Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Art and Money

I've often puzzled over the different economic directions the visual and performing arts have taken in the last century. At the bottom end of the economic spectrum, both beginning visual artists and composers are struggling in poverty. But at the top end, the visual artists are far ahead. Vincent van Gogh provides an example. During his lifetime he sold only one painting for less than $2000 in today's money. Few of his paintings go to auction these days as they are mostly held in museums, but one sold in 1990 for over $150 million in today's money. A Willem de Kooning sold recently for $300 million. Yes, it is usually, but not always, the case that it is not the artist that benefits, often being dead, but someone does!

Composers are far less well off. The very famous American composer Philip Glass had to work at various menial jobs (driving a cab, moving furniture, plumbing) until he was into his 40s when commissions began to be enough to barely support him.

The situation seems to be that there is a lot of money in visual arts, but a lot of expenses in performing arts!

As I say, I have puzzled over this and never come up with much of an explanation other than rich people like to buy things they can hang on their walls. But Ann Althouse put up a post the other day that offers a suggestion, The Art Donation Tax Evasion. You need to read the whole thing, but the idea is that the New York Times evasively describes a long-standing strategy for avoiding taxes that depends on donating art to museums at inflated values. But the NYT commentators are on to it:
"Ah, the good old-fashioned donation evaluation for taxes. The wealthy have been doing this for a very long time. Museums are there for this very reason. To deposit overly valued art pieces in lieu of a tax deduction. Same goes for property, buildings and other funding to arts, medicine and pet projects. Art is tricky. How is it exactly evaluated? And by whom?"
Could this be part of the reason that prices for visual arts seem a little high?


Steven said...

Have you seen this? A composer, Soosan Lolavar, on how shabbily composers are treated and how underpaid, or even unpaid, they are, especially with regards to competitions.

I don't agree with every thing in it (and not sure what I think of composition competitions generally), but it's outrageous how much work composers are expected to do for so little material gain -- or even for free.

One thing, though: were composers ever well off? Even if they had stable employment, they could be paid shockingly little -- Monteverdi comes to mind.

Bryan Townsend said...

Thanks, Steven, for that glimpse of the difficult circumstances for young composers.

There have been some pretty well-off composers in history. Handel, Mozart, Haydn, Rossini and quite a few others enjoyed at least periods of affluence. Rossini retired wealthy at thirty-eight and Haydn was comfortable enough that he often dedicated the receipts from performances of his oratorios to a musician's fund. But of course most composers lived in squalor like Schubert.