocre art is exhibited]. Being fond of me, she took the time to show me. She opened a file drawer, pulled out several examples of applications for grants and residencies, etc, and, one by one, showed what selection committee members look for. In more than one case, she admitted “here’s some work everyone loved, but the proposal is so sloppy, inarticulate, and disorganized, while in this case, here, though the proposal is not so interesting, it is succinct, neat, complete, and was received on time, giving us the confidence this applicant can do what they propose, without supervision.”
That, she said, was the difference.
Thanks for your service, and keep up the good work!
Exceptions to this are the very lowest ranges of work, such as the paintings for sale in IKEA and Walmart that are mass produced and printed on canvas, or some artwork that sells for under $100 on the streets of cities, in stores, and in galleries. Having said that, the market for the lowest-priced work is huge, and you could make a career out of that as well. There are many factors that increase the value of art, and I will go over a few examples here. The artists I am writing about below represent new as well as traditional forms of entering the marketplace with your art.
SELLING OUT A HIGH-PROFILE GALLERY SHOW
One traditional model is a gallery show that sells out. A friend, Ellen Gallagher, is an example of this tactic. After Gallagher’s work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art’s Biennial, the gallerist Mary Boone asked her to have an exhibit. At that exhibit, huge paintings that were often eight by ten feet in size were all sold for about $10,000 each. That began her career and created value. But there were other factors. Ellen Gallagher had a story and a way of describing her work that appealed to art buyers and gallerists. Ellen Gallagher is biracial and has dark skin. Her work looks minimal, and in the beginning, it looked a bit like Agnes Martin’s work from a distance, with fine lines often making a delicate grid that looked like lined paper.
How did she talk about her work, and how was it sold? In her work, there is a language of her own that she has embedded into the lines. If you look closely, you see eyes, lips, and other forms that look like doodles, and together, they make up the lines in her work. All those tiny images have meaning that is social and political in content. They are about the history of the African American experience, from minstrels to riffing on the clichés that are often derogatory. Her work has a compelling aesthetic to it because from a distance you see this beautiful canvas of lines, of forms, and up close, you see a personal history about the African American struggle in America. As an artist and a person, Ellen is very easy to talk to and is approachable. She refers to historical examples easily and, as a woman of color, is a representative of the historical achievements that African Americans have made in the United States in the visual arts.
In summary, what gave her work real value was a show with Mary Boone with lower-priced large paintings that sold and, more importantly, she had a way to discuss her work that revealed its inner workings and her thought process. With her work she was able to tell an engaging story that taught all the viewers something about her experience as a biracial woman in America. That was a story that writers could easily write about and that gallerists could use to sell her work. While this is all presentation and communication techniques I am now writing about, it should be mentioned that her work is and was beautiful and delicate and yet had a more intellectually confronting aspect upon closer inspection. To many, this story may seem like winning the lottery, and it is true that luck played a role here, but also her story and images worked very well together, so that the “system of the art world” could easily consume and digest her work in a meaningful way.
DAMIEN HIRST-STYLE MARKETING
Damien Hirst is an example of very high-end marketing, and at the moment, he is still one of Britain’s wealthiest artists. He began right out of college to stage shows of his own. Curating warehouse shows in available buildings with his own work, as well as the work of many friends, he began getting collectors to follow and buy his work through sheer persistence and asking people to come to shows by calling and writing and making direct appeals.
His earliest collector was Charles Saatchi, who helped to propel many artists’ careers by buying artwork and getting his collection exhibited. Hirst was after the influencers, so to speak, so he could become famous.
Hirst is one of the savviest artists in terms of business deals. In September 2008 (in a major recession) he took an unprecedented move for a living artist by selling a complete show, Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, at Sotheby’s auction house and bypassing his long-standing gallerist. The auction exceeded all predictions, raising almost $200 million, breaking the record for a one-artist auction as well as Hirst’s own record with $18 million for The Golden Calf, an animal with eighteen-carat gold horns and hooves preserved in formaldehyde. The idea of an artist bypassing his dealer and going straight to auction was unheard of, and totally new. He cut his dealer out of almost $90 million! Not everyone needs or wants to be Damien Hirst, but it is important to understand what he has done. Like other artists I will discuss, he is able to change the rules of the game a little bit, and that is something artists can do no matter where they are in their careers.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD
Damien Hirst also created a now-famous work of a skull covered with diamonds called For the Love of God. He said it would be the most expensive artwork ever sold. He thought it would sell for about $100 million. He received tremendous worldwide press for saying he would try to sell it for that much. It is an age-old marketing technique of announcing you are going to break a record of some kind to generate press attention.
