Category Archives: Arts Journalism

What would you do with $250 million?

Card PlayersAccording to ArtWorld Salon contributor Alexandra Peers, in an article for Vanity Fair online, the Royal Family of Qatar has celebrated a decade of high profile Art buying by spending that amount on the last of Cezanne’s Card Players.  (The painting was purchased from the estate of the late Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.)  That is quite a number, and a new record for the highest price paid for a single work of Art.  You could pay for the entire budget of the Museum Of Modern Art in New York for almost two years with that sum.

And what else?  I started to wonder.  Here is my quick list.  In January 2012, US$ 250 million buys:-

1 Cezanne
10 decent sized mansions in the Hamptons
100 upper-middle class family homes in Beijing
1000 Ferrari 458 Italia Coupes in Rome
10,000 Ducati 1199S motorcycles in Paris
100,000 complete (3 yr) high school educations including accommodation, food and healthcare in Lhasa, Tibet
5,000,000 milking goats in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
50,000,000 egg-laying chickens in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Interesting, no?   So let me ask you again.   What would you do with $250 million?

Museums & Mission Statements

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. Continue reading

Enlightenment comes to Tiananmen Square?

NMCThe Art Newspaper leads this week with a thought provoking and fact-filled article on a huge co-operative Arts project between the German and Chinese governments to bring major works from German museums to the newly re-opened National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square.   The theme of the exhibition is the European Enlightenment, and the story is by our own András Szántó.

A glimpse of the exhibition:-

Over dinner on a bitterly cold January night in Beijing, I asked Cordula Bischoff, the Dresden-based curator of “The Art of the Enlightenment”, which object in the exhibition best represents its message. Without hesitating, she pointed to a silhouette print in the advance catalogue. The work, attributed to Johann Heinrich Lips, depicts Voltaire, the French philosopher, holding a lantern that shines a light outward beyond the picture frame. “He is carrying the light and leading the visitor out of the exhibition,” she said. “It tells everything.” Bischoff’s counterpart, Chen Yu, a curator at the National Museum, nodded in agreement. “This picture is a metaphor of the Enlightenment,” he said. “The European Enlightenment is still influencing people everywhere in the world. Chinese people are still enjoying its fruits.”

And a comment by a local resident:-

This is an era of tremendous change. It is time to pause and reflect. Are we a leader economically? Spiritually? It’s part of the opening up after 30 years. What have we lost and what have we gained?

As Andras points out, Confucius was an inspiration to many of the leading lights of the European Enlightenment and so it seems the cycle of inspiration returns.   One wonders, though, what the results will be as China is really only taking its first hesitant steps forward culturally, even as it charges forward economically.

You can read the full article here.

The Girl With the Art Magazine

aia1Yesterday was a good day for art journalism. Lindsay Pollock was named editor of the Art in America, opening the way for the rejuvenation of one of our most venerable magazine brands. Like that other old workhorse of the art journalism trade, ArtNews, the 98 year-old Art in America has lost its way of late, as the worlds of art and journalism transmogrified around it.

I’ve been lucky to follow Lindsay Pollock’s career since when she was working on her biography of the art dealer Edith Gregor Halpert, which later appeared as a book titled The Girl With the Gallery. She has since evolved into an art reporting powerhouse, known to readers through her precise market coverage at Bloomberg and The Art Newspaper, and more recently, at her website, Art Market Views, an increasingly vital source of breaking art-world news. She is fair, informed, a happy peripatetic denizen of the global art scene, but also tough as nails. Her commitment is to a broader dialogue than straight art news. She has a deeper interest in art than what happens at the nexus of pictures and money.

So what now with Art in America? It clearly needs an energy boost. Its detached, ivory-tower approach, where long reviews dutifully appear long after exhibitions have closed, seems like a quaint anachronism. The magazine has a reputation for pulling its punches. Its cautious academism is out of synch with a culture where opinions are supersized. What new leadership can bring to the magazine above all, I think, is a fruitful demolition of the walls that divide scholarly and aesthetic writing, on the one hand, and thoughtful journalistic appraisals of the “dark side” of art as an institutional and – gasp – commercial system. Continue reading

“Curator” R.I.P.

rip“Behold our fall collection,” trumpets the mail order catalog of Restoration Hardware, the home interiors chain. “No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer.” And so another of our words bites the dust. The word “curator” is becoming overused to the point of losing its meaning.

