Written by Commentary, Reported, Visual Art

How a 19th-Century Idea Could Rescue 21st-Century Art

The American Art-Union offers a model for supporting artists with direct engagement from the American public. For an art world struggling in the pandemic economy, it could offer a solution.

From his home on Broadway, just north of the Battery, Abraham Cozzens may have seen the rocket soaring across the sky above the New York Harbor and heard cannon fire erupt one night in December 1851. They announced the arrival of the ship carrying Hungarian freedom fighter Louis Kossuth. Kossuth was about to become the most celebrated visitor to the city since George Washington, and Cozzens, the president of the American Art-Union (AAU), was about to become the city’s most frustrated man.

Kossuth’s final speech to New Yorkers was scheduled for the exact time and place that the Art-Union had reserved for its eleventh annual raffle of artwork. Being forced to reschedule his organization’s event was an annoyance, but Cozzens was dealing with something far more troubling: the possibility that this year’s event might be the last.

At its height in 1849, the Art-Union had 19,000 members and receipts exceeding $90,000 ( about $3.038 million today). That year, the organization raffled off to lucky members 476 paintings, the top 10 percent of which were valued, on average, at $280 ($9,452 today). Then an artist whose work had been purchased by the AAU scorned the organization in the New York press. When the state’s authorities heard the rumors of scandal and embezzlement, they got whiff of something else. The Art-Union, they argued, was nothing more than a lottery, which Victorian-era Americans equated with immorality, and they shut the organization down. The Art-Union’s remaining assets, including dozens of paintings, were liquidated at auction.

The Art-Union’s leaders were committed to supporting American art and artists in an era that revered European creativity; its founders had hoped to enrich the lives of America’s ordinary citizens by giving them greater access to, and a deeper appreciation for, their own country’s culture. As Art-Union President John Francis said in 1839 at his organization’s first-anniversary celebration, “Our countrymen have been too often charged with an indifference to all pursuits not tending to the accumulation of wealth and the augmentation of the material and physical conveniences of life,” he declared. “[T]he [Art-Union] is destined, I trust, to furnish a satisfactory answer to this accusation.”

“Because these men weren’t artists and weren’t after profit, they felt above the fray and unbiased,” said Dr. Rachel Klein, whose recent book Art Wars: The Politics of Taste in Nineteenth-Century New York in part explores the Art-Union. “Of course,” she added, “you can’t afford to do that unless you’re rich.”

For an early arts advocacy organization conceived and built as a champion of beauty, the Art-Union suffered an ugly demise; that doesn’t mean it was a bad idea.

In a current art world crippled by Covid-19 lockdowns, a tanking economy, and failing galleries and museums, some arts leaders are beginning to see the promise of broader art support and artist inclusion that the Art-Union model offers. Though it may seem odd to look to an organization that hasn’t been around for 170 years, the Art-Union’s strong public mission and its success with engaging the American public with art may make it an idea, aided by technology, whose time has come again.

How it worked

The Art-Union’s leaders created an organization that helped American artists succeed by purchasing their artwork with money pooled from membership dues. Art-Union members paid an annual $5 fee ($169 today) to belong. Each year, members received a print of a work bought by the organization and were entered into a raffle for one of hundreds of original paintings also purchased that year. Museums were scarce in the 1840s, so an additional membership benefit was free entry into the Apollo Gallery on Broadway, where paintings acquired throughout the year were put on display before the raffle. 

Many of the Art-Union’s purchases later confirmed their own value. In 1846, the organization purchased a genre painting from a 35-year-old artist from Missouri for $295 ($9,958 today). George Caleb Bingham’s The Jolly Flatboatmen was so popular that the organization also made it their annual print, producing eight thousand copies. A New York grocer who paid $5 ($130 today) to join the AAU that year won Bingham’s original painting. Flatboatmen changed hands over the years. In 1986, the owner sold the painting to a private collector for $6 million ($14.248 million today). In 2015, the National Gallery of Art purchased it for an undisclosed sum.

The Jolly Floatboatmen (1846). George Caleb Bingham. National Gallery of Art, Patrons’ Permanent Fund

Except for a handful of paintings by female artists and one work by Robert Duncanson, the son of former slaves, the Art-Union leaders overwhelmingly purchased the work of white men like themselves. Yet, as the Art-Union intended, many American artists did benefit from its efforts.

“[The AAU] took a few dozen artists and transformed the American art world into a place where hundreds of artists could actually make a half-decent living,” Dr. Joy Sperling, professor of art history at Denison University, said. It made American art more fashionable to own, leading to more buyers and encouraging more artists for decades.

And it didn’t close down for lack of interest or success. With some tweaks, an organization like that – and the artists it aims to support – might thrive again.

