Art-market art, in the art market

When Edward Winkleman weighed in on Saltz vs Heiss, he wrote, “Perhaps a smart show about the current art market would require too much analysis (a CPA and a hedge fund manager might have to curate it) to be visually interesting or pleasing.” This aside got me thinking in two directions. First, that one of my favorite (conceptually speaking) recent shows, “Leftovers: A Selection Of My Unsold Pieces From The Private Galleries I Work With,” focused upon this very topic. Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov had Mirjam Varadinis – the curator for a planned Kunsthaus Zurich show of his drawings – instead visit all his dealers and select the 2005 exhibition’s content from among their unsold Solakovs.

Solakov asked all the dealers for an explaination of why those works had not sold and posted their texts alongside their gallery’s “leftovers.” My favorite? Brussels dealer Erna Hecey, whose list revealed the haphazard traige of the supposedly rational art market: “The works are too expensive. The works are not expensive enough… The world is not ready for this work. This work comes a bit late… The works have not been presented enough. The work has been shown too often and everywhere… Mars was conjuncting in Pluto at the time of the show.” Naturally, the simple fact that these works were slated to be shown in a major cultural institution suddenly stirred interest among collectors. But Solakov pulled pieces out of the show if they sold before it opened, and scrawled an explanation in the gap left behind.

Second point: I’ve amassed many images of artworks created as counterpoints or commentary on the current market, which I use to illustrate my speeches about the artworld. I’m going to dump some prime examples in here for examination/discussion. A note to Artworld Salon readers: Send along images of works on this theme (ideally 494 pixels wide JPGs @ 72dpi) and I’ll update our premiere Artworld Salon “exhibition.”

William Powhida, Detail from Wall of Shame, 2007
(From his upcoming Schroeder Romero gallery show)

AVM_Powhida.JPG Continue reading “Art-market art, in the art market”

It’s definitive: Rubbish = Art

bacon_rubbish.jpgA month ago we did a piece commenting on the absurdity of a small UK country auction house selling leftovers from Francis Bacon’s studio floor and calling it Art. Well, the market has spoken. Rescued from a garbage bin by a local electrician, the discarded “Study for a Portrait”, estimated at an already high  £12,000 to  £18,000, sold for  £400,000 before buyer’s premium.  £400,000. That makes it hard to simply write this off as memorabilia. (Total proceeds were  £965,490. Pre-sale estimates ranged from a realistic  £30,000 to a very optimistic  £500,000. The range in pre-sale estimates is, in itself, a good indication of how difficult it was to estimate the ‘collection’s’ value.)

hirst_stalin.jpgWhen last we broached this topic we also made passing reference to a certain “Damien Hirst Stalin”, sold at Sothebys for  £140,000. In this case, Hirst helped out his friend, writer AA Gill, dispose of an unwanted Soviet era portrait of Stalin that Christie’s had refused to sell. One hastily painted, off centre, red spot later, and Christies accepted the new Damien Hirst into a contemporary art sale with alacrity (although it was Sothebys that eventually sold it), and again the market responded warmly.

In the first case, Bacon’s clear intentions have been ignored, and works he never intended to be seen, let alone sold, have been designated Art. In the second, an artist’s intention to poke fun at the market succeeded royally. And the result is again labelled Art.

In both cases it is the name of an artist that has turned rubbish into Art. The name alone. Should we care?

Museums vs. the market, Saltz vs. Heiss

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

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

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

Clippings from the salon floor, #5

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

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

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

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

Q. Will fairs “consolidate”? A. No time soon.

Tyler Green posted five questions over at MAN yesterday, including this one:

2. Unexamined question for art journos: Will there be consolidation in the art fair industry? When I talked to Art Basel’s Sam Keller last year he pooh-poohed the idea. (And no consolidation has happened.) But doesn’t it make sense for that to happen at some point? I mean: I don’t even know when artDC is — and it’s this month.

To answer Tyler’s question: artDC is April 27-30, precisely the same weekend as three other fairs: MACO in Mexico City, VIENNAfair and Art Chicago. Simultaneously there’s the Berlin Gallery weekend, for which 29 Berlin galleries (all the powerhouses, plus many rising stars) band together to invite major collectors from all over the world for several days of art tours, plus a gala dinner. (It’s an event conceived as a counterbalance to art fairs, and intended to remind collectors that galleries can provide a better context for seeing work than fair booths.) This week in Europe, BTW, we have fairs in Cologne, Dusseldorf and Brussels, after Frankfurt last weekend. Hello? Maybe it’s time to institute an artworld scheduling committee…

But does all those augur a consolidation of fairs? Not really. The main issue is this: There are tons of galleries, literally a thousand-plus when you start looking worldwide, that are trying to make a name for themselves, build their profile, or simply meet new collectors. To them, fairs provide that possibility – and many will give a new market a shot at least once, because meeting even one good collector makes it worthwhile. Thus, just filling all the booths of a fair is not hard – and organizers can always get a few “name” galleries in by offering discounted rates. From a purely financial level, then, a fair makes sense to the organizers and civic leaders even as the quality level erodes every year and the event becomes totally provincial. The result? To quote my friend Frédéric Bugada of Cosmic Galerie in Paris, “Les foires ne meurent pas, elles agonisent.” (Fairs don’t die, they just writhe in agony.) Continue reading “Q. Will fairs “consolidate”? A. No time soon.”

