To get the ball rolling here, I thought a local matter – of limited conflict – would be a good thing to start with. Brought to my attention recently was the debate brewing within the population of the SEK Art Fest. For the past couple years, the Art Fest has worked with the City of Pittsburg to bring a sculpture competition to downtown Pittsburg. They put together a theme (visualized through the common sculpt the artists use), and then businesses sponsor artists to decorate and present the works for an extended period downtown until a point where they then auction off the works to raise money to support the arts in Crawford County. All in all, A Good Thing™ (save the bit of vandalism that took place, because some people are just dicks).
The issue at hand deals with folks who apparently bought footballs (the subject of the sculpts) this year, and have or intended to repaint them. The question being: is it right or wrong? The answer is yes.
Both sides have pretty equal ground when it comes to the points they’re making. And I can sympathize with the artists who have to sit back and watch their work be destroyed. Let’s break it down:
As the Artists
The artists have every right to be disappointed, I think. They worked hard, with the understanding that these were considered “completed” works of art to be sold for their value as such. Interestingly, I don’t recall hearing anything about this being a problem last year as it applied to the coal buckets they did. When a painter sells a painting from their gallery, there is generally a meeting of the minds that the buyer is buying the painting for the value of its content, not to take it home and add to the canvas. Some of the commentary was directed at “Van Gogh” vs. “yard sale” quality art and how to treat it. I don’t think it’s fair to critique this in that manner though. All of the folks were talented that did the work, and there’s a substantial difference between altering an old painting from a yard sale, which has virtually no provenance, compared to these pieces, which are arguably much more high profile and still very much in the hearts and minds of their creators. First degree sale versus nth degree sale. Artists also need to remember that they work in an area that’s a labor of love, a labor that other people don’t always associate with or appreciate in the same ways.
As the Buyers
The buyers do have a basis for their position though. First, it’s worth pointing out that it’s not that all of the footballs were purchased to be repurposed. That fact doesn’t change much, but I think it’s worth noting for perspective. That being said, the buyers’ property is their property, to do with as they will. If I wanted to, I am welcome to walk into a gallery, buy a Picasso, take it home, and spray paint it if I wanted to (the fiscal wisdom of such a decision not withstanding). Also, the buyers aren’t doing this to spite the artists. Specifically, one of the buyers was doing so as part of another fundraiser for a very good cause. One can hardly fault that motivation, especially considering the scarcity of materials. You can’t just walk into a store and buy a giant fiberglass football like you can a blank painting canvas. For the buyer’s, the affordable footballs represented an opportunity to continue bringing value to other areas – whether that’s other charities, or just their business in general. Let me restated that: the people that bought the footballs did so because they valued them. Just not necessarily in the way that was expected or intended by others in the community.
As the SEK Art Fest
The SEK Art Fest may have also fell victim to their own success, as well, by creating a sculpt that was desirable all on its own. They might do well to consider that in future years, perhaps making raw sculpts available for pre-order or at the auction. But, I would say it’s wrong to place any blame on them, or to imply that they should have done more to “protect” the artists. After all, hindsight is 20/20. But leading up to this, especially with last year as an example, I think it’s reasonable to assume that there was no reason to even think there was concern to be dealt with in the matter. One thing to consider, however, might be the impact of saturating the market with the art all at once. There might be something to be said for releasing the art for sale over a period of time. Or maybe reducing the number of installations up for grabs overall (consider what five to ten years worth of this project will do to the market in terms of demand for large scale art installations).
As the Community
Support the arts. If you don’t want to see this happen, you have to get out and bid. More than one person commented on the lack of turnout at the auction, and the low prices some balls brought. That’s just to be expected. If the people who are most respectful of the artists aren’t the ones to turn out and reinforce that with their dollars, you shouldn’t be surprised when other outcomes prevail. Art, like many things, is only worth what someone’s willing to pay. It might not be worth $500 to Joe Schmo to preserve the piece, but for a couple hundred, it may well look like a valuable piece of eye candy for a storefront – with some changes, of course. But more to the point, a lack of interest endangers the overall future of the project in the long run, not just the lifespan of the art in the short term.
The simple solution: SEK Art Fest could sell the art under contract, specifically restricting alteration of the work. That’s the simple one, but I’m not convinced it’d be the right one – those kinds of contracts inevitably end up going down a rabbit hole of exceptions and special cases that are more trouble than they’re worth. In my mind, this issue is entirely a matter of respect. For instance, artists could designate their preference as to whether or not they’re willing to see their art repurposed. Likewise, buyers could ask ahead of time or coordinate with artists about their plans to alter the works. Artists are very funny creatures. Some are extremely open and collaborative and are happy to see others build on their success. Others can be extremely protective of their creations, viewing them as carefully crafted experiences to be taken in exactly as presented. Both sides need to keep that in mind. Would-be artists next year would do well to consider that their effort might be only temporary, and that’s okay. Auction buyers should consider that while they may want to produce their own versions, it might be insulting to the original artists whose work is being scuttled for the canvas. And that’s okay too. Arguably, if there’s that much interest in continuing to create on top of the sculpts, the buyers might also do well to consider becoming an artist next year from the very beginning.
I would hate to see this muddy the future of the project, as it’s just a matter of setting expectations. That’s a problem that can be relatively easily solved in the end.