Category Archives: Arts Policy

Too much of a good thing?

300px-supply_and_demand_curvessvgWith the Whitney Biennial, Armory Show, ADAA Art Show, Independent, Moving Image, Nada, Scope, and Volta fairs, their sundry offshoots and side events, innumerable gallery openings, and the auction season about to rain down on us here in New York, this may be a good time to talk about artistic overproduction. And right on cue, along comes Adrian Ellis’ cogent essay on the supply-demand problem in Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, an obscure but important journal for cultural-policy wonks.

Some Reflections on the Relationship Between Supply and Demand in the Formalized Arts Sector” is more titillating reading than its title suggests. It’s framed in response to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s refreshingly impolitic claim, not long after his appointment, in 2009, that the arts sector may be overbuilt. The Chairman was met by predictable howls of indignation at the time. The reigning orthodoxy is that no amount of art can be too much—economics be damned. But let’s admit he had a point.

Ellis credits Landesman (brother of Artforum publisher Knight) for sparking a conversation about the imbalance between the amount of art emanating from the cultural-industrial complex of 501c3 organizations and the amount of art that regular folks actually have an appetite for consuming. In fact, this debate has been quietly raging for years, especially inside foundations. In any event, the article is a must-read for anyone who wishes to speak knowledgeably about our besieged arts infrastructure, and what should be done about it. Continue reading

Hey friend, can you spare $150 million?

sundancesolar_1868_1630372Here comes news that Kickstarter, the three year-old online fundraising company, is set to distribute more money next year for cultural projects than the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s right: Kickstarter’s bootstrapped giving may exceed the agency’s circa $150 million budget. And it’s growing.

The announcement signals just how rapidly our funding mechanisms are turning obsolete. It also highlights the roundly different priorities that come into play when funding choices are left to “regular folks” rather than “experts”. Kickstarter’s top three, million-dollar-plus earning projects so far have been an animated film, a design for an iPad dock, and a computer game.

None of this bodes too well for the sort of organizations and initiatives that benefited from arts funding in the past.

For half a century, US philanthropy consisted of a cozy collaboration between tax exempt fine arts organizations and tax exempt giving bodies. For all the efforts foundations spend analyzing their own behavior and chasing innovation, as organizations they remain stunningly risk-averse. Now along comes a giving method that blithely sidesteps the old categories of patronage. Its very success is an indictment of the inefficiencies and blind spots of the old model.

The problem is that the direct democracy represented by Kickstarter will not provide a full answer to arts funding, any more than blogs and tweets can replace professional news gathering operations. Continue reading

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

Double dipping?

elevatorTalk about a double dip recession has coaxed the oracles of the art world away from their swimming pools to their laptops. Savvy trend-watchers have been grappling with a surprisingly meaty question for this time of the year? Will the art market follow equities into “correction” territory, or worse, this fall?

The verdict? Maybe. Or maybe not. They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing.

Adam Lindemann in the New York Observer compared art unfavorably to gold. “Despite all the talk of art as investment, and the fact that a lot of art has appreciated, I think you would still be much better off with gold,” he concluded. Noah Horowitz, answering interview questions in the same publication, said art has more in common with gold—as “as a durable good,” he argued, it “is attractive to people in times like this.” However, he cautioned, “If we see a decrease in wealth levels of the elite, that’s one way to gauge how art will be valued.”

With more gyrations almost certain to roil the financial markets, expect a spike in art-market prognostication in the weeks to come. Yet as Noah correctly points out, we’ll need to get past the big fall art fairs to get a true read on the market’s direction. In the meantime, here are three dynamics to watch.

First, will the bifurcated trend pattern separating hyper-luxury from everything else persist, or will a potential downturn be severe enough to sink all boats? The post-2008 experience tells us that horrible things can happen to the economy while the upper-upper tier of the market chugs along, relatively unscathed.

Second, has so much excess been built into the art market as to threaten a nosedive? Continue reading

The season of our disconnect

bigstockphoto_ear_2677195I got back from Art Basel this weekend on a plane full of artworld types, with fresh impressions for my interesting disconnects file.

First, between the ebullience of the art fair and the dark financial clouds roiling over Europe, where states teeter on the edge of insolvency and people are taking to the streets. There is a yawning chasm right now between the revived luxury spending boom and the malaise that grips the bottom ninety-eight percent. The subject kept coming up, quietly but persistently, at parties around town.

