The Other Columbus: If you want to sell more art, develop more criticism

This criticism should entice its audience to self-observe, to self-interrogate, to develop a relationship with the work in question

Scott Woods
Local artist Natalie Orr, 26, opened her show, "Aurora," at the King Arts Complex on Thursday, January, 13, 2022. Orr's work was the first exhibited in the space since the coronavirus pandemic began.

Setting aside the camp that believes that art and capitalism should never be in the same sentence because art is beautiful and pure and a very delicate flower, man, I’d like to offer a reason why visual art doesn't sell in Columbus the way that it should.

Before we get too deep in the weeds, I should define what I mean by “sales,” which is probably best defined by what I don’t mean. When the numbers come out about art sales nationwide and you read things like “gallery sales dropped 36 percent during the first year of the pandemic” (Artsy, September 18, 2020) or “the contemporary art market raked in a record-breaking $2.7 billion in sales between June 2020 and June 2021” (ArtNews Oct 4, 2021), it’s important to note that Columbus is not contributing to that data in any meaningful way. The data doesn’t include what someone sold at a local art show at a local gallery (unless that gallery was one of only 700 or so that were surveyed). Columbus doesn’t have major art auctions, so we’re also not contributing to the data through those means. Columbus boasts about 25 or so established galleries, a couple of proper art museums and several things that fall somewhere between the two. With a pool that small, it is likely that none of them were surveyed about their sales in any given year. 

Not being surveyed in sales stats isn’t the only metric of a robust or flat art market. Ask any number of local artists if they sold a painting or sculpture in a given year and the answer from the majority of them will be “no.” For a significantly smaller number of artists, that answer is “a couple.” And for the hat trick, a fraction of artists will tell you they did “OK” to “pretty good, which in art speak is, “I was able to eat and buy a few nice things this season.”

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To be clear, art doesn't sell very much in most places. The overwhelming majority of artists don't make any money. They may sell a piece or two here and there, but for the most part, very few artists sell enough art to make it their job. That’s as true in Columbus as it is in New York City. No matter how many artists a city holds, when you apply a ratio, most of them don’t bank. As art critic Jerry Saltz puts it, “Only 1 percent of 1 percent of 1 percent of all artists get rich from their artwork.” Even if he’s half wrong, that’s still less than 1 percent. 

The most common reason someone’s art doesn’t sell anywhere is that no one where the art is wants to buy it. People may like it. People may support the artist by coming out to a show, if they're fortunate enough to get one (which is another reason why artists can’t sell much in Columbus: not enough shows). But at the end of the day, everyone who has seen the art has made a decision, and 99 times out of a 100 that decision is to leave it on the wall. It’s the very definition of a value judgment. 

Did they not like it enough? I guess. Was it priced too high? Probably not. If you’re a Columbus artist, you almost certainly didn’t price it too high. In fact, I want to comment specifically on this point. 

Visual art in Columbus doesn't sell more frequently — and for more — because it's not seen as a valuable enough commodity, as a thing worth either possessing or investing in, beyond a certain sector of people. Again, most people who encounter art don’t buy it. That’s been true since the medium was a cave wall and the paint was poop. But an art scene can change both its perceived and literal value. The thing that location does begin to differentiate about art sales is the why. Sales are extremely environment dependent. 

To increase what art sells for, you have to change the perception of the work as being valuable. There are a number of wrenches in the toolbox to attempt this, but let’s look at what Columbus is doing. Columbus artists have a twofold problem: The pool of buyers is very small and the art being sold is cheaper (on average) than it should be. There are lots of things to say about the first, but the second is a pretty simple equation no matter what tool you use: You can only sell what the market will bear. You can’t sell art for what people won’t spend, so you have to focus on the first thing, the art’s perceived value.

How do you change that, you ask? Again, you have options here. One way to increase the value of art is to decrease the accessibility of quality art. You simply make the art that people are willing to pay for more rare. Alas, this almost never works for more than a handful of artists at a time, and if you’ve been reading me for even a little while you know I’m kind of a “lift all boats” guy. I want everyone to win, or at least the people who put in the work.

The tool I like that we don’t use in this town very often is criticism. I don’t mean some guy tweeting potshots about Lichtenstein’s “Brushstrokes in Flight” every time he walks through the airport. I mean Columbus should commit to creating a body of art criticism.  

Criticism doesn’t have to be gatekeeping, and it doesn’t have to be overly academic. I would argue that it must be more informed than lettered. It should be presented unapologetically as the subjective take that it is. While some things about a work of art or an exhibit may be uncontestable, the criticism should not be considered absolute or objective. The criticism need not come from already beleaguered media outlets fighting for solvency on a daily basis. The criticism should start dialogue, not finish it. It should entice its audience to self-observe, to self-interrogate, to develop a relationship with the work in question. And to do all of these noble things, criticism must sometimes say, “This, to me, the critic, is not good art.”

We have local criticism for restaurants. We have it for theater when a pandemic hasn’t shut all the productions down. We have it to a far less degree for almost everything else. Most of the local press for bands is preemptive, not review. The movies that are reviewed aren’t produced locally. Do I even need to mention how much regular criticism doesn’t exist about local literature or dance or hip-hop? When the press for art is all preview, then you don’t have criticism; you have advertising.  

When art audiences have a sense the information that they receive from critics a) exists and b) operates on a spectrum of informed opinions, then the art can begin to develop a public value. When work is entered into the permanent collection of museums, it takes on a perceived value. Certain artists, works, galleries and critics become gauges of quality, and thus value. When art in public space is critiqued, the public is invited into a conversation about what art is, how it succeeds or fails, and is encouraged to develop a palate, which can confer value. The art scene starts to develop value by virtue of saying that not all work is equal, and none of it is above reproach. The community begins to create a canon that stretches beyond the museum and the textbook, that creates its own art heroes and ideas about what art is for beyond money. And that value has the happy byproduct of bumping the market value of local art at large. 

In short, the art scene stops feeling like summer camp and becomes, among other things, a robust market through which artists can actually begin to earn what their work is worth. Criticism accomplishes that with little budget, far more democratically, with more efficiency, and if we have done it right, with greater returns for the artists, for venues that showcase them and for audiences. Or we can keep telling artists to keep the good stuff behind the couch until the market gets hip, I guess.