Art market datapoint of the day

By Felix Salmon
July 27, 2009
artists you've probably never heard of. And was still, until recently, pulling in a lot of money.

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According to his official bio, Jay Bryson, a Wachovia economist, is a much-quoted chap:

His comments on the economy regularly appear in The Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and USA Today. He also makes frequent appearances on CNBC and Bloomberg TV.

Of course the downside of being quoted a lot is that sometimes you’re quoted saying something like this:

“Art is a very discretionary sort of object, and we are in the worst recession arguably in the postwar era,” said Jay Bryson, a global economist with Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, N.C. “Obviously somebody who has lost their job in a factory in Indiana probably is not buying art.”

I think probably somebody who still has their job in a factory in Indiana probably is not buying art. And never was. Especially not the kind of art sold at Bellwether, a well-regarded Chelsea gallery which sells art by artists you’ve probably never heard of. But which was still, until recently, pulling in a lot of money:

Becky Smith knows that all too well. She owned the Bellwether Gallery in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood for a decade, but closed at the end of June after watching her revenue plummet to $80,000 gross in the first quarter of 2009. She had $40,000 net, and $10,000 of it went to rent each month.

The $80,000 figure was down from about $350,000 the same quarter in 2008 and about $600,000 during that period the year before.

In the first quarter of 2007, it seems, Bellwether was grossing $200,000 a month. Pay half that to the artists, and another $10,000 in rent, and you’re still making over a million dollars a year. And you’re not selling to factory workers in Indiana.

Interestingly, even at the height of the boom, that $100,000 a month going to Bellwether’s artists still works out at only about $5,000 a month per gallery artist — and you can be sure that a couple of the top names got the lion’s share. So while the gallerist was making a million dollars a year, a lot of her artists were probably making just a couple of thousand dollars a month.

So what now? Smith will continue to deal privately, but that means mostly secondary-market works, and little if any new money for artists. They’re the ones who are really going to start hurting.

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