15th May 2008
What sells art?
What makes one living contemporary artist’s work move into the rarefied stratosphere of big ticket auction sales at Sotheby’s or Christies while other artists languish in the hot summer sun in tents at art fairs hoping to sell their paintings?
What sells art, and also creative endeavors including music, dance, literature, theatre and film is:
For visual art this means museum box office tickets.
Whenever a living visual artists has a museum show that takes off with blockbuster sales of tickets the auction sales prices for that artist’s works catapult into the highest ranges, far beyond all previous estimates and prices.
The financial reality is that art museums today mount special shows with an eye towards ticket sales. Despite endowments, hefty donations from members, merchandise sales, etc., museums need strong ticket sales to stay afloat and even to mount other important shows that may not engage the public’s interest and only result in marginal ticket sales.
Ironically when an artist’s work engages public interest and results in strong box office sales, museums line up to collect the work of that contemporary artist. The artist’s work is perceived to be possibly important historically, plus of course a potential draw for visitors.
It is well known that the Louvre in Paris sells many tickets to tourists who pay to see one painting, the Mona Lisa. On a daily basis there is a crowd and line to see the Mona Lisa while other important works by major painters are passed by. In New York, the Museum of Modern Art knows that people are coming to see van Gogh’s Starry Night. There is a guard specifically stationed near this painting to keep people from touching it plus handle the daily folw of the crows that comes to see it.
Art sells other kinds of tickets, too. When Christo’s and Jeanne-Claude’s work, The Gates was displayed in Central Park people came from all over the world to walk through the billowing saffron colored display. Include the sale of plane, train and bus tickets. Of course, at night, when the museum is closed tourists also buy tickets to shows and concerts, plus eat in restaurants, stay in hotels, etc. A major art show that helps generate additional revenues for tourism ends up creating more local donations and grants for museums that mount successful ones.
Top collectors know that when the public clamors to see the work of an artist the work increases in value and ticket sales demonstrate the public’s interest. Original work by any artist is available in a limited supply. There are public relations and tax advantages for a collector, especially corporate collectors, who lend art works to museum shows. The more the public wants to see the work of an artist, the more likelihood that important and/or traveling museum shows will be mounted.
Price is determined by supply and demand. An artist’s representatives, who work to create a successful career, will seek to first place work in the hands of museums and the noted collectors who will endow museums or, as the trend is recently, begin museums with their collections. The galleries of blue chip contemporary artists carefully select what collectors are allowed to purchase a work. This is especially true for the work of artists that is good box office.
The collectors, secondary market dealers, curators and museum directors who the artist and her representatives normally sell art to are not the primary purchasers of museum show tickets. The majority of people who buy the tickets to blockbuster museum shows are not art collectors, even of emerging artists. The public comes to a major show to be inspired, educated, entertained or because they are curious as to what the media hubbub is about. Some come just to be able to say to others that they saw it. Who goes to Paris without coming home and saying the saw the Eiffel Tower, the Moulin Rouge and the Mona Lisa?
In the other arts ticket sales are directly to the people who are consumers of the product itself, concert goers also but the album, speakers become best selling authors, and ticket sales for movies and theatre sell the rental of the viewing seats, plus the CD and video. Salaries, fees, percentages of the profits go to the various artists involved. Artists who have blockbuster museum sales generally only reap financial benefits through the sales of their newest work to collectors by their gallery representatives. Museums do not sell original art to the public. Their gifts shops sell licensed merchandise, posters, cards, books with images, umbrellas, mugs, etc., which can bring some funds to an artist.
The box office for fine art museum tickets is fully international, including museums located on every continent. Superstar fine artists are joining superstars in music and film as generally visual art has no language barriers.
Galleries and many contemporary artists recognize that good buzz helps build an artist’s career. Great reviews, an important place in the history of art, having work placed (for far less money) in noted museums and collections, being included in catalogues and reference books will not launch an artist’s works into the financial stratosphere the way that just one museum show with blockbuster sales will. Of course, some of the aforementioned are usual steps on the way towards museums selecting to mount shows for the work of an artist. Galleries now email notices of their artists’ reviews and articles in major art magazines and newspapers to those who have opted into their lists. Press coverage helps build public recognition, which leads to demand. Artists are appearing on panels, giving interviews and hiring PR representatives to promote themselves and their work to the public. Artists and galleries are promoting art to the public, to people who will never buy the work, but will buy tickets.
Successful contemporary galleries, collectors and those who profit from including and promoting an artist’s work in some way such as curators, not-for-profit space directors, and journalists all know that when viewing the work of an emerging or contemporary artist in addition to esthetic and historical concerns a new question must also be posed. Will it sell tickets?