This makes for a good time to write - most of my texts are drafted here. It's also a good time to read… Papers, books, gossip, letters, opinions, analysis, emails, propaganda... it's the best time to dream.
However, a couple of Fridays ago, my reverie was interrupted by a phone call from a long lost acquaintance. It went something like:
Acquaintance: Hi T, am in your studio and looking at this painting (describes painting and was wondering whether it's for sale.
Me: Hi, good to hear from you. How've you been? ... Yes it is for sale.
Acquaintance: What's your asking price?
Me: Ksh. 35,000.00 (only)
Acquaintance: Wharrr! That's expensive. Si you give me another price.
I start thinking (it's gonna be a hard sell this one)... Hmmmm!
Me: Hmmm... I could knock off a 10% for ol' time sake.
Acquaintance: Haki 15k haiwezi (I can't get it for 15,000.00)?
I get pissed but pretend am laughing while trying very hard not to disconnect the line. A minute later, line is dead.
I replayed the conversation again. And again. And it got me thinking. Who determines the real value of an artist's work? Artist? Dealer? Gallery? Museum?
You see, an artist practicing in my area code; one who's earned his stripes, is almost always attached to a gallery or two. In addition, they have a dealer or two trying to sell their work locally. The more established may have an 'international' dealer/agent selling their ware. This leaves an artist with an average of 3ish people trying to sell his work - including him/herself, it makes 4 people licensed to market his wares.
This may sound good. Very good, you may say but it leaves the artist in a very complicated position. It leaves the artist exposed (for lack of a better word). It confirms the myth that the artist is never (and will never be) in charge of his prices including how the value appreciates with time.
Case study:Msanii Hodari, name changed to ‘conceal’ identity (pun intended), is an (upper) mid career artist who sells work from his studio and is happy to bypass the 'middle (wo)man'. His painting fetches Ksh. 100,000 within the space. He's happy, client happy. Life is blissful.
The artist takes the same painting to a (semi) public gallery and since the commission is 20%, it's marked up and the asking price becomes Ksh. 120,000. It gets 'slightly' costlier when it gets to a private entity that's tax compliant with commissions of 30% (these sometimes rise up to 40% )+ VAT of 16% making the cost of the same painting rise to something in the region of Ksh. 150,000.
These are okay...ish since they are set and these figures appear in the artist vs. space contracts.
Then come dealers whose commissions are vague. Those whose contracts have phrases like a minimum of 25% commission (with no mention of maximum) and others who will sell for anything above the artist's Ksh. 100,000 (whether 100,005 or 250,000).
Most people would suggest that all's well as long as the artwork sells, everyone gets paid, handshakes done accompanied by the "Pleasure doing business with you” pleasantries but me thinks otherwise! It's where the business of selling art becomes complicated.
Artists have genuine followers. Fans. Groupies. People who genuinely follow their practice. It becomes very uncomfortable unsuccessfully trying to convince a respectable and well meaning adult why a painting was 150k in March, 120k in April, 200k in May and back to 100k (negotiable) in August. This is not as easy to explain as it is in other industries where the product costs are directly predetermined by the price of crude barrels in the gulf. For most people it becomes a con and all the inconsistencies are (somehow) pinned on the artist. Maybe it's due to the fact that it's only he/she whose name is permanently attached to the artwork.
A candid chat with a couple of artists was... not so good! They (make alot of money from their work but) have no clue what their work is truly worth. Other than confront the elephant in the room, most artists (me included) have resorted to safely hiding under what is commonly termed as the "artist price". This loosely translates to the studio price. Here, the artist puts a tag and anyone willing to try sell it marks it up by 'whatever' as long as they bring the artist what he/she asked for (o.n.o). This has created the above scenario where the same artwork has up to five different prices depending on where it sits when a potential buyer makes the cost inquiry.
For someone new in the local art circle, it loosely translates into the local art scene being inconsistent and costly while making the cost of local art quite unpredictable.
How I wish Msanii Hodari’s work cost Ksh. 100,000 regardless of where it stood. A 16% VAT mark up wouldn’t be too bad.