Google: art

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A new barometer of global culture has been set in motion by Google, which launched an “Artist Themes” function that allows people to customize their personal Google pages.
The gallery of custom images doesn’t amount to a vote of confidence for visual artists, especially American ones. I dutifully set my iGoogle page to the “Jeff Koons” theme. Every time I do a search I now see a different Koons work at the top of my screen.

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But Koons is pretty much the only artist in the pack. There are many more choices of fashion people (Diane von Furstenberg, Todd Oldham, Dolce & Gabanna) and designers (Philippe Starck, Michael Graves) than of artists in the conventional sense. Most of the custom themes are from the hands and keypads of web designers and animators whose names few gallery-goers would recognize. Many are from Asia (but no Murakami here). Then there’s Coldplay, Beastie Boys, Lance Armstrong, and Mark Morris. Lesson? Though Google’s developers are clearly not trying to draw an all-inclusive map of global visual culture here, what if their selections are, in fact, faithful to what our society understands under the rubric of “artists”? Is Koons the best choice for this virtual Noah’s Ark?

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Art fairs: one artist’s viewpoint

Lisa_Ruyter_03station.jpgWith Art Basel around the corner, this just in from Lisa Ruyter in Vienna:

When I was commissioned to do the art for The Armory Show 2004 catalog, I wrote an introduction that was a rhapsody about my love of art fairs. Not so many years before that, I began showing at Art Basel with Art & Public gallery, with such clear, positive results that I decided to make my largest and most risky piece, a Stations of the Cross, for a five day exhibition at Art Unlimited, with the support of Pierre Huber. This seems like ages ago, but it really isn’t, and my changing feelings about fairs are probably mostly a reflection of my own growth rather than a reflection of trends of the marketplace.

Since then, I have continued to participate in fairs in different ways, including with my own eponymously named gallery, presenting work by other artists. I see the limitations more and more clearly. I am very aware that it gave me an opportunity to develop a broad and solid international system of support for myself as an artist, and with that, secure a large degree of freedom to live wherever I want in the world. I can put my focus on getting involved deeply in local scenes that I really love, and to take much larger risks with my artwork when I want to. It has allowed me to indulge my independence without self-destructing.

As long as these fairs continue in their current popularity and with galleries as their primary clientele, they will continue to be a measure of what makes an important gallery (and also an unimportant gallery). For example, an artist can significantly raise his or her profile by signing up with a gallery that regularly gets into Frieze or Basel, and often there is only room for one or two other fairs in the world to share that top status. To me Basel holds the top spot because it always put the artworks first. But that is another discussion. Continue reading “Art fairs: one artist’s viewpoint”

Cause for optimism?

Tobias_Meyer__Sothebys.jpgSothebys latest Market Review, issued last night, strikes a slightly defensive but none-the-less optimistic tone, using two key arguments to support their optimism.

The first is their contention that the market of today is unlikely to suffer a crash and sustained down period similar to that of the 1990s. They base this view on the not unreasonable statement that there are more sources of buyers than was the case when Japan was the source of new money bidding up markets in the 1980s. At that time, the argument goes, there was no-one to take their place when the Japanese retreated from the market in the 90s; things are different now. Well, certainly this time we have seen new buyers from Eastern Europe, Russia, China and India entering the fray, in addition to all the new money in the US and the UK. But, as we have seen with the recent US sub-prime driven hiccup, all markets can catch a cold at the same time in today’s globally interlinked financial markets. In addition, that greater diversity of buyers is buying a greater diversity of Art, including contemporary and traditional works from their own regions (China and India being prime examples). They are not just focussed on traditional Western Art markets. So I am not sure there is the greater depth of buyer support for the traditional European and US modern and contemporary markets that Sothebys believes is there.

Their second argument for optimism is that there is a rise in the average price of lots sold over recent months.

From those price increases, however, we can infer a larger market of potential buyers.

