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. Continue reading “Too much of a good thing?”

Hey friend, can you spare $150 million?

sundancesolar_1868_1630372Here comes news that Kickstarter, the three year-old online fundraising company, is set to distribute more money next year for cultural projects than the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s right: Kickstarter’s bootstrapped giving may exceed the agency’s circa $150 million budget. And it’s growing.

The announcement signals just how rapidly our funding mechanisms are turning obsolete. It also highlights the roundly different priorities that come into play when funding choices are left to “regular folks” rather than “experts”. Kickstarter’s top three, million-dollar-plus earning projects so far have been an animated film, a design for an iPad dock, and a computer game.

None of this bodes too well for the sort of organizations and initiatives that benefited from arts funding in the past.

For half a century, US philanthropy consisted of a cozy collaboration between tax exempt fine arts organizations and tax exempt giving bodies. For all the efforts foundations spend analyzing their own behavior and chasing innovation, as organizations they remain stunningly risk-averse. Now along comes a giving method that blithely sidesteps the old categories of patronage. Its very success is an indictment of the inefficiencies and blind spots of the old model.

The problem is that the direct democracy represented by Kickstarter will not provide a full answer to arts funding, any more than blogs and tweets can replace professional news gathering operations. Continue reading “Hey friend, can you spare $150 million?”

Double dipping?

elevatorTalk about a double dip recession has coaxed the oracles of the art world away from their swimming pools to their laptops. Savvy trend-watchers have been grappling with a surprisingly meaty question for this time of the year? Will the art market follow equities into “correction” territory, or worse, this fall?

The verdict? Maybe. Or maybe not. They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing.

Adam Lindemann in the New York Observer compared art unfavorably to gold. “Despite all the talk of art as investment, and the fact that a lot of art has appreciated, I think you would still be much better off with gold,” he concluded. Noah Horowitz, answering interview questions in the same publication, said art has more in common with gold—as “as a durable good,” he argued, it “is attractive to people in times like this.” However, he cautioned, “If we see a decrease in wealth levels of the elite, that’s one way to gauge how art will be valued.”

With more gyrations almost certain to roil the financial markets, expect a spike in art-market prognostication in the weeks to come. Yet as Noah correctly points out, we’ll need to get past the big fall art fairs to get a true read on the market’s direction. In the meantime, here are three dynamics to watch.

First, will the bifurcated trend pattern separating hyper-luxury from everything else persist, or will a potential downturn be severe enough to sink all boats? The post-2008 experience tells us that horrible things can happen to the economy while the upper-upper tier of the market chugs along, relatively unscathed.

Second, has so much excess been built into the art market as to threaten a nosedive? Continue reading “Double dipping?”

Are we booming yet?

soap_bubbles_2_1273670534Sarah Thornton in The Economist magazine recently described the art market as a bubble bath – an apt metaphor for a market made up of a myriad distinct markets for individual artists, each one expanding or contracting at any given time. It appears that, as of late, the foam is getting frothier, or the bath is getting bigger, or both.

At an Art Basel dinner earlier this month, a dealer told me about a collector who missed a chance to buy a work on opening day because he came back to the booth “twenty minutes after the reserve deadline” – a prime froth indicator. There were signs of invigorated confidence everywhere.

The auction market is likewise pushing into boom territory, as last week’s London auction sales attest. Christie’s evening contemporary and post-war auction saw twenty-five works sell for over $1 million, including a 1953 Study for a Self-portrait by Francis Bacon for $28.6 million, two-and-a-half times above estimate. Netting $126 million, it was the second biggest sale in its category for Christie’s in London. Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale did even better, totaling more than $174 million, the highest ever for a contemporary auction in London, with forty-five lots going over $1 million. Both sales produced stellar sell-through rates, set numerous records, and drew buyers from all over the world.

In the early build-up phase of a boom, the market can achieve a kind of self-reinforcing pattern. Formerly cautious sellers offer up material they were reluctant to test on the market earlier. Quality work stokes more buying and bidding, which coaxes more quality inventory off walls and storage racks, propelling yet more sales and price increases. Continue reading “Are we booming yet?”

