The auction revolution will be televised

WarholBids.jpgClearly, there’s a huge difference between watching an auction live and watching it virtually, closely akin to the difference between attending theater and viewing films. Live, it’s a visceral, all-engulfing experience, as if one were getting a contact high from the massive endorphin rush of all the interested parties. Remote, it’s mind-numbing. Here’s a perfect example: Watch the Christie’s video of Andy Warhol’s “Green Car Crash” blasting past its high estimate to hit $64 million. I’m sure it was spellbinding to be in that room, but when one of Artworld Salon’s faithful readers e-mailed me the clip last night, I rapidly started multitasking in my email and IM windows until the the last couple of bids. Let’s face it, folks, unless you’ve got money on the line, auctions are boring television.

Interestingly, this week’s issue of New York Magazine has an Intelligencer item from Alexandra Peers, Sotheby’s Shuts Out Auction Regulars, relating how some grumpy auction attendees found themselves watching the sales on closed-circuit television rather than live. Based on differing versions I’ve heard – all from people well-connected inside the auction house – there were several possible motivations for this move, including: 1) making it easier for Tobias Meyer to keep track of bidders in the back of the (now-shortened) room; 2) making the auctions feel more exclusive for those allowed in (i.e. ye old velvet-rope nightclub trick); 3) reducing the traffic jam at the doors, which had previously made it impossible for some latecomers to get paddles in time to bid; 4) slick consultants told them it would raise profits.

Naturally, insiders long used to watching live auctions are dismayed at the prospect of following them on-screen instead. Although CultureGrrl managed to score some thrills tracking the Sotheby’s sales online, as a rule people getting shunted into the spillover room will feel personally slighted. One rejected regular, dealer Ellen Marie Donahue, told Peers that “she was told she could still get a ticket if she passed along her primary clients’ financial information to the house.” She refused the deal. And I’m betting veteran artworld types will get belligerent at the notion that they now must prove their worthiness to attend an auction live, especially given that the houses have taken to positing themselves as the democratic alternative to the “elitist” gallery scene.

That said, from a sales standpoint, the move seemed to have very zero effect at Sotheby’s. Which kind of undercuts my fundamental notions about what makes auctions such a powerful selling platform – namely that the right auctioneer and the right setting, with the right pacing of lots, can seduce people into paying significantly higher prices. But in the age of the telephone bidder, the monster guarantee and the massive marketing campaign, maybe the auctioneer is more like an MC than a master seducer. Thoughts?

China goldrush continues…

eulogy_by_CYF.jpgOn Sunday Chen Yifei’s “Eulogy of the Yellow River” sold for a hammer price of RMB 40.32m (about US$ 5.25m) at China Guardian’s Spring sale. Painted in the middle of China’s Cultural Revolution, it is an example of the Chinese Socialist Realist style by the then-25-year-old patriotic Chen. The previous record for his work was RMB 4m (about US$500k) for one of his photorealist “pretty girls in traditional costumes and slightly artificial poses” series which have been quite popular. That ten-fold jump was attributed to the fact that this is the first major work of Chen’s to come to market since he unexpectedly died in 2005. But the interesting thing about the local reports on this sale is the constant benchmarking of Chinese Art values against those in the West; as if it was a matter of national pride, and a measure of how China was doing generally in the world. Rather than any comments about an overheated market.

So the heat continues. On May 27 Christies has their Spring Asian Contemporary sale in Hong Kong with the expected selections from Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Wang GuangYi and Zeng Fanzhi. The point of interest this time is the inclusion of earlier works from these artists, who we are used to seeing at auction, including a really quite interesting Zhang Xiaogang (Portrait in Red from 1993) which clearly presages the later, and excessively popular, Bloodline series. If the heat continues, expect more exceeding of estimates.

WGY__YMJ__ZXG_at_PJY.jpgFor those keen to jump on the “hot five” Chinese artist bandwagon but unwilling to pay 7 (or 8?) figures in hard currency for something to fill a space on the wall, why not head down to PanJiaYuan, Beijing’s world renowned ‘art and curio’ market, and pick up original oil paintings “in the style of” whoever you would like, for US$30 max. (See pictures at right and below taken at PanJiaYuan last weekend.) Now doesn’t that seem reasonable for your own private piece of Chinese Contemporary Art Bubble history?

zxg, ymj at pjy_1.jpgPanJiaYuan is experiencing a demand bubble of its own. 6 weeks ago there was only one such stall offering Zhang Xiaogang copies. This weekend there were three stalls offering similar pictures and the range of contemporary artists available had grown. “Very popular with laowai” I was told. (Laowai being foreigners.) It will be interesting to see how this little sub-market develops.

