Miami syndrome in New York

the-birth-of-piggybacking

There must be an astronomical term for this week’s stellar array of events in New York. It’s certainly a cluster of some sort.

Once distant galaxies, the ADAA Art Fair and the Armory Show, are opening on back-to-back nights this year, forming a unified mega-event constellation. They are flanked in time and space by the Whitney Biennial and the William Kentridge juggernaut, which is merrily winding its way from the Southern Hemisphere through the top cultural institutions of Manhattan. Established events with names invoking celestial phenomena—Nova, Scope, Pulse—add to the epic convergence. Toss in the newcomers, such as the Independent art fair-exhibition hybrid, plus dozens of piggybacking gallery shows, lectures, panel discussions, and cocktail parties, and the results will overwhelm the endurance and attention spans of even the most dedicated art-world regulars.

What we are witnessing, in fact, is the Miami syndrome, transplanted to New York. Opportunistic calendaring, mixed with fear that collectors will only fly in once, has created a matrix of activity that is as impressive as it may be self-defeating. Game theorists call this the tragedy of the commons: Too many cows grazing on the too little land. We shall enjoy it while it lasts. But will quantity translate into quality, sales, and critical impact?

Three cheers for austerity

205_a_a_giff_weight-newThree makes a trend, the adage goes. So here’s one: The upcoming Whitney Biennial, the National Academy’s Annual Invitational, and Site Santa Fe have sharply curtailed their rosters of exhibiting artists. The reason is money. The outcome is just what the art world needs.

Bloated biannials and survey shows were a boom-time phenomenon we can do without. They are self-defeating in terms of their purpose, which is to provide a point of view about what’s going on. And for better or worse, art fairs offer a more comprehensive summary of the totality of artistic activity.

Cultural bloat is an understudied phenomenon. Its effects are subtle and pernicious. On the surface, bloat entices us with more and more of a supposedly good thing: brick-size novels, three-hour movies, fancier museum buildings and cultural extravaganzas that betoken civic pride and scaling national ambitions.

Underneath all this more-ness, however, lurks the shadow of unsustainability. And that’s hardly the biggest threat. The lure of large numbers relieves the pressure to leave material on the cutting room floor. The cacophonous results mimic the quick verdicts and ceaseless profusion of the marketplace. A more restricted format, by contrast, tilts power to curators. It flushes away the fluff and injects some editorial discipline into the enterprise of art. Think of it as slow cultural food: Harder to cultivate and prepare, more satisfying to consume.

There’s been a lot of writing lately about how austerity is good for art. Much of it is sentimental bunk. Artists deserve to live well, like anyone else. But a case can be made, I believe, for trimming output and narrowing distribution channels. We may have less art to see, but more attention to lavish on it.

Art investor numerology

homeStatistics, statistics, and more statistics. Now that it’s snowing again and I am trapped in the house, I have cracked open the revised and expanded edition of Skate’s Art Investment Handbook. This well-informed, astute, efficiently written compendium deserves to be in the library of anyone seriously interested in the art market, investor or not. It has the additional virtue of treating its topic with a healthy dose of skepticism and occasional humor—as could be expected from a Central European author.

The hefty tome turned up in the mail the other day, and, somewhat to my surprise, I actually enjoyed thumbing through it. The work of a team lead by the Russian financier Sergey Skaterschikov, it includes a solid overview of the art and art-services market, along with detailed analyses of the market’s top tier, the 1,000 top-selling works at auction tallied in the so-called Skate’s Top 1000.

The book should delight all cultural enthusiasts who thrill to obscure quantitative trivia. We learn, for example, that:
• Works by 300,000 artists, valued in total at $400 billion, are available to trade at any time on the global art market, resulting in a trading volume of $60 billion per year (with 90 percent of transactions falling under $10,000).
• One million individuals and estates, 50 art funds, and 500 museums buy art regularly.
• The 1,000 most expensive works sold at auction since 1985 were made by 183 artists and are collectively valued at $13.2 billion as of Apr. 30, 2009.
• The world’s museums hold 100 million works of art; 100,000 of these can be expected to come to market annually through deaccessioning.
• Art valuation decreases with size. Continue reading “Art investor numerology”

The state of the arts is … blah

nai_one_pager_graph_thumbnailPresident Obama in his address last night studiously avoided the phrase, “the State of the Union is strong.” If there were a State of the Union for the arts, the speaker—Who would it be?—would likely have made the same choice. For all is not well on the cultural ramparts. Just as “Wall Street Prospers while Main Street suffers,” we’re seeing some profligate spending on art again, here and there, while artists and organizations on the ground are having a really tough time.