The season of our disconnect

bigstockphoto_ear_2677195I got back from Art Basel this weekend on a plane full of artworld types, with fresh impressions for my interesting disconnects file.

First, between the ebullience of the art fair and the dark financial clouds roiling over Europe, where states teeter on the edge of insolvency and people are taking to the streets. There is a yawning chasm right now between the revived luxury spending boom and the malaise that grips the bottom ninety-eight percent. The subject kept coming up, quietly but persistently, at parties around town.

Second, during an Art Basel Conversation I moderated on the future of museum collecting, a London-based curator from Bangladesh pressed the assembled directors, and in particular Chris Dercon of the Tate Modern, when and how they will genuinely engage his community and others like it—not just through occasionally showcasing artists, but in a deep way. All agreed that, good intentions and planned initiatives notwithstanding, we’re a long way from making art institutions truly inclusive.

The third contrast arrived by way of the 430-page summer issue of Artforum. The tome was not in my mailbox, which proved too small, but on my doorstep. It was shrink-wrapped with the current issue of Bookforum, which includes a review of a new book on the “internship economy,” by Ross Perlin. Titled Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, the study documents the stunning and roundly depressing rise of unpaid labor in our creative industries. One can see why Bookforum reviewed it. The art world, it seems, can fill a glossy with almost as many ad pages as the September issue of Vogue. Yet how many of those ads were placed by young folks working for a pittance, or pro bono, just to get a shot at a job? Continue reading “The season of our disconnect”

The season that was

large_big-fish-detailLooking back over the season that just passed, consolidation is the word that best describes the dynamics of the art world now. Large entities are getting larger; smaller ones are still squeezed or struggling. The art system is mirroring larger trends in society, where recovery has come sooner to the more fortunate and the gap between the haves and have-nots has, if anything, widened.

Large institutions and corporate entities have locked in gains and begun to expand franchises. It’s a good time to make a deal, whether inexpensive real estate, cheap credit, or distressed partners prompt the opportunity.

Here in New York, large museums are showing anew an appetite for expansion. The Whitney had reason to celebrate at its gala last week, having just leased its Madison Avenue Marcel Breuer building to the Met, clearing the way for downtown construction of its new Renzo Piano headquarters. For the Met, this will be the first foray off Fifth Avenue since the opening of the Cloisters. Meanwhile, MoMA has paid $31 million to buy the beleaguered Museum of Folk Art. And the Guggenheim is eyeing a branch in Helsinki.

On the commercial side, the three main auction houses booked respectable quarters, and Phillips has moved into its flashiest digs yet, on Park Avenue. The houses are aggressively building markets overseas and pushing the boundaries of their operations into new aesthetic, digital, and financial territory. Hiring is back. Furloughs have yielded to pay increases.

Consolidation continued in the gallery business, too. Gagosian’s far-flung satellites are filling mailboxes with thick cardboard invitations almost daily. A small cluster of galleries with a truly global reach is leaving everyone else further behind. Corporate muscle is the most obvious in the seemingly never-ending expansion of art fairs. In a long awaited move, Art Basel has planted its flag in Hong Kong. Frieze announced a bold incursion into the Armory Show’s back yard, on New York’s Randall’s Island, and is also launching an old master’s fair back in London. Continue reading “The season that was”

Painful cuts for Dutch arts funding

vrom_holl_china
FROM ANDRAS SZANTO AND JONATHAN NEIL, ON THE ROAD IN THE NETHERLANDS

They knew it was coming. A succession of governments in the Netherlands had warned over the years that the country’s arts subsidies are not sustainable. But the recent economic crisis gave Holland’s right-wing political leaders an excuse to do the unthinkable. They will ax $200 million of the $900 million federal arts budget. Factor in 20-40 percent cuts in local funding, and the Dutch system may lose $1 billion in support by 2013. Europe’s most generous arts funding regime is about to turn into a laboratory for transitioning to, well, no one knows what exactly…

Many arts officials are blindsided. In discussions with artists, museum directors, and art dealers this week, on a study tour with the Sotheby’s Institute, we heard complaints about the sudden cessation of public largesse, but little in the way of solutions. Hopeful arts managers spoke of how “the market” and “companies” will need to share the burden. But there are few incentives for the private sector to do it.

