Pass the crystal ball, please

ADAA.jpgIf you have been following the US election campaign, Saturday’s ADAA/MoMA panel on “Art Dealers and Auction Houses: A Cultural Divide” had a familiar ring to it. It felt like a presidential debate.

The teams of gallery and auction-house heavyweights – boasting “150 years of combined art-world experience” – exuded statesmanlike politesse. Some waxed doubtful about the gathering’s antagonistic premise, and none more so than Simon de Pury, who in his trademark, honey-dipped accent declared, “I find it amusing to hear about the so-called divide between auctions and dealers. We all have a great responsibility toward the artist.”

The jolly, why-can’t-we-just-get-along mood was breached only by occasional episodes of harpoon throwing, such as when Andrea Rosen compared auctioneers to sharks. “Sharks aren’t bad,” she offered, quoting an unnamed artist in her gallery, “They are opportunists. They take the fish that’s easiest to get.” But even Amy Capellazzo of Christie’s refused to take the bait.

Moderated by the unflappable Lindsay Pollock (an ArtWorld Salon friend), the discussion checked off various merits and weaknesses of the two art-business camps, and even lingered on their interdependencies. Among the more engrossing points was the one suggested by Michael Findlay, the panel’s ranking member by age, who cited “normal accident theory” to illustrate how galleries may prove more resistant in a recession. “The larger the system,” he said, “the more likely there will be catastrophic failure.” Comparing galleries to “mom and pop shops” that can be flexible in the face of a downturn, he concluded, “We may be the safest bet in the future.” Although he was making the comparison to auction houses, he could as well have been referring to art fairs, some of which, as Ian points out in the previous thread, may also quickly become casualties of a severe downturn.

The best came at the end, when it was time to opine about what’s around the corner. David Zwirner predicted that “Things will soften a bit, there will be a slight shakeout, but medium and long-term prospects are very good.” Michael Findlay suggested, “What will come back to the market is a degree of selectivity that has been lacking.” According to Andrea Rosen, “Some of this is already happening. I’ve learned a lot from opening my gallery during a recession. I already see a reorientation to meaning.”

“It’s impossible not to have the uncertainty in the larger markets effect our market,” said Amy Cappellazzo, adding that people are likely to gravitate to “what makes them feel safe,” such as painting. For Anthony Grant of Sotheby’s, the “market is so international now” and “the way people make money is so different,” that it has become difficult to make predictions. Simon de Pury got the last word: “It’s an issue of availability,” he said. “The only thing you can do, if you have money, is to build the best contemporary art collection in the world. The market is just beginning to be truly global … I feel very optimistic.”

What does your crystal ball say?

4 thoughts on “Pass the crystal ball, please”

  1. As I do not possess a crystal ball, allow me to defer to my Magic 8-Ball.

    + As I see it, yes
    0 Ask again later
    0 Better not tell you now
    0 Cannot predict now
    0 Concentrate and ask again
    – Don’t count on it
    + It is certain
    + It is decidedly so
    + Most likely
    – My reply is no
    – My sources say no
    + Outlook good
    – Outlook not so good
    0 Reply hazy, try again
    + Signs point to yes
    – Very doubtful
    + Without a doubt
    + Yes
    + Yes – definitely
    + You may rely on it

    Of twenty possibles, ten are affirmative, five negative, five uncertain. Surprisingly similar to the consensus of the panelists, as reported by Andras: a cautious optimism, tempered by undercurrents of short term pessimism.

  2. Conventional wisdom (and a few dealers I know who survived the last recession) says the art market won’t really feel the effects of a recession until about 18 months into it. If true, at this point no one really has much in the way of evidence to conclude very much at all. The fact that the auction houses and galleries are still holding their own right now might be attributable to the new global nature of the market, or we might simply be in that gestation period before the art market feels the effects.

    I do agree with Findlay that smaller operations are more likely to survive a hit. Lower overhead and operational costs will help a great deal, no doubt. There’s also the notion that as larger operations have to cut back, that provides opportunities for smaller, more nimble operations (read new galleries or smaller auction houses) to rush in and pick up some of the market during the chaos.

  3. Findlay’s statement recalls the situation of British musician Robert Fripp in the late 1970s, after the breakup of his progressive rock band King Crimson. Fripp started to record on his own, with guitar, overdubbing, and tape loops or delays (a system later called “Frippertronics”). He was able to tour more informally, to operate by himself, to perform live solo concerts in smaller, informal venues.

    This allowed him to be what he famously termed a “small, mobile, intelligent unit”, as distinct from being part of the huge, unwieldy infrastructure of a rock concert. For Fripp it was a fundamental aesthetic decision, but also a necessary survival mechanism, an economy of scale based on his millennial observations. Excerpted from an interview of the period:

    At the moment, we’re going through a transition from the old world to the new. The old world is characterised by what one contemporary philosopher has termed “the dinosaur civilisation”, large and unwieldy, without much intelligence.

    All these units originally start out to service a need but you now have a situation where, being creative, they have to create needs in order that they may continue to exist.

    The large units have immense resources and a lot of power, albeit power of a not very nice kind or quality, which they will use to maintain their existence.

    They will not, I feel, be intelligent enough to realise that, in fact, they’re dead and, instead of co-operating and participating in the coming of the new world, I think there will be a fight.

    This outlook may be more dire than the general tone of the ADAA panel, but it certainly stresses a preference for flexibility and small scale adaptability in uncertain times.

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