To measure the pain and the sorrow, Americans for the Arts, the Washington based advocacy group, has come up with a National Art Index, “the first study to measure the health and vitality of the arts in the United States.” It’s not a pretty picture. The index fell 4 points last year, reflecting steep drops in attendance and support, along with other downward trends. Thirty thousand arts nonprofits have been added since the index peaked, in 1999, so demand clearly “outlags capacity”—a problem that won’t go away even when the economy perks up.

Meanwhile, a group of arts wonks (myself included) are debating the language of arts-policy and advocacy this week at ArtsJournal. The headline so far: we lack compelling and uncompromised language to galvanize support for the arts and expand the purview of cultural policy to include the things that really matter, such as technology, media, and intellectual property regulation.

What does this mean for the visual art world? Americans for the Arts is largely concerned with the nonprofit arts. Its indeces may not faithfully reflect the condition of visual art markets and institutions. Are we any better off? What would be the right measures to diagnose the health of the visual arts? And where do you see the trend lines leading in the year ahead?

Requiem for a magazine

356_id_june_cover_400I attended a wake for I.D. magazine last night in New York. Not I.D., the fashion magazine. I.D. the design magazine. Now dead.

Like so many of its recently-axed midsize peers, I.D. — International Design — leaves a much larger hole in our cultural landscape than its modest circulation numbers suggest. Say what you will about the promise of online media, there is a kind of energy and legacy that develops around a magazine that remains unique to the form. A great magazine is a network and a through-line: something that, done right, can lend a segment of our culture a sense of coherence, validation, continuity and substance. The event last night, attended by several generations of former editors and contributors, was a clear manifestation of the kind of discourse a magazine can create. It is a decades-long conversation between those who care about something, and one that is unlikely to be satisfyingly supplanted by an online alternative, at least not soon.

Along with these magazines, we usually lose their archives and libraries, their established voices and obsessions, their particular and often quirky ways of going about things. Also gone, or left without a common anchoring point, are the clusters of fans and gawkers who follow the moves of these magazines avidly and who are tied together by their love or hate of what their current stewards decide to do.

For design, the loss of I.D. (disclosure: my wife used to work there, and I had written for them on occasion) means the loss of a platform for serious dialogue about a cultural form that sorely needs it. Design is one of the most exciting corners of our culture right now. But without a thoughtful exchange of ideas, it devolves into mere consumption, trapped in its own glamorous, self-referential ghetto.

I.D. gave expression to the highest ambitions of design. At its best, it reminded us that design is about art, urbanity, civilization, and our shared hopes for a better future. We can all drink to that.

Miami debrief

south-beach-miami-beachDepending on which papers and blogs you read, the art fair in Miami either was or was not as subdued as last year, the big fair either was or was not so huge as to be unnavigable, the parties were or were not as hedonistic as in the past, the art market was or was not back with a vengeance–and so on. On the the whole, there were many reasons to be happy and to be entertained. The truth is, Miami’s art fair week is so vast, so complex, so overwhelming and inexhaustible, that everyone’s personal experience will be different. What were your impressions?

What to expect when you’re expecting to go to Miami?

If you’re packing your bags to Miami, let us know what you are expecting? What year will 2009 look like? Will it be like 2008, when the financial crisis cast its pall over the fair? Or will it be more like 2005 and 2006, when exuberance began to overwhelm the art? In recent days, commentaries have issued from both schools of thought.

