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Here today, gone tomorrow, still worth buying


May 20, 2010   ·   9 Comments


In one of our chats yesterday about Manya’s piece in the Weekly on selling art, I said, We as a society spend $100 or $150 for seats at a rock concert, but why not for an ephemeral piece of art that might last a day, a year, five years, giving us pleasure? I wouldn’t have had this thought perhaps if Roberta and I weren’t talking together. The following thoughts ensued from the original conversation:

Jennifer Catron and Paul Outlaw, The Honeymooners, at Grizzly Grizzly. These pieces from the set of a performance are worth buying!

In a way, I think the centers of art commerce have undercut what is the most exciting form of art-making today, by supporting some notion that true great art is something worth millions or something with the potential of accruing that kind of value. But there’s true great art out there that’s not fetching any money at all, just because it is ephemeral or new or unfamiliar or not in a high-end gallery.

This is where the image the $106.5 million Picasso, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, would go if I weren’t afraid someone might come after me for violating copyrights. The auctioneer was Christie’s.

I can point to a number of reasons why people have this crazy mindset in which they won’t buy something that’s new, untried, and ephemeral. The mindset is based on a number of myths created by the places that make art value increase. The secondary markets of auctioned art bump up values of a few star artists, creating multi-million dollar price tags–the art equivalent of getting discovered while drinking milkshakes at the soda fountain. (The more modest prices don’t get much press. An illusion of the value of older art gets created this way.)

Benton Murdoch Spruance (American, 1904-1967) Night in Eden, hand colored lithograph, 16 x 12 inches (image), numbered, titled, signed and dated lower right recto “Ed 30 -Night in Eden- Spruance / 1947”, framed. This sold May 8 at Fuller's, one of our advertisers, for $300. That should help put things in perspective.

There are a lot of irrational forces here. Some get anointed as more valuable, sometimes justly, sometimes unjustly. The high-end art dealers, while equally irrational in selection of a few for stardom, at least support some of the creators of the art as well as themselves–business people who make it possible for the creators to sell. The museums also bump up value, treating their collections as something precious and eternal.

Hyperion Bank banked on Scott Bickmore's collaborative performance/sculpture being worth $500 to them. Here it is under construction at Little Berlin.

All of these art institutions affect the mindsets of collectors. Collectors learn to invest in art for profit or status, rather than buy art just for the pleasure of the art. The notion that you will make a killing in the art world is one of those stories the culture nurtures; it’s like the story of finding a Rembrandt in pile of junk in the attic. It’s hitting the lottery. You can’t organize your life around the notion that you might hit the lottery. And you can’t organize your collecting around the notion that you might strike it rich by buying work from the next Kehinde Wiley.

The following is really a mix of my ideas and Roberta’s:

Collectors need to change the way they think and support the terrific art scene that’s here and now in Philadelphia. They need to buy something just because they love it. They don’t need a guru to tell them someone is the next Picasso. And they don’t need an art aficionado to tell them what’s good. And at the prices I’m seeing in the collectives, nearly everyone can afford to buy. The proof of affordability and quality that is the people who are buying these works are other artists. So dear potential collectors, what if you see something you like and it costs $100. Why hesitate? So what if it never becomes worth $20,000 or $2 million? If you drop hitting-the-lottery from your mindset, buying art becomes easy. If you see something you like, bring it home and enjoy it for as long as it lasts. End of story.

Well, not really end of story. The truth is, if you buy something that represents an ephemeral event–the costume from a performance, say, or the DVD of a performance, or the bucket holding the detritus of the performance, then you are truly in the land of symbolic thinking. The synechdoche representing the whole performance is in your collection because you either love the artist’s work and ideas and need to have a bit of it for your own, or because you believe it will increase in cultural and/or monetary value and perhaps because you believe it will reflect on your own value. You can think of it as a lottery ticket or as something you love. It’s up to you.

At the edges of Philadelphia’s art world, there’s plenty of stuff that represents something larger–a performance, an installation. It’s all salable. So buy it, enjoy it. You just spent $25,000 on a car. You know that in a few years it will be worth only $500. Is it just the uncertainty that throws people, the not knowing for sure that it will be worth zilch eventually? We’re talking about a $100 loss, max, in so many cases. Why aren’t collectors snapping things up? Get over that fear of making a mistake. That’s what artists do. Collectors need to do that too. Besides, if they keep their eye on the pleasure principle, the “I like it” idea, they can get over the collector willies and plunk down a little dough and just have fun.

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9 Responses to “Here today, gone tomorrow, still worth buying”

  1. Not that it helps economically at all, but one way for a poor person to collect is to barter.

  2. libby says:

    For sure. Anthony Puri has organized a series of art shows in which collectors get to offer something/some service in exchange for the art, and the Whitney, it seems to me, had an artist who operated some crazy kind of barter operation in conjunction with one of the biennials.
    But really, I think that many people can afford what artists are selling their work for here in Philadelphia. Cost is not the impediment, I believe. I think it’s this idea that you have to hit the jackpot–or else you’ve made a major error. That makes no sense. How many $150 dresses or even $50 dresses hang in a woman’s closet that were just plain mistakes from the gitgo. A work of art in Philadelphia is often in the same price range. Hey gang, pony up and pay to play! It’s no big deal.

  3. L. Tripp says:

    Love your perspective. I agree wholeheartedly. Philadelphia has a vibrant local art community that is creating terrific work that is diverse and affordable. Local collectors need only to look a little closer to home. And yes…buy what you love, buy what inspires you, and buy to support local artists!

  4. Ben Weaver says:

    Thank you for addressing this subject. I have been reading your blog for a year, and I have been wondering where you stand on this issue. As an artist the price seems to be as conceptual as the art. I have come to the conclusion that I would rather have a selling point where multiple people have the opportunity to buy. If the object has a price that becomes a sticking point for changing hands then the artist inadvertently becomes the collector. If the price point is low enough to move the inventory then it makes it easier for the artist to move on and explore new ideas and processes. I also think that the idea that the artist can’t be approached about a piece later, or asked what other work they might have available at a lower price is also an option. The artists I know all love a studio visit.

    Please continue to address this issue on occasion.

  5. libby says:

    Hi, Ben, Zillions of artworks in storage don’t do anyone any good. That’s some good advice. But even with so much good art at bargain prices, I’m shocked at how timid people are about collecting!
    I also want to say that getting art into the hands of a broad range of the population is a great thing. I don’t get spending $150 on a frame for a picture from a magazine or a cheap poster when that frame could go around an original piece of art–or the art can just go up frameless.

  6. Jennifer Zarro says:

    I love this, Libby. It’s is so possible to collect great stuff (even with kids in private school) in Philly! That Fuller’s auction was fantastic – a Barkley Hendricks watercolor sold for just over $300 —- Barkley Hendricks! I know I will be accused of being a biased booster, but Philly is the best place to start an amazing collection.

  7. Bob barbera says:

    I live in Cherry Hill…. One zillion square feet of prime wallspace, four million pairs of $200 jeans… $100 for a burger and a beer… And paintings? Not many.

  8. […] reference to Libby’s recent discussion about purchasing art, I might mention that the work in this exhibition is extremely well-priced […]

  9. libby says:

    Here’s the good news. Philly’s right across the Delaware River. We got plenty galleries here! And the art outlasts the burgers and the jeans.

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