Over the past couple of months I’ve had brief discussions with my husband, who writes literary fiction, regarding the general public’s lack of real interest in cultural events or activities (not just simply clicking ‘like’ for such things on a Facebook page).  Recently at a literary festival several authors participated in the book fair segment.  At that event the ‘traffic’ was overwhelmingly from other authors.  Everyone was trying to sell their books but their main audience appeared to be the other authors.  This past weekend I participated in a gallery exhibit with similar results. 

While there were people periodically visiting the venue who were not participating artists in the show most of the event consisted of talking artist-to-artist.  Part of our discussions were about the difficulty of ‘making it’ as an artist.  One of those artists, who started getting gallery placement in 2009 and is in several regional galleries only earns $3,000 to $5,000 dollars a year in sales of their work.  Obviously, without retirement and savings from a long and lucrative career existence on that meager amount would be impossible.  Another artist has a spouse that supports him but also, even while having been mentored by one of the areas premiere artists, has difficulty selling his work.  I was reminded of a conversation not too long ago with the owner of a gallery which hosts workshops regularly.  That owner kept telling me I needed to ‘study under’ this or that artist.  What I heard is, “Give me money to attend workshops and you’ll become a ‘better’ artist.  As this artist’s plight shows –  that “ain’t necessarily so”. 

In the interest of full disclosure, the exhibit was an original art exhibit – not prints and only a couple of photographs and no photo -realistic paintings.  I make that disclosure because most Americans think of art now in terms of prints, photography, and particularly photo-realism.  But those artists in that show have incredible talent and a sense of creativity that goes beyond mere ‘copying/tracing’ a scene or subject matter.  Artists who have not developed, or do not continue to develop, their drawing skills may end up getting left behind.  According to the article I cite below, “driven by the rocketing prices of the Chinese Old and Modern masters, drawing has really come into its own, with its annual revenue up by $1.318 billion over the year.”

I began to research the art market to find out more about what is happening globally.  Artprice.com’s Art Market Trends 2011 states, “China is winning market share from the USA whose annual output of $2.72 billion represented 23.5% of global art sales in 2011 compared with 29.5% in 2010”.   Just on the basis of sales revenue alone China had 41.4% of the market, the UK 19.4% and the US 23.6%.   If you look at the same article’s analysis of the top 10 artists this is the ‘first time in 21 years that Pablo Picasso has not been among the top 3’ artists based on auction revenue.  Six of the top ten artists in that analysis are Chinese.  There are several reasons proposed for this increase in the importance of Asia and in particular China in the art market.

 This market analysis begins by saying, “While old economies are struggling, growth is accelerating in the BRICS countries. The five BRICS -Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa- have been enjoying much stronger economic expansion than the developed countries and China’s growth in particular has profoundly modified the geographical structure of the global art market according to Thierry Ehrmann, the founder and CEO of Artprice, the world leader in art market information. Moreover, in Singapore, Beijing and Hong Kong, politicians are aware of the enormous economic potential of art for their state or their city, and their governments strongly support major cultural events including  contemporary Art fairs. In addition to the 49% growth in auction revenue from artworks in China, a number of other Asian countries have also posted particularly dynamic growth, such as Singapore (+22%) and Indonesia (+39%). This growth has been driven by the emergence of new and very wealthy collectors and a growing number of art investment funds. As a result, the Asian art market has become the most high-end area of the entire globe. For example, 12.1% of works sold in Asia sell for between $100,000 and $1m, versus 2.2% for the rest of the world.”  (italics added).

 Now I am not trying to sell my work for anywhere near the prices demanded by Old Masters, Modern or even the most popular Contemporary Artists.  But 62% of Contemporary Art sold for less than $5,000 in 2011 another area which the United States is also losing ground.   “With annual revenue of $540 million in 2011, China shot right past the USA ($310 million), the usual number 1 in this segment: in the first half of 2011, Beijing became ‑ for the first time in art market history ‑ the world’s second marketplace for Contemporary Art auction sales, just behind New York and ahead of Hong Kong.”  The title for this blog refers to an acronym in the financial markets that stands for alternative investment in Silver, Wine, Art and Gold.   How many people think of art not just as something to add beauty or reflection to life but as an option for investors?  There are even Art Investment Funds cropping up with paintings, sculpture and the like as the underlying real assets.  (If you want to learn more on investing in the art market you might want to read this article – http://www.forbes.com/sites/abigailesman/2012/03/26/ten-expert-tips-for-investing-in-the-art-market/).