What is for sure is that after a surprisingly robust auction season, reports of stabilization from galleries, and signals of strength from emerging markets like Abu Dhabi, an ebullient Art Basel Miami Beach would ring out the art-market season on a note of renewal. I for one am looking forward to the reunion aspect of the week, which, regardless of the business being transacted, is unsurpassed. The art world always finds confidence in numbers and tribal proximity. (Disclosure: I’m moderating an Art Basel Conversation, with five museum directors, Friday morning.)

So, what will be the surprises? Where to look for new energy? And what will it all mean? Send your thoughts.

Too much of a good thing?

creativityWe’ve heard the business gurus: This is the age of creativity. Only the dreamers survive. The MFA is the new MBA.

But hold on. Stefan Leijnen and Liane Gabora, researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, point out that too much creativity may not be a good thing. Their argument boils down to this: Innovation–creativity–is necessary to introduce new ideas. But for any innovation to take root, it must also be copied. Society depends not just on creators but also on followers. If everyone invented and no one imitated, we wouldn’t advance through innovation.

Come to think of it, this latter scenario bears some resemblance to the current state of play in the art world, where following in earlier innovators’ footsteps is seen as a somewhat passé notion. Instead, it’s all creativity all of the time. The Canadian researchers have drawn up a chart to find a productive mix of innovation and copying. Where would a healthy balance lie for the visual arts?

Writers and thinkers have been raising doubts about excessive uniqueness elsewhere. Art market expert Maurice Rheims wrote, quoting an antiques realer, that for a thing to have value “it must be rare, but not too rare.” Continue reading “Too much of a good thing?”

Ruscha to the White House

30720817jpgMove over, healthcare. The news of the day is the installation in the White House of 45 artworks that have been loaned to the Obama family by Washington museums. Ed Ruscha’s “I think I’ll…” painting will now refreshingly grace the private residence. One can imagine the staff meeting where they green-lighted the loan request for a work that openly addresses the theme of indecision—an unusual message for any politician, and quite a leap from the resolute cowboy sculptures that adorned the White House under its previous tenants. Other works to be installed offer a kind of visual Rorschach test of a culturally hyper-sensitive administration’s leanings and talk points. It’s a tasteful and astute mix, including abstract and figurative works, Caucasian and African American artists, living masters and dead ones. The aesthetic sweet spot of the Obama collection is somewhere in the neighborhood of Richard Diebenkorn. What does this all mean? And what should be hanging in the White House at this juncture?

What recession art?

articles_1There was a lively discussion in my class the other day about boom-time art. Some students said fast times produce “vulgar” art; others disagreed. The point was that they found connections between the economic climate and the sort of art being made and sold.

By extension, it’s worth asking if the recession has given rise to any particular kind of art. My informal gallery scan suggests that works on view, on the whole, are getting smaller. Has substance changed, too? Will it? Should it?

There are signs that, beyond what Lindsay Pollock described as “the Darwinian game of gallery musical chairs,” art is being influenced by the downturn. BravinLee gallery in Chelsea is producing limited-edition rugs by various artists, with some of the proceeds going to charity. “Art needs to get out of the white box,” said John Lee in Pollock’s report. “This is born out of the current economic environment in a way.” Another item in my mailbox heralds a group show, opening this week, titled “Art of the Crash” at FusionArts Museum, on the Lower East Side. It’s something to do with sculpture made from the “detritus of Detroit.” Art of the Great Recession? You judge.

Now, with exquisite timing, along comes Morris Dickstein’s book on art in the 1930s, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” in which the CUNY professor surveys the artistic response to the calamity to which our times have so often (and so misleadingly) been compared. Continue reading “What recession art?”

Sold masters

voge-1A Rembrandt is coming up for auction this fall, highlighting anew the relationship of old-master and postwar-contemporary values. “Portrait of a Man, Half-Length, With His Arms Akimbo,” from 1658, owned by pharmaceutical heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson, is the kind of picture that comes to market only once in a blue moon. It’s a museum piece. The Christie’s estimate is $30-41 million, a record for an old master.

Compare that to sums recently paid for new and historically recent works: a reported $140 million for a Pollock, $86 million for a Bacon triptych, almost $24 million for a Koons sculpture (unadjusted dollars). If the sale comes in toward the low end of the estimate, the Rembrandt would be in the same league as Lucian Freud’s “Benefit Supervisor Sleeping” (close to $34 million).

