Thursday, June 19, 2008

Reproduction: Bountiful Opportunity

Imagine an America in which the art market was proportional to the percent of visual artists out of all professional artists working in every discipline. If the arts and entertainment economy reflected this allocation, the visual arts would command as much as 20% of that market—a five-fold increase over its current meager 4% share. Visual arts would generate sales of $150 billion, placing it in the range of massive media and literary arts industries (though still more modest in comparison). Instead of a paltry $700 annual average income directly from making visual art, every working artist in America would earn over $10,000 from sales of and grants for their work each year. While certainly not a living wage, this level of reimbursement would provide a real financial incentive to contribute to the culture of American democracy. The very unromantic reality of the unpaid artist would begin to fade into the past.

If you think this is just a crazed megalomaniacal artist fantasy, you may be unaware of the fantastic difference between the popularity of visual arts in America and its utter lack of financial returns. With all of the glitz and glamour of international art fairs and auction extravaganzas, the $12 to $30 billion estimates of the U.S. visual arts market may at first seem quite substantial.[1] A quick comparison with the $550 billion U.S. media entertainment business—already twenty times larger than the visual arts market and expected to reach $680 billion by 2008—puts the commercial slices of the arts pie in better perspective.[2] More conservative estimates would put the literary arts at $114 billion and the media arts at $173 billion, but the point remains: visual arts revenues are an order of magnitude smaller than those in the other major arts sectors.[3]

There are at least two obvious possible explanations for this gross discrepancy in the market sizes of the various arts and entertainment sectors. First, there may be fundamentally lower human demand for visual art than for sounds, words, and motion pictures. Second, the demand for visual art may exist, but some form of market imperfection is preventing its realization in financial terms.

Only one number can dispel the first hypothesis: 77. That is the millions of adult Americans who want more visual art in their lives, almost 90% of those who attend visual arts events each year, and a stronger preference than voiced for any of the other arts. Here are three more numbers, if more convincing is needed: 86, 80, and 61. Those are the total Americans in millions who attend visual arts events, make visual art, and buy visual art each year (respectively). That means 2 out of every 5 adults in America are actively and demonstrably interested in the visual arts—a higher percentage than attend spectator sports, live performances in all other artistic disciplines, or than participate in outdoor recreation, or even than is necessary to win an election for President of the United States! Audience participation is growing faster for visual arts than for all other out-of-home leisure activities surveyed by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts.[4]

Only one number can show how disconnected is public appreciation for visual arts from artist remuneration: six-tenths of a percent. That is roughly the fraction of a percent of Americans who make visual art that the Bureau of Labor Statistics counts as professional working artists (fewer than 500,000 out of 80 million). It is also roughly the fraction of a percent of all visual artists who display their work in public that can make a living at it, even if only a $20,000 meager annual average (20,000 out of 3.3 million artists). And it is also roughly the fraction of a percent of all professional working artists who are lucky enough to be represented by a viable commercial gallery, the key to making a career from art sales (3,000 out of half-a-million artists).[5] Despite all of the positive trends in visual arts appreciation, the picture for visual artists is getting worse: they are the only discipline of art workers whose full-time employment opportunities have been declining since the start of the Twenty-First Century (by -7% from 2000 to 2003). For performers and writers, in comparison, full-time employment is on the rise (by +8% and +10%, respectively).[6] Six-tenths of a percent! That is not a meritocracy; it is the most extreme indication of culture that fails to reward the working artists who create it.

There are plenty more statistics indicating that the magnitude of demand for visual art is within reach of the other arts, and certainly not at a fundamentally lower plane. The intent of such comparisons is not to pit art disciplines against one another. On the contrary, it is to learn from each other. What the other disciplines can teach the visual arts is that reproduction is good for business. That is the most obvious pervasive structural difference that differentiates the visual arts from the rest of the arts and entertainment industry. Demonstrating the strength of the market imperfection hypothesis is not as simple a matter as a few compelling data points; but rather, it requires an articulation of the rich historical influences that created the visual arts' exceptional economic trajectory. This analysis also suggests that rather than harming the other disciplines, a more prominent economic role for contemporary visual arts and its living artists could well be the best thing that has happened to arts in general for a very long time.

Exclusivity is the culprit creating the visual arts' economic stranglehold, artificially restricting its own market opportunities. When former Metropolitan Museum of Art director Thomas Hoving says "art is sexy! Art is money-sexy-social-climbing-fantastic!" he is speaking to motivations that are far from limited to the wealthiest cohorts of society.[7] The consumer masses love whatever connection to luxury they can afford.[8] Such aspirational marketing has been embraced through reproduction by the rest of the arts and entertainment world as well as by retailers worldwide, but in the visual arts, the arms-reach approach to exclusively unique artifacts still applies. If you have to ask, you can't afford it! Or, conversely, if you can't get what it means, don't ask! Ironically, the rationale for the lack of reproducible marketability comes from the extremes of both capitalist and anti-capitalist ideologies that dominate the visual arts. On the one hand, there is the investment-oriented appreciation approach of the market-leading businesses, which prize scarcity; on the other, there is the gift-economy radicalism of academics and grant recipients, who value the transformative impacts of alternative ways of engaging the world.

