Distribution is 80/20: A Presentation Transcript

Hi, thanks for coming to one of the most depressingly titled conferences I’ve ever heard of.  You are brave.  I’m going to talk about ‘artist as debtor in a roundabout way’, because if you take on a lot of debt, you probably assume you have a chance of earning some income to pay it off.  I’m going to discuss some imaginary numbers I arrived it in my recent drawings for Creative Time on artists payments, which also incorporate some actual research from BFAMFAPHD, who I am happy to be in conversation with today. They provide a solidarity model for working collectively around these issues.  Before I began the drawings for Creative Time, I sat down with my friend Felix Salmon, a financial blogger, a collector, and his partner Michelle is also an artist (Full disclosure he’s bought my work, so I can safely say he’s not a speculator). Felix has written about the strange economics of the art market, which is a largely a prediction market, where we’re all gambling on a future occurrences – like producing an entire body of work for a show with no idea if it will sell.  It’s also a market where very few artists make a lot of money based on the subjective decisions of a few collectors, who may or may not listen to art critics, academics, or curators. I think of Dan Colen’s career as an example or Stephan Simcowitzch who has very helpfully demonstrated that it can just take one rich person with money and an Instagram account to get the ball rolling for a young artist’s market without much critical judgment.

I mentioned to Felix that most of the available data about economic value in the art market is related to auction returns, which are almost entirely useless when looking into the income of working artists without resale royalties or Droit de suite for artists in the United States (or their foundations, like the Rauschenberg or Warhol foundations who provide money to support arts organizations).  The best source for information about ‘working artists’ income is probably the census data that BFAMFAPHD made great use of in their report back, which I’ve tried to represent in these drawings.  In the absence of primary market sales figures, I asked Felix to do some speculative math with me to imagine what artist’s incomes might look like.  Felix  quickly outlined an informal method for making some approximations based on the New York art market, which we are both familiar with using 1/3rds – 3 markets sharing $3 billion (which is probably a  low estimate for the $64 billion global art market).


(Drawings by William Powhida commissioned for Creative Time Reports)

First, we assigned that $3bn value to the New York art market, and immediately attributed a $1 billion in sales to the auction houses, and split the remaining $2bn  between the secondary market (private sales between dealers, consultants, and collectors) and the primary market (sales where the artist theoretically will be paid but all too often that payment remains theoretical).  In the primary market, which is really the only market that concerns artist’s income, we divided the remaining $1bn in half to account for the 50-50% commission split between the artist and the dealer (which is probably closer to a 45%-45% split with 10% or more disappearing as collector discounts).  That left us with a possible pool of about $500mn in income for artists to share (we rounded up to keep things simple for my poor math mind).

While there are no readily-available statistics on the number of ‘visual artists’ selling work in New York, I suggested to Felix that there are maybe 10,000 visual artists represented in New York (500 galleries representing a low average of 10 artists).  Now this is where Felix applied an 80/20 Pareto split, where 20% or 2,000 artists, would split 80% of that $500mn. The 80/20 Pareto split, according to my weakness Wikipedia,  is a generally accepted economic principle for predicting income distribution.  In this schema splitting $500mn, 20% of artists would earn a mean average of $160k a year in sales, while the other 80% or 8,000 working artists would earn a mean average of about $10k a year in sales.

But, Felix noted that median averages would actually be much lower and much higher than the mean averages.  He said, “You’ve basically got a dragon’s tail,” which to me, is another representation of the star system, where a few “very bankable artists” might earn more than a hundred thousand from the sale of a single work. The obverse is also true. Many of the artists who might sell $10k a year will still probably spend more on the production of their work, studio rental, or materials costs than they earn and end up operating at a loss.  As fellow artist Jen Dalton likes to say, she feels like a professional artist 11 months a year until she does her taxes.  I also had that feeling yesterday when I realized I have more debt on my business credit card than I do in my business checking account.  It feels pretty awful to admit this, but there you go. My personal bank account was overdrawn by $1.56 yesterday (so whatever you think about my career, I am not getting rich).  I think it’s also fair to say that a lot of artists who show in New York don’t live here, but $10k is well below the poverty line throughout the US and Europe.


So the figures Felix and I discussed  have concerned a made up number of artists participating in the art market – or the art world I associate with Linda Yablonsky’s reports in Artforum’s Scene and Heard section of shiny, happy artists (they aren’t all motherfuckers).  Even so, for the 80% of us ‘lucky’, ‘good enough’, or perhaps ‘horrible enough’ to participate in the market, we aren’t going to make a living, or put a dent in our student loan debt.  I’ve still got about $18,000 to go myself down from about $36,000.

And still, we know the art world includes many, many more artists than those who participate in the art market, and the visual arts is this nebulous sphere that covers a range of practices from performance to social practice that do not lend themselves to the art market.  I’m not even comfortable speculating at this point on what what an artist’s income might look like who is dependent on grants or other institutional funding.

I do want to come back to that 80/20 pareto split for a moment, because if it sounds familiar, it’s also the same ratio the city is using for its voluntary mixed income housing program.  That market rate/subsidy ratio happens to be the same as Pareto’s observations from 1906 that 20% of Italians owned 80% of the land and that 20% of the pea pods in his garden produced 80% of the peas. In short, he equated property ownership with natural selection.  So, this deeply inequitable split of resources, whether land or income is literally rooted in the notion of natural selection.  This is one way in which power is framed as natural causes, inevitabilities, and constants that can be predicted.

So, this text was not included in my Creative Time essay, because it’s pretty dismal news and doesn’t help artists buried under student debt (or just debt from trying to live in a city like New York) who are unlikely to earn much income from their work. The fact is, looking at the primary market as a source of remuneration for visual artists is bleak no matter how you break it down despite the media attention paid to auction records and sales reports at art fairs. If you aren’t familiar with what I’m talking about follow Kelly Crow of the Wall Street Journal.  The growth of the art market is really about the creation of economic value and profit for the collectors, fairs, auction houses (and their investors).  It’s an economy where artists, as a collective entity, end up creating a lot of value for others and support an industry while they are alive and long after they are dead.

CT_State_3_lowI’ll try and end here, with last part of my conversation with Felix.  He pointed out that we were only having this conversation because, historically speaking, there is more money in the art market now than ever. This is a product of the global rise in concentrated wealth and income inequality, well documented by Andrea Fraser in her essay L’1%, C’est Moi or by  economist Thomas Piketty in his book Capital in the 21st Century.

Felix frowned when I suggested that many artists are looking at alternatives to the art market and its limited possibilities for income. He responded by saying “the boring question is how do we pull money from the same existing resources we had before the money entered the art market?”  I looked at my sketchbook where the “Big Pool of Money” sat firmly isolated from the rest of the notes from my discussion. Felix wondered, “How do you get money out of that? To get it to trickle down?”  I don’t subscribe to trickle down economics, but it does raise a valid question of how artists might begin to think collectively about the value we create.  Basically, in the end, if artists (living and dead) generate a $64bn global art market and about 17% of that goes to the artists with 80% or more of that going to less than 20% of the artists involved (and If you also take into account other imbalance the 70/30% gender ratio in commercial representation, the picture gets bleaker for groups of artists,) then I think it’s important that entertain the possibilities of organizing collectively to rethink the star system and that 80/20 Pareto split.

My essay for Creative Time Reports offers some of the work and ideas other groups like W.A.G.E., BFAMFAPHD, and ASAP are doing to change the discussion around debt, income, and stability for working artists, but they, we, need your support.