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?

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.

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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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What’s next for nonprofits?

Armory
Now that government regulation of investments and markets is suddenly back in vogue, it’s only a matter of time until the reformers and the ethical cleansers train their sights on the least regulated market of them all–the art market. This will take time, but stay tuned. As last week’s exchanges made clear, taking a measure of post-bailout art values is also an exercise for another day. Only the November auctions will give us clear signals about the market’s health or decline.

This gives us breathing room to look further afield. What are the wider effects of the financial meltdown? To launch what might be a recurring feature about “What’s next?” let’s look at what the latest turn of events means for nonprofits. The postmortems have already begun. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published articles over the past weekend about nonprofits bracing for the worst. The Journal points out that U.S. charitable donations grew a paltry 1% in 2007–that’s before the bad news hit. And although, as the Post reminds, corporate donations amounted to only 3% of the contributed income of nonprofit arts groups, some of the most generous sources of corporate giving are likely to vanish, at least for now.

So what is a nonprofit leader to do? As always, the worst-hit will be mid-size groups with high overhead and weak fundraising potential. These would do well to take a look at the astonishing flexibility that giant financial firms have shown in this crisis. If Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, arts organizations, too, can adapt. For museums, there are undeniable threats in this new environment, including the possibility of tougher Congressional scrutiny of tax exceptions and loopholes. But there might also be a distant silver lining in the form of lower acquisition costs and more revenue from visitors–museums are an inexpensive family pastime, especially compared to a weekend in Turks and Caicos.

The real benefits of an economic downturn for nonprofits may be less obvious. The pendulum may be swinging back to a point where nonprofit art-world institutions start to matter more again. Creative Time’s current event series, Democracy in America, which culminated with the well-timed opening of a sprawling exhibit of political art at the Park Avenue Armory last weekend (see picture) may be a sign of good things to come–evidence that the art world may be ready to rejoin the “reality based community.”

Speaking of fairs…

Forged_by_Qin_Chong.jpgWent along to the opening of the 5th China International Gallery Exposition (CIGE) here in Beijing on Thursday. Held at the snazzy central China World Trade Centre it gets cleaner and better organised each year. Sadly the Chinese works on display were mostly overpriced and familiar. Even when the artist and work were new. There are exceptions, of course. Urs at Urs Meile and Fabien at F2 are among those trying to build long term relationships with, and long term reputations for, the artists they represent; encouraging development of oeuvre and restraint in pricing. But this is gold rush time for China Contemporary. This sculpture (“Forged by Qin Chong”) probably best illustrates the focus of most Chinese contemporary artists these days.

I did enjoy seeing the work from other galleries around Asia. Attracted by the new deep pockets of the Northern Chinese, galleries from Tokyo, Seoul, Taipei, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Singapore and Mumbai were all in evidence. Many with their artists in tow. It made for a fun cultural mix in an otherwise fairly quiet VIP evening. They also provided refreshing views, textures and subjects in a room full of yet more pink, bloated cartoonesque Chinese works.

It will be interesting to see how this Fair evolves. There are fewer exhibitors this year (81 vs 118 last year) and there has been a large churn. For example not one of the 5 French galleries that came last year returned. And the number of mainland Chinese galleries who bothered to exhibit is down sharply; 16 this year, down from 39 last year. On the other hand there was a new area upstairs for solo shows of young artists from around Asia (not just China) and a surprising number of dedicated contemporary video art rooms.

Buyers seemed in short supply, however. At least the media present knew who they were after as they hounded the minor TV celebrities that wandered, slightly bewildered, through the exhibits. One interesting thing was the presence of Phillips dePury as one of the sponsors. Not there to launch a new office in Beijing, but to promote their ConArt sale in New York at the end of May. A long way to come for customers.

Interesting times.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, post-Krens?

This thought in from Steven Kaplan in Manhattan

Thomas Krens will step down after nearly twenty years as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the search for his successor has officially begun. This announcement is barely two days old, but the art pundits are already circling like hawks high above the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, gliding over the thermal gradients for indications of future trends, while also hunting smaller anecdotal tidbits to feast upon.

If the age of Krens is soon to recede in our collective rear view mirror, how will it be remembered? As a period when the establishment of a coherent aesthetic identity for the museum took a back seat to the art of the deal? When international franchising and corporate sponsorship became overriding determinants of exhibition content? When fashion, architecture and other borrowed interests reigned at the expense of the art itself? Or did Krens manage to create a system of patronage and power that will endure? Was he in fact a visionary, an advocate of his own peculiar manifest destiny: always expanding, always seeking out new funding, always ready to open his doors if the price was right, while placing greater and greater financial demands upon his board of trustees, who perhaps finally had
no choice but to mutiny?

