Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, post-Krens?

This thought in from Steven Kaplan in Manhattan

Thomas Krens will step down after nearly twenty years as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the search for his successor has officially begun. This announcement is barely two days old, but the art pundits are already circling like hawks high above the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, gliding over the thermal gradients for indications of future trends, while also hunting smaller anecdotal tidbits to feast upon.

If the age of Krens is soon to recede in our collective rear view mirror, how will it be remembered? As a period when the establishment of a coherent aesthetic identity for the museum took a back seat to the art of the deal? When international franchising and corporate sponsorship became overriding determinants of exhibition content? When fashion, architecture and other borrowed interests reigned at the expense of the art itself? Or did Krens manage to create a system of patronage and power that will endure? Was he in fact a visionary, an advocate of his own peculiar manifest destiny: always expanding, always seeking out new funding, always ready to open his doors if the price was right, while placing greater and greater financial demands upon his board of trustees, who perhaps finally had
no choice but to mutiny?

Gehry_Guggenheim_Abu_Dhabi_.jpgPart of the answer will be determined by the policies and personae of his successors. In particular there remains the legacy of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the jewel of his franchising effort, “35 percent larger than Bilbao”. A major mission for Krens (and starchitect Frank Gehry) is the completion of this monolith in the desert. It is the fulfillment of his expansionist dream and his ultimate expression of museum realpolitik. Because when domestic benefactors such as Peter B. Lewis balked at the huge cost of funding the satellite projects, Krens did an end run and appealed directly to the oil-rich sheiks — in much the same way that the banks have recently looked to UAE money to bail them out of the mortgage crisis.

The Guggenheim is presently committed to building their satellite in Abu Dhabi. But as the museum reassesses its priorities, considers its post-Krens identity, and examines its finite resources, one can imagine a revision of this decision. Especially in light of the Emirates’ policies of not allowing entry to Israeli passport-holders and their censorship of gay content and nudity in the art to be exhibited.

The final decision of whether or not to proceed is reserved to the museum’s board of trustees. But I would pose the following questions to ArtWorld Salon readers: Should institutional initiatives be reconsidered in light of new economic realities and new leadership? Should the leftover projects of an old regime be cleared out, to allow the new director a “clean slate”? And might the fate of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi give us some indication of how museums will operate in a post-Krens era?

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?

Online art auctions

online_auctions.jpgThe ArtNet announcement that they are to shortly begin an online auction service is the latest in a string of online auction initiatives. This seems a logical move from one of the better sources of ArtWorld statistics and prices. But what does this wave of online initiatives mean for the big boys? Obviously consignors of major works will still want the profile and prestige of the established offline auction houses, Sothebys, Christies et al, but if more bread and butter work starts to go through online systems, whither then the profit margins of the major houses?

And what if the new players start to gain traction in the market place? It should be easier to track prices online in real time across a number of different online sales platforms than it is now. And of course let us not forget that the biggest benefit of online transaction systems is the better access it gives buyers to product; access when they want it. This, beyond the help it gives sellers to put works forward in convenient and price efficient form, is what decides the success or otherwise of any online sales system. And of course if middle and lower level consignors start using online channels we may get better visibility on pricing and trends in a chunk of the market that is usually hidden from public view.

It is easy to be sceptical of online transaction systems. One always assumes there are some items that people need to see or touch for themselves before committing to a purchase. I certainly felt that way when I first heard about eBay selling cars or artworks online. But look at the success they have had. This may start at the bottom end of the market but, as with so many other sectors, quality of products offered rises with reach of market. I think we are witnessing the first steps of a paradigm shift in the Art World market place.

It is also potentially another worrying development for the traditional galleries. They are already losing footfall to people who prefer to see more-work-in-less-time at the fairs and biennials. An effective new online market place could also take footfall from them (or direct it elswhere) and, potentially, encourage more bright young artists to avoid galleries and promote directly online. All such artists would need is one respected critic to validate their work and they could sell “direct from the studio”.

Interesting times. Thoughts?

Museums vs. collectors?