One more statistic points beyond this complexly rooted, self-limiting, anti-consumerist, anti-reproductive bias of the visual arts economy, and points to what the visual arts can teach the other arts and the culture at large: 93. That is the percentage of Americans who personally make visual art for themselves relative to those who go out to see it. That is social sculpture writ large. That is the democratic essence of the visual arts. Everyone is indeed an artist.

Still worried about market saturation? That is, the macro-economics of oversupply as opposed to the micro-economics of overexposure, the dilution of price when talent is ubiquitous? Just because everyone can benefit from engaging in creativity does not mean that everyone has identical talents for producing works of visual art. Don't forget the two billion walls in American homes—all of which offer opportunities for display. There are 4,000 residential walls for every working artist in America. Add to that the hundreds of millions of more walls in non-residential spaces, including offices, stores, and other public and private facilities. Many of these walls have space for multiple works. And who says that the art cannot change over time—especially when reproductions are involved—according to the changing interests of those who live and work within those walls? This is not just an echo of the fashion season, itself an exciting renewal of energy, but more profoundly, can reflect the developing sophistication of aesthetic appreciation as consumers mature. This process can only occur by living with art.

It often seems that there are thousands of artists lined up to compete for every opportunity to exhibit work. But the real truth is that for every working artist in America there are literally thousands of opportunities to exhibit art. And that includes only the two-dimensional indoor opportunities. Outdoors, they are unlimited, as Christo and Jeanne-Claude's 7,500 Gates [PLATE 99] in Central Park illustrate on the grandest scale, paid for with the sale of $20-million worth of prints and other multiples, a classic case of how reproduction increases the profile and value of originals.

Still worried that art will be reduced to decoration? How self-defeating and hypocritical it is to chase wealthy collectors with beautifully radical art statements while abhorring the commodification necessary to bring art into the daily lives of the general public. How much more subversive would it be if instead of academic leftism, engaged in obscure philosophical debates and clever virtual pranks, artists subvert the elitist price-appreciation model of the art market, not with utopian free-goods that prolong the starving-artist myth, but rather by infiltrating the homes of Americans with objects of transgressive beauty?[9] Why not embrace the democrat aspect of commodity capitalism, acknowledge the new aura is branding, and use these insights for more than celebrity promotion, for the infusion of contemporary art into the intimacy of Americans households? That is the opportunity, and it is bounteous indeed.

The statistics show that Americans want more visual art, more visits to museums and galleries, and more often than they want any other form of art exposure. Let's bring it home!

Visual Art Index

Who Wants to See Art?
Millions of Americans who attend museums, galleries, art fairs or festivals events each year : 86
Millions who want more such visits (preferred more strongly than all other arts) : 77
Number of Americans who attend visual arts events for every 10 who read fiction or poetry : 9
Number who attend visual arts events for every 10 who go to the movies : 7
Percentage of all adult Americans who attend visual arts events each year : 42
Percent who attend spectator sports : 35
Percent who attend live music, theater or dance : 32
Percent who participate in outdoor recreation : 31
Percent who voted for George Bush in 2004 : 30
Percent growth in museum and gallery goers (highest for surveyed leisure activities, 1982-2002) : +20
Twenty-year percent change in adult viewers of movies : -5
Percent change in adults who read literature : -18
Percent change in adults who attend spectator sports : -27
Percent of Americans with graduate degrees who visit museums and galleries (a majority!) : 59
Visits that Americans made to museums and galleries versus theaters and music venues : 2.5:1
Fraction of all performing arts attendees who also visit art museums : >1/2
Percent of Americans who watch TV shows on visual art (more than any performing arts broadcast) : 25
Percent of Americans in Mountain states who visit museums (more than East and West Coasts) : 34

Who Wants to Buy Art?
Millions of Americans who buy original works of art : 61
Odds that a museum or gallery visitor bought art in the last year : 4 out of 5
Percentages of both adult men and adult women who buy art each year : 30
Age group with the highest percent of adults buying art (41%) : 18-24
Percent of Latino Americans buying art each year (highest for any race or ethnicity) : 38
Percent of Asian and Native Americans visiting museums (highest for any race or ethnicity) : 33

Who Wants to Make Art?
Millions of Americans who make visual art (paint, draw, photograph, pottery, jewelry, textiles) : 80
Americans who make art as a percent of those who attend visual arts events : 93
Who perform as a percent of those attending performing arts events : 40
Who do creative writing as a percent of those who read literature : 15
Ratio of Americans who make visual art to those who write fiction or poetry : 5:1
Ratio of Americans who make visual art to those who practice theater, music or dance : 3:1
Millions of Americans who sing chorale music in public (most frequent public art performance) : 9.9
Millions of Americans who paint or draw for public display (second most frequent) : 3.3

Who Wants to Live off Art?
Millions of visual artists working in America (art directors, fine artists, animators, photographers) : <1/2>

Who Says so?
U.S. National Endowment for the Arts 2004 (Research Note #87 and Research Report #45).

1. Christo and Jeanne Claude. The Gates, Project for Central Park, New York City. 2002.
Drawing. © Christo.

[1] Unity Marketing 2003; Goldman 2005; Saltz 2005.
[2] PricewaterhouseCoopers 2004.
[3] Goldman 2005.
[4] National Endowment for the Arts 2004.
[5] Goldman 2005.
[6] Nichols 2004.
[7] Cited in Buck 2004, p. 38.
[8] Frank 2004; Rozhon 2004.
[9] Hickey 1993.

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