Art ownership

Wednesday 22nd March, 2023 - Bruce Sterling

*Could it get any messier?

Art enriches society through the weaving of relations between the cultures that create it, and the cultures that receive it. Conventional ownership and private property rules undermine such interactions in the context of art understood as a public good, constraining liquidity and alienating artists from the very communities that should be their allies: collaborators, neighbourhoods, collectors and supporting institutions. We take a look at some of the most explicit pinch points within the existing art economy and argue for the need to initiate a new chapter in rethinking art ownership by introducing it from the perspective of Partial Common Ownership.

We invite you to take part in our conversation on the topic, which will be open until the end of March. If you have any further suggestions or feedback or would like to continue being involved, please email us and/or sign up to the Future Art Ecosystems newsletter.


Art emerges from deliberate and dedicated practice, which requires time, space and, in the case of most contemporary art practices, extensive collaborations with peers, communities and organisations. This brings into focus a critical distinction between the labour of producing and showing art, and the value that an art object might at some stage obtain in the market. Very few artists can rely on either institutional support or gallery representation (which has traditionally offered the only route into the market), and even with gallery representation, the illiquidity that emerges as a byproduct of current art market mechanisms and logics, makes ‘the market’ a highly unreliable source of subsistence.
As a result, 68% of visual artists in England have additional jobs with one in five having three or more different jobs. Meanwhile, a recent European Union survey on the status and working conditions of artists and creative professionals found that the state of the current legal and economic frameworks available to artists is such that ‘careers in the cultural and creative sectors may happen by chance and are often beyond rational planning’.

Historically, the social welfare state approach of subsidising artistic practices via commissions, grants and subsistence schemes remains the ‘gold standard’ of policy-led interventions to support a thriving and socially-oriented art ecosystem. But it has been limited to only a handful of wealthy democratic nation-states. Furthermore, in the last decade, austerity and pressures to show legible and quantifiable social impact have stripped that system down to a much more modest offer even in the most generous jurisdictions such as the Netherlands and the Nordics.

The recent interest in Universal Basic Income (UBI) may be seen as an attempt to (re)introduce a social welfare approach in another guise. While UBI use-cases remain limited and the debates surrounding its impacts are heated, Ireland is currently trialing UBI to address the precarity of artistic labour and production as part of a pilot scheme running between 2022 and 2025.

These findings indicate that there is a dire need to test new mechanisms for upgrading and diversifying the models of institutional and market support of art ecosystems that can offer greater liquidity to artists and their communities.


Generally, states have shied away from regulating the art market or wider art industry practices with the exception of some jurisdictions introducing a resale royalty provision. The resale royalty is a corrective mechanism insofar as it gives the artist a share in the rise of the value of their work, recognising that it is the increased appreciation of their work that leads to a higher financial valuation, and so it is equitable for the artist to be entitled to a percentage on the resale profit….