A report from new AWS contributor Leif Magne Tangen

Carte_B.jpgThe debate about the power of the collector has been going on for some time now. An interesting project in Leipzig will certainly raise eyebrows again in this regard.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, or GfZK) is opening its 2008 winter season with an ambitious project: Over the next two years, the museum will invite 11 collections, collectors and galleries to display their collections of art in any way they see fit. No interference. No questions. No veto.

The title of the project says it all: Carte Blanche.

In fact, there is nothing new about collectors being given freedom to do what they want in a museum. We have a prime example only 200 km away from Leipzig, in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. Parts of that public institution now house two private collections, the Sammlung Marx of Erich Marx and, since 2004, the much discussed Friedrich Christian Flick Collection.

Are museums are losing the battle for artists? Today we have more large private collections of contemporary art then ever. We have private galleries that are larger than some museums, doing blockbuster shows. Meanwhile, museums are re-selling parts of their collections and private collectors are hiring curators and consultants to “direct” their collections. Collectors are even building their own museums.

Leipzig director Barbara Steiner says in the introduction to the Carte Blanche project:
“In view of the most recent developments, the often undue influence of collectors, gallery managers and other enterprises on facilities funded by the public purse seems less of a problem than the tendency for private individuals gradually to lose interest in these museum.” She wants to find out “whether new partnerships between public bodies and private supporters can be created at all, how such an interaction might look, what the consequences of such forms of cooperation would be for the development of art and its institutions, also when considered against the background of the establishment of our institute.”

Is there an American view on this? Will private influence destroy the public sphere? Is there too much influence already from private collectors in your view?

p.s. Full disclosure (before I get hunted down by Tyler Green): one of the artists featured in the opening show and in a double solo show later this year, Mark Lombardi, is represented by Pierogi. I work as a director of Pierogi for their Leipzig gallery.

Marketing public art: PC or not PC?

This just in from Steven Kaplan.

NYCWaterfallsEliassonBklynBridge.jpgI recently attended a press conference for Olafur Eliasson’s New York City Waterfalls, which will be realized from July through October 2008 in four East River locations, including the Brooklyn Bridge anchorage and Governors Island. Presented by the Public Art Fund, these monumental, 90 to 120-foot tall free-standing installations of cascading water will be Eliasson’s first major public project in the city, and promise to continue his alchemical reference to natural elements and his abiding interest in the environment as both raw material and metaphor. They will also coincide with exhibitions of his work at MoMA and PS 1.

It’s hard to imagine an artist “greener” than Eliasson. In several previous outdoor interventions, he even dyed a number of rivers that very color — to be sure, with a safe, non-toxic chemical. Still, constant reference to the Waterfalls being “carbon neutral”, even from Mayor Bloomberg, made it seem as if this was the major selling point, as important as the work itself. It led a number of us at Artworld Salon to consider the almost compulsory political correctness employed in the marketing of public art.

We are happy the project satisfies the demanding yardstick of public accountability: that it will neither harm the environment, place undue demands on the electrical grid during peak summer months, nor suck fish into its vents. All worthy aims. And not to be curmudgeons or ecological slobs, but if art first needs to satisfy all potential issues of public safety, acceptability and taste, what might eventually be left? A freeze-dried lump of innocuous, biodegradable tofu, available in white, black, brown, yellow and all the varying shades of polyglot New York?

When The Gates came to town, the city was quick to declare that it would cost the taxpayers nothing. Christo and Jean Claude planned to foot the bill entirely with sales of prints and drawings. Now we are assured of no carbon imprint, no ecological bill. Of course we do not advocate despoiling the environment. But at what point will the costs of art be acknowledged and embraced as an intrinsic part of its subtlety, its brinkmanship, its elemental mission to confront all of existence? Not just those aspects deemed politically orthodox or acceptable to the largest number of constituents.

In other words, will the marketing of public art always be the handmaiden of compromise? Any thoughts?

To regulate or not…

logo_salander.jpgThe apparent failure of a prominent gallery in New York this week (NYT, NYO, Bloomberg) is causing ripples within the international Art community. Whether the truth is about weaknesses in financial management (as suggested by Salander’s lawyer) or something more sinister is beside the point. Many are now asking whether, with the growing number and size of transactions, a more formal, and compulsory, oversight system is necessary for the Art world to protect individual buyers and sellers.