Well, from their own figures we can see that over the same period: total sale value has actually fallen steadily since May 2007, and number of lots per sale have also fallen steadily from November 2006. With number of lots sold falling, average price per lot rising, but overall sales value falling, that actualy tells us that a few buyers are paying more money for (presumably) top works, but that fewer people overall are buying, less money overall is being spent and fewer works are being sold. Perhaps there is a larger market of potential buyers. But at the moment it looks like, aside from those at the top end of the market who are generally immune to financial market troubles, there are fewer buyers actually buying, not more.

Still, if it means a return to auctions being about quality of works, rather than quantity, it might make them interesting to attend again…

The price is right?

Christies.pngSothebys.pngAs part of the art world’s chattering class, we hold our breath in anticipation of contemporary art auctions only long enough to weigh in on their outcomes. Our stake in whether the sales fall short, meet, or exceed estimates runs I’d say on average to about 400 words. Well I suggest we spice things up a bit with a little contest.

While we claim to know the value of contemporary art better than most, let’s see if we really know the market for it. Below are six works on sale this week; three from Sotheby’s and three from Christie’s, and each from one of the houses’ three sessions (evening, morning and afternoon). The works are accompanied by their estimates. AWS will award two prizes: The first—bragging rights and marquee billing as AWS’s own Carnac the Magnificent (a Johnny Carson reference for those of you scratching your heads)—will go to whoever comes closest in their prediction of the final hammer price for each separate lot listed below. The second—more bragging rights and marquee billing as AWS’s Market Guru (a.k.a. Money Honey)—will go to whoever comes closest to the combined hammer price for all six works. All entries must be submitted by 7pm (EST), May 13th, 2008. Good luck.

(For those of you who are not registered commenters, send your entries to “mail – at – artworldsalon.com”.) To see the 6 works, click: Continue reading “The price is right?”

Of stocks & markets

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

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

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

So which do you think it is?

Another art glossy makes a go of it

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

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

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

Fashion victims enter the temple

Murakami_LV_MOCA.jpgOn a recent visit to Los Angeles, I made a pilgrimage to Takashi Murakami’s mid-career spectacular at MOCA. You know, the one with the handbag shop in the museum (and a copyright sign in the show’s title). I wanted to taste that smiley-face Murakami vibe. And having heard all the hullabaloo about the handbags—offered for sale by the good people at Louis Vuitton not in the gift shop, but inside the actual gallery space—I wanted to contemplate the crossing of cultural thresholds never before so brazenly tested. So, on a surreally warm, sunny Christmas Eve, I pointed the car’s navigation system to the Geffen Contemporary.

I came to the museum with an open mind. Messing around with boundaries is a legitimate pursuit, after all—I’m all for it. We Artworldsalon types get easily excited when it comes to novel genetic mutations and cross-pollinations between art and commerce. But I came away with mixed feelings; feelings that probably make me sound like a woolly old mammoth.

About the most generous way to see the Louis Vuitton boutique implant is as a canny and effective performance piece. It takes the art of audience participation to a new level. People are invited to walk into a symbolically charged space and offer up a kind of sacrifice, i.e. money, in return for objects of demonstrable (because someone is paying) cultural or emotional value. There is a theatrical, performative, staged quality to the experience. Kind of like church.

I watched as a young Asian fellow with two attractive female companions whipped out his credit card and charged $3,000 for three handbags. They looked like dancers in a trance, speaking barely a word. The girls at the counter played along with feline elegance in the finely choreographed ritual exchange, in which everyone seemed to know their part. And I thought to myself, “He may as well have cut a vein and drawn a pint of blood.” Eliciting that profound response, that level of commitment, says something powerful about these objects. Don’t we all want people to respond to art in such a tangible way?

