Helpful Reminder: Rising Inequality is Not Good for Artists
Source:Artinfo Date: 2014-05-09 Size:
A funny theory was floated on the Internet this week: Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes that because art is generally purchased by the rich, and the rich are getting richer—and buying more art—artists may be among the lucky few who benefit from increasing inequality...

A funny theory was floated on the Internet this week: Vox’s Matt Yglesias writes that because art is generally purchased by the rich, and the rich are getting richer—and buying more art—artists may be among the lucky few who benefit from increasing inequality. It’s a compelling argument on the surface, especially for artists themselves, but it rests on a fundamental misunderstanding of the art market below the top tier — and of the study from which Yglesias is drawing his conclusion. Artists benefit from inequality much the way people benefit from inequality: a very small portion of the population sees astronomical gains, while the rest find their earnings arestagnant, or even falling.

First a note about the study, published in the American Economic Review: as usual, the numbers here can only tell us so much. The researchers looked at auction results of works that have been sold multiple times, but in the century-long time series, they only managed to find 1,481 data points. Further, Yglesias doesn’t seem to have read to the end. While the researchers found that income inequality had a significant effect on prices in Britain in the early 20th century, they found a weaker link between the two in the post-war period.

More to the point, in case anyone’s forgotten, the art market, inasmuch as it is one market, distributes much of the enormous wealth that pours into it to the already wealthy owners of works by a few dozen artists, many of them dead. On Tuesday night, Christie’s took in $286 million by selling only 47 artworks (12 of them by Picasso). The money is passed around from collector to collector or collector to artist (in the case of living art stars), with middlemen—in the U.S., the three big auction houses and a bunch of private dealers—taking a healthy cut. If you are a member of the club—Jeff Koons or David Zwirner—that’s great.

There’s very little evidence that prosperity at the top is helping the industry as a whole. Instead, middle market dealers find themselves with higher rents, collectors demanding they travel to more art fairs, and a disappearing upper-middle-class clientele. The Financial Times had a sobering statistic this week: “According to art economist Clare McAndrew, galleries with a turnover of more than $14m in 2012 reported a growth in sales of 55 per cent whereas all the others reported a decline.”

Further, what defines the middle market in Manhattan would be laughable to anyone outside of it. What of the artists who sell their work at the low end of the market—that is, the vast majority of them? Small-time collectors are feeling the same economic effects as the artists they are buying from: rising housing costs, stagnant wages, and less cash to spend supporting a luxury industry.

As with the wider world, rising inequality only serves to make the art world more unequal.

[Editor] 孙雯

    Artintern