In the News: Is the Art World out of Proportion?

Charles Shepard, President & CEO

Back in January, several art news sources reported that the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the Met) purchased four small, rare prints by Vincent van Gogh for the enormous sum, in my opinion, of several million dollars. Now, it’s no surprise that anything created by van Gogh would fetch a good price. I also think we all know that the Met has long had deep pockets for rare acquisitions such as these. That said, however, it’s interesting to me that these four works on paper, which were originally created by van Gogh to sell for pennies to people who otherwise would not be able to posses a work of art, so strongly piqued the interest of the Met. While acquisition dollars generally come out of different pockets from operating dollars, the Met has been running a serious budget deficit for over ten years; I’m a little surprised, therefore, that no one seems grumpy about the print department spending a few million dollars on four rare, but not especially significant, prints. To put this into perspective, the Met curators have, altogether, roughly $50 million dollars each year. This allotment comes primarily from endowed funds, and can only be spent on acquisitions. The twelve print curators must have put forth some pretty strong arguments to convince all the other curators in the Met’s fourteen curatorial departments that these van Gogh’s were absolutely necessary. I’m sure that was an interesting series of meetings!

Evidently the print curators prevailed, and the small, greyish van Gogh works on paper were purchased and safely tucked into acid-free folders in a cabinet drawer in a large vault that houses the other 1.2 million prints in the Met’s collection. The little van Gogh’s will be trotted out and displayed for a few weeks every few years (due to their fragile nature) and on those occasions the curators will, no doubt, feel very proud of their achievements. But I wonder who benefits in the process of acquiring expensive, almost unusable works of art? Was it truly a coup for the Met? If so, in whose eyes? Did the purchase pad the resume of the head print curator? That’s likely, given the media attention paid to the acquisition. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s terrific that these rare prints are in a public collection rather than in private hands. The issue for me is that the seller’s asking price seems disproportionate to the prints value and, furthermore, that no one seems troubled by that whatsoever.

An abstract linocut of a landscape.
Samella Lewis, American, b. 1924. Landscape. Linocut on paper, 1969. Museum purchase, 2018.11. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

I’m sure you are now thinking that I am hopelessly naïve about commerce. I get it; I should remember that things are worth whatever the market will bear. I should, for example, stop feeling shocked that Christie’s can draw bids of $69 million for an NFT by the artist Beeple. I guess, by comparison, the van Gogh prints were a bargain! Truthfully, I’m saddened more than shocked; dismayed by the exponential increase in the art market’s gluttony. I’m fine with everyone making a profit, but I start feeling uncomfortable when the level of profit realized begins to creep out of proportion to the aesthetic value of the art itself. Vincent van Gogh, who at the time he created these prints had sold only one painting for approximately $32, produced these minor works on paper to sell for pennies to put art in the hands of those less well-funded. Doesn’t the idea of a collector arranging a private sale of four of these “penny prints” to the Met for millions seem somewhat out of proportion? And what potential impact does an out-of-proportion profit have on the art object itself and our perception of the object’s importance? Aesthetically, these van Gogh prints are not strong. Their seven-figure price tag, however, will most certainly color our judgement about them forevermore.

Years ago, before the behemoth auction houses and international art fairs, trained art experts, critics, historians, and museum curators helped us distinguish good art from bad. They served an important role in society, both educationally and by establishing the aesthetic standards that informed value in the art marketplace. By the last quarter of the 20th century, as galleries and auction houses grew more numerous and powerful, these cultural gatekeepers were deemed “elitist” and replaced by art dealers and auctioneers who were, by design, more accessible to the public, i.e. art buyers. That is, essentially, when the basis for valuing art changed from aesthetics to dollars. And we all – curators, educators, gallerists, collectors, and art lovers in general – drank the Kool-Aid. And that is precisely why, seemingly, not many in the artworld are troubled by the implications of the Met’s purchase of these van Gogh prints.

A woman, wearing a nun's habit and black robe, kneels on a chair next to a bowl. her is head is bowed and in the background is a solitary figure. The background is colorless.
Augusta Payne Briggs Rathbone, American, 1897-1990. Woman Praying, Brittany. Etching with aquatint on paper, ca. 1935. Museum purchase, 2018.44. This image used by permission of the Rathbone Family. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Do my concerns matter? In the art world’s eyes I’m off the grid here in Indiana, chasing old-school ideals, to some, like concentrating on better serving my community by bringing high quality art (as opposed to high-priced art) into our galleries for everyone to learn about and enjoy. Instead of chasing NFTs and van Gogh’s, I’ve chosen to pursue art by the great American artists that the art market forgot long ago, like those in the above images. In the last couple of months, for example, I’ve added work by artists like Samella Lewis, who is renowned for her contributions to African American art and art history, famed photographer Dorothea Lange, and works by 1930’s award winning printmaker Mabel Rae Parker. Admittedly, none of these artists have a following comparable to van Gogh or Beeple, but they produced excellent art that was recognized as such in their lifetimes.

My goal is to introduce people to their work, learn about them, and remember them. None of these acquisitions, or the hundreds of other similar acquisitions, I’ve been fortunate to make with the more modest funds available in our art buying budget attract the attention of the media or boost my standing among my colleagues. This has never been my motivation. My driving force has always been pretty simple: bring the aesthetically strongest art made by the best and most diverse group of artists over the various generations to this Museum to be enjoyed by everyone in the community. If that seems old school, then that’s fine with me.

While we don’t have prints by van Gogh, the FWMoA Print & Drawing Study Center holds prints by many well-known, and not so known, American and European artists. Come take a look Tuesday-Friday, 11am-3pm or by appointment.

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