And so it starts…

christies-unsold-bacon-portrait-of-henrietta-moraes-1969Bloomberg today reported the dramatic drop in prices achieved at all the major auction houses this weekend.

Sales by Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips de Pury & Co made a combined 59 million pounds ($102 million), against minimum estimates of 106.2 million pounds, according to Bloomberg calculations. They follow a five-day auction by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong this month that raised HK$1.1 billion ($141.7 million), also about half the presale estimate, as buyers shunned some top lots for being too expensive.

This is of course to be expected as much of the collector market focuses on wealth preservation rather than spending. And galleries in New York have noticed a softening for some time.  Interestingly, though, one normally expects an art market correction 6 to 9 months after stock market crashes.  The question now is whether this is the start of a rout in the contemporary art market or merely a short term, financial market correlated, “correction.”

It also, by the way, raises a question about the other major art story of last week about recent moves by two former senior US museum directors to the private sector. Robert Fitzpatrick moved from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to Christie’s Haunch of Venison, and David Ross moved on from his days at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco to be a partner at Albion.  Whilst I fully understand the attractions of better salaries and less stifling boards, I wonder if their timing was all it could be?

Not everyone is worried though.  I have spoken to two collectors this weekend who said, in effect, “finally a correction: maybe prices will come down to a more reasonable level and we can start buying again.”

So what do you think: Short term correction or start of a rout? A good thing or a bad thing?

Summer reading: The Art Critic

Plagens
Just in time for late summer, Newsweek and Artforum critic Peter Plagens has started publishing his new novel, The Art Critic, in weekly installments on Artnet. The “book” is about a slightly cranky male critic of a certain age who has seen enough and done enough in the art world to call it just like he sees it. The writer clearly has the home court advantage on this one, and readers can look forward to some straight-up acerbic commentary on contemporary art. Here’s a teaser, a rumination on recent art in the voice of the novel’s proto-autobiographical protagonist, Arthur:

Worse, all those current artists who indulged themselves in actual words — paintings with words in them, “photo-text pieces,” video works stuffed with dialogue, and other works requiring more didactic printed material slapped up on the walls than you’d find in a science museum — weren’t the worst of it; the sin of language was a misdemeanor compared with whole nihilistic roomfuls of abject detritus, installations with more electronic equipment than an arena concert, and hugely expensive wannabe architecture in which designer drugs were somewhat mitigated by the assistance of a structural engineer. Although the artists boasted in the accompanying press material that the art — what a big tent “art” was now! — “forces the viewer to confront” some geopolitical issue or another, the local stuff, at least, seemed to be made by upper-middle-class kids who could afford the tuition for a Master of Fine Arts degree and then a studio in some rapidly gentrifying quarter of Brooklyn. The bar for “oppression” had apparently been lowered to anybody looking cross-eyed at them on the subway. Between the lines, so to speak, their art told whiney stories about putative victimhoods, or self-congratulatory stories about their empathy for other people’s misfortunes. And they didn’t want their messages to be confined to mere galleries, either. You could feel them looking toward wider, more glamorous horizons. “Face it,” the film critic at the newsweekly where Arthur plied his trade had once said to him when he took her along to a couple of exhibitions, “they all want to direct.”

Summer readings: The dismal science does art

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. Continue reading “Summer readings: The dismal science does art”

Of stocks & markets

Sothebys_vs_NYSE_1yr.gifThere is, again, a fair amount of buzz about the health of the Art market these days. Robert Frank at the Wall Street Journal recently raised the spectre of a decline, based on the 50% fall in Sotheby’s share price over the last 6 months. He points a finger at the rise in guarantees offered by Sothebys to sellers over the last year, something we talked about last August, and the potential for buyers to default on agreed purchases. Then Marion Maneker at Slate issued a well argued riposte, pointing out that the rise in debtors on Sothebys balance sheet is consistent with a rise in the value of sales over the same period; i.e. the higher the level of sales, the higher the level of money owed by buyers to Sothebys until the day they actually pay. She also makes the argument that the guarantees are not as big a worry as they might be because “most of the guaranteed paintings do get sold—and quickly” [after the auction].

