Another art glossy makes a go of it

ArtWorld03.jpg“How come that title is still available?” I thought to myself as a smiling woman handed me a copy of ART WORLD magazine at the recent Armory Show in New York. The attractive U.K.-based bimonthly is unlikely to win any major writing awards, but it gets a friendly slap on the back for letting the art do the talking.

The first impression is somewhat of a letdown: a parade of short and light news items about all the usual-suspect events, including cheesy snaps from Larry Gagosian’s opening in Rome, followed by profiles of overexposed art celebs (is there anything about Tracey Emin we don’t already know?) But as you dig further into the magazine, the artists turn less predictable. Best of all, whole spreads are filled up with comfortably spaced, high-quality reproductions of actual work. Nice job.

One thing ART WORLD doesn’t cover in great depth is, well, the broader art world. Issue No. 3 has a single dealer profile. Basically, it’s a traditional art magazine in a slightly updated, newsier garb. And that may be just fine. Will this one survive?

Pointless punditry (why critics don’t matter, ch. 35)

Portrait_of_the_Art_Critic_Vladimir_Stasov__by_Ilya_Repin__1883.JPGFor this post, I was going to write about the Whitney Biennial. I was planning to coin the phrase “Unfinish Fetish” to describe the prevalence of inexpensive and coarse materials in the show. Alternatively, I might have written about the surprisingly solid auction sales of recent weeks. Or I might have devoted an article to the excitement of the ADAA fair and its ebullient opening in New York.

But none of this would have mattered much, because, you see, pundits don’t matter much. That was an insight I gained last weekend at a conference organized by the Museé D’Art Contemporain de Montréal.

The Max and Iris Stern International Symposium on the State of the Contemporary Art Market coincided with the worst snowstorm in the city since 1971 (a pundit may have observed the symbolism of this fact). A highlight of the event was a presentation by Michael Moses, the economics professor of Mei-Moses index fame. The talk included fresh figures from 2007, according to which art solidly outperformed stocks last year. The Mei-Moses jumped just over 20 percent, against a 5.5 percent uptick in the S&P 500. (The real money was in gold, which shot up 31 percent.) No surprise, but 2007 was the first year since the inception of the index that fine art values measurably outperformed real estate.

But the statistics that raised the most eyebrows had to do with “citations.” Does a mention by a critic or a selection by a museum curator make a difference in the sale price of an artwork at auction? No. “Art critics and museums are basically meaningless.”

Well, almost meaningless. Only when there had been at least 11 citations by critics or selections by curators (as noted in the auction catalog) did citations make a dent on prices. Of 12,000 works analyzed by Professors Mei and Moses, that could only be said about 185 objects. Even then, the impact was a paltry half-percent.

The findings raise interesting questions when it comes to journalistic accusations of “collusion” by “interested parties” who loan artworks to museums to get them talked about by critics. This may matter for contemporary art, which does indeed get a bump from museum exposure and critical validation, as the creators of the works at the Whitney Biennial, finished or not, will soon find out. But in most cases, where artists already present at auction are concerned, the data do not confirm the conventional wisdom that citations matter.

Last point: If you can make it to Montréal, don’t miss “Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today” at the Museé des Beaux-Arts. It may be the best exhibition you see this year, and it won’t be coming to the U.S.

Pass the crystal ball, please

ADAA.jpgIf you have been following the US election campaign, Saturday’s ADAA/MoMA panel on “Art Dealers and Auction Houses: A Cultural Divide” had a familiar ring to it. It felt like a presidential debate.

The teams of gallery and auction-house heavyweights – boasting “150 years of combined art-world experience” – exuded statesmanlike politesse. Some waxed doubtful about the gathering’s antagonistic premise, and none more so than Simon de Pury, who in his trademark, honey-dipped accent declared, “I find it amusing to hear about the so-called divide between auctions and dealers. We all have a great responsibility toward the artist.”

The jolly, why-can’t-we-just-get-along mood was breached only by occasional episodes of harpoon throwing, such as when Andrea Rosen compared auctioneers to sharks. “Sharks aren’t bad,” she offered, quoting an unnamed artist in her gallery, “They are opportunists. They take the fish that’s easiest to get.” But even Amy Capellazzo of Christie’s refused to take the bait.