But that may be giving Murakami too much credit. Ever since the visit, I can’t shake a sense of disquiet about the store-in-the-museum concept. I have been trying to get to the bottom of it, but I couldn’t pin it down until I came across a statement by John Baldessari in a conversation (artreview.com, Jan. 5) with Artworldsalon regular Jonathan Neil. In the interview, Baldessari talked about how “art has become more entertainment,” and about the Murakami show he had this to say:

I’m on the board of trustees at MOCA – not that I go, but I do go to a few meetings – and you realise when you get in there, in the midst of it, that these museums are about ticket sales, and they have to have blockbusters. So what are we doing at MOCA? – Murakami. Man, that is going to bring them in. Now do you think if you had an Ad Reinhardt show that that would bring them in? I don’t think so. Could you see a Reinhardt on a billboard? But it’s more and more like that. And it’s perfect. Because there’s a huge Asian community: that’s going to bring them in. Murakami is like Warhol: that’s going to bring them in. And then this argument – I had to laugh – but Paul Schimmel said, “We’re going to have this Vuitton shop, and it’s going to be functional, because that’s part of his practice”, and I said, “Well wait a minute, part of your practice, alright, so you have the same show – but one of [Adolf] Wölfli, are you going to have a mental institution inside?” No, you wouldn’t have to, it is a mental institution!

So which is it? A savvy cultural investigation into the relationship of art and commerce? Or just another way to sell a handbag?

Postcard from Miami

Merlin_Carpenter.jpgWell here we are, and it’s bigger than ever. Collectors seem to be undeterred by the housing crisis and Wall Street jitters, and by all accounts they are spending freely. Most of the dealers I have talked to were happy already by the end of Tuesday night. Several of them evinced an air of unfeigned relief, even surprise. By late afternoon Wednesday, when the waves of VIP previews had washed through the main fair and the UBS VIP Collectors Lounge had filled up with well-heeled and scantily attired jetsetters, the best pictures were gone. It’s hard to say who was buying what, but collectors with European and South American accents seemed to be smiling the most cheerfully. With their discounted dollars, they had good reason.

Trends thus far are hard to discern, notwithstanding the diminished presence of photography in the main fair. The trend of the year is without doubt the continuing metastasis of the Miami art fair phenomenon, which has mushroomed beyond all sense of proportion or restraint. Along with it, so has the devouring of the event’s artistic core by eager and shrewd marketers of luxury products. For the party goer, this is a good thing.

A full accounting of the art offerings is still in the distance because several of the fairs have just begun accepting visitors. The cliff notes version of the buzz is this: The big fair has quality art but is predictable; Scope is a bust; Nada is solid; the Miami Art Fair is bo-ring; and Pulse is really fun. For those who care about art, the private collectors have once again thrown out a lifeline in the form of well-curated exhibitions. Although the array of heavy German art at the Rubell Collection was a bit much to take in the Florida sunshine, that show, along with the outstanding installation at the Margulies collection, provided reassurance that somewhere underneath all the preening and the elbowing there is a genuinely committed art culture here, and it’s going from strength to strength.

I am in a position to reassure everyone, meanwhile, that the sybaritic aspect of the Art Basel Miami Beach is bigger and badder than ever. European luxury goods purveyors, especially, are outdoing each other to capture the attention of the fairgoers. Krug champagne has a lovely white balloon with a bespoke gondola basket outfitted by a designer of private jets and yachts. Cartier threw a glamorous jewel-studded bash at a custom built hurricane-proof geodesic dome. Something of a synthesis of the high intentions and commercial ambitions of all that happens here was afforded by my final party stop last night, around midnight, in a cavernous factory building near the Design District, where Zaha Hadid was presenting her new line of furniture. The tables, benches and shelves are devoid of function — you can’t actually sit on them or place a book on them — but they sure look good in all their aerodynamic, bronze-coated slickness. The price of the smallest bookshelf: about 30,000 dollars.

