Fraser Forum

Private art—buy what you love (not what you’ve never seen)

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Over a series of blog posts, I have attempted to highlight some of the differences between private and public arts funding. One of my central claims is that government funding of the arts (like government funding of almost anything) is morally problematic since it involves coercively taking money from some to pursue interests of others.

In the instance of public arts funding, this transfer of wealth is often a transfer from median- or low-income taxpayers to the relatively well-off because it is the relatively affluent members of society that go to art galleries, theatre and the opera to name a few.

The moral problems are made more complex in arts funding because artists often promote ideas or images or ideological positions that are offensive or diametrically opposed to those endorsed by their taxpaying funders.

As we have seen repeatedly in the past, government arts funding bodies are also easily co-opted by special interest groups to push certain artistic agenda, or applaud nationalist purposes.

Proponents of government arts funding argue that there simply would not be a diverse and vibrant cultural life without public support. But a quick survey of the contemporary arts scene reinforces what we all know: that a wide variety of different people love art and are willing to pay for it with their own dollars. From private blues nightclubs to sequestered sculpture gardens, from glamorous urban galleries to rural summerstock theatre, people are paying to listen, see and participate.

Let’s look at one extreme with Saatchi Art, which offers a wonderful online meeting of the commercial and the artistic.

On the Saatchi website, connoisseurs, students and potential buyers can browse thousands of art works by genre, media, style, artist or colour palette. Want to buy some red dots? Want them to be in a modern style in the form of sculpture? No problem! Saatchi has just the thing for you by Frans Kat, wittily entitled Red Dots and available at a mere $490.

If your interest is something a little more traditional, you could search for a nature scene in acrylic. Want it in blue to match your décor? Want it for under $500? Then your search will turn up dozens of possibilities such as Kimberley Eddy’s lovely South Shore Sailing at $400.

If you like the Hudson River Valley School, then visit Godel Fine Art, a private gallery in Manhattan. Are you a fan of illustrations? Then stop by Chris Beetles’ private gallery the next time you are in London.

If you prefer small rural theatre, especially music and comedy shows, then perhaps you would like to make a weekend trip to the Piggery Theatre, funded entirely through private ticket sales and donations and powered by a dozen energetic volunteers.

One of my favourite private-sector success stories is ArtBomb. Founded in Toronto by Carrie Shibinsky in 2011, Artbomb is an online art auction that receives zero government funding and is now thriving across Canada with a site now open in Manhattan. Shibinsky sees Artbomb as both commercial and educational, connecting artists with appreciative enthusiasts and buyers around the world. The online environment is unintimidating for first-time buyers, and allows artists a much broader reach then they would otherwise have. The collections are curated by professionals, beautifully photographed and presented on the website, and, if purchased, arrive ready to hang.  Shibinsky told me that Artbomb now has about 20,000 subscribers (I am one of them) that receive daily emails featuring works for sale. It is a wonderful way to have a daily dose of art, whether you are currently in the market or not.

The tag line for Artbomb is “Buy what you love” and this perfectly captures the democratic, bottom-up approach to private arts funding through a creative business model.

Government funding of the arts, by contrast, is elitist, top-down, and forces people to buy what they haven’t even seen. If we get government out of arts funding it will only encourage more entrepreneurial people like Carrie Shibinsky to find creative private ways to promote the arts.


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