At what cost, production?


The Art Newspaper leads today with a piece by Louisa Buck about “Artists  Clawing Back Control From Dealers.” If the title is a bit hyperbolic, the article itself is a measured account of how artists such as Kieth Tyson and Gavin Turk have begun hiring financial advisors and forming their own companies in order to maintain better and perhaps more centralized control over, and so creativity in, the production of their work.   For a long time, galleries served this purpose for their artists, functioning as the business and finance arm of their activities, which often meant that a gallery would front significant amounts of money to realize an artist’s particular vision.   (It was Jeffrey Deitch’s financing of Jeff Koons’ Celebration series of sculptures which nearly bankrupted the gallery and ended in Deitch’s temporary partnership with Sotheby’s.)

The sticking point in the gallery-artist relationship comes, of course, when that production money comes with strings attached; namely in claims to ownership of the work or some percentage of it, or, perhaps more difficult for artists to accept, sometimes a say in the ultimate outcome of the piece.    Such is the case with Emmanuel Perrotin’s new venture, ‘Artists’ Dreams’, which will use an outside pool of investment capital to produce works which will then be exclusively consigned to his gallery for sale.

So it makes sense that artists who have the means to do so might choose some measure of economic autonomy from their galleries when it comes to questions of production.    But “the means to do so,” as we well know, would seem to exclude a large number of working artists, whose only business outlets are the galleries who stand to profit from the sales of their work, and whose markets and operations are too small to warrant hiring the likes of Frank Dunphy (Hirst’s business manager) or his firm, Hogbens Dunphy, which manages Turk and Tyson among others.

The idea that this move is one of “clawing back control” from dealers is a bit misleading then.   After all, if you can finance it yourself, why would you take on outside obligations?   If you can handle the risk, you get the control.   (It’s actually surprising to me that more artists haven’t made this move sooner.)   I know one artist who finances his own work and then backs those costs out of the sale of his art before splitting anything with his gallery.   Of course, the market for that work had better already be there, or else one may soon be faced with a Celebration-esque economic disaster.   And this question is not limited to the relationship between artists and their dealers.   Many non-collecting institutions underwrite all or portions of the produciton of new works for exhibition.   But often the associated “ownership stake” involves the negotiation of tricky contracts, in which small musuems and kunsthalles have only their prestige to serve as leverage.

So the question is: Are there other options out there that we’re not seeing?   As the economy continues to slide, and production costs become ever more onerous, will the majority of artists working today become ever more indentured to production funds, whether these come from galleries, museums or independent sources?   And might we not also see a change in the scale of operations taken on by artists in the coming months and years as well?

5 thoughts on “At what cost, production?”

  1. Although what you describe is redolent of boom-time ambitions — big money getting behind big expensive art — it actually speaks to changes in the art world that have been a long time coming and may well survive the current downturn.

    The two salient facts about the emerging ecology of the art world are A./ the vastly increased number of artists and B./ the much higher average prices of contemporary art works. These changes pose a challenge for the gallery system, which was established to steward the careers of a smaller number of artists producing works of lesser value. Those works demanded lower development and distribution expenses. Dealers were able to help their small groups of artists to some degree in creating work in advance of sales. As a result, the gallery system has for long been able to combine functions that in other cultural industries fall to disparate types of companies. But that may be changing.

    Consider publishing. A literary agent — undercapitalized but nimble and connected — is responsible for finding the talent, paying attention to a small but demanding roster of writers, and striking deals with publishers. The publishers — highly capitalized, with corporate muscle and staffs — undertake the production of the books. Book stores — geographically dispersed, and because of online sales, ubiquitous — take care of distribution.

    As the art world continues to grow, there is theoretically no reason why these different functions, demanding such different types of capital and human resources, should continue to be concentrated solely in art galleries.

  2. I agree with Jonthan’s sense that the central thrust of this article is misleading.

    The argument as presented seems to hinge on the condescending (and in my experience untrue) idea that it’s not obvious to artists upfront that a gallery is not an interest-free lending bank. Of course a gallery would want to see some profit off investing in the production of work, and the only direct means to do that is to sell the work. The notion that anyone would assume a dealer should fund the production but then let someone else reap the profit is gob-smacking to me.

    The devil may be in the details with regards to purported resentment among artists who accepted gallery funding and then were upset the gallery wished to retain its consignment, but again, I think that that particular chronology is a more likely a dramatic construction of the writer and not a reflection of how most artists understand galleries interests in funding production.

    Finally, it’s unfortunate in my opinion (as a dealer) to see evidence of a gallery’s faith in one of their artists (funding production of expensive work) treated as if it were somehow manipulative or, worse, easy. Most dealers I know (and Jonathan’s example of Deitch shows it’s not only new galleries) really have to struggle and hustle to find the funds to support production but they do it out of belief in the work. Some credit where it’s due, please.

  3. At first I considered that there might be something internal to the work of the artist as administrator/producer that would make this move an internally necessitated expression of ‘the work itself”, and conflict of interest perhaps just a bit of spin. But recall that Tyson’s “fractal die,” at Pace Wildenstein just this September-October, were manufactured by a gallery production team. There does seem to be something real in this story, but I would want to know more about the actual circumstances, what pressures did Tyson perceive in this arrangement? Is it a matter of controlling the commissions from such a series, and of setting up his own production house in order to do so?

    Concerns about well-trained laborers emerged with Sol Lewitt’s death. What to do with all those who had been trained to draw on the walls, where will they go? And what about Liza Lou’s 30 zulu beaders, who she found through “Aid to Artisans”? What will happen to them? Now that artists have begun such productions, who in fact is managing the factory would be an issue.

    I am seeing this as a business issue, and wonder if it is now indivisible from the work in a way that it hasn’t always been. Murakami and Hirst have provided the cast for it as such. Perhaps we would we say the same of the 19thc. French tabletop sculptor Barye. Or maybe this is different. At any rate it is time to admit that one thing galleries have traditionally done is somewhat paradoxically to provide some autonomy between the artist’s work and the market, and when we are talking about conflict of interest here it may not be in the notion of any conflict of interest with regard to aesthetic autonomy, but more literally of who is getting paid for what. Note Tyson’s actual words: “There’s a conflict of interest in having the people who retail your work being the same people that help you with production because they will try and own it.”

    With regard to conflict of interest, is there any longer a distinction here worth holding on to? What did Pace Wildenstein want of Keith Tyson? Something more blue, a resistance to infinite die? As Edward said, “the devil is in the details.”

  4. Brett Littman, Executive Director of The Drawing Center, just published this piece in The Art Newspaper, developing in full the issues that face non-collecting institutions involved in the commissioning of artists’ projects that go on to enter the commercial sphere.

  5. This is interesting – non-profits and art centers (as opposed to museums) are protecting a notion of autonomy with regard to the “production studio” by not asking to be compensated for production costs. How will they survive with these “old tired ethics”, when private investors are jumping on the bandwagon for an explicitly commercial venture? And who is going to win out in the poor economy we are expecting?

    I find the case of MM particularly revealing of the quandaries here, as they market themselves as a design team- unlike, for example, Jorge Pardo who blurs the boundaries from the other side, that of the artist’s proper name. Given the history of these alignments, it is kind of funny to hear Littman say that the design team has “graciously” invested in their own work. Categories have run all afoul, haven’t they?

    I’m not one for conjecture, but I am definitely interested in watching how these new arrangements between artists, gallerists and investors will work out in the end. At the moment it strikes me as very romantic that Allan McCollum’s “Shapes project” is planned to extend beyond his own lifetime, his production studio already belongs to his death.

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