Anti-market ruse, or Insta-Collection?

In a few weeks, “For Sale,” a show curated by Jens Hoffmann, director of San Francisco’s Wattis Institute, will open at Cristina Guerra Contemporary Art in Lisbon. Hoffmann’s statement describes the exhibition as a reflection of the current trend toward curators organizing shows in commercial galleries, a tactic which downplays the space’s art-dealing in favor of its cultural role. Playing slightly deuxième degré, Hoffmann has asked the artists that he selected for works directly reflecting the fact that the show takes place in a commercial context. The artists lists is strong, multi-generational and brainy, including Allora & Calzadila, John Baldessari, Elmgreen & Dragset, Andrea Fraser, Ryan Gander, Louise Lawler, Tim Lee, Jonathan Monk, Raymond Pettibon, Tino Sehgal, and Mario Garcia Torres.

Here’s the interesting twist: “None of the works in the exhibition can be bought individually and the show can only be acquired as a whole. This fact… obstructs the eventual purchase of the art works – it is clearly more expensive and far more complex to acquire a whole show rather than an individual work. While seemingly completely embracing the commercial aspect of the gallery, FOR SALE in fact tries to obstruct routine business.”

I’d love to see this show due its artists and concept, yet I’m especially curious how effective Hoffmann’s dictate will prove in its stated objective. Frankly, I would not be entirely surprised if some collector takes the plunge, given the mixture of hot young names and established stars, plus Hoffmann’s own curatorial imprimatur. (Obligatory disclosure: Hoffmann curates the Art Perform section of Art Basel Miami Beach; we also once survived a kimchi-and-karaoke night out together in Gwangju, Korea.) After all, if art-market history teaches us anything, it’s that the market is endlessly inventive and surprising when confronted with attempts to obstruct or circumvent it. For someone with tons of money and a big display space, who also happens to share Hoffmann’s taste, the Lisbon show could prove an attractive way to turbo-charge their collection. (Or a museum, better yet.) If it “fails,” this concept could prove strikingly successful for everyone concerned.

13 thoughts on “Anti-market ruse, or Insta-Collection?”

  1. Another brilliant project by Jens Hoffmann, I think. He is able to get these challenging shows put up in the right context. The fact that the list of artists holds only successful names is the challenge that they have to work against when attempting to produce this “unsellable” exhibition together. I think the whole show will prove an interesting thought, like one piece of art, because of the fact that the works seem to relate to each other. You rarely find shows with such ambitious and subversive ideas. Even if the show would sell (actually selling it all, as I understand), it will represent both the power of the respective buyer as well as an understanding of the critical approach and the importance of such a statement. So it would be a success either way, I think.

    I am curious how the artists themselves guarantee that these works do not go for sale or are ever displayed in another setting than this show, that would be the very same line-up of works, though. Have they all signed contracts on this specific point and will the works perhaps be destroyed if not sold? How would one prevent them from being spread and shown again in the future? Perhaps each work could be accompanied by a certificate with a list of all the works and highlighting the respective piece, in addition to a statement regarding the condition of the “display”?

    It is interesting to consider how the piece, I mean the combined pieces, would be priced in the future if stored and sold later. I could imagine it wold be like a fund of selected stocks compared to single company stocks, where the price level of each artist will have to be considered and calculated all together.

    Also note Hoffmann’s upcoming forever (!) running show with Tino Sehgal at CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art. That is going to be another special show.

  2. The show draws on an interesting group of artists, all with impressive conceptual credentials, all of whom have previously made work that questions underlying assumptions on the role of the art object in the marketplace, on presentation strategies in exhibition, and on the politics of perception. To the extent that a show can only be as good as the assembled work, it might be a very good show indeed.

    This should be enough, but would hardly satisfy Hoffmann, who wants to deal with the meta-. His shows generally comment, self consciously, on their show-ness. The Sixth International Caribbean Biennial, which he organized with Maurizio Cattelan in St. Kitts in 2000, was an invitational with artists but no art, a pool party that ended with a hurricane. Hoffmann’s prankster stance can be both daring and affable, but it sometimes lands him in critical hot water. For example, he chose all the work for “Exhibitions of an Exhibition”, a group show at Casey Kaplan Gallery (summer 2003), but then assigned the writing of statements (and therefore the definition of context) to four younger curators, thus creating four shows from one. Gregory Williams was not impressed with the facility of this pose. In his Artforum review, he warned us of “less rigorous” curators who

    thrive on the knowledge that current curatorial practice is a voracious and permissive beast and allows for greatly exaggerated claims to innovation and criticality…the curator’s traditional prerogative of choosing artists no longer seems to be enough of a challenge; cunning maneuvering must now accompany it…such projects exist almost exclusively in the barren space of the press release; one hardly even needs to see the show, since in the end a gimmick has been made to carry all the weight.