In fact, Holland’s usually circumspect and methodical policymakers are being less than consistent. Appeals for philanthropy and sponsorship are not being counterbalanced with tax breaks. Even while the government seeks to shift arts promotion to the private sector, it has raised the gallery sales tax by 13 percent.

Arts institutions find themselves in a fix. They lack tools to function in a more “American” system. Museum directors are looking for expertise in fundraising and marketing. Endowments, private patrons, and boards of directors with fiduciary responsibilities are still largely unknown here. Cultural groups have little access to credit facilities. Experiments with bonds, subsidized loans, and art landing are in their infancy. Institutions are being asked to act independently, yet they don’t control their own assets and destinies. And as government representatives, they can hardly raise their voice in protest.

Where will it all lead? Some believe the current government is simply anti-art, seeing culture as a left-wing “hobby.” Others are more realistic. They acknowledge that Dutch arts leaders have refined the craft of lobbying government, but they don’t quite know how to court the public and the commercial sphere.

Whatever the case, look to Holland in the next few years as a test case for what happens when a great welfare state’s cultural machinery is pushed into a closer alliance with the market.

For Museums, a New Twist on Instrumental Benefits

right-way-wrong-way1For years the debates have raged about how to argue for the arts, and never more so than now, when public money for museums is everywhere drying up. As I wrote not long ago in the Art Newspaper, a thorny problem for arts advocates is that they have boxed themselves into a corner by developing instrumental arguments for the arts. According to the now widely-used reasoning, investments in the arts are supposed to yield tangible returns — tourism dollars, construction jobs, white collar citizens, booming maths scores, etc. — which, in turn, advance cities and their inhabitants in the global economy.

The trouble is that in the meantime the art community has lost sight of what in the first instance is important and intrinsically valuable about the arts. And as far as policy arguments go, funding cultural institutions to obtain the aforementioned outputs is a rather inefficient way of going about the business of improving education, competitiveness, and neighborhood health.

Now philosopher Alain de Botton has waded into this fertile rhetorical swamp by proposing a new twist on instrumentalism. Let museums be a means to and end, he argues in a polemic published on BBC’s website. But let those ends be moral. Did anyone say moral?

Invoking the old chestnut about museums being our secular churches, de Botton argues: “I try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us good and wise and kind – and tried to use the art in their collections to prompt us to be so?” He goes on to ask, “Why couldn’t art be – as it was in religious eras – more explicitly for something?”

The philosopher has pointed out a valid contradiction. While arts advocates have willingly instrumentalized their cause when arguing for subsidies, they insist on a neutral, open, cause free definition of the contributions of artists and cultural institutions. But what would museums look like in the scenario suggested by de Botton?

The Girl With the Art Magazine

aia1Yesterday was a good day for art journalism. Lindsay Pollock was named editor of the Art in America, opening the way for the rejuvenation of one of our most venerable magazine brands. Like that other old workhorse of the art journalism trade, ArtNews, the 98 year-old Art in America has lost its way of late, as the worlds of art and journalism transmogrified around it.

I’ve been lucky to follow Lindsay Pollock’s career since when she was working on her biography of the art dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, which later appeared as a book titled The Girl With the Gallery. She has since evolved into an art reporting powerhouse, known to readers through her precise market coverage at Bloomberg and The Art Newspaper, and more recently, at her website, Art Market Views, an increasingly vital source of breaking art-world news. She is fair, informed, a happy peripatetic denizen of the global art scene, but also tough as nails. Her commitment is to a broader dialogue than straight art news. She has a deeper interest in art than what happens at the nexus of pictures and money.

So what now with Art in America? It clearly needs an energy boost. Its detached, ivory-tower approach, where long reviews dutifully appear long after exhibitions have closed, seems like a quaint anachronism. The magazine has a reputation for pulling its punches. Its cautious academism is out of synch with a culture where opinions are supersized. What new leadership can bring to the magazine above all, I think, is a fruitful demolition of the walls that divide scholarly and aesthetic writing, on the one hand, and thoughtful journalistic appraisals of the “dark side” of art as an institutional and – gasp – commercial system. Continue reading “The Girl With the Art Magazine”

Miami debrief

img00057-20101203-1332The results are in, and it was a good year in Miami. Smiles were seen on dealers’ faces at every category of fair. Here’s a distillation of the general consensus.

