Great art is often considered priceless, but collectors and dealers know better: Art is priced not only on quality but also on how it is perceived as fitting into the art-historical continuum.
by Daniel Grant
|Will Barnet is one of the most important artists of our time, according to
Driscoll. Selling art created by him is therefore priced accordingly.
Great art is often considered priceless, but collectors and dealers know better: Art is priced not only on quality but also on how it is perceived as fitting into the art-historical continuum. And, sometimes, a dealer’s determined efforts to promote a client and selling art to collectors can help secure his or her place in history. Take dealer John Driscoll of New York City’s Babcock Galleries, who firmly believes that 95-year-old Massachusetts artist Will Barnet, whom he has represented since 2004, is one of the most important contemporary artists working today. “I define an artist’s importance by three criteria: How much he or she captures the soul of a moment, how much he or she influences subsequent generations of painters, and how much he or she expresses an individual style,” the dealer says. “Barnet succeeds in all three of these areas, and I believe that when the history of this artistic era is written, his work will be remembered.”
Driscoll has expended a considerable amount of effort over the last several years making sure this becomes a reality. “I’ve been trying to reposition how people think of Will,” Driscoll says. “It’s all about perception—the buyer’s perception of just how important an artist’s work is. We are helping people understand that Will is one of the great masters of the 20th century and that his work will have lasting significance.” In other words, he is remarketing Barnet in an effort to elevate the artist’s stature.
To accomplish this goal, Babcock Galleries has taken a number of steps to further expose the artist, the first of which has been creating more exhibitions of the artist’s work, including solo shows. In addition, in 2006, Barnet was Babcock’s featured artist at The Art Show, the annual New York City art fair sponsored by the Art Dealers Association of America. The gallery has also been attempting to arrange exhibitions of Barnet’s work at more prestigious museums.
A second effort at raising awareness of the artist is producing more books on Barnet. Driscoll himself is compiling published essays on the artist and reviews of his artwork for a book that will be titled Will Barnet: Art and Anthology, while Richard Boyle, the former director of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, in Philadelphia, is currently writing a monograph on Barnet. Townsend Wolfe, a former director of the Arkansas Arts Center—which has a sizeable number of the artist’s works on paper—is presently writing a book about Barnet’s drawings.
The third element of this plan is simply to bring more of the artist’s works to market, which has meant foraging through the vast assortment of paintings and works on paper that Barnet has not yet exposed to the public. Although the artist continues to produce new work, the paintings that Babcock Galleries has been putting up for sale are primarily older. “Many of these pieces have never been shown,” Driscoll says. “We’re starting to make the public aware of some of the pieces that haven’t had much exposure, such as his gouache and watercolor work.”
A fourth endeavor has been to refocus sales to major private and institutional buyers. “We are working very hard to identify museums and collectors who we want to purchase Will’s work,” Driscoll says. “We are trying to get his work into the hands of people who are going to make sure that, if they own the art personally, the next steward is going to be a museum or a like-minded collector. It’s our goal to place this work in collections that will matter in the future.”
As a part of this effort, the gallery has significantly raised the prices for the artist’s paintings, drawings, and prints. When Babcock started representing Barnet in late 2004, the prices of his paintings “topped out at $100,000. We’re now selling drawings for prices his paintings used to go for,” says Lisa Koonce, an assistant director at Babcock Galleries. Adding to Barnet’s value is the fact that, unlike some artists, he does not believe that he has to develop an identifiable style by which he can continually be branded. According to Driscoll, the artist has been growing artistically from day one—his artistic output reflects an inquisitive, creative mind, one unconfined by predictability.
Time will tell whether Barnet’s career can withstand the great claims being made by his dealer. Driscoll’s predecessor at Babcock Galleries, Michael St. Clair, had embarked on a similar mission of promoting three artists—Childe Hassam (1859–1935), Marsden Hartley (1877–1943), and Alfred Maurer (1868–1932)—-with the intention of elevating their stature in the history of American art. The experiment proved successful, and the gallery still handles those three artists. “I was always looking for an artist I could bring into the gallery who had the stature of those artists,” Driscoll says. “In fact, I always thought about Will in that context.”