Art in the New Economy
Looking back at the Great Recession of 2008, and in particular, how it impacted art and artists is a look-back worth taking. Why? Because recessions happen from time to time, and every time they do, they impact the art world in exactly the same way. In other words, learning from the past is a great way to prepare for the future. So let's head on back to 2009 for a moment, reflect on what happened, why it happened, and what artists and galleries can do to survive economic downturns...
As of 2009, America is now firmly and uncomfortably ensconced in a new economic era. In 2008, the economy took a massive nosedive. We had been living on borrowed money for too many decades, and in recent years when borrowed money simply wasn't enough, incomprehensibly insatiable Wall Street plutocrats (with assistance from our trusted politicians) legislated themselves ditties like an increase in margin buying for investment banks from 12-1 to 40-1 (each $1 you put up buys you $40 in chips), sold millions of mortgages to people who couldn't possibly afford them, used many of those worthless mortgages as collateral for all kinds of speculative shenanigans, and invented arcane unregulated "derivatives" like Credit Default Swaps to conjure themselves up even more mountains of imaginary money. Well, we now all realize that imaginary money can't pay bills, and with the blush off the flimflam, we've lapsed into a resigned state of realization that all we're worth a lot less than we thought we were.
How does this sad news shake out in artland? On the buy side, less money, more regulation and tougher credit mean that discretionary capital (and the ability to access capital in general) has shrunk. As we all know, one of the great discretionary luxuries in life is art, and for many galleries and artists, selling it has become way more challenging than it's been in quite a while. To complicate matters, many so-called "art investors" who attempted to cash in either all or part of their pre-crash collections in order to raise quick cash when the economy scurried south were instead gifted with the rudest of awakenings, aka their art was far less liquid and at far lower prices than they thought it was.
You see, what's happened in America, and to a certain extent in the rest of the world, is that a massive revaluation (devaluation) has taken place. In other words, we've moved a lot closer to what things are really worth and away from what people would like you to believe they're worth (or what they used to be worth when money was practically free for the taking). For example, home prices have fallen about as far as they can fall and are finally becoming affordable enough for average Americans to own. Stock prices collapsed, corporations gave themselves substantial makeovers (like laying off millions of workers), and four years later, financial markets have largely recouped their losses. Many of those who were laid off, on the other hand, have not even come close to recouping theirs. Decreased demand resulted in falling prices for many non-essential commodities and uh oh... unfortunately that included art. In brief, now that all the fake wealth has been factored out of the system and cold hard cash has once again reasserted itself as the only sure thing, we're all having to live more within our means, make due with less-- and here's the key-- think harder and smarter about how we spend whatever dineros we have left over.
Yes, for the foreseeable future, anyone who spends money on anything from eggs to art, from you and me to multinational corporations, will be seriously assessing the value in whatever they spend it on... before they spend it. Speculation is out, buying on margin is out, impulse buying is out. The only thing that's in is what it's worth now and to what degree of certainty it will continue to be worth approximately that amount, or hopefully more, in the future. What kinds of value will buyers be looking for? Excellence, quality, productivity, dedication, commitment, established track record, reputation, pride in workmanship, these sorts of things-- the values that made America great-- standards that were sadly lost in the shuffle of our greed-is-good, hard-work-is-for-losers, every-man-for-himself, party-party-party attitude towards life that were so characteristic of those now extinct speculative days.
For you artists interested in overcoming these formidable challenges, this means demonstrating that your art has the kinds of values buyers will be looking for, not only today, but beyond. It needs to have more going for it than simply that you've christened it art, you loved making it, or that it means something special to you. This may sound harsh, but the days of navel-gazing on obscure irrelevances, flimsy justifications, shoddy product, dabblers, overblown attitude, and "It is because I say it is" are over. Being an artist 'cuz it's cool, aimlessly gallivanting across the prairies of artland, random unfocused art-making, expressing yourself only when you feel like it and purely for the sake of self-expression-- these approaches may have been fine in boom times when money burned holes in people's pockets, but not now.
Your art has to fight for survival. You have to conclusively demonstrate why it's worth owning by offering tangible, intangible, theoretical, philosophical and related forms of proof (not the least of which is visual) that it embodies concepts, ideals, inspirations, and aspirations potential buyers can identify with-- or if you're not that great of a communicator, providing your dealer, agent, representative, or gallery with that information so that they can demonstrate on your behalf-- because convincing people to let go of their money is currently more daunting than it's been in decades. Why does your art deserve a place in someone's home or business? How will it enrich or enhance another person's life? In short, what's in it for the buyer? You know what's in it for you, but that's no longer enough to consummate a sale.
Today's art buyers are searching for superlatives-- significance, import, consequence, enduring essence, and similar qualities that place particular works of art above and beyond the great mass of average unremarkable oeuvres out there that eternally glut the marketplace. Why? It's not because they've suddenly become more sophisticated and discriminating about their choices, but rather that significant numbers of Sunday players have hung up their collecting shoes, at least for the time being, because they've been forced to reposition their capital expenditures elsewhere. Who does that leave? Hardcore art lovers who live, breathe, and eat fine art, and who will continue to collect no matter what (even though many have to cut back on acquisitions as well). And hardcore art lovers know what they're looking at. You can't cut corners with them, and they're not about to settle for second-rate tripe. Let me assure you.
The bigger broader more ominous news, as if the situation isn't daunting enough already, is that people around the world, including those who buy art, have increasingly come to perceive America (and potentially also American art) as having lost its way. We're no longer the instant automatic trailblazers we once were, and we can no longer do whatever we feel like doing whenever we feel like doing it and expect the rest of the world to fall into lockstep behind us. At worst, being American may even be trending towards a disadvantage. Face it-- our standing in the world has taken some mighty major hits in the past several years.
In response, you as an artist have to ask yourself some very serious questions, and then build the answers to those questions into your art, overtly or otherwise. For instance, why do American points of view, perspectives, and creative impulses continue to matter and have merit? How or what does your art contribute to the evolution and advancement of all art everywhere? How does it exemplify objectives like unity, community, forward thinking, innovation, fresh perspectives, hard work, dedication, commitment, and striving greater good? How does it transcend travails, fulfill lives, or point us in new and more worthy directions? These are huge questions that not only artists, but all of us should constantly be thinking about because times have changed, attentions have shifted, the world is a very different place than it was five years ago, and people everywhere are intent on hearing what we have to say for ourselves.
The upshot? You have to dedicate yourself to creating the absolute best art you can possibly create. You've got to look beyond yourself, think seriously about what you want to communicate and about how you intend to effectively get those points across, however arcane or complicated they may be. Work hard, work daily, be productive, embrace quality, and commit yourself to prevailing as an artist regardless of the adversity of the circumstances. By approaching your discipline with consummate dedication and seriousness, you maximize your chances for success. It's precisely that simple and no more complicated.
Art will always have value and it will always express the most elevated and progressive aesthetics, tendencies, and ideals to which human beings can aspire. Art is timeless; it represents the future-- it always has and it always will. It represents talent, brilliance, genius, vision, and the materialization of hope, faith, and the courage of conviction. It represents solace and beauty-- an oasis where people can escape from the stresses and pressures of daily life. No matter what happens out there, great art has the power to reenergize, to reinvigorate, and even to heal. Ultimately and above all, it offers the promise that at some point in the not-to-distant future, everything will be well once again and that with the passage of time, we will unquestionably recover what we only temporarily have misplaced.
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