Lessons from Havana

cubaIt is useful to remember that there is a place, not far from here, which makes our Wall Street worries look like luxury problems. The average salary in Cuba is around $20 US dollars a month, which is the equivalent of a regular dinner in a tourist restaurant in Habana Vieja. Economic contrasts border on surrealism, and yet Cuban society manages somehow to survive through a system of inventive informal businesses and exchanges that involve outsmarting the government and permanently playing a game of intrigue and paranoia.

The Cuban situation in the art sphere has always been equally perplexing: Cuba doesn’t have private galleries, art magazines or independent art foundations. Internet access is heavily restricted if at all available. Only a handful of artists (who normally live outside of the country) actually get to make a profit of their art. And yet over the years Cuba produced as many or more consequential artists than other countries who may boast of far stronger infrastructure and support system for the arts. Which leads me to ask: amidst all this soul-searching after the fall of the markets, can the Cuban example help the art world re-envision itself?

In Cuba it is really hard to get quick answers to anything, though, as reality is so complex. For starters, the meeting of the art world and the Cuban reality is an awkward one. The Havana Biennial, which just opened its 10th edition last week, is an event that best exemplifies the contrasts and ironies of today’s art world. Officially entitled “Globalization and Resistance,” one could see the event as the ultimate anti-Dubai, anti-Chelsea event. Yet, there was a parallel show precisely entitled “Chelsea,” comprised of New York artists who show at Chelsea galleries. The event seemed to be quite successful, no one seemed to think it was a contradiction to the curatorial premises of the biennial, and everyone seemed happy. The biennial per se, however, as well as the theoretical forum I attended, were much more true to form. Continue reading “Lessons from Havana”

Wishful remedies

small-is-the-new-bigThe abundance of unusually available VIP cards that started to circulate a few weeks before the Armory week foreshadowed what was to come: a slow fair with dealers putting the best face, few red dots in sight —now with the pretext that they are not anymore in vogue—and a rather enjoyable Armory vernissage on Wednesday night where art could be seen at a more leisurely pace. Only that the art on view turned was rather safe and unchallenging, in the best cases tending to small works by major artists — a good compromise between maintaining quality and affordability. Dealers appear to hang in there, many more accessible and nicer to customers than usual, trying not to compromise their prices, although the word out there was that all price tags were negotiable.

I thought about the early years of decline of the Thomas Blackman Art Chicago fair in the late 90s, where major galleries started pulling out, the over-commercial quality bar started to descend, and modernist works and even furniture started to appear. Only that, as we well know, what we are seeing this week in New York is the symptom of something much larger. It has hit the art world so hard that we are still trying to come to grasps with it while remaining in autopilot. This past December in Miami there was still a sense of denial and a series of jovial comments of the kind of “well, the market was so unreal and out of control, now we have come back to reality”. But now that the Dow went under 7,000 and reality is much worse than previously thought, it is much harder to remain upbeat. Perhaps sales may turn out to be better than expected, but right now the current system of multiple fairs feels incongruous. The crowds may be still there, but without sales, an art fair booth becomes little more than an expensive, overblown ad. Continue reading “Wishful remedies”

Rush to the exit

museum_closedIt may be safe to say that the news of the closing of the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis has brought the panic barometer up a notch in the museum world. While the Rose’s news is particularly shocking, parallel announcements are also dropping jaws: word came yesterday, for example, that the Nelson Atkins Museum in Kansas City will eliminate the positions of Chief Curator, Director of Education, Director of Planning and Director of Operations, along with other staff. Other organizations have announced similar cuts. It is rare, at this point, to find a museum that has not, at the very least, taken preventive measures, such as imposing hiring freezes or budget reductions. These announcements foreshadow a troubling landscape for venerable museums that, we once thought, would be around us forever.

The ultimate sacrilege of de-accessioning is no less shocking than drastic board decisions that, in one sweeping stroke, can erase the labor of generations of collectors, curators and philanthropists. Are these decisions inevitable? Is there another way to save a museum, without dissolving its collection or its staff?

What doesn’t seem to be discussed much is role of the government. Today, Congress is voting on a plan approved by the House Appropriations Committee which includes $50 million in supplemental funds for the National Endowment for the Arts, along with other provisions that can benefit the arts. While this would be a helpful stimulus (if it gets approved), it is still a tiny sum of money. It barely represents a quarter of the Metropolitan Museum’s annual budget.

Shouldn’t culture deserve a bailout of the kind that banks and the auto industry have enjoyed? Art has never been a major priority of this country. But just how much is it worth it to us? What would happen if five months from now the list of threatened museums expanded to the highest tiers? Will we just watch all that art go away? If we were to play this scenario out to its ultimate conclusion, we may have to picture ourselves twenty years from now, staring at American Gothic somewhere in Shanghai, or Nighthawks at a museum in Dubai. Could that be the future?