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"Posterity or Prosperity — Can Artists Have It Both Ways?"

2009-01-26 15:32

Home » Archives » October 2005 » Posterity or Prosperity - Can Artists Have It Both Ways?

10/14/2005: "Posterity or Prosperity - Can Artists Have It Both Ways?" by Barney Davey

"I'd asked around 10 or 15 people for suggestions. Finally one lady friend asked the right question, 'Well, what do you love most?' That's how I started painting money." - Andy Warhol

A question that particularly vexes visual artists, especially those who work in prints, is should they create for commercial success or attempt to create a museum bound legacy. If I try to make my art so people will buy it, am I selling out? If I try to make my art for the ages, can I live off it now?

Compared to other arts, visual artists have the ability to wrest more control of their careers than actors, writers and musicians, especially those in the print market. How so? An artist with the drive and wherewithal can choose to self-publish their work and effectively and independently guide his or her career in the process. The other arts are far more reliant on a host of agents, managers and decision makers who exercise enormous control over the fate of their careers. The opportunity to exercise more control is a unique benefit for visual artists.

Of course, it's not that easy. No artist is going into any museum without having some powerful help to champion them in. Few, if any, make success as print artists without a good support staff. Still, the enigma is the more successful an artist becomes, particularly one who is self-published, the more likely they find themselves on the outs with the critics, curators and opinion makers who drive decisions on who is anointed as worthy and brought into museums, et cetera. Nonetheless, visual artists have more control over their careers should they have the resources and choose to employ them.

Mention starving artist to anyone and the image is conjured of a person sitting in tattered clothes in front of an easel. Sure, it's true waiters in New York and Los Angeles are passing time until their big break on stage, but it's rare to think of actors as starving artists. More importantly, when actors do make a breakthrough, no elite consortium of taste making arbiters is ready to knock them down for being too successful or making too much money.

I pointed out in a previous blog here that visual artists are the only ones who are required by arcane marketing tactics to limit how much they can make from reproductions from their originals. The practice grew out of physical and financial limitations imposed by printmaking techniques that dictated only a certain number of quality prints can be produced. Now in the age of digital printing, those constraints no longer apply, but the marketers still believe they need the crutch of limited editions to be able to effectively sell pieces. I say have the courage and audacity to rid the industry of this practice and take the lid off earnings for artists selling digital or offset prints.

A photographer recently said he expects his prints of the same images to get better over time. He reasons he'll be constantly improving his printing techniques and that software; inks, substrates and printers will improve in time as well. This makes sense to me. It reverses the concept of the first prints in an edition will be the best. Think about that alone as a reason why not to limit digital prints.

Back in the days when rock n' roll was still relevant, the idea of a band having a corporate sponsor for a tour was one way to get uncool with their fans fast. Somewhere along the way, bands were co-opted by the money and took the chance their fans would understand. So, the likes of the Rolling Stones and virtually every other top recording act now has tours sponsored by beer companies and credit cards, etc. Neil Young with his then controversial 1988 hit, This Notes For You, famously satirized this change in attitude toward corporate sponsorship,

"Ain't singin' for Pepsi
Aint singin' for Coke
I don't sing for nobody
Makes me look like a joke."

I believe Neil Young still tours without sponsorship. If there were one popular rock artist to evade sponsorship, it would be the mercurial Young. He has eluded all efforts to define him or his music. So, it shouldn't be surprising he has steered clear of sponsorship, too.

Can you believe it's been more than 10 years since the Stones allowed Microsoft to use "Start Me Up" as the anthem for Windows 95?

Still the rock bands that have given over to the power of corporate dollars were right; their fans forgave them for taking the dough. And, it was more than just money that drove the decision for many rock acts. They have found getting radio airtime increasingly harder to come by and corporate sponsorship and advertising has become another channel to expose their music to their fans. I ultimately think most fans knew in their heart of hearts they wouldn't turn down millions either so they begrudgingly forgave them when the ticket prices skyrocketed to more than $ 100 for many acts.

Speaking of actors, no one feels Dustin Hoffman who made a measly $ 17,000 for his career-making starring role in "The Graduate" became a sellout because he went on to become a multimillionaire by continuing his successful feature film actor career - even though many of his films were purely commercial vehicles. Yet, when visual artists seemingly mismanage their careers by becoming "too commercial," they can be assured the art world muckamucks and many collectors will shun them. How did this happen? How is this fair?

A Los Angeles Times Magazine article on the very successful artist Yuroz detailed the problem in a 4,100-word article titled, "Never Mind the High Praise. How About a Little Ink?; His Work Is Priced as High as $ 150,000. He's Been Commissioned to Paint by the U.N. But There's No Place in the World of Fine Art for Yuroz and Others Like Him." This may be the best piece about this subject you'll ever read and I can't recommend it highly enough if you want more insight into this conundrum.

The gist of the 2002 article, which is still available from the Times' archives, for a small fee, is that Yuroz stayed too long at Artexpo, the long running consumer/tradeshow held each spring at the Jacob Javits Center in Manhattan. Over the years, Yuroz has made a fabulous income and still does, but the article says the Fine Art community ostracizes him. So, Yuroz' dreams of art immortality are dashed as he realizes his in not going to be collected by the best museums.

Yuroz has managed to become wealthy selling art, and he has that to fall back on when he thinks about what might have been. It's of no consolation, but still he might consider this; the gatekeepers to Fine Art heaven are notoriously capricious and fickle and he might well have slaved away in obscure poverty and still not made the right impression on the right people. A scathing follow up letter to the editor regarding the article, (also available for a fee download on the Times Website), viciously attacked him for his commercialism and irrelevance and typifies the art cognoscenti's opinion of many artists who do too well; Yuroz included.

I say if you have the chance to make real money and become commercially successful, take the opportunity to do so and let the future decide your legacy. Just as Yuroz had no guarantee he would make it into the museums he covets, sometimes those that are "hot" in their lifetime go "cold." Some suggest Julian Schnabel's career typifies this scenario.

There is no getting away from the fact that success in business is part of being a successful artist. True enough, anyone can and should make up their own mind as to what success means to them and then try to attain it. However, from the outside looking in, there are standards we all apply to art careers. Being able to consistently sell one's work for increasing prices is for many the gold standard. Price points, competitions and prizes all add luster to a career, but having a viable growing body of interested collectors willing to pay to own one's art is tremendous validation that goes beyond ribbons, prizes and accolades.

I don't believe an artist has to sell out to become successful. In my book, How to Profit from the Art Print Market, I refer to Calvin Goodman's superb Art Marketing book. In it, Goodman explains how he disdained posters as a practical means for an artist's career involvement until he saw how Arthur Secunda, the brilliant painter, colorist and collage artist, had managed to have both a top tier gallery career and still have his work produced and sold by poster publisher, Haddad's Fine Arts. According to Secunda, while having his images made into posters did not make him wealthy, it did help pay for studio costs in California and France. He also believes it helped him gain a wider recognition for his work.

The bottom line is as an artist, if you are selective and effective in how you market yourself and your work, you can have it all. So, why not strive to do both? There is no nobility or romance in being a starving artist. Focus on prosperity with flair, dignity and style and with a dash of luck, your reputation will precede you into posterity.

I am an art print marketing consultant, workshop leader, author and publisher. You can find out more about me at my Website:

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