Art Basel: Large work. High prices. Improved layout. Art Nova and Art Positions came into their own. Swarms of high-end buyers and, notably, museum types.

Design Miami: Smart move to South Beach. Needs critical mass.

Art Miami: Comeback story. Medal for Most Improved Fair of the Year. Nice video section.

Pulse: From strength to strength. Photography! Ice Palace still the nicest place to hang out.

Nada: Great vibe. More serious. This year, they sold work.

Seven: Admired newcomer. Innovative team salon approach seems to be working. Likely to be imitated.

Scope/Art Asia: Art Asia growing fast. Scope super international. How soon will Art Asia devour Scope?

Fountain: Cool. Political. Performance! Charged one and all for entry. Really?

Red Dot: Weak. Continue reading “Miami debrief”

Three cheers for creative enterprise

changeIt was the kind of scene teenagers dream about experiencing one day, after they’ve gone to college and moved to the Big City. A rambunctious, casually hip crowd spilled onto the sidewalk last night at 190 Orchard Street, on New York’s Lower East Side, where the Rooster Gallery was celebrating its inaugural opening.

I was there because the two founders happen to be former students of mine, Alex Slonevsky, a gregarious graphic designer, and Andre Escarameia, a transplant from Lisbon and a talented art writer. They met as art business students at the Sotheby’s Institute two years ago. Now here they were, opening their own gallery.

Rooster, like many of its L.E.S. peers, is a narrow storefront, surrounded by bars, Chinese massage parlors, funky boutiques, antique shops, espresso places, and the like. It has a tiny black spiral staircase in the rear leading down to a basement space that might have stored sweet pickles, buttons, or ladies gloves at one time. Now, thanks to a lot of sweat equity, the shop has been reborn as a classic white box. It is handsomely lighted and installed, with smart graphics in the front window and a tightly edited show of six attention-worthy Portugese artists. The gallery comes into this world fully formed. It has a program of future exhibitions, a slick website, a Facebook page, professional press releases, a cool logo, and even a philanthropic sponsor for the first show. A color photo next to the door struck me as a kind of good luck charm for the undertaking. It depicts a stack of coins rising, like a miniature skyscraper, from a hardscrabble vista of dirt and glass shards.

I mention this opening not just to plug two young dealers, but more importantly, because it is yet another sign that something is stirring in the New York art world. Quite predictably, as happened in the seventies, and after the early-eighties crash, and again after the early nineties crash, a new crop of creative entrepreneurs are entering the scene. Where others have seen trouble, they see opportunity. They are showing work on a realistic scale, at realistic prices, by artists who may have gone unnoticed at the full-throttle peak of the boom. Continue reading “Three cheers for creative enterprise”

“Curator” R.I.P.

rip“Behold our fall collection,” trumpets the mail order catalog of Restoration Hardware, the home interiors chain. “No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer.” And so another of our words bites the dust. The word “curator” is becoming overused to the point of losing its meaning.

A curator once had to be assigned to specific collection—the word is rooted in the notion of caring for someone (etymology links curators to insane asylums). In recent years, however, “curation” has been de-linked from any fixed array of things. A curator is no longer a warden of precious objects but a kind of freelance aesthetic concierge. The task now simply involves a clever way of putting works together to follow a purported theme. Independent curators are hired by museums on installation hit-and-run missions. The independent curator has migrated into the realm of commercial galleries. And as the New York Times announced last week, private dealer Phillipe Ségalot is putting together an auction at Phillips “like a guest curator at a museum.”

It was perhaps inevitable that “curation” would jump over the artworld fence, to be embraced by commercial marketers eager to elevate ordinary goods into the realm of Olympian taste. Glossy magazines write breathlessly about beautifully curated retail emporia. One reads about well-curated lifestyles, cheese trays, and sock drawers. Our daily information diet comes to us from curators of the news. I’ve heard people say they curate their schedules and dinner parties.

