Friday, November 19, 2010


The way to make a profit is very simple: “buy low, sell high.” Therefore, persons who are looking for profit look for gradients of time, place or reputation. Something that was worth $5 yesterday -- let’s say shares in an automobile company -- may increase in value to $10 tomorrow. (Interest on a loan is a sort of forced gradient: you get your $5 back plus interest or else you get your $5 back or else you get whatever you put up for collateral. That’s the theory.)

Gradients of place are quite obvious when dealing with ethnic (local, regional) crafts (pots, bead work, quilts) or with natural resources like ores or certain plants (coffee, olives). The entrepreneur buys a supply, invests the cost of transportation, and sells it where it isn’t found.

The gradient of reputation is the most variable and the one most vulnerable to outside interference. Coffee became all the rage -- Starbucks now, coffee houses very early -- until doctors advise against it or the New Age people bolt to tea. Think of the fortunes of beef, profits much reduced by Oprah’s opinion. In fact, scares about health are one of the most effective gradient-factors in our world today. Not just big pharma either. I’ve never forgotten the social commenter who noted that predicting the craze for jogging let a few prescient people clean up on sports bras and big bouncy shoes. Of course, now that barefoot runners from Africa have been seen to win marathons, the trendy are buying thin-soled shoes with separated toes and have found experts to say these are healthier. Earth shoes, negative-heel shoes, went by in there someplace. Sex trumps health, so four-inch-heel platform-sole ankle-strap fuck-me sandals also sell.

A popular gallery exercise in the Cowboy Art world is comparing the gradient of stock market investments against the gradient involved in the value of Remington’s art. (This began as a back East pursuit, which is why they used Remington instead of Russell. The great thing about Russell was that he was so prolific and spontaneous that fifty years ago Dick Flood could still find Russell originals gathering dust in someone’s old chicken coop. Nice low.) Whether the stock market and Remingtons compare well depends on whose thumb is on the scale. Remington knock-offs, encouraged by the public conviction that Remingtons increase in value (and prestige) and their inability to tell a high-value Remington from a cheesy knock-off, are not usually included.

Art has always been a good way to store wealth IF one knows art values and is good at predicting what the future will think about it. What one is really investing in is not the actual object, but the reputation of the art and its maker. Norman Rockwell was famous in a popular way, then knocked off his pedestal by critics who thought the work was sentimental and slick, then replaced on a new pedestal by new critics who feel that Rockwell had his fingers on the pulse of America and that his skills were praiseworthy. There are many other examples.

This is what makes possible the present trend of museums, dedicated to aggregation, to use curation -- changing opinion -- to discard parts of their collection through auction or just slip them out the back loading platform in the middle of the night. If you watch the “stock market” indicator of or other similar websites, you’ll see the fortunes of artists and whole genres go up and down at the indicator auctions.

When the Cowboy Artists of America first banded together, their fortunes were not so rosy, but their association with the then Cowboy Hall of Fame and the promotions of Dean Krakel gradually made membership into markers of quality, so that they all sold much better. This, of course, prompted others to make that sort of art and apply for membership. Soon some streets of Scottsdale and other cowboy art towns were awash with galleries trying to cash in on this value gradient and touting the Remington principle. In the rush of popularity there was so much cowboy art that the value went down. Suddenly galleries began to say, “Buy only what you dearly love!”

Another element in the value of art is its connection to status, education and class. Partly because of the leverage of Life magazine pursuing the wild and romantic lives of Pollock and Picasso, the ordinary person was amazed that something that didn’t look like anything ("my kid could paint like that!") could sell for huge amounts of money. They also got the idea that being an artist, daringly romantic and probably drunk, was a prerequisite. This factor, a kind of frontier style, merged with the “free-range” wildcat aspect of unregulated profit-making, and an association between the political right wing and cowboy art grew up. (“At least I can tell what it is! In fact, I rode a horse like that once!”) Some of the biggest institutions that focused on cowboy art were originally endowed by natural resource millionaires. There is a reason that the Oval Office of the White House is decorated with cowboy art.

But times change. The major curators of cowboy art, let’s say Harold McCracken and Fred Renner, have ridden away over the horizon. Anyway, they were authenticators and enumerators, list aggregators. Rarely did they weigh in about composition or use of color or quality of casting. One of this type, B. Byron Price, has been shepherding a compilation of all known Russell art, with the backing of the CMRussell Museum. This will improve the value of the art work that is listed and devalue those who don’t make the list. Price is also the director of the University of Oklahoma Press and the CM Russell Center for the Study of Western Art. His friends and close associates are well-placed in institutions around the country. He has the ability to suppress all dissenters or to raise up those who will enhance his reputation. Not that McCracken and Renner didn’t do that earlier. Or even Krakel.

This is why I refer to the Industrial Cowboy Art Cartel. I would love to catch someone from the Great Falls Ad Club in an unguarded moment to pick up the real causes of the breakup of the Auction. Some are probably nearly unconscious: the aging of the people who took the brunt of the work, the proliferation of other auctions with access to far more significant work. ("More significant" is not the same as “better.” It just means more aggregated and curated.) The decline in the reputation of natural resources industries, which are now often seen as plunderers and exploiters. In short, the gradient is changing, much of it depending on the popularity of the subject matter. Fascinating to watch. Full of anguish if you have a horse in the race.


Anonymous said...

Thomas Kinkade is one artist whose popularity is very difficult to explain. Few if any people think his works are of high quality, he doesn't capture the national mood like Rockwell, and he doesn't have a wild lifestyle like Pollock or Picasso, yet he is enormously popular.


artemesia said...

Thomas Kinkade?!?! He's no artist for heaven's sake! He's selling snake oil, not art.

Interesting post, Mary. We have a modest art collection of (mostly) PNW artists and most are works by friends or friends of friends. Also I have a family portrait (my paternal grandmother, painted by Bertha Ballou when she was visiting the Colville reservation to paint Indians) which I like a lot. But most (if not all) of our works have appreciated over the years, and not because of our acumen. We just buy what we like because we like to live with it.