On a nearly monthly basis it seems, headlines blare across the web of the latest multi-million dollar art sale. $69.4 million for a Picasso, $157 million for a Modigliani, and most famously as of late, $450 million for a rare painting by Leonardo da Vinci. But what do these mind-boggling figures tell us about art in today’s society? Has art become alienating for too many people?

For help answering these questions, we turned to economist Don Thompson, who covers the art market for publications including The Times (London), Harper’s Magazine, and The Art Economist. A professor at the Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, he has also taught at the London School of Economics and Harvard Business School.

Don Thompson (Courtesy of Don Thompson)

In the art world, he is known as the author of The $12 Million Stuffed Shark, The Supermodel and the Brillo Box, and most recently, The Orange Balloon Dog: Bubbles, Turmoil, and Avarice in the Contemporary Art Market. His books blend psychological and economic research to examine a wide range of issues, including how high-profile auctions impact artists, why certain sculptures and paintings attain astronomical values, and how art branding influences the exhibitions hosted at some of the world’s leading museums.

In this conversation with Smithsonian Second Opinion, Thompson lends a historical perspective to contemporary art questions and explains why art today may not be as different as it was a century or two ago.

Does art matter to most people? Or is art elitist?

It does matter, and it’s a far less elitist art world than it has probably been at any time in history. In the past, great art was restricted to the wealthy, or to royalty, or to the church. The wealthy had the opportunity to see art and would own the best art. Often, they were the only ones who thought much about its existence.

Sure, today, you think of the elite purchasing art at the highest levels. Auction houses, for example, are reserved for the wealthy. But consider an exhibition this winter at the Royal Academy of the Arts, Charles I: King and Collector— pieces shown together for the first time since the 17th century. It’s likely that more people viewed the art collection of Charles I in a week at the Royal Academy, than viewed it during his entire reign. That was elitist.

Art’s role in society is partly determined by how many people get to see art and go to museum shows. And museum attendance is at all-time high. Meanwhile, gallery attendance— even though the number of galleries is shrinking— is also at an all-time high.

That may be the case, but the sheer amount of money being spent on the contemporary art market is striking.

The role of money is more obvious now. People can look at works in an auction preview or catalogue and see the price— and price dictates how we view the artwork. But art dealers as we know them had their advent in the 19th century. Prior to that, art was about commissions from the wealthy. Again: rich merchants, royalty and the church. They were the gatekeepers. They determined which artists got commissions and which artists did not.

On top of that, artists had studios. Think of Leonardo da Vinci. In Leonardo’s case, perhaps 20 apprentices were trained there— for the most part, because their families paid for the training. They were private schools as well as studios, and that’s what supported the artists. Money has always been a major role in art.

Many of the artists commanding top prices today have become famous in their own right. What role does the celebrity artist have in how the public consumes art?

When you say art celebrities, it could be celebrity artists, branded artists— and it could be celebrity buyers bringing attention to art. The idea of artist branding is somewhat overused. There’s only a very few living artists who will become grandiose inside their own cities or countries: [Jeff] Koons, [Damien] Hirst, [Takashi] Murakami, and some others— but how many people could name 10 living contemporary artists? Is branding good or bad? In the short term, it’s probably good. It attracts attention to art. It gets the media talking about art and newspapers running stories about art.

How then is art different from any other commodity?

Well, art is not a commodity. A commodity is a good with some characteristic, like coffee beans or wheat. It’s a good that meets quality standards. Art is an artistic good, of which there are many kinds. There are stamps, Broadway musicals, music performances, and visual art is one of those. It does have the characteristic of being durable, like a painting you hang on your wall, whereas other forms, such as performance, are temporary.

In recent debates about the U.S. tax code, the deduction for charitable donations, which includes those from collectors to art museums, has been considered for elimination. How would that affect art museums. Does giving collectors that deduction actually ensure better public access to art?

Each individual will probably give you a different— and valid— answer. My answer is that you see the impact of tax deductions on the recent proliferation of private art museums. Think of The Broad Museum, a 120,000 square-foot Los Angeles space that opened in September 2015— a $140 million building showing the post-1950s collection of [billionaires] Eli and Edythe Broad.

