Category Archives: Boom Thinking

Are we booming yet?

soap_bubbles_2_1273670534Sarah Thornton in The Economist magazine recently described the art market as a bubble bath – an apt metaphor for a market made up of a myriad distinct markets for individual artists, each one expanding or contracting at any given time. It appears that, as of late, the foam is getting frothier, or the bath is getting bigger, or both.

At an Art Basel dinner earlier this month, a dealer told me about a collector who missed a chance to buy a work on opening day because he came back to the booth “twenty minutes after the reserve deadline” – a prime froth indicator. There were signs of invigorated confidence everywhere.

The auction market is likewise pushing into boom territory, as last week’s London auction sales attest. Christie’s evening contemporary and post-war auction saw twenty-five works sell for over $1 million, including a 1953 Study for a Self-portrait by Francis Bacon for $28.6 million, two-and-a-half times above estimate. Netting $126 million, it was the second biggest sale in its category for Christie’s in London. Sotheby’s contemporary art evening sale did even better, totaling more than $174 million, the highest ever for a contemporary auction in London, with forty-five lots going over $1 million. Both sales produced stellar sell-through rates, set numerous records, and drew buyers from all over the world.

In the early build-up phase of a boom, the market can achieve a kind of self-reinforcing pattern. Formerly cautious sellers offer up material they were reluctant to test on the market earlier. Quality work stokes more buying and bidding, which coaxes more quality inventory off walls and storage racks, propelling yet more sales and price increases. 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

“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

A dash of cold water

brodypicassoThere’s been much fuss over “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” the 1932 Picasso that sold for $106.5 million at auction last week. Roberta Smith devoted an article in “The Week in Review” section of the New York Times to the guessing game about the anonymous buyer. Bemoaning the “irksome” secrecy of art sales, she conjured a rogue’s gallery of possible bidders, including “Buyer X,” a “puppet master,” a “Russian oligarch” fearing “home invasion or too much unfriendly attention from Vladimir Putin,” and “someone with vast sums of money stashed in a Swiss bank account or a dubious tax shelter.” All very James Bond. Buyer X must be smiling.

Anyway, on one score, the article, along with most others I have read, is unambiguous: The Picasso claimed “the highest price ever for a work of art at auction”—a “world record.” Technically speaking, the number is the highest—the largest pile of US dollars ever spent on an artwork at auction. But adjusted for inflation, this Picasso is a far cry from Van Gogh’s 1989 record-setter, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which, at $82 million at the time, would be worth about $140 million in today’s dollars.

Leaving out inflation is a bit like measuring one high jumper’s performance in inches and another’s in centimeters. It’s worth noting, for context, that we have had at least three private sales in the neighborhood of $140M in recent years. And there have been a couple of auction sales exceeding $106 million in 2010 dollars, including a Picasso, “Garcon a la pipe,” which sold in 2004 for just over $104 million.

All of which is to say, Buyer X doesn’t get the gold medal after all. As Smith rightly points out, record mania is something of an irksome diversion in itself. In any event, the search for the mystery collector continues. Anyone have a clue?

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

Whither now, Museums?

Andy Warhol $$$Those living in Europe are sometimes surprised by the shockwaves that private sector economic turmoil creates for Arts Institutions in the US.   If you come from a region where large portions of a Museum’s budget comes from the public purse (in some countries it is all government funded) it can be eye-opening to learn that those well-funded US institutions that out-bid the Europeans at Auction are often largely privately supported.   So an article in this week’s Art Newspaper by our own András Szántó is well-timed.

Private donors remain skittish. Corporate support is hard to find and ever more tightly tethered to marketing priorities. Public funding is jeopardised by imploding budgets and competing needs. Foundations, too, are smarting from losses. Some are rethinking their support for culture altogether. Venerable charities like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations no longer have divisions with “art” in their names. Museum income from tourists, members, publications, shops, rentals and restaurants is stagnant. It has been a perfect storm.

Whilst András is right to highlight the woes of incumbent institutions trying to fit existing plans into shrinking budgets, I wonder if some of this wasn’t inevitable?   The hubris of recent years and the multitude of new small private museums seeded by privately amassed collections has spread curatorial resources rather thin and scattered good works into more buildings.   Maybe we have too many institutions?   András again.

Museums are joining forces more readily on publications and web projects, such as Artbabble, a kind of YouTube for art videos. But while content partnerships are proliferating, museums have stopped well short of the kind of consolidation that reshapes other distressed industries. “There is a pride factor that makes it very difficult to merge,” notes Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

One hears a gentle sigh of relief around the globe, as the financial markets rebound, so this may all soon become academic.   But I wonder…   So what do you think?  A disaster for Art Lovers everywhere?  Or a much needed shake-up amongst our venerable institutions?

