Goodbye to all that

newspaper3With The Minneapolis Star Tribune filing for bankruptcy protection yesterday, this is a good time to talk about what happens to the arts when newspapers go away.

I was talking to a friend who tracks journalism trends closely earlier this week and he said, “2009 is going to be a real game changer.” He listed the latest casualties, which now include some of the most venerable titles: The Los Angeles Times facing the real possibility of closing. The San Francisco Chronicle losing a billion dollars for its parent company. Seattle’s second paper shutting down. Same in Denver. Papers in cities like Detroit scaling back to publishing a few days a week. The Miami Herald up for sale, but only the building seems to be worth anything. As layoffs and heretofore unthinkable page A1 banner advertising attests, even The New York Times is in deep trouble.

Are we ready for a world in which major metro dailies don’t arrive on our doorstep every morning? Or have they already lost their relevance? After all, in most American cities, a vibrant discourse conducted by dueling critics at rival newspapers is already a distant sepia-toned memory.

My friend, the publisher of a major arts website, worries more about city hall reporting than arts coverage. “Writing about art will always be glamorous and people will do it,” he said. “But what about those unglamorous stories about city government, which nobody else wants to do, and which don’t sell ads?” With so much arts coverage being opinion based — under the fancier name of criticism — blogs have absorbed arts coverage more successfully than hard news. Moreover, many papers say they’re ready to cover newsroom expenses solely with online advertising. The extinction of dinosaur papers printed on dead trees may even leave more breathing room — i.e. ad revenues — for nimbler upstart species of news media.

All points well taken. But call me nostalgic, I still don’t feel the online world fully substitutes for coverage in big metro dailies. Where do we go from here?

Will LA lead the way?

lamocaThe future of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is being decided as we speak. Two scenarios have been preoccupying the press — a LACMA-MOCA merger or a “bailout” by Eli Broad — and the final outcome may be a mix of the two, or something different. This is LA, a city of white knights and twisting plots. Events don’t always follow the predictable screenplay. (I have long been a fan of a Getty-MOCA combo, but that, apparently, is not in the cards.)

Whatever happens, the art world is watching because MOCA’s problems won’t be the last. Museum finances across the country (and the world) are shaky, and some institutions are stretched to the limit. As Warren Buffett likes to say, “It’s only after the tide goes out that you see who’s swimming naked.” But curiously, while much talk in the boom years centered on Faustian bargains that museums make to survive, it is only now, with the protective cover of philanthropic and endowment revenues suddenly removed, that the truly tough choices must be made.

Here might be the silver lining. In a world where Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, we have yet to read about a single proactive arts merger in the papers. Cities across the nation are dotted with cultural institutions that cannot pay their way and are going after the same benefactors. But mergers and combinations remain options of last resort. That has to change.

The news from LA may also make future benefactors more cautious about building new infrastructure where institutions already exist. The museum landscape of LA is the ultimate example of the principle of “to each patron his own edifice.” Last but not least, if things get worse, we may yet witness a reassessment of government’s role in the arts, as happened on Wall Street.

What do you see as the larger lessons of Los Angeles?

The big chill

netjets-alex-katzUnusually cold weather for Miami lent the opening night festivities a somewhat spooky and sinister air. “I though it was a celebrity, but then I realized it was just some people around the space heater,” said one reveler at the Art Basel opening party, at the Delano Hotel, as a group of half naked Brazilian dancers braved the chilly December winds. Then again, it could have been Antonio Banderas.

Yet despite the cold, the crowd pressed on, like a group of tourists who had booked a late season cruise and were determined to make the most of the amenities on board.

And fancy amenities were everywhere in evidence–gifts from a recent, happier past, when ambitious plans for this week were being hatched. Netjets invited people to celebrate Alex Katz at the Raleigh hotel, posting a giant Hollywood-style sign in the sand in the hotel’s garden. Not to be outdone by the Art Basel event down the street, the dancers at this party added juggled burning torches. Mini cupcakes were emblazoned with tiny marzipan Netjets logos–a sweet touch.

Earlier in the day, in the Design District, preparations were going on for the rollout of Design Miami. Under a tent that resembled a giant lace curtain, it was all business as usual. Takashi Murakami’s operation opened up a store to sell a new line of Murakami household objets, including three giant balls, the largest almost eight feet in diamater, festooned with technicolor flowers constructed out of soft and fluffy teddy bear fur. “Is it furniture or is it art?” I inquired. “It can be anything,” the friendly Japanese PR lady obliged.