In the United States, add to the list: Ron Lauder’s Neue Galerie of German and Austrian Art in Manhattan in 2001; Alice Walton’s Crystal Bridges Museums of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas in 2011; and many more.

Or course, private museums were being created long before the current level of tax breaks existed. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, collectors such as Andrew Carnegie, John Pierpont Morgan, Henry Clay Frick and others created public collections. Later, there was the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the Whitney and Frick collections in New York, the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.

There is much to be said for and against the tax treatment of private museums. They divert art to private facilities where the donor is also the curator. Private museums can affect art history with their personal preferences. They can also write off gifts on both the building and art to a private foundation, having their expenditures subsidized as much as 50 percent by the government.

What about more frequently discussed government arts subsidies like national endowments and government grants? Do they provide public access to art?

If the market economy does not always reward artistic merit, should government subsidies fill the gap? The logic for doing so is that the arts offer economic externalities— benefits that accrue to the public at large, not just to people who own art. Art museums attract tourists, and art in public places adds to our daily lives. But the challenge is to decide who should be subsidized, and for what?

Subsidies are most defensible at two points in an artist’s career: at the beginning, in the form of tuition grants, scholarships, and one-time grants to new artists; and later, when the artist is producing mature work, in the form of prizes and commissions for public work. Those subsidies are not often questioned.

What is more often challenged is the idea sometimes expressed by artists— and more so in Europe— that there should be grants and subsidies throughout their careers, irrespective of whether the market rewards their work. The claim is that the market will always under-reward contemporary art because buyers are not sophisticated enough to understand it.

The extreme position is that government should offer a living wage stipend to any person who says he or she wants to create art, a guaranteed income that rewards effort rather than output. This approach has actually been tried. In the early 1980s, the Dutch government subsidized artists by purchasing their work. The price paid reflected the amount thought necessary to provide a living wage to the artist. Artists who sold both to the government and in the private sector averaged about three times as much for a work sold to the government. The scheme ended in 1987. And when the Dutch government later sold off some of the art it had accumulated, average resale prices were about one-fifth of what had been paid under the program.

Can direct subsidies and grants impact what kind of art or how much art gets produced?

There is well-developed literature on the relationship between subsidies and motivation, sometimes referred to as the “hidden costs of rewards.” The research suggests that rewarding highly motivated people to undertake a task actually reduces intrinsic motivation. It suggests that rewards related to output— for example, selling a painting— motivate more output, while subsidies that reward effort may decrease output.

When I was writing The $12 Million Stuffed Shark in 2007, I included a comparison of the direct funding of contemporary art by the French and U.S. governments. The French Culture Ministry provided the visual arts about 20 times as much money relative to the number of artists, as did the National Endowment for the Arts here. At that time, there were no French contemporary artists in the consensus list of the 25 greatest artists- based on responses from dealers, auction specialists, artists and collectors over a fourth month period- I compromised in my book. There were, however, 13 American artists.

On the topic of motivation, what inspires people to visit famous artwork like the Mona Lisa?

In 1961, Jackie Kennedy talked the French culture minister Andre Malraux into loaning the Mona Lisa to the United States. It was shown in Washington and New York. People lined up for two hours to see this painting— and they all knew what it looked like. There was a wonderful debate at the time: The Louvre has a perfect copy of the Mona Lisa, which it sometimes puts on display when the original is being checked for damage. Some people said, let’s send the copy and viewers won’t know the difference. But Malraux insisted: no we can’t do that. Word would get out and Americans would hate us, because all those people got into line, not to see the Mona Lisa— but to say they had seen it— and were cheated.

Backstory is essential to art and it also creates value in the art market. Yes, 35 percent of the people who visit the Louvre only go to see the Mona Lisa. And after 30 or 40 minutes of waiting, they have 60 seconds in front of it and then, they walk off. Everybody in line to see this painting knows what Mona Lisa looks like. They go so they can tell people have seen it.

(Banner image: Nam June Paik, "Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii" Smithsonian American Art Museum, © Nam June Paik Estate, Gift of the artist)