Museums vs. the market, Saltz vs. Heiss

Oh, what I would give to be in New York this week. It’s going to be stormy on the contemporary-art front, as people start to read, debate and then take sides over Jerry Saltz’s full-throttle attack on “Not For Sale,” the current PS1 show. Preparing the show – openly intended as a personal retort to the boombastic art market – legendary curator Alanna Heiss solicited pieces that the artists would not sell, i.e. art they valued more than money. The works included are perfectly fine, Saltz writes; but then he cites the show’s knee-jerk notions about the marketplace as grounds for suggesting Heiss should consider resigning her leadership of PS1:

For the director or curator of an institution that relies on the largesse of artists and dealers—who in turn depend on commerce—to claim an “allergy” to the marketplace is not only smug, it’s deluded and hypocritical. This goes double if that curator’s institution, like Heiss’s, is affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art, the very pinnacle of institutional power…. “Not for Sale” doesn’t fizzle because most of the artists in it are millionaires or famous or both. Nor does it fail because more than a third of the work on view is less than ten years old and fourteen of those pieces are less than five years old, making you wonder how ‘not for sale’ much of this art actually is. No, the exhibition fails because its ideas and construction are lazy.

I distinctly remember reading about this show just before it opened this winter. The thing that struck me as odd was Heiss’s response when the New York Times wondered how truly “not for sale” these works were. Her take: “If you sell a piece out of this show, you know what you’re doing. And it’s not my problem. It’s your problem.” Tough words. Strong tone. Yet when reading them I thought to myself, “Is she actually conceding that some of the work in the show might be less ‘Not for Sale’ than ‘Not for Sale at any price that’s been offered yet.’ And that’s not her problem? That seems a little too easy.” Continue reading “Museums vs. the market, Saltz vs. Heiss”

Clippings from the salon floor, #5

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

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

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

Annals of Art-Market Anarchy: Artnet magazine’s Chinese Artists at Crossroads re the Wild Westness of China’s ConArt scene: “Many galleries report that maverick artists often balk on contractual agreements. In some scenarios, artists have actually walked out of their own opening, art works under their arms, to later redistribute the paintings at other galleries around the city.” Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #5”

Media Matters

Poor Los Angeles. You can’t help feeling sad for this city, which has been trying so hard to prove that it’s a first-rate visual art metropolis. The Pulitzer Prize committee doesn’t think so. This week’s announcement of the Pulitzer in criticism, which went to Jonathan Gold, a restaurant reviewer for LA Weekly, follows on the heels of the last criticism Pulitzer to go to LA, in 2004. That was for a car writer.

I’m not here to debunk writing about food, cars, and other popular pursuits. But in their eagerness to make a point, the Pulitzer people have ignored, yet again, the current energy of art and architecture in LA. Good criticism is part of that picture. Without it, the renaissance can prove fleeting.

What irks me is why LA must be the place to unfurl the flag of critical populism. It’s such a shopworn cliché. At a time when catastrophic management is shredding one of the great papers in the nation, it would be nice to see an affirmation that LA and its beleaguered hometown daily can play in the cultural big leagues.

portfoliocover.jpgMeanwhile, back on the East Coast, cause for optimism. The much-anticipated business glossy Portfolio is here, and it’s chockablock with arts writing. Business Intelligence (the magazine’s tagline) has been deemed to encompass awareness about cultural industries. The cover is a spectacular homage, by Scott Peterman, to Berenice Abbot’s classic aerial shot of Manhattan. The skyscrapers in the picture look like so many glowing gold ingots. A special section, Culture Inc., is devoted to arts and philanthropy. The assignments are somewhat predictable at this point, with the obligatory briefing on the Chinese art boom, etc. But there is real promise here.

A word of caution. Robust art coverage in business magazines is a canary in a mineshaft. During the last boom, by the time Fortune and Forbes got around to it, the market bust was already around the corner.

Saatchi buys; China sells (out?)

Catching up on reading over the weekend I saw an article on Guardian Unlimited on the state of the Chinese Contemporary market, highlighting Charles Saatchi’s moves in the sector. The quote that stuck in my mind was this from Brian Wallace of Beijing’s Red Gate Gallery:

“If you were in it for the money 10 years ago, you would be very well off today. But it is not easy. With all the new entrants into the market, more galleries are taking up more artists. So the overall quality is not as high as before. There are many good artists out there, but a lot of them are now painting for the market – even some of the big names.”

