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?

Dissent and its consequences

DISSENT_TERRORISM.jpgOne of the leitmotifs running through much of the chatter about the just-closed fairs and the ongoing Whitney Biennial here in New York has to do with the palpablility of politics, or of political content, or of “commitment,” in contemporary art. The question seems to be one of whether our art should or indeed needs to be more “activist.” And following closely is the question of whether we, as critics, historians, artists and other devotees to the art and culture industries, need to be more “activist” ourselves.

I bring this up because I was reading through a recent special issue of October, the contents of which took the form of myriad responses to a questionnaire on the problem of contemporary political “passivity.” Needless to say, the war in Iraq forms the backdrop for such an inquiry. And the last question of the bunch asked “What, if anything, can be done to make intellectual and artistic opposition to the war more active and effective?”

Responses to this question were understandably–and perhaps understatedly–varied, but one struck me as worth reflection, if not debate. Critical Art Ensemble offered that we, presumably as intellectuals and artists, must “be more daring and less afraid,” and then they continued with, “losing a job, being beaten, or going to jail isn’t the worst that can happen.”

I must confess that this bit caught me up. To be sure, CAE’s list is aimed at increasing the numbers of those who would choose to man the (police) barricades in demonstrations of resistance to our current administration’s asinine execution of a debatable foreign policy. But I imagine for many people, and not only in the U.S., these three actions are indeed and exactly the worst that can happen to a human being, especially given the rather sinister way in which their combination has become a hallmark of the war on terror: think extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo.

It occurs to me that only someone who has never lost a job (upon which daily survival depends), been beaten (and so by it lost, say, an eye, or the ability to walk), or gone to jail (without recourse to a legal defense) would think these potential returns for dissent something less than “the worst that can happen.” Nevertheless, the question remains, if opposition and activism is the goal, how does one “be more daring” and of what should we be “less afraid”?

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.

Tehran artists vs Condi Rice, the prequel

 Luc Tuymans, The Secretary of State, 2005 Long before blogs existed, I wrote for suck.com (not a porn site, but an outgrowth of Wired magazine). In my favorite of my own Suck pieces, I tried to imagine the conversation that led to a particularly bizarre advertising campaign in Details magazine. It’s a mental game I often play when undeniably intelligent people have taken totally inadvisable steps. Like, for example, Condoleezza Rice trying to co-opt 14 Iranian artists into a State Department PR ploy targeting the Middle East.

As the artforum.com news digest reported, “Ten of the fourteen Iranians who received special visas for the exhibition refused to be photographed with Rice, and two would not even accompany her through the gallery because they were “‘uncomfortable.'” Tracing back to the item’s original source, the Guardian’s Unease As Rice Meets Iranian Artists, I discovered

What was billed as a unique and open expression of culture bridging vast political differences between the U.S. and Iran became an exercise in crowd control as the State Department scrambled to prevent reporters from even glimpsing Rice’s tour. All journalists, including those without cameras, were kept in the final room of the exhibit behind two immense wooden doors that opened only when Rice finished and appeared with four of the Iranian artists to say how much she enjoyed the show.

So how does a fiasco like this unroll? I imagine conversations that went somewhat like the following.

Three months ago…
Political Aide 1: We need to do another cultural exchange to show that we’re really on the side the Iranian people. We’ve already done doctors, wrestlers and teachers. What group can we do next? Continue reading “Tehran artists vs Condi Rice, the prequel”

USA: Today, Tomorrow, Every Day

USA_OD.jpgIs it just me or have others noticed the ubiquity of American exhibitions in West London over the past year? Whether it’s NY Fashion at the V&A, yet another exhibition of an American artist at the Serpentine — old (Ellsworth Kelly) or new (Paul Chan) — or group shows put together to show visiting Americans some American art at Frieze fair time (the Royal Academy / Saatchi’s USA Today or the Serpentine’s Uncertain States of America), it looks like London’s expensive postcodes just can’t get enough of a good thing.

