Selling Installation Art, Piece by Piece

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Art installations can make a big statement, but they also can be a big headache. Three-dimensional artworks, often sprawling over a large room, installations are intended to transform a viewer’s perception of an interior space.

The largest problem with them is that they rarely sell. “It’s almost impossible to sell a whole installation,” said Vanessa Rubinick, manager for the Hauser & Wirth art gallery in Zurich, Switzerland. Installations are too big and ungainly for all but another art gallery or museum to put on display, and they tend to cost more than the type of artwork referred to as “houseable.” So, after the gallery exhibition is over, most installations are disassembled and returned to the artist’s studio. (The gallery owner has to hope that some of the visitors are so interested in the installation that they inquire about buying more manageably sized and priced pieces by the artist, which they may have in a back room.)

That’s a lot of work for nothing. Perhaps it makes sense then that some of the numerous disparate elements that make up some of Terence Koh’s installations may be sold as individual artworks. “It’s not that unusual,” said Ron Warren, director of the Mary Boone Gallery, which represents the artist. He noted that individual elements from a large installation are priced just as “any other single work by the artist.” It is not the gallery’s decision but the artist’s to divide up an installation, and which individual pieces or groupings of objects will be sold as separate artworks. He claimed that the artist also titles these saleable pieces. “He gives them generic titles.” For instance, various pieces of the large-scale Koh installation “White Light,” which was exhibited in its entirety at the Kunsthalle Zurich in 2006, were sold to various private collectors at the time.

Not every artist’s installation lends itself to being split up, and some artists (or their dealers) may decide that a large multi-part artwork is an all or nothing deal. “I couldn’t sell one part of one of my installations, because it wouldn’t make any sense apart from the rest of it,” said sculptor Tim Hawkinson. “With my installation ‘Uberorgan’” – an almost 300 foot-long bagpipe – “it was all one big mechanism, so you couldn’t take it apart.” However, many of the elements in Tom Burckhardt’s 2005 full-scale replica of an artist’s studio (“Full Stop”), which was exhibited at DiverseWorks in Houston, Texas and the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, were sold to numerous collectors. “My concept was that these were representations of rather autonomous objects and could function as stand alone pieces that recall the whole in their after life,” Burckhardt claimed. “My piece lent itself to being separated in the way that a painting, video, or sculpture just can’t be.”

Another artist who sometimes sells portions of her installations is Sandy Skoglund, who creates colorful and surreal installations – filled, for example, with hanging baby dolls or toy fish – that she photographs, and it is from the sale of photographs that she earns most of her income. “I have also sold small installations as well as large installations to collectors and museums,” she stated. “Of course in the case of the large installations, it is mainly museums that would collect this type of work.” However, she also sells through art dealers “individual elements, individual figures, and small fragments that are broken away from the large installation.”

Opinions on the practice of selling components of an art installation are all over the board. “I have never heard of an artist’s installation being treated like a buffet,” said Miles McEnery, one of the partners of Manhattan’s Ameringer|McEnery|Yohe gallery, and Andrew Fabrikant, director of New York’s Richard Gray Gallery, called such a practice “ridiculous. The dealer wants to chop it up to sell in sections, and the artist agrees to that? Nobody is being serious.” Think of some Renaissance-era altarpiece triptych being broken up: Panel three may not make much sense in telling the biblical story without the other two.

On the other hand, multi-media artist Sean Foley, who sold a component of a larger installation to the Portland Museum of Art in 2009, sees nothing wrong with selling art “a la carte.” “I’m of the iTunes generation, where you can go into an album and pick a song out and just keep that.” For her part, Skoglund claimed that she views the elements of her installations “as sculptures within a larger sculpture.”

Brooklyn artist Judith Hoffman also noted that selling elements from an installation solved some of the “practicalities. The storage of these big pieces is cumbersome and expensive. When I was in art school, we never talked about the problems of moving, installing, de-installing and storing great big works of art, but now I know, and it has started to inform my production.” Her large works are built to be “collapsible,” in order that they can be moved more easily, and she has also moved from metal and wood to lighter weight materials – paper, in many instances – because they are “easier to carry.” And, she is willing to sell elements of these large works, because “I want to make money.”