Let’s all pretend it’s all going to be OK

FriezeFairSosnowksa.jpgWitnessing the first throngs of yet another busy fair opening, it’s odd to observe what a delicate house of cards this whole art world of ours is, not to mention that I am sat in the ironically flimsy tent of the Frieze Art Fair, this year given an even more precarious feel by a mysterious dent caused by Monika Sosnowska’s crash-landed sculpture which was removed from the roof before the opening (amazingly because the artist felt it looked too dishonest).

Across town, away from the moneyed aisles of the fair (where everyone is kidding everyone else that it’s a good year) is an interesting show called ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’ at Tate Modern, which piques the whole fragile institution of the contemporary art market. Its starting point is the vagary of late cash-for-portraits Warhol and his assertion that ‘good business is the best art’. What follows is a torrid wave of money- and publicity-hungry artists leaping from Keith Haring and Martin Kippenberger to Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami et al.

There’s much of the vulgar boom-time art that was discussed a couple of weeks ago here, but also some of the career-making moves of artists (whether knowingly or not) such as David Robbins and Gavin Turk. Continue reading

What recession art?

articles_1There was a lively discussion in my class the other day about boom-time art. Some students said fast times produce “vulgar” art; others disagreed. The point was that they found connections between the economic climate and the sort of art being made and sold.

By extension, it’s worth asking if the recession has given rise to any particular kind of art. My informal gallery scan suggests that works on view, on the whole, are getting smaller. Has substance changed, too? Will it? Should it?

There are signs that, beyond what Lindsay Pollock described as “the Darwinian game of gallery musical chairs,” art is being influenced by the downturn. BravinLee gallery in Chelsea is producing limited-edition rugs by various artists, with some of the proceeds going to charity. “Art needs to get out of the white box,” said John Lee in Pollock’s report. “This is born out of the current economic environment in a way.” Another item in my mailbox heralds a group show, opening this week, titled “Art of the Crash” at FusionArts Museum, on the Lower East Side. It’s something to do with sculpture made from the “detritus of Detroit.” Art of the Great Recession? You judge.

Now, with exquisite timing, along comes Morris Dickstein’s book on art in the 1930s, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” in which the CUNY professor surveys the artistic response to the calamity to which our times have so often (and so misleadingly) been compared. Continue reading

Sold masters

voge-1A Rembrandt is coming up for auction this fall, highlighting anew the relationship of old-master and postwar-contemporary values. “Portrait of a Man, Half-Length, With His Arms Akimbo,” from 1658, owned by pharmaceutical heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson, is the kind of picture that comes to market only once in a blue moon. It’s a museum piece. The Christie’s estimate is $30-41 million, a record for an old master.

Compare that to sums recently paid for new and historically recent works: a reported $140 million for a Pollock, $86 million for a Bacon triptych, almost $24 million for a Koons sculpture (unadjusted dollars). If the sale comes in toward the low end of the estimate, the Rembrandt would be in the same league as Lucian Freud’s “Benefit Supervisor Sleeping” (close to $34 million).

To be sure, those extraordinary prices are from the frothiest of the boom years. But the question remains, as the downturn approaches its anniversary, has the widely anticipated realignment of old master values come about? Is there really a “flight to quality” and blue chip art?

Temperature check in Beijing

Green ShootSo how does it feel where you are? Arriving back in Beijing after 3 months traveling I passed through the requisite temperature checks at the airport (swine flu mania abounds); and so I thought I would do the same for Art markets around the world. I touched base with gallerists, collectors and intermediaries in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. Without wishing to over generalise: the Americans were still mostly doom and gloom; while the response from Europeans was more varied, with some friends reporting good works finding new homes. This is rather at odds with the general Economic environment. I heard more about “green shoots” while traveling in the US than in Europe. But maybe the American collectors had had more money in the game to lose?

So it has been interesting to arrive back in China and talk with friends in Beijing and Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, things are at least a little more positive here. Whilst there has been a general pull back from foreign buyers, young wealthy mainland Chinese buyers seem to be taking up some of the slack. The locals might prefer “decorative” to “difficult” and positive themes rather than negative or political, but they are starting to buy some of the same “big brand” names that the foreigners have made so popular over the last 8 years. And brand names have always been important in China, for all products.

But the foreign buyers haven’t disappeared completely; they are just taking a little more time and doing a little more due diligence. Continue reading

The middleman as muse

bbagCatherine Spaeth writes…

For a while now, there has been a degree of discomfort with the notion of an ideal viewer. At its extremes, the dangers of such an ideal are the failure of one’s poorly aimed presumptions as to what an audience is, or the presumptuousness of constructing a subject, of producing a consumer.

