More Than Money
Issue #18

Art and Money

Table of Contents

“Personal Stories”

Collector & Son

I grew up in a house filled with blue-chip art--names you've heard of at unheard-of prices: Breughel, Kandinsky, Dubuffet, and Munch among them. Consulting his own taste and the expertise of dealers and curators, my father has developed a remarkable collection, one that has rapidly grown in financial value since the art market skyrocketed. Yet, like all collectors who consider themselves connoisseurs rather than investors, he purchased these works out of love, not hope of financial gain.

For my father, collecting is a thrilling game of acquisition. He delights in researching a piece, contacting dealers, traveling to see the work, bidding on it at auction--all in hopes of capturing the gestalt of a certain artist or body of work. Often I've heard him express pride in the fact that his collection of this artist is the largest in the United States, or that the only other known edition of that print is owned by the Metropolitan Museum. Like many collectors, my father has a passion for filling in blanks, completing a set. If Breughel created a series of engravings on the seven virtues and the seven vices, my father would not be truly happy until he had a complete set of each.

While I have no doubt about his great love for these works, I have less often heard him exclaim over a work's formal properties, its intellectual context, or the life of the artist who created it--all the things that give art meaning for me. A number of years ago, I remember standing with my dad before a beautiful but disturbing assemblage by the surrealist Lucas Samaras. When I asked him why he liked the piece enough to buy it, he was surprisingly inarticulate.

I suppose my own career as a documentary filmmaker leads me towards a greater focus on the process that produces objects worth collecting. In purchasing a piece of art, my father interacts almost exclusively with dealers, whereas I am much more likely to deal directly with the artist. Many of the works I own are by artists who are personal friends of mine. Getting a window on someone else's creative process--be it technical, formal, or psychological--is often worth the price of the artwork itself. Not that I would ever buy a piece I wouldn't be happy living with, but investing in the development of a growing artist is much more satisfying to me than simply building a collection of respected artworks.

The only factor which might lead my father to deal directly with an artist (the prospect of a discount) is the one instance in which I usually prefer to buy through a dealer. Because my small but growing collection of photographs, prints, and paintings consists of works by emerging artists, I often make a point of buying through their galleries, in the belief that public sales will boost their careers more than a sale from the studio. I also support my artist friends in other ways--through commissions, rent subsidies, and investing in projects (like films in which I'm an active participant).

The difference between my father's approach to artistic production and my own is perhaps mirrored in our approach to fine dining. Often when my father comes to New York City, we will get together for dinner at a nice restaurant. Having worked at a wine store in college, I'm always eager to test out the sommelier. Upon ordering a bottle, my tea-totaling father will shoot me a look of subtle disapproval, as if to say: "Forty dollars for a bottle of wine?!!"

After some probing, my father once admitted that the fleeting experience of fine service, fine ambience, and fine food wasn't his cup of tea. He doesn't have a problem spending money, he'd just prefer to spend it on something more durable--like his art collection. To me, the raison d'etre of fine wine is its attendance at the elevated moments which bring people together for special meals in special places. A complete aesthetic experience demands an appreciation of all the elements which go into its production. At the table and in the gallery, I guess you could say I'm an appreciator first and a collector second.

- anonymous author

Faith in Art

Back in 1968, after riots erupted in response to Martin Luther King's assassination, I started to do volunteer work in one of the poorer neighborhoods in Washington, D.C. at the Church of the Savior. The pastor there is a no-nonsense Jeremiah who thinks affluent people should be attending to the poor, right now, so that no one in our midst is starving, homeless, or without care. My work with the Church has forced me to ask some tough questions about what is important in my life.

I used to want my house decorated perfectly. It was my presentation to the world and I loved having it be an artistic showcase. Part of my faith journey has been to give that up. I just don't have the time or the heart for it anymore.

Even my quilting has changed. I've started to make pictorial quilts that convey stories about faith, justice, prayer, and giving. For example, I recently did a series of hanging quilts about the closing of the Foggy Bottom Shelter showing the tremendous battles facing the homeless. For me, art and faith have become intertwined.

