Hello all, sorry about my absence over here at the Textile Arts Center blog.  But now I am back and will be continuing my “Thread Reviews” every other Wednesday.  Yay!

Generally I use this forum to review and give my take on thread related show, artist, book, etc. hence the name Thread Reviews. However, today will be a little unusual.  Recently one of my blog followers contacted me and asked me an interesting question and since these posts are generally my opinion on something, I thought it was the perfect place to respond. Though is does not deal directly with fibers.

Damien Hirst

She asks:

I’ve been reading a book about the economics of contemporary art. The $12 million stuffed shark, to be exact. It’s been an eye opening read to the world of art.
I’ve discovered…that I love handmade art… And I see nothing wrong with artists striving to be featured on cool blogs, with a cyber following of normal people. But who also are involved with showing their work, and selling their work, but not with the main goal of making a million dollars. But it seems like our culture has created this expectation that kids who want to be artists have to be Mona Lisa famous to be successful. And that’s so annoying to me!

I’m curious what established artists, like yourself, feel about million dollar art auctions, art fairs, branded museums and branded artists.

I thought the question was really interesting and actually think I have a good basis of knowledge to answer so here goes. I feel like there are  2 questions here.

1. what do I think of the million dollar art market and artist?

2. What do I think about the expectation put on artist’s to be Mona Lisa famous in order to be successful.

Since those are BIG questions I can only give an opinion and will break it up with 1. this week and the 2. next time.

Jeff Koons

In general I am not personally into splashy, glamorous, million dollar art of the nature of Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons.  But I am also not against it.  When I was a younger and more naive artist the thought of having a slew of assistants making my art and the artists hand being hardly present seemed totally ludicrous and often this is the very art that sells for millions and millions of dollars. But as my knowledge about the life of an artist, the experience of blue chip artists, and the understanding of contemporary art practices my opinion has softened.

I have had the luxury of working at  PaceWildenstein one of the highest level galleries in the country and personally interact with a handful of high selling artists in one way or the other.  This experience has allowed me to see first hand the pressure put on these high selling artists to make more, do more, produce more, and show more. The reality is if they are selling the gallery wants them to sell, sell, sell. As a result more assistants get hired, more integrity can get compromised, the work perhaps becomes more generic, or branded, but in exchange also more recognizable, the million dollar art machine churns.  And then the artist is often trapped within their own machine of art making.

Quickly they find themselves responsible for their livelihood, their assistant’s livelihood, their dealers main income, and often even more.

Damien Hirst

Now for some artist’s such as like Damien Hirst this works well for them. His work is not and has never been about him, as a person, or his hand as an artist. His work is very conceptually based therefore it simply does not matter if he makes it or someone else does.  Hirst is also always questioning the very art world that he exists in so to me it is quite ironic that as he pokes fun and questions the art world they just keep feeding him more and more. Literally and figuratively.

Kiki Smith

Now for other artists that make more sensitive work that comes from a highly personal place I think this trap of being a million dollar artist can be a much more difficult journey.  When your work is all about you and your hand you begin to lose quality when being pressured to produce more and let go of the making more and this can lead to a lack of consistency in the artists work.  A very bad side affect to the million dollar art market.

However, if our society is going to make it so that football players are going to get paid millions of dollars to play their sport than artist’s FOR SURE should get paid millions of dollars to create art and comment on our culture and society.  Especially since these very artists are employing and supporting many of us more normal folks through assistantship’s and gallery jobs. We need someone to make money in art or none of us do.

John Currin

Rather then holding the million dollar artist up on the cross I would be more likely to hold up a mirror to our culture that supports this.  It would be so much nicer if most art collecting was not all about the investment but about the love of the art. But in this current culture and commercialized world this is simply not the case. I have known of collectors that will buy a piece that they have never seen in person, based on investment value only, and have it shipped directly to a storage facility. Perhaps owning it for years and never seeing it hung or installed. To me this is the atrocity.

Gagosian Gallery

As artists, yes we all want to make a living on our art and in general the more successful we become the more expensive that living becomes and the more people we are responsible for. But I doubt any of us want to sell a piece of art that we care about so see it sit in a crate never to be looked at again just because it gets us paid.  But then again we all gotta eat.

Parlor Antics a Brooklyn based, artist run, exhibition space.

To me the real problem is with the gallery industry. Most gallerist’s are looking for what will sell. This alienates a huge pocket of artists that are working in less traditionally areas such as performance, sound, and installation. Therefore these artists, no matter how talented, have an even bigger struggle sharing their work let alone making a living off of it. But even in the more traditional mediums it is too often not about “I want to show this artist because I love them.” but instead “I can sell this work.”  I think the answer becomes that the artists have to push back against this commodification of the gallery industry.  We have to demand more respect from our gallerist. Not be afraid to out a gallerist for bad behavior, such as NOT PAYING artists for their sold artwork. (I kind of think that would be called stealing in most worlds.) But their has been a dynamic set up where artists are so often so afraid to offend someone – that they end up screwed somehow in the end.

Starn Brothers MTA installation.

I do see a light at the end of the tunnel in that there are more and more artists rejecting the traditional gallery role but self-promoting, showing in different non-traditional venues, and selling their work directly.  This is even being seen in high level artist such as the Starn Brother’s, who represent themselves and recently installed a permanent piece in the NYC subway system. But we are a long way from Brigadoon.


Now to Art Fairs.  Well to me they SUCK.  Most art was not intended to be seen in a “mall ” situation where there is no consideration to the environment, the relationships to other work, oh how the list goes on.  Most serious artists would never apply to a show that is held in some “pseudo” art space where as much art as possible is shoved into an ugly, poorly lit room. So why are we all scrambling to show at these.  Exhibition spaces are meant to be a place where you can see art in the best way possible, having the space and appropriate environment to allow the art to tell us its story.  Art Fairs strip the art down to a thing to buy.  Again the gallery industry and the collectors are to blame but as artist’s we can make the choice to feed the beast or not.

Mixed Greens Gallery, Chelsea, NY, NY.

I think a huge part of the problem is a lack of education for many collectors.  They now about investing but not about the experience and role of art as much, most people that have the money to invest in art are not artists. Gallerist’s often feed this lack of knowledge as it generates easier sales instead of taking the time to teach their collectors. One Chelsea based exception that jumps out at me is Mixed Greens Gallery, far from a million dollar gallery, but a very respected and successful space. They focus on emerging artists, selling work at prices that a young collector can invest in. Their mission is not only to support the artist but to educate and grow a collector. If more galleries took this model more artists would be making a living as an artist.

Louise Bourgeois

In addition there is a huge problem with the million dollar artist industry as it  is almost exclusively made up of white men making work that is fabricated instead of made by hand. But this is the ongoing issue in the art world in general.  I would love to see more women artists like the rare Kiki Smith and Louise Bourgeois joining the ranks of top-selling artists.  But sadly I will not hold my breath.

So wow that was a ramble. Hopefully somewhat coherent. But just a glimpse into my take on the million dollar art industry. Oh such a layered and complicated beast.

To be continued.

Until next time keep your needle threaded!

Joetta Maue is a full time artist primarily using photography and fibers. Her most recent work is a series of embroideries and images exploring intimacy. Joetta exhibits her work throughout the United States and internationally, and authors the art and craft blog Little Yellowbird as well as regularly contributes to Mr. X Stitch. Joetta lives in Brooklyn, NY, with her husband, baby son, two cats, a goldfish.

All images belong to respective copyright holders.