February 13, 2005

The Gates Bill

Andy Towle captured the Maybach and The Gates, image: towleroad.com

Don't get me wrong; I'm just as giddy as the next schoolgirl [sic] about The Gates, I just can't see how they cost $20 million. That's what the Christos say they cost, and it's a figure which is dutifully reported in every story, but it's something which I've never seen examined or analyzed.

Most discussion of The Gates focuses on their populism; this is not just public art, but an artistic experience given to the people. The back seat of a Maybach seems an unlikely spot from which to promote "art for Everyman," [to use Michael Kimmelman's phrase and Andy Towle's picture] but for underlining the noblesse that comes with your self-proclaimed noblesse oblige, it's just about perfect [even if it is borrowed].

I don't think it's being ungrateful to take a closer look at this $20 million figure. We don't consider it an act of magnanimity when Paramount ponies up $200 million to provide us with the grand collective experience of Titanic. In fact, I believe the Christos' consider the budget to be an important aspect of their work. The artists themselves make a big deal about how much their projects cost, how they don't accept government financing, donations or sponsorships, and how they pay for everything themselves by selling related drawings, models and ephemera.

They also consider the sometimes decades-long process--materials testing and procurement, engineering studies, bureaucratic navigation and and political negotiations--as intrinsic to their work. Their website is full of factoids on fabric, hardware, topographic studies, and the corporate machinery and machinations that underpin their projects. [To see an example, scan developments for Over The River, a project-in-progress.]

Using the Christos' own descriptions and published reports of the installation, I priced out The Gates. Let me just say that to get to $20 million requires some rather creative--maybe even artistic--accounting. Whatever else they may accomplish, Christo and Jeanne-Claude may have also created a unique approach to the subjective and often arbitrary exercise of valuing a work of art.

The Gates Direct Expenses:

Direct Materials
Steel - 5,390 tons @ 1Q04 price=$350/ton*: $1,851,000
Vinyl Tubing - 315,491 feet @ $0.75/ft: 237,000
Fabric - 99,155 sq m @ $6/sq m: 595,000
Brackets & Hardware: 15,000 sets & $6 ea.: 90,000
Subtotal: $2,774,000
[less recycling revenue: 1Q05 price for scrap steel=$200/ton= $1.06mm]
Net Direct Materials Expense: $1,708,000
According to their website, C&J-C ordered this raw material in the fall of 2003 when the project was approved. Since that time, steel prices have nearly tripled to over $900/ton. If they bought the steel late last year, it could have cost nearly $3 million more.

All components of the gates were put together in a 25,000-sf facility in Long Island before being shipped to the Park for installation. C&J-C point out that materials were made in local workshops, not factories. So far, it seems, the mega-installation art industry has not been relocated to China.

Fabrication Costs
Bases - est. 25% of materials cost, or $27/base: $394,000
Gates - est. 30 min. labor/gate @ $10/hr: 75,000
Curtains - est. 30 min. sewing @ $6/hr: 22,500

Warehouse & Shipping: 350,000
Subtotal: $841,000

C&J-C used both skilled and unskilled labor to install the gates. Bases were set with forklifts. The Times reported that after the snow, an additional $250,000 was spent on 150 people over six days to snowblower and dig out the bases.
Direct Labor
Base Placement & Removal - 20 5-person crews moving 4 bases/hr, avg $30/hr: $1,125,000 (2x $562,500)
Snow Removal: 250,000
Installation & De-installation - 5-person teams doing 25 gates/9-hr shift @ $5.40/hr: 788,000 (2x 394,000)
Maintenance & Daytime Non-NYPD Security - 150 people @ $5.40/hr for 16 days: 143,000
Subtotal: $2,265,000
C&J-C will also pay for NYPD to patrol the park and for Gates-related expenses of the Parks Dept. & CP Conservancy. I used $500,000, or half of the Conservancy's $1mm/month on maintenance and operations budget for the entire park, as a plug. Other expenses include: liability insurance indemnifying the City and the Conservancy and a restoration bond to ensure the Park is returned to its pre-Gates state.

The total, then, for what you see: around $5.3 million.

Ummmm....

That's some markup. Is this a 4x rule of thumb? Like how a meal at a restaurant should sell for around four times the cost of the ingredients, or how a consultant is billed out at 4-6x her equivalent salary? That $20 million is starting to sound like that most un-New York of phenomena: a retail price.