Miamimania

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Calvin Klein, Tamara Mellon, Donna Karan, Laudomina Pucci, Vivienne Tam, Kenzo, David LaChapelle, Doug Aitken, Jack Pierson, John Currin, Kehinde Wiley, Terence Koh, Dennis Hopper, David Byrne, Keanu Reeves, Steve Martin, Russell Simmons, Lou Reed, Jerry Speyer, Eli Broad, Steve Cohen, Peter Brant, Beth Rudin DeWoody, Aby Rosen, Larry Gagosian, Mary Boone, Andrea Rosen, Barbara Gladstone, Lisa Phillips, Tom Krens, Michael Govan.

What do these people have in common? They’re all going to Miami, of course.

“In ten days,” as fellow Salon writer Steve Kaplan wrote in our recent thread on why people collect, “this culture (or sub culture) will descend in all its sound and fury upon Miami. The attendant rituals of conspicuous consumption, of snubbing and embracing, of preening and prowling, of “perilous journeys across the seas separating the small islands”, might even give the Trobrianders pause. And one can only imagine what an observer with the sensitive antennae of a Malinowski or a Levi-Strauss would make of it all, trudging down Collins Avenue, notebook in hand.”

So, why are YOU going? What are you expecting to get out of Art Basel Miami Beach? What are you excited about? What are you dreading? What are your must-go exhibits, special events, parties? What’s your strategy for making it through the fair and how will you make sense of it all? Please send your thoughts and best advice.

Wisdom of crowds, contd.

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As long-time readers know, I like to conduct experiments with my students to test the notion that a group is able to make more informed judgments than any single expert. Last fall’s experiment, involving the Klimts in the fall sales, was a stellar success. Our first experiment of 2007, concerning the Van Gogh in last week’s auction, was an unmitigated bust, since no one allowed for the possibility that the painting would find no buyer. But now I have good news that will restore your faith in the wisdom of crowds.

Four weeks ago, I asked the students to write down their guess for the hammer price of Francis Bacon’s “Second Version of Study for Bullfight No. 1.” The painting was bid up this Wednesday toBacon_2ndV_of_Study_for_B1.jpg $41 million (plus commission). The median estimate returned by the roughly 60 students was $42 million. Although their estimates ranged from $7 million to $120 million, no fewer than five of them got within a million dollars of the price. Maybe this technique should be used more broadly in setting sales estimates?

Advice to a would-be art scammer

I am in urgent need of cash and am hoping to sell the piece once finished.

841.jpgArtworld Salon received one of the lamest (i.e., funniest) new email art scams out there this week. Call it the Nigerian phonescam for the art world, complete with tell-tale awkward English:

Hello,

It was recommended to me by a friend of mine that I contacted you for your advise.

I own a painting by Francis Bacon that seems unfinished, there are big splashes of colours that I have been trying to clean off to reveal the figure underneath, but it just smeared as a result. I have already asked somebody to try to finish it but he did a disaster with it.

Not knowing what to do now I was wondering if you could help me find somebody who could finish it and do a good job, in the Bacon’s style.

Already the artist Peter Doug suggested to help, but I am not sure about his taste, he already did a quick sketch copy of how he could improve the Bacon, but to be honest I did not like much as he also seemed a bit messy and I think he would just rush the job for the money.

I am in urgent need of cash and am hoping to sell the piece once finished. If you would know a good artist or just someone interested, please do let me know.

If by any chance you would be in the power to help me I would be ready to share with you half of the value of the painting once sold.

Many thanks for your help, or if you would know somebody interested in the painting even in this state please do let me know.

I look forward to hearing from you,
Many thanks in advance,

Herbie Watsaint

Herbie’s ploy does segue nicely back into our conversations about the Bacon rubbish story and its disheartening conclusions, but this has got to be one of the most poorly imagined art scams I’ve ever read. Continue reading “Advice to a would-be art scammer”

To regulate or not…

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

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

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

After the fall…

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

But Polsky goes further, stating flatly:

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

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

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

Hirst=Giacometti? The relative-value paradox

Warhol_Dollar_Sign.jpgFor as long as I’ve been writing and thinking about the art market – roughly a decade, with increasing intensity – there have been two seemingly contradictory phenomena driving its development. I keep wrestling with how to reconcile them, but I haven’t yet, and I hereby throw the paradox onto the Artworld Salon floor for discussion.

