Art Museum Price Is Right

While socializing post-reception for a show that opened at the local art museum, I got into a conversation with the directors about the type of information you include on the cards/plaques next to each piece.

Things got a little spirited when the executive director suggested that the cost of a piece be listed. His reasoning was that people are interested in knowing this information due to shows like Antique Roadshow.  His thought was that by including this information, you might appeal to an audience that wasn’t currently being reached.

The artistic director was against this idea. She was concerned that if the prices appeared on the cards, people would orient to that information rather than reading about the importance of the artist to a movement, what inspired the piece, notes that draw attention to technique, etc.  For those works that are for sale, she has price booklets available at the entrance of the gallery.

I tended to agree with the artistic director. I pointed out that people might start to equate price with the importance of a work or its intrinsic value. If something cost more, it must be a better quality work or the best exemplar of the movement.

On the other end of the spectrum, I thought it might serve to more deeply entrench the poor impression people had about art. If you are of the opinion that a 5th grader could produce a similar product, what are you going to think when you learn that it is worth $6 million when a piece you like is only worth $20,000?

We also addressed the issue that all pricing is not created equal. Some prices will be what the artist set for them. Others will be market value which may be absurdly inflated thanks to any number of factors.   I have seen shows where the artists are required to put prices on their works and don’t have the option to list it as not for sale so they will assign a price that guarantees no one will buy it.

This debate went on for quite awhile and suddenly we hit upon a bit of inspiration that we thought might serve both sides. It is still in the brainstorming stage and it is really more applicable to an educational program for a school or as a fun alternative in a lecture series rather than answering the question of what to put on the display cards.

The idea is essentially an art museum version of The Price is Right where you call people down to try to guess the cost of a piece of art. However, instead of just having them take random, uninformed guesses, you provide some of the background you would on a display card or in a lecture.

The general concept at this point is that you show a slide of a work and talk about many of the particulars: This work is from X who was an important figure in the Y period. The use of A, B, C techniques was impressive to people at the time. It was purchased by Mr. Jones for his collection and given to his daughter for her wedding. It was purchased by the Philadelphia Museum but has been lent to these museums in England, France and Hungary.

Talking about the provenance of an artwork can be nearly identical to the way the hosts on Antiques Roadshow talk about pieces people bring in for examination.

While the price does get mentioned, the opportunity to note that is what was paid in 1810 or at auction, etc allows it to be put in perspective. While this format doesn’t  allow for the depth and continuity you might get on a lecture about a movement that spanned decades, it can help spur an interest in learning more.

By controlling the release of information, you can get people to focus on elements that might contribute to why it is valued as it is before unveiling the actual price. This can create an environment where a conversation can occur about how unpredictable and illogical market prices can be when few of these elements seem to factor into multi-million dollar auction bids.

As I said, this is still in brainstorming stage and there have been little consideration given to audience, timing, subject matter, appropriateness, logistics and other related questions.  It will be at least 4-5 months before it happens, if they decide to go ahead with it.

If anyone has any feedback, thoughts, ideas, let me know.  I would be especially interested if someone could see a way to do something similar with the performing arts.

I am not sure we could really address price in the context of other factors in as interesting a format.  If you see some other game that might be played to make mysterious aspects of the performing arts more accessible to audiences, I would be interested in hearing your ideas

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

My most recent role was as Executive Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


2 thoughts on “Art Museum Price Is Right”

  1. I would like to see us, as a society, move away from assigning a quantitative value to everything. Money isn’t the only gage against which things can and should be measured, and assigning monetary values to items that are not meant to be experienced in that way can turn something of great beauty or power into something that is accounted for in a spreadsheet.

    • Oh definitely Brooke. As I said, there was a lot of conversation about the intrinsic value being much more important than the monetary value. That said, when the artist was talking about his vision and process, someone asked if the pieces were for sale. That question is a double-edged sword–good for the artist when someone asks, but perhaps indicative of what they value.

      Now this being said, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that it was the artist’s mother that asked that question so her motivation is for the benefit of her son. I wasn’t aware it was his mother when the question was asked so I was left to think about the double-edged nature of the question for awhile.


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