Monday 7 December 2020

Editions Published by Medium to Large Museums

To continue the thread of my earlier observations about the (non-)functioning of the art market in the Netherlands, I don't think it would be unconscionable to say that within the Netherlands there has traditionally been a large public support structure providing a direct income for artists and art-related professions, while little is done to stimulate a healthy climate of interested art buyers.

As far as I'm aware, the only direct public stimulation for buyers is something named kunstkoop, which is organised by the Mondriaan Fonds, the countries' largest public fund for art. Kunstkoop is a programme offered by about 125 galleries which allows buyers to request an interest-free loan with a minimum of €250 and a maximum of €7.500 to acquire artworks produced after 1945 from living artists. While this arrangement is widely used and undoubtedly provides some buyers with an extra push to make a purchasing decision, I can't imagine that it has far-reaching effects on the demographic composition of the art-buying public. 
The loan provided by kunstkoop has to be paid back within 36 months. This means that for the maximum credit of €7.500, a buyer will end up with a monthly instalment of €208,31. I think that it can safely be assumed that anybody who can afford to have over €200 of their expendable income be tied up in one purchase for three years also is likely have €7.500 available in liquid assets. The factual contribution of kunstkoop to the budgets made available by individuals for the purchase of art must thus be negligible.
In addition, the current set up of the programme relies heavily on the support from the private banking sector. Its existence is therefore dependent on a banks' perception of the gains it might receive from providing such a service. Former supplier ABN AMRO had pulled out unexpectedly last year, only to be replaced in the nick of time by Spanish bank Santander, who are obviously and blatantly using their support of the programme for marketing purposes, as to increase their fractional market share in the Netherlands. Santander's long-term commitment on the project thus remains to be seen, which strikes me as an unwanted quality for a public programme that ought to provide some financial security.
The more general effectiveness of such a strictly financial measure is also debatable in a country where the Tesla Model 3 was the best sold car of 2019. The base price of this vehicle is €49.980. A collector with a keen sense and a bit of patience could easily build a collection worthy of a small museum for that base price of €50.000. It could therefore hardly be argued that a lack of money is the principal hurdle that is holding back the Dutch art market. 

Although I don't believe financial issues in the Netherlands lie at the root of the problem, it is just as unreasonable to claim that any new buyer is immediately willing to spend large amounts of money on a new hobby simply because they would strictly be able to do so. 
Even for the citizens of a wealthy country it is unlikely that the first artwork one acquires would cost multiple thousand euros. A price range of €0 - 2.000 for a first artwork seems more reasonable and likely. The artworks in this price category tend to be either by young or relatively unknown artists, or works in edition.
As buying artworks from young artists is already set aside for a somewhat specialised audience, it is unlikely that the first artwork acquired by any aspiring collector is from the hand of a completely unknown artist.
However, inexpensive editions are a gateway drug for many art buyers. They have somewhat of a bad reputation to the experienced collector, but since the 1800's there has been a steady stream of public interest in editions from a much larger group of potential buyers for whom owning multiple original works from established artists is simply out of reach.
A great number of (notable) museums in the surrounding Belgium, United Kingdom, France and Germany regularly offer up editions from the artists they exhibit or collect. Some of these are offset printed reproductions, where the only value comes from the artist's signature, but there are just as many that are tailor made for the occasion and are available for a fraction of the cost of any other work from the artist.
However, museums in the Netherlands don't offer these kind of perks.
The reason for this absence is presumably that large museums in the Netherlands can rely on a substantial amount of public funding. In the neighbouring countries, the editions often are a way for the museum to generate some welcome additional income, as there are less public funds available for museums or these funds are distributed through a more competitive model.
Some evidence for this hypothesis can be found in the fact that many of the smaller Dutch institutions like Onomatopee, SEA foundation, Club Solo, 1646 and Hotel Maria Kapel, amongst others, do publish and sell such editions, even if the larger museums do not. Again this is in contrast with most other countries in Europe, where museums of all sizes have a edition programme, which is not uncommonly presented as an integral part of their overall programming.
The motivation for the smaller Dutch institutions to publish editions is likely related to the possibility of financial support this can provide to them and the artists they exhibit. However, in my experience the value of these editions for a potential audience is rarely considered and in all frankness, the varying quality of the editions on offer in these places do little to facilitate a new buyer in the market. 
For a small edition of little prestige to have any artistic appeal to a larger audience, it requires an artist who has a strong visual language that lets itself be easily reduced to some kind of iconography in various media. See for example the incredible merchandise possibilities that Robert Indiana's LOVE emblem has had, even if the artist himself has seen very little of the revenue it generated. As this particular kind of iconographic clarity is rare in peripheral artists, it's unlikely that such editions created by them, although well intended, are perceived as valuable or worthwhile to a public that isn't already invested in the work of the artist in question. 

So let us instead consider for a moment the position within the greater structure of an art market that editions take which are offered by medium to large museums from more well known artists. One of the principal qualities that such editions contribute to the market as a whole is that they make the possibility of acquiring an artwork tangible for a significant potion of the audience.
A museum naturally has a much wider appeal than any gallery might be able to attain. The museums in the Netherlands were visited 33 million times in 2019. There aren't any exact, or even estimated, figures for galleries, but it's unlikely they reach even a tenth of this number.
As much of the art-loving public exclusively visits museums, there is likely an extremely large mental gap in these audiences between the idea of owning an artwork themselves and the enjoyment they get from viewing the works in a museum setting. By keeping the environment of the museum strictly separate from commercial concerns, the idea is reinforced that artworks can be found in many places in the world, but never in your own home. 
What allows this kind of public to become acquainted with the idea of art ownership is thus precisely a museum offering a smaller, more attainable, version of what they just saw in the exhibition. Any person interested in such a work also engages in the a kind of art collecting that is related to motivations of personal tastes over investment value or other economic concerns. This is a positive aspect, as any market benefits from a diversified group of buyers and buyers making decisions based on their own value systems are more likely to promote such a diverse market.
If someone can thus get comfortable with the idea of collecting in a low-risk environment they are already familiar with, it stands to reason that this way of entry may remove more barriers than providing a simple financial incentive could ever accomplish.

Update 23-11-2023:
It has been announced last week that Santander pulled out of the KunstKoop programme, after completly halting all their activities relating to consumer finacing through retail channels in the Netherlands. If only somebody could have seen this coming.