Although Alan Sonfist produces sculptures, photographs, collages, and drawings that conform to the art market protocols and commercial gallery requirements, many of his most acclaimed works challenge these systems.

Although Alan Sonfist produces sculptures, photographs, collages, and drawings that conform to the art market protocols and commercial gallery requirements, many of his most acclaimed works challenge these systems. For example, Sonfist has proposed creating a museum of air to display samples of air from around the globe and across time. He has also proposed renaming the streets in New York City to recall the animal populations and geology that once defined the city’s location. Time Landscape is another example of a project that exists outside of the business conventions of art .

Historically, artists have received compensation in one of three ways:

  • Selling a work that was created in the artist’s studio and then offered for sale in the marketplace. This provides the owner with the exclusive rights to the work of art.
  • Patronage exists when a benefactor supports the artist without restricting the work that the artist will create. The patron may be motivated by the desire to promote the creation of art, or to bring art to a larger community, or to receive priority in choosing works of art for his or her collection.
  • Commission is a system by which the artist receives payment to produce a particular, previously agreed upon work of art, as when painters are hired to create a portrait for a wealthy client.

Sonfist reveals how his art practice has dealt with costs, compensation, and the market:

  • Costs: “The Time Landscape, my first major commission, was a blend of public and private sponsorship. I had responsibility for the budget, and I was able to seek out the most efficient individual contractors in the city. ….In general, I prefer working with private individuals and corporations. The process tends to be economically efficient. In several of my corporate commissions, I have been able to find creative solutions that cost the client less money. Governmental commissions, in contrast, are not responsive to cost savings.”25
  • Compensation: “I usually receive eight to fifteen percent of the total cost. It varies from project to project, depending on the needs of the site and my involvement. Starting with the concept, I can allow a separate party to execute the project, or I can continue the project myself. This involves the research of the site, finding the materials, and supervising the construction.”26
  • Market: “My sculptures can and have been moved and resold. I can envision, as our natural resources become scarce and valuable commodities, that landscapes will be bought, sold, and transplanted. Certain hardwood trees are already on the market with price tags of up to $30,000 apiece. Creating an artistic environment with these species enhances their value more.”27

As these statements reveal, Sonfist has experimented with a diversity of schemes to produce his projects. In contrast, Walter de Maria has enjoyed the life-long patronage of the Dia Foundation. Starting in the late 1970s, this foundation has supported long-term sited works of art that are either too large or too technically difficult to be accommodated by conventional art institutions. De Maria’s The Lightning Field is one example of the foundation’s patronage. Ant Farm’s Cadillac Ranch also benefited from a patron, but this patronage was for project-specific. Herbert Bayer’s Mill Creek Canyon Earthwork, on the other hand, was commissioned by the town of Kent, Washington, and Joseph Beuys Honey Pump at the Working Place was commissioned by the Documenta VI arts festival in Kassel, Germany in 1977.

All five of these works of art have earned the status of 20th century masterworks, yet none were produced ‘on spec’ in the manner of conventional studio art practices. Furthermore, none were offered or acquired through the exchanges that characterize the market system. Consider Sonfist’s The Time Landscape and one other work mentioned in the previous paragraph, and discuss the effect of these economic facts upon the artist’s opportunities, security, output, etc. Also consider the effect upon the artwork’s scale, materials, and construction scheme. Which market system is most empowering? Which is restricting?

25 Alan Sonfist interviewed by Christopher Chambers Alan, “The Business of Art”, The Earthwork as a Commodity Discussion with Seminal Environmental Artist, Alan Sonfist . Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs. http://www.worldofartmagazine.com/WoA7/7woa_Chambers.htm
26 Alan Sonfist interviewed by Christopher Chambers Alan, “The Business of Art”, The Earthwork as a Commodity Discussion with Seminal Environmental Artist, Alan Sonfist . Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs. http://www.worldofartmagazine.com/WoA7/7woa_Chambers.htm
27 Alan Sonfist interviewed by Christopher Chambers Alan, “The Business of Art”, The Earthwork as a Commodity Discussion with Seminal Environmental Artist, Alan Sonfist . Dorsky Gallery Curatorial Programs. http://www.worldofartmagazine.com/WoA7/7woa_Chambers.htm