Marketing public art: PC or not PC?

This just in from Steven Kaplan.

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

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

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

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

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

To regulate or not…

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

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

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

We pay, you stay: US museums look more attractive

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

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

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

Bubble happiness

Who says bubbles are bad? Not Daniel Gross, financial columnist for Slate, who just published a pithy tome etitled Pop! Why Bubbles are Great for the Economy. The book doesn’t contain a word about art, but its conclusions are worthy of pondering. His message: sure, bubbles create a huge mess when they pop, but the energy and innovation they generate while they last is worth it. Here it is in a nutshell:

“[Besides,] if some omniscient Bureau of Management were tasked with the capacity to halt enthusiasms before they go out of control, we wouldn’t necessarily want it to do so. ‘I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, and as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical,’ Thomas Jefferson wrote to James Madison in 1787. In the economic realm, a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, too. And bubbles, entrepreneurial storms that disrupt the existing commercial order, provide shots of adrenaline. The enthusiasm they generate has led successive generations of entrepreneurs to open new territory for settlement, to create valuable new infrastructure, to spur innovation, and to push people to work, invest, and spend at a higher level—all in pursuit of promised massive short-term gains.” (p. 188)


USA: Today, Tomorrow, Every Day

USA_OD.jpgIs it just me or have others noticed the ubiquity of American exhibitions in West London over the past year? Whether it’s NY Fashion at the V&A, yet another exhibition of an American artist at the Serpentine — old (Ellsworth Kelly) or new (Paul Chan) — or group shows put together to show visiting Americans some American art at Frieze fair time (the Royal Academy / Saatchi’s USA Today or the Serpentine’s Uncertain States of America), it looks like London’s expensive postcodes just can’t get enough of a good thing.

The combination of American corporate largesse, political will (the US Embassy funded Karen Kilimnik’s recent show at the Serpentine) and rich friends (cocktails with the Blairs for American Friends of the Tate) is convincing enough as it is. Combine this with a dearth of curators that can look beyond – or are interested in anything other than – the Euro-American nexus, and we see a pattern emerging. One in which much of London’s public art world (at least in those parts of town where corporate hospitality is at a premium) seems at risk of being ‘captured’ by one country. So while the world rhapsodises about ‘new’ art coming out of Asia, London gets to see very little of it, whereas Tate Liverpool is showing contemporary Chinese art and Newcastle’s Baltic had a recent Subodh Gupta show.

One wonders how long this will continue? As the 2012 London Olympics-related cuts to arts funding start biting, the allure of American patronage will only grow stronger. Perhaps, as the current show of British photography at Tate Britain suggests, American Friends will act with ‘enlightened self-interest’ and start supporting non-American shows, lest the natives get restless.

Or perhaps London is set to be the battleground for a cultural version of the new Great Game — one where America is the dominant power; the Russians have an outpost in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, which can be leveraged by Russian oligarchs (once they grow tired of running football clubs or funding revolutions); and the Chinese have the Red Mansion Foundation ‘co-producing’ exhibitions. The only ones yet to show their hands are India’s billionaires and its ranks of art-market entrepreneurs. Surely it is only a matter of time — I’d give it a few months.

The Fine Art of Condescension

Budapest National GalleryAccording to the London Observer, Dr. Charles Saumarez Smith, outgoing director of Britain’s National Gallery, had this to say recently about his difficulties raising money from the government: He did not want his institution to end up like “the National Gallery of Budapest.” He was worried his museum would be left “endlessly reshuffling the works it already has.”

Being in Budapest at the time of those remarks, I can report they didn’t ruffle many feathers. Rather than pretending to be a comic emblem of artistic failure, Hungarians are busily rebuilding an artworld from the mess left behind by communism. There’s a long way to go, but signs of progress are everywhere. Among them is a promising changing of the guard at several top institutions and a de-politicization of culture in general. State money doesn’t flow to the arts as lavishly as at points west, but museums are getting facelifts, and yes, some are acquiring.

New facilities are coming online, from the Ludwig Collection on the Danube embankment, to a private museum near Lake Balaton founded by a bespoke shoemaker with a passion for collecting, to the sleek 1950s bus depot in the heart of Budapest that’s supposed to become a new design museum. Corporate support is kicking in. Private money is on the way, if the frothy auction market is an indication. Patronizing the arts is newly fashionable.

