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  • Writer's pictureSarah Ritchie

How much are you willing to pay for art?

How much are you willing to pay for art blog article by Sarah Ritchie artist

A friend kindly gifted my husband and me a meal at one of Auckland’s top celebrity chef-owned restaurants. Having just read Heston Blumenthal’s biography, I was excited to sample top-quality food in a top-quality establishment.

I should quickly point out that I am - in no way, shape or form - a “foodie”. The action of eating, for me, is one of necessity rather than enjoyment, so I was going to be a tough customer to please from the get-go.

The final bill was around 2 x the most my husband and I had previously paid to eat at a restaurant. Did we get twice the flavour, twice the enjoyment or twice the service? No. Did we expect twice the overall experience? Yes. Why was that?

Restaurants are like brands of clothing. We are willing to pay twice the usual price for a pair of branded sneakers to be seen wearing that particular brand. Of course, we know it is (or should be) more than just the social appearance. The sneakers should feel great, perform with superiority and last longer.

We visit a top restaurant because it’s a “brand”. We can boast that we attended “that” restaurant, run by “that” chef. The name carries a status which we can ride the coattails of. Much of the draw is the prospect of good food, but I’d argue that it is more about the brand power, designer cutlery and waiting staff that understand what “service” means.

Perhaps the definition of “value” derives from where you find your enjoyment. I have friends who highly value the finer things of life and will gladly pay extra to sit in comfortable restaurant chairs and be surrounded by beautiful, expensive interiors. For them, the price is not just for the food but for the total experience. The experience is unimportant to me, so I find the best “value” meal comes from a tried-and-tested local eatery where I know I will love the food. Life would be boring if we were all wired the same way.

What about the price that one pays for art? Is the principle of defining artistic value the same as food or clothing? I’d argue that it is precisely the same.

Whilst there is often a powerful resonance between the artwork and the purchaser, which seals the purchase, it still does not explain why one piece of artwork will sell for $500 and another $5,000 or $500,000. I’d say that the power is in the artist’s brand rather than the quality of the art itself (such as the mystery surrounding Banskey or the scarcity of a Rembrandt). It’s in the experience the artist creates, the location where the artwork is displayed or sold, the following that the artist has amassed, or the narrative surrounding the work.

We often talk about the perishable, non-resellable banana duct-taped to a wall that sold for US$120,000. The selling power of art has to do more with advertising, publicity, fame, or - in this case - infamy than just putting pretty pictures on a canvas. And there has to be more to what someone is willing to pay for art than beauty being in the eye of the beholder. That might be the difference between $500 and $5000, but it takes much more than beauty to get the price to $500,000.

Be it the money you are willing to pay for a meal or the price you’ll pay for a piece of art, there will always be a magical, undefinable mix of other “stuff” that creates the perception of value or desire. If only artists would develop their marketing skills, it might open the door to more people making a living from their art.

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