    Ouch and double ouch. While I might not be so stringent, I do understand this reaction to curatorial “showboating”, and the hankering for a simpler posture: Choose the work. Let it remain the center of attention. Allow it to define the show. Don’t obscure it with overarching cleverness.

    What bothers me in the central conceit of “For Sale” is its conceptual coyness. It treads the line between brilliance and opportunism. There is no way it can actually fail, or “fail”. If it remains unsold, it fulfills its stated goal of obstructing routine business, and bathes everyone involved — curator, gallery, artists — in the halo of selfless cultural experimentation. But should it sell to a mega-collector or institution, then it will not only be a great financial success, but also provide an instructive commentary on current market dynamics. And of course it would be a landmark acquisition for any institutional or private collection that could afford it. A classic case of having your cake and eating it too.

    Since the show is all about the market and its discontents, several organizational questions come to mind. Is all the art being newly created to address the theme, or is some already existing work? And will the prospective collector not only be required to buy the show as a whole, but also be required to exhibit and (potentially) re-sell it in the same manner? In other words, is it Hoffmann’s intention that all the work remain together (perhaps even arranged in the same floor plan) as a single, inviolable unit, for all eternity?

  3. Having been shunned by gallerists around the world and put on endless “waiting lists” for hot artists, a wealthy (brand new money) collector seizes this opportunity to gain entree. Imagine the publicity! Top collector lists in magazines! Going to the top of the waiting list! Invited to fabulous parties and trustee status!

    Some time later, none of these come to fruition and the collector gets the shipping bill and storage/conservation regulations and as Jan and Steven implied what if these works can only be loaned together as a whole, or re-sold as a whole? Does this make one piece of art in the show not worthy unless it is with the others? Or does it make one piece more worthy because of the company and history it shares?

  4. I am with the Artforum reviewer on this one. The concept is interesting but I question the need to give it physical form. As an intellectual exercise it could be realized as a magazine article or a polemical paper in a conference, held out for discussion and absorbed. Or perhaps its most potent platform would be as a case study and proposition in the plethora of art market courses offered by auction houses or the more enterprising business schools.

  5. Well, I’m going to side with Jan (and Jens) here. Merely writing a polemical paper would not have sufficed. Because actually doing the show with a commercial gallery and more than two dozen artists (click here for the full list) forces the curator, collector and artists themselves to confront the issues raised at the nitty-gritty level.

    As noted above, these include issues such as exhibition and sale of future works as individual pieces? And what if one artist objects to the piece being loaned to some museum with which he or she has some disagreement? Aside from museum loans, what about exhibition in the collector’s private home – can he or she cherry-pick from the two-dozen pieces and the store the rest, or is that also an all-or-nothing deal? If an individual piece, God forbid, should get destroyed in some accident, or stolen, does the “artwork” remain indivisible?

    Obviously, at some point (way) down the road an artworld Gordon Gekko could attempt to buy the work and sell of the individual pieces. One hopes the necessary legal measures are in place, applicable worldwide. Eternity’s a long time, after all. Perhaps there’s a statute of limitations on this piece, after which – poof – a legal transubstantiation takes place and they revert to their original individual nature. Until then, as Jan points out, for those keeping score the value of this “artwork” will be calculated something like this: (value of individual pieces) + (added value of being part of this “artwork”) – (legal/storage/insurance/exhibition issues related to indivisibility of the “artwork).

  6. Interesting you mention Gordon Gekko, Marc. He’s exactly the image that came to mind when I read your initial post and considered a collector who might at some point own all of “For Sale”. Not the original purchaser, to be sure, but perhaps the instigator of a “hostile takeover” somewhere down the line. Might he then want to dispose of it piecemeal, chop shop style? Would there be legal barriers to this division? a statute of limitations, as you suggest? And would all these “nitty-gritty” considerations add to our appreciation of a single work in the exhibition, or merely for the corporate construct that is being imposed on them?

