Roving Eye: Everyone’s Favorite Question


I’ve faced a lot of questions about art in my career, but none has persisted so relentlessly as the money question. At every institution, from every kind of audience, be it in the northeastern, mid-Atlantic or midwestern states, someone always asks, “So, what’s something like that worth?”

In general, my response depends largely on who is asking. I try to direct gallery visitors who pose the question to think about value and worth in visual terms, focusing on the qualities of the art before them. A museum trustee charged with adjudicating an acquisition, on the other hand, needs to know that the curator has conducted thorough research on the market of the work in question, and has negotiated a good price on behalf of his/her organization. Price is contingent on other systems of value beyond the purely monetary, and those variables—including how the work compares with its peers—always make for engaging conversation.

A few weeks ago, the money questions reached a fever pitch, sparked by the record results of New York’s postwar and contemporary art auction sales. To state the obvious, the sales were unprecedented, with Rothko’s Orange, Red, Yellow (1961) closing at nearly $87 million (Sotheby’s); Yves Klein’s FC1 (Fire Color 1), a blowtorch painting from 1962, finishing at $36.4 million (Christie’s) and Warhol’s Double Elvis (Ferus Type), 1963, bringing $37 million (Sotheby’s).

While other economies struggle to regain their footing after a rocky few years, the art market seems to be doing just fine—or so these results would lead us to believe. And shouldn’t those of us in the business be happy that people are willing to pay large sums of money for work by important artists who taught us to see the world a little differently? I guess so, though explaining these results can be daunting, even for those of us who watch the markets closely. Most art institutions observe these proceedings from the sidelines, with acquisitions endowments still recovering from the crash of 2008.

In some respects, art is a business like others, and many sellers simply ask what the market will bear. Yet many other people in this business want the best for their artists and work hard to make sound decisions with them, setting reasonable prices to attract respected clients and institutions.

In a parallel universe, every year thousands of MFA students graduate from programs in the hopes of finding gallery representation and getting into juried art exhibitions. Many of them move on to other careers, using the skills of their art training in web design, animation or fashion. Some continue on their path, gradually finding independence and support for their creative practice. Their world is often vastly different from the mega-market of the auctions, where works are measured by their “wall power.”

Contemporary curators must balance the vastly different realities that art inhabits, from philosophical discussions in studios and seminars to the hard numbers debated in boardrooms and private viewing areas. In the end, there is no magic formula for determining art’s value other than the historical certainty that market worth is always relative and linked to the elusive mechanisms of supply and demand that assign a price to all things.