Art in the museum… or in the basement


Desert flower. Chalk Pastel

I’ve been carrying on a blog conversation with Chris Miller at in which he made an interesting comment that ”
if a work of art has no place in the history of art, it ends up in the basement.”
I almost completed my move to my new house in the burbs, personally carrying almost every piece of my vast collection of basement art (my own production for some thirty plus years) in an effort to avoid having to place a thousand pieces in mirror boxes.

When I was a starving artist, which I tried on as a work profession for some ten years with dismal failure, I made my food and rent money at minimum wage activities that hardly allowed for art materials or studio space. Later, I taught temporarily at the local Art Institute which paid me handsomely for the time I worked, but it would never become permanent and I was getting long enough in the tooth to begin wondering if I could survive my cadmium yellow years without some kind of pension or at least some substantial savings.

One of those minimum wage type jobs was as receptionist in a government agency. I looked around me and decided if I put my mind to it, I could do some of those higher paid jobs. After all, I had a teaching degree and many transferable skills. To keep this short, I decided to stay in the government agency, get a pension, get the best hourly wage I could muster and do my own art work in my spare time with the luxury of being able to buy materials.

In the process, I ended up with a pretty substantial job (and stressful) that allowed me not only the art materials and pension that I was after, but some disposable income to buy other people’s work. I became addicted to acquiring art. I have very eclectic tastes and I’ve made many a local artist happy with a sale. So, I’ve purchased from friends, artists and flea markets (yes, wonderful original art sometimes gets chucked to the Sally Ann, thrift store or garage sales) and even at exorbitant price (for me), from galleries.

When I was carrying all of this vast collection (maybe a thousand pieces of art or more, about half of them framed with glass), I had half a mind to set a match to the whole works. It’s the doing that’s really important. If it were all gone, I could start fresh filling up that new basement of mine.

But Chris’ comment got me thinking.

Our era that has been war free for the vast majority of us on the North American continent, and richly prosperous and abundant in a way that few other nations or generations have experienced, has spawned an incredible number of people who consider themselves artists, unlike any other period in time.

After great consideration of this phenomenon, I’ve come to terms that they are all artists upon a continuum journey of exploring art and every person’s search for expression is valid. Some have a wonderful talent of expressing themselves better than the rest of us, and some are taking baby steps at it – the resulting work may be awful, even – but the effort and the search is laudable.

I’ve known many a person who started the quest in their later years – their fifties or sixties – to explore on their own, to take workshops or to plunge into a formal training forum of University or Art Institute. The result has been phenomenal. It’s never too late to start getting serious about this business of expressing oneself visually.

I got side tracked in that rant…

First of all, I wanted to say that there as many purposes for doing art as there are people doing it. Many, especially beginners, want simply to record what they are seeing, to preserve something they think is interesting or awesome. Some simply want to master techniques so that they can do this in better and better means of expression.

Some artists are painting to sell and they learn formulas to do so. Funny enough, these formulas work wonderfully, but the art, in my books seldom reaches the quality that museums look for.

Other artists aim for the “serious art” trade, seeking to be shown in museums and Municipal Art collections. Equally, they may be striving to be the chosen one for a Biennale with world recognition in the iconic museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York or the Guggenheim. To most ordinary citizens without some formal training in the elements of design, these are mysterious and often offensive works. They are esoteric and hugely expensive. “For what? I don’t get it!” you will hear someone say, when a major museum pays an outrageous number of millions for a piece of work by a dead abstractionist.

For the majority of artists seeking to express themselves, if they are prolific, the basement is the only place for storage. An occasional piece donated to the local hospital to decorate their walls, or the few pieces that one has sent out as gifts to willing or unwilling sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles (not to forget ever-accepting mothers who may actually be providing the basement) doesn’t make a dent in the artist’s own collection of his own work.

So Chris’ comment raised this question for me. If we artists are bypassed in our own generation, does this mean that we have been bypassed by history? What about van Gogh? He only sold one picture in his lifetime, so legend has it. It’s amazing that his large body of work survived, since it was so mistakenly mistrusted in the era that he did it. Most artists struggle to survive on sales of their own work. There are some lucky ones that make money, but that doesn’t necessarily guarantee one a position in the history continuum. Some who are famous in their own era, like the Pompiers, sold well and were loved by collectors of the time, but have been denigrated since. And then re-evaluated and almost, sort of, reinstated as rather alright after all, maybe.

