High Copper Prices Force Sculptors Into Post-Bronze Age

We don't think of artists as people who cut corners. As poor as he was, Vincent van Gogh didn't use 10 percent less paint on his canvases to save money, and Michelangelo didn't substitute quartz for marble. But the rising price of copper, the main component of bronze, has forced more and more sculptors to economize.

"It's ridiculous how expensive bronze has become," Manhattan sculptor Bryan Hunt said. Piero Mussi, owner of Artworks Foundry in Berkeley, Calif., stated that the per-pound price of bronze has risen in the past 10 years, to $5 from $1.20. And Marc Fields, owner of New York's The Compleat Sculptor supply house, claimed his prices have more than tripled since 2008, reaching $7 a pound. (He also noted that shipping costs to New York City are higher than elsewhere.)

As a result, Mr. Hunt now casts some of his sculptures in a water-based plaster called Aqua-Resin, allowing him "to save way more than 50 percent. It's quicker to produce and less expensive for me, and I think the quality of the material is high."

He is not alone. Kitty Cantrell, a wildlife sculptor in Ramona, Calif., used to work primarily in bronze, but foundries now cast her work in polyester resin, which saves her more than half what she used to pay. "I'll work in bronze if someone is willing to pay 50 percent up front for casting," she said. In her studio are a couple of clay models from 2008 -- one of a wild turkey, the other of a group of vultures -- that she will cast only in bronze when the economy improves. The turkey's long, slender legs are too likely to break if not done in metal, she believes, while the vultures are intended for outdoors and it isn't clear how the polyester resin will stand up to ultraviolet rays.

Mr. Fields said a growing number of artists are looking to Aqua-Resin, concrete, Fiberglass, gypsum- and polyurethane-based resins, plaster and terra cotta -- which are less expensive than bronze and can be produced right in the studio, without the labor costs of a foundry. He said many of his customers are buying metal and mica powders that are poured into molds or applied as a patina to give a "faux finish" that resembles bronze or other metals. In fact, resin sculptures are often labeled as "cold cast bronze" or "bonded bronze," which may lead some buyers to believe they are purchasing a traditional bronze sculpture.

Many artists are offering different works -- and sometimes the same works -- in different media, to give prospective buyers a range of prices. "Nearly all my works are available in more than one material," Michael Alfano, a sculptor in Hopkinton, Mass., said. "It makes it more open and affordable to everyone."

New York's CFM Gallery has the work of Manhattan artist Aileen Fields in stone, bronze and acrylic. "The resins are okay if you are going to keep it inside, and they cost less" than bronze, Ms. Fields said. New York sculptor Carole Feuerman, whose life-size Aqua-Resin "Brooke With Beach Ball" is now outside Jim Kempner Fine Art in Chelsea, noted that her monumental bronzes are $335,000 while the resins of the same size cost $300,000. Mr. Hunt, on the other hand, claimed that "people pay to own one of my works, not for the materials used." His sculptures range from $60,000 to $210,000, depending on size and complexity.

Mr. Hunt's New York art dealer, Renato Danese, agreed, stating that "collectors are evaluating the quality of the work, leaving the choice of the material up to the artist." If prospective buyers ask about the durability of Aqua-Resin, he tells them that with regular care it should last "a very long time." But he said the subject doesn't come up often. Bronze may be the "Tiffany of metals," as Pomona, N.Y., sculptor Martin Glick said, but with faux-bronze finishes and discreet salesmen, buyers may not know to ask what the thing is made of.

Even when artists stick with bronze, they are looking to spend less, and that may affect foundries' bottom lines. "We haven't had as many reorders," Marjee Levine at New England Sculpture Service, a Boston-based foundry, said. Sculptors who previously would place an order for half an edition are now just asking them to produce "one or two" works at a time. "Everything is a bit slower." Other artists are seeking estimates from foundries far from home, in the U.S. and elsewhere -- not because the price of bronze is lower there, but because labor costs are. "The cost of living is high in Boston, and we try to pay our employees a living wage," Ms. Levine said.

Mary Sand, a bronze sculptor in Philadelphia, claimed that "I can't afford any of the foundries on the East Coast"; she now uses Artworks Foundry in Berkeley. The labor costs of making the mold for one of her sculptures average $1,600 at Artworks, compared with $2,400 on the East Coast, she said, while the casting and patination costs $1,000, compared with $1,500 back east. Travel expenses -- she visits the foundry to supervise the process -- and shipping reduce some of those savings, but Ms. Sand sends Artworks multiple orders at once, which reduces the number of trips to the foundry.

Jeanne Touissaint at Art Castings of Colorado in Loveland said it is also "getting inquiries and orders" from East Coast sculptors. So are foundries in Mexico and Asia. Ms. Feuerman said she plans to try out foundries in Thailand and China in the coming year, because "it's so much less expensive, even if you add in shipping and traveling there."

The price of stainless steel, not bronze, was a concern for New York artist Rob Pruitt when he designed a statue of Andy Warhol, which the Public Art Fund commissioned and sited in Union Square. The foundry bid came in at $80,000, "which ran into some budgetary limitations," he said. Someone suggested casting the piece in fiberglass, which cut the foundry costs in half (a different foundry was used). A coating on the sculpture gave it a metallic look, so you would never know.