A curator once had to be assigned to specific collection—the word is rooted in the notion of caring for someone (etymology links curators to insane asylums). In recent years, however, “curation” has been de-linked from any fixed array of things. A curator is no longer a warden of precious objects but a kind of freelance aesthetic concierge. The task now simply involves a clever way of putting works together to follow a purported theme. Independent curators are hired by museums on installation hit-and-run missions. The independent curator has migrated into the realm of commercial galleries. And as the New York Times announced last week, private dealer Phillipe Ségalot is putting together an auction at Phillips “like a guest curator at a museum.”

It was perhaps inevitable that “curation” would jump over the artworld fence, to be embraced by commercial marketers eager to elevate ordinary goods into the realm of Olympian taste. Glossy magazines write breathlessly about beautifully curated retail emporia. One reads about well-curated lifestyles, cheese trays, and sock drawers. Our daily information diet comes to us from curators of the news. I’ve heard people say they curate their schedules and dinner parties.

Through adoption into the lexicon of commercial marketing and quotidian speech, “curator” and “curate” have entered the graveyard of words that have become terminally diluted in their meaning even while—or precisely because—they are issuing from more and more lips. A case of linguistic atrophy and opportunism? Or an apt reflection of the messy but exciting amalgamation of everything in today’s culture?

A dash of cold water

brodypicassoThere’s been much fuss over “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” the 1932 Picasso that sold for $106.5 million at auction last week. Roberta Smith devoted an article in “The Week in Review” section of the New York Times to the guessing game about the anonymous buyer. Bemoaning the “irksome” secrecy of art sales, she conjured a rogue’s gallery of possible bidders, including “Buyer X,” a “puppet master,” a “Russian oligarch” fearing “home invasion or too much unfriendly attention from Vladimir Putin,” and “someone with vast sums of money stashed in a Swiss bank account or a dubious tax shelter.” All very James Bond. Buyer X must be smiling.

Anyway, on one score, the article, along with most others I have read, is unambiguous: The Picasso claimed “the highest price ever for a work of art at auction”—a “world record.” Technically speaking, the number is the highest—the largest pile of US dollars ever spent on an artwork at auction. But adjusted for inflation, this Picasso is a far cry from Van Gogh’s 1989 record-setter, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which, at $82 million at the time, would be worth about $140 million in today’s dollars.

Leaving out inflation is a bit like measuring one high jumper’s performance in inches and another’s in centimeters. It’s worth noting, for context, that we have had at least three private sales in the neighborhood of $140M in recent years. And there have been a couple of auction sales exceeding $106 million in 2010 dollars, including a Picasso, “Garcon a la pipe,” which sold in 2004 for just over $104 million.

All of which is to say, Buyer X doesn’t get the gold medal after all. As Smith rightly points out, record mania is something of an irksome diversion in itself. In any event, the search for the mystery collector continues. Anyone have a clue?

Plot twist for arts reporting

david_hfd_goliathThis wasn’t supposed to happen. Arts journalism is supposed to be going down the tubes. But here in New York, two arts sections are being expanded, with professional writers, editors, and, for now, what counts for acres of newsprint space these days.

Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is making culture a frontline in its impending war against the New York Times, with the addition of arts reporters in its soon-to-be launched local section. And last week, The New York Observer, the scrappy pink rag read by culture and media mavens around town, announced a major expansion of its arts coverage, starting March 31, under former Wall Street Journal culture editor and AWS-friend Alexandra Peers.

What can this mean for the visual arts? We may get some behind-the-scenes reporting on the art business, as the Observer has reliably done on the media and film businesses. Peers, a 22-year veteran of arts journalism, summarizes her aspirations for the section this way: “As entertainment, pop culture and TV coverage mushroomed in the past few years, fine arts got a little lost in the shuffle. The same culture sections that are recapping “Lost” don’t want copy on Marina Abramovic; it just doesn’t jive. At the same time, people are choking the aisles at the Armory fair and lining up round the block to see Gogo’s Picasso show. The fine arts needed more of a place of their own.”