The combination of American corporate largesse, political will (the US Embassy funded Karen Kilimnik’s recent show at the Serpentine) and rich friends (cocktails with the Blairs for American Friends of the Tate) is convincing enough as it is. Combine this with a dearth of curators that can look beyond – or are interested in anything other than – the Euro-American nexus, and we see a pattern emerging. One in which much of London’s public art world (at least in those parts of town where corporate hospitality is at a premium) seems at risk of being ‘captured’ by one country. So while the world rhapsodises about ‘new’ art coming out of Asia, London gets to see very little of it, whereas Tate Liverpool is showing contemporary Chinese art and Newcastle’s Baltic had a recent Subodh Gupta show.

One wonders how long this will continue? As the 2012 London Olympics-related cuts to arts funding start biting, the allure of American patronage will only grow stronger. Perhaps, as the current show of British photography at Tate Britain suggests, American Friends will act with ‘enlightened self-interest’ and start supporting non-American shows, lest the natives get restless.

Or perhaps London is set to be the battleground for a cultural version of the new Great Game — one where America is the dominant power; the Russians have an outpost in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, which can be leveraged by Russian oligarchs (once they grow tired of running football clubs or funding revolutions); and the Chinese have the Red Mansion Foundation ‘co-producing’ exhibitions. The only ones yet to show their hands are India’s billionaires and its ranks of art-market entrepreneurs. Surely it is only a matter of time — I’d give it a few months.

Clippings from the salon floor, #7

Dorment Disses Dept of State In an aside from his Tate Liverpool review, The Telegraph’s ruthlessly rigorous Richard Dorment dismisses the US State Department’s Federal Advisory Committee on International Exhibitions:Emin_Flag.JPG “For the first time ever, an artist who has been dead for more than a decade – Felix Gonzalez-Torres – will represent the United States, presumably because he was the best the commissioners could come up with. If that isn’t a failure of nerve, what is?”

Searle’s no scoundrel In the Guardian’s “Tracey Emin will be representing herself – not Britain,” critic Adrian Searle dismisses artworld patriotism: “Personally I care neither more nor less about the British Pavilion than I do about any other. Tracey Emin should be seen, first and last, as an artist amongst artists, and thought about in those terms. The rest is bullshit.”

Documenta Detective Work Full points to Berlin’s Ludwig Seyfarth, who used old-fashioned reporting – “talking to dealers at the Art Cologne art fair, examining the artists profiled in the recently published Documenta 12 magazine, and scanning news reports and gallery announcements” – to compile his bootleg Documenta artists list for Artnet.de (the official list will only be released June 13). Better-known names include Ai Wei Wei, Johanna Billing, Cosima von Bonin, Emily Jacir, Louise Lawler, Zoe Leonard, Gerhard Richter, Gerwald Rockenschaub, Martha Rosler, Allan Sekula, Nedko Solakov, Imogen Stidworthy, and Artur Zmijewski.

Blood money Painter Zhang Xiaogang, quoted in the China Post’s “Art star shrugs at world interest,” re his booming auction market: “Those are paintings that I sold a long time ago. What happens in the market is none of my business… If I was just in it for the money, I would paint “Bloodlines” everyday.“”

Avid for dollars? Brown nose now! The same China Post article quotes Huang Liaoyuan, “a Beijing art critic and gallery owner” (Hello? That’s a fairly cowboy combo), re his countrymen’s current mercantile tactics: “Some Chinese artists are just selling artwork portraying the miserable lives of Chinese people because they feel that’s what foreign buyers want. They are just kissing the ass of Westerners.”

The Gay Straightshooter From the Artkrush Q&A with LA/Berlin dealer Javier Peres: “I am interested in many different things in the world, and artists who share those interests and address them in their work in original and thought-provoking ways intrigue me. If they’re hot — or simply sluts — then that’s even better.” Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #7”

Clippings from the salon floor, #6

America First in Venice? Venice Biennial director Rob Storr, quoted in Time’s Talking Bout the Biennale Q&A (via MAN): “America has been, in terms of markets, exhibitions and publications, the 300-pound gorilla. It’s not in the place where it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s but it still weighs in very heavily. So if you are an American you’re seen as part of that sizeable American art world.” Later on Storr says “[the biennial] has about 96 artists. A larger number of Americans than I would have expected going into it — about 22.” That gorilla’s looking strong, huh?