The first phenomenon is the surge in what I’ll call “cross-category collecting.” It’s rare to meet someone these days who only collects, say, vintage photography or Old Masters or German Expressionism. Most collectors also buy within several mediums. And within those mediums, people have started to cover much broader swathes of history. As The Economist noted last month: “To some extent, interest is spilling over from hot markets to [Old Masters]: newer buyers who might start out buying impressionist, modern, Russian or contemporary art are increasingly drawn to the big names among the Old Masters. (Many older paintings fit surprisingly easily within contemporary interiors.) But the peculiar confluence of factors that has propelled prices sky-high in other markets has not had as extreme an effect with the Old Masters.”

That brings us to our second trend, much noted among artworld veterans: the erosion of “relative value,” meaning the notion that an artist’s market should reflect their standing compared with all other artists, not just their peer group. Explaining the July round of auction sales in London, Daily Telegraph art-market specialist Colin Gleadell wrote: “Last week a good Bacon sold for more (at  £21.6 million) than the two good Monets, and a flashy Damien Hirst ( £9.6 million) made almost as much as the much rarer Matisse….For fashion-conscious collectors, a Koons or a Hirst is now worth more than a Rodin and as much as Giacometti.”

And herein lies the paradox: If the collector bases for everything from Old Masters to the avant-garde are becoming more interwoven, shouldn’t more, not less relative-value thinking be reflected in the prices paid? Granted, I do know one contemporary-art collector who turned first to Morandi then toward Old Masters as the prices for contemporary paintings rocketed. But on balance it often seems to me that the various art-market segments are operating in wildly different ways – across even relatively minor increments in art history. So, clearly, though people are buying widely within different genres and generation, they’re not using the same metrics in judging what price they’ll pay for particular pieces. Thoughts?

Keeping score in the art(star)world

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

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

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

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

Down market strategies

I wonder if anyone is getting guarantees out of the auction houses these days? In a financial market turning south it is a common strategy to buy “put options” before everyone else notices; i.e. contracts to lock in now, a right to sell something in the future, to someone else at a price fixed now, when you think the market as a whole is falling. An Art market equivalent would be to agree with an auction house now to sell a collection later in the year, on condition of sale price guarantees, set now, at current pricing. Always a risk for the auction house (ask Phillips de Pury), in a real down market it can be a disaster. The smart auction houses understand this, of course. If they are nervous about market values, they stop giving guarantees. Perhaps only in some markets. Perhaps in all.

So I repeat my question: does anyone know if auction houses are still offering sales guarantees this year?

Engineering the (stealth) blockbuster

Unknown MonetCan you cook up a blockbuster? This is what one curator in a prominent London institution (no names) came to ask me, for a series of interviews that may or may not result in the magic formula for big box-office success. There are various ingredients you need for the cauldron of course; a big-name artist, a spectacular debut or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a press deluge and an overstuffed gift shop.

Getting thousands of people through the doors of an exhibition every day used to be so easy – bring in Monet, Matisse, Picasso or all three (Motisso?) – and listen to the cash registers ring out. Nowadays the hugely increased financial pressures of staging such mega-exhibitions – from insurance and shipping to marketing and advertising – mean that the anatomy of a blockbuster show is having to change.

Later this year in London there are a couple of old-fashioned crowd-pullers – terracotta warriors and China coming to the British Museum and Tutankhamun at the old Millennium Dome (now ‘The 02’ venue) – but these are tried and tested recipes. Some museums are now resorting to what I call ‘Stealth Blockbusters’, which on the surface promise the big names and jaw-dropping experience, but can often deceive through clever titles or curating by the back door. For example, the Royal Academy (which has cancelled ‘The Arts in Latin America 1492-1820’ from its autumn slot, because it can’t afford to ship the 250 pieces from LACMA) has recently put on ‘The Unknown Monet’ and ‘Impressionists by the Sea’, which were worthy, scholarly shows with few outright masterpieces. However, once given the sheen of blockbuster glamour and the catchy title, they hit the headlines – and presumably their visitor targets.

