Museums vs. the market, Saltz vs. Heiss

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 bête 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….

6 thoughts on “Museums vs. the market, Saltz vs. Heiss”

  1. Overall, I have to say, I thought Jerry Saltz’s article was sound. It is clearly disingenuous of someone associated with a museum to complain too much about the market of which they are an integral part. And if what Marc says about some museums ‘expecting’ free or discounted works from artists whose work they show is true, then they have little basis for trying to occupy any moral high ground. Indeed one could then question the degree to which museum show decisions might be influenced by an artist’s refusal to acquiesce in this way. I am sure no such influence exists, but institutions that act in that way leave themselves open to being asked the question.

    Some elements of this discussion hark back to a recent thread we had about the behaviour of some critics.

  2. Just to be clear, the donations I was talking about above were in the form of actual money. I’ve rarely heard of a museum expecting/demanding that an artist donate work outright. (Sometimes museums request right of first refusal to buy new works appearing in their show, which to me seems totally legitimate given their investment in the artist.)

    I think Ian’s general point holds true, though. Unless curators make an active effort not to take into consideration outside issues – such as whether the gallery will subsidize production costs or make a nice donation if the show brings good sales – then over time the institution will have an unconscious bias favoring artists working with the galleries most willing/able to play this game.

  3. I wouldn’t say this:

    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 bête noire.

    I take umbrage at demonizing “the market” as if it were a foregone conclusion that it was in and of itself immoral or anti-art. There are certainly aspects of the current market one can criticize legitimately, but blanket anti-market gestures, while good for cheap applause, annoy the h*ll out of me.

  4. Sorry if I misinterpreted your ire, Ed. My apologies.

    The more I think about this, the more I think that part of the problem with demonizing the “market” is that there is no “market.” When you attack “the market” as if it was a single entity, then the galleries trying to build long sustainable careers for (and with) their artists get lumped in with auctioneers catering to speculators, who treat artworks as the newest “asset class” ripe for speculation.

    While they’re all commodifying cultural objects, these people buy and sell for entirely different reasons. A ruthless speculator buys a work he’s sure he can resell. A pure patron buys a totally un-resellable work that she personally dislikes. Why? Because she thinks the artist is doing something important for Art. Granted, most acquisitions lie between these polar extremes, but it’s still far too big a gap to cover with any blanket statement.

  5. Not at all Marc, I’ve just never experienced a Museum asking for a too big a discount (a discount, sure, but not “major” enough to influence my thinking here).

    As to the lack of a single market, I think you’re absolutely correct. I tend to take it personally when folks criticize “the market” even though we work hard to adhere to the strictest standards in our gallery. It’s difficult to hear folks make sweeping generalizations that indict all corners of the market when you’re careful to be fair and work hard to be ethical.

  6. Consider this passage from the Saltz review:

    Heiss’s jokey description of her curatorial process, if you can call it that, is flimsier still. She writes, “I called artists whom I know well and who happened to be at home.” Really, the show should have been called “Journey to the Center of My Rolodex” or “Friends of Alanna.”

    Then consider the many struggling artists who have difficulty selling their work, or selling enough work to make a living. Or young artists just starting out. How eager many of these might have been to remove one of their pieces from the marketplace (despite the economic hardship) and donate it to a “Not for Sale” show at P.S. 1 — for the exposure, or to bask in the recognition that they too are “friends of Alanna.” But they would never be given the chance.

    Despite its seemingly egalitarian premise, “Not for Sale” is possibly even more clubby and elitist than a typical commercial show, because of the implicit assumption that the selected artists have “arrived”, and have achieved a success which then allows them to exhibit work protected from the “taint” of the market. An interesting conundrum. Only those secure in their sales can be “Not for Sale.” If I were a working artist, I might resent this dalliance of the well connected few, able to ostentatiously parade outside the marketplace, as well as the immensely privileged institution that hosts the parade ground. Renouncing the market (for a single show) is barely a blip for those whose careers are generally well supported by the market. The acte gratuit is certainly much easier for those artists whose names pop up so readily on curatorial rolodexes.

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