After a long period exhibiting at The Workers Gallery “What is it Worth?” has failed to sell. The general consensus on price from visitors to the gallery is that this artwork is worth between £225 and £300. In suggesting it is worth this high a price visitors have themselves placed the artwork beyond their own purses.
Let’s just think about this for a second. I’ve asked people to state what price they are able and willing to buy for, and still they feel unable to buy art. Rather than ask for some greedy price far beyond the realm of what gallery visitors are able to offer, I turned it around and asked for a fair token price. I would have taken any price no matter how low. I’ll take a penny for it if someone really wants it on their wall and that’s all they can afford.
Is it the case that regular visitors to galleries expect art to be beyond their financial reach? If this is the case then artists can rarely hope to make a living at what they do. There are only so many wealthy philanthropists to go around. If you’re not lucky enough to find a rich patron for your art then you’re relying on the general public to make your art sales happen.
Are there simply too many artists and not enough buyers? The culture of going to galleries is within us here in the UK but we’re more likely to spend £100 on a night out at a local restaurant with friends than we are on something for the walls at home. Unless there is a cultural shift then a lot of artists will always be destined to be working other careers to finance their art. Your Friday night bartender could well be your Saturday afternoon gallery artist.
Of course there is the alternative idea that visitors suggested a price in the hundreds to avoid buying my work. It’s a polite way of saying they don’t like it without risking offence. Instead of “Oh my god what is this nonsense!?” they’re saying to themselves “This is art and I don’t understand it. Rather than say I think it’s rubbish and then feel stupid I’ll compliment it and say it must be worth hundreds. After all, those artists I see on the TV do art I don’t understand, and that is worth thousands, so this must be really really clever art.” If that’s the case then I’ll nail a potato to a wall and charge you £1000. Is that what you expect from a gallery these days? Is that what you want? Really?
Art, we have a problem. We’re failing to engage with the punter. We are failing to help the regular vistor own the things they like. We’re failing to help the artist make a tidy living out of their craft. We are failing gallery owners in making a living from their business. This is a simple failure to communicate and this has been going on for a very long time.
A few centuries ago this wouldn’t be a problem since only wealthy people bought art. Regular people were not expected to visit galleries. The working classes worked while the upper classes played. It is only relatively recently that ordinary people have been encouraged into the gallery environment. Today’s galleries have outreach programs welcoming the wider community through the doors. Contemporary galleries double up as community spaces, coffee shops, bars, and tourist attractions to help curators cover the bills. Now visitors have their Friday night out at the gallery instead of waiting until the following afternoon for their slice of culture. This is all great stuff. It’s a win-win for the gallery visitor and the curator.
But what about the artist? The artist is the last to win financially from their work. I seem to be the last to be able to cover my bills, if I can cover them at all.
After wrestling with this for a very long time I’ve finally decided to remove the idea of money from my artmaking. I’ve given up my self-employed status and am no longer working as a professional artist*. I’ll still make art and contribute to exhibitions but I will alter the way I engage with the art world. I’ll give to exhibitions that sell in aid of charities where I receive no financial reward. I’ll work on small art which I will leave in public places for others to find and cherish. I’ll create new pieces by recycling old pieces so that I am not out of pocket through buying materials. I’ll create and destroy and create again with the only evidence of the art ever existing being a digital photograph on my Instagram account.
So here it is “What is it Worth?” If you want it then go to the Workers Gallery next week and take it for a penny or two. Let me be your patron rather than the other way around. Let me help you to have the art that you want. The creative stuff in my head will continue to flow so if you like it then just take it. Knowing there is a happy art owner out there who wouldn’t normally be able to afford art makes it all worth it for me.
*I’m taking away the illusion that I’m doing ok out of my art and I’m working in the care sector instead. There is no future in making money from art but there’s a future in supporting the ageing population in being happy.