As far as the National Gallery of Budapest – properly called the Hungarian National Gallery – is concerned, Dr. Smith’s condescending comparison is somewhat misplaced. Continue reading “The Fine Art of Condescension”

Critics, Understood at Last

In more proof that Europe is way out ahead of America, now comes news that the E.U. has passed a law to keep reviews from being misquoted by cultural promoters.

As the London Independent and The New York Times have reported, the new Unfair Commercial Practices Directive bars advertisers from taking critics’ words out of context or otherwise manipulating reviews in such a way that “deceives or is likely to deceive the consumer.” Violators will be prosecuted by the ominous sounding Office of Fair Trading.

For those of us in the visual art world, this news raises some disquieting questions. First, how would promoters shrink sentences that run, on industry average, four to seven lines of text, into their meager advertisement space? Second, how would these unscrupulous arts advertisers manipulate the meaning of critical utterances, when those utterances themselves are so often nonsensical and, as surveys have documented, devoid of clear judgments?

Third, and perhaps most alarming, will visual arts presenters, having run out of ideas, ever decide to use snippets of criticism to promote their artists and exhibitions? In the theater, where critics still count, this is standard practice. Alas, few in the art world seem to feel that criticism is important enough to bother with quoting or misquoting critics in their advertisements.

What’s next for Europe? Legislation mandating criticism that consumers can understand?

Clippings from the salon floor, #4

Another week’s worth of the remarkable, random and amusing…

From beyond, words to live by: The NY Times obituary of Sol LeWitt quotes a letter from LeWitt to Eva Hesse, re making art: “Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool… You are not responsible for the world — you are only responsible for your work, so do it.”

Crank-calling Richter? Assuming it’s not a hoax, here’s a QuickTime instructional on how NOT to recruit an artstar to your unknown space: by calling his house all the time.

John Currin, CTU agent? From the April issue of American GQ (yeah, I’m behind on my reading), Currin discussing his last, porn-heavy, (NSFW(DOWYW)) painting show at Gagosian uptown: “I’m gonna have a fucking fatwa on me for saying this, but I had a kind of cockamamie political idea that this is what we’re fighting the Islamists with: They’ve got the Koran, and we’ve got the best porn ever made! I mean that as a joke but also as something that’s literally true….‘Who’s going to win? Allah or porn?’ Personally, I hope we win. I hope porn wins.” Currin, wisely, recognizes that this not exactly an obvious interpretation: “I don’t expect people to read this in the paintings without being prompted by me.”

Huang Yong Ping, Theater of the WorldThe Humane Society art critic: From the Globe and Mail’s A creepy exhibit irks humane society (via ArtsJournal) re Chinese artist Huang Yong Ping’s Theater of the World biosphere containing tarantulas, grasshoppers, cockroaches, a lizard, a millipede and scorpions, with the intent of creating a metaphoric battle royale. The Vancouver Humane Society’s Peter Fricker’s not convinced: “It reminds me of when you’re a kid and you put a bunch of bugs in a jar and see what happens, and your mother tells you that is cruel and let the poor things go.” UPDATE: The gallery caved in, see Comment #1 below.
Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #4”

Clippings from the salon floor, #3

This random assortment of 10 web clippings is much more than normal. Not sure why. Maybe the artworld is heating up again after the lull that followed February’s fairs?

GP FakePlagiarized Pottery, I: After a Grayson Perry piece up for auction at Christies London was revealed to be a forgery, the cross-dressing, Turner Prize-winning potter/quotemachine commented in his regular Times of London column: “I thought maybe I had made it and blanked it from my memory. Then I realised that it was too well made for an early work of mine… My early works are lively but technically inept.”

Plagiarized Pottery, II: From the Times of London article on the forged crockery (via ArtsJournal): “Christie’s said in a statement that it devoted ‘considerable resources to investigating the provenance of all objects we offer for sale’. This did not extend to approaching Perry or his gallery, the Victoria Miro in East London.” Ouch.

Art Market Maxims, I: Chelsea gallerist Ed Winkleman’s Easter present to artists? Advice on getting a gallery. The whole thing is well worth reading, not least for the tough-love notes like: “Never, never, never, never, never…walk into a gallery with your actual artwork in tow. Let me repeat that: NEVER. Regardless of how convinced you are that if the dealer could only see it in person, they’d immediately offer you representation, this approach smacks of desperation.”

