MIXED FUNDING, MIXED MARKETS, LITTLE PICTURES
[First published by Toronto's YYZ Books in a 2001 anthology entitled Money, Value, Art..., edited by Sally McKay and Andrew J. Patterson, 21-28.]
However unpleasant, I don't shrink from the fact that my art is worth money, but how much?
Since 1981, with a few exceptions, I have made only 3"x5" (7.6x12.7 cm) paintings, drawings, and sculptural works - very small things, all in an index card format. If all the paintings are the same size, should they all be worth the same amount?
In fact, all of my paintings do have the same price. If you approach Leo Kamen Gallery in Toronto, or the James Baird Gallery in St. John's, Newfoundland, or Site Gallery in Winnipeg, a work costs $300. That price seems fair, not too high or low: the price of two or so big glossy art books, the price of a couple of nights in a hotel, or maybe the price of an extravagant night out (for some people). The dealer gets 50%. Not bad? Reasonable, I think, at least for now. When I was younger, the art dealers I approached refused to consider selling my work at all. Today, $300 may be too little or too much, but who's to say?
I made up the price, and I reserve the right to change it. The rule about pricing art (as I understand it) is that anything goes, as long as the price isn't lowered for the year-end fire sale - fire sales don't work with commodities like high art. I'd prefer to set a reasonable standard, and then run with it - see how it goes - and then change prices after some careful thinking.
By the late 1960s, the conceptual artists realized that it was futile to deny the exchange value of art, Collectors, they discovered, will buy anything - photocopies, video tapes, dirt - you name it. Artists cannot pretend that their works are not valuable objects, nor should they imagine that they make things that operate outside our systems of exchange value. Today's auction market fetches big cash for lots of trivial non-art objects - the playing field has never been so bizarre - so why deny that art, however ephemeral, has monetary value? Many Canadian artists of my generation (I was born in 1954) act as if their work is at once of great value and worthless. Their ambivalence about public and private funding, about selling and buying, is never resolved.
Many of my works will never come to market - how much are they worth? The Federal Cultural Property review board has had my paintings evaluated, some of which have never been sold, for donation to public institutions. (Their evaluation? $300 each.) The Board depends on a circular method, adducing the current market value instead of leading the market by making their own judgments. Similarly, the public art galleries use commercially-set prices as a benchmark for donation values, but why?
Like other artists, I reserve the right to give away a limited number of works to family, close friends, or in support of charitable causes. In a sense, I also give away drawings to strangers, because I do library installations in which hundreds of drawings are hidden in books, for example, at the Raymond Fogelman Library at the New School for Social Research in New York City, where I am doing a long term installation, and at the Muttart Gallery and Library in Calgary, where I am going to do something similar in the fall of 1999. These projects, like all art making, cost money. In these cases the funding comes from arts agencies that support the installations, but also, of course, from my own financial contributions. I insist that these drawings, even if they are given away, are also worth money, but how much has never been established, since none has ever been sold. I know from my friends in the archive business that a document is worth at least what it costs to reproduce it, so my drawings are worth at least the cost of photocopying them. It could be that the drawings will find their own level of monetary worth - it's hard to say. In the meantime they occupy, like so much art, a monetary limbo.