More Storr… From the same article cited above: “Biennales are a crash course in contemporary art, a place where the general public at a relatively low cost can come and find out what’s going on in the world. In my mind the real audience for the Biennale are students and travelers who have sufficient income to make a trip to Italy and who don’t have access to much contemporary art at home… But attendance has sloped off over the last decade or so. I’m not sure why.” Um, maybe because the “real audience” is surrounded by newConArt museums and art fairs in the convenience of their own homelands?

Magical museum thinking: Bloomberg’s Martin Gayford musing on how the job posting for Charles Saumarez Smith’s replacement as director of London’s National Gallery should read: “Wanted: Capable administrator and art world diplomat, able to conjure tens of millions of pounds out of thin air, time and time again.” Equally well-put: “Now, the masterpieces outside museums are as rare as snow leopards or Yangzi dolphins.”

A director ´s dreams, a visitor ´s nightmare: From Eric Gibson’s Opinion Journal piece on overcrowded museums (via AJ): “Art museums are now mainstream, the leisure destination of choice for a large segment of the population… [At the British Museum] the Rosetta Stone was so mobbed that the only way to “see” it was to hold your camera aloft and hope that there would be a decent photograph to look at when you got home… The viewing conditions are now so difficult that, in the midst of a crowded museum, you find yourself wondering why the director and curators went to all the trouble to acquire such fine objects and persuade you to come look at them if they’ve made it impossible to really see anything.”

Explosive Language “Nazi Looted Art” author Gunnar Schnabel cited by Bloomberg, re Germany ´s unresolved WWII restitution cases (via AJ): “It’s like hiding a nuclear bomb under the bedcovers. There are so many cases that need to be cleared up, thousands of them in Germany alone.”

Indian bazar: More signs of India’s art market growing pains, from the Times of India article Taxmen raid 25 art galleries in Delhi, Mumbai: “A large part of the deals were found to have been made in cash, sources said… The Income-Tax department believes that the galleries were resorting to large-scale under-invoicing, reporting lower value than what they earned through sale of art work, and did not show a large number of works in their inventories raising apprehensions that many transactions were not being reported to the taxmen.”

Gallery Geekery A while back, we mulled the need for a Google maps/gallery guide mashup. This week, Gallery Hopper wrote: “The new “My Maps” feature of Google Maps allows you to create your own customized maps and I’ve given it a little spin using the April gallery picks I posted earlier this week. Now you’ll have a handy map to follow while running around the city looking at this months great photography.”

Reverse Engineering From the Telegraph’s Art sales: Technology fuels boom in print: “‘The computer is the new sketchbook,’ says Alan Cristea, who has led the market in British print publishing since the 1970s, when he began working with artists such as Richard Hamilton. ‘Artists like Hamilton and Julian Opie are now starting with the printed image and making paintings from prints.'”

Sgarbi the Destroyer I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I stumbled across this video of Italian reactionary culturati Vittorio Sgarbi’s MacBook-throwing television tantrum.

Sharjah Biennial: Less Oil More Courage

Dan Perjovschi, 2007With the announcement of Abu Dhabi’s multi-billion-dollar cultural tourism plans and last month’s DIFC Gulf Art Fair in Dubai hogging the limelight, it was easy to overlook neighboring Sharjah’s more modest cultural efforts, with the Sharjah Biennial (its eighth installment opened last week) as the centrepiece. In contrast to DIFC governor Dr Omar Bin Sulaiman’s frank admission (at the Dubai fair’s opening) of having no knowledge of art, Sharjah’s Biennial is headed by Sheikha Hoor al-Qasimi, daughter of Sharjah’s ruler, who holds degrees in fine art and curating from London’s Slade School and the Royal College of Art. While the day-to-day artistic direction was in the hands of Jack Persekian, the peripatetic Palestinian curator, the Sheikha herself reportedly chose the theme of the Biennial “Still Life: Art, Ecology and the Politics of Change”. A BIG, and on the face of it, highly controversial theme to tackle in the United Arab Emirates, where a reported 30 percent of the construction world’s cranes currently reside.

