Why Collect Art?

Update: added link to the letter.

The New York Times Magazine tells me they’re publishing my letter to the editor in the June 17, 2012, edition. (Woo hoo! One of my 15 minutes of fame!) I wrote in response to Adam Davidson’s article called “How the Art Market Thrives on Inequality.”  The piece discusses whether buying high-priced art is a good investment, how prices in that market are manipulated.  At the very end, Davidson says this:

As I talked to art advisers and economists, I kept thinking of my childhood in Westbeth, a subsidized housing complex for artists in Greenwich Village. Our neighbors, painters and sculptors among them, were decidedly not rich. To them, the very idea that art should make someone wealthy was laughable, even offensive. It makes me happy to think that this world of art-as-investment is a minuscule fraction of the art world overall. Most people who create, trade and own art do it for a much simpler reason. They just like it.

Regal by Stephanie Benedict
Regal. ©2012 Stephanie Benedict. 12 in. x 12 in. Oil on linen.

So I wrote a comment on the website, and they’re going to publish it in the magazine!  Here’s what I wrote (they’re publishing a slightly edited version):

For me the most important point in the piece is not that the 0.01% will pay stratospheric prices for a handful of artwork by dead artists–of which, of course, there will never be any more than there are now–but the very end of the article: most people create and purchase art because they like it. There is a vastly different art market out there from the one that Davidson describes: galleries featuring living, working artists in all sorts of mediums; art fairs; artists showing their work on line. People will plunk down $200 for a new phone or $700 for a tablet that lasts, what, 3 years? Or $20K for a car that might last 10? A thing of beauty is a joy forever: and it may only cost $300 or $3000. Collect art because you love it. And if it turns out to increase in value over time: you can tell people how insightful you were to get it!

Several other commenters had similar views. (Full disclosure:  I didn’t think up the comparison of art prices to car prices.  I got that from Robert Regis Dvorak’s Art of Selling Art.)

Adam Davidson is right:  if you’re part of the 0.01%, the economy has been great these past five years.  But for more commonly I see galleries struggling, artists chattering about whether or not they can raise their prices at all—or should they actually drop them, and whether that’s a mistake in the long run.  Arts organizations sponsor events in which they raffle off artwork; my local PBS station has a major fundraiser every year that’s an art auction, in which artists donate work and in return receive 5 minutes of air time, but no commission.  The local art museum also has an art auction every year, but at least they give the artist a portion of the sale price.

But those events serve to reinforce the idea that art should be a bargain.

So we have two extremes:  on the one hand, local arts organizations or non-profits can foster the impression artwork can and should be inexpensive (never mind that the artist has to make a living). On the other, the press going on and on about how a very few can pay enormous sums of money to purchase artwork.

Well, I stand by my statement.  Buy art because you love it. Realize that each piece of art is handmade and unique. Art isn’t a commodity or an investment vehicle.  It’s a form of communication, an expression of an emotion or an idea that moves you somehow. (Or doesn’t.  Don’t collect the pieces that don’t move you.)

What do you think? Why do you collect art—or why don’t you?

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2 thoughts on “Why Collect Art?

  1. I collect art for a lot of reasons. The best is because I love it. Another is because I like to think in my own, very small, way I am contributing to the advancement of our culture. Scientists now think that the thing that sets us apart from other animals is our ability to imagine and create a better life based on that imagination. This, to me, it epitomized by our ability to make and appreciate art.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. I agree, collectors are definitely part of the dialog. The artist makes something, expressing (as you say on your blog) an emotion or idea or something; and the viewer receives the communication. A collector, then, shares that something with his or her family, friends, associates, and continues on the dialog.

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