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Art: Pay to View
Contributor: John Ohannesian

In his question and answer essay, John Ohannesian argues for the Pay to View Art Gallery.

Q Why should I pay to view art?

A Artists deserve payment for their work the same as anyone else. Viewing art is similar to hearing music or going to a movie: the exchange is in the experience, not in ownership.

Q How would you make payment for admission work?

A Imagine each viewer paying a nominal sum for entrance to the gallery, perhaps a dollar or two which at the end of the month could be split between the artist and the gallery. A small gallery would have a much better chance of survival with that portion of their rent paid, and the artist would receive at least some payment toward expenses which is considerably better than what they would have made from having no sales (a fairly common outcome).

In this scenario galleries would not allow viewing of the work from the street. Instead, a poster or a sample of the show would be displayed in the same manner as a movie poster. Someone would collect the admission and give the viewer a ticket which would also allow artists to track sales and avoid being taken advantage of by unscrupulous gallery owners. As with museums, free admission on certain days could encourage: students; those who may not otherwise be able to afford admission; and those who wish to try out the gallery experience. Galleries could band together and have special discounted shared admission rates where the viewer pays once and can enter many galleries.

Another scenario suggested to me was to have a partition in the gallery with the artist and the newer works in a special fee-paying section, with the non-paying public allowed in an outer area exhibiting older work.

Q Why would I pay to see some art and not other art?

A It has been my experience here in Seattle that there are two major categories of galleries. There are the large, established galleries ( whose customers are mostly corporations and home decorators ) and the small individual or group-owned galleries. The high-end galleries generally show work that is non-controversial due to political considerations. The small galleries show work that is uneven, ranging from the mediocre to the sublime, with potentially controversial subject matter.

Nearly anyone can show work in some gallery or other, regardless of talent or ability.
There is a "First Thursday Art Walk" in Seattle. The first Thursday of each month galleries stay open late and thousands of people go from one to the next. In my discussions with some people who visited galleries in this way, my impression was that very little of what they saw was of interest to them. Many were very negative about the poor standard of work they viewed and felt it unlikely they would visit an art gallery in the future. For others it was merely a social event, a night out, not necessarily a search for meaningful art.

My contention is that, given a chance to see interesting works, people will pay a nominal fee. Galleries that charge and don't deliver the goods will not get many returning patrons, like a club that books only bad bands or a restaurant that serves inedible food, and word will spread about worthwhile shows.

A note about museums: Museum shows tend to be more impressive than average gallery shows. The artists are generally deceased or wealthy enough that a few hundred dollars one way or the other doesn't matter much. Museums charge admission that is in the general price range of a movie or sports event, however, the money goes entirely to the museum. They are generally partly funded by government.

Q Art will be corrupted by the market forces, won't it?

A This could fill a book. The short answer is that art is corrupted by the market already. Many galleries don't show unpopular or controversial work and they won't show work that they don't believe will sell at the asking price, so artists can ask what they want for their work but it may never get shown. "Name" appeal is like the star system. Get well enough known for any reason (like simple shock value) and your value rises in the marketplace. This corrupts art. Instead of doing what they think is right, artists capitulate and produce either "safe" work they can sell, or "shocking" work that will raise their market value.

Merely "thought provoking" isn't enough to get recognition and the art world has no mechanism to weed out the opportunists.

Gallery owners have lists of "real" buyers whom they contact with suggestions about their current stable of artists. There is little reason for such a gallery to experiment with unknowns or controversial artists as they run the risk that the work won't sell and they'll go out of business. I don't expect high-end galleries to change to charging admission. However, galleries that show experimental or controversial art tend to go out of business rather rapidly.

Q Why do artists "deserve" to make a living doing something they enjoy and would do in any case whether they are paid or not?

A For the same reason anybody deserves to be paid for value received. Making art costs money and time. There are materials (including framing), studio space, model fees, advertising, and shipping to consider, as well as taxes on sales and many other business-related or "hidden" expenses. Galleries charge from 20-50% commission on art works that are sold. As the situation stands it boils down to subsidising art viewers. Do any other forms of "entertainment" lose money and survive? Consider music, for example. Does anyone think it's wrong to pay to hear a live band? As the band gets better known they charge more for admission.

Q Shouldn't artists make their living from sales of their artwork and not from pay-per-view?

A Artists can generally only make a living from their art by either pandering to popular taste or shocking the establishment enough to sell their work despite its controversial nature. Witness "Piss Christ" by Andres Serrano. It's not a new subject or an especially attractive piece, but since there are people who can be shocked and offended it gained notoriety and the artist can now charge astronomical sums for his work. Elephant dung does not a work of art create!

Artists caught in the middle have few alternatives but to work a regular job and create art in the off moments when they can. Paying artists to view their works may allow more independent thinkers to thrive and survive as artists.

Q This will never work! Galleries won't do this, will they?

A I think this can only work if artists push for it. No one else but a struggling artist or gallery has the compelling need for this innovation. I would rather take in a few dollars from a show rather than, in effect, pay people to come and look and not buy anything. Only artists can start this system by asking gallery owners to try it and see. I doubt many real buyers would be put off by paying a small charge which could be refundable on purchase to see the work. Who cares if non-buyers see it or not? Let them pay for what they get, the experience of the art. No one would expect a movie theatre, symphony, opera, ballet, playhouse, sporting event or even mock wrestling to let viewers in for free. Plumbers, doctors, accountants and construction workers won't work for free if it means they can't survive doing it. What form of entertainment other than self-entertainment is usually free?

Public acceptance of this idea would depend on exposure. If a person walked into a gallery they had visited before and suddenly found that they had to pay admission with no explanation they would be understandably angry, but if they had followed the debate in the media there would be less shock and maybe even some admiration. Galleries would feel less vulnerable to criticism if others accepted the idea in advance.

Q How might this change the art experience?

A It seems people don't value what they get for free. Seeing a rotten movie on television doesn't bother people as much as seeing a rotten movie at a theatre where they paid admission. Perhaps this would apply to rotten artwork as well. Who can really complain about seeing poor work at a free gallery? Pay for it and a whole new form of art criticism would evolve. Professional art critics would have more power, which is a mixed blessing but similar to other forms of entertainment. A review or word of mouth that amounts to a thumbs down would limit visitors to galleries and a corresponding increase in the quality of work might ensue. The public would have some say about art, not just some art magazine critic with an axe to grind.

As it stands, art is captive to the gallery owners and their client's tastes. As we're continually urged, let the free market have a chance.


     
       
 
Authors background
John Ohannesian, Seattle, WA USA. John is an artist and has developed some great Mac Freeware available at AbleStable® including an elegant desktop calendar. This article was first published at John's web site (see below).

E-mail: johnoco@earthlink.net. Web Site: John Ohannesian

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