Sunday, November 9, 2008

How Artists Can Survive the Economic Downturn

The Chinese word weiji (危機 translated as “crisis”) is often said to be composed of the characters for “danger” and “opportunity”; the implication being precarious situations afford us opportunity. I remember how surprised I was when I learned this is an often-repeated misconception based upon etymological fallacy. While the deconstruction has gained momentum as a modern piece of wisdom, in truth in the word weiji (危機), the “ji “ ideogram actually means “crucial point”, not “opportunity .

Despite the fact that the ideogram doesn’t support the theory, whenever there is a significant problem, such as the global economic crisis, there is opportunity for people who choose to take advantage of the situation. This was pointed out quite clearly by Carol Vogel of the New York Times who noted that “There were bargains to be had" due to the economic climate. In her in her Nov 5, 2008 news report, Bleak Night at Christie’s, in Both Sales and Prices, she refers to these opportunists as “bottom-feeders”:

"Early on, a Cézanne watercolor landscape from 1904-6, “The Cathedral at Aix From the Studio at Les Lauves,” was expected to bring $4 million to $6 million. It failed to sell. One bottom-feeder was willing to pay $2.8 million."

However, she’s not alone in viewing smart art investors as “bottom-feeders", as Editor at Large of Art+Auction, Judd Tully, published these words in response to the same auction:

It was an evening of price corrections, and some bottom-feeders took advantage. Long Island dealer David Benrimon acquired three significant works, including two bargain-basement deals: Georges Braque’s Nature morte à la corbeille de fruits for $842,500 (est. $1.2–1.8 million) and Joan Miró’s Femme et oiseau devant le soleil for $2,154,500 (est. $2.5–3.5 million). “Tonight you had great opportunities,” said the dealer. “It’s between 20 and 25 percent below market value,” he added of the works he purchased.

I suspect I would have written the accounts in a more charitable vein, electing to use a less pejorative term than “bottom-feeder” to describe the individuals who purchased the art for relatively low market prices. However, I do believe we’ll be seeing more of this---and I applaud it, for it is important that the art market be supported at a more authentic level than it enjoyed in recent history.

My sentiments appear to be shared by Jerry Saltz who recently considered how the economic downturn will impact the entire art economy, not just artists and the auction houses. Here’s what he had to say in NY Magazine:

"If the art economy is as bad as it looks—if worse comes to worst—40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits—possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet.

As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk....The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists—especially emerging ones—won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want.

Ok. So that’s the good news! We can experiment during this down time. We can explore different techniques, improve our work, make contacts, develop our portfolios, and increase our inventory. And when the market starts to move from being bearish to bullish, we’ll be ready for it---fully armed with great art and visions to share with the changed world that will welcome new ideas.


Amy Lilley Designs said...

Hi Sharon...important post...what a wake-up call for the art world...part of the 'correction' that is taking place is so well stated w/ what has just transpired w/ this now infamous auction!!!

all the best,

S. A. Hart said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
S. A. Hart said...

Amy, I see this as a positive situation for artists, not negative. The correction is long over-due. It'll be interesting to see the impact on sales and prices at Art Basel Miami . The news has already been active about a significant downturn in the publicity- and public-relations-related events which have been over-the-top in recent years. As for me---I welcome any and all "Bottom-feeders" to purchase my painting!

ESCUDERO said...

What a beautiful name for a granny - Amacita...yes, I loved my Nanny very very much..

ESCUDERO said...

Sure Sharon - Lets go for the bottom-feeders. Actually our prospects sound on the bleak side. My theory is to continue to promote our art as if we were in a strong market. I think that that is what I plan on doing. On with my plannnnnnnn....Good article.

S. A. Hart said...


I think you're on the right track---promote as if it's a strong market, but accept the reality of economic conditions. Am confident there's a market for your work. Best of luck!

Amy Lilley Designs said...

Oh, I believe that it is positive as well...a good correction, if you will!!!

Archiver said...

Although I agree with Jerry Saltz to some extent, I do not share your sentiment. The geography I live in tells me artists will really have tough days.

S. A. Hart said...

Archiver, no doubt about it, the economy---no matter where one lives---is bad. Consequently, everyone, especially artists, are going to have a tough time for quite a while. However, the point that Saltz was making is that the tough times will ultimately result in better art, and less derivative art and general tripe that has been promoted to the point of over-inflating the value of of poor quality works --all at the expense of artistic standards. Ultimately, this correction in the market will be good for the humanities, although it'll be financially rough on many artists and galleries in the interim.

Dave King said...

I must confess that the goings-on in the world of art's high finance have always fascinated me. Sometimes I wonder if there's a connection to be made between that world and the world of art...

Shinade said...

Hi Sharon,
This is a great post and points out many things that need to be looked at and also remembered.

First off is the very important point, that for those who were fiscally responsible and saved money over the last few years can ow buy their first home in a market that is not over inflated in price.

And I think you are right on target about artist and their sales.

For way too long now all you had to do was paint anything and titled yourself an artist and charge a fortune.

With a tougher market maybe the competition will weed out the mediocre, amateur artist, and bring forth some really new and fantastic artist in the future.

At least we can hope!:-)

PurrPrints said...

I hope you're right--I can definitely see how it could spark less derivative art--of course, I can also see how it can force people back into "normal" jobs because they can no longer afford to do their art, and that may not be so good...

Daisy Bookworm said...

Good to know there's still hope for the artist.

I've tagged you on my blog.

hypotyposeis said...

Ah==since I've been tagged to share 7 things about they are:

1) My favorite color to paint with is Payne's Grey

2)I'm an introvert who enjoys traveling, reading, painting and writing.

3)My favorite job was working in an art gallery but my best job was as a purchasing agent for a Fortune 500 company.

4)I learned to speak German when I was quite young, but took Greek, Latin, and Spanish in school when I was older. I've found that the Greek and Latin has served me well over the years.

5)I love Banbury cakes, provided they are made with rose water, Christmas pudding drenched with custard, Cornish pasties, and fresh fish and chips covered with malt vinegar bought from a local shop around the corner. Sadly, I can't get any of these items where I live now.

6) Like Diogenes, I consider myself a citizen of the world. (When he was asked where he came from, he replied, "I am a citizen of the world cosmopolites".)

7)I love the smell of oil paints, but only paint in oils during autumn and winter; I paint in watercolor during spring and summer.