Pay to View
his question and answer essay, John Ohannesian argues
for the Pay to View Art Gallery.
should I pay to view art?
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.
would you make payment for admission work?
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
would I pay to see some art and not other art?
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
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.
will be corrupted by the market forces, won't it?
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
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.
do artists "deserve" to make a living
doing something they enjoy and would do in any case
whether they are paid or not?
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.
artists make their living from sales of their artwork
and not from pay-per-view?
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.
will never work! Galleries won't do this, will they?
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.
might this change the art experience?
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.