Peers believes the Observer can use the new space to go beyond the usual suspects. “You would think the art world was just Gagosian, Richard Feigen and Philippe de Montebello having espresso at Sant Ambroeus. Which of course it is, but I hope to pull in a few more of the players: curators, photo gallerists, museum trustees, bloggers, the foundations. The art world’s power base is broader – and more interesting – than most general readers know.”

Amen. It bears noting, however, that these experiments will need to be backed up by advertising sales and buzz. Continue reading

Requiem for a magazine

356_id_june_cover_400I attended a wake for I.D. magazine last night in New York. Not I.D., the fashion magazine. I.D. the design magazine. Now dead.

Like so many of its recently-axed midsize peers, I.D. — International Design — leaves a much larger hole in our cultural landscape than its modest circulation numbers suggest. Say what you will about the promise of online media, there is a kind of energy and legacy that develops around a magazine that remains unique to the form. A great magazine is a network and a through-line: something that, done right, can lend a segment of our culture a sense of coherence, validation, continuity and substance. The event last night, attended by several generations of former editors and contributors, was a clear manifestation of the kind of discourse a magazine can create. It is a decades-long conversation between those who care about something, and one that is unlikely to be satisfyingly supplanted by an online alternative, at least not soon.

Along with these magazines, we usually lose their archives and libraries, their established voices and obsessions, their particular and often quirky ways of going about things. Also gone, or left without a common anchoring point, are the clusters of fans and gawkers who follow the moves of these magazines avidly and who are tied together by their love or hate of what their current stewards decide to do.

For design, the loss of I.D. (disclosure: my wife used to work there, and I had written for them on occasion) means the loss of a platform for serious dialogue about a cultural form that sorely needs it. Design is one of the most exciting corners of our culture right now. But without a thoughtful exchange of ideas, it devolves into mere consumption, trapped in its own glamorous, self-referential ghetto.

I.D. gave expression to the highest ambitions of design. At its best, it reminded us that design is about art, urbanity, civilization, and our shared hopes for a better future. We can all drink to that.

Quest for art’s Idol-Talent-Factor-Runway

c1823697b82db33bb0dcc11edf3397e579847b3aA new four-part reality show, School of Saatchi, begins tonight on BBC television (and will be viewable online). Six artists from an open submission competition are selected, first by a panel of judges – artist Tracey Emin, critic Matthew Collings, collector Frank Cohen and Kate Bush, director of the Barbican Art Gallery – and then vetted by Charles Saatchi. The London-based collector does not himself appear on screen, despite – or perhaps because – he’s trailed as ‘one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in the art world’ (full disclosure: I was asked to appear in some guise in the programme, but declined). Anyway, the show’s tone is Identikit reality TV fare – a set of silly tasks and crashing verdicts that are peppered with a cheeky voiceover and incidental music.

In the same vein is the yet-to-be-aired ArtStar on US network Bravo, produced by that well-known art world luminary, Sarah Jessica Parker. The only other judge revealed so far is Simon de Pury, who’s no stranger to publicity, or indeed to the conflation of art with the world of pop music, seen here belittling his profession to a thumping Euro-house soundtrack and now fresh from his Saturday night auction/performance, in which he sold music-related art to the live accompaniment of techno DJ Matthew Herbert.

But back to the slow creep of art on reality TV, there’s obviously a place for the kind of populist programming that can cut through the crap that the general public usually associates with our intellectually elitist art form. However, there’s also an unhealthy tendency here that assumes you can uncover artistic talent like you can with a singer or rock star – by putting them in front of an audience or a panel of judges and expecting them to perform, explain and show off their work.

Apart from some cash, an exhibition, a studio space and some residual fame, will such talent spotting ever result in serious appreciation for any of the so-called Next Big Things plucked from obscurity? British artist Phil Collins has already explored the phenomenon of the negative impact such makeover/reality/talk shows can have on its participants in a piece for the Turner Prize in 2006 called Shady Lane. Maybe he’ll be counselling fellow artists from now on: Do you feel your life has been ruined by your appearance on television?

