Affordable Art

or why art isn't only for the one percenters
January 6, 2020
How to Afford And, Kwon Neung, "Rembrandt" painting
Kwon Neung, Rembrandt, 2019. Photo taken at Art Basel Hong Kong, 2019

How to afford art?  This question is not usually posed as a question, rather it comes out as a statement: "I can't afford art", or "Well, when I become super rich...", or "I wish I could afford original art".  Art historically has been classified as a "luxury item".  We think of Victorian kings and queens, super expensive Sotheby's auctions or well-known masters displayed in the best museums in the world.  In this short blog post, I'll try to argue with myself or maybe even convince you that art can be made affordable.  Please choose to agree or completely disagree with me.  Your comments are welcome.



So once in a while, I get messages from people who love the original painting that I have and ask for a print. The question is, what are the economics of a print. Is it worth it? I'd consider two scenarios: a limited edition print of an expensive painting from a well-known artist and a limited (or not) edition print of a much less known artist.

In the first case, let's consider a well known and super popular surrealist Vladimir Kush. His popularity means a search on his name on Google returns, almost 5 million hits(!), his Instagram has 13,000 followers, and 90,000 people subscribe to his Facebook page. If you have access (usually quite expensive) to fine art auction sites, you'll see that not only his original works are frequently exchanged at art auctions but also his limited edition prints. Some of his original artworks are priced in the range of $100,000 dollars. So that probably means that for the 99-percenters, his original art is not affordable. His prints are probably in $1000-2000 range, and considering that there's an open and liquid market for them, I can see why this price is justified. Not only his originals but also his limited prints are an investment. Whether they are a good or bad investment is not for me to say. So the bottom line, yes, if you would like to have a piece of a well-known contemporary or old master artist, getting a limited edition print makes financial sense.


How to Afford Art, Vlad Kush print


In the second scenario, is a print from a much less known artist a sound financial decision? I just had a conversation with one local artist who has been in the art industry for 30+ years, and she said: "Look, for some reason, every time I buy someone's print, it ends up being rolled in the drawer somewhere. I mean, prints also need framing, and a nice frame will cost more than the print itself." I 100% agree with her. Let's run through real-life economics. A decent-sized, original painting 26x32 inches one can probably get for $700-$2000. Of course, it depends on a painting, but I think there are a lot of great original paintings that you can buy for an average of $1,500. A basic acrylic print at Costco of this size will cost about $200.


How to Afford Art, Costco print


Now, for the print of this size, you'd need a very high-resolution photo (iPhone photo won't work, sorry), so I'd add at least $100 for the photo itself. After all, the artist (or the photographer) needs to get paid for her or his work, so that's her cut, $100. And if the image is not a simple photograph of your dog, but a collage, or a nature shot, or a photograph of a painting, etc, then this image will cost more (the artist invested a lot more time and money to make it). A professional high-resolution photo will cost $50-100. So let's say another $200 if we include the artist's cut. So, we're looking at approximately $500 for an acrylic print of 26 by 32 inches. 


Now, a basic custom wooden frame should cost an additional $150, or you can get one at Michael's for about $40 on sale. Personally, Michael's frame is like IKEA furniture. Yes, when I was in college and ate Ramen noodles, that's all I could afford. I didn't care that it would last five years.  I couldn't think that far ahead. But I am a little older now, and I actually want a nice frame that matches my interior and isn't made in China with tiny children's hands.


How to Afford Art, Michael's frame


And so the bottom line. $1500 original painting vs. $500-700 print. I don't think a print at this point makes sense. Yes, you saved some money. But most of the money you spent went not to the artist, but the printing house. You didn't make a connection with the artist. The value of the work is minimal if this artist ever becomes famous. And the chances are, that print will end up in some closet eventually. The only exception to the rule is the artwork that can only exist as a print (Pep Ventosa's work or black flow photos are good examples).



Most of the expensive items we buy in the US are actually bought with a monthly installment plan. Our cars, our houses, expensive electronics, even our cell phones are often financed with monthly plans. Probably anything above $1000 is higher than our monthly discretionary income and a good candidate for a monthly plan. Remember when an iPhone used to cost $500, and we didn't need a monthly plan? Well, Apple has since raised its prices and now markets its price as a "monthly price".  Surprise, surprise!  Does it mean we buy less iPhones?  Nope, Apple is still making great money, and we're still buying its precious phones.


How to Afford Art, iPhone price


For example, Art House SF partnered with ArtMoney to provide zero interest to the buyer monthly installment. Alternatively, to ArtMoney, PayPal, Square, and even your credit card offer easy to apply monthly installment plans that make buying art more affordable. Does it make the final price lower? No. Yet, we still buy houses, condos, cars, furniture, etc. in the US, and they are all financed primarily by the monthly installment plans. This "pay later" economy has its own disadvantages but overall had a net positive effect on the affordability of large-ticket items.


If art is important to you, consider low or zero-interest monthly installment plans to finance it.  



You'll quickly notice that besides financing/mortgages/monthly installment plans, another commonly used financial "affordability" vehicle is lease or rent. So why is it not as common in the art world?


That's a good question. I think it might be because most artists who work with customers directly don't want the hassle. Yes, it's a lot more work, shipping/handling costs for an artist to cover and deal with. What about insurance for the art piece as well? Who is going to cover that cost?


Galleries can probably handle the extra work, financial overhead and insurance needed, yet also don't offer this service often. Why is that? Is it possible that since galleries often do not own the art they're selling (remember, they don't pay artists upfront!), art renting becomes very complicated for them as well? It's like imagine you're trying to rent your apartment if you're the renter yourself. Your landlord will probably not be happy. While if I own my apartment, then renting it out is much easier.


How to afford art, for rent


The advantage of renting art is that a) low monthly payments, and b) you can return it if you don't like it. And the disadvantage is, of course, you don't really own it and might be paying more in the longer-term. I would be looking for models where the entire rent amount you pay is applied to the principal if you choose to buy. For example, if you're renting a $5,000 piece for $100 for 12 months and decide to buy it after a year, then you'll just owe $3,800 in the end.


So my bottom line here is to research if an original piece of art can be rented from a gallery or an artist. I hope this becomes a trend.


Art as part of your interior design

I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with the world's highest real-estate prices. People spend millions on houses, tens of thousands on remodeling, and thousands on furniture. In fact, the national average for kitchen remodeling is $16,600 or $150 per sq. ft (or about $1 per square inch). While on average, people spent $2,200 on living room furniture, $1,400 for kitchen furniture, and $3,600 for bedroom furniture. So having spent $20,000 on remodeling, how much can one spend on the artwork? And if our appliances are top-of-the-line, our counters are made of granite, our furniture is hand-crafted wood, why should the artwork be plastic?


One way to approach this dilemma is to factor in the cost of the art in overall remodeling costs. In fact, most commercial real estate developers add the price of artwork to the overall cost. And commercial buildings probably need art a lot less than one's cozy house.


How to Afford Art, Interior Design


So my bottom line is to include artwork in your remodeling/furniture budget. Don't keep it as an afterthought. The numbers need to make sense. If $20,000 is budgeted on remodeling, spending $50 on the artwork seems too low. Alternatively, purchasing a $10,000 painting for IKEA-furnished apartment might not be the best decision. Don't believe me? Here's a great article on the importance of art in interior design.



About the author

Max Khusid

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