Driving around Sharjah, the text (Less Oil More Courage) – from Rikrit Tiravanija’s small painted contribution to the biennial – screams at you from numerous roadside signs. The tiny painting itself has been hung on the wall facing you as you enter the Sharjah Art Museum, above a formal portrait of the Sheikh. The incongruity of this stark message serving as the biennial’s main publicity poster perhaps best embodies Sharjah’s own cultural positioning in the UAE’s nascent but fast-emerging art world. As Abu Dhabi uses economic-impact assessments drawn up by management consultants to plan a cultural island as tourist destination, and Dubai extends its ambition of being a clearinghouse to the artworld, Sharjah is attempting to create an infrastructure for artistic production and exchange. The reported biennial budget of $3 million enabled over 50 projects to be specially commissioned.

In this role of regional champion, Sharjah is an interesting example to examine the evolutionary path of the biennial phenomenon. Venice is perhaps the exemplar of the biennial as prize distribution/artworld validation, a fine-arts version of the Oscars, with a similar impact on box office. At the other end of the spectrum lies the ‘biennial as art infrastructure’. Sharjah, to my mind, is part of this group. (Others would include Continue reading “Sharjah Biennial: Less Oil More Courage”

Clippings from the salon floor, #4

Another week’s worth of the remarkable, random and amusing…

From beyond, words to live by: The NY Times obituary of Sol LeWitt quotes a letter from LeWitt to Eva Hesse, re making art: “Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool… You are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work, so do it.”

Crank-calling Richter? Assuming it’s not a hoax, here’s a QuickTime instructional on how NOT to recruit an artstar to your unknown space: by calling his house all the time.

John Currin, CTU agent? From the April issue of American GQ (yeah, I’m behind on my reading), Currin discussing his last, porn-heavy, (NSFW(DOWYW)) painting show at Gagosian uptown: “I’m gonna have a fucking fatwa on me for saying this, but I had a kind of cockamamie political idea that this is what we’re fighting the Islamists with: They’ve got the Koran, and we’ve got the best porn ever made! I mean that as a joke but also as something that’s literally true….‘Who’s going to win? Allah or porn?’ Personally, I hope we win. I hope porn wins.” Currin, wisely, recognizes that this not exactly an obvious interpretation: “I don’t expect people to read this in the paintings without being prompted by me.”

Huang Yong Ping, Theater of the WorldThe Humane Society art critic: From the Globe and Mail’s A creepy exhibit irks humane society (via ArtsJournal) re Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World biosphere containing tarantulas, grasshoppers, cockroaches, a lizard, a millipede and scorpions, with the intent of creating a metaphoric battle royale. The Vancouver Humane Society’s Peter Fricker’s not convinced: “It reminds me of when you’re a kid and you put a bunch of bugs in a jar and see what happens, and your mother tells you that is cruel and let the poor things go.” UPDATE: The gallery caved in, see Comment #1 below.
Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #4”

Ségolène Royal channels Barbara Kruger?

My Parisian friend CSH emailed me this: “Ségolène Royal’s “official” campaign posters, released at the beginning of this week, which are plastered on all the official posting sites next to the bureaux de votes, are complete Barbara Kruger ripoffs: Grainy black-and-white photos of “Ségo” with artsy cropping (blocking part of her much-admired forehead, for instance) sandwiched between red bars, with white block lettering on it. So ten years ago in terms of aesthetics; as for her program….” I have to agree with CSH (well, re the art; I still need to study the platforms before I vote next weekend).

Depending on how you read this, it’s either 1) a clear case of plagiarism; 2) a sign of how pervasive the Barbara Kruger aesthetic has become; or 3) a coded signifier to the ConArt crowd and feminists, reminding them that had they better rally to the cause and elect France’s first madame la presidente, even if she’s been drifting centrist to boost her electability. Sort of like when George W. Bush uses innocuous-sounding but Evangelical-derived codephrases like “wonder-working power” as semaphores of his support toward the Christian Right.

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