Midway through another week of gathering business-in-art reporting for the Gray Market Newsletter, I stumbled onto the trail of the piece mentioned below––ironically, during a totally unrelated search:
[T]he first of a two part series of articles in Fortune proclaimed art another of the most desirable international currencies. Both investments and investors were divided into three categories: "gilt-edged," "blue chip," and "venture capital".... The gilt-edged bonded security['s]... purchaser was powerful old money or important museums. The blue chip stock... buyers had to be able to pay... [up] to one million dollars. To play the market, Fortune advised, one should buy the speculative growth issues, living artists... in their own country but with a much greater potential value on an international level.
Sounds like an obvious choice for inclusion, right?
One small catch: The Fortune series in question ran in 1955.
The excerpt comes from Lee Seldes's book The Legacy of Mark Rothko. Rothko was, in fact, one of the specific "speculative growth issues" that Fortune recommended in the piece, along with fellow New York School bosses-in-retrospect Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock. At the time, their work was all reportedly available for $500 to $3,500––or what would be about $4,500 to $31,000 in 2015, adjusting for inflation. Yet those works, and in fact the artists themselves, were already being treated like stock slips five years before the election of JFK.
I bring this up because I think the historical context is important for practicing artists and fine art professionals alike. Since at least 2007, both the mainstream and art-centric media have been flogging the narrative that fine art has never been more nakedly regarded as an investment asset than right now. I fear that narrative has intensified an "us vs. them" mentality in which artists increasingly view potential clients (and dealers) as nothing more than emotionless con artists intent on exploiting their work for cold hard cash.
That mentality, in turn, has corroded many artists' attitudes and creative commitment to the point of implosion: Why even bother with this? Why put my heart and soul into something that may only be judged as a financial instrument? Why can't things go back to the way they were in simpler times, when artists were respected and collectors only bought for the love?
It turns out the truth is more complex than the meme. Yes, the "asset-ization" of art is real, and the marketplace certainly hosts actors solely driven by profit––sometimes to unethical ends. But neither of these factors is new, as those 60 year-old Fortune issues prove. So if you hate the climate of the industry today, you're completely justified in leaving it for another one. Just don't do it under the mistaken impression that "the good old days" were so different from our own.