Saatchi buys; China sells (out?)

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

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

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

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”

Boats on the Bund

boatlogo.gifDown in Shanghai for a few days to visit people and galleries (and the 12th China International Boat Show…). A first chance also this year to sit outside at the really quite good Shanghai MOCA 3rd floor terrace cafe, wishing I had brought sunglasses. Samuel Kung (Chairman) and Katrina Chang (Chief Representative) kindly stopped by to say hello. Katrina was busy preparing for the arrival of the contemporary portion of the 300 Years of American Art exhibition on its way down from Beijing. I still think it is sad that local problems mean they have split the show across two venues. “Bureacratic issues” was the phrase used, but that can cover a multitude of sins from disagreements between overseeing ministries down to inefficiencies within the institutions themselves. But she seemed pleased to have the contemporary works they were getting.

The lunch, however, was the highlight of an otherwise dull day of gallery visits around both the centre of town and out at 50 Moganshan Road, Shanghai’s mini-798 (798 being the trendy gallery cafe area in North East Beijing). Silly bright pink- -and-green landscapes, with the occasional image of Mao or Stalin in the clouds, asking US$25,000 to US$70,000, from someone barely known, were among the worst of the day. The two university display spaces at 50MR might be interesting to watch, though there was a preponderance of traditional monochromatic brush paintings this week. (Perhaps a year-end compulsory-technique show?) Overall there was little to inspire, or amuse, at any of the galleries I visited. Shanghai just doesn’t have the volume or depth of Beijing. Though I did see some nice catalogues, Marc. %-).

We are at an interesting stage for contemporary galleries in China. Because of the high prices for Zhang XiaoGang and others at auction, prices have risen across the board for any contemporary artist at galleries all over China (Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Chongqing, Guangzhou) no matter how little track record they have. For many galleries it is clearly a case of shifting canvas while the China fever lasts. For buyers I have no idea what is in their minds when they pay high prices for what is clearly derivative or vacuous painting. Perhaps they are just playing the pyramid game (last buyer is the loser) that we last saw in dotcom stocks in ’99?

Fortunately even China fever has its limits. It was good to see how many works missed their high estimates at the recent (March 21) New York Sothebys Contemporary Art Asia sale, and that a significant number were unsold.

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?

Vanishing lines: the collector as curator?

For those who follow the sometimes tempestuous marriage between art and finance closely, there was not much new in “Wall Street meets the art world” (via Culturegrrl), even if the language was appropriately mercantile for an article in Fortune magazine. Describing her husband’s relationship to art, Chelsea dealer Marianne Boesky recalls, “He had never been in a contemporary art gallery until we met. But as soon as he started understanding the numbers and seeing the margins, he became serious about art.”

To me, however, the most interesting part of this article was the very end:

Glenn Fuhrman, who manages Michael Dell’s family money and has become an active collector and philanthropist, is opening an exhibition space in Chelsea to display works from private collections, including his own.

What’s noteworthy here is not the fact that a collector opens an exhibition space, something Saatchi et al have done, though rarely (never?) smack-dab in the middle of a gallery district. The weird part would be the showcasing of multiple private collections in that space. Assuming it actually happens, this is an interesting development and one for which I cannot easily think of a precedent. Although apparently, a Swiss friend just informed me, it’s an idea also being mulled in Europe by some loose coalitions of collectors.

When Los Angeles collector Dean Valentine curated “Now is a Good Time” at Andrea Rosen Gallery, it ignited a fair amount of private grousing among artworld insiders about some ethical-moral line having been trespassed. Then again, that was in 2004 – a long time ago in today’s amphetamine-speed ConArt world – before Charles Saatchi Continue reading “Vanishing lines: the collector as curator?”

Clippings swept from the salon floor, #2

New term alert: China fatigue. The Telegraph’s Art sales: Rampant market, rising fatigue used the phrase “China Fatigue” in two quite different ways: 1) The Chinese churning out of tired but highly saleable work, e.g. “Tate’s Simon Groom believes that the rampant market may have produced what he calls ‘China fatigue,’ encouraging artists to make saleable pastiches rather than ‘genuinely good, creatively interesting art’. 2) The seemingly inevitable state when the current high demand for Chinese ConArt falters, e.g. “Over the next 12 days, contemporary Chinese art will be auctioned in Paris, London and Hong Kong. No one doubts that the speculation will continue, but some will be watching out for signs of China fatigue.” I’d propose another, synthetic, definition: 3) The market condition arising when demand for Chinese ConArt finally flags, because people tire of endlessly seeing similar pieces.