Moderated by the unflappable Lindsay Pollock (an ArtWorld Salon friend), the discussion checked off various merits and weaknesses of the two art-business camps, and even lingered on their interdependencies. Among the more engrossing points was the one suggested by Michael Findlay, the panel’s ranking member by age, who cited “normal accident theory” to illustrate how galleries may prove more resistant in a recession. “The larger the system,” he said, “the more likely there will be catastrophic failure.” Comparing galleries to “mom and pop shops” that can be flexible in the face of a downturn, he concluded, “We may be the safest bet in the future.” Although he was making the comparison to auction houses, he could as well have been referring to art fairs, some of which, as Ian points out in the previous thread, may also quickly become casualties of a severe downturn.

The best came at the end, when it was time to opine about what’s around the corner. David Zwirner predicted that “Things will soften a bit, there will be a slight shakeout, but medium and long-term prospects are very good.” Michael Findlay suggested, “What will come back to the market is a degree of selectivity that has been lacking.” According to Andrea Rosen, “Some of this is already happening. I’ve learned a lot from opening my gallery during a recession. I already see a reorientation to meaning.”

“It’s impossible not to have the uncertainty in the larger markets effect our market,” said Amy Cappellazzo, adding that people are likely to gravitate to “what makes them feel safe,” such as painting. For Anthony Grant of Sotheby’s, the “market is so international now” and “the way people make money is so different,” that it has become difficult to make predictions. Simon de Pury got the last word: “It’s an issue of availability,” he said. “The only thing you can do, if you have money, is to build the best contemporary art collection in the world. The market is just beginning to be truly global … I feel very optimistic.”

What does your crystal ball say?

Welcome to the art factory

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Fashion victims enter the temple

Murakami_LV_MOCA.jpgOn a recent visit to Los Angeles, I made a pilgrimage to Takashi Murakami’s mid-career spectacular at MOCA. You know, the one with the handbag shop in the museum (and a copyright sign in the show’s title). I wanted to taste that smiley-face Murakami vibe. And having heard all the hullabaloo about the handbags—offered for sale by the good people at Louis Vuitton not in the gift shop, but inside the actual gallery space—I wanted to contemplate the crossing of cultural thresholds never before so brazenly tested. So, on a surreally warm, sunny Christmas Eve, I pointed the car’s navigation system to the Geffen Contemporary.

I came to the museum with an open mind. Messing around with boundaries is a legitimate pursuit, after all—I’m all for it. We Artworldsalon types get easily excited when it comes to novel genetic mutations and cross-pollinations between art and commerce. But I came away with mixed feelings; feelings that probably make me sound like a woolly old mammoth.

About the most generous way to see the Louis Vuitton boutique implant is as a canny and effective performance piece. It takes the art of audience participation to a new level. People are invited to walk into a symbolically charged space and offer up a kind of sacrifice, i.e. money, in return for objects of demonstrable (because someone is paying) cultural or emotional value. There is a theatrical, performative, staged quality to the experience. Kind of like church.

I watched as a young Asian fellow with two attractive female companions whipped out his credit card and charged $3,000 for three handbags. They looked like dancers in a trance, speaking barely a word. The girls at the counter played along with feline elegance in the finely choreographed ritual exchange, in which everyone seemed to know their part. And I thought to myself, “He may as well have cut a vein and drawn a pint of blood.” Eliciting that profound response, that level of commitment, says something powerful about these objects. Don’t we all want people to respond to art in such a tangible way?

But that may be giving Murakami too much credit. Ever since the visit, I can’t shake a sense of disquiet about the store-in-the-museum concept. I have been trying to get to the bottom of it, but I couldn’t pin it down until I came across a statement by John Baldessari in a conversation (artreview.com, Jan. 5) with Artworldsalon regular Jonathan Neil. In the interview, Baldessari talked about how “art has become more entertainment,” and about the Murakami show he had this to say:

I’m on the board of trustees at MOCA – not that I go, but I do go to a few meetings – and you realise when you get in there, in the midst of it, that these museums are about ticket sales, and they have to have blockbusters. So what are we doing at MOCA? – Murakami. Man, that is going to bring them in. Now do you think if you had an Ad Reinhardt show that that would bring them in? I don’t think so. Could you see a Reinhardt on a billboard? But it’s more and more like that. And it’s perfect. Because there’s a huge Asian community: that’s going to bring them in. Murakami is like Warhol: that’s going to bring them in. And then this argument – I had to laugh – but Paul Schimmel said, “We’re going to have this Vuitton shop, and it’s going to be functional, because that’s part of his practice”, and I said, “Well wait a minute, part of your practice, alright, so you have the same show – but one of [Adolf] Wölfli, are you going to have a mental institution inside?” No, you wouldn’t have to, it is a mental institution!

