Oh, what I would give to be in New York this week. It’s going to be stormy on the contemporary-art front, as people start to read, debate and then take sides over Jerry Saltz’s full-throttle attack on “Not For Sale,” the current PS1 show. Preparing the show – openly intended as a personal retort to the boombastic art market – legendary curator Alanna Heiss solicited pieces that the artists would not sell, i.e. art they valued more than money. The works included are perfectly fine, Saltz writes; but then he cites the show’s knee-jerk notions about the marketplace as grounds for suggesting Heiss should consider resigning her leadership of PS1:
For the director or curator of an institution that relies on the largesse of artists and dealers—who in turn depend on commerce—to claim an “allergy” to the marketplace is not only smug, it’s deluded and hypocritical. This goes double if that curator’s institution, like Heiss’s, is affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art, the very pinnacle of institutional power…. “Not for Sale” doesn’t fizzle because most of the artists in it are millionaires or famous or both. Nor does it fail because more than a third of the work on view is less than ten years old and fourteen of those pieces are less than five years old, making you wonder how ‘not for sale’ much of this art actually is. No, the exhibition fails because its ideas and construction are lazy.
I distinctly remember reading about this show just before it opened this winter. The thing that struck me as odd was Heiss’s response when the New York Times wondered how truly “not for sale” these works were. Her take: “If you sell a piece out of this show, you know what you’re doing. And it’s not my problem. It’s your problem.” Tough words. Strong tone. Yet when reading them I thought to myself, “Is she actually conceding that some of the work in the show might be less ‘Not for Sale’ than ‘Not for Sale at any price that’s been offered yet.’ And that’s not her problem? That seems a little too easy.”
Ed Winkleman weighed in Friday from a dealer’s perspective, adding:
If, as it seems, she’s singling out the market as some demon, as opposed to simply a factor that deserves honest, objective examination, like many others, this show is not serving anyone. It creates an air of moral superiority, but ultimately does nothing to solve the important issues at hand.
I think one of those “important issues at hand” is precisely the extent to which museums and other institutions are affected by the buoyant art market. Here’s the classic take: Museum shows – and solo shows especially – serve as inflection points in an artist’s market, boosting their profile and justifying price hikes. And what do the museums get back? Nothing!
Well, not always. I was emailing with a dealer friend last year about all the drains on a dealer’s budget for production, shipping, fairs, promotion, etc. And then out of the blue, there came, “The costs of our donations to institutions, which no one ever talks about, should also, at a minimum, be kept in mind.” Apparently some museums implicitly expected that a dealer donate substantially after their artist had a show with market ramifications. It’s not an entirely illogical notion – museums confer their imprimatur on an artist, the prices rise, the pieces sell, and the gallery generously supports the institution that helped make it happen. Now, I’m not sure how frequently this happens, but I have heard of it from several sources (dealers and curators) on both sides of the Atlantic.
There’s no doubt, however, that galleries do get leaned on frequently by museums (and, even more so, biennials) when it comes to production costs. In a strong market, there’s a lot more money to underwrite ambitious shows. Not to mention funding catalogs by promising to buy box upon box of the books. Finally, dealers – and by extension, their artists – are constantly cutting major discounts to museums at a time when they could sell out the work at full price. Perhaps that’s part of why Saltz and Ed_W take such umbrage at Heiss making “the market” the artworld’s bÃªte noire.
That said, museums – especially those dealing with contemporary work – still often find themselves priced out of the action where private collectors are so eagerly (and rapidly) buying. Also, within the “attention economy” there’s no question that private collectors, auctioneers, dealers, etc are stealing a lot of the spotlight that curators must feel would be theirs in an artworld driven more by merit than money. So I’m expecting there will be a lot of people rallying to Heiss’s defense, not least out of institutional solidarity. This should be interesting to watch….