There are parallels with a previous thread about young artists being exposed to buyers too early and having their content and ‘language’ skewed to attract more money. At the moment the Chinese Contemporary market as a whole seems to be acting like a money hungry new art graduate: more concerned with producing work that buyers have shown they will buy, than trying to say anything new. This is, fortunately, not entirely true, but it is certainly the impression one gets from wandering around the galleries.

Ségolène Royal channels Barbara Kruger?

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

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


Ruthless in Seattle?

Long before I wrote about the artworld, I covered Chicago’s City Hall, an institution legendary for its corruption. Given that environment, reporters paid a lot of attention to avoiding the appearance of being co-opted by politicians. Some would even refuse to touch the food at political breakfasts. I always thought that was taking it too far – would anyone really think I’d been “bought” for two stale donuts and a lukewarm coffee? Likewise in the artworld, every journalist and critic has to fashion their own ethical code. That said, there are apparently indefensible cases, and Seattle’s weekly, The Stranger, detailed one extensively last week in “Critical Mess” (via Friday’s ArtsJournal newsfeed).

It’s a huge piece, worth reading in its entirety, but here’s the basic gist: The city’s most powerful critic, Matthew Kangas, rampantly exploited his position to build an art collection by getting artworks as “gifts” from artists. Kangas says he never asked any artists for pieces, claiming they gave them freely. But the article’s author, Jen Graves, reports: “Last week, nine artists went on record with The Stranger saying that Kangas [asked] directly for art or implied he should be given art before or after he wrote reviews of their work.” Two confounding examples from the Continue reading “Ruthless in Seattle?”

Exhibition catalogs: Time for a rethink?

I had an interesting but dispiriting conversation recently with a curator arranging an exhibition for a hot artist. The curator was trying to work some edgy writing from a young author into the catalog to give it intellectual flair, but the artist and the dealer kept insisting on corralling bigger names “ i.e. people who write for the right magazines. At first I encouraged the curator to fight for that text’s inclusion. But then I broke down and said, “Maybe it’s better to choose another battle. Because in the end most people will just judge the catalog on the names of the writers anyway – they’re not going to read the essays.” The curator agreed, albeit with a bitter laugh.Bouncy Castle Midi Ferme

What purpose does a catalog serve today? In the old days, as I understand it, catalogs were the way in which those who missed the show could get Continue reading “Exhibition catalogs: Time for a rethink?”

IHT: “The sky is falling! Oh…nevermind.”

I picked up the International Herald Tribune today for my train ride after spotting a teaser headline referring to the artworld: “The latest status investment shows signs of a bubble.” I was eager to see what data Times art-market maven Carol Vogel could be citing. First surprise: It wasn’t Vogel, but Sharon Reier, whose name I didn’t recognize (turns out she’s an IHT business writer). Second surprise was the lede: “When Marta Guitart, an art teacher, lived in her native Spain seven years ago, she brushed up on the latest trends in contemporary art by attending art fairs like ARCO in Madrid and Documenta in Essen, Germany.” Given the fact that Documenta is a quinquennial exhibition (not a fair) taking place in Kassel (not Essen), this was not confidence-inspiring.

I didn’t spot any other factual errors in the rest of the 1,500-word piece. But then there weren’t many facts. Certainly nothing that justified the headline. Reier cites two art-market experts from academe: William Goetzmann of Yale and the ubiquitous Michael Moses of NYU. But neither one says the market’s ripe for bursting; their data, if anything, indicates Continue reading “IHT: “The sky is falling! Oh…nevermind.””

Asian Art rises, its evangelist disappears…

Almost a decade ago, I first met journalist Jonathan Napack, who died at 39 last weekend in a Hong Kong hospital, apparently due to a severe lung infection. There’s an excellent obituary, albeit brief, by Charlie Finch in the latest Artnet News, to which I’ll only add a few personal observations.

When we first met, Jonathan was in the process of decamping from New York to Hong Kong, and over the following years his byline popped up from all over Asia – not just Beijing and Hong Kong, but also Hanoi and Gwangju. His move seemed quixotic then, when no one cared about Asian contemporary art. Now it seems visionary.

He traveled the continent relentlessly, first as a journalist and then as Art Basel’s man in Asia. When I did my Singapore-Shanghai-Gwangju biennials marathon last fall, he and I ended up in quite a few of the same bars, planes and restaurants. Everywhere we went, he had could parse the internecine skirmishes Continue reading “Asian Art rises, its evangelist disappears…”

ArtReview: “Please be my friend!”