Art Market Maxims, II: From the blog Art Market Insider’s article Ban New Art From the Big Auctions?: “Gagosian director Bob Monk once told me, when comparing the current bubble (his word) to the boom and bust of the 1980s art market, ‘It’s like a game of hot potato, and you don’t want to be the schnook holding the damn thing when the game is over.'”

Domino-Effect Crash: From the Christies press release announcing it was selling Andy Warhol’s Green Car Crash, 1963 Estimated $25–35M (and likely to score twice that): “This sale is bound to set a new price structure for the artist.” Which roughly translates to, “You better buy this exceptional Warhol, because after we sell it, all the other ones are going to cost you twice as much anyway.Continue reading “Clippings from the salon floor, #3”

Pinault beats Guggenheim – on a TKO? Weird.

Punta_della_Dogana.jpgAccording to François Pinault remporte la “bataille de Venise” contre Guggenheim, just posted on Le Monde’s site, the French tycoon has won the mano-a-mano battle to take over the 50,000-square-foot-plus Punta della Dogana museum, a prized location in Venice for which he had been battling the Guggenheim since last fall.

This story has taken some weird turns. First, the Guggenheim butted in after it had looked like Pinault would simply be accorded the site by local allies. After Pinault marshalled starchitect Tadao Andao to his side, the Guggenheim riposted with Zaha Hadid. Then things got a little biblical. Echoing the tale of King Solomon and the disputed baby Venetian officials, after reviewing extensive proposals, decided the two collections had equally good ideas and proposed they share the space. Guggenheim leader Thomas Krens seemed amenable, but Pinault’s camp nixed the idea as “impractical.” Now the Venetians have suddenly discovered that the Guggenheim overlooked a key aspect of the proposal. My rough-and-ready-at-1AM translation from Le Monde:

The director for cultural patrimony in Venice, Luigi Bassetto, justified the decision in favor of Francois Pinault: “The project for the Guggenheim foundation did not specify which pieces would be permanently displayed in the museum. Yet that was one of the indispensable conditions in the call for proposals. The commission [charged with designating the best project] considers the Guggenheim to have excluded themselves from the running.”

Um, yeah. And a month ago, no one had noticed that this CRUCIAL requirement had been overlooked by one of only two candidates? By the time we hit Venice, much more Machiavellian explanations should be flowing freely. Apparently, the Guggenheim’s bid was backed by Italy’s political right, whose power waned after the fall of Silvio Berlusconi. Then again, it might be something far more local. Theories, anyone?

More private museums: Good or bad? Yes.

I’m still digesting Wednesday’s NYT special section on museums, especially “Immortality, or a Museum of One’s Own,” in which Geraldine Fabrikant explored the trend of collectors building private museums for their treasure troves. Despite the massive fortunes funding them, the article underlines, there’s a certain financial precariousness to such institutions:

Small or large, [private museums] are costly, and it is not clear how many will survive once the people who started them are gone. The yearly budget for Ronald Lauder’s Neue Galerie in Manhattan was $9 million in 2006… In that same year, the museum brought in $5 million.

The Rubin Museum of Art in Manhattan, a haven for the Himalayan art collected by Donald and Shelley Rubin, had a budget of $12 million last year and received about $6 million from sources that included admissions, donations and dues…. Mr. Rubin has created a $75 million endowment for the museum, but he is realistic about its long-term odds. “We have some money and we are doing great shows,” he said. “We have 5,000 members, but the bottom line is that the public has to come to the aid of museums.”

This is where it gets a little strange for me. Because when Rubin talks about “the public” coming to his museum’s aid   despite the $75M endowment, what that suggests to me is that money will have to come from donors great and small, and perhaps even the local government. In that sense, the founding of private museums often functions as a sort of incredibly expensive trial balloon, floated out into the cultural sphere to see whether that collector’s taste enjoys broader support or fails to find traction.

There’s another angle to this question, which is whether the surge in private museums is a good or bad thing for the artworld in general, Continue reading “More private museums: Good or bad? Yes.”

How to get a bang for a Euro?