Chris Burden, Shoot, recreated by  Eva and Franco Mattes Tech Gone Wrong: “Synthetic Performances,” in which classical pieces of performance art – Joseph Beuys’ “7000 Oaks,Valie Export’s “Tapp und Tastkino,” Vito Acconci’s “Seedbed,” Chris Burden’s “Shoot” – are recreated in Second Life, the newest machinima platform. An odd project made even odder by the gym-bot physical culture in Second Life – Burden and Acconci look like buffed-out surfer dudes and Export is working a Daisy Duke/Pris look. (See also at Art Review Blog, via Ed_W.)

Those who can’t make, sell? While there are some New York dealers who are also active artists (Guild & Greyshkul ‘s three founders – Sara Van Der Beek, Johannes Van Der Beek, Anya Kielar – all had shows at other very solid galleries in the last year), apparently Chelsea and LA are larded with artiste manqué dealers. The Kantor/Feuer Window gallery (literally a window on 10th avenue, open 24/7) will be featuring the work of 20-plus such dealers starting today. Those include heavy-hitters and hot young names such as Roland Augustine, John Cheim, Zach Feuer, Continue reading “Clippings swept from the salon floor, #2”

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.”

Learning from Santa Fe

DSC00734_2_1.jpg“Howling coyotes and pink cats” is how a Santa Fe dealer described the wares in the galleries of his competitors. The spectrum is much broader, in fact, and there are many diamonds in the rough. But the intrepid collector must wade through mountains of mediocrity to find the good stuff. Art-wise, this is a schizophrenic town. The undisputed capital of folk schlock, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, a 400-year-old city that is the seat of a giant art industry, second in trade volume only to New York.

If the statistics are to be believed, this community of 66,000 people is, on a per capita basis, America’s premier cultural powerhouse. One billion dollars accrue to the state coffers annually from cultural tourism, which generates about a fifth of all jobs and two out of every five dollars earned. People calling themselves artists are five times more common here than anywhere in America, and photographers, a staggering 35 times. There are more than 200 galleries, the greatest density of art emporia in the nation in relation to population size. Auctions and art fairs draw huge crowds. Hotel rooms during the vast Indian Fair are booked five years in advance.

Reality check: The economic impact numbers are, to put it mildly, inclusive. They encompass all the hand-woven baskets, wool ponchos, silver belt buckles and turquoise Continue reading “Learning from Santa Fe”

Bacon: stamp of approval not required

CutBacon.jpgI’m not sure what happened in London on Tuesday, but yesterday and today several UK stories involved the upcoming Ewbanks auction “Items from the Studio of Francis Bacon.” A more colorful title for the sale might be “45 Auction Lots Assembled From Objects Once Rescued from a Dumpster Outside The Studio of Francis Bacon, Including Other People’s Passports and Postcards.” If you click on the link, you will see interesting memorabilia. There’s also some epically tendentious auction-catalogue language, such as (emphasis mine), “This would not seem to be a completed painting but Bacon frequently discarded canvases, returning to them at a later date, perhaps in this case this was one to which he meant to return but did not do so.” Wow, they read Bacon’s mind, 15 years after he died: Apparently, Bacon wanted it to be a real painting – but things just didn’t work out…

Kathe Kollewitz, c. 1926Personally, I always find it jarring to see something in an auction room or gallery, lovingly framed for sale, that the artist never meant to be considered as part of their oeuvre. Weirdest was stumbling across a Käthe Kollwitz lithograph, which she herself had crossed out (click on the image at right to see a pop-up with the X clearly visible), estimated at roughly $20,000 in a Swiss auction. By virtue of being sold in such contexts, these “pieces” tend to become integrated into the de facto oeuvre. Granted, there is a lot of complexity once one starts to consider the topic closely. It would be simplest, of course, to only deem as art those things which the artist has officially designated as art. But what about Henry Darger, whose stupendous work was only discovered after his death? Or an artist renouncing artworks after selling them, e.g. Richard Prince?

The Ewbanks Bacon sale itself isn’t really hot news, BTW – The Art Newspaper covered it in the March issue, which came out in late February. Either by coincidence or slyness on the part of TAN’s layout team, it adjoined an article that described how the Bristol student house Banksy inhabited is now being valued at double its normal price because of the mural he painted on one wall. Although, based on the image online, this work’s got nothing to do with his clever recent exploits (yeah, I’m a Banksy fan). Rather, it’s kind of cookie-cutter graffiti (one section reads “1st Division Airborne Aerosol Supremacy!”). Anyway, the mural’s being silent-auctioned “with a free house attached.” Right under that Banksy article was one detailing Damien Hirst’s painting a red nose onto a crappy  £200 Stalin portrait, which then sold at Christie’s for  £140,000.