Okay, I can’t decide if this genius or absurdity: Though it’s pretty funny that the magazine has chosen to describe itself as a 58-year-old female.

Still I think when it comes to the Web 2.0/social networking category of the Weich/ArtReview vs. Wilson/Saatchi Online Throwdown, you have to give round 1 to Rebecca Wilson and the Saatchi collection, whose YourGallery section has become the MySpace/Friendster/Facebook of the artworld, dis-intermediating the space between collectors and artists. That should make Charles Saatchi even more of a hero among art dealers. Not.

The Economist gets an F in… economics.

From this week’s Economist article “Going, going, up,” a paint-by-numbers rehash on the rising market:

Among the anxious are Jianping Mei and Michael Moses of New York University, who compile an index which shows that prices of post-war and contemporary art have done better than the S&P 500 Total Return index over the past ten years.

Once again, a journalist fails to specify that the Mei Moses index only tracks art that was auctioned twice. This is a very select group of artworks, and it’s thus a crucial point. In fact, when I interviewed Moses for my New York magazine feature on the art market last spring, he was anguished by such mistakes, saying: “As an economist, that bothers me. Because I have no idea what the non-auction market is doing, since there’s no transparency of prices.” Well, I have an idea: If you tracked down all the art sold during that ten-year period and measured its value now, the returns would be pitiful, because 75 percent would be totally illiquid.

I’d excoriate the writer, but since the Economist is un-bylined, maybe we can just suggest a remedial course in reading economic studies. Seriously, if people writing about finance were this loose with the data, they’d get sacked. But, hey, it’s only the art market – why bother being accurate?

Art greets Capitalism

ZengHao.jpgInteresting piece on today about the state of the contemporary Art market in China. Highlights the names of the current stars, and evokes the scene at the opening of star Zeng Hao’s new Shanghai show, but also raises some concerns about the role of auction houses in the curent market frenzy.

In China’s New Revolution, Art Greets Capitalism

Auction houses “sell art like people sell cabbage,” said Weng Ling, the director of the Shanghai Gallery of Art. “They are not educating the public or helping artists develop. Many of them know nothing about art.”

(David Barbosa,, Jan 4, 2007)

Sounds like complaints we have heard elsewhere…

Art vs Commerce: NY Times’ Cotter waves the white flag?

On the New York Times Year in Review page for Art, Holland Cotter takes a tour d’horizon of the artworld, “When Art Stayed Too Long At the Fair,” and laments.

Once, we might have turned to contemporary art for alternative energy. But in 2006, it just complacently provided blasts of commercial triumphalism. The art fair matured into a kind of joke, a revenge on everything 1990s, with parties replacing politics and skill valued over ideas… But what’s the point of kvetching? Art has always been attracted to money, and vice versa. And it has almost always been a servant to the elite, an advertisement for the status quo. Every so often art forcefully and collectively proposes alternative models — but 2006, at least as played out in New York, was not such a time… So maybe we should stop pestering art to be some Utopian undertaking, some zone for alternative thoughts and forms, and just enjoy it for the high-energy, no-impact game of trivial pursuit it has become.

Following that logic, everyone who chose the arts over more lucrative (or, certainly, more predictably lucrative) professions is essentially wasting their time entertaining fashionistas and churning out tchotchkes until the next crash. I’m hoping Cotter’s playing devil’s advocate and trying to provoke a debate. Because if he’s a) serious and b) correct in his analysis then the artworld’s fucked. At least for now. Thoughts?

Museums: Misogynist?

Tyler Green’s 2006 Top 10 list at Modern Art Notes had me wishing I made it to Los Angeles and Washington this year, but his take on Amy Sillman’s exhibiton at Sikkema Jenkins left me quizzical. He writes:

“The best contemporary painting show of the year. If Sillman were a younger male, then museums would be falling over themselves to show her work. (Similarly: Marilyn Minter.) Sillman should have already had a Hirshhorn Directions-level show somewhere.”

At first I thought to myself that young (and youngish) women painters are not exactly invisible. To wit, and in no particular order Julie Mehretu, Elizabeth Peyton, Dana Schutz, Inka Essenhigh, Laura Owens, Jenny Saville and recent Turner Prize winner Tomma Abts all have strong markets and media attention. But then I realized that as far as I can recall these seven have had relatively little museum attention. That’s an offhand memory sweep without doing any actual research (hey, it’s still the holidays), but if if Tyler says women painters are under-represented in museums, I’ll assume it’s right, given his mania for all things musea.