Continue reading “The big chill”

Good morning

oval-officeAmerica has a new President-elect. Yesterday’s vote was not only a political event, but a cultural one. It ushers in a generational shift in American leadership as well as a deeper realignment in ideology and outlook that seems to happen every 30-40 years here. The mood and texture of the country will indelibly change. Barack Obama’s election should also ring in a new chapter in global affairs—more stability and less bellicosity; more listening and reciprocity with friends, less fear mongering and unilateralism when dealing with foes. Let’s hope so, anyway. Whatever happens, the United States, and the world along with it, is set to become a different place. So a logical question for this forum is: What will the election mean for us? Will art register the mood swings of the nation and the world? Will the art world mirror in some way the transformations about to unfold in America? Will arts policy adopt new priorities and innovative thinking? Will cultural diplomacy get a second chance? What do you hope for?

Message in a bottle

us-cover1Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World, which documents the frenzied peak of the recent art boom, arrives next week in American bookstores, just as that boom appears to be sputtering out. Some would call this bad timing. In fact, it’s a stroke of good luck. It puts Ms. Thornton, a Canadian-born, London-based sociologist-turned-journalist, in the enviable position of having captured an epic chapter in art-world history in its entirety. It’s all here, a message in a bottle to be consumed now, to reflect on what just happened, or later, when the action heats up all over again, as something of a cautionary tale. Each chapter examines a facet of the art world – auctions, dealers, art fairs, and so on – in a fluid, breezy style that masks some serious heavy lifting. The intrepid author has spoken to “everybody” in the art world. No detail escapes her attention, from the desk arrangements of her interviewees to their designer footwear. Underneath the glossy surface, however, lurks a sociologist’s concern for institutional narratives as well as the ethnographer’s conviction that entire social structures can be apprehended in seemingly frivolous patterns of speech or dress. And clearly, Sarah (a friend of artworldsalon) was having fun. We caught up with her on the eve of her US book tour to ask her some questions about the book:

ARTWORLDSALON: You are a sociologist turned writer. What was your biggest discovery about the art world?

SARAH THORNTON: I never had a Eureka moment. Instead, I experienced unfolding revelations. I think that’s how the book reads, too. One reason the art world fascinates me is because it is so full of conflict. It’s at once idealistic and materialistic, exclusive and open, petty and lofty. Moreover, the art world is so full of warring factions that writing this book has been like walking through a minefield.

Your book appears in the US just as global markets, and it seems the art market along with them, are entering a period of turmoil. How does it change the book’s message?

I see the book as having a handful of themes. It is a social history of the recent past – a remarkable period in which an unprecedented economic boom infiltrated every corner of the art world, even the consciousness of art students sitting in a left-wing conceptual art think-tank in the middle of the desert. It helps to have documented the structures and dynamics of a bull art market, because we forget them so quickly. Continue reading “Message in a bottle”

What’s next for nonprofits?

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Now that government regulation of investments and markets is suddenly back in vogue, it’s only a matter of time until the reformers and the ethical cleansers train their sights on the least regulated market of them all–the art market. This will take time, but stay tuned. As last week’s exchanges made clear, taking a measure of post-bailout art values is also an exercise for another day. Only the November auctions will give us clear signals about the market’s health or decline.

This gives us breathing room to look further afield. What are the wider effects of the financial meltdown? To launch what might be a recurring feature about “What’s next?” let’s look at what the latest turn of events means for nonprofits. The postmortems have already begun. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published articles over the past weekend about nonprofits bracing for the worst. The Journal points out that U.S. charitable donations grew a paltry 1% in 2007–that’s before the bad news hit. And although, as the Post reminds, corporate donations amounted to only 3% of the contributed income of nonprofit arts groups, some of the most generous sources of corporate giving are likely to vanish, at least for now.

So what is a nonprofit leader to do? As always, the worst-hit will be mid-size groups with high overhead and weak fundraising potential. These would do well to take a look at the astonishing flexibility that giant financial firms have shown in this crisis. If Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, arts organizations, too, can adapt. For museums, there are undeniable threats in this new environment, including the possibility of tougher Congressional scrutiny of tax exceptions and loopholes. But there might also be a distant silver lining in the form of lower acquisition costs and more revenue from visitors–museums are an inexpensive family pastime, especially compared to a weekend in Turks and Caicos.

The real benefits of an economic downturn for nonprofits may be less obvious. The pendulum may be swinging back to a point where nonprofit art-world institutions start to matter more again. Creative Time’s current event series, Democracy in America, which culminated with the well-timed opening of a sprawling exhibit of political art at the Park Avenue Armory last weekend (see picture) may be a sign of good things to come–evidence that the art world may be ready to rejoin the “reality based community.”

