The $20,000 Question

Several years ago, I found myself in a hotel room late at night with several fellow basket-makers.  Jan Hopkins, Kate Anderson and Susan Kavicky (perhaps more?) were there.  We were in Chicago for SOFA and had reserved rooms for the group of us.  After the long day of  being “on”, talking with folks, looking at work in other gallery booths, expending a lot of energy in hoping that work would be purchased, we had kicked back with a bottle of wine and philosophical conversation.As usual, the subject of price vs. value came up.  In art, the value of a piece is based on…what?  Why did some of the works we had seen that day merit four-figure or even five-figure prices while others, similar in many ways, merit only triple-digits?Possible reasons:

  1.  Materials.  Gold is more expensive than paper and so the resulting objects made from them tend to be more or less expensive.
  2. Size.  It does seem to matter.  Bigger generally trumps smaller.
  3. Number.  If one makes ten $10 pieces that go together, the logical price would be $100.  If one makes one hundred $10 pieces that go together, we have a $1000 piece.  That doesn’t always hold true, of course, but the logic is there.
  4. Medium.  Every medium seems to have its day.  Glass is still the big dog.  A mediocre piece of glass will sell for far more than a mediocre piece of wood or clay or textile.
  5. Reputation of the maker.  The baseball card mentality.  A Babe Ruth is worth more than a Ziggy Fitzgerald.
  6. Social currency.  Has this work been talked/written about?  How many “likes” does it have?  Has a celebrity been seen looking at it or, better yet, buying it?
  7. Rarity.  The fewer pieces there are made by a coveted artist, the more expensive they will be.
  8. Representation.  The reputation of the gallery or agent carries weight in the pricing game, too.  If a well-respected gallery or agent values the work sufficiently to represent it, that counts for something.
  9. Timing.  There is much to be said about being in the right place at the right time.
  10. Magic.  There is always the possibility for that ineffable quality that appears when a maker is truly an artist.  And even then, it’s rare.

Many of these elements are beyond one’s control but we can control some of them.  What if we thought about the “value” of the piece before we made it?  From that idea came this:  What if we had an exhibition in which every piece had to sell for $20,000?  What would each of us do to make a piece that would cost that amount?  Use gold as an element?  Learn glassblowing?  Fill a room with ten thousand objects?  Call upon a childhood friend who has made it big in Hollywood to talk about our work at LA cocktail parties?  Just put a price tag  of $20,000 on anything we made?It flipped the ongoing question of pricing on its head.  Instead of looking at our work and saying, “What is it worth?”, we would set out to control what we could to make a piece worth a certain amount.  People do this all the time in order to make work that sells for less but rarely to make work that sells for more.  I would still like to think that artists make work for reasons other than the price tag but what I like about the practice is that it asks us to be scrupulous about what we value in our own work and in the work of others.Above is “Journies”, a piece that is in the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution.  I’ll tell you more about it next time.  

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