Creativity and Commerce: The Business of Art

ANDY WARHOL ONCE said, “Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.”

With his pop culture prints, the artist both embraced the idea of art as commodity and questioned commercialism. Many of today’s most valuable and celebrated artists have found success following his lead, with Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst each having net worth in the hundreds of millions.

Since the 1970s and ’80s, artwork prices have skyrocketed to unprecedented heights. According to the Art Basel and UBS Global Art Market Report 2018, sales in the global art market reached $63.7 billion in 2017 and show no sign of slowing.

Art as a financial investment is in a sense a contradiction, as it is often art’s resistance to commodification that gives it its greatest financial value. But art world institutions have become more commercialized too. Today, art fairs are as much a part of the social calendar as elite events such as Art Basel Miami Beach or community favorites like the Sausalito Art Festival. Galleries set prices, and auction houses drive them higher. The art market has been so strong in recent decades it seems to operate under its own rules, a prime example being Sotheby’s 2008 auctioning of new work by Damien Hirst, which drew record sales even as the world economy collapsed.

Todd Levin, director of New York art advisory firm Levin Art Group, notes that galleries were once more aligned with artists in protecting creative integrity. “More and more, it is the gallerists who are responsible for constructing and participating in these ‘circuits of commerce,’ ” he says. “They are transitioning into the merchants and marketers of art. There is the desperate expectation of novelty — but no longer of development.”

According to the auction house Christie’s, an artwork’s value comes down to a few key qualities: rarity, quality, provenance and market demand. The HBO documentary The Price of Everything illustrates the arbitrary fluctuation of demand, highlighting artist Larry Poons, whose career gradually faded away while his contemporaries like Frank Stella achieved enduring fame. The value of art seems increasingly to have more to do with contemporary celebrity than with creative merit.


As galleries have become more commercial, online auctions have caused seismic shifts in the art market. Art sales on the web rose by 12 percent to $4.22 billion in 2017, according to the 2018 Online Art Trade Report. Artsy Auctions, ArtSpace, Saatchi Art — these digital platforms are attracting a wider range of collectors than ever.

Once limited to smaller transactions, online bidding is now an essential part of the business. Christie’s has responded with Christie’s Live, while also exploring the influence of disruptive technologies through events such as the Art + Tech Summit in London. “Christie’s Live offers collectors further accessibility to the categories that they are passionate about, giving them the ability to participate in our sales without having to travel to our sale rooms,” says Cathy Busch, managing director of Christie’s Chicago. “Online sales continue to be the number-one recruiter of new buyers, and sales are also up 40 percent.”

These changes also affect smaller markets like Marin’s. “I think the whole way the art world has worked is shifting,” says local artist Bibby Gignilliat. “Increasingly, artists are selling directly to clients through the internet. Many are also trying pop-up shows and art fairs. There is still a place for galleries, but I’m not sure for how long.”

Sausalito’s Eric Zener agrees online sales have offered artists more ways to reach audiences outside the gallery system. “Artists loved online art in the beginning,” he says. “It was a chance to self-promote and sell directly.” Yet it hasn’t proved as effective as hoped.

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Artists aren’t the only ones vying for the spotlight; collectors are becoming players too. Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, famous for having paid $110 million for a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, is planning to travel to the moon aboard one of Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets and wants to take some of the world’s artistic tastemakers along. The idea has captured the imagination of Zener, who’s hoping to be one of the artists on that team and create galactically inspired work.

History’s great artworks once only existed thanks to rich benefactors, and collectors are also now stepping into that role. In a smaller community like Marin, reaching such collectors can be challenging, despite the area’s history as an enclave for artists. “It’s a beautiful place to work,” says Zener. “It’s near the San Francisco art scene also. But high rents are driving art galleries and artists out of town. You don’t have that sense of community you used to have.”

Gignilliat is finding some camaraderie as one of 140 who work at ICB Sausalito, which houses three floors of artists’ studios. “The community is great,” she notes. “We support each other by teaching art classes or organizing events for artists to sharpen their business skills.” They also team up to find connections beyond galleries. “Ironically, making art is a solo activity that depends on others,” says John Kunzweiler, ICB’s president. “We actively seek and engage with galleries, printers, shows, designers, etc. It takes a village to keep our association relevant, and we must constantly and creatively engage.”

But there are limits to the support these kinds of institutions can provide. “There are ways to make it without gallery representation, but it’s hard,” Zener says. “When a work costs $80,000, you need something to validate this worth, often through representation by a notable gallery.” Relationships with galleries don’t come cheap: most take 50 percent of an artist’s profit. “You have to see it as a partnership — I make, you sell,” says Zener. “It’s a relationship built on trust and longevity.”

Museums provide another avenue for contact and exposure: “I work with the SFMOMA gallery,” says Gignilliat. “This allows me more freedom, since [smaller private] galleries often require you to have an exclusive arrangement.”

For all the lofty creative principles, art and its creators only survive if the market wants them to. “Art itself today is no better or worse; the number of historically important artists in any given decade is no larger or smaller, and gallerists and collectors no smarter or dumber,” Levin says. “The force behind it all is simply increased demand.” Creativity and commerce, it seems, are destined to remain intertwined.