The Economy’s Affect on Artists: A Bifurcated Reality

When the economy is in a slump, for the vast majority of the population, discretionary income is often cut, leaving people to spend for necessities rather than luxuries. Save an elite few, art is generally considered a luxury or perhaps an investment rather than a daily need. But for those who make their living creating and selling art, a shaky economic environment can have a surprising range of effects. Further, artists, including visual and musical artists, are exploring and expanding new venues to sell their creations, bypassing the traditional routes along the way.

What is perhaps ironic is that higher end artists and galleries have less trouble selling in today’s limping economy than those who attempt to sell at lower prices. There is a high end niche market that is relatively unaffected by varying market conditions. A recent article in the Boston Globe quotes Barbara Krakow, a long time high end gallery owner, who discusses the fact that some galleries are seemingly unaffected by outside economic forces. She tells the Globe, “There’s a pocket in the art world not affected by what’s going on economically at all.” She should know – her clients buy her artists’ work at prices that reach upwards of $150,000.

Discretionary Spending: Alive and Well?

The Art Newspaper has focused on information along the same vein. A recent article by Brooke S. Mason reports on art market shifts and quotes gallery owner David Maupin as saying, “I have far more people I can call for a $75,000 to $100,000 work than the lower-priced artists.” He also says the category of younger (and less-expensively priced) artists’ sales has dropped by half in the past few months. The art journal Big, Red, and Shiny published a recent interview with gallery owner Joseph Carroll in which he discusses the current economy and its effects. He points to the recent Francis Bacon triptych, which sold at Sotheby’s for an astounding $86 million. Carroll sums the situation up nicely saying, “I don’t think the art market is independent of the larger economy but they don’t appear to be synchronized at the moment. At a certain level, like the recent auctions show, the market is independent of the general economy. At the lower end, I would say they are more closely linked.”

But what about those younger, emerging artists? This younger generation of artists and dealers has found alternatives to sell their creations besides the traditional, sometimes stuffy, brick-and-mortar galleries. Between increasing commercial rents in traditionally established art markets like Boston, Santa Fe and New York and increasing rents for residential areas, these regions are getting tougher for up-and-coming artists to thrive.

Many artists and gallery owners have turned to alternative routes to sell their work. Art fairs have become quite popular, and the art fair “circuit” extends around the country. While the travel and setup can become expensive, the overhead can be considerably less than a traditional gallery. And artists often don’t have to travel far afield to attend multiple art fairs. Some cities hold several fairs per year, or even per month, and fairs have become popular worldwide. A number of websites are dedicated to maintaining art fair listings both large and small, including www.artfairsinternational.com, www.festivalnet.com and www.artfairsourcebook.com. These are not local hack events either. These events are generally juried, well-publicized affairs attended by large numbers of people.

Online Galleries

In addition to art fairs, the biggest change to hit the art scene over the past decade or two is the proliferation of art sales on the Internet. Gallery owners and artists alike can show their art to buyers around the world with very little overhead costs and can easily ship worldwide. Whether selling through online auctions or sales websites, art can be shown and purchased at the click of a mouse, and the World Wide Web has changed the art sales landscape, much the same way the MySpace phenomenon has changed the indie music business. Even that mammoth of art dealers, Sotheby’s, offers previews of art online so potential buyers can get a good look at the art before attending a live auction.

One other perhaps less well-known option for struggling artists is to attend an MFA program at a university. Because most public and private donations for artists go to institutions and not individual artists, a Master of Fine Arts program can be a place artists can study, create and build a reputation. Of course, like anyone who chooses additional higher education, there is always the issue of cost to live and attend school, but scholarships and other grants can help pave the way, and the long term benefits hopefully outweigh current costs.

The art world is perhaps one of the most intriguing pockets of an economy not affected by outside forces. While high end collectors and investors (and the artists they patronize) are seemingly unaffected by the more pedestrian issues of high gas prices and rising food costs, emerging artists and the galleries that support them around the country are getting crunched by increasing rents and fewer buyers in their category. Whether this bifurcation of the art world persists as the economy continues to struggle remains to be seen, but for art enthusiasts, it will certainly be interesting.

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