Robert Storr put it well before unveiling his Venice Biennale: ‘Once you have enthralled the public enough to get them through the doors, one of the greatest tasks of museums and curators is disenthralling.’ But how long do we wait before we come stomping out of our museums demanding our money back for misrepresentation?

Summer math camp

The three co-founders of Artworldsalon intersected in London last week. Two of them went on to ogle Damien Hirst’s diamond studded skull, about which a report shall soon follow, and which is undeniably the talk of the town. Visitors particularly seem to appreciate the gesamtkunstwerk atmosphere. It’s not just the skull but the full-court theatre around it, including the thuggish Mafia-style security guards. More on that carnival attraction from the eyewitnesses who saw it.

The real eye candy for me this summer in London was at the National Gallery, which has organized a spellbinding show of Dutch portraiture, a true diamond gem of an exhibit. A less noticed visual art event awaits at Heathrow airport. A slick video about security procedures now playing on a row of flat-panels right above the baggage X-ray machines is a sight to behold. It looks like it was produced by Matthew Barney in collaboration with the people who make Apple’s iPhone commercials. Slow-motion shots from edgy avant-garde camera angles (e.g. bird’s eye view of gorgeous passenger walking through metal detector) capture models of attractively blended origin as they glide through the ritualistic passage of belt removal, laptop opening, and body frisking. Their dignified countenance and beatific smiles radiate an inner calm, as though they were being cleansed; suspicions erased, innocence reasserted.

Anyway, on to matters at hand. One of the delights of airplane time is the freedom to read even the smallest articles in The Economist, including the little teaser for their blog, Free exchange, which on June 26 posted a fascinating roundup of variables shown empirically to influence the prices of paintings. Quoting from Tyler Cowen’s latest book, Discover your Inner Economist, they posit the following relationships:

“1 Landscapes can triple in value when there are horses or figures in the foreground. Evidence of industry usually lowers a picture’s value.

2 A still life with flowers is worth more than one with fruit. Roses stand at the top of the flower hierarchy. Chrysanthemums and lupines (seen as working class) stand at the bottom.

3 There is a price hierarchy for animals. Purebred dogs help a picture more than mongrels do. Spaniels are worth more than collies. Racehorses are worth more than carthorses. When it comes to game birds the following rule of thumb holds: the more expensive it is to shoot the bird, the more the bird adds to the value of the painting. A grouse is worth more than a mallard, and the painter should show the animal from the front, not the back. Continue reading “Summer math camp”

Documenta12: Terence Koh is not an artist?!?

Koh.jpgI had dinner last night with Terence Koh, arguably one of the hottest artists in the world right now, and he told me about a rather unexpected email he had just received.

With his kind permission, I reprint it below.

From: documenta 12 <professionalpreview@documenta.de>
Date: May 30, 2007 7:50:05 PM GMT+02:00
To: tiffany@peresprojects.com
Subject: documenta 12
Reply-To:
documenta 12 <preview@documenta.de>
_______________________________________

Dear Terence Koh,

Thank you for your application for accreditation. Unfortunately we have to inform you that we are not able to communicate a positive answer for the professional preview.

The team of documenta 12 is nevertheless happy to welcome you in Kassel during the entire duration of the exhibition from June 16th to September 23rd 2007.

Please go to our website www.documenta12.de for information on admission prices and the supporting program.

Please note: This message has been automatically generated. Please do not reply. This e-mail was sent from a notification-only address that does not accept incoming mail.

Apparently, having solo shows at the Kunsthalle Zurich and Whitney Museum in the last year does not qualify you as a professional artist in the eyes of Documenta 12’s accreditation mavens.

Or maybe they consider him TOO professional?