Why highly-paid artists rarely talk about money

This ‘Bull’ painting was sold at the auction for over Sh763,999. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG
This ‘Bull’ painting was sold at the auction for over Sh763,999. PHOTO | MARGARETTA WA GACHERU | NMG 

Most Kenyan artists don’t like to talk about money.

I know of only one who freely told me, “You would be surprised how many millionaires there are among our Kenyan artists.”

He didn’t have a problem talking about money because he is a savvy art salesman who also creates larger and more elaborate works which he manages to exhibit in galleries and museums all over the world.

Sh1 million

Some artists complain about art critics who want to know how much their works are selling for.

The artists who are most sensitive about exposing the high prices their artworks sell for don’t always put specific numbers on those definitive labels. Instead, they allow something like ‘Price on request’ to be there.

When artists are asked why they don’t want to discuss money, they either claim it is ‘crass’ and ‘uncouth’ when the issues that ought to matter are ones related to aesthetics or ‘ideology’ as one artist put it.

But another artist claimed the public might get the ‘wrong impression’ if they heard one of his artworks sold, for example, for Sh1 million.

“I might not make another sale for six months so that money would have to stretch over an extended period of time,” he said.

And another artist who is especially annoyed by those who probe into his financial affairs has practical reasons for keeping quiet on the topic.

“I work with a lot of local people while creating my art,” he said.

“If they knew how much I make for my art, they might not work with me anymore,” he added.

There are those few artists who freely boast about their artwork selling at high prices.

For instance, when the Ngecha-based artist Wanyu Brush sold a painting for Sh2 million during a three-man exhibition at the now defunct Gallery Watatu, he and the gallery’s managing director Osei Kofi, talked widely about it.

Encourage young artists

Other people retold the story to convince parents that if their children took up the study and practice of art, they wouldn’t have to be poor.

The old stereotype about ‘starving artists’ would no longer need to apply to them. In that way, the story of Wanyu’s wonderful windfall became legendary.

Something similar happened not long after Wanyu’s successful sale. It was that the Bonzo Gallerist and artist Adrian Nduma went on Kenyan TV with the Little Art Gallery director William Ndwiga to announce that one of Adrian’s paintings had just sold for more than Sh2 million.

According to William, the phones at that particular TV station rang off the hook after their interview. People were inquiring where they could get the necessary training for their children so that they too could one day make expensive and saleable art like Adrian’s.