Second, during an Art Basel Conversation I moderated on the future of museum collecting, a London-based curator from Bangladesh pressed the assembled directors, and in particular Chris Dercon of the Tate Modern, when and how they will genuinely engage his community and others like it—not just through occasionally showcasing artists, but in a deep way. All agreed that, good intentions and planned initiatives notwithstanding, we’re a long way from making art institutions truly inclusive.

The third contrast arrived by way of the 430-page summer issue of Artforum. The tome was not in my mailbox, which proved too small, but on my doorstep. It was shrink-wrapped with the current issue of Bookforum, which includes a review of a new book on the “internship economy,” by Ross Perlin. Titled Intern Nation: How to Earn Nothing and Learn Little in the Brave New Economy, the study documents the stunning and roundly depressing rise of unpaid labor in our creative industries. One can see why Bookforum reviewed it. The art world, it seems, can fill a glossy with almost as many ad pages as the September issue of Vogue. Yet how many of those ads were placed by young folks working for a pittance, or pro bono, just to get a shot at a job? Continue reading

The season that was

large_big-fish-detailLooking back over the season that just passed, consolidation is the word that best describes the dynamics of the art world now. Large entities are getting larger; smaller ones are still squeezed or struggling. The art system is mirroring larger trends in society, where recovery has come sooner to the more fortunate and the gap between the haves and have-nots has, if anything, widened.

Large institutions and corporate entities have locked in gains and begun to expand franchises. It’s a good time to make a deal, whether inexpensive real estate, cheap credit, or distressed partners prompt the opportunity.

Here in New York, large museums are showing anew an appetite for expansion. The Whitney had reason to celebrate at its gala last week, having just leased its Madison Avenue Marcel Breuer building to the Met, clearing the way for downtown construction of its new Renzo Piano headquarters. For the Met, this will be the first foray off Fifth Avenue since the opening of the Cloisters. Meanwhile, MoMA has paid $31 million to buy the beleaguered Museum of Folk Art. And the Guggenheim is eyeing a branch in Helsinki.

On the commercial side, the three main auction houses booked respectable quarters, and Phillips has moved into its flashiest digs yet, on Park Avenue. The houses are aggressively building markets overseas and pushing the boundaries of their operations into new aesthetic, digital, and financial territory. Hiring is back. Furloughs have yielded to pay increases.

Consolidation continued in the gallery business, too. Gagosian’s far-flung satellites are filling mailboxes with thick cardboard invitations almost daily. A small cluster of galleries with a truly global reach is leaving everyone else further behind. Corporate muscle is the most obvious in the seemingly never-ending expansion of art fairs. In a long awaited move, Art Basel has planted its flag in Hong Kong. Frieze announced a bold incursion into the Armory Show’s back yard, on New York’s Randall’s Island, and is also launching an old master’s fair back in London. 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.

Painful cuts for Dutch arts funding

vrom_holl_china
FROM ANDRAS SZANTO AND JONATHAN NEIL, ON THE ROAD IN THE NETHERLANDS

They knew it was coming. A succession of governments in the Netherlands had warned over the years that the country’s arts subsidies are not sustainable. But the recent economic crisis gave Holland’s right-wing political leaders an excuse to do the unthinkable. They will ax $200 million of the $900 million federal arts budget. Factor in 20-40 percent cuts in local funding, and the Dutch system may lose $1 billion in support by 2013. Europe’s most generous arts funding regime is about to turn into a laboratory for transitioning to, well, no one knows what exactly…

Many arts officials are blindsided. In discussions with artists, museum directors, and art dealers this week, on a study tour with the Sotheby’s Institute, we heard complaints about the sudden cessation of public largesse, but little in the way of solutions. Hopeful arts managers spoke of how “the market” and “companies” will need to share the burden. But there are few incentives for the private sector to do it.

In fact, Holland’s usually circumspect and methodical policymakers are being less than consistent. Appeals for philanthropy and sponsorship are not being counterbalanced with tax breaks. Even while the government seeks to shift arts promotion to the private sector, it has raised the gallery sales tax by 13 percent.

Arts institutions find themselves in a fix. They lack tools to function in a more “American” system. Museum directors are looking for expertise in fundraising and marketing. Endowments, private patrons, and boards of directors with fiduciary responsibilities are still largely unknown here. Cultural groups have little access to credit facilities. Experiments with bonds, subsidized loans, and art landing are in their infancy. Institutions are being asked to act independently, yet they don’t control their own assets and destinies. And as government representatives, they can hardly raise their voice in protest.