To be sure, those extraordinary prices are from the frothiest of the boom years. But the question remains, as the downturn approaches its anniversary, has the widely anticipated realignment of old master values come about? Is there really a “flight to quality” and blue chip art?

Green shoots for arts journalism

light-at-end-of-tunnelI am going through new online ventures submitted for the National Summit on Arts Journalism, scheduled for Oct. 2 at the University of Southern California, a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication and the National Arts Journalism Program, with support from the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations and the NEA. Web broadcasting and satellite events at schools and cultural institutions around the country promise to make this something of a benchmark moment in our ongoing narrative about journalism’s transformation from a top-down, dead-tree medium to a digital, democratic, diffuse, dialog-oriented domain that bears less and less resemblance to the news media of old.

The agony of print journalism’s attenuated demise continues to dominate pubic discussion about journalism in general and arts journalism in particular. Nonetheless, as I argued recently in The Art Newspaper, we’re seeing the emergence of new communication and business models, some of which may not look anything like the journalism we used to know, but which are filling the void left behind by imploding newspapers and struggling magazines.

When the idea of the summit was hatched, it was hard to predict how many projects would come out of the woodwork. But after this week’s deadline, the tally has topped one hundred—a remarkable number, in my opinion, and a sign that at long last we have entered a new phase. Continue reading “Green shoots for arts journalism”

Exhibit or mirage?

We interrupt the summer doldrums with news that “controversial graffiti artist” Mat Benote has surreptitiously installed one of his own works in the Guggenheim Museum. This cheeky guerilla action raises anew questions about authority and power in the art world.

at-the-very-least

Benote apparently hung up his work—a kind of Russian Avant-Garde-ish abstract composition, in black and red, accompanied by a wall label—during normal business hours, unnoticed by Guggenheim security guards or patrons. The press release somewhat hyperbolically claimed, “a piece of art was added to the museum’s permanent collection in the form of a gift by the artist.”

Really? Much like the Grand Rapids ArtPrize discussed in an earlier ArtworldSalon post, the intervention brings up some interesting concerns. If a work is hung on the wall of a museum, without the sanction of curators, is it to be considered part of the museum’s art program? Can anyone bring in a picture, hang it on the wall, and thus confer upon it the status of museum piece? If so, are then random objects in visitors’ handbags also properly seen as part of the museum’s temporary exhibition programming? By extension, are the visitors themselves to be considered a kind of accidental social sculpture, by virtue of performing their pattern of human interactions inside the symbolically charged confines of the museum? Or will these visitors have to be labeled an artwork, by someone such as Benote, to be so considered?

Questions also run in the opposite direction: If an artwork looks like a run-of-he mill abstract composition, neatly applied on a two dimensional surface, installed like a precious painting inside a top-flight museum, with a wall label, is it still “graffiti”?

Perhaps the most fun question for this Salon may be: What were the Guggenheim’s esteemed curators supposed to do? Lemonade, anyone?

Art Gallery 101

978-1-58115-664-5-2This week marks the publication of Edward Winkleman’s How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery. For those familiar with Ed’s writing from ArtworldSalon—not to mention his own blog—the book may come as a surprise. Although fully qualified to speak as an art-world insider, armed with the requisite attitude and gossip, he chose the more difficult, and in my opinion braver path: To share basic, practical information with younger colleagues about the particular challenges of running an art gallery. Never has such information been more needed than now, when every penny counts and when dealers, both novices and veterans, must think anew about every facet of their business.

Part Bible, part user’s guide, Ed’s book offers calm and steady, and above all honest, advice on questions younger dealers always want to know about, but are often afraid to ask. How much should I pay myself? Where should I advertise? When do I need a lawyer? But even the best-laid plans can skid off the tracks because of the minutiae. One of the virtues of Ed’s book is that it delves into seemingly mundane, nevertheless important matters that others might have glossed over. No detail escapes his attention: from staff dress codes to the best choice of gallery paint color; from industry-standard salary levels to the wisdom of including packing tape in your “art fair survival kit.”

If you’re planning to open a gallery, buy this book. If you’re planning to stay in business, buy this book.