I have concerns about both articles. Firstly I am not sure Frank is right in using Sothebys as a proxy for the Art market as a whole. The stock market clearly doesn’t like something about the numbers at Sothebys, perhaps because of perceived greater risk taking by the auction firm (no doubt related to the larger guarantees and larger accounts receivable), but that doesn’t mean the Art market as a whole is suffering; yet. But Maneker is also a touch too sanguine about those same guarantees because I doubt the unsold works will sell quite so quickly, nor at such “reasonable” prices, if the market was in free fall.

To me the key question that will determine whether the Art market suffers a major correction, as in 1990, or a gentle slowing of the current manic rise is the degree to which there is speculation amongst the current buying community. If the prices being paid for contemporary works in New York, HongKong, London and elsewhere reflect genuine collector passion for the works, then that passion is unlikely to fade just because prices for new works fall. On the other hand, if a significant portion of the current buyers are people buying just because it is ‘cool’ to do be seen to do so, and in addition they think they can sell their new prizes in a year or two for a 50% gain, then many of those same buyers will dump stock into the auction rooms as soon as they get nervous about the direction of prices.

So which do you think it is?

Dubai postcard

Dubai.jpgThe opening night of this year’s Art Dubai fair culminated in a sit-down dinner for 250 VIPs under a tent at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, hosted by Canvas magazine, a glossy local art publication. The invitation called for “lounge suit/national dress.” The smell of pungent flowers from the hotel’s garden mixed with the aroma of the sea just below. The feast of yellow fin tuna and beef tenderloin was paired with generous pourings of American Zinfandel and, after dessert, sweet Tokaj wine from Hungary. It was at that point that some of the guests approached the stage to perform cover songs of Italian pop tunes from the sixties. Shortly after midnight, as the jazz band launched into a hearty rendition of “Parole, parole, parole,” it was time to go.

Read more of my report in Men’s Vogue about the immense cultural projects in the United Arab Emirates here.

Another art glossy makes a go of it

ArtWorld03.jpg“How come that title is still available?” I thought to myself as a smiling woman handed me a copy of ART WORLD magazine at the recent Armory Show in New York. The attractive U.K.-based bimonthly is unlikely to win any major writing awards, but it gets a friendly slap on the back for letting the art do the talking.

The first impression is somewhat of a letdown: a parade of short and light news items about all the usual-suspect events, including cheesy snaps from Larry Gagosian’s opening in Rome, followed by profiles of overexposed art celebs (is there anything about Tracey Emin we don’t already know?) But as you dig further into the magazine, the artists turn less predictable. Best of all, whole spreads are filled up with comfortably spaced, high-quality reproductions of actual work. Nice job.

One thing ART WORLD doesn’t cover in great depth is, well, the broader art world. Issue No. 3 has a single dealer profile. Basically, it’s a traditional art magazine in a slightly updated, newsier garb. And that may be just fine. Will this one survive?

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.

Art writing reality check (time for a new code of ethics?)

Lichtenstein___Art_Critic.jpgThe recent chain of events that led the Village Voice (one of New York’s most important sources of arts criticism) to end their relationship with critic Christian Viveros-Fauné raises some questions about the practicality of applying The New York Times style code of journalistic ethics to the arts publications that can’t offer NYT-sized salaries.

Indeed, given the widely perceived diminishing influence of art criticism (due to the overwhelming power of certain collectors and the market in general in determining what art is seen as important by museums and other collectors), a question I heard repeatedly in the wake of the Voice’s decision was, is it even realistic to expect quality criticism from writers without deep interest/influence in the commercial side of the art world?

The case in point revolves around a Q&A interview by Tyler Green with Christian Viveros-Fauné (see parts one, two, and three) that culminated in Tyler asking Christian:

You’re a managing director of a commercial art fair, Volta, and an organizer of another commercial art fair, Chicago’s Next fair. At the same time you’re a writer, a journalist, you’re the art critic for the Village Voice. Why isn’t that the most basic kind of conflict of interest?

Christian responded with perhaps a too honest answer that included several of the key issues leading me to wonder just how practical (if not how adhered to) the current code of ethics really is [all emphasis mine]:

I believe you can wear a lot of hats in the art world, and one needs to because, among other things, critics can’t survive on the money that they make from writing. Very few critics can. And, not only that, but I’m interested in curating, and I firmly believe that there is no interest in the art world without a conflict of interest.

