On Money & Making a Living in the Arts
In the nineteen eighties, people stopped wanting to know how much fun [being an art dealer] was. They wanted to know how much money we made, and they were shocked and dismayed to learn that we didn’t make any money. We made a living. We paid our bills, paid our artists, and eventually paid off our note. We had a place to live, food to eat, work we liked doing together, and no “spare time.”
Had I been more candid, I would have confessed that we were totally disinterested in making money.
That was what my Professors at the University did. They “made money” working in a vicious bureaucracy, so they could spend it in their “spare time” doing exactly what they liked – which, as far as I could tell, was writing crummy novels about working in a vicious bureaucracy, and summering in Italy. Thus, I have always associated the desire to make money with a profound lack of confidence in one’s ability to make a living, to make one’s way in the world through wit and wile.
So I wanted to make a living, which I succeeded in doing, and I wanted to win, which I rather spectacularly failed to do.
I had this idea of an art made for the living, you see – of an art that might flourish in the crazy zone between the priests of institutional virtue and the bottom-feeders of commercial predation – of an art that might embody the marriage of desire and esteem (which is, of course, what a marriage is).
So I liked to distinguish my practice as an “art dealer” from that of “picture merchants” and “curators.” Because picture merchants were dedicated to exhibiting what they thought the public wanted, and curators were dedicated to exhibiting what they thought the public needed. Everything I did as an art dealer, however, was based on the hopeful, Emersonian premise that on occasion, sometimes, we just might find, we want what we need – that private desire and public virtue might find themselves embodied in a single, visible object. . .
Second: Art and money never touch. They exist in parallel universes of value at comparable levels of cultural generalization: Art does nothing to money but translate it. Money does nothing to art but facilitate its dissemination and buy the occasional bowl of Wheaties for an artist or art dealer. Thus, when you trade a piece of green paper with a picture on it, signed by a bureaucrat, for a piece of white paper with a picture on it, signed by an artist, you haven’t bought anything, since neither piece of paper is worth anything. You have translated your investment and your faith from one universe of value to another.
from the essay “Dealing”, Air Guitar: Essays on Art & Democracy* by Dave Hickey