Art: The Case of Ana Tzarev

How does any painting get to be worth, say, $70 million? Sometimes there might be a speculative component to high prices: people are often willing to spend a lot on just about any asset if they think the chances that it will rise in value are greater than the chances it will fall in value. But ultimately there need to be some kind of fundamentals driving the price — and in the case of art, those fundamentals are aesthetic.

Is it possible for one person to get $70 million of aesthetic value out of a painting? I’d say probably no — with the proviso that perhaps once you reach a certain level of wealth and have pretty much everything else that money can buy, the opportunity cost of spending $70 million is so low that maybe it can be done. (But you’d need to see essentially zero benefit from marginal charitable contributions for that to be the case.)

On the other hand, it is possible for millions of people, collectively, to get $70 million of aesthetic value out of a painting — hence, art museums. So somewhere down the line, it’s possible to see the glimmer a fundamental justification for those kind of prices.

Still, I would have a great deal of sympathy for any art collector who made it a point only ever to buy works in the primary market — thereby directly supporting the artist, rather than merely the artist’s collectors. If you buy a work in the secondary market, you get the upside of owning a painting, but there’s a downside associated with spending all that money. When you buy in the primary market, that downside is mitigated somewhat by the fact that you know the money is going in large part to the creator of the work: it feels good to both support artists and collect art at the same time.

Of course, some artists are more worthy of your support than others, and it’s quite common for collectors to spend a lot of money on a particular artist not only because they love the work but also because they feel a strong personal connection to the artist.

Which brings me, in a roundabout way, to the peculiar case of Ana Tzarev. If you live in New York City, you will have seen her art everywhere: on the sides of buses, on billboards, on phone kiosks. Her website isn’t exaggerating:

SEE THE WORLD THROUGH ANA’S EYES, which is emblazoned in crisp white text on black ground, can be found throughout Manhattan on: six major billboards–some as high as four stories; more than a dozen phone kiosks; countless buses and bus shelters; and, posters and panels in half a dozen neighborhoods throughout midtown and downtown.

This is something between a public art and vanity publishing, and it has come to fruition in the opening of a monster 14,000-square-foot art gallery on 57th Street — with rent of $2 million per year and renovation costs in the $6 million range — devoted to Tzarev’s art.

Unfortunately, the art isn’t very good, and the snobbish dealers in the building aren’t happy:

The arrival of a so-called "vanity" gallery — where an artist pays for the space — at the prestigious building has rankled other dealers.

"The fear is that this is another case of money overriding taste and reason," said dealer Jane Kallir, of Galerie St. Etienne, also at 24 W. 57th St.

Well, yes. But look at where the money is coming from: Ana Tzarev is the mother of Richard and Christopher Chandler, who took seed money from the sale of her New Zealand department-store chain and turned it into billions through their Sovereign Global investment firm.

So while there’s something discomfiting about the spectacle of millions of dollars being lavished in this manner on an artist with zero critical acclaim, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you add it all up, it’s probably less than the cost of a single big Warhol. If Richard Chandler had spent much more money on the Warhol, no one would have blinked an eye. Instead, he’s spending it on his mother — which presumably gives both him and her much more pleasure than any Warhol ever would.

Ron Lieber wrote this weekend about donating relatively modest sums to college endowments which might be worth billions of dollars already: he feels an "obligation", he says, "to throw the rope back for others" after receiving a scholarship himself.

Looked at this way, Chandler’s just throwing the rope back to help his mother fulfill her dream, after she helped him fulfill his. New Yorkers are more than capable of living with bad art: we put up with Tom Otterness on Broadway, after all. And the Ana Tzarev gallery is hardly the most ostentatious monument to personal vanity in this city. So although I’m no fan of the art, I don’t see a problem here. I just think the timing is a bit off, and that anybody who spends between $20,000 and $500,000 on one of Tzarev’s paintings has to be a little bit crazy. After all, there’s not much aesthetic value to them, and she clearly doesn’t need the money.

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