Much to my surprise, the quilts I make are much in demand in D.C. art circles and sell for large sums of money. Yet, because I also like my pieces to be seen by people who can't pay those prices and don't often go to a museum or gallery, I've donated some of my quilts to the Church and sold others for half price. The Church even commissioned me to create a piece for their "Festival Center," where we teach various classes to parishioners and community people. The quilt, based on a parable in Luke, portrays a great feast with pilgrims emerging from the foreground and beautiful hills behind. In it, I try to offer a compelling vision of abundance and sharing.

This kind of quilting is much harder than the traditional patterned ones I used to make. I spend weeks sketching, reading, and praying to find the images that tell the story in the most powerful way. Sometimes I'll spend eight to ten hours a day in this design mode. Part of me wants to run away from each new quilt and focus more on my family foundation or my volunteer work instead, but something deep inside tells me to stick with the quilting and tell these stories. I always go back to the traditional use of art--to communicate the deepest values of community life. This is my calling.

- anonymous author

Mary Oliver and Me

I receive over $50,000 in dividends each year from my family's company stock--the equivalent of getting a MacArthur Genius Grant for the rest of my life. This confronts me with a question best expressed by my favorite poet, Mary Oliver: "Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?" I am dogged with qualms and depression about this question. Sometimes I think the most moral position would be to hand over what I spend on art school tuition to artists who lack economic independence, but so far I haven't had quite enough nerve or generosity (or self-loathing) to do that.

I have made performance art pieces about my struggle with this "poor little rich boy" paralysis of, "hmmm, what should I do now? What's the best way for me to assume my God-given ability and responsibility to save the world this year?" In my first piece in performance class, I sat among the undealt-with piles of financial papers I'd brought in from my bedroom and offered a biting monologue about all the years I have spent at my desk paralyzed in fear and confusion about how to be a good rich person. Then I gave the audience four hundred dollars in cash (for keeps) divided completely unequally into envelopes. I wanted to convey the lottery of class by birth, the unearned nature of my wealth, and a bit of the scale of it. Interestingly, the person who got the largest amount didn't feel right about receiving $182.50 for doing nothing. He tried to give the money back to me and, when I refused, tried to give it away to students who had only received a dime or a quarter in their envelopes.

After a few semesters of such performances, I finally had the nerve just to play with color as a painter, to give the crayon box back to the five year old in me before all the rules poured in. It was a self-loving act of wanting to see that pink next to that orange. I let myself paint it just that way. As Mary Oliver says:

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees,
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

- anonymous author

Keeping it Reel

There seems to be a cliché in film and fiction that people with money are universally unhappy. In the movie Titanic, for example, the first-class dining room is like a morgue, while down below is one long all-night party for the poor people. We all know that this kind of generalization inhibits real understanding, but somehow it finds its way into art again and again.

My parents, sister, and I are heirs to my great grandfather's consumer products fortune, but our lives are filled with creativity, challenge, and good friendship. Instead of being uptight, my parents are life-loving iconoclasts who value their personal integrity more than maintaining an image agreeable to everyone.

My father is a highly respected sculptor who founded a world-renowned sculptor's school and foundry, and my mother is a novelist. As a result of their interests, they encouraged any artistic inclinations in my sister and me. Conversations around the dinner table almost always focused on artistic or philosophical issues. Friends of the family--frequently writers, composers, or painters--were around for me to talk with.

When I was fourteen, my folks gave me a Super 8 camera that I had a lot of fun with. But it wasn't until I took time off from college to enroll in the filmmaking program at NYU that I thought seriously about making films as a career. By the time I graduated from college, I had founded a production company and written, directed, and produced a film that was shown in festivals and got foreign distribution.

Working on that film was a wonderful experience. We were a bunch of friends shooting the movie while we camped out in an old farmhouse together for the entire summer. We cared deeply about what we were doing and used the production as an opportunity to grow as people and artists. Most of my friends--then and now--fall into the "starving artist" category, but, perhaps due entirely to their character, I have never perceived envy from them, only appreciation for my role as a creator, producer, and patron.