But, wait, does this mean that museums are less receptive to women than either the market or the arts media?

YouTube effect – ArtReview:Digital goes video

ar_cvr_200702.jpgIn case you’re not an E-Flux subscriber, this morning’s announcement was “ArtReview:Digital goes video,” another step in the London-based magazine’s campaign to distinguish itself from other printed art mags by embracing all things digital.

Having previously set up the possibility for a fully digital subscription, the magazine now announces that “each new ArtReview:Digital will come with videos, including gallery and studio visits, interviews with artists and multimedia art projects specially made for the magazine.”

Clearly in the YouTube era, and following the wildfire viral spread in the artworld of the Sotheby’s preview video starring Tobias Meyer, it’s a logical step. What comes next? Maybe an artworld-only social networking side, in the spirit of MySpace and Small World. Although when it comes to artists per se, the Saatchi Gallery has first-mover advantage on that front. (In an interesting media-insider sidenote, the man spearheading Art Review’s drive toward digital is editorial director John Weich. On the Saatchi side, former Art Review editrix-in-chief Rebecca Wilson has played an active role in developing and promoting the website after being sacked by Weich last spring.)

Given the fact that most art-magazine economics trend scarily into the red, I’m curious to see whether the added cost of producing digital content will be borne by the publishers or whether it will instead become part of the extra work journalists are expected to do as part of producing their print pieces.

Late night TV in Beijing

Found myself idly channel flipping at 1am last night here in Beijing (sad I know) and came across “The Art Auction” a regular TV series covering (last night at least) a chinese contemporary art sale held recently at Poly Art Auction. The entire auction seemed to be covered (I didn’t stay to watch the whole thing) with a post-buy discussion (for each piece sold!) by a two man expert panel back in the studio. As far as I could work out with my nascent Mandarin they were discussing bid prices, people in the room and reasons for interest or lack thereof. I think this was the recent record breaking sale by Poly Art Auction. The commentators certainly seemed excited.

I mention this because it is an interesting example of the government here indirectly supporting the promotion of contemporary Chinese Art and Culture as a means of boosting pride in the country, and supporting social cohesion (through pride and nationalistic fervour) in general. Poly Art Auctions is owned by the same Chinese State Owned Enterprise that owns the Poly Art Museum (reputedly better than some of the directly state owned museums) here in Beijing. The programme, and other Chinese state owned media, cover each new record price set for a Chinese artist as an indication of the rise in stature of Chinese Art in general, paralleling the rise of China in other domains in the world. Buyers at these local auctions come from all over the Asian world (a recent record Chinese work was bought by an Indonesian Chinese businessman) but many are young succesful businessmen with new money. The heat of the contemporary market, and the source of the new money, parallels current (Art) affairs in the West. The government (indirect) support of rising prices does not. Another interesting factor in todays market bubble.

Vanity Fair Dec 06 “The Art Issue”

Does anyone have any comments on the fact that Vanity Fair have elevated (dropped?) Art World participants to the same level as media titans and celebrities? This (Dec) issue is their first ever Art World focus. A first and last? Or a status that will endure?

And of course they used Brad Pitt on the cover instead of the usual group pic…vanity-fair-dec-2006-cover

The journalist as Artmarket middleman

I’m between Berlin and London. On the plane to Frieze, I picked up the FT’s weekend section and came across this jaw-dropper in Anthony Haden Guest’s column:

“About 18 months ago I was asked to help with the sale of a postwar painting by bringing in an appropriate private dealer. I decided this would be an educational process. The protocol was hush-hush. I wasn’t told who the seller was. Nobody was to know the identity of more than one principal. The sum was north of $20m. I was told that only 30 people in the world would be potentially up for the deal. Within 18 hours there were five players. Within 36 hours, everybody knew exactly who everybody else was. And they didn’t love each other one bit. The deal went ker-blooey. Yes, it certainly was educational. So the New World Order of Big Art still resembles the wicked old art world more than somewhat. But is it transformed and transforming? I think possibly yes.”

I can’t decide if I’m more stunned that AHG copped to this in print or that his FT editor let him run the column. Can you imagine a similar aside in a column on, say, the pharma industry, or closer to home, the pop-music industry? And what was his proposed commission on the deal?

Once again, I think this betrays the utter nonchalance with which the mainstream press tends to handle writings about the art market. Or am I too sensitive?