Now, that may seem counterintuitive, and it is, but I would argue that the art world is counterintuitive in the extreme. In what other industry, for example, does one of the major magazines that chronicles both the creative and the business end of the art world establish an art fair of the same name. Obviously, I’m talking about Frieze.

And that’s nothing. Examine, for second, the practice of writing catalog essays. You know and I know that there is no such thing as a negative catalog essay and the reason for that is obvious: one way critics make money is by writing promotional copy for galleries and, hopefully, artists they like or love. And then there’s the business of curators and critics slinging their asses around to universities and institutions for speaking engagements.

Shall I go on? I mean, again, what I’m arguing for here is honesty all the way around.

In light of the practicality of living on what arts writing pays and being insightful without inserting oneself deep within the commercial structure in this particular age, and given that whether there’s a more pressing conflict of interest to address is no longer relelvant, perhaps attention can now be turned to the issues Christian raises. In particular, is it time for the code of ethics to specifically address critics lecturing for money at universities whose artists or exhibitions they later write about, accepting paid travel and hotel expenses in return for press (and the rules for acknowledging that), confluences of power like that represented by the Frieze art fair, writing catalog essays for pay, and the rest of it?

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?

YouTubing the art world

imgres.jpgThe debut of Robert Knafo’s NewArtTV, which is dedicated to offering online streaming video coverage of exhibitions, gallery shows, artist interviews, art world events, etc., gives us an opportunity to take a fresh look at a persistent question: Just how does one “cover” visual art in a televisual format, be it web-based or otherwise?

We should note that Knafo’s enterprise is not the proverbial “first to market” here. Basel-based VernissageTV has been up and running since late 2005. LXTV, a more broad-based lifestyle site, offers segments on art and collecting. Both artinfo.com and artreview.com are ramping up their menus of streaming video options (full disclosure, I’m working on a project for the latter). More independently, James Kalm maintains a channel on YouTube where he regularly posts more guerrilla-style first-person coverage of shows and openings. And I’m sure there are more, both on YouTube and beyond.

NewArtTV itself seems to follow the format favored by PBS’s Art:21, the well-produced and thematically organized series that forgoes a narrator in favor of voice-overs by the artist alone. VernissageTV gives up on narration of any kind, offering instead only a steady stream of “composed” installation shots. True to the YouTube ethos, Kalm’s episodes tend towards running commentary with the “record” button pushed.

These are different approaches to be sure, but it seems to me that they are only beginning to scratch at the surface of the “coverage” question. What is more, we should probably also ask how streaming video, the new promised land of web-based content (as the current writers strike more than amply demonstrates) might alter the relationship between “coverage” and “criticism”—is there room (or rather time) for the latter in a YouTube world?

We the priesthood?

413MJQMDASL._SS500_.jpg

What purpose does art writing serve?—a self-reflexive question for this forum to be sure; yet we can’t fail to notice that it is one begged again and again by cultural critics who every once in a while decide to turn their attentions to our modest yet flashy corner of the industry. But what to do when the swipes come from within our ranks? During an otherwise favorable review of Arthur Danto’s Unnatural Wonders from a few weeks ago, Jackie Wullschlager, chief art critic for the Financial Times, had this to say:

A system so needful of interpreters surely lays contemporary art, its makers and consumers open to the same abuse as medieval Catholicism, when an ignorant congregation depended on a substantial class of (mostly self-serving) priests and pardoners as intermediaries to the confusing, elusive concept of God…[Commentaries on art] are written by today’s priests and pardoners, each carrying a mix of truth-seeking, vanity, ambition and the conviction that their own big idea is the route to aesthetic understanding.

What are we to make of this? To my own ear, this dismissal echoes the sentiments of the “anti-theory” crowd which grew very vocal in the 1990s. But is it more than this? Why, for example, does it always seem to be writing about art, and contemporary art in particular, that is singled out? Why must art be more popular or, to push the point, more “lay” than either science or philosophy, the two disciplines with which it undoubtedly shares a genuine creative impulse? Or to push it even further: Is this a call for evangelical aestheticism?–i.e. the only way to true “aesthetic understanding” is through one’s own personal relationship with art?

