Determining Value in Visual Art
By Candice Russell / March 2012

If you attended Art Basel Miami Beach in December, you saw paintings, sculptures, videos and mixed media installations priced at thousands of dollars, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and even millions. You overheard delicate negotiations between elegantly dressed collectors and gallery owners, as they discussed transport, placement and, of course, the price of a large sculpture that caught their attention. You experienced sensory overload -- so much to see in so large a space and so little seemingly worth its cost.

The average person is understandably confused by the values set in the contemporary art market. What makes an artwork expensive? What makes another artwork affordable? The confusion that ensues is enough to make someone buy a print of Van Gogh's Starry Night rather than the purchase of an original painting by a local artist.

Price is determined largely part by an artist's reputation, which depends on certain factors. Young and new artists, referred to as emerging artists, usually price their artworks inexpensively, in order to garner attention.
Getting your work in the marketplace at multiple venues on a regular basis is key. What results is exposure to the general public, tastemakers, gallery owners, curators, museum directors, and art critics who write stories in newspapers and magazines.

Beginning artists or artists new to a community quickly learn about the multiplicity of venues. In Broward County alone, there are offbeat places to show one's art, from the hall of the Anne Kolb Nature Center in Hollywood to the gallery of the Sunrise Civic Center in Sunrise, in addition to many galleries.

Getting represented by a gallery that will market an artist's work and hold exhibitions is another significant step. Steven F. Greenwald of Steven F. Greenwald Design, Inc. in Fort Lauderdale puts a high price on professionalism, which he finds "hugely lacking" among the artists who come to his gallery, and being a pleasure to work with.

He is dismayed by the number of young artists, fresh from graduation at pricey art institutes, who come to his gallery and frame shop, "They don't have a clue about how to do business, let alone how to paint. Most of the art brought to me is one step from tripe."

On the other hand, Atalya Alkalay, owner and manager of Smart Art Consulting in Boca Raton, voices a different opinion about the emerging artist market. "I have tens of calls on a daily basis from artists who are all so talented," she says. "It's unbelievable that there are so many people trying to get into the business."

Both Greenwald and Alkalay agree that there is fierce competition among new artists. With an online presence a necessity, artists have venues beyond galleries to get their work known.

Building a reputation is also dependent on getting grants and awards, even in small group shows. The South Florida Cultural Consortium pays $15,000 to artists in the region for the individual artist grant. It's a plum prize, with no strings attached as to how the money will be spent, and a booster of an artist's profile.

Public art commissions also help. Cities in South Florida mandate an allotment of budget money each year for the creation of new public art in airports, on city streets (think of the cool-looking silver alligator surround for bus benches on Broward Boulevard), in plazas, and other locations. These artworks can take diverse shapes, including the sculpture of an angel called Fay by Cecilia Lueza on the corner of West Sample Road and University Drive in Coral Springs, Dove Medallion, a floor design of flying birds in a circle at St. George Park in Fort Lauderdale, and Please Lose My Suitcase Full of Blues, a pastel sculpture of neon shapes by Cork Marcheschi at Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport.

One great thing about getting a public art commission is that the first one usually leads to others. Then an artist can expand and try for commissions in other cities and states, subsidizing a career while doing work born of passion.

Giving back is a component of reputation, to some extent. By volunteering to help with an art project at a school system, a community center or a hospital, or getting a grant to subsidize such an effort, an artist works in tandem with others to beautify a wall or create a painting.

As an example of a charitable deed, Brazilian artist Hegina Rodrigues involved the young patients waiting for chemotherapy at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami by having them become distracted in the process of drawing and painting. The process is a matter of building goodwill and securing a good name in the minds of moneyed donors to these institutions. Who knows where that can lead?

International art festivals called biennales, scheduled every other year, are important for artists seeking to enlarge the audience for their work. When prizes are awarded, people take notice. Some of the important festivals are in Venice, Italy and Sao Paulo, Brazil.

How important is it for an artist to be accepted in an international art festival? "It's absolutely essential," says Alkalay, a fine art appraiser. "Inclusion would be listed on an artist's resume. It is major in evaluating an artist."

If an artist's work is included in a solo or group show at a museum, consider this a coup. It's the equivalent of having arrived in the art world. Often, a pamphlet, catalog or book is published in conjunction with a museum show. That means serious academic scholarship and appraisal has been applied to the work of an artist, lending him or her gravitas within the art world.

The final brick in the construction of an artist's reputation is the buyer. An art-savvy novice can build a worthy art collection without spending a king's ransom by closely following trends and reputations. On the other end of the financial spectrum, there are a number of art collectors in South Florida and other metropolises with money to burn in pursuit of who is hottest, newest, and most likely to evolve into a key artist of his or her generation. To have a piece in an important collector's home with a sculpture, painting or video installation is a truly triumphant moment for an artist

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