Tom Sandberg, Untitled, 2003, Anhava GalleryNorwegian arts policy may not be everyone’s cup of cloudberry juice, but I am wondering if anyone has any thoughts about what the Europeans are doing right (or wrong) when it comes to managing the arts. I’m shamelessley reposting this op-ed of mine from VG, Norway’s largest daily, because a) few of my friends read Norwegian, and b) it’s a good away to ask the perennial question: Why is it that America’s sink-or-swim attitude toward arts support keeps producing world-renowned stars, while lavish state funding in Europe seems to achieve the opposite?

THE OPENING was a dream come true. An elegant crowd gathered on a recent Sunday afternoon in New York City in the galleries of P.S.1., the vast contemporary art center that displays the most adventurous exhibitions of the Museum of Modern Art.

Visitors from around the globe filed past Tom Sandberg’s black and white photographs, admiring their low-key depictions of billowing clouds and intimate family moments. Even the Crown Princess dropped in, having made a pilgrimage all the way from Oslo to grace Sandberg’s career-capping moment.

Only one thing was wrong with this picture. There has been no solo-exhibition by a Norwegian artist in a New York museum since 1986, when Jan Groth was featured at the Guggenheim.

The fact that twenty-one years would pass between these two events points to a particular weakness of Norwegian cultural policy. Although the arts receive lavish state subsidies Continue reading “How to get a bang for a Euro?”

Spotted at the Armory Show: 60,000 people

What can one say about the Armory fair? It’s big. It’s in a big new space that most people seem to like. There are a lot of big Audi cars outside that you can cruise around in, and small ones, too. They look very nice.

Inside, it’s all about details. Those little gem moments that you can only steal at a fair. Plus the star spotting: “Hey, Mike Ovitz is in the next aisle!” “Did you see Bloomberg at the mirror covered sanitation truck?”

Most of the art being familiar, I am a great believer in cruising the edges, those less trafficked nether regions where members of the support infrastructure of the art world pitch their tents. And it was there, on the outermost perimeter, that I encountered George Wachtel, head of Audience Research, his own research firm, which was contracted to gauge the economic impact of the fair. Wachtel’s booth — his table, really — was kitty-corner from the oddest of blue chip gallery booth postings, that of Jeffrey Deitch, who, in what must have seemed like a shrewdly calculated move, ended up across from Continue reading “Spotted at the Armory Show: 60,000 people”

France ain’t ready for reform

Appropriately enough for Boxing Day, the NY Times today featured a review from its cultural Man in Europe, Alan Riding, on former French cultural attache Frédéric Martel’s combative new book “Culture in America.” Riding quotes Martel saying:

“What really annoys me is the way [the French] cultural elite uses ideology to protect its privileges. It says that our culture defines a certain idea of France, that the alternative is Americanization. But it’s really only defending itself against the popular classes. We cannot have 10 percent of our population stemming from immigration and deny them their culture….we don’t need a minister defining culture. We need thousands of people defining culture. Power should flow bottom-up, not top-down. That’s the debate I want to provoke in the new year.”

I agree with Martel that France’s contemporary scene has suffered radically from the sclerotic effects of its centralized museum system and the dominance of the Frac. And the people hurt most are probably French artists. If you stack up France vs Germany (or even Switzerland) on the international scene, it’s sad how Continue reading “France ain’t ready for reform”

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.

Thoughts from the Shanghai Millenium

Greetings from Shanghai, where my party of journalists seem to be the guinea pigs for a new hotel here. Everything is new here, but then that’s the case all over Shanghai.

IMG_0072.JPGI came from the Singapore biennial and saw the Shanghai biennial yesterday. It’s an interesting contrast between the two. Singapore’s cultural scene is very much driven by funds from the state and local corporations (two sectors which in Singapore are functionally a single entity). The biennial was held in the former city hall courts and a military camp. We had an early-morning meeting with the National Arts Council leaders, who trumpeted their budget and exchange programs and showed us a slick video, talking about the arts using an ABC theory – “Art for Art’s Sake, Art for Business’s sake, Art for Community’s Sake.” Talking to locals, the reality is that most Singapore artists live on (often-generous) state grants. So it’s much like an extreme version of Holland in that sense – working the system is a key skill for artists, while galleries are minor players.

Except that as democracies go, Holland and Singapore could not be more different. Supposedly, Singaporean customs officials have the right to demand a drug test when you enter the country and you can get busted for Continue reading “Thoughts from the Shanghai Millenium”