Green shoots for arts journalism

light-at-end-of-tunnelI am going through new online ventures submitted for the National Summit on Arts Journalism, scheduled for Oct. 2 at the University of Southern California, a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication and the National Arts Journalism Program, with support from the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations and the NEA. Web broadcasting and satellite events at schools and cultural institutions around the country promise to make this something of a benchmark moment in our ongoing narrative about journalism’s transformation from a top-down, dead-tree medium to a digital, democratic, diffuse, dialog-oriented domain that bears less and less resemblance to the news media of old.

The agony of print journalism’s attenuated demise continues to dominate pubic discussion about journalism in general and arts journalism in particular. Nonetheless, as I argued recently in The Art Newspaper, we’re seeing the emergence of new communication and business models, some of which may not look anything like the journalism we used to know, but which are filling the void left behind by imploding newspapers and struggling magazines.

When the idea of the summit was hatched, it was hard to predict how many projects would come out of the woodwork. But after this week’s deadline, the tally has topped one hundred—a remarkable number, in my opinion, and a sign that at long last we have entered a new phase. Continue reading

After the dead tree

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

Continue reading

The rat, the rabbit and Yves St Laurent

ysl-bronzesThis just in from Art Newspaper Editor, Georgina Adam.

The saga of the Chinese bronzes hammered down at auction during the Yves St Laurent sale and then not paid for, as a political gesture, raises many thorny questions.

Briefly, (and for those of you who were on Mars this week), the two Qianlong bronze heads, of a rat and a rabbit, were looted from the Yuanming Yuan Summer Palace in Beijing by Franco-British forces in 1860 during the Opium Wars. They were two of 12 heads which adorned a Zodiac fountain, five of which have never resurfaced.

The heads were offered for sale by Pierre Bergé, the late Yves St Laurent’s former lover and business partner, in Christie’s block-busting sale of their collection last week in Paris. The Chinese have been calling for the return of the heads, and a French association (AFACT) with links to China attempted to block the sale by bringing an emergency injunction in a French court shortly before the sale started. The demand was thrown out in no uncertain terms by the French “procureur” (prosecutor) for a number of reasons, some technical and others more fundamental. I was in court and subsequently at the sale when the bronzes were sold.

China was not able, legally, to claim the bronzes under international law, and does not want simply to buy them back – its position being that they were looted and should be returned. At no point did AFACT claim that Bergé was not the legal owner of the heads, and prior to the sale Bergé stated that he would be prepared to return the heads “when China respects human rights and frees Tibet”. This did nothing to improve Sino-French relations, which hit a new low after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama last December in Poland.

At the sale, the two heads were “sold” to a bidder on the telephone, underbid by two other telephones for the first, and one for the second. The price was  £20.4m each, including premium, and contrary to usual practice no paddle number was announced – “the buyer wanted absolute discretion,” auctioneer François de Ricqlès said afterwards.

On Monday this week a Chinese collector and auction house general manager, Cai Mingchao, announced that he was the buyer and that he was refusing to pay, as a patriotic gesture.

So here are some of the questions this saga raises. Continue reading

of Buyers and Sellers…

mugrabis-nytAmongst all the excitement about new movements (see Ossian’s piece below) I find it hard to get my head out of the markets.  To wit, there is a nice Konigsberg feature in the NYT Online this weekend about the Mugrabis and their buying styles.  The title is slightly misleading (Is Anybody Buying Art These Days?) as it is entirely about the Mugrabis and mostly about their buying history, but it is an interesting read about one of the more focused market-makers of the last 20 years.  Features of their approach include the somewhat indiscriminate purchasing of their favorite artists (supporting the notion that name matters more than quality, at least in a rising market), and their “addiction” to collecting. “We are addicts. That is what addicts do,” Alberto Mugrabi is quoted as saying. Many collectors would recognise that sentiment.

The addiction of art collectors got me thinking about the broader context of contemporary art-market values.  At various points in the article, there are references to buying when cash was in short supply and to extending a collection even when the collectors were nervous about the market.  Even quite recently, works were sold to free up cash for a possible market-downturn buying.  That could be sensible triage, or an indication of how stretched the Mugrabis might be. Which raises a question about how stretched or indebted collectors are overall.