Where will it all lead? Some believe the current government is simply anti-art, seeing culture as a left-wing “hobby.” Others are more realistic. They acknowledge that Dutch arts leaders have refined the craft of lobbying government, but they don’t quite know how to court the public and the commercial sphere.

Whatever the case, look to Holland in the next few years as a test case for what happens when a great welfare state’s cultural machinery is pushed into a closer alliance with the market.

For Museums, a New Twist on Instrumental Benefits

right-way-wrong-way1For years the debates have raged about how to argue for the arts, and never more so than now, when public money for museums is everywhere drying up. As I wrote not long ago in the Art Newspaper, a thorny problem for arts advocates is that they have boxed themselves into a corner by developing instrumental arguments for the arts. According to the now widely-used reasoning, investments in the arts are supposed to yield tangible returns — tourism dollars, construction jobs, white collar citizens, booming maths scores, etc. — which, in turn, advance cities and their inhabitants in the global economy.

The trouble is that in the meantime the art community has lost sight of what in the first instance is important and intrinsically valuable about the arts. And as far as policy arguments go, funding cultural institutions to obtain the aforementioned outputs is a rather inefficient way of going about the business of improving education, competitiveness, and neighborhood health.

Now philosopher Alain de Botton has waded into this fertile rhetorical swamp by proposing a new twist on instrumentalism. Let museums be a means to and end, he argues in a polemic published on BBC’s website. But let those ends be moral. Did anyone say moral?

Invoking the old chestnut about museums being our secular churches, de Botton argues: “I try to imagine what would happen if modern secular museums took the example of churches more seriously. What if they too decided that art had a specific purpose – to make us good and wise and kind – and tried to use the art in their collections to prompt us to be so?” He goes on to ask, “Why couldn’t art be – as it was in religious eras – more explicitly for something?”

The philosopher has pointed out a valid contradiction. While arts advocates have willingly instrumentalized their cause when arguing for subsidies, they insist on a neutral, open, cause free definition of the contributions of artists and cultural institutions. But what would museums look like in the scenario suggested by de Botton?

Enter the activist foundation

fire-in-my-bellyWhile assessing the extent of this country’s liberals political apathy, Harper’s magazine writer Thomas Frank remarks: “say what you like about the Tea Party movement, but at least they showed up.” It is precisely the combination of the dormant state of progressives (be it due to either disillusionment, boredom, or exhaustion) and the huge motivation of conservatives that tables have turned in this country’s politics, and the art world appears to be only a tiny turf where the latest battle is being waged. It is playing out in the current Wojnarowicz-gate at the Smithsonian, where the bigots showed up to tell us what art should be; but instead of protesting in front of the museum, the art world went to Miami.

Until yesterday, when the Warhol Foundation entered the fray. The fact that a Foundation has taken such a brave stance is significant in many levels. The Warhol Foundation was established in 1987, the same year than David Wojnarowicz made “Fire in my Belly” and amidst the culture wars. Ever since that time, it has continuously been an advocate for the central issue that caused the NEA debacle then — the idea of an individual artist grant (as it is exemplified by its funding of organizations like Creative Capital), so its announcement to suspend funding to the Smithsonian is more than a simple act: it is a restatement of its founding mission, and a reminder to us of that history. Equally significantly, though, the noise of the Warhol’s announcement also underlines the deafening —and really, unacceptable — silence of the contemporary art world about this affair up to this moment.

Are we really so comfortable with letting art being criminalized this way? Is our reaction going to be limited to sign some Facebook petition? The Warhol has done what very few in the visual arts has had the guts to do yet, and we should look at their example to follow suit and press others to do so as well. A curator friend of mine had recently told me: “when institutions take the initiative in art, it means that artists are not doing their job”. Who knew that two decades after the culture wars art foundations would have to take the lead in defending culture? Say what you like about our supposed liberalism as the cultural producer class, but in this case it was the foundation who showed up.

“Russia takes the lead in regulating…”

100 Rubles c1910That heading would be funny in any context but here the article in Skate’s is referring to an apparent push to regulate “Art securitization” and Art Investments in Russia.   We have for some time, on ArtWorld Salon, commented on the relative lack of oversight of the opaque and enthusiastically “managed” system that is the Art Market.   The private dealing, auction pumping, ability to cellar works that aren’t selling, and lack of any form of reliable pricing register, all make the Art market a challenging environment for anyone thinking of buying that painting on the wall as a possible investment.   For that reason, and because I am old fashioned, I would always encourage every buyer to think of the work as something they could love for a long time, rather than a way of trying to hedge the currently volatile stock markets, or that condo in Vail.