In fact, he never sold the skull for $100 million, but he had a very savvy backup plan. He put together a group of investors, of which he was one investor, and sold the work for $76 million dollars to the group. He is often criticized as a model of excess and market manipulation, and he may deserve that, but he is also offering new ways for living artists to make much more money off their work than anyone previously thought possible. He has ushered in a new era where the marketing of the art is part of the art itself.
When the diamond-encrusted skull was exhibited in London, the setup for viewing it was an artwork in itself. It was exhibited in a small gallery that had several security guards looking very ominous. The room the skull was in was almost completely dark, and there was a long line waiting to get in. Once you were in the gallery, you had a very short time to see the skull because you were moved through rather quickly.
The problem was that your eyes didn’t have enough time to adjust to the darkness in the room, so just as you were starting to see the skull on the way out, the angle of the light caused a spectrum of colors to come out of it, and then you were outside. It was an incredible scene. You could barely see it, and once you did, it was all colors and reflection, and you couldn’t make out too much. The end result was like a vision or a dream of some kind. The press loved this and so did the people lining the block to see it. If nothing else, Hirst is an example of how far you can go in being creative and caring for every aspect of your work, including his exhibition and how it is seen and perceived and for how much time. He has opened the door for artists to be creative in similar ways. It is notable that his work is fetching such high prices that most museums cannot afford it. This may seem beyond you, but his creative approach can be interpreted and used by any artist.
In 2017, he organized a solo exhibition in Venice titled “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable,” where he made up a whole myth/story to present what looked like ancient treasures from a sunken Greek ship, with pieces that range from Ancient Egyptian-like items to Disney character reproductions, encrusted with faux shells and coral. It consisted of about 190 works, including gold, silver, bronze, and marble sculptures. He did the show in collaboration with a major collector. It was essentially a giant DIY pop-up show. It was hailed as both genius and the biggest art flop of all time—yet he sold millions of dollars of art from “Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable.” The reason it was considered “the biggest flop” was only because the critics almost universally hated it, and so the press called it a failure, yet it remained a financial win for the artist and a show that would be part of his legacy.
The lesson from Hirst is not that you have to be as excessive or as over the top as he is and was, but that you can consider changing the rules of how things are presented, and ultimately, how the art is collected and talked about.
“Banksy” as he is known, is also an artist from England who began as a graffiti artist. Because he decided to remain anonymous, it was a move that got him more and more press because everyone was so curious about his public work. At the beginning, one of his first actions was to bring his own small framed paintings into museums, hang them on the wall with double-stick tape, and leave, without permission, of course. As an artist who wants to exhibit and show the world his work, he found a way. But he kept pushing the boundaries of what he could do and how he could do it. Like graffiti artists before him, he plastered his images all over cities, and all illegally, of course. He went further as he gained notoriety, pulling stunt after stunt—up to his famous self-shredding painting at a public auction that cemented his fame in the upper echelons of the art market.
The content of his work was often political, and that also got people’s attention. The press loves good photos, and he gave them plenty of photo opportunities by placing his images everywhere for them to see. He used stencils and spray paint initially so that he could make images quickly and move on.
His great achievement was to protect his anonymity fiercely. In a terrific marketing ploy, he remained anonymous and created a mystique about himself. Everyone saw his images around the city and wondered who he was. The more people asked, the less they found, and this only added to his notoriety. Banksy had a show in an abandoned warehouse in Los Angeles, California, which he elaborately staged with the help of a curator he hired. He put a real elephant in the room that he hand-painted with nontoxic paint. This was a show that not only brought in a huge amount of people, but also press as well. Celebrities came to the show and bought work, and that was his big start. Not long after, his work was being sold at auction houses. Does this story sound familiar? In the tradition of Damien Hirst and others, he started by creating a show outside of a gallery, in a warehouse, very unconventional. The content was very different though; his work is antiestablishment, antigovernment, and anticapitalist. However, his ability to market himself, ironically, to the capitalist system is very effective and similar to Damien Hirst in many ways.
By painting his artwork all over city walls and streets, he is getting tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of dollars’ worth of advertising—for free! There are lots of books on how to market your work and use social networking platforms, but Banksy is getting tremendous visibility with a very different method. This is not unlike what Keith Haring, another graffiti artist, did in the 1980s, before the Internet boom. He put his work on walls all over the city, gave out buttons and stickers, and relentlessly promoted himself.
Banksy continues to this day with creating groundbreaking ways to get his art into the public without any of the traditional galleries. He goes straight to auction, as mentioned above, and continues to give the commercial art world and wealthy collectors a critique while selling to them at the same time and creating viral videos about his pranks.
THE BANKSY LESSON
The lesson and perhaps inspiration to take from Banksy is that he is playing by his own rules. Like other graffiti artists, he paints o...