Art valuation is nothing more than an estimate based on market functions in the arts. This includes provenance (who owned it), who collected it (museums and private collectors), who wrote about it (magazines, books, journals), and of course the reputation of the artist, the cost and availability of materials, historical context, story, and marketing/advertising.
Good. Now that that’s out of the way…
Let’s be clear that the “market” in Myanmar is only just finding its footing, which means the already existing private and public institutions are the largest determinants in the future value of the work. Private institutions are by and large commercial and/or artist-run galleries, private sales, craft producers, and shops for tourists and travelers alike. Local public institutions, I think it’s fair to say, are not in the habit of paying to acquire work, but are lucky enough to have it donated or bold enough to take it from its original owners.
In terms of market structure, Myanmar is imbalanced. Cultural determinants are largely based on the traditional arts such as lacquer, metalwork, marionettes, and musical instruments. While senior artists like U Lun Gywe and Paw Oo Thet are revered, their paintings and sculptures’ worth are not necessarily worth vast sums of money, even in country. The value of money in Myanmar is highly inflated. Reality: a virtually closed market controlled by the military for decades, wherein the local currency plummeted in value overnight and senior officials paid millions of dollars for homes built among open sewage in a decrepit Yangon. Who could compare values when the international markets were actively ignoring the resource-rich country on the basis that its human rights record was not up to international standards? Sanctions are not always a bad thing, but when the tables turn and the country opens up, do not expect those years of economic isolation not to have a corrupting effect on the infant markets.
The aesthetic value and monetary value should be but very seldom are interlinked. I find great aesthetic value and deep meaning in much of Myanmar’s contemporary art. Contemporary art in Myanmar is made up of the alternative mediums and experimental conditions of artwork addressing current and sensitive issues – whether they relate to the state of the world, the country, or the person creating the work. A distinction should be made between the variety of artwork challenging the status quo and the painting and sculpture which embodies the traditional aesthetic values of Myanmar arts and culture while incorporating Western technique.
In this distinction lies the market wall – how do we value the beautiful paintings of Bagan, the mountains of Shan State, the faces of Myanmar’s many indigenous groups, the monks, and the temples, all being produced by artists living and working today? Furthermore, how does the contemporary art – installation, performance documentation, photography, sculpture, video, painting, cartoon, mixed media, textile, street art, etc – compete with the traditional and modern art market? Or should it be considered separately?
As of late I have found myself in a strange position – investing in the materials of artists and then working with the artists to determine the retail price of the work. I am consistently surprised (and impressed) by the expectations of artists regarding fees and the price point of their work. Many of the artists have never sold work, they have no information online or in print (in Burmese or English) about their work or concepts, and they have never participated in an international show. Nothing wrong with any of this. A gallery or collector’s responsibility is to promote and enrich the reputation of the artist and the concept of the work. The trouble lies in the artist overvaluing the work, paralyzing their position in future sales, should he or she not be able to reach the assigned price point.
Despite this, Myanmar artists are undervalued, in a market that often does not include them on the map. A common reaction from buyers is that the artwork is “not worth” that amount of money, or is “low quality” or doesn’t adhere to “international standards.” Either this speaks to the buyers inexperience and lack of knowledge about Myanmar artists, or is a negotiating tactic. Now, money will by no means solve all woes for these artists, and buyers are perfectly entitled to their opinions on the work coming out of Myanmar, but addressing “worth” is very tricky. Is it worthwhile for buyers to know that many of these artists have been working for 10-30 years perfecting their concepts while experimenting with new mediums? That all of them have lived with censorship for most if not all of their lives? That materials are few and far between and just 10 years ago, making money painting anything but monks (and sometimes even then) was out of the question? That most of them did not have the luxury of studying art in school; they worked at it because of passion and the alternative communication it allowed, as opposed to wanting to join a market? Contemporary Chinese artists in the 80s and 90s had something to say and those early works in Beijing and Shanghai were often ephemeral. A few collectors enabled Chinese artists to thrive, and even more so, those who took their work and message seriously enough to write and study it, translate its meaning, and spread said message. Collectors also have a significant role in convincing a government to establish state-sponsored infrastructure, which is badly needed in Myanmar.
It is not about making Myanmar artists part of a global art market. That market is a business venture. It often makes a mockery of the legendary artists and creative people inspired by the human condition, who used their work to relay experience – social, political, scientific, and emotional. It is about accepting the art and experiment coming out of Myanmar as inherently valuable, to respect it enough to enter it into the conversation, instead of pitying it for being “low quality.” Galleries around Myanmar, but especially in Yangon, have supported the arts without fail, despite critical review. The work is affordable, but not disrespectfully so. As the reputation of the artist grows, so does the price. Why? It’s about investment. A gallery believes, just as the artist believes, that his or her work has a story to tell. The gallery elevates its own status as an institution promoting the contemporary (or whatever kind of art it chooses to support) and the artist’s status is elevated by an exhibition, a catalog, press, and hopefully, sales.
How many free exhibitions and foundation-funded festivals have we seen come out of Myanmar? Many. Brilliant non-profit work formulated by artists for artists, bringing the international in and sending the Myanmar artists out. Why not an art market? Why not a price taking into account the efforts of that artist from that environment? What makes Myanmar’s artists so different from the artists in the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam? The market, the established international standard of value, quality, and meaning, making buyers feel safe in “investing” in artwork. In my opinion, if you are treating art as an investment to be flipped at a later date, you should be buying Picasso, and leave the nuanced historical themes of contemporary artwork in Asia out of it.