To Lease or Not To Lease That is The Question

lease

Buying a piece of art can be tricky, we know.  First, you’ve got to find the right piece at the right price. Then, you’ve somehow got to get it from the artist or gallery to its new home. Finally, you’ve got to install it.  Depending on the wall (marble, brick, plaster-covered cement) or the type of work (bronze sculpture, installation piece, mobile), this could be no easy feat.  Even after it’s on the wall or pedestal, the business of keeping it clean, safe and insured is a job in and of itself.  It’s no surprise, then, why art consultants, installers, conservators, appraisers and insurers all have jobs.

Not to mention the commitment.  You’ll be living with this piece for a long, long time, greeting it every morning and bidding it adieu every night.  For you commitment phobes out there, buying a piece of art is like a marriage proposal:  can this painting/photo/sculpture go the distance? Will I still love it five, ten, twenty, fifty years from now?  What if we’re going to move our office next year?  We get it.  For some, the commitment is just too big a risk to take.  Even some museums agree, like our very own MCA Denver, opting to only exhibit art rather than collect it permanently.

So, you’re in a pickle. You want art but you don’t want to own it.  Art leasing to the rescue! You think.  Art leasing, art rotation, temporary exhibitions, they’re all the same: curate, install, take down, repeat.  Before you jump on the art leasing band wagon, consider the pros and cons:

Pros:

Can’t decide between Impressionism or Abstract Expressionism (Ab/Ex as art folks call it)? Art leasing lets you have it all (not necessarily at the same time, however).  Republic Plaza in downtown Denver, through its real estate developer’sarts>Brookfield program, mounts new shows every six to eight weeks ranging from art crafted from reclaimed and recycled materials, employee and tenant art shows to Chinese art.

The art changes on a set, recurring schedule.  The rotating exhibits ensure that “new art feeling” (much like new car smell) lasts.  New art can make a space feel fresh with each exhibit: a Western landscape show will feel much different than a progressive contemporary art one, for example.  And, if you find you abhor a particular piece, you can take comfort in the fact that it will only be around so long.

Cons:

Getting the best quality work from professional artists.  Here’s the thing: art costs.  There’s the time and effort for the artist to create the piece.  Often, artists hone their skills over a lifetime.  Yoshitomo Saito, for example, wasn’t born knowing how to pour bronze.  Like a scientist, he’s worked years and years to develop his craft and understand the chemistry of his chosen medium.  He deserves to be fairly paid for that craftsmanship and talent.  On average, you should expect to pay the artist a lease of 5-10% of the art’s retail cost per month.  Don’t forget that you’ll also have to insure the work while it’s in your possession.

“But,” you say, “what about the exposure? The free marketing he’ll get by showing in our amazing space?”  We’ll raise your question with another question: would you ever say to a car dealership, “I’d love to lease this Outback for free. I drive all over the Front Range, so you’re going to get loads of free marketing not only from all the people I pass by on the highway but also my friends and family who ride in the car!”  Of course you wouldn’t.  We all know that cars have a utilitarian purpose (duh!), but art does, too, especially for a company.  Art provides a distinct and instant message and experience to your employees, clients and community. It manifests the strength of your culture, the impact of your image, the power of your people and, ultimately, the realization of your story.  Basically, art is the visual representation of your company’s values and beliefs.

Sorry to say, but you are not a gallery just because you hang some art on the wall.  Galleries and museums, like Olympians, make what they do look effortless. But as anybody who’s tried a toe loop, handspring or a backside-180 knows, it’s harder, oh-so-much harder than it looks.  Galleries and other art dealers put as much time and effort into selling art as artists do in creating it.  In addition to hanging the show, marketing it with postcards, newsletters, press releases and social media posts, gallerists cultivate buyers including museums, individuals and corporations.  When we say cultivate, we’re talking, in some cases, years, decades even, of relationship development between a gallery and a buyer.  A great gallery owner will help a collector create a unique collection, spot emerging talent and support a particular artist over the course of her career.  We’re talking lifetime involvement, folks.

Chances are, when you say “free marketing,” you mean foot traffic in and around your space.  Frankly, this doesn’t cut it when it comes to art marketing.  When you go to a coffee shop, you might see some interesting art.  You might even be interested in purchasing that art. But in reality, what are the odds that you’re going to upcharge that $3.75 latte into a $375 photo?  Perhaps you’ll sell a piece here or there but the likelihood is slim to none.  With those odds, Yoshi’s probably going to put his pinecones in the basket that’s most likely going to pay, i.e. an honest-to-goodness gallery.  In the off chance that you do convince him to relinquish his work, he may give you the undesirables to keep his best work available for sale elsewhere.  If you can’t afford to pay an artist of Yoshi’s caliber, you might have to turn to less experienced artists and possibly risk inconsistent and unpredictable quality.  As a company, everything about you from your logo to the type of chairs to the state of the bathroom ties to your brand.  Sub-par art could translate in your employees’, clients’ and customers’ minds as cheap, unsophisticated, hodge podge, out of touch, naïve, shallow, unrefined and just plain bad – not usually the descriptors a company would hope for.

Then there’s the time suck.  You may think you’re nixing commitment by leasing art but think again.  Someone’s going to have to plan these rotations and maintain the program and this someone’s going to have to take a lot, and we mean A LOT, of time to do it.  Take our own curation process, for example. We usually turn proposals around in two weeks. But we’ve spent our whole lives absorbing art on a near daily basis.  Sure, now we know who to turn to for a 160-foot long, graphic, geometric installation but that wasn’t always the case.  Sometimes, we’ll cull our memory banks from that show at the Center for Visual Art in 2007 or the January 2000 issue of Artforum.  We’ll reach back to our undergrad art theory class, that trip to MoMA, that group show at Plus.  It truly is a full-time job that can extend into the wee hours of the night and weekends, too.  Like an artist’s time, energy and knowledge, the curation process deserves fair payment because that same level of commitment and expertise goes into selecting art.  Unlike a permanent corporate collection that’s usually purchased in one fell swoop, an art leasing program requires constant curation and therefore constant payment.

Last but not least: the cost to install and take down the work and repair the walls after each show.  You could install a hanging system to save the walls from ending up like a slice of Swiss cheese, but you’ll still have to hire someone to hang and de-install the art.  Art handling and installation are special skills, believe it or not.  For starters, you’ve got to have deer-like peripheral vision because tables and chairs will jump out of nowhere.  Next, you have to have the wingspan of a California condor, the strength of an ant and the stamina of a 100-mile marathon runner.  Finally, your fraction skills have to rival those of a master pastry chef.  Don’t believe us? Try dividing 39 and 15/16 inches in half – we dare you!

It might make better financial sense to take the plunge and purchase art instead of lease it.  While you’ll have to overcome your commitment phobia, you’re likely to save money and time and avoid unintentional messaging about your company’s values and beliefs.  Plus, you’ll be able to depreciate your art purchases over the course of your ownership.  That’s not to say that art leasing doesn’t have its place.  For spaces in transition and special pop-events, art leasing programs make perfect sense.  But either way you slice it – buying an art collection or leasing art temporarily – one thing is certain: art is valuable, which makes curation, installation and maintenance of it valuable, too.

Martha Weidmann

Martha Weidmann

CEO & Co-Founder