Art in the New World Order: Part I

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As artists, I think there are very few of us who haven't spent a great deal of time thinking about the current economic atmosphere and what it means to us as creative people. I definitely fall into that category so my next two post will be a two-part series about what it means to be an artist at the end of the first decade of the third millennium. In today's post I will write about the practical, economic side of the issue. How do we remain art professionals and resist the pressure to get that job waiting tables to pay the mortgage? The second post will deal more with the creative side of art making and how the economy and the recent presidential election could/should affect the way we make art.

I will assume for a moment that most people reading this are not Chuck Close or Damian Hirst. We are not superstars on the world scene and most of us do not sell work purely on name recognition and reputation. Nor do we command the exorbitant prices we saw at Sotheby's in September as Hirst circumvented his gallery and sold new work directly through the auction house.

Although this move struck fear and concern in the hearts of many gallerists world wide, it was liberating and empowering to the individual artists who have to struggle with the paradigm of the gallery and museum system. Of course, the galleries have little to worry about just yet since most of us do not have the star power to get away with such a bold move. The major financial meltdowns in October further subdued the buzz as Hirst's pieces became harder to sell and were commanding lower prices at auction.

More recent auctions have not boded well for art sales. November auctions at Christie's have seen some blue chip artists selling for their estimated value while others sell for much less or don't even sell at all.

Even the wealthy Russian billionaires are skittish. The massive purchasing power of the Russian nuveau-riche has been a major boon to art markets over the past five years. It looks like that party might be dwindling for the moment.

National Public Radio reported recently that the big auction houses at lost tens of millions of dollars in October on guarantees to sellers. This means that the auction house grossly over estimated what buyers were willing to pay for the pieces and were forced to make up the difference

Auctions are only one part of the grand equation that comprises the art market. Art Basel Miami opens tomorrow and the predictions are dower. The fairs are a broader litmus test for the art market due to a much wider range of artists and prices. Some are predicting as much as a 30% drop in art sales in Miami this year while some hotels are struggling to fill their rooms. If this prediction rings true, it will be a stark contrast to previous years that have seen a veritable buying frenzy that cut through all tiers of economic art. People wanted the hot, young unkowns as well as the Candida Hofers and Andreas Gurskys. It appears that this party may be over too.

National Public Radio has been airing frequent pieces on the art market and how it is being affected on All Things Considered and The World. The reactions and predictions are mixed but most feel that the mid-range artists selling for between $4000 and $15000 will be hit the hardest. The collectors in this range have been hit very hard by the stock market and do not have the massive capital to cushion the blow. Unfortunately, I fall directly in this range and just opened my largest solo exhibition to date in Berlin last month. I was drinking wine at the vernissage while German banks were collapsing. Probably not the best historical moment for a giant exhibition. The show has been very well received but so sales to date.

So how to we get by as artists at this point? The same question is being posed by the galleries. One strategy has been to shy away from the large-scale, small edition pieces to place more emphasis on the small prints at much more affordable prices. Jen Beckman in New York has had remarkable success with her 20x200 series. Artists have been clamoring to be the next 20x200 artist with almost guaranteed sales and a widening of their exposure. Some have been critical of this approach proposing that not selling the edition out is sometimes worse that not doing the edition at all. As always, there are multiple sides to every issue.

Galerie f 5.6 in Munich will be unveiling a similar project idea on December 4. They have created a set of prints at an edition of 50. Each represented artist has contributed an image that isn't part of any project or edition. Most of us have these kinds of images that we really like but just never fit into any of our over riding projects. It's a great idea for sales but it also makes available to collectors images that would otherwise never see the light of day. I've heard that several have already sold even before the unveiling.

It remains to be seen how these strategies will pan out but it's clear that all parties involved are scrambling to find creative solutions to the growing sales problem. Economics are forcing us to rethink the way we market our art and may ultimately affect the creative process itself. More on that in the next post.

For the moment, I am still getting by but sales are getting harder and harder to come by. If the trend continues, I will be forced to make some significant changes in the way I work. I am one of those artists that teaches part time to keep a steady income. The teaching income is relatively small so I do rely on art sales to meet most of my artistic expenses. My wife and I have already been discussing the possibility of relocating for a tenure track position elsewhere but we are both reluctant to leave our beloved Chicago and our local creative network. We have committed to sticking it out for another year which means tightening our belts a bit.

I'd love to hear comments and idea about how others are dealing with the current situation.

Keep an eye out for part two by the end of the week.