In addition to what’s going on globally and the way the US is slipping out of contention, the local markets are perhaps more trying.  In talking to a potential venue in which to sell my work, not a gallery, the proprietor warned that art that cost more than $100 would not sell in that shop.  This was not a small town but a medium-sized city.  The clients there have established a line at which they find art too expensive and most of the purchases there are for gifts.  So given that they view the art as a purchase for someone else that benchmark is pretty generous in today’s economic conditions.  The people I’ve had the most contact with, in terms of my art, are other artists and they understand that you can’t benchmark art under a single dollar figure.

 I think ‘non-artists’ don’t understand exactly what goes into creating even a small painting.  So let’s break down the pieces of that creative process.  Of course you first have to have an idea and that comes more easily to some artists than others.   There is no way that I know of to monetize creative thought processes so we won’t even include that in the cost analysis.  But you can calculate cost of materials, time and commission payments.   

 A canvas panel at the size of 11 x 14 runs anywhere from $2.00 to $20.00 depending on the primer and substrate chosen for the piece.  For our purposes we’ll use a median price of $11.00.  Now let’s say you are using a very limited palette of white, Hooker’s Green, Cadmium Yellow Light, Cadmium Red Light, Van Dyke Brown, Alizarin Crimson, Indian Red (Red Ochre), Indian Yellow. Ultramarine Blue and Payne’s Gray – the historical palette of Edgar Payne.  Granted you aren’t going to use all of every tube on every painting so let’s assume a 4% usage of each tube, in oil paint, at the Artist’s grade (after all we are talking about professional artists – not students).  The cost of each color varies so if you use Titanium White (which I’ve found to be the most common type available) and, given its usefulness in creating tints, that paint would be in a 200 ml tube.  All other paint tubes are a standard 37 ml size.  The costs for each color would be as follows using the median price from several makers each:  Hooker’s Green – 66 ₵, Cadmium Yellow Light – 92 ₵, Cadmium Red Light – $1.06, Van Dyke Brown – 32₵, Alizarin Crimson – 66₵, Indian Red – 34₵, Indian Yellow – 44₵, Ultramarine Blue – 36₵, Payne’s Gray – 52₵, and Titanium White – $1.02.  So far that’s $18.00 in materials costs.

 Now, what about time?  I spend anywhere from 2 to 48 hours on a painting depending on the difficulty of the subject matter and style of painting (e.g. representational vs. abstract expressionist).  Using the median hours spent we assume 25 hours on the painting.  If we say that a professional painter, unlike other professionals, earns a per hour minimum wage of $7.25 then the cost of time to complete the painting would be $181.25.  So just in those few materials (we’re not even including solvents, cleaners, brushes or other tools used) and time the cost of that 11 x 14 painting is $199.25.  Now tack on the 30-40% commission garnered by the gallery or exhibit venue and you have an unframed painting that costs $259 to $279.  Your response to this may be, “So what , who needs art in their life?  I have a digital camera that I can use and create my own lovely pictures.”

 Okay.   Let’s look at literature and music (perhaps you can do without those as well but bear with me here).   Let’s say author’s book costs $15.00 in print edition and they have to pay, up front, 53% of that price.  Then when a book store takes their cut of sales at 30-50% the $8.00 paid out by the writer, that writer earns $3.50 to $.50 per book.  You have to sell a lot of books to cover the time cost of the months spent creating that novel.  And what about the music industry?  Why you can just take that artist’s work for free if you go to some internet sites, can’t you? But a CD today is ‘in the worst case scenario…45% cheaper than it was in 1964’.    And the musician has instrument costs and those vary depending on the instrument of choice.  If that instrument is a 1962  Fender Stratocaster which cost $289.50 new that would be approximately $2,715.00 in today’s dollars.  But if you wanted that exact guitar it would be used so what would you have to pay?  Just on eBay alone, not even looking at auction sites, the prices range from $2,500 to $99,900.  So at a minimum that musician would have to pay over eight times what the guitar cost originally in 1962.  And we haven’t factored into the equation cost of strings, amps, pedals or the creative ability to build lyrics and music into a song.

So the next time you think about stealing music or that a new, non-digital book costs too much or original artwork is just too expensive think about this  –  you likely pay $80+/month for television programming a lot of which is anything but inspiring.  In the book scenario above an author would need to sell between 18 and 160 books to make that much profit a month.  The musician would have to sell 8 CD’s and that’s just at a retail price of $9.99/ea of which we know the artist is only retaining only a small portion even if they produce their own CD’s (think CD, jewel case, labeling costs).  It would pay the 40% commission on one 11 x 14 painting created by an artist charging minimum wage for their work.

“The rapidly evolving global economy demands a dynamic and creative workforce. The arts and its related businesses are responsible for billions of dollars in cultural exports for this country. It is imperative that we continue to support the arts and arts education both on the national and local levels. The strength of every democracy is measured by its commitment to the arts.”
Charles Segars, CEO of Ovation

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