The Ivory Tower erodes, evermore…

artchicago_logo.gifAs a former Chicagoan, I was delighted to read Ed Winkleman’s very optimistic note about the rebirth of Art Chicago. I think the strategy – folding the fair into a larger civic cultural festival called “Artropolis” – makes a lot of sense. It will be interesting to see how much overlap there is between the crowds for several contemporary-art events, for the almost equally large antiques show that will run concurrently in the Merchandise Mart (the largest commercial building in North America), and for the symposium on “hegemony and resistance in the global cultural economy.” Compared to last year’s fiasco, when the once-mighty fair (before the Armory, before ABMB) was barely saved in extremis from not opening, this is an excellent development.

However, one innovation strikes me as likely to draw criticism: The NEW INSIGHT section, described as “an amazing display of the future emerging talent in the art world… comprised of artwork from 24 graduate students at 12 of the country’s most influential Master of Fine Arts programs,” including CalArts, Yale, RISD and the Art Institute of Chicago. Especially given the fact that these students were selected by renowned Renaissance Society director Susanne Ghez, I’m predicting a stampede by neophiliac collectors to buy their work. Unless some draconian mechanism has been put in place to make sure that doesn’t happen – an idea which might be considered advisable in some quarters, but would almost certainly be a) an infringement of some Constitutional right and b) totally ineffective in the face of aggressive collectors.

Offhand, I cannot recall ever seeing a section of exclusively graduate-student work displayed as part of an art fair. (Although one certainly comes across the occasional artwork by a graduate student who’s already joined the roster of a participating gallery.) In this sense, New Insight marks the latest stage in the crumbling of the wall between art schools and the art market, the earlier stages having been 1) the prowling of art-school studios by dealers and collectors, 2) the growing professionalization of degree shows, and 3) the “School Days” show at Jack Tilton last spring. Honestly, this is a topic on which I feel divided. Part of me sides with the logic that led Columbia arts dean Bruce Ferguson to close the studios of first-year grad students to collectors. Then again, I think, maybe it’s totally reactionary to think that we can sequester students from the art market, or even that doing so would be a good idea. Thoughts?

6 thoughts on “The Ivory Tower erodes, evermore…”

  1. Just a shorty to say that the Stockholm Art Fair that has been “resting” a couple of years now (other, more market-driven, fairs have taken over) traditionally held exhibitions devoted exclusively to graduate-students, and it was most often the best section of the fair. Very few works got sold, but every now and then one or two students were “discovered” by a dealer who wanted to exhibit them later on. It worked pretty much as it was supposed to, I guess, but this was in Stockholm where neophilia still is not yet a widespread disease.

    On a less local note, I can easily think of quite a few artists that – after a major market success directly after graduating art school – somehow “got stuck” in their production and later got dumped by both their dealers and the general interest of the market. Their works never got to develop in the irrational and daring ways that works of artist who don’t have to live up to “last year’s success” and therefore are self-assured does – in the kind of twists and turns that make some artists turn into great artists.

    I quite recently had a discussion about a very young artist, with a very intriguing line of works, with her dealer – a major dealer in the international art world. He was very much aware of this syndrome of artists stagnating after a too-early success, and even though he had decided to sign up with the artist in question very early he was very protective about her and deliberately didn’t introduce her to collectors at all. He had made only one exception, with a major collector who he considered to be “smart enough” not to only look for a new acquisitions, but also cares for the art and artists. I was amazed and impressed by his good taste in the matter.

    He is, of course, only naturally protecting his assets. He believes in the artist and expects the young artist to grow, and provides the peace she needs to do so and not simply become be the “next big hype”. Even though he might lose some short-term money by doing this, he will most likely have a more long-term win-win situation. If more dealers were careful like this and not thinking about short-term winnings, there would be less of a problem.

  2. Nice to hear about the enlightened dealer from Power Ekroth. Sounds like an admirable, if uncommonly wise, approach.

    PE’s post highlights the issue precisely. From a competent collector’s perspective, an opportunity to see and purchase good work is an opportunity worth taking; whatever the age of the artist, whatever the source. The problem with this scenario exists on the side of the emerging artist.