Rirkrit Tiravanija’s recent contribution to “Cinema Liberte/Bar Lounge,” in collaboration with Douglas Gordon at the Guggenheim’s “theanyspacewhatever,” was – despite its generosity – a coldly sceptical response to this situation. Served Illy coffee by Illy baristas, the failure to mean was offered as a gift, and this gift in turn was a lifestyle brand. As though wishing to correct this situation of art, Michael Fried in ‘Why Photography Matters” describes work so saturated by artistic intent that the audience is shunned from the space of it.

In a July 11th discussion on “Art and Power” at The Drawing Center in New York, the artist Alexis Knowlton shifted the terms away from the ideal viewer and back towards artistic intent. She invoked a term coined by Jerrold Levinson, “hypothetical intentionalism.” Already standard jargon in the philosophy of aesthetics, these words, for better or worse, have not yet found their way into artworld discourse. In October-driven art history and criticism (inaugurated by Rosalind Krauss’s 1976 essay in Vol. 1 on Vito Acconci, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissicism”), the artworld has been more at home with the problem of the viewing subject.

For Knowlton, the very worst symptom of ceding artistic intent is what she refers to as SLAT: Super Lame Art Thematicization. The current Venice Bienniale, “Making Worlds” and the New Museum’s recent “Unmonumental” are, in her opinion, cases in point. Continue reading

After the dead tree

The nice folks over at The Art Newspaper asked András for his thoughts on what would happen to Arts writing with the decline of the Press.   His response can be seen here, or after the break.

tanpic

Continue reading

Elusive silver linings

2577618297_a9eca1d130From struggling academics, to struggling artists. The New York Times started a blog titled Attention Artists!, on the recession’s impact on artists. So far, responses have been surprisingly sanguine, ranging from “I am completely adapted to being satisfied from my work and my work alone,” to “I think that the recession is making people understand the intrinsic and real value of art.” Some artists wax lethargic about their financial woes. But a more characteristic comment would be this: “The sick economy, combined with the collapse and confusion of the corporate music business, has actually been good for those of us who have existed on the fringes for years.”

Artists may be blessed with strong survival skills, especially in the putting-a-brave-face-on-misery department. Or is this a form of “false consciousness” (to dust off another half-forgotten thinker who is suddenly back in vogue)? How realistic is this new silver-lining discourse?

The idea that art-market busts are good because artists can “take over the factory, make the art industry their own” and “daydream and concentrate” was given an airing in February by Holland Cotter in New York Times in a manifesto-esque article,“The Boom is Over. Long Live Art.” Lots of people who make their living in the art world took note, and some felt the critic may have missed the point. At this stage in history, must art’s credibility depend on proof of human suffering and absence of commercial success? “Certainly, the excesses of the art world were alienating,” observed Alexandra Peers, an ArtworldSalon friend, in a riposte to Cotter in New York magazine. “But there’s Schadenfreude in the argument that bad times are good for the naughty, naughty art world.”

So which is it: An outbreak of gooey-eyed Romanticism? Or a sober reckoning with tough but healthy new realities?

of Buyers and Sellers…

mugrabis-nytAmongst all the excitement about new movements (see Ossian’s piece below) I find it hard to get my head out of the markets.  To wit, there is a nice Konigsberg feature in the NYT Online this weekend about the Mugrabis and their buying styles.  The title is slightly misleading (Is Anybody Buying Art These Days?) as it is entirely about the Mugrabis and mostly about their buying history, but it is an interesting read about one of the more focused market-makers of the last 20 years.  Features of their approach include the somewhat indiscriminate purchasing of their favorite artists (supporting the notion that name matters more than quality, at least in a rising market), and their “addiction” to collecting. “We are addicts. That is what addicts do,” Alberto Mugrabi is quoted as saying. Many collectors would recognise that sentiment.

The addiction of art collectors got me thinking about the broader context of contemporary art-market values.  At various points in the article, there are references to buying when cash was in short supply and to extending a collection even when the collectors were nervous about the market.  Even quite recently, works were sold to free up cash for a possible market-downturn buying.  That could be sensible triage, or an indication of how stretched the Mugrabis might be. Which raises a question about how stretched or indebted collectors are overall.

The current global economic woes are debt based. They have to do with the difficulty of companies or individuals who rely upon borrowing to conduct their business or run their lives.  Operating on debt is not necessarily a bad thing. It can simply reflect the cyclicality of cash flows (people or companies needing to spend before they can sell or earn, and therefore needing to borrow to fund that spend).  However, when lending dries up because of losses in another part of the debt market (high-risk mortgages in the current case), then companies or individuals who rely upon debt to conduct their operations run out of fuel.  The only way to then raise cash is to sell existing stock, if they have any to sell.  But when there is less cash to go around, sellers start to outnumber buyers, and prices plunge.