Correction? Or intelligence of the collectorate?

There can be little doubt that the incessant whispering about the inevitable decline of the art market will erupt into a roar today as Sotheby’s stock begins its tumble after the venerable house’s Impressionist and Modern Art sale fell nearly $86 million short of its $355.6 million low estimate. Sure Christie’s beat its low estimate just the day before by roughly $46 million, but of course that’s not news. Or is it? Can it be true, as Andrew Fabricant mentions in the New York Times, that “this was not some watershed moment in the market. It’s what happens when the pricing is extremely aggressive and the material less than stellar”?

Quite often we like to dismiss the money that is thrown around at the upper reaches of the market as so much conspicuous consumption, an indication of the Collectorate’s obsession with image rather than substance. But does the asymmetry between the Christie’s and Sotheby’s sales indicate a more discriminating taste at work? Are we witnessing the return of Homo Aestheticus after the reign of Homo Economicus?

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?

After the fall…

Yue_MinJun___The_Massacre_at_Chios.pngAs artist Yue Minjun reaches new highs in HK (during recent sales at Sothebys that set new records in jewels, ceramics, and paintings both traditional and contemporary), Richard Polsky over at ArtNet is predicting a decline and fall for Chinese Contemporary Art. (Which makes NY real-estate and art investor Howard Farber’s disposal of most of his Contemporary Chinese collection tomorrow at Phillips look well timed.)

But Polsky goes further, stating flatly:

“There’s nothing innovative here. In fact, other than its specifically Asian content, the work is totally derivative of Western art”.

Kriston Capps over at grammar.police calls the over generalisation “baseless”, which is maybe going too far the other way, but he raises a good question at the end of his comments: what will survive the inevitable fall? His question refers specifically to the Chinese market, but I am curious about contemporary more globally.

In both Western and Asian contemporary markets pundits are predicting corrections. In the US for macro-economic reasons and excessive exuberance. In Asia because of speculative buying by new enthusiasts, and over production of works by the big names. In both cases some artists, and collectors, will suffer more than most. Any views on whom? And how much?

Metrics of zeal or woe

tornado.jpg August jitters yield to back-to-school confidence—at least for now. After a rash of premature obituaries, the art market is humming briskly again and news of epic sales fills the air. Even Damien Hirst’s diamond skull has found buyers (including, so it is rumored, the artist). Its fate as the shimmering emblem of early 21st-century excess is now sealed.The question now is whether the art market is headed even deeper into record-breaking territory as the last refuge of investors and speculators, á la 1989, or whether it is already on a sliding path toward a landing—soft, hard, or otherwise? It is a delicious moment, pregnant with wildly opposing possibilities.

Reading the posts of the last few weeks, one longs for clearer metrics. Are there more reliable early indicators of yet another exuberant season of sales? Or conversely, are some “canary-in-the-mineshaft” indices registering advance tremors of a downturn?

Our debate on guarantees offered few clues. Reluctance to offer guarantees would parallel the lending caution that engulfed the financial markets in late summer, but our panel found no proof of such reluctance (auction guarantees this season are, in fact, expected to run into the billions). Daily reports of new gallery openings and museum ventures similarly belie prognostications of impending doom.

The problem is that some indicators of change can be interpreted as harbingers of squarely opposing trends. What exact conclusion would be drawn from evidence that dealers are getting more calls about placing works quietly, or taking pictures back on consignment? If a spate of exceptionally high-quality pictures were to come to market, would that be seen as a sign that sellers are trying to slip through a closing window of opportunity? Or would it be seen as evidence of the health of a market that is coaxing even the most beloved masterpieces off people’s walls? What is the exact interpretation of trimmed museum acquisition budgets? What can we read into shorter or longer waiting lists? Are dipping or spiking art school applications advance indicators of growth or decline?

As we begin a season of many likely surprises, can this panel suggest clear signs of what’s ahead?

Keeping score in the art(star)world

Walking through the MCA Chicago’s summer photography show recently, I came across the David Robbins piece “Talent,” from 1986. To create it, Robbins had 18 young art stars of that moment, including himself, pose for the sort of glossy airbrushed headshots that actors send casting agents. Two decades later, some of those are names that even a Culture-section scanner would recognize, such as Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman. Others are around, if not quite stars. And some have moved far from the artworld spotlight. Robbins himself reportedly “became disenchanted with the New York scene and returned to his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. There, he began to pursue performance art and dot painting in the context of the small-town tradition of the ice-cream social. The first social was held at a local Baskin-Robbins.”