Through adoption into the lexicon of commercial marketing and quotidian speech, “curator” and “curate” have entered the graveyard of words that have become terminally diluted in their meaning even while—or precisely because—they are issuing from more and more lips. A case of linguistic atrophy and opportunism? Or an apt reflection of the messy but exciting amalgamation of everything in today’s culture?

Eli Broad raises the stakes in Los Angeles

los_angeles-3I’m in Los Angeles, where the chatter is about Eli Broad’s decision to build a museum for his art collection downtown, in a 120,000-square foot complex designed by Diller and Scofidio. The choice puts to rest some questions about the fate of Mr. Broad’s collection. It also leaves a larger question open: Is adding another museum to LA a good idea?

The answer is complex, and responses vary depending on the professional and institutional loyalties of the folks doing the talking. In my view it boils down to this. Adding another art institution to LA’s “cultural corridor” is probably good urban policy and it may not be the best cultural policy. In the long term, however, what really counts is not whether Mr. Broad builds his own museum, but whether he can get other Los Angeles philanthropists to follow in his lead as an art patron.

Downtown LA has come a long way since MoCA opened across the street from the planned Broad museum. Diller and Scofidio, coming off recent triumphs in New York, will no doubt deliver an edgy-yet-contextual neighbor to Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Hall and Rafael Moneo’s sublime Cathedral, just around the corner. But the area still lacks critical mass. For Los Angeles, a city trapped in a state of permanent becoming, filling another empty lot downtown will be another step toward creating a lively cosmopolitan district with enough density and foot traffic for someone to want to hang around. It may even be a kind of tipping point.

But sound urban policy is not always great cultural policy (as much as arts advocates would like to believe). Continue reading “Eli Broad raises the stakes in Los Angeles”

Revenge of the apps

explorer_iphoneI’d like to enter a contrarian view about navigation apps, which are poised to infiltrate our endearingly technophobic art institutions. Forgive me for sounding like a cave man. But then, this post was inspired, in part, by the American Museum of Natural History, which just launched an ad campaign flouting a nifty new GPS-enabled navigation tool.

There is no denying that such apps are a convenience. Loaded onto iPhones and other devices, they can lead the cultural explorer on journeys more precise and information-larded than anything enabled by a brochure or wall map. They help shift the costs of way-finding and education from the organization to the visitor. They are easy to update. And they’re cool. At the labyrinthine Art Basel fair last June, an astonishingly clever iPhone app helped collectors locate their favorite galleries or a decent sandwich.

So what’s not to love? Quite a bit, I think. For museums especially, such apps come loaded with subtle butterfly effects that techno-evangelists ignore at their peril.

First, they represent to an incursion of technology into a refreshingly gadget-free domain heretofore devoted to physical objects and direct collective experience. There is a case to be made, perhaps, for exempting some areas of life from the relentless digitization and intermediation of everything. Of course it’s easier to find the great blue whale by letting your PDA guide you. But what about the joy of aimless browsing and discovery? Here as elsewhere, technology has a way of taking the mystery and the surprise – not to mention the unpremeditated educational encounter – out of cultural experiences. What’s more, it subtly transforms a group dynamic into a bespoke, private pursuit. Analogies with newspapers abound. Continue reading “Revenge of the apps”

Winners take all?

ny-ah912_moma_ns_20100628183228A researcher colleague wanted to call it the “Great Museum Cartel.” We were working on a RAND report on the visual arts, and it emerged that the vast majority of visitors, operating funds, endowments, and donations accrue to the top ten museums in the country.

Yesterday bought more confirmation of the winner-take-all pattern, when The Wall Street Journal reported that MoMA “attracted its highest-ever number of visitors, 3.09 million, during its 2010 fiscal year.” That’s up a quarter million from last year and a half-million from the year of reopening. Attendance is now double of what MoMA’s saw in its old building. Tourist numbers and memberships are also up.

Of course, there is fodder for doubters. While it’s heartening to see critical stalwarts Marina Abramovic and William Kentridge draw in the neighborhood of half a million visitors–more than the annual attendance of many respectable museums–the big numbers are partly linked to exhibitions with “strong public appeal,” with Tim Burton and Water Lilies clocking in well over 800,000 visits. Whatever the case, MoMA’s popular formula is working.

