A Norman Rockwell painting sold at the 2018 Jackson Hole Art Auction for $1.49 million. That’s about the amount of money financial advisors say a middle-class person needs to support a comfortable 30-year retirement.
That the price for a single piece of art could support three decades of a person’s life lays bare a reality of the art world: Owning pieces, particularly originals, is a rich person’s game. The Rockwell piece may be an extreme example, but even originals that cost tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars can mean the choice between a piece of art and a new car or a once-in-a-lifetime family vacation. Most people likely choose the vacation.
Exclusivity in ownership is not an inherently bad thing: High-dollar purchases of works sustain artists’ careers, and, on a grander scale, the linchpin of our economic system is that consumers’ willingness to pay sets the price of a product. However, if art is part of how a society develops its cultural and institutional identities, then exclusivity also creates disparity.
“No one should ever feel ‘I’m not rich enough, I’m not white enough, I’m not old enough,’” said Amy Goicoechea, director of programs and events at the National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Goicoechea was referring to her institution, which has a different mandate than a gallery, which functions to make a profit, but that problem can be extended to many museums as well. A study published in the journal PLOS One (produced by the Public Library of Science) found 85% of artists represented in museums’ permanent collections are white, and 87% are men. Studies have also found that a lack of representation in media can lead to lower levels of self-esteem and a lack of engagement in excluded groups.
Cultural institutions in Jackson and other artcentric communities are working to narrow the gap. Owning an Andy Warhol or Robert Bateman piece is likely out of reach for anyone except those in the top socioeconomic strata, but there are ways to reach communities that don’t generally see themselves as art connoisseurs.
“Museums are places where you’re not expected to consume or purchase the art,” Goicoechea said. “Having a collection, the intent is to share.”
Given that museums are public institutions, they are open to anyone who wants to pay the price of admission, which at $15 an adult is about the cost of a movie. Even so, people may not realize the museum is an affordable option for entertainment.
Many of the events Goicoechea and the museum host are designed to expand the art audience in Jackson. For instance, the museum is free to locals the first Sunday of each month, in a program fittingly called First Sundays.
One of Goicoechea’s ideas to bring people in the door started nine years ago and combines a free opportunity to peruse the galleries with other entertainment. Mix’d Media features food, drink, music and interactive art projects, and it is coupled with longer hours, with the museum staying open past its normal 5 p.m. closing time.
“It’s certainly intended for working people,” Goicoechea said. “The intended audience is on the water or skiing on the weekend, so evening times are best.”
Free events are the most affordable way to offer people the chance to check out art, but galleries, which don’t have admission fees, can still feel daunting even though it’s free to walk through their doors. Events like Diehl Gallery’s Apres Ski and Art or the Art Association’s Art Walk give people the idea that it is indeed OK to come in.
Diehl tells people “come in your ski gear” for its Friday night event that goes through the winter, reducing the stuffy cachet that can accompany an art gallery. The Art Walk is a casual time when galleries open their doors and pour glasses of wine for whoever wants to come in, without the pressure to purchase.
That model has worked well in other art hubs, including Scottsdale, Arizona, which has its own weekly Art Walk that’s about to celebrate its 45th year.
“It just organically developed into a Thursday night event with lots of people from all walks of life,” said jeweler French Thompson, president of the Scottsdale Gallery Association.
Thompson said the Scottsdale version has people who visit the art district only for Art Walk, which is direct evidence that free events expand the audience. For galleries the event has the added bonus that those people might buy something or tell their friends who might.
“It’s like the biggest billboard the arts district can actually have,” Thompson said. “It’s a fun free thing to do without any pressure.”
Though many people may never buy an original piece of art, some are not content with a free pass through a museum or gallery. They may want to pass down art to their kids, or simply own one thing they know they won’t find in their neighbor’s house.
For them the art auction has changed its format in an attempt to expand the art-buying world. The same event at which people throw out six- and seven-figure sums for Batemans and Rockwells has a whole section of works designed to sell for less than $10,000, with some selling for just a few hundred bucks.
“When we came up with the concept of Session I,” auction coordinator Madison Webb said, “the idea was to have accessible art.”
All these things, from free events to cheaper prices, are designed to encourage new people to come in the door, whether at a gallery or museum. They increase the availability of cultural resources to a broader audience, but the adaptation also keeps galleries and museums alive in an age when media is readily available anywhere, anytime.
“In a day and age in which cultural institutions are waning in attendance,” the museum’s Goicoechea said, “they won’t survive if they don’t do that.” ￼