The expectation game

piazza_san_marco_with_the_basilica_by_canaletto_1730_fogg_art_museum_cambridgeHave you ever wondered if the success of today’s visual art mega-events depends less on their content than on the expectations surrounding them? The Venice Biennial and Art Basel’s 40th edition are a case in point.

Venice is a classic example of an event that art insiders love to hate. Every two years, a superstar curator is asked to prepare a vast exhibition in a difficult and historically charged venue, with limited resources, a ridiculous timeline, Italian ineptitude, and a spaghetti bowl of national pride, politics, and pavilion positioning thrown into the mix. Then the art crowd descends and, between bouts of champagne drinking and Vaporetto riding, it delivers a categorical judgment—usually negative. The pop psychologist in me believes that some folks have so much fun in Venice that they have to declare the Biennial a failure and a bore. This is partly intended to make their expense-account journey look more like a hard-working professional chore than the sybaritic fun ride it is. (You may discern a note of envy: I wasn’t there.) After this year’s opening, the commentariat appeared to be speaking from the same talking points. The line was that while the last Biennial was awful, this one—organized by art-world wunderkind Daniel Birnbaum, who is undoubtedly one of the smartest young figures on the scene—was banal and flat. Really?

Contrast with Basel. It’s a trite metaphor, but the world’s leading art fair, which occupies the same space as Baselworld, the epic watch fair, really does run like clockwork. Continue reading “The expectation game”

The prize of desperation

3_1466I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that will probably get me branded an elitist, a staunch defender of the status quo. I don’t like this big new art prize.

I am talking about the ArtPrize [sic.], the “radically open” art competition with the greatest payout in history: $250,000 for the winner ($100,000 for the runner-up) in an American Idol-style contest based on voting by the general public. It’s being funded by a well-meaning young gentleman named Rick DeVos, who won a contest of a different sort — genetic — and leveraged his inherited fortune with entrepreneurial feats of his own. The contestants will register online, ship their work to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the rest will be up to the good folks who happen to be in town during an exhibitionpalooza weekend event where the voting takes place.

So what’s wrong with this picture? I can think of four things.

First, I have nothing against discovering those hidden diamonds in our midst (I, too, watched the Laura Boyle video and got misty-eyed), but public polling is not the best way to reward human accomplishment. The Olympics, the Nobel, or the Pulitzer Prizes are earned in arduous, sometimes lifelong ordeals of jumping over physical and mental hurdles. Judgment by juries and peers has a lot to do with the authority of these awards. Continue reading “The prize of desperation”

Elusive silver linings

2577618297_a9eca1d130From struggling academics, to struggling artists. The New York Times started a blog titled Attention Artists!, on the recession’s impact on artists. So far, responses have been surprisingly sanguine, ranging from “I am completely adapted to being satisfied from my work and my work alone,” to “I think that the recession is making people understand the intrinsic and real value of art.” Some artists wax lethargic about their financial woes. But a more characteristic comment would be this: “The sick economy, combined with the collapse and confusion of the corporate music business, has actually been good for those of us who have existed on the fringes for years.”

Artists may be blessed with strong survival skills, especially in the putting-a-brave-face-on-misery department. Or is this a form of “false consciousness” (to dust off another half-forgotten thinker who is suddenly back in vogue)? How realistic is this new silver-lining discourse?

The idea that art-market busts are good because artists can “take over the factory, make the art industry their own” and “daydream and concentrate” was given an airing in February by Holland Cotter in New York Times in a manifesto-esque article,“The Boom is Over. Long Live Art.” Lots of people who make their living in the art world took note, and some felt the critic may have missed the point. At this stage in history, must art’s credibility depend on proof of human suffering and absence of commercial success? “Certainly, the excesses of the art world were alienating,” observed Alexandra Peers, an ArtworldSalon friend, in a riposte to Cotter in New York magazine. “But there’s Schadenfreude in the argument that bad times are good for the naughty, naughty art world.”

So which is it: An outbreak of gooey-eyed Romanticism? Or a sober reckoning with tough but healthy new realities?