The larger question is whether such success is replicable, or even desirable in every respect. Another recent report about crowd-pleasing fare at a major New York museum, in Brooklyn, didn’t reach the same conclusion. What seems to be happening is that the biggest fish are capturing more attention, while medium and small organizations struggle to keep their numbers up. This pattern is holding true not just in museums, but also with galleries and art fairs, as recent lines outside Gagosian’s historical shows and the huge throngs at Art Basel pointedly demonstrated.

What can we read into these trends?

Meanwhile, in South Korea

dsc04620While North Korean art is making a bid for attention in Vienna, in South Korea, where I just spent a week at the UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education, the art world is showing remarkable vigor. This peninsular country of 60 million, one-fifth the size of France, is the real miracle of Asia. It suffers from few of the chronic structural weaknesses of Japan, or the social and environmental ills of China or India, or the artificiality and overreach of newly rich Gulf nations. It’s the Switzerland of the East. And art is a key part of the equation.

There is no shortage of science-fiction-like mega-projects here, including the Global City of Saemangeum, to be built on the world’s largest reclaimed land mass behind a 33 km sea dyke, the world’s longest, which was just completed after 19 years of effort. But this is no Dubai. I asked a government official in the ancient city of Jeonju, which hosted my group in a bid to become a UNESCO Creative City, what’s the goal for South Korea in the years ahead. He said, “to get to between 5th and 10th in GDP in the world.” He didn’t mean per capita.

Underlying South Korea’s epic success, of course, is the most comprehensive public education effort in its hemisphere, and possibly the world. South Koreans are simply obsessed with learning, and the results are plain to see. Korea’s literate, world-wise population is, among other positive traits, deeply interested in the arts. This is probably the only place in the world where Bach can be heard in the bathrooms at a highway rest stop.

Here’s the most impressive thing about South Korea: It seems to have found a balance between warp-speed development and respect for local identity. As part of this balancing act, the state is extremely generous to local art. Seoul alone installs more than one thousand public art works a year. Historic sites are preserved and documented meticulously. Local governments are building creative complexes for artists where they can live, create, and interact for six months at a time. Arts patronage is considered obligatory for big firms and wealthy business clans, for reasons of both national pride and marketing. There is no interest in the wholesale franchising of Euro-American culture here. The country is open to foreign influences—Seoul’s top Zagat restaurant is Italian, the pastries of choice are French, Starbucks is ubiquitous, and women are as label conscious as anywhere—but the country has avoided drowning in globalization. Continue reading “Meanwhile, in South Korea”

A dash of cold water

brodypicassoThere’s been much fuss over “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” the 1932 Picasso that sold for $106.5 million at auction last week. Roberta Smith devoted an article in “The Week in Review” section of the New York Times to the guessing game about the anonymous buyer. Bemoaning the “irksome” secrecy of art sales, she conjured a rogue’s gallery of possible bidders, including “Buyer X,” a “puppet master,” a “Russian oligarch” fearing “home invasion or too much unfriendly attention from Vladimir Putin,” and “someone with vast sums of money stashed in a Swiss bank account or a dubious tax shelter.” All very James Bond. Buyer X must be smiling.

Anyway, on one score, the article, along with most others I have read, is unambiguous: The Picasso claimed “the highest price ever for a work of art at auction”—a “world record.” Technically speaking, the number is the highest—the largest pile of US dollars ever spent on an artwork at auction. But adjusted for inflation, this Picasso is a far cry from Van Gogh’s 1989 record-setter, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which, at $82 million at the time, would be worth about $140 million in today’s dollars.

Leaving out inflation is a bit like measuring one high jumper’s performance in inches and another’s in centimeters. It’s worth noting, for context, that we have had at least three private sales in the neighborhood of $140M in recent years. And there have been a couple of auction sales exceeding $106 million in 2010 dollars, including a Picasso, “Garcon a la pipe,” which sold in 2004 for just over $104 million.

All of which is to say, Buyer X doesn’t get the gold medal after all. As Smith rightly points out, record mania is something of an irksome diversion in itself. In any event, the search for the mystery collector continues. Anyone have a clue?