So which is it? A savvy cultural investigation into the relationship of art and commerce? Or just another way to sell a handbag?

Postcard from Miami

Merlin_Carpenter.jpgWell here we are, and it’s bigger than ever. Collectors seem to be undeterred by the housing crisis and Wall Street jitters, and by all accounts they are spending freely. Most of the dealers I have talked to were happy already by the end of Tuesday night. Several of them evinced an air of unfeigned relief, even surprise. By late afternoon Wednesday, when the waves of VIP previews had washed through the main fair and the UBS VIP Collectors Lounge had filled up with well-heeled and scantily attired jetsetters, the best pictures were gone. It’s hard to say who was buying what, but collectors with European and South American accents seemed to be smiling the most cheerfully. With their discounted dollars, they had good reason.

Trends thus far are hard to discern, notwithstanding the diminished presence of photography in the main fair. The trend of the year is without doubt the continuing metastasis of the Miami art fair phenomenon, which has mushroomed beyond all sense of proportion or restraint. Along with it, so has the devouring of the event’s artistic core by eager and shrewd marketers of luxury products. For the party goer, this is a good thing.

A full accounting of the art offerings is still in the distance because several of the fairs have just begun accepting visitors. The cliff notes version of the buzz is this: The big fair has quality art but is predictable; Scope is a bust; Nada is solid; the Miami Art Fair is bo-ring; and Pulse is really fun. For those who care about art, the private collectors have once again thrown out a lifeline in the form of well-curated exhibitions. Although the array of heavy German art at the Rubell Collection was a bit much to take in the Florida sunshine, that show, along with the outstanding installation at the Margulies collection, provided reassurance that somewhere underneath all the preening and the elbowing there is a genuinely committed art culture here, and it’s going from strength to strength.

I am in a position to reassure everyone, meanwhile, that the sybaritic aspect of the Art Basel Miami Beach is bigger and badder than ever. European luxury goods purveyors, especially, are outdoing each other to capture the attention of the fairgoers. Krug champagne has a lovely white balloon with a bespoke gondola basket outfitted by a designer of private jets and yachts. Cartier threw a glamorous jewel-studded bash at a custom built hurricane-proof geodesic dome. Something of a synthesis of the high intentions and commercial ambitions of all that happens here was afforded by my final party stop last night, around midnight, in a cavernous factory building near the Design District, where Zaha Hadid was presenting her new line of furniture. The tables, benches and shelves are devoid of function — you can’t actually sit on them or place a book on them — but they sure look good in all their aerodynamic, bronze-coated slickness. The price of the smallest bookshelf: about 30,000 dollars.

Miamimania

miami.jpg

Calvin Klein, Tamara Mellon, Donna Karan, Laudomina Pucci, Vivienne Tam, Kenzo, David LaChapelle, Doug Aitken, Jack Pierson, John Currin, Kehinde Wiley, Terence Koh, Dennis Hopper, David Byrne, Keanu Reeves, Steve Martin, Russell Simmons, Lou Reed, Jerry Speyer, Eli Broad, Steve Cohen, Peter Brant, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Aby Rosen, Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone, Andrea Rosen, Barbara Gladstone, Lisa Phillips, Tom Krens, Michael Govan.

What do these people have in common? They’re all going to Miami, of course.

“In ten days,” as fellow Salon writer Steve Kaplan wrote in our recent thread on why people collect, “this culture (or sub culture) will descend in all its sound and fury upon Miami. The attendant rituals of conspicuous consumption, of snubbing and embracing, of preening and prowling, of “perilous journeys across the seas separating the small islands”, might even give the Trobrianders pause. And one can only imagine what an observer with the sensitive antennae of a Malinowski or a Levi-Strauss would make of it all, trudging down Collins Avenue, notebook in hand.”

So, why are YOU going? What are you expecting to get out of Art Basel Miami Beach? What are you excited about? What are you dreading? What are your must-go exhibits, special events, parties? What’s your strategy for making it through the fair and how will you make sense of it all? Please send your thoughts and best advice.

Wisdom of crowds, contd.

