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Opinion Analysis Debate

Too much of a good thing?

Sunday March 4, 2012 | 23:58 by András Szántó in New York City | permalink

300px-supply_and_demand_curvessvgWith the Whitney Biennial, Armory Show, ADAA Art Show, Independent, Moving Image, Nada, Scope, and Volta fairs, their sundry offshoots and side events, innumerable gallery openings, and the auction season about to rain down on us here in New York, this may be a good time to talk about artistic overproduction. And right on cue, along comes Adrian Ellis’ cogent essay on the supply-demand problem in Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, an obscure but important journal for cultural-policy wonks.

Some Reflections on the Relationship Between Supply and Demand in the Formalized Arts Sector” is more titillating reading than its title suggests. It’s framed in response to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s refreshingly impolitic claim, not long after his appointment, in 2009, that the arts sector may be overbuilt. The Chairman was met by predictable howls of indignation at the time. The reigning orthodoxy is that no amount of art can be too much—economics be damned. But let’s admit he had a point.

Ellis credits Landesman (brother of Artforum publisher Knight) for sparking a conversation about the imbalance between the amount of art emanating from the cultural-industrial complex of 501c3 organizations and the amount of art that regular folks actually have an appetite for consuming. In fact, this debate has been quietly raging for years, especially inside foundations. In any event, the article is a must-read for anyone who wishes to speak knowledgeably about our besieged arts infrastructure, and what should be done about it. Read More »

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Museums & Mission Statements

Sunday December 11, 2011 | 05:20 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

Andras Museum Word-CloudOur own András Szántó has just written an interesting article for the Art Newspaper on the purpose of museums; at least as proclaimed by those museums’ own mission statements.  (You can watch a video of a related discussion, hosted by András at Art Basel Miami Beach here.)   The article covers an analysis done by András and fellow Art world analyser Adam Levine of the mission statements of 60 museums around the US (you can see the accompanying Wordle graphic above) and seeks to draw conclusions about the state of strategic thinking at these grand institutions based on the words they did, or did not, use.

I think it is a fun premise and I like the comparison of the “refreshingly short” and eloquent statement from Akron Art Museum: “to enrich lives through modern art” with the tomes of MOMA, The National Gallery and Boston’s MFA.   The latter three of course were developed and approved by large Boards; and you know what they say about anything done by committee.   (Though to be fair, both MOMA and the National could have stopped at the end of their first sentences and done OK; while the MFA does a decent job with its last…)   András then goes on to draw parallels with the ongoing transition of Museums trying to more proactively respond to their market places and suggests that woolly mission statements are a symptom of woolly thinking about the role of Museums in the modern world.

It is a reasonable inference but may be too harsh. Read More »

Is the new normal the old normal?

Wednesday March 31, 2010 | 14:24 by András Szántó in New York City | permalink

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

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

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

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

Temperature check in Beijing

Tuesday September 8, 2009 | 09:55 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

Green ShootSo how does it feel where you are? Arriving back in Beijing after 3 months traveling I passed through the requisite temperature checks at the airport (swine flu mania abounds); and so I thought I would do the same for Art markets around the world. I touched base with gallerists, collectors and intermediaries in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. Without wishing to over generalise: the Americans were still mostly doom and gloom; while the response from Europeans was more varied, with some friends reporting good works finding new homes. This is rather at odds with the general Economic environment. I heard more about “green shoots” while traveling in the US than in Europe. But maybe the American collectors had had more money in the game to lose?

So it has been interesting to arrive back in China and talk with friends in Beijing and Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, things are at least a little more positive here. Whilst there has been a general pull back from foreign buyers, young wealthy mainland Chinese buyers seem to be taking up some of the slack. The locals might prefer “decorative” to “difficult” and positive themes rather than negative or political, but they are starting to buy some of the same “big brand” names that the foreigners have made so popular over the last 8 years. And brand names have always been important in China, for all products.

But the foreign buyers haven’t disappeared completely; they are just taking a little more time and doing a little more due diligence. Read More »

After the dead tree

Thursday May 7, 2009 | 06:03 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

The nice folks over at The Art Newspaper asked András for his thoughts on what would happen to Arts writing with the decline of the Press.   His response can be seen here, or after the break.

tanpic

Read More »

Message in a bottle

Wednesday October 29, 2008 | 18:21 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

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. Read More »

Summer readings: The dismal science does art

Wednesday August 13, 2008 | 14:28 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

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. Read More »

Collectors, consultants, complications…

Tuesday May 29, 2007 | 12:49 by Marc Spiegler | permalink

Catching up on my Memorial Day/Pentecost weekend reading, I came across an upbeat-on-the-art-market New York Times piece, The Art of Buying Art, With the Help of an Adviser. It’s pretty pro-adviser, explaining all the various services the right one can provide. Including making you tons of money, as witnessed by the article’s kicker quote: “[Advisor Stacey Winston-Levitan] recalled a phone call a few months ago from one of her clients who wanted to thank her for her advice to buy a John Baldessari piece for $20,000 in the early 1990s. The client had just been offered $500,000 for it. ‘As an art adviser,’ she said, ‘those are the calls you love to get.’”

