The high price of art, the cost of keeping up with it

Maybe a dozen years ago, when I was filling in for a few months for the art critic at the daily newspaper that was my bread and margarine, I decided it was a good idea to print the prices of the works of art being discussed in reviews of gallery shows. Seemed reasonable at the time. Why shouldn’t the paper give its readers an idea of whether that new painting by Gregory Grenon, say, was going for $1,800 or $18,000? Why not let the working-two-jobs-to-make-ends-meet art fan know that if she really liked that piece by the brand-new art school grad, she could pick it up for $250 instead of assuming it was going to be swooped up by some dot-com turk because it was out of her price range?

The response around me in my corner of the newsroom was unison and aghast. It amounted to this: Art is for art’s sake. Money has nothing to do with intrinsic value (I wasn’t arguing that it did). To discuss price is to taint the critical process (all I wanted to do was list the prices in the information box). Besides, money is, well, you know, tawdry. I quickly scotched the idea, and pretty much forgot about it: No smudge of commerce would taint the culture pages, where truth and beauty are all you need to know.

So why is it so damned fascinating to read about the high-roller art auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s? The latest report comes from Carol Vogel in the New York Times, and the frenzied buying seems to indicate that, while working-class saps are getting kicked in the rear by the recession, the big spenders are spending, well, big. Real big. Like there’s no tomorrow big. “The market is defying gravity,” Vogel quotes financier and collector Eli Broad.

Follow the money, everyone says, to which you can add, Follow the art — it’s following the money. To Japan in the 1980s, to Las Vegas and the marketing and advertising whizzes of London in the 1990s, to the culture-cloaking Wal-Mart matrons in the ’00s. And to just about anybody who’s cashed in on the biggest upward transfer of wealth since the days of the 19th century Robber Barons (who actually seem a bit like pikers compared to the new bunch of sudden zillionaires).

Now, maybe you don’t think any painting, not even one by Mark Rothko, can be worth the 50.4 million bucks someone forked over for his 1952 piece “No. 15” at Christie’s (although we at Artscatter happen to be big fans of Rothko, who, after all, graduated from high school in our real-space home of Portland, Oregon). And you’re right. No piece of canvas is worth that amount of money, from a rational point of view.

But art isn’t rational — or, if you prefer, utilitarian, or quantifiable. The biggest thing the buyer might be buying is bragging rights: I now possess this thing that proves me insanely cultured as well as insanely rich. But it also goes far beyond that, into areas that help define why and how we are human. The buyer is buying history, politics, an idea of mastery. He is making a bet on what will be deemed important 100 years from now: a moment in time and place and circumstance judged precious. He is buying a set of cultural values. He is, perhaps, buying a piece that confirms his own suspicions about what’s important in contemporary life: Doesn’t the work of Saatchi’s stable of Brit hot shots reflect the sleekness of his own advertising-world success? And, we can only assume, the buyer is reaching for the brass ring of that evanescent thing we call beauty.

So, all right. The prices keep going up (although in the past they’ve also crashed). The rich get richer, they spend more and more, they build a legacy, and then they die or decide it’s time to pass the goodies on.

That’s why I love museums. You can’t stop human nature, or cultural proclivity, or whatever you want to call it, and that nature says that a very few people will accumulate a very large amount of stuff. Some of that stuff is of very high intrinsic value to the culture that produced it, even though it carries a price tag that is largely artificial. (Yes, at the same time, I believe that enough is grotesquely more than enough with the looting by the privileged few of the common wealth, and some sort of more sane and moral redistribution must be achieved. In the meantime, at least the wealthy are conserving much of the world’s important art for us. And a surprising number of collectors — maybe not the big-game hunters looking to bag trophy heads for their walls, but the ones who learn about their chosen field and work at it assiduously — actually collect because they love and respect the art.)

Museum directors and curators spend a shameless amount of time currying the favor of these high rollers, all in the hope or expectation that when the time comes, the collectors will give their art to the museum — in return for a handsome tax writeoff, of course.

This is good. Because when the art finally comes to the museums, almost anyone who is interested suddenly has access to it. Our culture once again becomes our culture, free — or close to it — for the immersion. For many years I’ve renewed my family membership annually at the Portland Art Museum, and it costs me something on the order of $85 a year, which a person could easily drink up at Starbucks in nothing flat. I’ll continue to buy a family membership, even though new director Brian Ferriso is instituting a free-admission policy for children 17 and younger, which is an excellent idea. Much as people complain about the “elitism” of the art world, art museums are literally a case of power to the people: With free or cheap entry, the world of culture and history is offered to us all. Thanks: I’ll take it.

The jacking-up of prices, of course, does have a negative effect on the Portland Art Museum and similar institutions of modest size and wealth. That’s because the higher prices go, the more these museums are priced out of the market. Already dealing with relatively thin collections, there’s no way they can keep up with the Mets and Guggenheims and Whitneys and Gettys and Tates and Louvres of the art world, either in their ability to buy specific pieces or to attract the ultrarich collectors who might buy the art for them.

That means that a successful small or regional museum has to collect smart, which means it has to take advantage of the serendipitous gift and look for value in the marketplace. Truth and beauty has a price tag, after all.

One of the reasons — although not the only one — that the Portland museum turned so much attention to old masters and French historical art under the direction of Ferriso’s predecessor, John Buchanan, is that the old masters market was well value-rated: Compared to, say, the 20th century American scene that’s been producing those booming prices for Rothkos and Rauschenbergs and Frankenthalers and Jasper Johnses, the old masters market was offering a fair amount of bang for the buck — especially at the not-quite-top-name level where PAM was concentrating its attentions. And Buchanan had a European curator, Penelope Hunter-Stiebel, who knew that market and the historical decorative arts market extremely well, and who knew how potential purchases stacked up in an art-historical sense. (Hunter-Stiebel and I are good friends, and I’ve learned more about art from her than from anyone else.) Now that she and Ferriso have parted ways, I fear the museum is going to miss her influence more than it knows.

The same sense of excellent shopping goes for the museum’s acquisition of the Clement Greenberg collection of mid-20th century American (mostly New York) masters, a striking deal that was shepherded by chief curator Bruce Guenther and dealer Tracy Savage. I’m not a huge fan of Greenberg the critic (from his time I prefer Harold Rosenberg, who was not so didactic, not so ego-driven, and more open to surprise) but Greenberg had a very good eye, and getting his collection for a modest outlay was a major coup: It gives the Portland museum the solid beginnings of a collection in an important area in which the museum’s cupboard had been embarrassingly empty.

So: Lucre might be filthy, but it has its uses, and if you pretend it’s not important you simply aren’t understanding the game. The only thing wrong with tainted money, Mark Twain once said, is it t’aint yours and it t’aint mine. Great line, good sense of reality, questionable ethics. Love might make the world go ’round, but money pays the bills. I’m not dumb enough to make a case for Ronald Reagan‘s thoroughly discredited voodoo economics: It’s been an insult with sometimes tragic consequences. But in the curious and fascinating world of museums, the effect of the money actually eventually trickles down to us, the people, who can’t afford to buy but can take deep pleasure in looking.