Finding role models as a patron is not easy, but one person I respect is George Soros. I admire his independence and how he analyzes the targets of his giving as thoroughly as he analyzes his investments. He helps build institutions that have real impact. I try to take this attitude into all my activities.

For example, I founded the Filmmakers Collaborative, a center for low-budget independent filmmakers and video artists, with production and post-production space here in New York. No commercials are made here, and no feature films with a budget over $3 million, so we end up with an atmosphere created by artists and filmmakers rather than attorneys and accountants. Great things have come from the synergy of the Collaborative, including the creation of The Reel School, which brings seasoned professionals to teach filmmakers just beginning their careers. I also founded and direct Eyebeam Atelier, a not-for-profit studio for digital artists with headquarters in downtown Manhattan. While at the end of the day I consider myself a writer/filmmaker, I also work for a family-affiliated oceanographic institute in Florida, where I am overseeing the opening of a multimillion dollar Museum of Ocean Sciences.

I also try to be savvy when using my money to further my own creative work. I may have access to more financial resources than many independent filmmakers, but the basic concerns and challenges are still the same. Whether you're using a state-of-the-art 35mm camera or a battered old 16mm model, you still have to keep a clear head and remember that you have a budgetary frame to work with. If you exceed it, you might not be able to finish the film. And, as most of the films coming from Hollywood over the last twenty years show us, the answer to the artistic challenge of filmmaking is certainly not more money.

- anonymous author

A Matriarchal Heritage

I come from a long line of women theater artists who have used their performance success as a means to "marry well." Following family tradition, I was groomed by mother to go into theater (and presumably to marry well too). By my twenties, I was earning a living working in classic repertory theater in Minneapolis. At that time, I became active in the peace and justice movements of the 1960s, and then involved in the feminist movement in the 1970s when I came out as a lesbian. My artistic goals shifted as a result. For the next decade, I did political theater and women's music. This was an exciting, creative time for me, but some years I only earned two or three thousand dollars.

When I suddenly needed to provide my son's sole financial support after his father died, I knew the life of a hand-to-mouth political artist wasn't going to cut it. I went back to school, got a social work degree, and helped to set up a healing center for children using my theater skills as the basis for play therapy work. I've worked in social services ever since, making adequate money to support us.

My financial situation changed completely ten years ago when I inherited a million dollars from my mother. I was stunned at the size of this inheritance, but it was only the first wave of my new wealth. Later the stock I inherited split and earned me another million dollars. Now, I'm a wealthy woman--a wealthy woman whose long-time and closest friends are poor political artists like I used to be.

What has been wonderful about having money is that I can support artists who don't have access to family money or much of a shot at getting regular arts grants. Out of my first million, I endowed a small fund for emerging and underfunded women artists, particularly lesbians and women of color. With my second million, I started using a donor- advised account to give to women artists whose work I respected. I would give through nonprofit organizations so I could take the tax deduction. Lately, I've felt that I have so much money now that it doesn't matter whether I get a tax deduction or not and have started giving directly to artists without taking the deduction. I've also created a charitable remainder trust with three quarters of a million dollars, which will be added to my original arts endowment when I die.

My basic idea is to support deserving artists without making them jump through hoops or dictating what they can do with the money or their art like many arts grants do. The artists can use their money to live on, to pay school tuition, or to take a trip back to Africa as one artist recently did. No need for budgets, project proposals, or final evaluations, the money goes directly to artists.

Interestingly, I haven't quit my social work job to go back to being a full-time artist. My old theater friends and I do about two shows a year now. Every one of us has a day job so we can't hustle or tour. While some of the old crew are still professional performance artists, we do these particular shows for the sheer love of, and belief in, the work. No one gets any money out of it. This level of involvement satisfies the artist in me. But I don't feel comfortable with this alone; I need to be working directly in service to people. The counseling work satisfies the healer in me. I am fulfilling my own dreams now and expanding on the dreams of my foremothers.

- anonymous author

Defining Artistic Success

I've wanted to be an artist since as far back I can remember. Yet, when I was growing up, people always said of me, "What fine hands he has, how well-spoken, look at the pictures he makes; he should be a surgeon, a lawyer, or a minister." They never pictured me as an artist. My dad was a factory worker who spray-painted refrigerators. For him, art was something women did on weekends, off hours. It was not a way to support a family.

