How Much Would You Pay for a Painting Done by a Penguin? Or an Elephant?

Zoos have found a new way of making money.

Photo credit: liz west, CC BY 2.0.

Before you read this post, I want you to seriously consider the answer to this question: how much would you pay for a piece of artwork created by an animal? $25? $250? Would you want the original art, or would you be happy with a reproduction?

Zoos are asking themselves the same questions, because getting the answers right could mean bringing in much-needed extra money. As the Washington Post reports:

Zoos make money selling paintings made by animals. Are they art?

Usually the caretaker selects the colors, manipulates the paper so that the brushstrokes fill the page instead of smearing into muddiness, and decides when the piece is done. Occasionally, the publicity department even gets into the act, deciding what color schemes will sell best. Occasionally, the animal selects the colors, as does Toba the Orangutan at the Oklahoma City Zoo, and sometimes the animal refuses — despite entreaties — to add another stroke, as Congo [the chimpanzee] reportedly did. Yet despite this control, paintings by animals are always an ironic reminder of their captivity, because no animal paints in the wild.

Okay, I have to quibble with you there, WaPo. Yes, no animal paints in the wild, but that’s just because they don’t have paint and brushes and canvases. Animals in the wild do make art, in the sense that they use materials in decorative ways. They also sing and dance, and use natural items both as clothing and as makeup:

Natural Bling: 6 Amazing Animals That Decorate Themselves

But back to the topic at hand. If you follow that WaPo link back, you can see a video of animals painting—or, in the case of the naked mole rats, running across a canvas with paint on their naked mole rat feet. (It’s adorbs.)

So. How much would you pay for a naked mole rat painting? Or a painting by a (gotta make the pun) trained seal?

Paintings by cheetahs, penguins and other species at the St. Louis Zoo go for up to $100 each; Houston Zoo animal paintings command $250 each. But the revenue can be significant. Paintings by brush-wielding seals at the Virginia Aquarium, for example, generated $15,000 in less than two years from gift shop sales in 2007. For a nonprofit organization, every thousand dollars counts, and art by animals can be an important source of income.

I looked at a number of zoos to see if they were selling prints in addition to original artwork, but nearly every zoo I researched emphasized that it was selling original, one-of-a-kind pieces—and some of these pieces start as low as $20. This might be because animals, unlike some artists, can make multiple paintings every day, so the zoo always has a fresh set of stock.

Zoos also offer animal art packages for patrons who want a little extra; the Cincinnati Zoo lets you choose the paint colors the animal receives, and the Indianapolis Zoo lets you meet an animal and watch it paint something just for you.

Is there any downside to this? Animals get to play with paint, zoos make money, and people get to take home a unique work of art. Sure, the whole “it’s time to apply paint to your feet again, penguin, let’s churn out some masterpieces” aspect could be off-putting, but if the animals enjoy it… is it a win-win for everyone?

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