Making a living in 2020 is increasingly difficult for almost everyone who has a stake in the art world. In July NPR reported that it is estimated that a third of U.S. museums might not survive the year unless they receive significant financial relief. Galleries and auction houses haven’t fared any better. Last month Artsy reported that gallery sales have declined 36% as a result of the pandemic.

Yet some see the Art-Union’s approach as a possible way to prevent these outcomes from being so dire.

“People want to support artists that are local – collecting art, investing in artists that [they] relate to,” said Ariel Davis, manager of the gallery ArtSpace111 and a founder of Art Tooth, both of which are in Fort Worth, Texas. 

Davis has seen retail art spaces closing across the country this spring on account of the pandemic. Because it’s likely that many people will remain uneasy about venturing into public spaces for some time to come, Davis has tried to find innovative ways of turning people who like art into people who buy art.

“I’ve been working in galleries for ten years, and most of the battle is having people be comfortable coming to the gallery, or comfortable even really starting to learn about art,” she said. By adapting the Art-Union’s ideas and making it easier for people to encounter art, “We can kind of give a platform to a lot of artists that are underrepresented, focusing on artists that are addressing different topics, too,” she added. “So, I think that that has a lot of power.”

“Distribution of the American Art-Union Prizes, in Tripler Hall, New York”.
“The American Art-Union Distribution”, The Vol. 18 No. 466

From an economics perspective, the Art-Union model of a small membership fee coupled with the opportunity to win contemporary art in a raffle increases demand for art by effectively lowering its otherwise costly barrier to entry. If it achieved even half the success of the original Art-Union, a new, similar organization would put millions of dollars’ worth of art into members’ homes and artists’ pockets across the country.

But more changes to the Art-Union method would be required: A new organization would need a wide range of leaders and artists, including geographic diversity, noted Atlee Phillips, director of Texas art at Heritage Auctions. “So much of the art world in the U.S. is focused on the coasts.”

Phillips would like to see representation from all across the U.S., with separate nominating and selection committees composed of artists, art historians, museum curators, and retired gallerists who could champion “emerging artists, younger artists, artists of color, who don’t have contracts with dealers, who aren’t represented, who aren’t already part of the larger, more global art market,” she explained. Philips also thinks Art-Union members could participate in the process at some level by providing feedback on which pieces they’ve enjoyed the most.

She would also expand on the Art-Union practice of giving each member an annual print. Since the print was the only guaranteed prize each year, Phillips believes making that element more attractive to existing and potential members would help maintain a steady membership. She suggested heightening the value of the annual prize over time by giving each member a signed print that was one of only 20, for example, rather than one of 20,000. This could be done simply by choosing to reproduce more pieces by more artists each year rather than the one or two selected annually by the Art-Union.

Although a reimagined art union might be able to shake up today’s art market, it would also face a much more complicated legal environment than did the original. Copyright law, for example, has come a long way since 1850. Take the issue of public display: Hanging your new art-union artwork in your home or private office would be completely acceptable, said Matthew Murrell, a partner with the firm Saltero Sapire Murrell PLLC and as expert in artists’ rights. However, he continued, that wouldn’t automatically give you the right to mount it on, say, the walls of your office building, your child’s school, or even a museum.

The right to display a piece of artwork publicly does not come automatically with the purchase of it. The Art-Union’s exhibition of acquisitions in its Manhattan gallery for members to view free of charge is one thing. But what if an art-union lottery winner posted a photo of a prize painting on a site like Instagram? 

“For me, that may be insignificant because I don’t have very many Instagram followers,” Murrell said. “But if Kim Kardashian does something like that, she’s distributing that image to millions and millions of people.”

Murrell thinks a new art union should register all its acquisitions with the U.S. Copyright Office as a courtesy to artists. After that, he added, display and other rights would be negotiable, to be worked out in contracts with the artists. This could be more money in the artists’ pockets he said.

Such an organization might contribute to the increasing commercialization of fine art, said Liz Maugans, a Cleveland, Ohio-area artist and director of the Yards Projects, a local art hub and display space. This concerns her. “We have huge, systemic issues and problems in the art world,” she said, citing how the elitist nature of art collecting is hampering efforts to increase the value of racial and ethnic diversity. Yet she too sees the possibility that a new-form art union, focused specifically on supporting marginalized artists and cultures, could promote artistic diversity and justice.

In fact, Maugans acknowledged, with so much in the art world changing now, she may be ready to try something new. Maybe even something new again, like an art union. 

“When everything is crumbling and nothing will ever be the same again,” she said, “this is the best time to do it.”

Cover illustration: Jess Shadrick

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