Editor's note: The following article was rekeyed and reprinted on August 5, 1997 in Resource Library with permission of the author. Prepared for the column Dunbier on Fine Art Valuation, Dr. Dunbier writes on issues regarding the valuation of fine art. If you have questions or comments regarding the article, please contact Lonnie Pierson Dunbier in Scottsdale, AZ, at ldunbier@mac.com.


"Important" Artists

By Roger Dunbier, PhD


In a recent newspaper article, a certain nonagenarian painter was described as "quite probably the most important artist this state has ever produced." In the context of art, the word "important" always draws my attention, being ranked right up there with "original" and "internationally," the last usually in combination with "famous."

I do not wish to belabor the misuse of words in the business of art, particularly when practiced by newspaper writers who do not directly profit from overstatement or meaningless self-serving, revenue generating blather. However, it is this aspect of the vocabulary of art that is more than a little troublesome when adjectives are turned into dollars and cents.

Given that visual art is by its very nature extremely subjective, should it then follow that the words describing it exaggerate this circumstance by being even more subjective, inventive and even misleading?

It is understood that in the world of art--call it Planet Art--the work itself represents the core that has objective reality but exists principally in its subjective effect upon the viewer. Now come the words. An already not really objective object at the core is surrounded by words, most often adjectives, which in recent years increasingly amount to nothing more than blather if not outright buncombe.

So here you have the world of art which, like the earth, has core, mantle and crust. The work encompassed by opinion, encompassed by words, the softest planet in the universe where the inhabitants, often called art collectors, traverse the spongy surface looking for something firm on which to base their buying decisions. Of course, this search for firmness is not true for some denizens of this planet who love the swamp. They avoid reality at every opportunity, slogging from one faddish morass to another, lending an ear to every trendy rumor.

If you are one of these swamp dwellers, you are probably not in this web site, so I am not afraid of offending you. However, for those of you who are looking for solid ground, you are at home here. Your correspondent considers himself this country's most dedicated opponent of artistic blather. I also realize that blather cannot be overcome with more of the same. So for some facts:

Let us return to our starting point, a painter who has just celebrated his ninetieth birthday and is "the most important artist this state has ever produced."

Here Planet Art meets Planet Earth with its more solid geography. This artist"s state is Arizona, big in area, medium in population, small in overall artistic contribution.

The following Table, from our ENCompass Fine Art database of over 20,000 American artists, lists the Top Twenty Arizona Painters and Illustrators living and deceased. The computerized Ranking Number shown here represents the relative Price/Literature position of each Arizona artist within the totality. The Number is derived from 1) Price, 2) Numbers of Books wherein the artist is significantly mentioned and 3) Publications dates, which show relative increasing or decreasing interest in the artist.





320 Scholder, Fritz 1937- abstract Indian figure, animal

563 Riley, Kenneth 1919- Indian genre and figure

595 Kuhn, Bob (Robert F.) 1920- wildlife, illustrator

665 Beeler, Joe Neil 1931- sculptor-western, cowboy

674 Kabotie, Fred 1900-1976 ceremonial dance figure

731 Widforss, Gunnar 1879-1934 landscape-national park

796 Terpning, Howard 1927- Indian frontier genre, illustrator

800 McCarthy, Frank C. 1924- frontier-horse genre, illustrator

877 Burr, George Elbert 1859-1939 etcher, landscape, botanical

896 Davis, Lew E. 1910-1979 landscape, figure, genre, still life

912 Megargee, Lon (Alonzo) 1883-1961 cowboy genre, illustrator

934 Dye, Charlie 1906-1972 cowboy western genre

969 Reynolds, Jim (James) 1926- cowboy genre, landscape

1013 Swanson, Ray 1937- Indian figure and genre, animal

1054 Begay, Harrison 1917- Indian genre, wildlife, mural

1061 Brown, Harley 1939- portrait, ethnic figure, animal

1151 Curtis, Philip Campbell 1907- surrealist genre, figure, interiors

1215 Hampton, John Wade 1918- cowboy-Indian genre, sculptor

1222 Wilson, Mortimer Jr. 1906- figure, frontier genre, still life

1227 Tahoma, Quincy 1921-1956 Indian genre, horsemen


On the above list, the first artist, Fritz Scholder, is ranked 314 places below Winslow Homer, who holds first place in the American rankings. Another 143 artists follow before Arizona places its second artist on the list at 563. Only 13 rank in the top 1000. And our "quite probably the most important artist" shows up in the 17th position, ranked 1151 nationally. Draw your own conclusions.