Taken together, those three stories suggest that from a commercial standpoint, anything a famous artist has ever touched will be considered by buyers to be art – quality and intention be damned. Am I alone in finding this strange?

Ruthless in Seattle?

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

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

Zwirner vs. Huber, the fallout

The artworld spent the weekend digesting dealer David Zwirner’s salvo versus dealer/fair entrepreneur Pierre Huber, sparked by last Monday’s $16.8M Christies sale, drawn entirely from Huber’s collection. Josh Baer, author of the essential-reading Baerfaxt is apparently preparing an article on the sale and offered his readers this advance peek, in the form of a killer direct quote from Zwirner:

“I think as a result of the sale Pierre Huber should be barred from the Basel Art Fair. He has lied and misled not only his fellow dealers but artists such as On Kawara and Thomas Ruff on my end. The sale was completely carried by dealers doing the right thing, supporting their artists prices, the buyers and underbidders predominately representing galleries. So we made Pierre money, because we need to protect our markets. He is just too much… I don’t want to share an artfair with such a cheat and Continue reading “Zwirner vs. Huber, the fallout”

Too rich, too thin

BuyMe.jpgFairs are a particularly tricky topic for artworld analysis. There are so many different parties involved – hundreds of dealers, thousands of collectors, tens of thousands of “tourists” – that there’s an intense Rashomon effect. And when it comes to sales data, the true results of a fair are both obscured by dealer posturing and totally unknown until months later, when it becomes clear which “strong interest” from collectors has turned into actual sales – and conversely which “sales” fell through. That being said, here are my impressions from talking to people throughout last weekend’s Armory Show madness in New York:

Sales were inconsistent. Some dealers claimed to have done very well (and their rehung booths backed up that claim), while others were complaining that they never felt a “feeding frenzy” build as it does at Art Basel, Frieze, or Art Basel Miami Beach. Such frenzies bring about two things that dealers love: a “buy it or lose it” sense of urgency and a momentary disregard for any notion of relative value. To be judged commercially successful , then, does today’s fair needs to function like a pitched auction-room battle?

Crowds were inconsistent. Or rather, quantity and quality of crowd were out of sync. There were moments during the weekend when there was a two-hour wait to enter (even for some hapless VIPs) and sardine-can conditions inside. At the same time, the dealers I talked to felt like many major non-NYC collectors had not made the trip, confirming my suspicion from the pre-fair survey I conducted among my artworld friends and associates (i.e. asking, “See you at the Armory?”). I also wonder whether the tiered-entry ticket scheme for the VIP opening ($1,000 to get in at 11.30am, $500 for 4pm, $250 for 6pm) does not have a dually negative effect by 1) making core artworld folk feel like anyone can buy their way into artworld-VIP status (an echo of my night-club metaphor thoughts after ABMB...) and 2) putting off collectors who are unwilling to pony up a grand to Continue reading “Too rich, too thin”

Puzzling parities

bacon_record.jpgHear-hear, salonistes. A Francis Bacon sold for almost $28 million Thursday night at Christie’s in London. Maybe it’s time to buy old masters.

Don’t get me wrong. Bacon is my idol. He was the first living artist to bring me to tears, years ago when I was a college freshman. The record earning papal portrait, Study for Portrait II, is a gut wrenching, museum-quality picture. Lucky is the collector who can possess such a trophy.

But 28 million dollars? Think again. I do not mean to deny Bacon the glory bestowed upon him by such a princely sum – if any modern painter deserves it, he does. My point is that the prices of post-war and contemporary artists are starting to make the old masters look inexpensive. The price comparisons with today’s hottest art stars are borderline bizarre.

If you want to get a sense of how much $28 million can buy you in today’s old master market, consider Continue reading “Puzzling parities”

The Hedge Fund King effect

Sometimes you start writing an article with an assumption that rapidly collapses. That happened with this Artnet Magazine article on the Steve Wynn vs Lloyds Lawsuit, over Picasso’s “Le Reve.” To recap, Wynn is suing Lloyds for $54 million, the difference between $139 million, (the sum that hedge-fund king Steve Cohen agreed to pay for it September 19) and $85 million (what Wynn says it’s worth after he put his elbow through it 24 hours later, despite a $90,500 restoration.)

Usually such cases hinge on both sides debating the damaged piece’s value both before and after the accident. So I assumed that Lloyd’s would contest the $139M, because that was arguably not Le Reve’s “fair market value’ at the time of the accident, just what Cohen had agreed to pay. So I was hoping this case would start a courtroom battle (and an artworld discussion) on the distortional market effect of Continue reading “The Hedge Fund King effect”