When I was eighteen, I wasn't looking to support a family. All I wanted was the time and materials to make art; this was my obsession. I wanted to be able to pursue every idea that came into my head, so that if one day I felt the urge to write poetry, that's what I would do. If the next day I wanted to make furniture or a drawing, I would do that. I wanted to surrender myself to all of these inner forces.

Getting such creative time was hard. I left the Rhode Island School of Design after one semester to come home and help support my folks. I worked in a personnel office during the day and as a grocery clerk stocking shelves at night. For the longest time I could only work on my art projects "off-hours" so I learned to live on very little sleep. Living like this, I was able to complete my degree at Howard University. Finally, in 1968, I started a silkscreen printmaking business that became financially successful beyond my wildest dreams. Now I can do my art full-time, feel like I am touching people with my prints and poetry, and, much to my father's (and my) surprise, live in a beautiful house worth almost a million dollars.

Yet, I firmly believe that if you are financially successful and don't go back and pull someone else along, you're selfish. For me, this means taking precious time out from making prints to serve on numerous arts boards and commissions. For instance, I'm a board member of the PEN/Faulkner Writers-in-Schools program. Besides helping to raise funds for them, I also volunteer in the schools. I love it when a teacher introduces me to her class and says--"This is (anonymous author), a silkscreen artist who lives and works in the District. Today, he has brought with him Jamaica Kincaid who will read her stories to you." There we are, two successful black artists for these students to talk with. Usually when people in suits visit the school, it's to criticize the kids and tell them how to become different people. No one affirms the creative fire within these kids, but that is what we try to do.

For me, artistic success is now measured in four ways: freedom to do the work, financial reward, touching people through my work, and volunteer work within the community. I'm proud to have achieved a large measure of success in all these ways.

- anonymous author

Patron and Friend

It was after I talked my parents into sending me to public school that I first became a patron of the arts. I was about twelve or thirteen, and started going out at night with my new friends to paint graffiti. It only seemed fair that I buy the spray paint.

Today I am a patron of about ten friends who excite and inspire me. I want to extend to them some of the privileges I had growing up--mainly money and encouragement. While it is not a solution to the world's problems, it's a good start. I'm trying to find the next generation's artists of the caliber of James Baldwin and help them make their dreams come true.

A couple of years back I ran across this xeroxed, self-published 'zine. It was a riveting and hysterically funny chronicle of the adventures of a "poor white trash" girl--really brilliant stuff. I sent the author a check and told her to keep putting out 'zines. Cynthia and I soon got to be friends.

Then I met her seventeen-year-old sister Deb. With Deb, I really had my work cut out for me--Deb didn't trust anyone. She had been through a meat grinder of sexual and emotional abuse. I loved her spirit, though, and decided to become an adult she could trust, the older brother she didn't have. I even pushed her to quit smoking. I told her, "I need you to stay alive. If you can't quit smoking and take care of yourself, then how the hell are you gonna be there for me?"

I've also pushed Deb about her life dreams. She is an amazing fashion designer. People are always coming up to her saying, "Where did you get those clothes?" When they hear she designs and makes them herself, they ask her to make clothes for them. I asked her, "What do you need to start making a living as a fashion designer?" She told me a sewing machine, some start-up materials, and a catalog of her designs to show potential customers.

I asked her how much all that would cost, and she came up with the figure of $700. Seven hundred dollars! It angers me that the dreams of talented kids are on hold because of a lack of a paltry amount of money. I said, "Guess what, I want to invest in your company." That sparked our first fight. She was like "NO WAY!" She had a long history of people using money to control her. She just couldn't believe I would give her money for her business just because I thought she was a great person and would do good things with it.

I explained to her that I hadn't earned the money either, that it was given to me by my family with love and no strings attached. She told me that she didn't trust anyone to do that for her. I replied, "Then how are you gonna have any friends?" We fought for hours, but she finally decided to trust me and take the money. Her business is already taking off.