9/15

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The topography of Wall Street and the financial system was redrawn over the past weekend. So what’s next? And specifically, what’s next for the art market? In recent months, heightened anxiety about the credit crisis and the meltdown in global finance did not translate into a flight from art purchases. Quite the opposite. Will the current jitters cause collectors and investors to look to art as a safe haven, or will they put the breaks on a long boom that has persisted, with a brief interruption in the early 1990s, for almost a quarter century? What does it mean for nonprofit institutions which rely on donations, and for art sales that depend on loans, guarantees, and credit? Who stands to lose or gain from the next round of transformations? And on the eve of a historic single-artist sale, are we going to witness a turning point in the psychology of the art world and the art business? I invite our panel to submit educated guesses.

Summer reading: The Art Critic

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Just in time for late summer, Newsweek and Artforum critic Peter Plagens has started publishing his new novel, The Art Critic, in weekly installments on Artnet. The “book” is about a slightly cranky male critic of a certain age who has seen enough and done enough in the art world to call it just like he sees it. The writer clearly has the home court advantage on this one, and readers can look forward to some straight-up acerbic commentary on contemporary art. Here’s a teaser, a rumination on recent art in the voice of the novel’s proto-autobiographical protagonist, Arthur:

Worse, all those current artists who indulged themselves in actual words — paintings with words in them, “photo-text pieces,” video works stuffed with dialogue, and other works requiring more didactic printed material slapped up on the walls than you’d find in a science museum — weren’t the worst of it; the sin of language was a misdemeanor compared with whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus, installations with more electronic equipment than an arena concert, and hugely expensive wannabe architecture in which designer drugs were somewhat mitigated by the assistance of a structural engineer. Although the artists boasted in the accompanying press material that the art — what a big tent “art” was now! — “forces the viewer to confront” some geopolitical issue or another, the local stuff, at least, seemed to be made by upper-middle-class kids who could afford the tuition for a Master of Fine Arts degree and then a studio in some rapidly gentrifying quarter of Brooklyn. The bar for “oppression” had apparently been lowered to anybody looking cross-eyed at them on the subway. Between the lines, so to speak, their art told whiney stories about putative victimhoods, or self-congratulatory stories about their empathy for other people’s misfortunes. And they didn’t want their messages to be confined to mere galleries, either. You could feel them looking toward wider, more glamorous horizons. “Face it,” the film critic at the newsweekly where Arthur plied his trade had once said to him when he took her along to a couple of exhibitions, “they all want to direct.”

Summer readings: The dismal science does art

hamiltonLast week came news that a reputable economist at the University of Chicago, David Galenson, has devised a quantitative method to measure the importance of 20th century artists. His rankings, which received major section-front coverage in The New York Times, are based on how often paintings or sculptures by a given artist are reproduced in each of 33 art history textbooks published between 1990 and 2005. Science accords merit on the basis of citations in the expert literature. Why not art?

And the winner is… “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” … followed by … Vladimir Tatlin’s “Monument to the Third International” … followed by … “Spiral Jetty” … followed by … Richard Hamilton’s “Just What is That Makes Today’s Homes So Different, So Appealing?” Huh? The last picture—you know, the collage with the bodybuilder in the living room—came in just a nose ahead of “Guernica.”

Economists are irrepressible when it comes to drilling down to the essence of things. They peel away layer upon layer of history, nuance, and context—so much “noise”—to get to the hidden underlying algorithms of societal and human behavior. But methodology can devolve into mind mush—as in the case of asserting that looking at pictures in art history books can reveal much more than, well, the likelihood of finding certain pictures in certain books.

This exercise in solipsistic reductionism is a bit like mistaking the warped reflection in a fun-house mirror with reality itself. Even that may be giving too much credit to the theory. A fun-house mirror does reflect all that is placed in front of it, whereas the mirror of institutional art history has some conspicuous blind spots.

I am reminded of another quantitative economic study, of the auction market, which started off with eliminating the top 10 and bottom 10 percent of all auction results: A perfectly legitimate and common statistical maneuver to cleanse the data of trend-obfuscating outliers—only one that removed from the study all the data points that most people concerned with art values actually care about. Nonetheless, one has to admire the chutzpah, the sheer rationalist braggadocio of it all. Continue reading “Summer readings: The dismal science does art”

Welcome back

Welcome back, dear reader. Over the past few weeks the site has been going through some under-the-hood changes. We return with some light summer fare–the first in our new series of cartoons by artist, author, occasional AWS contributor, and astute art-world observer Pablo Helguera, who also happens to be cartoonist. His latest cartoons about the quirky life of the art world–Pablo calls them Artoons–will be a regular exclusive feature of ArtworldSalon. Enjoy.

