Too much of a good thing?

300px-supply_and_demand_curvessvgWith the Whitney Biennial, Armory Show, ADAA Art Show, Independent, Moving Image, Nada, Scope, and Volta fairs, their sundry offshoots and side events, innumerable gallery openings, and the auction season about to rain down on us here in New York, this may be a good time to talk about artistic overproduction. And right on cue, along comes Adrian Ellis’ cogent essay on the supply-demand problem in Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, an obscure but important journal for cultural-policy wonks.

Some Reflections on the Relationship Between Supply and Demand in the Formalized Arts Sector” is more titillating reading than its title suggests. It’s framed in response to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s refreshingly impolitic claim, not long after his appointment, in 2009, that the arts sector may be overbuilt. The Chairman was met by predictable howls of indignation at the time. The reigning orthodoxy is that no amount of art can be too much—economics be damned. But let’s admit he had a point.

Ellis credits Landesman (brother of Artforum publisher Knight) for sparking a conversation about the imbalance between the amount of art emanating from the cultural-industrial complex of 501c3 organizations and the amount of art that regular folks actually have an appetite for consuming. In fact, this debate has been quietly raging for years, especially inside foundations. In any event, the article is a must-read for anyone who wishes to speak knowledgeably about our besieged arts infrastructure, and what should be done about it.

In case 5,000 words of policy analysis shatters your own demand curve, here’s the gist: “supply has overshot demand and failed to stimulate demand sufficiently for it to catch up.” And no wonder. A stunning data point is cited, courtesy of Americans for the Arts: “between 2003 and 2009, a new nonprofit arts organization was created every three hours in the US.”

Ellis finds no quick fixes. Cultural nonprofits present a depressing tableau comprised of a few bright spots, sprawling grey zones, and far too many institutions on the brink of a “death spiral.” Why is it so hard to rein in arts production? For several reasons. Arts facilities are “bespoke” and therefore difficult to repurpose. Mergers run up against ingrained attitudes. Organized labor, especially in the performing arts, adds “inflexibilities.” The absence of liquid capital markets makes financing change a challenge. The huge civic effort required to build cultural institutions also makes it tough to accept their failure.

The future is none more bright. Ellis predicts a tough slog of “hypercompetition,” obsession with earned income, cost cutting, nervous debate about “recalibrating supply and demand,” and, in a dismaying paradox, “risk-averse funding and programming strategies at the very time when strategic innovation should be encouraged.”

The situation may be less dire in the visual arts, Ellis allows. Museums seem better equipped to lure today’s audiences. He credits their flexible opening hours and the range of activities they offer visitors.

There may be more reasons to be sanguine, I believe. The visual-art sector is a unique “public-private partnership” where the for-profit side—galleries, auctions, fairs, arts media—invest significant money and effort into marketing, generating the heat and hype that raise public awareness, audience interest, and philanthropic support for the whole enterprise. The nonprofit side—museums, art spaces, academics—profit from this adrenaline boost while providing legitimacy for it (even while bemoaning overhyped artists and their inflated prices).

I put this notion to Adrian Ellis (disclosure: we’ve done consulting and a lot of thinking together about these issues) and he emailed back in agreement, up to a point. “I think what you say applies to the high end of contemporary art, and there’s a synergistic relationship between the auction houses and galleries and the art machine’s interest and those parts of the nonprofit ecology that feed and support it; but this eclipses the vast mass of institutions and, within institutions, collections.” He followed up with this timely quote from White Cube’s Jay Jopling, from The Financial Times:

“The blurring of public and private has happened in many ways. Our Chuck Close show went to the Hermitage [in St Petersburg], Gilbert and George’s ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ toured internationally to museums. And collectors engage with the scale of large works such as Anselm Kiefer’s [Kiefer’s museum-quality ‘Il Mistero delle Cattedrali’ show at White Cube closed last week] – we sold to private and public collections in America, China, Germany. Many collectors now go beyond putting things on walls, beyond buying as an investment. They are passionate about display, they want to leave something, a mark, a legacy, a contribution.”

It may be well true that the symbiosis of commercial and noncommercial energies leaves the art world in a stronger position to buck the trend described in Ellis’ essay. But with about 400 art events in Manhattan next week, I’m not so sure. So which is it – best of both worlds, or impending death spiral?

1 thought on “Too much of a good thing?”


    Thank you for the virtual ink – quantity and quality. It was a tough, slow exercise getting it down, so I am more that usually sensitive about the characterization of the argument and I would take issue with you in one place.

    The debate about oversupply has a vaudeville aspect in which Cassandra and Polyanna slug it out (“Oh yes there is!”,” Oh no there isn’t!”..). I felt like you were casting me as Cassandra. But I tried to approach the issue in a way that sidestepped the pantomime by looking to see what theoretical grounds there might be for supply overshooting (the freakonomics bit), and then looking for dis-firming or confirming evidence. This was to try to get the temperature down and allow the arts community to engage in the debate carefully without feeling like they are letting the side down by raising the topic. So your general thrust is a bit melodramatic for my taste (or perhaps just for my purposes). I think the ‘death spiral’ is definitely reserved for outliers in this scenario and say so in the article; I see the much greater threat is of an cautious, preoccupied, enervated ‘middle’ absorbing time, money and the emotional reserves of the sector. We should not be looking to Kubler Ross for help – this is more about diagnosis, prognosis and…prescription!

    Also, I also want to underscore that this piece is about the vitality and effectiveness of nonprofit arts organizations, not of all the other contexts in which art is made and enjoyed. But, more generally, thanks.

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