Op-Ed: The Impact Of Place On The Value Of Art

How will institutions be affected as art moves into populist spaces?

Paul Gauguin, Two Women (1902).
Courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Public Collection.


The perceived value, or price, of a contemporary artwork has historically been influenced by its placement in museums, galleries, and prominent collections. But certain respected institutions are beginning to challenge this notion. Take Artplace America, which, since 2011, has been espousing the impact of art on place. I want to take a look at the impact of place on art.

My inquiry was sparked after reading about Desert X, an art festival positioned alongside the Coachella Music and Arts Festival in Southern California. I began to look for similar anomalous happenings in the field. Seeking guidance and insight, I spoke with contemporary art advisor Lianne Sheplar of Barbara Schwartz Inc, where she works with clients to build private collections of contemporary art.

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Desert X, for me, begged the question: How might art institutions be affected as art moves into more populist spaces, like Burning Man, Coachella, and SXSW? Within five minutes of our conversation, Sheplar quickly pointed out that part of this shift is, in fact, encouraged by the galleries’ and museums’ curators.

“When we talk about the impact of placement of a work, in a gallery or museum or private collection, we are talking about two different things: price and value," Sheplar said. "The price of an artist's work can be affected by an acquisition by an institution. It helps to build the artist's market. How we value or feel about a work deals with it's impact on us and can change as the place and the audience shifts. Some institutions’ interest in the value of art and the spaces, therefore...is quite interesting."

Our conversation led me to expand my focus from geographic place to place as defined within cultures, exhibitions, and collective consciousness.


Courtesy For Freedoms via Facebook Public Domain.

In the spring of 2016, artists Hank Willis Thomas and Eric Gottesman formed For Freedoms, the first artist-led super PAC, which they kicked off with the support of New York art dealer Jack Shainman in his Chelsea gallery. For Freedoms, which uses American democracy as its medium, including the power of fundraising to effect change, is itself an artwork that places artists in the political conversation--namely in an empowered position to collectively impact political discourse using art, marketing, and money.

It is not uncommon for known and respected artists like Thomas to make political work; nor is it odd that the gallery representing such an artist would sell said political work. What strikes me is the support given, through placing the launch of this conceptual piece inside of an institution that then elevates an artist-focused project to include collectors as well.

In the often paternalistic hierarchical relationship of institution and artist, this permission to access and leverage the brand of the gallery as a vehicle to affect societal change and to heighten the distinctive voices of artists in society seems radically different from the standard practice, wherein galleries build their brands as market-leaders predicated on the works they bring to market.

To me, this brings form, function, and placement into closer proximity of each other, even expanding the value, separate from price, in a larger, more defined context. By occupying space in a gallery or a museum, this work situates itself in the consciousness of fans and collectors and elevates the concept of ‘artist as valuable change agent’ rather than art as an object for purchase. For Freedoms is currently in residence at MoMA PS1 for the first one hundred days of the new Presidential administration.

The idea of the impact of place is also migrating from the political to the hyperpersonal. For the 2016 New York Art Book Fair, Gagosian Gallery commissioned small drawings from a handful of artists, including Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and Kim Gordon. Each work was offered as an edition of six. Gagosian then installed a tattoo booth at MoMA PS 1, where the fair was held, and sold the pieces for $250 each, in the form of tattoos etched into the skin of the buyer. Now these artworks are walking around the world. Art, as defined by experts in the industry to be bought, mounted, and exhibited—is now ‘hung’ wherever the collector travels.


Burning Man (2007). Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

So, what is the impact of various places—and, for that matter, the distinction of place itself—on the value of contemporary visual art? In an interview with the LA Times, Desert X curator Neville Wakefield was quoted, saying, “I’m interested in the way that this place—with all its weird manifestations—stimulates artists.” Perhaps that stimulation is the shift.

For years now, contemporary artists have made art for art's sake, producing the occasional commission for a person or a space, but generally making what springs from them only for the works to land in unknown locations. The rise of these intentionally analogue, place-driven projects lend a certain interactivity to ‘high’ art that is new for the now. Through the aforementioned projects the artists are making art for an audience gathered in a place or who occupy a specific type of place, rather than the place itself.  

Like many artists, I have a complicated relationship with institutions. Reliant in some ways, legitimized in others, rebellious and pushing against the spaces they occupy in the cultural landscape, these projects excite me. The place, and those who occupy it, in each case is needed for the art to be activated. It is this interactivity between people, place, and art, as supported by the gatekeepers, that deserves a closer look.  

While the act of exclusive institutions bringing these artists to more populist spaces—and offering them the opportunity to create for different audiences—positions the galleries and museums as more relevant than ever, this also impacts the focus of the work that the artists are making. While many gallerists truly support the artists they represent, they must also serve the collectors. Perhaps we are moving toward more equitable attention being given to both, and perhaps the artists can then have more voice in the audiences they serve. And this shift in focus is, to me, the most interesting aspect to witness in the relationship between place, value, and art.


Editor: Rain Embuscado

Jennifer EdwardsStream 1