Return to Articles



A Guardian piece posted online [,12271,947880,00.html] about Eric Schlosser’s new book, Reefer Madness: Sex, Drugs and Cheap Labor in the American Black Market, got me thinking.

Schlosser’s book is about commodities that Americans “publicly abhor, privately adore, and buy in astonishing amounts,” namely pot, porn, and migrant Mexican labor. The figures cited are a kind of forced confession of unacknowledged American compulsions:

#3 in the Artprice hit parade--Andy
Warhol, “Dollar Sign,” 1982, screenprint.

#26 on the Artprice hit parade--Ed
Ruscha, “Untitled”, 1963, painting.

#55 on the Artprice hit parade--Jeff Koons, “Michael Jackson and Bubbles”, 1988, porcelain ceramic blend, 42 x 70 1/2 x 32 1/2 “.

Fred Tomaselli, “Echo, Wow and Flutter," 2000, leaves/pills/photocollage/acrylic/resin on wood panel, 84 x 120".
Collection Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
• At an estimated $25 billion a year in revenue, marijuana is now the country’s largest cash crop. Bigger than corn, which nets $19 billion a year.

• Porn nets $10 billion a year, on a par with Hollywood’s take at the U.S. box office. Hollywood turns out approximately 500 movies a year. The porn studios turn out 211 movies a week.

• An estimated 8 million illegal immigrants live in this country. This vast and underpaid labor force saves the average American household around $50 a year.

Taken together, these stats tell us something about what American priorities are. But they also say something about the telling power of numbers. At any rate, they made a string of questions go off in my head. What about art? How does it fit in the picture? What are the numbers?

I’ve been writing about art for more than a decade and I never once delved into the economics of it. Admittedly, part of the reason for that lack of curiosity is the sheer repugnance I have always felt toward anything that has to do with money. The other, dovetailing reason was the effort entailed in researching the issue in the pre-Internet days. Before the information highway came along, one had to make do with the informational equivalent of wheelbarrows. Questions popped in your head. You briefly mused about them and left it at that. That was in the antediluvian days before Google became a cyber oracle you can consult about everything from nocturnal leg cramps to. . . .well, the meaning of life (Type “meaning of life” into Google, and it returns 3,780,000 answers.). Nowadays, you just let your typing fingers do the stalking.

Okay. So I wanted to know how much money is spent annually on art in the U.S. Simple question. But getting the answer proved a little more complicated than I expected and led me to unearth some interesting data.

First of all, when you ask how much money is spent on art, you have to specify who spends it and how. Federal and state governments support the arts to the tune of $1-2 billion a year, depending on whether or not you want to count funding for such “cultural” institutions as the Smithsonian and military bands as arts funding [Source: Americans for the Arts,].

That tells us that our elected representatives’ enthusiasm for the arts does not quite match their enthusiasm for pumping up America’s “super-duper-power” status (Republican Congressional leader Tom DeLay’s phrase), toward which they allocated $400 billion in defense funding; but that is not a figure you can use to compare America’s appetite for art to its appetite for porn and corn. So I pressed on.
A publication titled Consumer Expenditures in 2001 gave me hope. Published in April of this year (yes, it takes more than a year to compile these figures) by the Bureau of Labor Statistics [], it surveys consumer spending across a dizzying array of categories. Tellingly, art is not among them. The closest included category to art is entertainment, but then that might also cover watching porn while stoned. Still, this document is a gold mine of information. Want to find out how much the average consumer with a master’s degree or better spent annually on alcoholic beverages compared to the average high school dropout? Answer: $505 vs. $175 (Which raises the question: Does that mean that education promotes alcoholism or just beverage snobbery?). Since it is a sample survey of approximately 7,500 “consumer units,” the consumer expenditure survey doesn’t reveal total expenditures, but it does give a breakdown of what Americans spend their money on. Not surprisingly, the largest portion of total expenditure (32.9 percent) goes toward housing, followed by transportation (19.3 percent), food (13.5 percent), health care (5.5 percent), entertainment (4.9 percent) and clothing (4.5 percent). Interesting, but not quite what I was looking for. The same could be said of the annual National Endowment for the Arts publications that track admissions to performing arts events, the latest of which [] notes that, in 2000, opera/concert/play goers shelled out $9.8 billion.

My big break came when I turned the question around and instead of asking about expenditures I started asking about sales. In 2002, the European Fine Art Foundation published a survey that put the global art market at $23.5 billion in annual sales [Sources: Artnet,; Daily Telegraph,; Kusin & Company,]. According to the survey:

• In 2001, the U.S. owned 47 percent of the global art market, which translated into just over $11 billion in sales. Auction houses accounted for about $6 billion, art dealers for $5 billion.

• European countries accounted for 45 percent of the market, or $10.6 billion.

• The top three art markets in Europe were the UK (56 percent of the European market), France (16.8 percent), and Germany (6 percent).

Presuming these figures are trustworthy, they reveal that the art market in this country is bigger, in dollar terms, than the market for movies.

• In 2002, the top 10 hottest-selling artists worldwide, ranked by auction sales were, according to Artprice [], Pablo Picasso, Peter Paul Rubens, Andy Warhol, Claude Monet, Alberto Giacometti, Fernand Leger, Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Marc Chagall, and Gerhard Richter.