    Regarding “eternity”, I wonder whether a business model is the best comparison. There is a more personal contract that invokes the phrase “till death do you part”. But in our litigious times, many marriages are first defined by a pre-nuptial agreement. I’d really like to see the pre-nup for “For Sale”.

  7. Marc, these are all interesting questions, but none of them compels me to see the show (the point in Steven’s Artforum quote). We can take away most of the juice in this show without it ever being realized. And your formula (which is conceptually identical to the accounting notion of “Goodwill” or the “intangible or brand value”) at the end of your last comment reinforces where there is concept is best explored — in a course on the art market.

    Perhaps I am getting cranky because permutations on this theme of faux-resistance to the all-consuming market are getting a bit boring — PS1’s “Not For Sale” or Nedko Solakov’s “Leftovers” at Kunsthaus Zurich come most readily to mind.

    But maybe we just have to agree to disagree on this one.

  8. I’m sorry, but I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around a series of arguments that, structurally, can be marshaled to defend Hirst’s diamond skull as a conceptually robust and commercially resistant aesthetic gesture just as easily as they are being made to serve the conceit of Hoffmann’s show. Am I wrong in this?

    If the issue is shear cost, there can be no difference. The logistical complexities and collateral expenses are rendered irrelevant.

    Now, if the show’s conceptual bite comes from considering the restrictions that (we’re all assuming) would attend the sale of a body of works such as these, then wouldn’t it have been more rigorous for Hoffmann to ask the artists to create works that–individually, and according to the artists’ own dictates–bear these kinds of restrictions? It’s the curatorial conceit that’s doing this work at the moment. No doubt some artists will up the ante all on their own. But we need to distinguish between a show that may or may not lay bare the contractual issues that accompany–are indeed integral to–these, our favored brand of luxury good, from one that simply sets a high price tag for itself.

  9. What is the price of “the show,” and, if it is in fact sold, how will the profits be shared amongst the gallery, artists and (I suppose) the curator. Aside from this technicality, there are also questions regarding the character of the exhibition. For example, whether the agreement’s between the gallery, curator and artists are part of the exhibition’s make-up or is its discursive iteration and/or if certificate of sale and authenticity with specific conditions comes with its purchase (a press release does not suffice); whether it brings together good or interesting works by these artists (the parameters to create work seem rather restrictive); and, whether there is a meaningful commonness or difference amongst the artists, practices or artworks in the show (other than simply being the curator’s current favorites). The artist’s list presents relatively familiar names, and although impressive, that does not imply quality of work nor concept.

    Seth Siegelaub and his generation established that making exhibitions did not literally have to entail making exhibitions, and Jens has renewed this history. Many of Jens’ projects of the last five to seven years have been performance-oriented projects, constructively shaping exhibitions (and what he often terms meta-exhibitions) as unique events that are closer to conceptual art than plain curatorial work. FOR SALE is one of these, however, based on its current description, I am not convinced that the premise for this is strong nor that it can offer, as an exhibition, an interesting experience about the complex relations that artists, curators, dealers and other cultural producers have (or lack) with the art market today. An exhibition of Andrea Fraser’s work alone can do this anytime, anywhere.

    Steven mentions earlier “Exhibitions of an Exhibition” at Casey Kaplan in New York. I was actually one of the four participating curators that wrote a statement. Aside from liking the show as an idea and as an installation, I genuinely enjoyed the curatorial process, particularly because of the conversations about immaterial exhibitions that I had with Jens and one of three other curators, Raimundas Malasauskas. But the reviews and the feedback by a number of colleagues were harsh. They claimed that the curatorial premise was simply a pose needing of (and thereby making use of) artworks; that neither the idea was compelling nor were the arguments developed; that artists and artworks were selected capriciously. Etcetera. I still think today that the exhibition was provocative, even in its clumsiness, and that engaging us to make sense of the artworks was another way of inviting the public to imagine and make-up their own exhibitions. Maybe FOR SALE can do this, too. But I think that its criticality can lie in its discursive iteration (agreements, contracts, certificates) rather than the exhibition of discrete works.

    I respect Jens’ work. I have learned from it, and have also benefited much from his practice, as by the work of other independent (most now institutionally-affiliated) curators that emerged in the 1990s and that together paved the way for more inventive and unorthodox curatorial endeavors. Jens’ best work is the one that formally challenges notions of exhibition-making and the language that defines curatorial practice, such as his recent work with artists like Tino Sehgal and Jonathan Monk at the ICA in London. More of these “exhibitions” are needed, as they can raise profound questions about the potentialities of artistic production and aesthetic experience, of how these can critically shape the culture industry and our experience of the world.

