In 2015 Les Femmes d’Alger set a record, selling at auction for $179.4 million. If you don’t know it or you don’t happen to have $180 million in spare change sitting around the apartment you might not care. You might be right not to care. Is art something we should care about?
Before the auction, the painting had been in private hands. After nearly $180m changed hands it remained in private hands. It now belongs to a former Qatari prime minister and presumably hangs on a wall in a Middle Eastern palace somewhere – where at least we know it is not damp.
But artists are starving, aren’t they?
In the transaction, where $180 million changed hands in return for a large canvas (45 in × 57.6 in), there were some people who made a sizeable chunk of change. Christie’s, the auction house, would have taken a large fee. The auctioneer probably received a huge commission given that the painting sold for three times the expected price. If the thank you to the auctioneer was a quarter per cent it equated to a nearly half a million dollar payday.
There were some people who didn’t make any money. The art gallery who represented the artist when he was unknown made nothing. Picasso’s estate (yes it was his work) probably didn’t make as much as you’d think. The Guardian newspaper’s art critic lamented the high price saying that collectors were behaving foolishly chasing after the Picasso name rather than the greatness of a particular work of art.
This is a man who believes Picasso was the greatest 20th-century artist and we would have to agree he is up there. But the critic’s problem seems to be the foolishness of collectors, not the price tag.
The Management of Art Galleries by Magnus Resch
For his ground-breaking book which looks into the world of the Art Gallery, the author sent out an anonymous survey to around 8,000 galleries. Nearly a quarter took the time to respond, and for the art dealer, it makes hard reading.
Fifty-five per cent stated their turnover was less than $200,000, less than the auctioneer’s commission, remember? The average profit margin (across the US, UK and Germany) was a whopping 6.5% or $13,000.
As for the artists, earnings from their artwork are pitiful. The lowest paid are earning less than $20k and some who are doing better might be at around $53K
The problem is that art is a vocation
How can we explain this dichotomy between the collectors at the top of the pile and the key people at the bottom? The problem for the committed artist is creation is not a choice it is a compulsion. Arshile Gorky knew the only thing to do was put something down on canvas. For an artist, he said the only real position is creativity and “only one salvation: Art.”
In the end, it feels like the gallery has a similar compulsion, but it is a hard way to make a living.