(art) Economics 101

by Robert Genn

January 27, 2009
Dear Rodney,

A number of artists have been asking about the current economic downturn. More than anything, they want to know what's going to happen to us creative spirits. While I'm no economist, there's evidence of a hard truth.

Art follows money.

While art still gets made in an economic downturn, the commercial acceptance of art is neither consistent nor predictable. At the present time, the indulgences of the past decades where easy money chased anything slightly artistic have suddenly reversed.

I'm laptopping you from the economic miracle called Singapore. This city-state of skyscrapers and tree-lined boulevards is also suffering. Government workers are accepting wage reductions of 12 to 20 percent just to keep their jobs, and city fathers are looking over the horizon to find the next infusion of capital.

Yesterday I visited a factory where piece-workers hunch over grindstones cutting chips of jade and other semi-precious stones. Other workers skillfully place the stones onto composite dioramas depicting landscapes, birds, animals and historic deities. The factory shop is long on product and short on customers. Downcast salespeople stand idly by, puffing on thin Malaysian cigarettes.

In our current environment, potential customers are easily
more critical of art.

Throughout history, the production of art has followed wealth and leisure. Great civilizations--Egyptian, Sumerian, Greek, Roman and, yes, the American Empire--have been built on it. Other yet-to-be-heard-from civilizations will follow.

To get an idea of when we are coming out of our current setback, you need to look next door to see when that young family thinks they have enough left over to buy season hockey tickets. A healthy, well-regulated economy is the key. When the general population is well fed and well entertained once more, there will once again be enough for art. In the meantime, like for those workers in the Singapore factory, it's important to keep busy.

Best regards,


PS: "Money demands that you sell, not your weakness to men's stupidity, but your talent to their reason." (Ayn Rand)

Esoterica: Based on experience in previous recessions, three strategies are available: (1) Maintain your prices--increasingly prove the investment value of your work and honour those customers who have invested in you in the past. (2) Continue to make first-rate work. In recessions, the bottom end can fall out completely. If anything, aim to improve quality and try to produce more important and challenging work. There will always be collectors of quality work. (3) If you can afford it, grab any opportunities to improve.