That $15 million gap can't be attributed just to overhead, though. I've left off some very real expenses associated with the project, like R&D, engineering, wind testing, environmental impact studies, and the no doubt significant costs associated with getting the city government to sign off on an unprecedented project.

Using the Over The River model, C&J-C have engaged at least five specialist firms to produce some deliverable or another. And in that case, a project team location scouted throughout the Rocky Mountains over three consecutive summers to find a suitable location.

On WPS1, filmmaker Albert Maysles talks about C&J-C's five attempts over 25 years to get approval from the Mayor: Koch, Dinkins, Giuliani (twice) and, finally, Bloomberg. The Gates design was completely re-engineered (originally, they were to be stuck in the ground), triggering another series of expenses.

Still, even if all this is assumed to cost as much as the gates themselves--$5 million--that still leaves the tally $10 million short.

While allowing for the possibility that my bathtub-on-a-Sunday-evening-level analysis is orders of magnitude off, here are a couple of ways to arrive at $20 million:

The time value of money
As any lottery player knows, the cash payout you didn't win was just over half the advertised jackpot you didn't win, either. If the Christos' spent $1 million for plans and consultants and lawyers every time they tried to woo a mayor, that outlay may be accruing interest expense until it's paid back (i.e., when the project's realized). If so, they could be counting millions of dollars in interest they owe themselves for the money they advanced to The Gates over the years.

The money value of time
Many other professions--lawyers, or even architects, for example--charge by the hour for their services. Daniel and Nina Libeskind were billing the LMDC $300/hr for their work on the WTC site master plan. I've never heard of an artist who does this; they usually get half the proceeds when their dealer sells a work, whether that work is a gigantic painting, a scribble on a napkin, or a signed certificate for a to-be-constructed piece. [Granted, some artists stipulate a fee or rate schedule for re-creating, say, a wall drawing or a site-specific installation, but that is always on top of the cost of buying the work.]

Perhaps Christo and Jeanne-Claude have decided to professionalize themselves as artists, to attribute a value to the time they spend on pursuing a project over the years. If you run into them at the beach club in St. Tropez, they could be working away--or at least billing--even if they appear to the layman to be gazing off into space.

So did they charge The Gates $10-12 million for their time? At Libeskind's measly hourly rate, that'd translate to a daunting 16,000 billable hours each over 25 years (in absolute dollars). Ask a Skadden associate, and even he'll tell you that's a lot. My guess is, they'd have to bill themselves out at a rather imperial rate of $800-1,000 or so/hr each, to approximate a plausible workload (i.e., overtime for the last year, plus around 4 wks/year between 1980 and 2003.)

Whatever the Christos' can convince their accountants--and the IRS--to accept, more power to'em. Given that they've set up their practice as a professional corporation whose core competency is persuading bureaucracies to allow them to do massive, nonsensical things, maybe their accounting practices are a conceptual--or absurdist--art work themselves.

The question is, though, is this a viable way to value a work of art or any creative work? Is that first novel actually worth $1 million because you spent ten years of nights working on it? Or is this a [Yow, don't try this at home.] $700,000 weblog because I spent 1500 hours on it over the last three years at, say, $450/hr? Now that I think about it, my weblogging rate is $900/hr, making the site an easy $1.5.

Daniel Libeskind got in some trouble when he billed Larry Silverstein $800,000 for the design of the Freedom Tower; turns out he didn't keep time sheets or any documentation, really, and he ended up with around $300,000. That's a pretty hefty discount to the hourly rate he put forth.

If Christo and Jeanne Claude were ever to accept outside funding, they'd have to subject their accounting to external scrutiny. And how many mayors would actually pony up taxpayers' twenty large per hour for a couple of Maybach-driving Frenchies who wanted to put curtains on Central Park? Maybe the only guy Christo can convince to pay that much for his ideas is Christo himself.

References:
The Gates and Over The River [ChristoJeanneClaude.net]
The Libeskinds: $300/hr, 2 hr/min. avail. for Bar Mitzvahs [newyorker.com]
Towle Gates, reportage via towleroad.com [towleroad.com]
Maybach involved in art project 'The Gates' in New York [daimlerchrysler.com, scroll down past all the tsunami stories]

[2/16 update: Oops. Never mind. According to this NY Times interview with the project's engineer, I forgot parking.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

comments? questions? tips? pitches? email
greg [at] greg [dot ] org

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first published: February 13, 2005.

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