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Summer reading: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark

Shark_Thompson.jpgA side benefit of the boom has been a stream of new books on the business of art. Given the lack of independently verifiable data, especially about the gallery trade, these books usually promise more than they can deliver. Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Art and Auction Houses (until recently available only in the U.K.) is no exception. But it qualifies as recommended reading for anyone looking for a quick overview of how the art world works.

Thompson, an economist and branding expert, undertook a yearlong “journey of discovery” for this entertaining study of the “economics and psychology of art, dealers, and auctions.” By his description, the book “explores money, lust and self aggrandizement of possession, all important elements on the world of contemporary art.” He admits “much of the anecdotal material and some of the numbers in the book are single-source stories and facts,” which are often “embellished in the retelling” and “accepted as fact because they are repeated as fact.” The candor is refreshing. And to be sure, Thompson has a keen eye for the telling statistic.

With these provisos out of the way, and no endorsement of the accuracy of what follows, here is a glossary of facts and figures from the book (all offered by the author without the benefit of direct references or footnotes):
• “Eight of ten works purchased directly from an artist and half the works purchased at auction will never again resell at their purchase price.” Continue reading “Summer reading: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”

Google: art

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A new barometer of global culture has been set in motion by Google, which launched an “Artist Themes” function that allows people to customize their personal Google pages.
The gallery of custom images doesn’t amount to a vote of confidence for visual artists, especially American ones. I dutifully set my iGoogle page to the “Jeff Koons” theme. Every time I do a search I now see a different Koons work at the top of my screen.

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But Koons is pretty much the only artist in the pack. There are many more choices of fashion people (Diane von Furstenberg, Todd Oldham, Dolce & Gabanna) and designers (Philippe Starck, Michael Graves) than of artists in the conventional sense. Most of the custom themes are from the hands and keypads of web designers and animators whose names few gallery-goers would recognize. Many are from Asia (but no Murakami here). Then there’s Coldplay, Beastie Boys, Lance Armstrong, and Mark Morris. Lesson? Though Google’s developers are clearly not trying to draw an all-inclusive map of global visual culture here, what if their selections are, in fact, faithful to what our society understands under the rubric of “artists”? Is Koons the best choice for this virtual Noah’s Ark?

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Dubai postcard

Dubai.jpgThe opening night of this year’s Art Dubai fair culminated in a sit-down dinner for 250 VIPs under a tent at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, hosted by Canvas magazine, a glossy local art publication. The invitation called for “lounge suit/national dress.” The smell of pungent flowers from the hotel’s garden mixed with the aroma of the sea just below. The feast of yellow fin tuna and beef tenderloin was paired with generous pourings of American Zinfandel and, after dessert, sweet Tokaj wine from Hungary. It was at that point that some of the guests approached the stage to perform cover songs of Italian pop tunes from the sixties. Shortly after midnight, as the jazz band launched into a hearty rendition of “Parole, parole, parole,” it was time to go.

Read more of my report in Men’s Vogue about the immense cultural projects in the United Arab Emirates here.

The new sin tax: museum tschotchkes

TschotsckesMug.jpgMove over, cigarettes. The New York Times reports this morning that N.Y. State officials plan to offset government spending by levying a tax on museum gift shops. For years lawmakers have been asking why an Alessi corkscrew should be taxed in one kind of shop but not in another. Now it’s official: “An array of smaller tax law changes — requiring nonprofit organizations like museums and advocacy groups to collect sales taxes on T-shirts, mugs and other items — will bring in more modest amounts.” The same politicians who walked way from half a billion dollars in annual revenues from a Manhattan traffic congestion charge will combat future deficits with a tithe on postcards and mouse pads.

The call for ethical cleansing is ringing anew not just from Albany but also from the inner precincts of the art world. The always sharp Adrian Ellis has penned a pointedly polemical article in The Art Newspaper entitled “Museums should beware of being used as marketing tools.” Never one to mince words, he casts a stern gaze at museum acquisitions of contemporary art — around which he detects the odor of “insider trading” — and concludes that in some cases “museums serve as accomplices, albeit unwilling, to a sequence of events in which their standing is appropriated for private gain.” Read and discuss.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the gift shop, the new regulations may open the way for unexpected consequences. The chimera of educational (and therefore tax-exempt) intent having been dispelled, museums may start to stock their shelves with more nakedly profitable goods. (Sandro Chia’s excellent but hard-to-find Brunello di Montalcino could be a start.) The Times is already discussing museum souvenirs in one breath with tobacco and massage parlors. So what’s next — warning labels?