Slotted in the NYT Business section (not the culture pages), with the section head “Spending,” this piece was classic “service journalism,” i.e. intended to help the reader in dealing with their lives, finances, etc. Which is why it seemed a little weird to see how quickly it skimmed over one of the potentially thorniest issues in the collector/consultant relationship: Compensation. As the Times informs us, “Consultants can charge by the hour, by the project or on a retainer basis. They may also charge a percentage of the price of the art they help acquire.” But as I noted in this month’s Art Newspaper article “The problem with art advisors,” this can be filled with unexpected implications for the novice collector that the Times piece targets:

At its cleanest, [compensation] is straightforward: the collector pays a retainer, usually based upon the ambition level of the projected collection and the speed with which it’s supposed to be completed. Much more frequently, the consultant is paid a commission on each sale by the gallery. To the extent that there’s an industry standard, it’s 10 percent. But in reality, that’s just a baseline number. “With some of my artists, like Josephine Meckseper, where demand is high, the price is the price—if they want a  ­commission, a consultant needs to work it out with their client,” says dealer Elizabeth Dee of New York. “With other artists, I can be more  ­flexible. But you never want to give them more than 10 percent , even though many consultants come asking for 15 percent or even 20 percent.”

… The problem with fluctuating commissions goes beyond the dealer’s profit margin: it also means that advisors have a financial incentive to deal more with one gallery than another, which can skew their clients’ collections toward the artists of the galleries from whom the advisor reaps the best rewards. “I’m very blunt with  ­consultants—I tell them that I want to build a long relationship with them, and that commissions start when we do our fifth or sixth deal,” says Ed Winkleman. “But I know with some consultants that if there’s no  ­commission, they’re not coming back.”

Read More »

Everyone an Iconoclast

Friday May 11, 2007 | 14:01 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

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?

Clippings from the salon floor, #5

Sunday April 22, 2007 | 21:01 by Marc Spiegler in Zurich | permalink

The Venison’s still sizzling! The New York Sun piece Auction Houses Vs. Dealers (via ArtsJournal) quotes Christies president Marc Porter, re Haunch of Venison Gallery becoming the house’s private-treaty-sales division: “To presume that the golden day of the 60s and that gallery system is what’s appropriate in a global art world may be a great disservice to artists and to collectors. What we’re doing is ensuring that the art business evolves, so that the people who use the business are best served.” Author Kate Taylor also notes, “For now, Haunch of Venison is forbidden to bid at Christie’s auctions.” Can someone please define “for now” as it’s used in that sentence?

BanksyBananas.jpg Next time, auction off the substation… After London Transport agency workers painted over a Banksy mural - estimated to be worth more than $500,000 - on the side of an electricity substation, a Reuters report cited an agency spokesman explaining: “We recognise that there are those who view Banksy’s work as legitimate art, but sadly our graffiti removal teams are staffed by professional cleaners not professional art critics.” But, wait, now the Independent says the workers deny whitewashing it.

Documenta is an art fair?!? From the lead paragraph of the much-hyped Portfolio magazine’s obligatory China ConArt story The Ka-Ching Dynasty: “This June, at the Documenta 12 art fair in the picturesque hill town of Kassel, Germany, the gallery-going set might notice an unusually homogeneous group mingling among them: 1,001 Chinese people all dressed alike. But the fair hasn’t mandated a uniform; the mysterious visitors will be part of a living, breathing, schmoozing installation by the artist Ai Weiwei. Ai is one of several Chinese contemporary artists exhibiting at the influential fair, including painters whose works have been flying off the auction block for well into the six figures.” So much for CondeNast’s legendary fact-checking…

Annals of Art-Market Anarchy: Artnet magazine’s Chinese Artists at Crossroads re the Wild Westness of China’s ConArt scene: “Many galleries report that maverick artists often balk on contractual agreements. In some scenarios, artists have actually walked out of their own opening, art works under their arms, to later redistribute the paintings at other galleries around the city.” Read More »

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File under R, for “Rapidly regretted quotations,”

Wednesday November 15, 2006 | 08:09 by Marc Spiegler | permalink

From the Bloomberg report on Sotheby’s sale last night:

“Contemporary art is an incredibly sexy thing to be buying right now,” said New York art adviser Cristin Tierney. “People talk about hedge-fund money, and part of it is a desire to conquer yet another market. But this is a market that’s more social, and social on an intellectual level.”

You can see her trying to save herself in that last phrase, but it’s too late. Let me save you some trouble: www.cristintierney.com, complete with the de rigueur “Art as an Investment” link.

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