- anonymous author

A Chance Meeting

I met Adam Yauch, the lead singer of the popular rap group The Beastie Boys, when I was doing a year abroad in Nepal, studying Tibetan language and culture. Adam was on holiday by the Tibetan border, trekking with a bunch of musicians who jammed with the musicians I was living with.

Adam and I started talking about Tibet's long struggle for independence from the Chinese. He had recently run into a party of Tibetans escaping the country, and was now very interested in the situation across the border. I took him around Kathmandu to visit with more refugees. He was shocked. In Tibet, human rights abuses happen all the time. People get dragged away right in front of you.

Out of Adam's and my travels and discussions grew the Milarepa Foundation, where I work now. The foundation uses the Beastie Boys money and influence to do creative work in support of Tibetan independence and nonviolence in the United States.

It took a lot of work to build our organization. The Beastie Boys weren't known for being involved in causes. Nor did they have the time to research how to give responsibly. It also took a lot of work for Adam to become comfortable speaking about Tibet in public. For a long time, we couldn't even find Tibet supporters to come talk to kids at our concerts. The Free Tibet movement was led by an older generation with an attitude that kids have wild hair and can't give money so why bother with them. Well, our benefit concerts have attracted more than 50,000 people at a time, and Adam dedicated over $100,000 in royalties from his album "Ill Communication."

For people in our generation, the common perception is that activism is too serious and not much fun. That's why you need music and art. On the grounds of the concerts we had Tibetan art and Tibetan temples. We had mandalas and we brought monks on tour with us. That's very different than just talking to people about the issues. It bypasses the heaviness and reaches kids in their hearts.

Our movement has really blossomed. There are now over 400 Students for a Free Tibet groups on college campuses.

- anonymous author

Dealing Art

I started at my family's gallery when I was twelve years old, working on Saturdays for 25 cents an hour, a hamburger, and an egg cream. Since coming back to the family business as an adult, I've given myself a bit of a raise.

Running a gallery did not seem my destiny in my early twenties. Back then, I was an environmental science student. But I decided that the environmental movement needed something more than another competent biologist: it needed money. By running the gallery, I believed could help generate those funds.

Indeed, ever since the 1960s, when the market for American art began to go through the roof, our business has done exceptionally well, and I have been able to donate significant money to causes I care about.

I am building on a family tradition; our gallery has been socially active since its founding back in 1932. A gallery is a great place to have a party, so we schedule six to twelve benefits a year for groups working on such issues as radiation, breast cancer, and environmental conservation. We've donated the space for fund-raisers for political candidates we support. We even assisted with making a televised public service announcement on literacy, filmed at the gallery, featuring African-American painter Faith Reinhold, an artist whose work we've represented.

I love being able to use the gallery this way, but I've become increasingly convinced that the art work we represent is socially valuable in and of itself. Art has the power to deepen our sense of what it means to be human and to inspire wonder, outrage, and love for the world and people around us. As an art dealer, I am a cultural custodian and proud of our mission of representing the diversity and highest quality of American art. While we sell our paintings and sculptures to a relatively small group of wealthy collectors and institutions, I value how our business makes this artwork available for free public viewing. Several of our exhibitions have toured this country and Europe and Asia.

Some tensions exist between money and art, of course. A few years back, I set up a separate gallery devoted to Native American arts and antiquities, a personal passion of mine. That project did a lot to raise a better understanding of Native culture and art in this city. Yet, after a while, I realized that it took me the same time and energy to sell a Native basket for $5,000 as it did for me to sell a contemporary painting in our main gallery for $50,000. I finally decided to close the Native Arts gallery and focus my efforts on the more lucrative side of our business.

Having seen the limits to what the private art market can do to support the arts, I have become a strong believer in public arts funding. My kids go to a private Waldorf school where music, dance, theater, and visual arts are integrated into the daily curriculum, but what about the public schools? They rarely have good arts programs. Even in its heyday, the National Endowment of the Arts provided less support to artists than the city of Berlin. What is the spiritual and cultural cost to our nation of this neglect? The arts could heal much of what ails us, and bring real cohesion and vision to our culture. Which would you rather have--more bombers or more community arts programs?

- anonymous author


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