When Making Art Costs Millions of Dollars

Artsy Editorial
Feb 11, 2014 5:30PM

Plenty of ink has been spilled on the subject of the art world’s soaring price tags (read: Francis Bacon’s record sale last year); less discussed are the sometimes astronomical costs of producing an artwork in the first place. On the occasion of this week’s premiere of River of Fundament at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—the latest work from Matthew Barney, the artist known for his epically produced films and performances—we bring you a rundown of some of the most expensive works of art ever produced.

10. Matthew Barney’s Cremaster Cycle: $4 million +

Perhaps best known for scaling the interior rotunda of New York’s Guggenheim Museum, among many other feats of athleticism, Matthew Barney creates performance and video works whose epic sets and high production costs have seen the artist and his team shoot aboard a Japanese whaling vessel and in the bowels of New York’s Chrysler Building. His Cremaster Cycle, a 5-part series of films laden with sexual and mythological themes and imagery, as well as heavy doses of petroleum jelly, is reported to have cost over $4 million—admittedly a figure that still pales in comparison to a Hollywood movie.   

9. Leo Villareal’s Bay Lights: $8 million  

San Francisco residents and commuters are currently being treated to a spectacular two-year-long light display on the San Francisco Bay Bridge. Composed of 25,000 LEDs that pulsate and undulate in various configurations, Leo Villareal’s public artwork will cost an estimated $8 million in installation and lighting costs by the time it closes in 2015.

8. Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass: $10 million

Last year, some Los Angelinos looked on in disbelief as a giant, 340-ton boulder was moved 105 miles from a rock quarry in Riverside, California to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on a 200-foot-long transporter, costing $10 million. Michael Heizer’s Levitated Mass is expected to remain in its current position indefinitely, perched over a concrete channel at LACMA.

7. Olafur Elliason’s New York City Waterfalls: $15 million

For three months in 2008, New Yorkers enjoyed a new feature on the city’s waterfront, courtesy of Olafur Elliason and Public Art Fund. Four man-made waterfalls, ranging from 90- to 120-feet-high, were installed at the New York Harbor, Brooklyn Bridge, Governors Island, and between Piers 4 and 5 in Brooklyn, to the tune of an estimated $15 million.

6. Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain: $17 million

Opened in 2004 in Chicago’s 25-acre Millenium Park, Catalan artist Jaume Plensa’s$17 million Crown Fountain features giant LED screens displaying the faces of Chicagoans. Periodically, cascades of water stream from spouts in the screens—appearing to come from the figures’ mouths—and form pools that visitors to the park can interact with.  

5. Christo & Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates: $21 million  

For 16 days in 2005, a series of saffron-colored vinyl panels suspended from 16-foot-tall steel poles formed 7,503 gates along parkways in New York’s Central Park. A project by the renowned artist duo Christo & Jeanne-Claude, The Gates employed some 900 workers to install, monitor, and remove the gates at a total cost of $21 million—funded entirely by the artists themselves.

4. James Turrell’s Roden Crater: estimated $25 million

In 1979, Light and Space artist James Turrell, known for his sublime skyspaces, bought the 400,000-year-old, two-mile-wide crater of an extinct volcano in Arizona, the Roden Crater. Building projects at the location, which Turrell intends to turn into an interconnected complex of viewing chambers, has cost $10 million thus far, and is anticipated to cost up to $15 million more to finish.

3. Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate: $25 million  

Another monumental and interactive public work of art gracing Chicago’s Millenium Park, Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate is a 33-foot-tall, 110-ton reflective steel bean. Its $25 million price tag was covered largely by the Sara Lee Corporation and the City of Chicago.

2. Anish Kapoor’s ArcelorMittal Orbit: $36.6 million  

Anish Kapoor is also responsible for the tallest artwork in London, whose $36.6 million cost was paid for by the steel giant ArcelorMittal. Known as the ArcelorMittal Orbit, Kapoor’s structure is a 376-foot-high steel, red helter skelter-style spiral in London’s 2012 Olympic village.  

1. Thomas Heatherwick: up to $75 million

And coming in at #1 is Thomas Heatherwick’s planned installation as part of the developer Stephen Ross’s $15 billion Hudson Yards development on Manhattan’s West Side. Heatherwick, an artist and designer, has been recruited to design a 4-acre public space with an iconic artwork at its center; Ross has said he’ll spend up to a staggering $75 million on the work. Stay tuned!

Artsy Editorial