Last week, a triptych by Francis Bacon, “Three Studies of Lucian Freud,” sold at auction for $142.4 million, a record auction price. The seller, an unnamed collector in Rome, gains significantly from the transaction as does the auction house and the agent for the buyer. There’s no benefit to the artist who died in 1992. To give the $142.4 million value of this work some sense of scale relative to the way art is experienced by the public, the amount is more than 15 times the annual budget of the Phoenix Art Museum and six times the value of its entire endowment fund. When art is sold at these prices, the only classes of people who don’t benefit are 1) artists and 2) the general public.
So here’s a “what if” scenario, similar to a “what if” scenario I proposed for blockbuster commercial theatre hits: what if auction houses and agents paid a small percentage (say one half of one percent for the sake of argument) of the sale of blockbuster works of art into a fund that supports individual artists and free access to art museums. Unlike the theatre idea in which producers are asked to return some profit for the good of the system, in the high-dollar visual art market, the product is already produced – and the artist may very well have not benefitted during his or her lifetime. Those who do benefit could be contributing to a system in which artists – the living breathing kind who are actually making work – and mseum attendees would benefit. Last week’s sale at Christie’s totaled $691.5 million. Think about what an extra $3.5 million could do in your arts community.
Another entry in the “wild idea” category.