VVG___The_Fields.jpg

As long-time readers know, I like to conduct experiments with my students to test the notion that a group is able to make more informed judgments than any single expert. Last fall’s experiment, involving the Klimts in the fall sales, was a stellar success. Our first experiment of 2007, concerning the Van Gogh in last week’s auction, was an unmitigated bust, since no one allowed for the possibility that the painting would find no buyer. But now I have good news that will restore your faith in the wisdom of crowds.

Four weeks ago, I asked the students to write down their guess for the hammer price of Francis Bacon’s “Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. 1.” The painting was bid up this Wednesday toBacon_2ndV_of_Study_for_B1.jpg $41 million (plus commission). The median estimate returned by the roughly 60 students was $42 million. Although their estimates ranged from $7 million to $120 million, no fewer than five of them got within a million dollars of the price. Maybe this technique should be used more broadly in setting sales estimates?

Another record bites the dust

kellybag.jpg
One of the most disquieting anecdotes I remember hearing about Sept. 11 — and I sincerely hope it was a myth, born in a moment of despair and chaos — concerned some phone calls that the Manhattan Hermes store allegedly received that very morning from fashionable hopefuls wondering if they might have advanced a few tiers on the waiting list for a certain coveted handbag. The accessory in question was the iconic Kelly bag, and it just made history again — exactly one day after the sixth anniversary of the tragedy.

Last week, Christie’s London auctioned off the most expensive handbag ever sold, for 31,200 pounds sterling, or almost $65,000, roughly three times its original estimate. The bag has been described, intriguingly, as “Louise McBain’s handbag,” and in more technical parlance, as a “Rouge ‘H’ Crocodile Kelly Bag with Gilt Hardware.” Unlike Mr. Hirst’s diamond skull, this is a documented sale (98% of the lots found buyers at the sale, entitled From City Chic to Alpine Retreat, Holland Park and St.Moritz), and it will certainly be interpreted as a sign — but a sign of what?

Metrics of zeal or woe

tornado.jpg August jitters yield to back-to-school confidence—at least for now. After a rash of premature obituaries, the art market is humming briskly again and news of epic sales fills the air. Even Damien Hirst’s diamond skull has found buyers (including, so it is rumored, the artist). Its fate as the shimmering emblem of early 21st-century excess is now sealed.The question now is whether the art market is headed even deeper into record-breaking territory as the last refuge of investors and speculators, á la 1989, or whether it is already on a sliding path toward a landing—soft, hard, or otherwise? It is a delicious moment, pregnant with wildly opposing possibilities.

Reading the posts of the last few weeks, one longs for clearer metrics. Are there more reliable early indicators of yet another exuberant season of sales? Or conversely, are some “canary-in-the-mineshaft” indices registering advance tremors of a downturn?

Our debate on guarantees offered few clues. Reluctance to offer guarantees would parallel the lending caution that engulfed the financial markets in late summer, but our panel found no proof of such reluctance (auction guarantees this season are, in fact, expected to run into the billions). Daily reports of new gallery openings and museum ventures similarly belie prognostications of impending doom.

The problem is that some indicators of change can be interpreted as harbingers of squarely opposing trends. What exact conclusion would be drawn from evidence that dealers are getting more calls about placing works quietly, or taking pictures back on consignment? If a spate of exceptionally high-quality pictures were to come to market, would that be seen as a sign that sellers are trying to slip through a closing window of opportunity? Or would it be seen as evidence of the health of a market that is coaxing even the most beloved masterpieces off people’s walls? What is the exact interpretation of trimmed museum acquisition budgets? What can we read into shorter or longer waiting lists? Are dipping or spiking art school applications advance indicators of growth or decline?

As we begin a season of many likely surprises, can this panel suggest clear signs of what’s ahead?

Summer math camp

The three co-founders of Artworldsalon intersected in London last week. Two of them went on to ogle Damien Hirst’s diamond studded skull, about which a report shall soon follow, and which is undeniably the talk of the town. Visitors particularly seem to appreciate the gesamtkunstwerk atmosphere. It’s not just the skull but the full-court theatre around it, including the thuggish Mafia-style security guards. More on that carnival attraction from the eyewitnesses who saw it.