That some stars stay and others fade is not noteworthy. No, what struck me at the MCA was the (coincidentally) side-by-side presence of Peter Nagy and Ashley Bickerton in the matrix. A decade after the picture was taken, in 1996, both seemed to have essentially exited the mainstream artworld, making new lives an ocean away. As the NY Times wrote last year, the early-nineties “art-market dip left Mr. Bickerton’s career, among others, high and dry. He moved out of New York, first to Brazil then to Bali, where he still lives.” The international Herald Tribune in 2005 tracked Bickerton down doing a printmaking project in Singapore. “My career was basically in the toilet,” he recalled. “After the flash and success, there is another test that comes: longevity.” After a mid-nineties hiatus, Bickerton has come back strongly onto the international art market, most recently via Lehmann Maupin gallery. Painter and East Village gallerist Nagy, who had disappeared to Asia around the same time as Bickerton, has successfully recast himself as the leading gallerist working with India’s suddenly sought-after contemporary artists.

Looking across a much broader swath of art history, there was a long period when the influence of Marcel Duchamp was totally undervalued, and likewise the resurgent interest in Francis Picabia, circa 2002, caught many by surprise. We too often tend to view artists’ careers simplistically, as a progression from anonymity to fame and (almost always) back again. But that’s hardly the only model, especially in an artworld that’s growing ever more multifaceted. Journalism may be the first draft of history, but even art history is never written in stone.

Continue reading “Keeping score in the art(star)world”

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.

Collectors, consultants, complications…

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.” Continue reading “Collectors, consultants, complications…”

File under: plus ça change…

“The auction business is booming as more and more Americans catch art-collecting fever.” … “Not since the first hammer dropped to the highest bidder have sales of valuables commanded such audiences, such publicity, such prices.” Sounds timely? The quote is from TIME magazine. The year, 1979 (Dec. 31).

It goes on: “Collectionitis is as pervasive as inflation, as euphoric as a drug high. Its grip reaches far beyond the roseate world of Rembrandts, Sèvres porcelain and Georgian silver. A vast subculture of acquisition is feeding on scarce objects of every conceivable description.” … “It has been only in the past decade or so that the big sales have been covered by the press as Events; the sums paid for art used to be buried in newspapers along with ship arrivals. Now, with the tremendous increases in fine arts prices and the expansion of public interest, big auctions have become flash bulb and video-tape fiestas.” (Thank you to my Sotheby’s Institute of Art student, Cate Andrews.)

Speaking of the press, did anyone else notice the “Talk of the Town” piece in this week’s New Yorker (May 28) about everybody’s favorite British art patron, which starts thus: “The art dealer Charles Saatchi spends a lot of time sitting at his desk”?

Adrià‘s documenta art: Cooking at El Bulli?!?

FerranAdria.jpgLast week, the Guardian’s Jonathan Jones went a smidgen ballistic about the notion that Spanish chef Ferran Adrià – founder of Barcelona’s El Bulli and frequently ranked as the globe’s top chef – was being put forward among Documenta’s artists. In his delightfully apoplectic post Food can be artistic – but it can never be art, Jones wrote:

They are not true artists because even the most modern food cannot disgust people beyond a certain point, or El Bulli would have no customers…. In reality, even a genius among chefs is obliged to please the customer (and cook to order), which means no chef can claim the freedom of mind that artists won in the Renaissance. Caravaggio could paint fruit that looked good enough to eat but he also painted tortures to turn your stomach; that’s art. Until people go to a restaurant to think about death, cooking won’t be art.

Well, Mr. Jones will be delighted to hear that Adrià has apparently bailed on Documenta. [UPDATE: Documenta’s debating this. See Comment #3 below] According to the issue of Berlin-based Monopol that landed in subscriber mailboxes today, Adrià is staying put in Barcelona during Documenta. Here’s a rough translation of the Monopol item: Continue reading “Adrià‘s documenta art: Cooking at El Bulli?!?”