Wednesday, September 03, 2008

An Art Dealer Sent Me an Article on the Changes in the Art Market

It would be most convenient for me and useful to you if you first read A Dealer Looks Back, by Richard Polsky. It’s relatively brief. For the more impatient: Mr. Polsky looks back on his thirty years in the business and tells us how it changed from a small, cozy coterie of dealers who held collectors at their mercy into a vastly larger, highly competitive industry that is dominated by huge auction houses that brought “credibility and transparency” to the market, inn recent years even directly connecting the artist and the collector and further transformed by information technology including the Internet, “which has narrowed the playing field for collectors as far as access to information” is concerned. Not all change is not for the better, Mr, Polsky thinks, as “[t]he art business has become strictly bottom line. At the risk of sounding cynical, money has never been more important; connoisseurship and independent thinking never less so. There’s also no sense of history.”

ADD: The art dealer who sent me the article is not Mr. Polsky himself, but another dealer who deals extensively though not exclusively in photographs.

Got it? Okay, here is my response, lightly edited. As so often happens in cases like this, free association takes over and goes off into rather unaesthetic directions. People with better business training should be able to do a much better job on the effects of information technology on the used book business. I hope that this helps you to think though.

I experienced first-hand a little bit of this change in the art industry on a much smaller scale when I went searching for those photography books. I used to go to those used book stores in Kanda when I was in college, so my experience covers a time span similar to—okay, a little broader than—Mr. Polsky's career. I remember vividly seeing back then a first edition of a book of poems by a very young Aldous Huxley and deciding, ultimately, not to buy it. I regret it to this day.

Many of the used book stores in Kanda still had that musty feel, but the online search and subsequent email exchanges (and some phone calls) had massively simplified my search—a national search at that. I could also see the leveling effect that going online had on the business. Even the smaller number of quality photography books available on online auction sites—the primary market, just like the new artist-collector connections at auction houses—were being sold at prices in the same ballpark as those on the professional network site.

There is no way that artwork will ever become as commoditized as, say, corporate shares. Still, to the extent that the art market approaches the market economy ideal through information technology with the corresponding reduction in the informational and transactional distances, is it not likely that the business of the art dealer will tend to split off into a number of specialties that service producers (artists) and consumers (collectors and other buyers), namely: promoters (think, talent agents and underwriters), who advise and manage (and possibly finance) the careers of the artists; (warehouses) economy-of-scale inventory keepers, who provide a place to locate the artwork; procurement advisers (investment advisers), who help collectors manage their possessions; and other functionaries that I cannot think of off the top on my head? Or is it happening already?

I note that because of the nature of the technology, photography is even easier to go market online. In fact, many if not most photographers have their own personal online galleries and market directly to customers. (Isn’t that how it works, Sophie?)


Sophie said...


Yes, the web makes it easier to show your art and market it. I think of a comic book artist who created his blog, put his work online, started selling his art through an online + brick and mortar gallery, then got a book deal.

I don’t personally do that. I get requests from time to time, but I have always found it a hassle to make a business out of my photos. So I stick to my 'no commercial use' policy.

Jun Okumura said...

Is the comic book guy the one who created Argon Zark? Must be many people like that by now. My favorite online diarist Mimi Smartypants has gone on to publish and give talks, though she still definitely has a 9-to-5 job.

Some people always need more money while others never do, and it has nothing to do with how much they have or don’t have. But if you ever feel the need, you can always find an agent who’ll deal with all the hassle. If fact, wasn’t that what MAGNUM was all about, many, many decades before the Internet?

Sophie said...

The comic book guy is just someone from my town who’s doing a comic about GM crops, not famous yet...

Yes, I think Magnum and other agencies were means for photo-journalists to do their reporting (getting advance money, then the services of an agency to market their photos).

Jun Okumura said...

I assume that he hasn’t produced a comic book that makes Monsanto happy.