Dubai on my mind

museumislamicartWithout exception, every person who heard about my recent trip to Dubai asked if I saw a parking lot at the airport filled with abandoned cars left behind by indebted foreign workers. I didn’t. But that powerful image seems to have been indelibly etched into the minds of newspaper-reading Westerners.

I did see many stalled skyscrapers and more than a few unhappy expatriates. Yet for the arts, the economic slowdown, here as elsewhere, presents a more mixed picture. In Dubai, it’s about switching from golden dreams to silver linings. I had an interesting conversation with an arts administrator who is matching up arts groups with empty real estate—just the kind of win-win deals we saw in New York City during our own years of blight. It may be that by suspending its mega-projects, Dubai will leave breathing room for scrappy local arts initiatives to take root and evolve haphazardly and organically. Culture sometimes works in such unpredictable ways.

Elsewhere, there was scant evidence of global financial Armageddon. The Art Dubai fair was, by all accounts, the best so far. It has matured into an indispensable regional fair, with dealers from neighboring countries reporting decent sales. The Global Art Forum conference (where I was a moderator) drew an international A-list crowd and played to a packed house in its lovely tent by the sea. The gigantic luxury hotel complex where these events took place was completely sold out. The Sharjah Biennial, timed to coincide this year with Art Dubai, was widely praised by those who made the short trek to the smaller Emirate east of Dubai. Going in the other direction, Abu Dhabi, sitting on vast oil reserves, is pressing on with huge cultural and educational projects. And in Doha, Qatar’s thriving capital, we were shown around I.M. Pei’s magnificent Museum of Islamic Arts, just the first of several treasure troves occasioned by the epic collecting spree of the local ruling family.

In the Gulf Region, the global crisis has stalled some plans but not others. So the question arises, two years into this downturn: Will all emerging markets and scenes suffer in equal measure? Which regions will experience the greatest setbacks, and which ones will get through this difficult period unscathed?

The Singapore experiment

kinesisk-tempel-singaporeWhat kind of an art world do you get without critics? To some, the question may sound hypothetical. But as I learned in Singapore last week, such scenarios exist, and may become more common.

In every tangible respect, the visual arts in Singapore are in an enviable situation. The small island nation sees cultural investments as a step toward a high-tech, educated, information society. The major arts facilities are glittering after ambitious additions and facelifts. The display technology in the top museums is world class. There are for-profit and non-profit art galleries. More and more institutions are being built. Artists can learn in prestigious training programs, some managed in partnership with reputable foreign institutions. Grants for travel and production are widely available.

The missing element is criticism. There is none. Newspapers offer reportage, but no reviews. There are no local criticism journals or websites, no training in criticism at universities. In talking with students and artists from around Asia, it quickly becomes clear that while western-style art cultures and art markets are proliferating, criticism is not necessarily being added into the mix. There is one silver lining: More direct contacts between artists (in person or online) not only to chit-chat, but to seriously debate the merits of each other’s work — the kind of intense, one-on-one dialogue and discourse we only read about in the history books.

With Asia exerting a more powerful influence, and with the Western arts press in decline, could the absence of criticism become the norm, not the exception?

By popular demand

10commandmentsAt the recent Association of Art Museum Directors conference, I read a 10-point “Recovery Plan” for museums. Several people asked for it after the conference, so here it is. Thoughts welcome.

1. Avoid rash moves that alienate private benefactors, who have been the bedrock of your support since the 19th century.

2. Develop realistic ethical protocols that maximize giving while safeguarding curatorial independence.

3. To tap government support, make a better case about your public benefits.

4. Make yourself culturally indispensable by opening up prudently to amateur and informal culture and – yes – commercial culture.

5. Push for new infrastructure: develop loan and credit facilities, adopt best management practices, harness new technology.

6. Think harder about mergers, partnerships, and collaborations.

7. Develop a joint communication and marketing effort to take charge of the public debate about museum ethics.

8. Address the collapse of quality arts media and do more to tell your own story directly to the audience.

9. Enhance your professionalism through better education, including training in arts business and administration.

10. Start buying the inexpensive wonderful contemporary art which about to hit the market, and which will make you look very smart tomorrow.