The current global economic woes are debt based. They have to do with the difficulty of companies or individuals who rely upon borrowing to conduct their business or run their lives.  Operating on debt is not necessarily a bad thing. It can simply reflect the cyclicality of cash flows (people or companies needing to spend before they can sell or earn, and therefore needing to borrow to fund that spend).  However, when lending dries up because of losses in another part of the debt market (high-risk mortgages in the current case), then companies or individuals who rely upon debt to conduct their operations run out of fuel.  The only way to then raise cash is to sell existing stock, if they have any to sell.  But when there is less cash to go around, sellers start to outnumber buyers, and prices plunge.

So here is the question: How stretched are the top collectors of the last five years?  In any part of their lives? Continue reading

New, newest, now, next

It’s the dawn of a new age. No, not another,tate-triennial-01 deeper stratum to the credit crunch, but a new era of art is upon us and it’s called the ‘Altermodern’. So says French curator Nicolas Bourriaud, who was also responsible for that other recent frisson of novel art-speak, Relational Aesthetics, which – for better or worse – is now firmly established in our repertoire of recognized terminology.

The ‘Altermodern’ is more contentious, not only for being launched by a showy exhibition at the Tate, but also for being far more numinous and complex. Put simply it posits a post-postmodern situation in which modernism is fractured further and has no central geographical focus. These ‘other’ modernities take place simultaneously through an international network of production, with a constellation of ideas pulsing through various media and means of communication. Altermodern artists are nomadic flañeurs and the work is characterised by translation and heterogeneity.

Is any of this terribly new, however? The post-colonial diaspora of artists and the ‘glocal’ proliferation of biennials has long been a point of discussion, Jonathan Neil recently cited Noel Carroll’s definition of the ‘transnational’ and notions of the ‘other’ have been around for decades in Derrida, Kristeva, Said and others.

Even though you can’t all see the Altermodern show (which I liked despite its flaws), you can watch the video, read the manifesto and join the debate, in which most newspaper critics have waded in with a mixture of incomprehension and vitriol. Personally, while another impenetrable ‘ism’ is not necessarily the solution to tidying up the art history books of the 21st century, I appreciate that it does at least take some courage to usher in any kind of movement that doesn’t have an easily marketable model like the YBAs or the Chindian set.

The Singapore experiment

kinesisk-tempel-singaporeWhat kind of an art world do you get without critics? To some, the question may sound hypothetical. But as I learned in Singapore last week, such scenarios exist, and may become more common.

In every tangible respect, the visual arts in Singapore are in an enviable situation. The small island nation sees cultural investments as a step toward a high-tech, educated, information society. The major arts facilities are glittering after ambitious additions and facelifts. The display technology in the top museums is world class. There are for-profit and non-profit art galleries. More and more institutions are being built. Artists can learn in prestigious training programs, some managed in partnership with reputable foreign institutions. Grants for travel and production are widely available.

The missing element is criticism. There is none. Newspapers offer reportage, but no reviews. There are no local criticism journals or websites, no training in criticism at universities. In talking with students and artists from around Asia, it quickly becomes clear that while western-style art cultures and art markets are proliferating, criticism is not necessarily being added into the mix. There is one silver lining: More direct contacts between artists (in person or online) not only to chit-chat, but to seriously debate the merits of each other’s work — the kind of intense, one-on-one dialogue and discourse we only read about in the history books.

With Asia exerting a more powerful influence, and with the Western arts press in decline, could the absence of criticism become the norm, not the exception?

By popular demand

10commandmentsAt the recent Association of Art Museum Directors conference, I read a 10-point “Recovery Plan” for museums. Several people asked for it after the conference, so here it is. Thoughts welcome.

1. Avoid rash moves that alienate private benefactors, who have been the bedrock of your support since the 19th century.

2. Develop realistic ethical protocols that maximize giving while safeguarding curatorial independence.

3. To tap government support, make a better case about your public benefits.

4. Make yourself culturally indispensable by opening up prudently to amateur and informal culture and – yes – commercial culture.

5. Push for new infrastructure: develop loan and credit facilities, adopt best management practices, harness new technology.