Museums and salaries

humanpyramid-1The New York Times today reported the incomes of cultural leaders. Look for the imminent brouhaha about how much some directors are making (even though compensation for many has recently been reduced). Yet if salaries at leading museums run between half a million and a million dollars, that seems reasonable in light of the complex responsibilities and unrelenting pressures involved.

The real issue with nonprofit compensation, I believe, lies not at the executive, but at the mid-management level, and at the lowest rungs of arts organizations.

Not long ago, someone I know interviewed for a job in a museum outside New York. The position involved responsibility for a core aspect of the museum’s activities. The candidate had a decade of experience and a great track record. The pay being offered turned out to be about one-twentieth of the director’s $1 million salary. That kind of discrepancy between a manager and a chief executive is one thing cultural groups don’t need to copy from the private sector. No wonder museums are plagued with morale problems.

The situation is worse further down the ladder, where staffing is left to volunteers and interns making little or no money. The rewards for entry level positions are now so low that they are scaring off the best talent. One can only wonder if today’s struggling interns and junior assistants will change the situation once they make it up the slippery pole to those seven-figure jobs?

Rather than worry about arts salaries at the top, the press would do well to focus on income patterns among the rank-and-file. I’d be curious to hear what others think about equitable wages in the sector?

Is the new normal the old normal?

astrology-shelley-von-strunckel-mercury-retrograde-23Bloomberg reports that helicopter commuter service has been restored to Wall Street. A friend at a large bank says that with fears of a meltdown abated, the solidarity in the company is also gone. Cultural endowments are growing again, we learn from The Art Newspaper, and museums are dancing back from the brink. Even day trading is back in fashion, if The New York Times can be believed.

What unites these factoids is a hardening sense that we’re getting back to normal, perhaps sooner than anticipated. And that’s a mixed blessing.

Only yesterday, the situation was so bad, it was forcing deep change. Original moves, like Jeffrey Deitch’s appointment to Moca, were spurred by a fighting spirit that compels people and organizations to act differently in a crisis. The Great Recession, however horrible, provided a need and a justification to do daring and draconian things. Pop-up galleries in kitchen showrooms were in (like this one, by two former students). Gaudy sculptures with fake diamonds were from a bygone era.

I’m happy that many of my friends survived the crash unscathed. I certainly don’t mean to romanticize struggle for day-to-day survival. But I do worry that the new ways of doing business are quickly becoming the old ways of doing business. As the discipline of hard times dissipates, can we recognize any silver linings in the form of lasting positive changes in creative, commercial, or institutional behavior?

Plot twist for arts reporting

david_hfd_goliathThis wasn’t supposed to happen. Arts journalism is supposed to be going down the tubes. But here in New York, two arts sections are being expanded, with professional writers, editors, and, for now, what counts for acres of newsprint space these days.

Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is making culture a frontline in its impending war against the New York Times, with the addition of arts reporters in its soon-to-be launched local section. And last week, The New York Observer, the scrappy pink rag read by culture and media mavens around town, announced a major expansion of its arts coverage, starting March 31, under former Wall Street Journal culture editor and AWS-friend Alexandra Peers.

What can this mean for the visual arts? We may get some behind-the-scenes reporting on the art business, as the Observer has reliably done on the media and film businesses. Peers, a 22-year veteran of arts journalism, summarizes her aspirations for the section this way: “As entertainment, pop culture and TV coverage mushroomed in the past few years, fine arts got a little lost in the shuffle. The same culture sections that are recapping “Lost” don’t want copy on Marina Abramovic; it just doesn’t jive. At the same time, people are choking the aisles at the Armory fair and lining up round the block to see Gogo’s Picasso show. The fine arts needed more of a place of their own.”

Peers believes the Observer can use the new space to go beyond the usual suspects. “You would think the art world was just Gagosian, Richard Feigen and Philippe de Montebello having espresso at Sant Ambroeus. Which of course it is, but I hope to pull in a few more of the players: curators, photo gallerists, museum trustees, bloggers, the foundations. The art world’s power base is broader – and more interesting – than most general readers know.”

Amen. It bears noting, however, that these experiments will need to be backed up by advertising sales and buzz. Continue reading “Plot twist for arts reporting”