Updated: Apr 20, 2020
The idea of the art market and being a struggling artist within that market has been a subject that’s weighed on my mind a lot lately. I graduated from art school last year, I’m out in the world and nobody wants to buy my art. I’ve talked to other artists and nobody wants to buy their art either. It seems like there are just a lot of us out here in the world struggling to sell work and while a piece or two might sell here or there it’s not exactly paying the bills. I’ve seen a lot of articles addressing this struggle but I think a lot of them are coming off as complaining, just a bunch of people saying, “why won’t people buy my art work? I make good work, that should be all I have to do but people won’t buy it. They should buy it for (insert crazy amount of money here).” But no one’s addressing the problem, no one is really looking into why the art market is the way it is and why your average, everyday person isn’t buying modestly priced art even though it seems relatively clear. The art market has selfishly made itself seem so exclusive over the last 60 years that its major industries, auction houses/private sellers, galleries, and publications, have turned off the average consumer to buying art and made it incredibly challenging for artists outside of a select few to survive on their art.
I think this exclusivity really took prominence in the 1950’s with the rise of pop-art and artists like Warhol who became more than just artists but celebrities. This celebrity status changed the idea of buying art, you weren’t just buying a painting or print anymore, you were buying a Warhol, or a Pollock, a name more than an artwork. Artists were becoming the “hot name” and that “hot name” being associated with a work was driving the value through the roof. These top names could put their name on anything and it would sell for millions, everyone was writing about them and the art world revolved around them. When we think of any art movement throughout time 3-5 names jump out as the defining characters of that period and that stayed true but now it was almost more about marketing than art. When Da Vinci and Michelangelo were dominating the commissions of the Renaissance it was because artists were all doing similar things and subjects and these two were the best at accurately and beautifully displaying those subjects but suddenly there was such diversity in art that “the best” wasn’t just decided by the image, it was decided by consumers. So, the artist who could get out there and market themselves, their style and their own personal brand the most were going to be the ones who were “the best.” Commercialism took over art and artists became more of a brand than a collection of pieces and the art world fed right into this but with this huge commercializing art became a luxury item and the average person was excluded from the art world. Only a few artists were selling and only a few people were buying them and, because they were the ones with the money, all of the art world became about marketing those artists to those people and if you were outside of that or trying to promote anything different it was really tough to stay afloat.
So, let’s break down the big culprits of making the art world so exclusive: the auction houses/private sellers, the galleries, and the publications. We’ll start with the big one that is the sellers. First things first, these people don’t give a shit about art and it’s not hard to see. What they care about is getting the fattest wallets in their seats and shelling out items to collect their percentage and call it a day. These people aren’t promoting artists, they’re not making careers, they’ve just established themselves as big sellers so the big name work comes to them because they have the network of collectors. It’s all a name game, Sotherby’s and Christies, to name a few, are the big name auctioneers so they’re going to sell the big name work for the big money, nothing else. Private sellers are even worse, virtual real estate agents for paintings, just acting as middlemen while highly appraised art is moved from one millionaire to another. Or, and this is a relatively new phenomenon, top brands are discovering or taking the work of artists and turning them into products, but since it’s art and a top tier product, it’s still only for a select few. The whole selling industry is just corporate and money hungry, if your art isn’t worth enough they won’t bother selling it and if you don’t have the money to shell out they won’t bother trying to sell to you. Art is meant to be experienced not to be marketed as a luxury item only for the richest of rich but that’s what these sellers have turned it into. The worst part is that there’s so much money flowing through this network of buyers and sellers that they don’t need to change a thing, their method is working. They’ve got a TON of money and they’ve made the art market exclusive only to people who can add to that cash flow.
Art sellers are definitely the big culprits in making the art world seem so exclusive but it has a trickle down effect so galleries and publications are very much at the liberty of what’s selling. Galleries do what they can to promote artists and show different things but money talks and they’ve got to keep their doors open. Big name galleries rely solely on showing work of what’s uber relevant, be it artistically or politically, or bringing in the work of big name artists. Average people aren’t exposed to a lot of art because only the big names are really seeing exposure so these galleries just pedal out shows with the same big names or curate shows of big time issues to draw people in the door. Don’t get me wrong galleries are great and there are certainly a ton who are trying to do the right thing but unfortunately the right thing doesn’t always pay the bills and the method of showing the same shit over and over seems to be working. Big time galleries win over the small guys because they can put up one or two famous works, charge $17.50 a ticket, and profit for days, yeah they might put up some other small shows and people give them a glance but they’re only really marketing the big piece or the big retrospective so that’s naturally what people are going to drift towards because it seems like they’re getting a peek into the good life, the super exclusive art world that they can’t afford to be a part of.
Publications struggle very similarly because, just like not many people are going to go into your gallery if they have no idea who the artists being showed are, no one is going to read your magazine or article if they have no idea about who or what you’re talking about. Not many people who don’t know about art are reading about art so the major publications are only putting out things on easy subjects or not catering to the general public at all. They talk about the big names, the big galleries, and what’s being sold where because no one is going to read it otherwise. The risk to reward for going on a limb and saying something different isn’t worth it when staying relevant and making money is the game. Art is probably the only subject that writers totally acknowledge that people might not get what they’re saying and do absolutely nothing to explain it to them. Publications who want to market to artists use fancy art talk that’s going to confuse non-artists, publications that want to market to sellers only speak dollars and cents so people who can’t afford it naturally drift away and then what’s left is a bunch of people who are basically just saying, “there’s a show here now.” or ,”Look what this prominent artist made.” and it’s resulting in this totally diluted, lame system of publication that’s just pedaling the same lame shit.
So what has all this caused? A classist system that has totally scared the average consumer away from buying art. Auction houses, galleries, and publications are only going to sell, show or talk about what’s worth a lot and that scares normal people away from art. People are so fearful that they don’t know what they’re doing or buying when it comes to art that they only feel safe in buying random IKEA prints or DIY Pinterest nonsense and no one is doing anything to change it. It might come off like I’m trashing galleries or publications but I only dislike the big ones that are just doing the same shit, there are A LOT of publications and galleries who are trying to talk about, show or promote artists other than the big names but they struggle with outreach. The middle class of art is made up largely of artists and small groups of patrons supporting each other within their respective communities. Every city seems to have it’s own little gallery circuit or collective and those are amazing communities but they need outreach.
So what should we do? Educate people. We need to unite these small communities in the middle class of art and show people that art isn’t some scary, upper class luxury but an open world of creators that if people entered they’re bound to find something they love. Once we educate people that art isn’t scary and they can and should interact with it we can show them that buying art isn’t a million dollar game. We need to sell our art reasonably so that people can buy it and proudly display it instead of the same landscape print that’s sold at every target and is in every suburban home. We need to educate the world that art isn’t as scary as they think and there’s more than just the big names, we need to revolutionize and expand the middle class of art so that we can all thrive, not just one or two of us. Let’s expand, build our network, show to everyone, let’s make these small communities of people creating, collaborating, showing and supporting each other one big community doing the same thing and from there we can revolutionize the art world. We’re not all going to be the big names selling at the big auctions but we can be the artists who say fuck the system and put in the work to make something new successful!