There is a push and pull between various schools of art. Often in one era, there will be two opposing views that will throw mud at each other. Witness the Art Deco style that was lean and mean, angular and geometric. They shuddered at the Art Nouveau style that was of the same era – flowery, flowing, feeling and romantic. The argument exists to this day, yet both schools of art have survived with strong proponents for either side still criticizing the other. The Bauhaus movement that sprang up afterwards went to the far extremes of austerity, while the Expressionists took up the extremes of the emotional side of art.

Who is to say, in the future, which of those basement loads of work will be assigned to the auction houses for sale (“good riddance!” say the beneficiaries of the estate) only to find that some astute art dealer has purchased the lot at a bargain basement price. Is that where the term came from? He then spends the time advertising, cultivating his collector-clientele to appreciate the exceptional qualities that he lauds in this forgotten work. One collector buys, another sees it in collector number one’s home; collector two buys. They’ve paid a handsome price for it. They talk it up to others. They leave it to a museum when they die. It becomes part of a museum collection. The auctioneer sells the next pieces at a higher price. The prices rise like bubbles to the top. All of a sudden, van Gogh looks pretty good (after all) .

I could blather on, but I rest my case. We may not sell prolifically in our own time, but who knows how we will fare against the commercial junk that is out there, in the long run. Who will be remembered? Who will be forgotten? Who will burn an artist’s production because they don’t understand it (correct me if I’m wrong – wasn’t it Whistler’s mother who burnt all of his figure drawings after he died because they were immoral?). Will we survive? Will we be fortunate enough to have a dealer discover and promote us? Or will we like most artists, still make the rounds of commercial galleries seeking to find someone to represent us? Or submit a thousand proposals to Civic and National galleries for a show that gives us prestige, but no sales?

It’s a tough life if an artist counts on the money that comes back from his or her art work. But it’s a magnificent life, if the art work has given the artist the pleasure and satisfaction of expressing a thought or a feeling; or has the esteem of one’s peers; and has the privilege of viewing the world through eyes that see life and one’s surroundings through the very special eyes of an artist.


4 Responses to “Art in the museum… or in the basement”

  1. paintingartist Says:

    Thank you for the link, I’ll be back to read and browse soon. I love what I see so far.

  2. Sarah Says:

    Thanks for this great post. I’m a fellow artist who has also wondered about the relevance of where my artwork lies in today’s (and tomorrow’s) world. I keep many of my original drawings under a guest room bed. LOL. I wish more artists could revel in the inner exploration of creating art and the magical process of bringing forth something from nothing, allowing it to enrich them from within. Creating art should be an escape, not a prison in which one confines themselves with doubts about how their work will be perceived tomorrow. I’ve been turned down by galleries and schools for years, so it comes to pass in this digital age that we as artists can use the web to our personal benefit. People establish permanent memorials online these days, so we can immortalize our artwork online, too. It’s cool to think that someone in Japan can look at another’s obscure artwork originating from – say Utah. I took a humorous approach in establishing my own online gallery of illustrations –

    Thanks again for your great insight and keep up the good work!

  3. Sarah Says:

    Sorry – that’s the URL without the period –

  4. lookingforbeauty Says:

    I had a good look at your web-site and enjoyed a number of things – the photo manipulations (although I couldn’t live with them) and the Chocolate web site. were among my favourites.
    I agree with you. This blogging business and web-sites has liberated a lot of artists from the tyranny of art galleries. Then if some one likes your work, well, Fabulous! And if not, they don’t have to say so. But that doesn’t happen often. (Misplaced as that last sentence is, you can take it any way you want).
    I have a saying that I’m sure you will like:
    There’s no good artist like a dead artist!
    I toss it out every time someone asks me how I’m doing on sales.
    Just keep on creating. It’s what you get from it personally that really counts. I think of it as a meditation and a way of working my issues out.

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