In our money-minded culture, the cost of artwork can be more newsworthy than the art itself. This month a batch of Impressionist and modern art was auctioned at Sotheby's New York for $180 million. A Picasso and a Kandinsky reportedly went for $10 million each, while Salvador Dali's "Girafe en Feu" sold for almost $2 million, a new high for the surrealist. A bidding war flared over a skinny Giacometti bronze. It was bought for over $19 million — that's $11 million more than the minimum asking price.
While the press gleefully listed these prices, they rarely named or described the actual pieces — a pity, because some of them are remarkable (Dali's painting features a burning giraffe and a lady with psychoanalytical drawers in her drawers).
The Sotheby's auction reflects a renewed interest in art as an alternate method of investment after a year of caution on the part of collectors. Aside from that, do the high prices make the art better now that it's more valuable? If so, where does that leave artists in Charleston who are trying to cater to a much smaller, more frugal market?
"You have to consider all markets and set prices accordingly," says Josh James, artistic manager and owner of Beyond the Gallery. He represents contemporary artists across the country, and he thinks that serious collectors are aware of different price levels. They won't pay $40,000 for a painting in New York while another by the same artist is selling for $20,000 here. But he also notes that "everything's case by case" — what seems priceless to one buyer is a so-so smudge to another.
Karen Ann Myers has a different view. Her recent solo show at Scoop Studios, I'm a Girl, introduced her as a fully fledged artist to the local community. "Yes, my prices were too low here," she says, "but nobody knows who I am." While she was an established artist living in Michigan and Boston, she was able to charge a sizable amount for her work. Here she's an unknown quantity, selling intricate art for three or four figures.
Before her show opened, Myers spent a long time thinking, planning, and consulting friends and colleagues about pricing. "I looked at artists who were equally established and had equal presence," she says. "I based it on size, style, how much my time was worth, all of that." There are a lot of overheads for a painter — more than most people realize. Many artists have to pay for management, dealers, photographers, website fees, studio rent, materials, and a gallery commission of up to 50 percent. To put these expenses in perspective, Myers says that she spent $10,000 on paint last year.
"The starving artist mentality is real," says local painter Nathan Durfee, "even if you're selling work." Before he made the bold decision to become a full-time artist, Durfee earned $35,000 a year in an office. To make that much now, he has to consistently create and sell paintings each month. "It's a trade-off," he says. "I'm doing what I love, and my work ends up in people's homes. It's worth a lot more to someone else than if it's sitting in my closet."
Of course, there's a lot more to art than money. It's almost impossible to put a price on the aesthetic and cultural value of the art around us. But in base terms, artists need to pay for their materials.
"Younger artists, despite their talents, may compromise their price just to create more work," says James. "They just want to afford the materials to create more artwork." At the moment, they rely on a few serious collectors who are prepared to pay fair prices to support their favorite artists.
It's time more buyers stepped up to do the same. Who knows, we could have the next burgeoning Kandinsky or Dali in our midst, ready to set giraffes — and the art world — aflame.