The real eye candy for me this summer in London was at the National Gallery, which has organized a spellbinding show of Dutch portraiture, a true diamond gem of an exhibit. A less noticed visual art event awaits at Heathrow airport. A slick video about security procedures now playing on a row of flat-panels right above the baggage X-ray machines is a sight to behold. It looks like it was produced by Matthew Barney in collaboration with the people who make Apple’s iPhone commercials. Slow-motion shots from edgy avant-garde camera angles (e.g. bird’s eye view of gorgeous passenger walking through metal detector) capture models of attractively blended origin as they glide through the ritualistic passage of belt removal, laptop opening, and body frisking. Their dignified countenance and beatific smiles radiate an inner calm, as though they were being cleansed; suspicions erased, innocence reasserted.

Anyway, on to matters at hand. One of the delights of airplane time is the freedom to read even the smallest articles in The Economist, including the little teaser for their blog, Free exchange, which on June 26 posted a fascinating roundup of variables shown empirically to influence the prices of paintings. Quoting from Tyler Cowen’s latest book, Discover your Inner Economist, they posit the following relationships:

“1 Landscapes can triple in value when there are horses or figures in the foreground. Evidence of industry usually lowers a picture’s value.

2 A still life with flowers is worth more than one with fruit. Roses stand at the top of the flower hierarchy. Chrysanthemums and lupines (seen as working class) stand at the bottom.

3 There is a price hierarchy for animals. Purebred dogs help a picture more than mongrels do. Spaniels are worth more than collies. Racehorses are worth more than carthorses. When it comes to game birds the following rule of thumb holds: the more expensive it is to shoot the bird, the more the bird adds to the value of the painting. A grouse is worth more than a mallard, and the painter should show the animal from the front, not the back. Continue reading “Summer math camp”

Bubble happiness

Who says bubbles are bad? Not Daniel Gross, financial columnist for Slate, who just published a pithy tome etitled Pop! Why Bubbles are Great for the Economy. The book doesn’t contain a word about art, but its conclusions are worthy of pondering. His message: sure, bubbles create a huge mess when they pop, but the energy and innovation they generate while they last is worth it. Here it is in a nutshell:

“[Besides,] if some omniscient Bureau of Management were tasked with the capacity to halt enthusiasms before they go out of control, we wouldn’t necessarily want it to do so. ‘I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787. In the economic realm, a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, too. And bubbles, entrepreneurial storms that disrupt the existing commercial order, provide shots of adrenaline. The enthusiasm they generate has led successive generations of entrepreneurs to open new territory for settlement, to create valuable new infrastructure, to spur innovation, and to push people to work, invest, and spend at a higher level—all in pursuit of promised massive short-term gains.” (p. 188)

Thoughts?

File under: plus ça change…

“The auction business is booming as more and more Americans catch art-collecting fever.” … “Not since the first hammer dropped to the highest bidder have sales of valuables commanded such audiences, such publicity, such prices.” Sounds timely? The quote is from TIME magazine. The year, 1979 (Dec. 31).

It goes on: “Collectionitis is as pervasive as inflation, as euphoric as a drug high. Its grip reaches far beyond the roseate world of Rembrandts, Sèvres porcelain and Georgian silver. A vast subculture of acquisition is feeding on scarce objects of every conceivable description.” … “It has been only in the past decade or so that the big sales have been covered by the press as Events; the sums paid for art used to be buried in newspapers along with ship arrivals. Now, with the tremendous increases in fine arts prices and the expansion of public interest, big auctions have become flash bulb and video-tape fiestas.” (Thank you to my Sotheby’s Institute of Art student, Cate Andrews.)

Speaking of the press, did anyone else notice the “Talk of the Town” piece in this week’s New Yorker (May 28) about everybody’s favorite British art patron, which starts thus: “The art dealer Charles Saatchi spends a lot of time sitting at his desk”?

Art about boom is a bust

Elmgreen and Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005$72.8 million for a Rothko? $71.7 million for a Warhol? More than $870 million spent on contemporary art in a single week? What does it all mean?

I headed for answers to the conveniently timed “The Price of Everything” exhibition, just across from the Empire State Building at CUNY’s art gallery on Fifth Avenue. The subtitle of the show, on view through June 24 and organized by the Whitney Independent Study Program, is “Perspectives on the Art Market.” The exhibition promises to illuminate the logic of the commercial art world by “evaluating and examining the different economic structures that comprise today’s expanded art market.” The selected artists “invite a skeptical awareness of market mechanisms” and “an active engagement with possible alternatives.”

