Flippin’ Piece of Art

While I am not really plugged into the visual arts gallery/museum world, one topic I have seen come up repeatedly is the sense that the creator of a piece should realize some benefit when the price of their work skyrockets during resale. Apparently there has been some specific concern about buyers targeting the work of contemporary black artists with an intent to quickly flip works for significantly higher prices.

According to Artnet, Christie’s  Auction House worked with curator Destinee Ross-Sutton to create a type of covenant placing conditions on the resale of art works in their “Say It Loud (I’m Black and Proud)” show.

Each artist will receive 100 percent of the proceeds from the sale of their work. All buyers must also sign a contract with extensive conditions. They must agree not to resell the work at auction for at least five years; if they do want to sell, they must give the artist right of first refusal; and, if they sell to someone else, they have to give 15 percent of the upside back to the artists.

I was initially skeptical about how effectively this type of agreement could be enforced. Though if Christie’s had the will to enforce it, they certainly have the clout and capacity to penalize bad faith purchasers. According to the article, the conditions didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of buyers and most of the pieces have already sold.

According to the specialist at Christie’s coordinating the show with Ross-Sutton, the buyer covenant will benefit the auction house by providing them with insight into sincere collectors of works by artists of color.

The project also has the benefit of giving Christie’s access to collectors it might not have met otherwise, and insight into their preferences and holdings. “We’re excited to cater to this emerging clientele as well as develop programs that specifically cater to collectors of color,” Cunha adds.

Curator Ross-Sutton sees the success of a purchase agreement backed by an organization like Christie’s as an important message to artists not to underestimate their ability to insist on similar conditions.

Ross-Sutton hopes the experience will empower artists to take charge of their careers, including by pushing their gallery representatives to implement similar sales restrictions. “Many artists do not realize the power they have,” she says. “We cannot only put the blame on these so-called ‘flippers’—artists have to be more discerning and so do galleries.

I was trying to think of a parallel situation in the performing arts. Even though the value of a performance is more variable and transitory, I am sure there is some corresponding situation, perhaps with playwrights, choreographers, designers, etc, with which this situation might have relevance, (other than the lack of representation of people of color in many of these roles), but I feel like I am suffering from a momentary lack of imagination.

A Professional Knows Their Value

Seth Godin offers a pretty good definition of amateur, professional and hack in a recent post. While I haven’t fully considered all the implications of his definition, I feel like it makes the best distinction between professional and amateur I have come across because it avoids explicit or implicit comparisons of quality, dedication, training/education that are often present in discussing these terms.

The amateur contributes with unfiltered joy. There’s really no other upside–create your work because you can, because it helps someone else, because it makes you feel good.

The professional shows up even when she doesn’t feel like it. The professional understands the market, the customer and the price to be paid for work that’s worth paying for. But the professional isn’t a hack.

A hack is a professional who doesn’t care.

If I have one quibble, it is that his definition of professional is tied to economic value of a product. Granted, the classic definition is that amateurs do things for the love of it and professionals get paid, but we all know that often professionals are asked to do things for exposure or told they shouldn’t expect payment for something they enjoy, and that doesn’t make them any less of a professional.

At the same time, I appreciate the way the definition of a professional includes a sense of dedication that goes beyond the love of the creative process and implies the professional has done the work to educate themselves about external factors surrounding their work. There is the idea that one’s work has market value and all the complicated discussions we have about the quality of work having no relation to market price, but also the sense that the professional knows when their work is being devalued.

Godin’s distinction between hacks and both amateurs and professionals is that the latter two groups have a longer view about the role and value of their work in the greater ecosystem:

Serviceable is for hacks. Memorable and remarkable belong to professionals and hard-working amateurs.


No Subscription Model Should Last Forever

I was listening to an episode of How I Built This where Guy Raz interviews ClassPass founder Payal Kadakia.

At first I was just drawn to listen because Kadakia presented a familiar story of someone who loved dance and continued dancing even as she was studying Operations Research and Economics at MIT. As I got into the story, I realized it held some lessons about discounting and subscriptions for arts and culture non-profits.

It was the desire to dance that lead her to found the earliest iteration of ClassPass. She was looking to take a class in NYC and couldn’t figure out time, place, price and transportation. She struck on the idea of making a search engine that would unify this information and allow you to find and make reservations for classes in the way OpenTable allows you to make restaurant reservations.