    Creating a work of Art shouldn’t be just about attracting a dealer or selling the work. The work itself should be the result of a need to communicate combined with the ability and talent to do so. What is the impact upon a young artist of sudden success and a sudden influx of cash? How is the young artist’s approach and attitude affected by instant positive exposure to the market? Surely there is the temptation to adjust one’s oeuvre to the tastes of the money? Of course this is also a temptation for supposedly less impressionable adults (the Chinese contemporary market being a wonderful example). But I cannot help feeling that some distance from the buying public is a good thing in an artist’s early, formative years.

    For those interested, we dealt with the issue of impressionable young artists in a previous thread.

  3. The matter of green artists has provoked comment for some time.

    I located Ileana Sonnabend’s thoughts, circa early 1980s, as quoted in “The Art Dealers.” Seems worth repeating and so here is what she had to say:

    “My advice to young artists who as yet have no gallery is this: they should wait; they should know that if something happens too soon, that this, too, can be a real danger; they must get to a certain level of maturity. It doesn’t have to do with age, or even with the number of years of work. It has more to do with timing and patience.

    What happens today is really a little sad. Artists often have a gallery before arriving at a true body of work. Too often young artists come and show dealers three or four photographs of their work, expecting on this basis that they will find a gallery. This is unhealthy and creates pressures for them afterward, pressures that can harm the artist, that prevent him from arriving at true maturity in the work.”

  4. How young should an artist be thrown into the deep waters of the art world and art market?

    Lindsay’s quote from Sonnabend evokes an attitude that seems to have vanished, more or less, by now; namely, that great art requires maturation and development in a kind of blissful isolation from the adult scene. And no question, the appearance of dealers at MFA shows was a bit disturbing, especially in light of those attitudes. Bruce Ferguson was probably right to say that, as an educational venue, the MFA show should not function as a commercial recruiting camp.

    Two caveats. First, we all know that young artists themselves long for this kind of exposure (I remember an earlier cohort of Columbia students who were denied an opportunity to present their MFA show in a SoHo gallery and were extremely upset about it). Is there not a hint of paternalism, and even turf protection, behind the older generation’s desire to protect young artists by fencing them off inside a commerce-free zone?

    Second, and more important, is the question of when an artist’s work should be exposed to professional scrutiny, which is now virtually inseperable from market scrutiny. The answer to this question surely must connect to some kind of assumption about the age at which artists produce strong work.

    The underlying assumption in the Sonnabend quote is that good work comes later. But the historical record often shows otherwise. Many great artists have produced their best work when they were young. A youthful spurt of creativity can be followed by gradual decline. In our neophiliac artworld culture, where the only commonly respected value is newsness, this is doubly true.

    Can we make rules about when artists should be presented to the wider public without agreeing on when artists produce public-ready work?

    By way of analogy I would offer mathematics. Mathematicians commonly produce some of their most original work at the beginning of their careers. Keeping them out of the academic marketplace and the lecture circuit would be counterproductive under those circumstances. Are we reassured that originality in art works on a different timeline?

  5. A recent grad from “the top art school on the East Coast” emailed this, requesting anonymity:

    I have seen and experienced the “scene” first hand. I agree that it is just bad news for art. This is obviously an enormous topic of discussion among (young artist) friends, because there is a greater “have and have-nots” line that is echoed by the possibility of being “discovered”.

    I believe there is a direct link between art schools, sellable art, and mediocrity. The whole premise of “critiques” is that of compromise. In a way, by being in an environment where “everyone’s voices should be heard” and “every criticism should be voiced”, but also where everyone is competitive, the way to cope is to find the middle. Critiques function by finding – collectively – a consensus to describe the work. If the artist actually cares about becoming marketable, it is very important to find the middle – “consensus” – and to remain there as long as possible. Paradoxically, the best art remains powerful – throughout the times – by asserting its order in full force. Meaning that it does not appease the middle. It’s not about being pleasant.

    Collectors and dealers came and went. The shocking thing, in the end (it has only been one year!) is that 95% of the people who were “picked up” were consistently mediocre, in the very “skillful” way art is made today. That is to say, their work appeared pleasant, and it showed its middle very successfully. (Whether “pretty art” or “carefully dishevelled”.) There are some really great people who were never in shows, because they were not very sociable/marketable. And the work was not easily definable, something that dealers who come to art schools are not interested in. Finally, the collecting thing unfortunately pushed away some interesting curators who used to come to these things.

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