I was hungry for enlightenment. These days, aren’t we all trying to figure out how a piece of canvas with half a gallon of paint can metamorphose into an asset comparable in value to the lifetime earnings of two-dozen tenured art historians?

Here’s what I found. In a dimly lit, shrine-like room, covered in red fabric, works by four famous artists that had been donated by the Whitney Museum to corporations in recognition of their support of the arts. On a ledge circling the gallery below the ceiling, a visually arresting piece by Fia Backstrom consisting of pages from Artforum magazine (according to the catalog, the work “considers the economic basis of Artforum by drawing attention to its large volume of full-page advertisements.”) To the side, photos of the artist Marianne Heier documenting her donation of a check to a struggling alternative art gallery. (“The hidden economic infrastructure of the commercial art gallery is often rejected by many artist-run spaces.”) Continue reading “Art about boom is a bust”

Everyone an Iconoclast

My email inbox, always bustling with messages from super-creative people, received an announcement about a “global think tank” called The Creative Class Group. It’s headed by Richard Florida, he of the book that launched a thousand speaking engagements. Impactful though sociologically sloppy, Florida’s bestseller is being turned into a marketing agency. CCG will develop “new ideas and strategies” by “next-generation thinkers and strategists.”

Who is this creative group being pitched? It’s a vast, unfocused meta-entity comprised of “a third of the workforce” and commanding “50% of wages and salaries in the United States.” People who reach for their wallets when they hear “Not taking risks is risky” – one of the mottos touted in the press release. “The first people to try a new restaurant, see a new movie, buy a new gadget.” People who say “next-generation thinkers” – a phrase that cohabitates in linguistic purgatory with “thinking out of the box” – without cracking a smile.

Art world, relax, this box is bigger than you – much bigger. Thoughts, anyone?

The Fine Art of Condescension

Budapest National GalleryAccording to the London Observer, Dr. Charles Saumarez Smith, outgoing director of Britain’s National Gallery, had this to say recently about his difficulties raising money from the government: He did not want his institution to end up like “the National Gallery of Budapest.” He was worried his museum would be left “endlessly reshuffling the works it already has.”

Being in Budapest at the time of those remarks, I can report they didn’t ruffle many feathers. Rather than pretending to be a comic emblem of artistic failure, Hungarians are busily rebuilding an artworld from the mess left behind by communism. There’s a long way to go, but signs of progress are everywhere. Among them is a promising changing of the guard at several top institutions and a de-politicization of culture in general. State money doesn’t flow to the arts as lavishly as at points west, but museums are getting facelifts, and yes, some are acquiring.

New facilities are coming online, from the Ludwig Collection on the Danube embankment, to a private museum near Lake Balaton founded by a bespoke shoemaker with a passion for collecting, to the sleek 1950s bus depot in the heart of Budapest that’s supposed to become a new design museum. Corporate support is kicking in. Private money is on the way, if the frothy auction market is an indication. Patronizing the arts is newly fashionable.

As far as the National Gallery of Budapest – properly called the Hungarian National Gallery – is concerned, Dr. Smith’s condescending comparison is somewhat misplaced. Continue reading “The Fine Art of Condescension”

Critics, Understood at Last

In more proof that Europe is way out ahead of America, now comes news that the E.U. has passed a law to keep reviews from being misquoted by cultural promoters.

As the London Independent and The New York Times have reported, the new Unfair Commercial Practices Directive bars advertisers from taking critics’ words out of context or otherwise manipulating reviews in such a way that “deceives or is likely to deceive the consumer.” Violators will be prosecuted by the ominous sounding Office of Fair Trading.

For those of us in the visual art world, this news raises some disquieting questions. First, how would promoters shrink sentences that run, on industry average, four to seven lines of text, into their meager advertisement space? Second, how would these unscrupulous arts advertisers manipulate the meaning of critical utterances, when those utterances themselves are so often nonsensical and, as surveys have documented, devoid of clear judgments?

Third, and perhaps most alarming, will visual arts presenters, having run out of ideas, ever decide to use snippets of criticism to promote their artists and exhibitions? In the theater, where critics still count, this is standard practice. Alas, few in the art world seem to feel that criticism is important enough to bother with quoting or misquoting critics in their advertisements.

What’s next for Europe? Legislation mandating criticism that consumers can understand?