So it is rather amusing to think that Russia might try to regulate Art funds without tackling the underlying market; never mind the difficulties they will have actually enforcing such regulation in a reasonable and effective manner.   But then I read beyond the title.   Apparently a “powerful local asset management firm controlled by Putin loyalists” launched 2 Art funds on August 27; so now this new regulation starts to look like something else.   Am I the only one that thinks this looks like a way to help market the Funds? The illusion of oversight to support the notion that these are investment grade propositions?   Or am I being too cynical here?

As I have said previously on ArtWorld Salon, to get real transparency into the Art Market, and create a basis for any genuine oversight of market practices, we need a price register for each and every work of Art that someone tries to promote as “investment grade”; with NO exceptions and NO omissions.  Continue reading

Eli Broad raises the stakes in Los Angeles

los_angeles-3I’m in Los Angeles, where the chatter is about Eli Broad’s decision to build a museum for his art collection downtown, in a 120,000-square foot complex designed by Diller and Scofidio. The choice puts to rest some questions about the fate of Mr. Broad’s collection. It also leaves a larger question open: Is adding another museum to LA a good idea?

The answer is complex, and responses vary depending on the professional and institutional loyalties of the folks doing the talking. In my view it boils down to this. Adding another art institution to LA’s “cultural corridor” is probably good urban policy and it may not be the best cultural policy. In the long term, however, what really counts is not whether Mr. Broad builds his own museum, but whether he can get other Los Angeles philanthropists to follow in his lead as an art patron.

Downtown LA has come a long way since MoCA opened across the street from the planned Broad museum. Diller and Scofidio, coming off recent triumphs in New York, will no doubt deliver an edgy-yet-contextual neighbor to Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Hall and Rafael Moneo’s sublime Cathedral, just around the corner. But the area still lacks critical mass. For Los Angeles, a city trapped in a state of permanent becoming, filling another empty lot downtown will be another step toward creating a lively cosmopolitan district with enough density and foot traffic for someone to want to hang around. It may even be a kind of tipping point.

But sound urban policy is not always great cultural policy (as much as arts advocates would like to believe). Continue reading

Winners take all?

ny-ah912_moma_ns_20100628183228A researcher colleague wanted to call it the “Great Museum Cartel.” We were working on a RAND report on the visual arts, and it emerged that the vast majority of visitors, operating funds, endowments, and donations accrue to the top ten museums in the country.

Yesterday bought more confirmation of the winner-take-all pattern, when The Wall Street Journal reported that MoMA “attracted its highest-ever number of visitors, 3.09 million, during its 2010 fiscal year.” That’s up a quarter million from last year and a half-million from the year of reopening. Attendance is now double of what MoMA’s saw in its old building. Tourist numbers and memberships are also up.

Of course, there is fodder for doubters. While it’s heartening to see critical stalwarts Marina Abramovic and William Kentridge draw in the neighborhood of half a million visitors–more than the annual attendance of many respectable museums–the big numbers are partly linked to exhibitions with “strong public appeal,” with Tim Burton and Water Lilies clocking in well over 800,000 visits. Whatever the case, MoMA’s popular formula is working.

The larger question is whether such success is replicable, or even desirable in every respect. Another recent report about crowd-pleasing fare at a major New York museum, in Brooklyn, didn’t reach the same conclusion. What seems to be happening is that the biggest fish are capturing more attention, while medium and small organizations struggle to keep their numbers up. This pattern is holding true not just in museums, but also with galleries and art fairs, as recent lines outside Gagosian’s historical shows and the huge throngs at Art Basel pointedly demonstrated.

What can we read into these trends?

Meanwhile, in South Korea

dsc04620While North Korean art is making a bid for attention in Vienna, in South Korea, where I just spent a week at the UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education, the art world is showing remarkable vigor. This peninsular country of 60 million, one-fifth the size of France, is the real miracle of Asia. It suffers from few of the chronic structural weaknesses of Japan, or the social and environmental ills of China or India, or the artificiality and overreach of newly rich Gulf nations. It’s the Switzerland of the East. And art is a key part of the equation.