At various times on this site we have discussed the relative lack of transparency of the Art market and talked about some of the mechanisms that exist in other markets. For example financial institutions that take deposits and make loans are required, in most countries, to keep a minimum reserve in hard cash to allow for problems. In quoted markets for publicly traded assets, whether company shares, pork bellies or barrels of oil, every transaction must appear on a public register and be open to all bidders. No transactions are allowed to take place that do not appear on the register/exchange. In addition any market maker or analyst must declare any interest they have in assets being sold by them or through entities associated with them. None of this, of course, happens in the Art world. But all of it could.

What do you think? Do we need some of these rules? Has the Art market now reached the stage that it NEEDS regulating to protect individual buyers and sellers? Or should we continue to rely on members of the community outing their peers before things go bad? Are there less cumbersome alternatives that could be put in place? I once suggested a public register for all transactions of works by major artists. The register would be a standard for the industry. Galleries and Artists could choose to be on the register or not. If on, ALL works traded must be listed, with the date and verifiable transaction price. If not, they don’t appear on the register at all. Ultimately all quality artists and galleries would probably opt to be visible; because anything not on the register would be considered a “lower grade investment”. Views?

We pay, you stay: US museums look more attractive

HP_20061208151116_001.JPG With all the empty directorial posts floating around (the Guggenheim, the National Gallery in London etc) and the brain drain that is steadily sucking talent from institutions towards the commercial art sector, museums are having to cough up big in order to keep their best staff from straying. For the most part, the bar is still way below corporate CEO standards, but who’s to say that Phillipe de Montebello didn’t richly deserve his recent $4 million golden pat on the back, after 30 years of solid service to the Metropolitan, America’s largest and most complex arts institution?

However, while museum directors should be handsomely paid for guarding our national treasures (don’t get me started on ‘dodgy’ expense accounts) and no ceiling price can be placed on talent, there is a clear disparity developing between what a museum director gets paid in the US and what he or she would get in Europe. What is the difference between Glenn Lowry’s job at MoMA and say, Nick Serota’s at Tate, apart of course from the gaping $750,000 chasm in earnings (Lowry’s $1.14 million compared to Serota’s $390,000 all in, according to The Art Newspaper)?

Perhaps this is easy to answer given the different funding options available to both men – rich trustees and donors on one side of the Atlantic and poor government funding and limited handouts on the other. But this doesn’t tell the whole story, because Tate is still wealthy enough to run four separate sites in Britain concurrently and build a  £215m extension to Tate Modern (having announced a record 7.7m visitors for last year). Perhaps, in Europe, we expect our public servants to be just that and no more. How long before the museum director post becomes so devalued over here that all eligible candidates begin defecting to the team with the biggest financial clout?

Engineering the (stealth) blockbuster

Unknown MonetCan you cook up a blockbuster? This is what one curator in a prominent London institution (no names) came to ask me, for a series of interviews that may or may not result in the magic formula for big box-office success. There are various ingredients you need for the cauldron of course; a big-name artist, a spectacular debut or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a press deluge and an overstuffed gift shop.

Getting thousands of people through the doors of an exhibition every day used to be so easy – bring in Monet, Matisse, Picasso or all three (Motisso?) – and listen to the cash registers ring out. Nowadays the hugely increased financial pressures of staging such mega-exhibitions – from insurance and shipping to marketing and advertising – mean that the anatomy of a blockbuster show is having to change.

Later this year in London there are a couple of old-fashioned crowd-pullers – terracotta warriors and China coming to the British Museum and Tutankhamun at the old Millennium Dome (now ‘The 02’ venue) – but these are tried and tested recipes. Some museums are now resorting to what I call ‘Stealth Blockbusters’, which on the surface promise the big names and jaw-dropping experience, but can often deceive through clever titles or curating by the back door. For example, the Royal Academy (which has cancelled ‘The Arts in Latin America 1492-1820’ from its autumn slot, because it can’t afford to ship the 250 pieces from LACMA) has recently put on ‘The Unknown Monet’ and ‘Impressionists by the Sea’, which were worthy, scholarly shows with few outright masterpieces. However, once given the sheen of blockbuster glamour and the catchy title, they hit the headlines – and presumably their visitor targets.