6. Think harder about mergers, partnerships, and collaborations.

7. Develop a joint communication and marketing effort to take charge of the public debate about museum ethics.

8. Address the collapse of quality arts media and do more to tell your own story directly to the audience.

9. Enhance your professionalism through better education, including training in arts business and administration.

10. Start buying the inexpensive wonderful contemporary art which about to hit the market, and which will make you look very smart tomorrow.

Goodbye to all that

newspaper3With The Minneapolis Star Tribune filing for bankruptcy protection yesterday, this is a good time to talk about what happens to the arts when newspapers go away.

I was talking to a friend who tracks journalism trends closely earlier this week and he said, “2009 is going to be a real game changer.” He listed the latest casualties, which now include some of the most venerable titles: The Los Angeles Times facing the real possibility of closing. The San Francisco Chronicle losing a billion dollars for its parent company. Seattle’s second paper shutting down. Same in Denver. Papers in cities like Detroit scaling back to publishing a few days a week. The Miami Herald up for sale, but only the building seems to be worth anything. As layoffs and heretofore unthinkable page A1 banner advertising attests, even The New York Times is in deep trouble.

Are we ready for a world in which major metro dailies don’t arrive on our doorstep every morning? Or have they already lost their relevance? After all, in most American cities, a vibrant discourse conducted by dueling critics at rival newspapers is already a distant sepia-toned memory.

My friend, the publisher of a major arts website, worries more about city hall reporting than arts coverage. “Writing about art will always be glamorous and people will do it,” he said. “But what about those unglamorous stories about city government, which nobody else wants to do, and which don’t sell ads?” With so much arts coverage being opinion based — under the fancier name of criticism — blogs have absorbed arts coverage more successfully than hard news. Moreover, many papers say they’re ready to cover newsroom expenses solely with online advertising. The extinction of dinosaur papers printed on dead trees may even leave more breathing room — i.e. ad revenues — for nimbler upstart species of news media.

All points well taken. But call me nostalgic, I still don’t feel the online world fully substitutes for coverage in big metro dailies. Where do we go from here?

“Artoon” – The book!


self-help-helguera

With one new year behind us, another one looms in a fortnight.  The Chinese Year of the Ox is supposed to be a year of hard work for limited return. Maybe if Lehman’s analysts had been looking at their Chinese horoscopes they might have seen some problems coming.

For those of you with time on your hands and no books left from your holiday reading list, we recommend a compilation of “Helguera’s Artoons: Cartoons about the Art World,” recently published by Jorge Pinto Books, with a forward by our own Andras Szanto.

With far too many pundits making comparisons to the Great Depression, perhaps a little light relief is what we need these days. Though interestingly, the effects of the doom and gloom vary widely around the globe–at least based on the holiday conversations I have had.  What is it like where you are?

The big chill

netjets-alex-katzUnusually cold weather for Miami lent the opening night festivities a somewhat spooky and sinister air. “I though it was a celebrity, but then I realized it was just some people around the space heater,” said one reveler at the Art Basel opening party, at the Delano Hotel, as a group of half naked Brazilian dancers braved the chilly December winds. Then again, it could have been Antonio Banderas.

Yet despite the cold, the crowd pressed on, like a group of tourists who had booked a late season cruise and were determined to make the most of the amenities on board.

And fancy amenities were everywhere in evidence–gifts from a recent, happier past, when ambitious plans for this week were being hatched. Netjets invited people to celebrate Alex Katz at the Raleigh hotel, posting a giant Hollywood-style sign in the sand in the hotel’s garden. Not to be outdone by the Art Basel event down the street, the dancers at this party added juggled burning torches. Mini cupcakes were emblazoned with tiny marzipan Netjets logos–a sweet touch.

Earlier in the day, in the Design District, preparations were going on for the rollout of Design Miami. Under a tent that resembled a giant lace curtain, it was all business as usual. Takashi Murakami’s operation opened up a store to sell a new line of Murakami household objets, including three giant balls, the largest almost eight feet in diamater, festooned with technicolor flowers constructed out of soft and fluffy teddy bear fur. “Is it furniture or is it art?” I inquired. “It can be anything,” the friendly Japanese PR lady obliged.

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Message in a bottle

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. Continue reading