The Benefits of Saving Art
Someday It'll be Your Retirement Fund
...and Maybe More
Q: I've been painting and sculpting for about twenty years and am pretty popular in my part of the state. I make art constantly, have sold hundreds of pieces and have hundreds more in storage at my house and in my studio. The bad news is that I'm kind of a pack rat and my wife has given me an ultimatum. She wants me to clean out the house and studio and get rid of whatever I think I can live without including personal possessions and excess pieces of my art. I'm thinking that I'll probably focus on older art that I made when I was younger-- pieces I don't really care that much about anymore. Maybe I'll take them to a flea market and sell them for whatever I can get. What do you think?
A: This is not a good idea. Do whatever you can to avoid selling even a single piece of your art (significant completed works, that is) at giveaway prices or worse yet, throwing art out-- especially earlier ones. Selling or otherwise discarding personal possessions is one thing, but if you start getting rid of your art, you'll regret it in the end. Over time, not only do individual works of art serve to document various points in the history of your career, but in many ways, the sum total of what you keep eventually becomes like a personal retirement account or pension fund. Selling it for next to nothing now can be like throwing money into a dumpster.
To begin with, you're considering selling or throwing out earlier works. As artists advance in their careers, especially successful ones, experienced collectors and fine art professionals at some point tend to value and pay premium prices for earlier pieces rather than later ones. From a scholarly perspective, the same holds true for curators, researchers and art historians-- they tend to ascribe greater significance to earlier works. Anyone who understands how the art world works will tell you that once an artist has developed a mature style, a respected profile, and has become established in his or her career, earlier works become increasingly significant because they most clearly demonstrate how that mature style evolved. Earlier pieces are often more original, energetic, dramatic, risky, experimental, emotionally charged and most importantly, they document artists' "growing pains." Later pieces, on the other hand, generally exhibit fewer such characteristics because the more successful and established artists get, the more the directions of their careers and art tend to flatten out and settle into routine and comfortable production patterns.
For anyone who follows your career or is a fan of your work-- both longtime supporters and new converts-- and the longer you're around, the more they'll want to know about everything and the more you'll come to realize the value of possessing evidence of every stage of your artistic development, especially the beginning. The sooner you realize this, the better. Simply put, a comprehensive record of your output makes your art easier for people to understand and appreciate. The more successful and established you get, the more people will tend to pay attention to your art, and the more they're interested in knowing your history and full story. So when it comes time to recount the good old days, hopefully you'll have plenty around to recount them with, and that includes having enough art in your arsenal to throw yourself a really impressive retrospective. But that's not all...
The sooner you realize that not everyone will always want to own only your latest creations or only care about what you're doing now-- especially as you advance in your career-- the better prepared you'll be for the future. Beginning and early-career artists commonly make the mistake of believing that the art they're making now is all that matters, all that their collectors care about or should care about, and that earlier works are basically irrelevant. The truth is that with the passage of time, the early work often becomes increasingly relevant and historically significant, not only with respect to explaining the current work, but also because it possesses those formative characteristics mentioned above. In addition, it exists in increasingly limited quantities and once it's off the market and in people's collections (including yours), it can no longer be replaced or reproduced like your current work can. And scarcity is a component of value. No matter how involved you are with your current work, never lose sight of the big picture, that is, the totality of your career... and of your art.
As for the financial benefits of saving your art, all you have to do is look at the lives and careers of successful artists and you'll see that those who set aside the greatest numbers of early works tend also have the greatest number of options later in life. Andy Warhol, for example, saved enough art for his beneficiaries to create an entire museum and foundation in his name-- art from every period in his career. On top of that, he was the consummate documentarian, recording or otherwise archiving practically every waking moment of every single day of his life (and sometimes even the sleeping moments as well). Other successful artists have used the art that they've saved to help establish and finance foundations or institutes, as inheritance for future generations, or as funding sources for research, grants or nonprofits. Many artists simply use the proceeds from the sales of saved works to support themselves once they slow down or stop making art altogether.
In case you can't work things out with your wife and some art has to go, here are several suggestions:
* Whatever happens, separate out and keep your best early works along with similarly significant pieces from all periods of your career. Also save all art that's significant in other ways such as pieces that were created for special occasions, ones that represent seminal events in your life, ones that commemorate or that were created in response to significant incidents or periods in your life, and so on-- no matter how negative or difficult those incidents or periods might have been.
* Have several people who know and understand your art like gallery owners or similarly qualified professionals help you sort through your work first. They may recognize certain pieces as significant or worthy that you think are little more than junk. Believe it or not, artists are not necessarily the best judges of their own work. Informed second and third opinions can be invaluable in situations like this.
* Save all materials that document your career such as exhibition catalogs, photographs, correspondences with collectors or galleries, formal contracts or agreements, sales records, show announcements and any other printed, recorded or video materials that relate directly to your art. Good documentation increases the value of art-- not only historically, but financially as well. Destroying records of your artistic history will come back to haunt you-- guaranteed.
* If you can't afford to pay for storage, ask friends, relatives, associates or people with access to commercial spaces whether they'd like to display certain pieces of your art in their homes, offices or places of business at no charge (free art for them; free storage for you).
* Ask people with storage space whether they'd be willing to store some of your art at no charge (or in exchange for a piece or two).
* Ask dealers or galleries that represent you whether they'd be interested in taking additional pieces on consignment including your earlier work (some might like that idea).
* After setting aside your best pieces, have a studio sale and offer discounts of perhaps 20%-40% on whatever's left over. Then do what you can to figure out how to preserve and store everything else.
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