  10. All works in this exhibition will be sold together rather than as individual pieces and the exhibition has to remain together after the sale. None of the works can be sold individually by a collector or even be shown individually. The works can only be shown together and only in the original configuration of the installation in the gallery. When buying the show the collector has to agree to these terms, moreover, we are showing the works in a model of the gallery that is 15% smaller than the actual space and which sits inside the gallery. This model (or rather a set of instructions on how to build it) will also be bought by the collector and needs to be set up if she or he wants to present the works again. The price of the show is the combined amount of the individual prices of the works. The artists receive 50% of the profits for their individual work, the gallery gets their cut which in most cases is less than 50% as most works are consigned through other galleries. The curator does not get a cut from the profits, but is simply paid a fee for organizing the exhibition.

    The gallery is very confident that they find a buyer. What is interesting is that many of the artists in the show have picked up with their works exactly on this point. Jordan Kantor is contributing a piece titled ‘Mine/Yours’ (fractional painting), 2007. The collector purchasing it only acquires 50% of the title to the work. Kantor is retaining 50% ownership over the work. This split-title to the work is largely symbolic, as he will allow the collector to keep the work in their possession, and will not exert his legal right to possession of the 50% of the painting. This will only become an issue if the collector ever tries to sell the exhibition, as they will not have majority ownership of the painting allowing them to unilaterally transfer the title.

  11. Thanks for entering the fray, Jens. It seems Jordan is right on target with his piece, closely addressing issues that speak to your curatorial premise, that closely circumscribe the ownership and eventual disposition of the work. Is this also true of other work in the show? Do many of them contain an intrinsic definition or limitation of their status as property, a set of instructions for re-exhibition, etc.?

    Also, is all work being newly created for the show (commissioned, as it were), or are you using certain previous pieces? Considering the well known interests of many of the participants, I can imagine some already have work that is totally appropriate to the show, or have possibly created documentation (photo or video) of previous installations and performances that could readily be included. Does this latter instance, if applicable, require a change in the work’s free agent status, assumed when it was first made, to the present situation of only being available as part of a collective sale?

    Finally, although the current Documenta is still up, I also wonder if an artist should curate the next one.

  12. New York art and intellectual property lawyer Franklin Boyd emailed us this:

    I am wondering if, given Hoffmann’s restrictions and the building of a separate exhibition space, whether the entire installation is to be considered as one work of art (similar to an artist who sells a series of photographs as a single work). If so, then under at least United States Copyright law (I am not certain how this plays out in Europe), each of the artists contributing work would arguably be considered joint authors, giving each of them a joint, indivisible 100% interest in the entire work. This has major ramifications for, among other things, the duration of copyright protection for the work of art as well as obvious ownership issues, which would effect whether Kantor can actually retain title to his contributed work much less whether he can restrict its sale.

    Of course this approach may help protect the integrity of the project, as European Droit Morale laws already prohibit the dismantling of a single work of art (and is potentially protected by VARA’s right of integrity as well). And you may also have some very interesting ramifications for droit de suite and other royalty payments. I don’t raise these points to be critical of the show’s conceit, only to point out that the show’s conceptual grounding may have ramifications that exceed its intentions and expectations.

  13. Hm, it sounds like the show is already succeeding on some level by spurring on an exploration of the ideas of ownership and individual authorship as well as the mechanisms of the collector and the market.

    In reality, just as gallery resale clauses do, I suspect the existence of the conditions and the potential for their legal assertion and enforcement will be enough to keep much of the secondary market [i.e., the auctions and open-air markets such as art fairs] from brokering a separate piece from the show.

    That said, I’ve spent years trying to piece back together various sets of editions from the 60’s and 70’s, which dealers somewhere have happily broken up and sold for parts.

    And I’ve been offered the photo Felix Gonzalez-Torres contributed to the Printed Matter edition twice, despite his explicit instructions that the work could not be sold separate from the set.

    The one I still can’t crack, though, is Walter deMaria’s foot-long steel bar, which is stamped with instructions that it never be sold for more than $100. If anyone has one to sell, I’d be so grateful, I’d probably invite you to ABMB, my treat… Where there’s a market will, there’ll be a market way.

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