The idea was so compelling to people that when her boss at Warner Music called in her to ask why she was quitting, she walked out with a $10,000 check from him as an investment in her unformed company. While the company was feted with great fanfare, it took 10 days before they had their first reservation. Kadakia says that is when they approached the dance & exercise studios to get a sense of customer behavior and realized that unlike plane and restaurant reservations where people have already made a decision they are going to fly or go out to eat, people looking for classes  (this is ~2012) hadn’t decided to take a class.

This is where the lessons about human nature, discounts and subscriptions starts to kick in (about 34 minutes into the show.) As Guy Raz observes, in the course of about 5 years, Kadakia ends up running 5 different companies because the business model changes so drastically. (It may not seem drastic on a small scale, but when you realize she goes from raising around $40 million in her second round of funding to a recent $1 billion valuation, each change has big implications.) Kadakia says each time they changed the model, human behavior changed on them.

One of the first things they did was offer 30 day passes to a range of different classes. They promised studios around 70% of people would convert to more permanent students. It ended up about only 10% did which Kadakia admits was unfair to the studios. What they discovered was that people were continuing to take classes by signing up with a new email address. Now, my first instinct was to accuse them of gaming the system and curse them under my breath.

Kadakia and her team may have done that, but what she said they realized was that people enjoyed being able to attend a variety of classes. Instead of $45 for a 30 day product, they moved to a subscription model for $99 where you could take up to 10 classes a month, but no more than three at the same studio. Eventually they moved to an unlimited class model.

As the company grew, the fitness industry of spin, barre, bootcamp, etc classes was growing as well and they began doing business with bigger, more marquee names. This raised the average per-class rate they had to pay to studios. Kadakia says they reached a place where they were faced with adopting the business model most gyms use where they are counting on you not exercising in order to make their money. As someone who both continued to dance and took classes every day, she felt the idea of betting against their customers was anti-ethical to their founding principles of getting people to exercise.

Faced with the prospect of having a lot of people angry at them for drastically raising the price of the unlimited pass, they moved away from that as their core product and now package classes differently.

As referenced earlier, one of the main things I took away from this was that sales and subscription models not only need to be structured differently for different communities, but potentially changed up across the lifespan of your organization because audience dynamics and expectations are likely to evolve. I fully expect most venues will find the ticketing model and policies they had in place pre-Covid won’t as fit well for audiences now.


Discount Unto Others As You Would Have Others Discount Unto You

Collen Dilenschneider is increasingly becoming my go-to source for general data about audience behavior in relation to pricing. Last month, she posted about the perception and attitudes free, discounted and full price engenders among attendees.

She had previously written, and summarizes in this recent post, that discounts tend to bring people who are already engaged with the organization back through the doors rather than achieving the goal providing additional access to people who can’t easily afford entry. She suggests that part of the reason is that the discounts are communicated through the same channels that made existing audiences aware of the organization rather than through channels and techniques that reach the desired additional audiences:

Thus, it’s often the people who already know that the experience is worthy of their time who take up a general discount. Also, general discounts – even if they are intended to pique the interest of income-qualified audiences – are often promoted using the same channels as every other outbound message, resulting in more awareness of access programs amongst people with household incomes greater than $250,000/year than individuals with household incomes of less than $25,000/year. (Here’s more on this topic.)

The new data she presents surprisingly indicates that the lower the price, the lower the value people place on the organization and experience.

In terms of satisfaction which influences whether people will return, tell their friends and have a higher value-for-cost perceptions,

This may surprise some. (“How can people who get discounts be more satisfied than people who paid no money at all to attend!? They got in for free, for goodness sake!”) What may surprise folks even more is that average satisfaction is notably highest of all among people who paid full admission prices for their experience.

In terms of likeliness to endorse the organization to others, it is much the same.

General admission visitors were significantly more likely to endorse an organization than those who got a discount or attended for free.

As it turns out, when organizations provide a general discount, visitors generally discount them right back.

Perhaps most importantly, what people paid for admission influences the perception of how dedicated the organization is to its mission.

When an organization discounts its onsite experience through free or reduced admission, it impacts how visitors perceive the organization’s mission, too. What happens onsite doesn’t just stay onsite

That’s why this finding may be the most important of all in this article.

People who paid full admission price believed much more strongly that these entities were effective in executing their missions. The difference is dramatic.When an entity discounts its admission price, it changes how the public perceives its mission and what it stands for.

She doesn’t say all discounts and free admissions are bad. As implied earlier, a disciplined, focused strategy of communicating discounts to a specific target audience rather than to the broader constituency can achieve the desired aims. However, it takes time and energy to cultivate relationships with the right people and direct money and resources to the correct communication channels.

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