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Wednesday 23rd January 2013"Why Affordable Art?" Recalibrating for Today's Art Market

Next Picasso Curator David Betz, giving a curatorial talk at his 2007 Exhibition, Desert Dreamscapes at the Holter Museum of Art
Next Picasso Curator David Betz, giving a curatorial talk, in support of the exhibition
Desert Dreamscapes, at the Holter Museum of Art, 2007.


An artist recently asked me what do you mean when you say affordable art? A serious answer to that question, why Affordable Art has become such a buzzword in recent years, and the transition that it represents, involves a look back at the contemporay art market, thirty years of rapid expansion, followed by an even quicker, and for many of us devestating contraction.


I've been in the art business for close to thirty years now, most of those boom years, with a few harsh, but essentially short-lived recessions in the mix. During that time I worked primarily with artwork priced between 2,000 and 30,000 dollars.  A price range I would consider just about the middle of the market, not the swamp of mass market art and art products, but not the super high-end stratosphere that is the oeuvre of international art stars and dead artists. Although many artworks I worked with were later resold at auction, increasing in value.


During most of the last thirty years, middle class to upper middle class collectors felt comfortable buying art in that sort of price range, because of what economists call the “wealth effect.” If they were doing well and saw their incomes rising, they felt confident buying luxuries that made them feel good about themselves, such as contemporary art. What could make you feel better about yourself, about the quality of your life, than putting a great painting on the wall, or that perfect sculpture in the back garden? As an art dealer it was my job to enable that magic to happen, to be a sort of matchmaker, connecting collectors to the right work by the right artist, providing an experience that would enrich their lives and get an artist's work out into the world.


Damien Hirst's Polka Dot's symbol of an over-saturated high end art market?The sad truth is, that since the economic crisis of 2008, far fewer middle class collectors are "looking for love" in that way. The uber-wealthy have retained the requisite level of economic confidence to keep buying — hedge fund managers and the like, who feel richer than ever!  —  which accounts for why the high-end market in international art stars work and the work of dead artists has been so frothy, and for the most part doing better than ever (although Larry Gagosian’s recent troubles hint that even the market for international art stars has become oversaturated!). But as we all know, the vast middle of the art market — that expanded so rapidly during the boom years of the 1984 – 2008 (Reagan’s second term through the apocalyptic Bush economic meltdown), and that was the comfort zone for so many artists actively exhibiting and selling their work — has contracted significantly.


And it’s contracted so significantly, because it was supported by a vast and vibrant middle class, that with good reason, no longer feels economically confident. During the last four years, it’s like the middle class has woken up with a terrific hangover after a long party, woken up to the fact that they’re carrying too much debt, their houses are underwater, that stocks are not exactly a safe guaranteed investment, and that their incomes haven’t really been improving as much as they once thought. The so called "wealth effect" simply evaporated along with the housing market!


As artists, art dealers, and other professionals, working in an industry dependent on what economists once described as the robust “economic engine of the American middle class”, the question is, how do we respond to this life changing transformation? Where do we go from here?


Jeff Koons Balloon Dog, already a symbol of a bygone era?I love working with contemporary art — it’s a passion! — so I’m not going to just roll over and die because times have changed. Finding a successful strategy for surviving this paradigm shift, means adapting to the times, like the fleet of foot, big-brained mammal that I am, rather than just standing there like a dinosaur, confused that my once familiar landscape, has been altered beyond recognition. Which brings me to my new mantra: Affordable Art!    


Affordable Art has become a buzzword in recent years for good reason. That vast pool of middle class art collectors, that we all once depended on for our livelihoods — who learned to love and collect contemporary art during the baby boom’s boom years — well, their lives have changed, and so have their buying habits. But realize too, that they still love art, that they still go to museum shows, that art still plays an important part in their lives, but that they're simply not spending as freely now. So we have go easy on the ego, swallow a little pride (after all pride cometh before the fall) ease up on the outsized ambition, and learn to serve these collectors better, as in the end that’s what any business has to be about — serving your clients needs effectively!  Talking more in terms of you, rather than I.



Mimi Chen Ting's Painting Divertimento I at Next Picasso Affordable Art Online

Surveying the landscape around me, things have improved somewhat.  People are starting to feel confident about making those less ambitious discretionary purchases again. Call it pent up consumer demand. But to be honest, that robust consumer confidence of the last 30 years is not coming back any time soon. Collectors are simply less likely to stretch to purchase that amazing 48” x 60” painting, that costs five, ten, twenty thousand dollars, until boom times, and the sense of economic confidence that goes with them, return. For me, targeting the dialed down comfort zone of our beloved middle class collectors is the most obvious strategy for staying afloat in this era of diminished expectations.


So how does this apply to my own current venture, Next Picasso Affordable Art Online? Most everything on www.next-picasso.com is priced at $3,000 and under, within what I perceive to be the comfort zone of those middle class collectors, who haven’t so much disappeared from the scene, as become far more judicious about their discretionary spending.


In the bad old days of over confidence, outsized ambition, and excessive pride I used to believe, “why sell something for $500 when it takes the same amount of effort as selling something for $5,000!” Now I find myself, with the necessary humility, to say that no matter what someone pays for a work of art, they want to know that they're getting good value for their money, they want to be provided with a quality experience, and to know that their needs and concerns are being addressed competently, professionally, with thought and care, and great follow through. And I’m looking for a few great artists who are willing to join me in this undertaking!



Flora Layla Edwards painting, Geronimo at Next Picasso Affordable Art OnlineSo for artists who once thrived in that "sweet spot", the vast middle of the market, surviving the great recession also means adapting, recalibrating your career.  Devoting some percentage of your overall output to affordable art, might be one of many successful strategies artists employ to prosper in the coming years.



For more established artists, an affordable art strategy might mean not so much lowering your prices, as perhaps concentrating more on work that’s priced appropriately for the current economic climate, limited edition prints, works on paper, or paintings on a smaller scale.




For emerging artists it means being more realistic, that you’re starting out facing significant headwinds. It’s highly unlikely that you’re going to be the next Jean Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons, or Damien Hirst (Larry Gagosian’s recent troubles prove that even that end of the market may have already become out of step with the times!). No one will soon be throwing piles of money at you, because like everything else in this economy there is simply way too much supply and not enough demand. So if your just starting out, don’t stop dreaming big, but certainly be more realistic in your ambitions for the near term. Think about projects suited to the current climate, projects that are less expensive to produce. Price your work to establish a market now, with idea of building the prices, once you’ve achieved a serious collector base, and the economy has hopefully improved.


There are still artists making a serious income from their artwork these days, but often they’re established artists who’ve managed to achieve a Zen-like equilibrium of quality and price point, and who’re savvy about showing in Joan Marie Giampa's painting, Spring Releaf, at Next Picasso Affordable Art Onlinemultiple venues with varied approaches, rather than just working within the old fashioned gallery model. So for the purposes of Next Picasso, Affordable Art is work that achieves that Zen-like equilibrium of quality and price point.


Diminished expectations, sure, but the economy should be forcing both artists and dealers to be more clearheaded and realistic about their expectations; more lean and mean in how they operate; more focused and purposeful in the strategies they employ to be successful in the marketplace, and most importantly, more open and generous to the end consumer.


So that is one man’s humble, if perhaps self-serving, take on how to move the ball forward in this challenging climate!  As the rappers say — “keeping it real!”  Keeping things simple and down to earth. Realizing that in the end, that we’re all in this together, and that by recalibrating our expectations to match those of our clients, we all give a little to gain a little more. Thanks for asking!


 — David Betz, Curator



Posted on January 23rd 2013 on 08:11pm
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