• Ed Ruscha came in at number 26, Jasper Johns at number 28, Cy Twombly at number 33, Paul Klee at number 45, Norman Rockwell at number 46, Mark Rothko at number 51, Georgia O’Keefe at number 54, Jeff Koons at number 55, Wayne Thiebaud at number 70, and David Hockney at number 81.

In the European Union, artists and their estates are entitled to from .25 to 4 percent of the proceeds when their works are resold. The sliding-scale levy, known as the droite de suite, applies to artworks sold up to 70 years after the artist’s death [Sources: E-zine,; European Journal,]. Dealers and auctioneers are adamant that it drives business to Switzerland and the U.S. In practice, because the artwork has to reach a minimum price before the levy kicks in, not many artists or their descendants benefit from the droit de suite. Still, it is odd that the idea of royalties--taken for granted when it comes to books, recorded music, and movies--should be so alien to the art world.

Having determined the general size of the art market, I wanted to look at the finer details. Help came in the form of an NEA paper [] published in 1998 that used 1992 economic census data to analyze the regional components of the U.S. art market. Some of the salient findings, which I’ve supplemented with data from the 1997 economic census [the latest available, http://www.census. gov/epcd/www/97EC44.HTM]:

• In 1992, there were 4,543 art dealers in the U.S. In 1997, the number was 5,698.

• In 1992, total art retail sales came to just over $2 billion. In 1997, the number was $3 billion.
• How big is the retail art market as compared to other retail markets? In 1997, total retail receipts came to $2,480 billion. Auto dealers had $553.6 billion in sales. Department stores reported $223 billion in sales. At $3 billion in sales, art dealers pulled in slightly more than camera and photographic supplies stores ($2.25 billion) but less than half what florists pulled in ($6.6 billion). Admittedly, there were a lot more florists (26,600) than art dealers.

• In 1992, the states with the highest number of art dealers were California (612), New York (515), Florida (330), Texas (230), and Illinois (177). Ranked by sales volume, the top five markets were New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, and Washington D.C.

• The real story, however, is that dealers in the New York City area racked up almost double the amount of sales of the next four metropolitan areas combined. In 1992, the NYC area accounted for 26.9 per cent (equivalent to $560 million) of U.S. art sales, as opposed to the LA area’s 4.6 percent (equivalent to $95 million). In 1997, NYC-area dealers numbered 470 and sold $856.5 million worth of art; LA-area dealers numbered 183 and sold $105 million.

• Looking closer at Southern California, a city-by-city breakdown reveals the art hot spots of 1997:

City # of Dealers Sales [in (millions)]

Los Angeles 77 $45.9
San Diego 52 28.5
Santa Monica 28 19.7
Beverly Hills 16 16.7
Laguna Beach 21 15.0
Palm Springs 7 7.2
West Hollywood 15 $7.0
Santa Ana 4 2.6
Pasadena 3 2.4
Huntington Beach 4 1.4
Newport Beach 3 1.4
Long Beach 6 1.3

Inevitably, the next question was: what do artists get out of the art biz? An NEA study [available at] published last year reported that in 2001 the median income of fine artists was $31,190. That means there were as many artists making more than that amount as there were making less. That figure slightly exceeds the $30,489 median income of bachelor degree holders nationwide, as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau for 2000. The national average, by comparison, was []. Twelve percent of artists said they had secondary jobs, which seems like a very low figure to me.

So the art biz is an $11 billion industry. Or if you prefer, a $6 billion auction business and a $5 billion retail business. And who knows, maybe only half of the art sold retail is "real" art and the rest consists of mass merchandized "limited" print editions with near unlimited runs. Given more time, I could probably find out. To borrow the X-Files motto: The truth is out there. But personally, I think these distinctions are just ways around the gauche fact that art is a business. And it's only a gauche fact because the art biz has a stake in sustaining the belief that when it comes to art, money should be no object.

What is different about art is that its mystique, upon which its exalted commodity status depends, is founded on the obfuscation of its commodity status. This is how you end up with a porcelain figure of Michael Jackson and Bubbles for which somebody is willing to pay $5.6 million. Because if art is not "mere" commodity, it is well-nigh priceless, but priceless in the context of a capitalist economy only means very expensive. So the entire speculative hoax is based on dissociating art from money, which is the classical marketing strategy behind all luxury objects--because the value of luxury objects has no relation whatever to use value, but is based entirely on contrived rarity.

The salutary effect of reconnecting art with money is perspective. It helps us avoid veering off into the swamp of discourse without context that breeds the perennial myth of artistic subversion. The brute reality is that artistic subversion is a marketing strategy. It's the engine that drives the cycle of novelty that propels consumption. We understand this perfectly when it comes to attention-addicted pop stars like Madonna, but when it comes to art the tendency is to impute vast subversive potential to mere rudeness.

In 2001, the recording industry netted $12.4 billion in retail sales. That makes it comparable to the art industry in terms of revenue. Since the days of Andy Warhol and the Factory, the two worlds have converged. Music stars have become artier, art stars have developed rock star ambitions. Perhaps the convergence of pop journalism and art criticism will follow. It wouldn't be a bad thing. It would help us take art less seriously.