Flash Points

Flash Points #3: What is the Value of Art?

Hans Haacke, "Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real-Estate Holdings." 1971.

Hans Haacke, "Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real-Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971." 1971.

In the late-1990s I took a graduate seminar on “museums and institutional critique” that focused on artistic and curatorial practices in the 1980s and 90s, and included a series of guest lectures by artists, curators, and the like. It became a bit of a joke that during each class there’d come a point in the conversation where we’d be talking about how an artwork, exhibition, or program was put together, and I’d always raise my hand and ask how it was funded. (Foreshadowing my future career in fundraising, perhaps?)

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Leonardo da Vinci, view of a skull, c. 1489. Gabriel Orozco, "Black Kites," 1997. Damian Hirst, "For the Love of God," 2007.

Asking these questions was not a matter of tabloid curiosity, or an exercise in mapping the dirty money that fuels lofty aesthetic pursuits ala Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971. Instead, it always seemed to me that how art is funded tells us something about the way it participates in a larger network of institutions, markets, and audiences. The questions of how art is valued and how it is monetized inevitably overlap: artworks perceived as “important” yield high prices at auction; economic development funding goes to out-of-the-way cultural institutions that bring high quality programming and consequently, tourists, to their neighborhoods; exhibitions that push boundaries attract grants from foundations dedicated to promoting free speech; arts education is consistently underfunded.

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Kerry James Marshall, "Untitled," 2008. James Lee Byars, "The Perfect Table," 1989.

How many times have you asked yourself how Art21-featured artists were able to fund a large scale project – Ann Hamilton’s Corpus, for instance, or Cai Guo-Qiang’s Inopportune: Stage One? Or wondered who buys works by Iñigo Maglano Ovalle, Kerry James Marshall, or Janine Antoni and how much they pay? Buried within questions about the economics of art, are assumptions and often, judgments, about its value that beg to be examined: How is the value of an artist’s intellectual versus physical labor calculated? Are collectible works valued differently than ephemeral projects?

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Tom Friedman, "Untitled," 1995. Rirkrit Tiravanija, "Unititled," 2002.

How does individual “taste” and critical reception affect the value of an artwork, exhibition, or institution? What factors influence the way we value an artistic experience, as individuals and as a society?

How do we quantify the intangible benefits that art education provides? How do we talk about the subtle and personal value that art has in our lives?

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1971 cover of Artforum featuring the PASTA strike; 2006 National Post article on the "gallerina" phenomenon.

The current global financial crisis has given the question “What is the value of art?” a new urgency as we come to terms with not only a downturn in the art market, but with the larger societal changes caused by the crisis that are sure to affect the way art is made, distributed, valued, and consumed in the coming years. Over the next two months Flash Points will present a multifaceted look at both topical issues—recent deaccessioning controversies, how the recession is affecting artists and institutions—as well as explore larger philosophical issues about the deeply complicated relationship between art and money, and tackle thorny questions about the value of art in our individual lives.

We welcome your input. Please feel free to comment, share ideas on what you’d like to see here, and post questions for our regular writers, guest bloggers, and Art21 staff.


  1. I’m looking forward to reading the future posts on the subject. I certainly know that people are questining whether they can buy art during these times, and whether new galleries should open.

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  2. William Shaw says:

    Interesting you started this thread in the week that the Art Newspaper announced that LACMA was in the process of commissioning Jeff Koons to create a $25m artwork. Is I say in the Arts & Ecology blog, “you don’t even have to be of the Patti Smith opinion, that Koons’ work is “just litter upon the earth”, to think this kind of commission is a very bad idea right now.”

    I’ve also blogged about this “What is the value of art” thread here.

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  3. Beth Allen says:

    Thanks for your comment, William, and for spreading the word about our Flash Points series via the Arts & Ecology blog.

    I find it really interesting that we so often talk about what art costs these days – the “business” side of art and institutions gets great coverage in mainstream publications as well as the art press. Sometimes, though, this seems to happen at the expense of discussing art’s value in a broader sense. How, for example, Koons’ “Train” furthers LACMA’s mission or makes a contribution to the history of art more generally.

    On the one hand I find it easy see your point that investing $25 million dollars on a commission like this during a recession sounds over the top. However, it’s also true that Mr. Koons runs a large studio – employing hundreds of studio assistants – and that a large scale project like this will also create jobs for engineers, fabricators, and museum personnel. In addition to the jobs such a project provides, or the PR value that might accrue to LACMA, it seems to me there might be more intangible things to be gained by bringing this project to life – something might be learned from tackling the engineering challenges of such a project if nothing else. More generally, I do worry that when we make such judgments about the price of artworks, we risk positioning art as mere luxury good that we can easily live without when money is tight.

    Is stating that this commission is a bad idea meant as a judgment on Koons’ work, or this project, specifically? Or are there deeper issues at stake about the way art functions symbolically in the current environment?

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  8. Antonio Madriz says:

    I am currently an art 1.2 student at a junior college and really do not know much about art besides a little history that was taught in my course. I personally believe that each piece of art is valued by the perspective of the person who is seeing it. Every person has their own taste on what they do and do not like. I personally would not pay a high amount of money on an abstract painting because it simply does not satisfy my taste on what I like about art. This goes back to my perspective and what I think is worth buying or what I appreciate. Each person can set a different value on a certain piece of art. For example, the Mona Lisa to most people considered a masterpiece of art, but I am sure there is someone out there that sees no worth in that piece. In the end, art is something most people can appreciate because of the beauty that it unfolds and one should not get in a debate on what art should be valued and instead admire what each artist brings to the table.

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