There is no shortage of science-fiction-like mega-projects here, including the Global City of Saemangeum, to be built on the world’s largest reclaimed land mass behind a 33 km sea dyke, the world’s longest, which was just completed after 19 years of effort. But this is no Dubai. I asked a government official in the ancient city of Jeonju, which hosted my group in a bid to become a UNESCO Creative City, what’s the goal for South Korea in the years ahead. He said, “to get to between 5th and 10th in GDP in the world.” He didn’t mean per capita.

Underlying South Korea’s epic success, of course, is the most comprehensive public education effort in its hemisphere, and possibly the world. South Koreans are simply obsessed with learning, and the results are plain to see. Korea’s literate, world-wise population is, among other positive traits, deeply interested in the arts. This is probably the only place in the world where Bach can be heard in the bathrooms at a highway rest stop.

Here’s the most impressive thing about South Korea: It seems to have found a balance between warp-speed development and respect for local identity. As part of this balancing act, the state is extremely generous to local art. Seoul alone installs more than one thousand public art works a year. Historic sites are preserved and documented meticulously. Local governments are building creative complexes for artists where they can live, create, and interact for six months at a time. Arts patronage is considered obligatory for big firms and wealthy business clans, for reasons of both national pride and marketing. There is no interest in the wholesale franchising of Euro-American culture here. The country is open to foreign influences—Seoul’s top Zagat restaurant is Italian, the pastries of choice are French, Starbucks is ubiquitous, and women are as label conscious as anywhere—but the country has avoided drowning in globalization. Continue reading

Money for nothing

For its tenth birthday weekend just gone, NSFS logoTate Modern staged No Soul For Sale, a non-profit ‘Festival of Independents’, bringing 70 artists’ collectives, publishers and non-commercial spaces from all over the world to fill its Turbine Hall. Well, perhaps ‘inviting’ would be a more accurate word to use, rather than ‘bringing’, as each participant had to pay their own way, with resourceful galleries doing last minute fundraising events and even garage sales to afford their flights to London from as far and wide as Beijing, Rio and Melbourne. A necessarily scrappy and messy affair ensued, with many No Soul For Salers showing only what they’d been able to squeeze through hand luggage or the symbolically empty packages they’d sent ahead of themselves.

This perceived lack of financial support drew fire from an anonymous British group of artists and arts professionals, calling themselves Making A Living. In an open letter to Tate, widely emailed and posted online, they took umbrage with No Soul For Sale’s ‘romantic connotations of the soulful artist, who makes art from inner necessity without thought of recompense’ as well as the concomitant expectation that ‘we should expect to work for free and that it is acceptable to forego the right to be paid for our labour.’

In an interview I conducted beforehand with the curators of No Soul For Sale – Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, with Vicente Todolí on behalf of Tate – here, they defend the event (once previously staged as part of X-Initiative in New York) variously as ‘a tribute to the people, the artists and the art lovers who work beyond the traditional market system’ (Cattelan), or an act of ‘hospitality and generosity’ (Alemani). While Gioni adds that, ‘Nobody really ever pays respect to the people who work in situations in which there is very little money involved and yet a lot of energy and enthusiasm’, Todolí qualifies this by saying: ‘Obviously we are not the only ones being hospitable here. All the participants are … as generous as Tate, if not more. But that’s when things get interesting: when people are willing to share, going beyond any immediate quantifiable gain. Continue reading

Museums and salaries

humanpyramid-1The New York Times today reported the incomes of cultural leaders. Look for the imminent brouhaha about how much some directors are making (even though compensation for many has recently been reduced). Yet if salaries at leading museums run between half a million and a million dollars, that seems reasonable in light of the complex responsibilities and unrelenting pressures involved.

The real issue with nonprofit compensation, I believe, lies not at the executive, but at the mid-management level, and at the lowest rungs of arts organizations.

Not long ago, someone I know interviewed for a job in a museum outside New York. The position involved responsibility for a core aspect of the museum’s activities. The candidate had a decade of experience and a great track record. The pay being offered turned out to be about one-twentieth of the director’s $1 million salary. That kind of discrepancy between a manager and a chief executive is one thing cultural groups don’t need to copy from the private sector. No wonder museums are plagued with morale problems.

The situation is worse further down the ladder, where staffing is left to volunteers and interns making little or no money. The rewards for entry level positions are now so low that they are scaring off the best talent. One can only wonder if today’s struggling interns and junior assistants will change the situation once they make it up the slippery pole to those seven-figure jobs?

