The recent record-setting price for Picasso’s “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” on Tuesday night at Christie’s has left the art world abuzz– questioning the method through which it was sold, and musing as to what this indicates about the state of the global economy and how that affects art sales. Indeed, Marc Porter, chairman of Christie’s America’s proclaimed, “I think the Picasso illustrates what has been true in good and bad economic times — the very best works of art continue to sell at a premium.” But that’s not true. What Porter should have said was that the BEST KNOWN works continue to sell at a premium. And this is bad news for artists and the economy, not to mention bad business sense on the part of art patrons.
The Two-Way, NPR’s news blog, asks readers, “When you hear about a huge amount of money being paid for a work of art, do you wish it had been spent on something else?” In fact, I do wish that the $106.5 million that was used to purchase this painting was spent on something else: more art, from contemporary, emerging artists, especially as support for new, public projects. This would be a far more culturally, economically and socially responsible way to spend such a large sum of cash.
$106.5 million could fund a lot of projects at various scales. This not only perpetuates artmaking, it also brings income to artists and their assistants (often other artists), who make up a large part of the self-employed/ freelancers/ entrepreneurs who are struggling most in the current economic climate. And artists need materials and tools to make works, so they funnel money back into the economy. We buy software, computers, electronics, cameras, reciprocating saws, wood, nails, bolts, paint, metal– the list goes on. (We also fuel the livelihood of art journalists, critics, gallerists and consultants, although they often seem to forget that.) This week, my collaborative partner and I each spent almost $300 on an Epson projector that we need for a project. We scavenge so that we can repurpose materials, but we also spend hundreds each month on supplies (paper, ink, hardware, books, building materials) and real estate (rent for a studio space).
Picasso is great, but Picasso is dead. He’s not using the money for anything, and, realistically, neither the Brody family nor Christie’s will re-invest as large a percentage of the money back into the economy as contemporary artists or arts organizations supporting new work would. What’s more, the Picasso auctioned was exhibited only once, in 1961. It’s been sold to an anonymous private collector. Who knows how many times, if ever, it will be available for the public to see again? Even if new works that are commissioned are ultimately not as artistically great or important as this Picasso painting, they will likely have a greater cultural value, especially if they are public works, or become a part of public collections.
Furthermore, a patron of new works stands a chance (although, truthfully still not a great one) on seeing a fiscal gain to his or her investments. However, work from Old Masters or “Modern Masters” like Picasso, rarely appreciate substantially in value. It’s already sold for millions; it’s unlikely that a new collector will be found who will spend significantly more than the high price that has already been paid– certainly not enough to offer a large return once the fees of consultants, auction houses, etc have been paid. But, a patron who purchases a new work from a relatively unknown artist, or lots of new works from lots of emerging artists, might find the NEXT Picasso. There’s the possibility that the work will appreciate exponentially.
So if you have a hundred million or so to spend on art, or even if you have significantly less, consider making a culturally significant, yet economically and societally responsible purchase– spend on something new.