Putting on Airs?
The etching was a small drawing on ordinary paper. The dimensions of the paper were 9 1/2 x 10 3/4 inches. The etching was black and white and late period (2014). But it was an authentic Wayne Thiebaud, an artist I love. I dared to ask the price and was told it could be mine for 5000 dollars. This made it one of the more affordable pieces at the Art Fair. This was in the realm of possibility but I decided against it.
I spent last weekend getting a thorough condescending-to from a lot of gallery assistants in their 20s. I went to an Art Fair at the Fort Mason Center with my girlfriend and another set of friends. The kind of art fair where they have booths and representatives from some of the top galleries in New York, London, Paris, and the rest of the world including some hometown ones. This was not the only time I embarrassed myself with an inquiry. Another booth had a Wayne Thiebaud painting – a small painting from 1999 featuring cupcakes. This painting cost 775K, according to the gallery assistant’s flat/neutral but icy-undertoned delivery. Another gallery assistant told me a series of small paintings by Alex Katz ranged from 50-80K. I did not dare ask the price for one of Kohei Nawa’s Trans-figure deer.
Their tone was clear: You clearly aren’t going to buy these and why are you even asking?
What was interesting about the fair is that I ended up running into a lot of people that I knew. We all made the decision to attend the fair randomly. It struck us as a fun thing to do. We are all professionals with graduate degrees. We all make good incomes but are not super-wealthy. A bunch of us could probably purchase a five-figure painting but it would eat a good chunk of our savings. Unlike the others, I was the only one who dared ask prices. Most of my friends were smart enough to avoid the condescension.
But the whole event made me think about what this says about us as a social class. What does it say about us that we enjoy spending a weekend afternoon going to an art fair looking at art that is likely well above our price range? I can see people in my cohort being able to afford houses in the seven-figure range. I can see them eventually purchasing paintings that cost a few thousand dollars, and maybe even a five-figure painting if they really enjoy it. But most of the art was well out of our price range – and this wasn’t a museum. It was a place where galleries gain new customers and pieces are bought. You could tell by the little red stickers next to some pieces.
According to the Palinista set, we are the elitists because of our tastes and choices for recreational activity, our educations, jobs, food choices, and preferred living areas. But maybe what they mean is that we put on airs. The Koch Brothers of the world could easily afford much of the art on display*. My friends and I cannot, but we like it and like to go look at it. Is this pretentious? I don’t think so, but perhaps to others we are just fooling ourselves.
*There is also the fact that pricing art is one of the most opaque practices in the world. The San Francisco Navy Yard has been turned into artists’ studios and they hold open studios twice a year. Some of the artists who rent space there are professionals. Others have jobs for supplemental income or maybe even primary income. I’ve purchased pieces here at more affordable rates. But there is something about an art dealer that makes me think of a price as more valid because it seems like an independent assessment. I’ve also seen artists band together and rent space to sell their own work. My reaction to this is often “Why do you think your piece is worth 4000 dollars?”