So here is the question: How stretched are the top collectors of the last five years?  In any part of their lives? Continue reading

“Artoon” – The book!


self-help-helguera

With one new year behind us, another one looms in a fortnight.  The Chinese Year of the Ox is supposed to be a year of hard work for limited return. Maybe if Lehman’s analysts had been looking at their Chinese horoscopes they might have seen some problems coming.

For those of you with time on your hands and no books left from your holiday reading list, we recommend a compilation of “Helguera’s Artoons: Cartoons about the Art World,” recently published by Jorge Pinto Books, with a forward by our own Andras Szanto.

With far too many pundits making comparisons to the Great Depression, perhaps a little light relief is what we need these days. Though interestingly, the effects of the doom and gloom vary widely around the globe–at least based on the holiday conversations I have had.  What is it like where you are?

Will LA lead the way?

lamocaThe future of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is being decided as we speak. Two scenarios have been preoccupying the press — a LACMA-MOCA merger or a “bailout” by Eli Broad — and the final outcome may be a mix of the two, or something different. This is LA, a city of white knights and twisting plots. Events don’t always follow the predictable screenplay. (I have long been a fan of a Getty-MOCA combo, but that, apparently, is not in the cards.)

Whatever happens, the art world is watching because MOCA’s problems won’t be the last. Museum finances across the country (and the world) are shaky, and some institutions are stretched to the limit. As Warren Buffett likes to say, “It’s only after the tide goes out that you see who’s swimming naked.” But curiously, while much talk in the boom years centered on Faustian bargains that museums make to survive, it is only now, with the protective cover of philanthropic and endowment revenues suddenly removed, that the truly tough choices must be made.

Here might be the silver lining. In a world where Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, we have yet to read about a single proactive arts merger in the papers. Cities across the nation are dotted with cultural institutions that cannot pay their way and are going after the same benefactors. But mergers and combinations remain options of last resort. That has to change.

The news from LA may also make future benefactors more cautious about building new infrastructure where institutions already exist. The museum landscape of LA is the ultimate example of the principle of “to each patron his own edifice.” Last but not least, if things get worse, we may yet witness a reassessment of government’s role in the arts, as happened on Wall Street.

What do you see as the larger lessons of Los Angeles?

The big chill

netjets-alex-katzUnusually cold weather for Miami lent the opening night festivities a somewhat spooky and sinister air. “I though it was a celebrity, but then I realized it was just some people around the space heater,” said one reveler at the Art Basel opening party, at the Delano Hotel, as a group of half naked Brazilian dancers braved the chilly December winds. Then again, it could have been Antonio Banderas.

Yet despite the cold, the crowd pressed on, like a group of tourists who had booked a late season cruise and were determined to make the most of the amenities on board.

And fancy amenities were everywhere in evidence–gifts from a recent, happier past, when ambitious plans for this week were being hatched. Netjets invited people to celebrate Alex Katz at the Raleigh hotel, posting a giant Hollywood-style sign in the sand in the hotel’s garden. Not to be outdone by the Art Basel event down the street, the dancers at this party added juggled burning torches. Mini cupcakes were emblazoned with tiny marzipan Netjets logos–a sweet touch.

Earlier in the day, in the Design District, preparations were going on for the rollout of Design Miami. Under a tent that resembled a giant lace curtain, it was all business as usual. Takashi Murakami’s operation opened up a store to sell a new line of Murakami household objets, including three giant balls, the largest almost eight feet in diamater, festooned with technicolor flowers constructed out of soft and fluffy teddy bear fur. “Is it furniture or is it art?” I inquired. “It can be anything,” the friendly Japanese PR lady obliged.

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A plea for optimism

miami_beach_nightThere is a question circulating around the art world blogosphere: Will Art Basel Miami Beach, and all of its attendant satellite fairs, be a gallery killer?

The rationale behind the question works something like this: Given the way the art world’s schedule runs, one assumes that most galleries paid for their art fair real estate many months ago.   And given that many galleries have begun to rely upon their fair sales to remain profitable, if not solvent, in a down turn, the art fairs begin to look like a bigger and bigger gamble, akin to doubling down on an otherwise iffy hand.   With the US economy in tatters, and knowing that the full scope of the financial crisis has yet to come into focus (not to mention the dismal performance of the fall’s contemporary art auctions), can there be any doubt that real buyers will be few and far between, and that only those galleries with (enough) cash already in the bank will still be around this time next year?

I do not relish what I believe to be the answers to these questions.   The sought after purification of the art world’s soul will be seen–if LA MOCA’s potential collapse has not shown it already–to affect the avant-garde and the opportunists alike.   So I ask, where is the silver lining?   What should an optimist for the future of the art world be looking for?   What might we find in Miami that we did not expect or could not have foreseen?