Robert Storr put it well before unveiling his Venice Biennale: ‘Once you have enthralled the public enough to get them through the doors, one of the greatest tasks of museums and curators is disenthralling.’ But how long do we wait before we come stomping out of our museums demanding our money back for misrepresentation?

In case you missed the news…

Unless you were on the Grand Tour last month, you may have noticed that I have not posted here for a while. There’s a very good reason: As many of you already know, I will be among the trio who will take over the leadership of Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach next year, thus replacing Samuel Keller, who will become director of Basel‘s Fondation Beyeler. As you can imagine, the preparations and changes related to this new development have kept me very busy for the last month.

Full details of the new Art Basel leadership structure are here, but the fundamental information is this: Cay Sophie Rabinowitz, currently Senior US Editor of Parkett and a member of the Parsons New School of Design faculty, will be the Artistic Director; Annette Schönholzer, Show Manager for Art Basel Miami Beach since 2002, becomes Director, Operations and Finance; and I will be Director, Strategy and Development. I start working for Art Basel in September, and our trio takes over responsibility for the two shows starting in January 2008.

As Artworld Salon readers know, my fascination with the international artworld’s evolution is long-standing and intense. My new role will involve tracking that evolution even more closely, thereby helping one of the artworld’s most innovative organizations continue to play a leading role in support of its client galleries and their artists. The job presents a challenge and an opportunity to which I look forward immensely.

Virtual museum tours: Time for an upgrade?

Kunstmuseum Basel, lobby, virtual tourSpinning off last week’s discussion of catalogs in the age of digital production, I’ve been thinking about the possibilities (and limitations) of visiting shows online. So I spent some time clicking on the virtual-tour links in Ian’s post from Beijing’s National Art Museum of China. (“360-degree scans of a 19th Century room here; a more contemporary room here.”) More locally to me, there are examples such as Zurich’s E. G. Bührle Collection, the Kunstmuseum Basel and Le Louvre. That’s a very random sampling. But of these four, I like the Buhrle’s best, if only because one can click on each image and get a full descriptive text, and then click again for a screen-size image.

Still, I think there’s a lot of untapped potential here. Because as with digital art, the standard by which we judge virtual tours is set less within the artworld than outside it – animated movies, console videogames, virtual worlds/MMORPGs (Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games), etc. My closest friend is writing her PhD dissertation on Second Life, and I used to do a lot of videogaming, so maybe I’m over-demanding. But these museum virtual tours would benefit greatly from being true walkthroughs (not just 360-degree views from fixed positions). Also the images often pixelize into near-abstraction as soon as you zoom in. And the viewing screens tend toward the tiny. (Yeah, yeah, I know, bandwidth issues. But museums could just offer users different bandwidth options, as do many streaming-video sites.) Now, I’m not a museums expert, so I’m betting that there are some best-practices examples out there and I’d love to see them. If you know of any, drop me a line (marc@artworldsalon.com) and I’ll update this post with links to the best ones.

On a related note: A friend of mine was stunned to witness a major international curator sprinting through a huge retrospective in a few minutes with a video camera in hand. Sometime later that day, during an apparently dull conference, that curator was spotted “visiting the exhibition,” already downloaded onto on the de rigueur white MacBook. Maybe what’s needed here is a sort of MuTube, where people upload their walkthroughs of museum shows for those who can’t make it in person.

The Artworld’s brain drain

The Baerfaxt writes that, according to a study by Thomas & Associates, 77 percent of professionals who work in international museums, galleries, auction houses, foundations, and performing arts centers said they were planning on staying in their current position for five years or less “due to lack of career advancement and other opportunities.” I guess this includes much of the art world. It shows that, contrary to all recent exhortations about the professionalization of the arts, we still have a long way to go.

I know, just by listening to anecdotal chatter, that many young artists coming out of art schools do not count on pursuing art as a career for too long. They count on doing the art thing for a while, then getting a real job. They are well aware that youth is the prime commodity in the global art world, and that the logistics of party-going and biennale-hopping Continue reading “The Artworld’s brain drain”