Media Matters

Poor Los Angeles. You can’t help feeling sad for this city, which has been trying so hard to prove that it’s a first-rate visual art metropolis. The Pulitzer Prize committee doesn’t think so. This week’s announcement of the Pulitzer in criticism, which went to Jonathan Gold, a restaurant reviewer for LA Weekly, follows on the heels of the last criticism Pulitzer to go to LA, in 2004. That was for a car writer.

I’m not here to debunk writing about food, cars, and other popular pursuits. But in their eagerness to make a point, the Pulitzer people have ignored, yet again, the current energy of art and architecture in LA. Good criticism is part of that picture. Without it, the renaissance can prove fleeting.

What irks me is why LA must be the place to unfurl the flag of critical populism. It’s such a shopworn cliché. At a time when catastrophic management is shredding one of the great papers in the nation, it would be nice to see an affirmation that LA and its beleaguered hometown daily can play in the cultural big leagues.

portfoliocover.jpgMeanwhile, back on the East Coast, cause for optimism. The much-anticipated business glossy Portfolio is here, and it’s chockablock with arts writing. Business Intelligence (the magazine’s tagline) has been deemed to encompass awareness about cultural industries. The cover is a spectacular homage, by Scott Peterman, to Berenice Abbot’s classic aerial shot of Manhattan. The skyscrapers in the picture look like so many glowing gold ingots. A special section, Culture Inc., is devoted to arts and philanthropy. The assignments are somewhat predictable at this point, with the obligatory briefing on the Chinese art boom, etc. But there is real promise here.

A word of caution. Robust art coverage in business magazines is a canary in a mineshaft. During the last boom, by the time Fortune and Forbes got around to it, the market bust was already around the corner.

Bedside Reading: A Road Map to the Artworld

“At the dawn of modernism, artists worked hard in their studios, usually in isolation, suffering all kinds of deprivations, until they would be discovered by a dealer or taken on by a patron, critic or curator. Nowadays, artistic suffering has not vanished, but its nature has changed. Art-school-produced, professional artists spend less time in a studio, but rather live a nomadic life between airports, recovering from jetlag bought on by their endless transits between residencies, biennials, art fairs, speaking engagements, openings and other social events.”

I am reading from Pablo Helguera’s immensely entertaining, witty, accurate, and well-written Manual of Contemporary Art Style (Jorge Pinto Books, 2007), which bills itself as “the essential guide for artists, curators, and critics” with “more than 100 key tips for impeccable etiquette in the art world.” I wholeheartedly recommend this book, which doubles as a kind of anthropological field guide to the living world of art.

Laid out in the format of a traditional style guide, with point-by-point rules for proper behavior when, for instance, approaching strangers at openings or designing one’s business cards, this thin tome is wiser than its meager pages (100) suggest. It is written by someone who knows the art world well and who is ultimately fond of its idiosyncrasies. Helguera’s goal, stated with or without irony (this is unclear) is to “erase certain behavioral taboos that exist around this world, and to openly present, once and for all, the rules that many of us follow.”

Helguera is a pretty insightful guy, with a knack for close observation and coining funny phrases. When discussing art fair behavior, he calls attention to the need for dealers to develop “spatial omnipresence,” so that a gallerist who “masters this technique will be able to intercept any potential sale by Continue reading “Bedside Reading: A Road Map to the Artworld”

Learning from Santa Fe

DSC00734_2_1.jpg“Howling coyotes and pink cats” is how a Santa Fe dealer described the wares in the galleries of his competitors. The spectrum is much broader, in fact, and there are many diamonds in the rough. But the intrepid collector must wade through mountains of mediocrity to find the good stuff. Art-wise, this is a schizophrenic town. The undisputed capital of folk schlock, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a 400-year-old city that is the seat of a giant art industry, second in trade volume only to New York.

If the statistics are to be believed, this community of 66,000 people is, on a per capita basis, America’s premier cultural powerhouse. One billion dollars accrue to the state coffers annually from cultural tourism, which generates about a fifth of all jobs and two out of every five dollars earned. People calling themselves artists are five times more common here than anywhere in America, and photographers, a staggering 35 times. There are more than 200 galleries, the greatest density of art emporia in the nation in relation to population size. Auctions and art fairs draw huge crowds. Hotel rooms during the vast Indian Fair are booked five years in advance.

Reality check: The economic impact numbers are, to put it mildly, inclusive. They encompass all the hand-woven baskets, wool ponchos, silver belt buckles and turquoise Continue reading “Learning from Santa Fe”