When we recalculate the relative strengths of American artists, something we do every six months, the prices realized in 35 spring 1997 auctions will enter the calculations as will over 400 additional books and catalogues. Mr. Curtis' position will most surely change slightly higher or lower. He will do this because the facts change over time.

In our database, some artists have shown virtually uninterrupted better rankings each time a recalculation has been made over the fifteen years we have maintained entering categorized hard data. This strengthening of rank occurs because more books are published mentioning the painter. Higher prices are achieved at auction. Works are included in major shows. This and other finite objective fact is entered, tabulated, interrelated and retrieved by us on a continuing schedule. Critical opinion is minimal because the computer does not favor mediums, eras, schools or subjects pursued by the painter.

In this scheme of things, the word "important" looses entirely whatever small meaning it ever had. Important when? Important where? Important cartoonist or wildlife or portrait painter? Is the painter with the surname Curtis preceded by Tony more important than Philip Campbell? A case could be made for Winston Churchill being the "most important" painter ever in the English language world. All nonsense!

Let the newspaper and magazine writers continue to use the word, but be careful when you hear it from someone who is trying to sell you something.

A case could be made that what is most "important" is the state,

not the artist. Think about it.

A final word about the reference to the state of Arizona. There, as in other states, the word "important" may find some considerable application, particularly to many buyers who are collecting artists of that region because the work reflects that region.

For ninety-nine out of a hundred artists, being associated with a locality, a state or a region is essential. International and national reputations of consequence are so rare as to be all but dismissed entirely. The prices for original work by these few are so high that ninety-nine out of one-hundred potential buyers can't or shouldn't afford their product.

Few painters find much of a buying public outside a limited geographic area, very often a state. This persists post-mortem. "California, Indiana, Connecticut painters wanted" read the advertisements. Many of the painters listed died eighty or more years ago, but they are identified by state--most often state of residence, less often state of subject matter but in either case by state. This is a geography of dollars and cents. A case could be made that what is most "important" is the state, not the artist. Think about it. California artists are as collectible as they are in large measure because of that state's immense population. Obviously more factors are involved, but this is the subject of a future column when I will bring the computer to bear on what this geographically circumscribed demand means in terms of money.

© 1997 Roger Dunbier



About the Author:

From 1982, Dr. Roger Dunbier (1934-1998) combined his professional economics training, research skills, and love of art to develop an easily accessed, 'all-in-one-place' repository of factual information so that buyers and sellers of American art could make decisions based on hard-core data rather than just marketing hype.  With ever-more sophisticated computers, programmed by Charles Lefebvre, his long-time associate, Dunbier built an artist record database, which by the time he died 16 years later, had 17,000 names linked to their respective auction prices, literature and biographies.  Today the result of his dedication lives on as the foundation of AskART.com, an internet site since 2000.  

Dunbier's innovation of computer systems began in 1963, when he pioneered computer mapping on what were then relatively primitive computers.  In 1967, he utilized concepts of 'arbitrage' and 'comparables' in designing the first real estate Multiple Listing System.  Its direct descendent remains in use by realtors across the United States, and he later applied the same underlying principles in building his artist database.  (right: Roger Dunbier, photo courtesy Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, derived from a larger image at http://tfaoi.org/am/16am/16am17.jpg)

Dunbier was born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska.  His interest in American art was natural because his father, Augustus Dunbier, (1888-1977) was a prominent landscape, still life and portrait painter and art teacher, whose studio and classroom were in the family home.   Although Roger showed few 'right brained' skills, he did have other talents.  He graduated first in his class and Summa Cum Laude from the University of Omaha in 1955 with majors in economics and history.   He then received a Marshall Scholarship, which led to enrollment at Oxford University in England from 1955 to 1959.  During that time, he was on the Oxford University basketball and track teams, and was a member of the British National Basketball Team.  In 1961, he received a Doctorate of Philosophy, Economic Geography from Oxford.  His dissertation, The Sonoran Desert, Its Geography, Economy, and People, was published by the University of Arizona Press in 1960, and subsequently used as a text book for college geography courses.

After formal education, Dunbier held full-time professorial positions for several years at the University of Omaha and the University of California-Irvine.  He lived most of the remainder of his life in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Arizona, and had economic-geography related jobs including CEO of his management consulting firm that prepared demographic and locational studies; and President of Metro Press, Inc., publisher of over 100 computer generated area directories for Metro Phoenix.  In 1991, he married Lonnie Pierson of Lincoln, Nebraska.

-- By Lonnie Pierson Dunbier, 2008

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