How art acquires value

November 25, 2009

I might spend an hour, a day, or a week in a dance studio, take a number of pictures, print a few, frame one, hang it in a gallery, and sell it for $200 or $1,200, or might imagine selling it in New York for $2,400 or $24,000.  How does such art acquire value.  Clearly it’s not the cost of paper, ink, and framing materials.  Nor does it translate into my time by any simple formula.

To help understand what’s going on, I asked this question on Facebook:  “Wondering how art acquires value … my art, and yours?”.  The responses I received form an interesting dialog.  I’m reproduced most of the text, with only a little editing, below.  The responders were Deidre Johnson, student at the Muskie School of Public Policy, who has worked at several architectural offices; Gary Gurney, a certified rolfer, who also has several creative business ventures’ Ellis Vener, photographer and writer about photography;  Scott Augé, systems analyst and programmer; and Stoney Cook, dancer, lighting designer, and computer professional.

Deidre: Value is built, one brick at a time, so to speak. Value is the equity accumulated over time, with one’s energy and integrity (learning, exploring, community, intuition and hard work); on the skirt tail of broad insight. It applies to any profession, purpose or art; everything else is false advertising.

Gary: What does value mean? Money? I think our culture is hooked on the idea of value being externalized and objectified and “normalized”–something that can be measured and talked about in economic terms. A friend once asked, “what is the value of blanket on a cold night?”

Ellis: Artistic value or monetary value or both? Patience and steady work at building value are what work for most people. A sense of scarcity and rare experience help as well, and then so does some degree of familiarity (brand consciousness) and comfort.

Scott: I think Ellis pretty much nailed it. Art is about experience by proxy. If someone comes away from it with a wow and a new framework of thought or emotion, the art piece will probably be considered valuable.

Ellis: Thank you but I think Scott”s comments nailed it better than mine

Stoney: That’s simple Arthur. Artists are always worth more dead than alive. Sad but true. Do you agree?

Arthur: Ellis properly asks whether I’m thinking about monetary value. This is the strangest part. As an unknown photographer, my framed 16 x 20 print might sell for $175. Well know in Portland it might sell for $550 there; $950 in New York. With some visiblity, it might rise to $4,500. But, should Larry Gogassian decide to hang it in his gallery, it would sell for $19,500 at least! Crazy. Meanwhile, some people will find that the image adds value to their lives, awakens sensations, delights an aesthetic, while others will have no such reaction. Will that get better as I die. I doubt it, although the price might rise.

Ellis: What needs to happen is that someone feels an immediate and deep emotional and intellectual connection to the work and then is willing to champion it in the marketplace so that more people of like heart and mind can discover it.

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