Rather than worry about arts salaries at the top, the press would do well to focus on income patterns among the rank-and-file. I’d be curious to hear what others think about equitable wages in the sector?

Is the new normal the old normal?

astrology-shelley-von-strunckel-mercury-retrograde-23Bloomberg reports that helicopter commuter service has been restored to Wall Street. A friend at a large bank says that with fears of a meltdown abated, the solidarity in the company is also gone. Cultural endowments are growing again, we learn from The Art Newspaper, and museums are dancing back from the brink. Even day trading is back in fashion, if The New York Times can be believed.

What unites these factoids is a hardening sense that we’re getting back to normal, perhaps sooner than anticipated. And that’s a mixed blessing.

Only yesterday, the situation was so bad, it was forcing deep change. Original moves, like Jeffrey Deitch’s appointment to Moca, were spurred by a fighting spirit that compels people and organizations to act differently in a crisis. The Great Recession, however horrible, provided a need and a justification to do daring and draconian things. Pop-up galleries in kitchen showrooms were in (like this one, by two former students). Gaudy sculptures with fake diamonds were from a bygone era.

I’m happy that many of my friends survived the crash unscathed. I certainly don’t mean to romanticize struggle for day-to-day survival. But I do worry that the new ways of doing business are quickly becoming the old ways of doing business. As the discipline of hard times dissipates, can we recognize any silver linings in the form of lasting positive changes in creative, commercial, or institutional behavior?

Three cheers for austerity

205_a_a_giff_weight-newThree makes a trend, the adage goes. So here’s one: The upcoming Whitney Biennial, the National Academy’s Annual Invitational, and Site Santa Fe have sharply curtailed their rosters of exhibiting artists. The reason is money. The outcome is just what the art world needs.

Bloated biannials and survey shows were a boom-time phenomenon we can do without. They are self-defeating in terms of their purpose, which is to provide a point of view about what’s going on. And for better or worse, art fairs offer a more comprehensive summary of the totality of artistic activity.

Cultural bloat is an understudied phenomenon. Its effects are subtle and pernicious. On the surface, bloat entices us with more and more of a supposedly good thing: brick-size novels, three-hour movies, fancier museum buildings and cultural extravaganzas that betoken civic pride and scaling national ambitions.

Underneath all this more-ness, however, lurks the shadow of unsustainability. And that’s hardly the biggest threat. The lure of large numbers relieves the pressure to leave material on the cutting room floor. The cacophonous results mimic the quick verdicts and ceaseless profusion of the marketplace. A more restricted format, by contrast, tilts power to curators. It flushes away the fluff and injects some editorial discipline into the enterprise of art. Think of it as slow cultural food: Harder to cultivate and prepare, more satisfying to consume.

There’s been a lot of writing lately about how austerity is good for art. Much of it is sentimental bunk. Artists deserve to live well, like anyone else. But a case can be made, I believe, for trimming output and narrowing distribution channels. We may have less art to see, but more attention to lavish on it.

Art investor numerology

homeStatistics, statistics, and more statistics. Now that it’s snowing again and I am trapped in the house, I have cracked open the revised and expanded edition of Skate’s Art Investment Handbook. This well-informed, astute, efficiently written compendium deserves to be in the library of anyone seriously interested in the art market, investor or not. It has the additional virtue of treating its topic with a healthy dose of skepticism and occasional humor—as could be expected from a Central European author.

The hefty tome turned up in the mail the other day, and, somewhat to my surprise, I actually enjoyed thumbing through it. The work of a team lead by the Russian financier Sergey Skaterschikov, it includes a solid overview of the art and art-services market, along with detailed analyses of the market’s top tier, the 1,000 top-selling works at auction tallied in the so-called Skate’s Top 1000.

The book should delight all cultural enthusiasts who thrill to obscure quantitative trivia. We learn, for example, that:
• Works by 300,000 artists, valued in total at $400 billion, are available to trade at any time on the global art market, resulting in a trading volume of $60 billion per year (with 90 percent of transactions falling under $10,000).
• One million individuals and estates, 50 art funds, and 500 museums buy art regularly.
• The 1,000 most expensive works sold at auction since 1985 were made by 183 artists and are collectively valued at $13.2 billion as of Apr. 30, 2009.
• The world’s museums hold 100 million works of art; 100,000 of these can be expected to come to market annually through deaccessioning.
• Art valuation decreases with size. Continue reading