Gehry_Guggenheim_Abu_Dhabi_.jpgPart of the answer will be determined by the policies and personae of his successors. In particular there remains the legacy of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the jewel of his franchising effort, “35 percent larger than Bilbao”. A major mission for Krens (and starchitect Frank Gehry) is the completion of this monolith in the desert. It is the fulfillment of his expansionist dream and his ultimate expression of museum realpolitik. Because when domestic benefactors such as Peter B. Lewis balked at the huge cost of funding the satellite projects, Krens did an end run and appealed directly to the oil-rich sheiks — in much the same way that the banks have recently looked to UAE money to bail them out of the mortgage crisis.

The Guggenheim is presently committed to building their satellite in Abu Dhabi. But as the museum reassesses its priorities, considers its post-Krens identity, and examines its finite resources, one can imagine a revision of this decision. Especially in light of the Emirates’ policies of not allowing entry to Israeli passport-holders and their censorship of gay content and nudity in the art to be exhibited.

The final decision of whether or not to proceed is reserved to the museum’s board of trustees. But I would pose the following questions to ArtWorld Salon readers: Should institutional initiatives be reconsidered in light of new economic realities and new leadership? Should the leftover projects of an old regime be cleared out, to allow the new director a “clean slate”? And might the fate of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi give us some indication of how museums will operate in a post-Krens era?

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.

Mission creep: the museum-director dilemma

I met up with a few artworld friends for drinks last night, and the conversation turned to the Sunday Times piece on Philippe de Montebello’s Met leadership and the inevitable speculations about his successors. Soon after she left us to go have dinner, Alexandra Peers blackberryed me: “Just heard Lisa Dennison has left the Gugg to do business development for Sotheby’s.” Lo and behold, another museum-director slot to be filled! That makes 25 in the United States, based on the Sunday Times article on the Getty’s museum-director training program.

During our cocktails, I had pointed out the fact that at any given moment there seem to be 20-odd open museum directorships and only a half-dozen names in circulation as their likely occupants. Often, of course, those are other museum directors, and when they switch slots, the dilemma remains. Now, musea are not my forte, but from my relatively outside perspective it seems the problem lies in the way that the job has evolved through mission creep over the years. In addition to the classic connoisseurship required, fund-raising and business skills have become a big part of the job, as has the ability to deal with major construction projects and foreign governments. The Getty article quoted Cloisters/Met curator Julien Chapuis saying: “I’m concerned that the next generation of museum leaders will be business people not trained in art history, people who have little knowledge of the collection, which for me is the raison d’être of a museum.” Then again, a museum director needs to have the respect of his curators. As the Guardian reported when London’s National Gallery director Charles Saumarez Smith quit, he was said “to have been undermined by a cabal of his own curatorial staff who belittled his intellect and thought him a poor connoisseur.”

So it seems today’s ideal museum-director candidate would have a PhD in Art History, an MBA, plus several years of Foreign Service and corporate experience under the belt. It’s a tall order, which may explain why it’s so frequently found to be difficult to fulfill, especially outside the top institutions. As I suggested to my drinking companions last night perhaps it’s time to widen the notion of how museums are led: Splitting the job into business and art functions, rather than desperately seeking candidates combining all the skills required in the modern museum era and paralyzing the institution until the ideal candidate surfaces. Thoughts?

Everyone an Iconoclast

My email inbox, always bustling with messages from super-creative people, received an announcement about a “global think tank” called The Creative Class Group. It’s headed by Richard Florida, he of the book that launched a thousand speaking engagements. Impactful though sociologically sloppy, Florida’s bestseller is being turned into a marketing agency. CCG will develop “new ideas and strategies” by “next-generation thinkers and strategists.”

Who is this creative group being pitched? It’s a vast, unfocused meta-entity comprised of “a third of the workforce” and commanding “50% of wages and salaries in the United States.” People who reach for their wallets when they hear “Not taking risks is risky” – one of the mottos touted in the press release. “The first people to try a new restaurant, see a new movie, buy a new gadget.” People who say “next-generation thinkers” – a phrase that cohabitates in linguistic purgatory with “thinking out of the box” – without cracking a smile.

Art world, relax, this box is bigger than you – much bigger. Thoughts, anyone?

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.
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Finally, Documenta announces… VIP cars?!?

Documenta director Roger Buergel has been an enigmatic figure since being chosen two years ago. His relatively meager track record as a curator of major exhibitions gives the artworld little basis for guessing what he’ll deliver. And four months from the opening, the only selections offically announced are Barcelona chef Ferran Adrià and Polish artist Artur Zmijewsk. (Get it? He’s going from A to Z.) I’ve heard rumors of artists being asked to do pieces whose final inclusion is not totally certain. There is, in short, an information vacuum surrounding the whole event.

SaabKassel.jpgAll of which made it even weirder when official sponsor Saab released news that the Documenta team had accepted delivery on its five VIP cars. In a classic bit of inscrutable curatorspeak Buergel was quoted in the press release saying: “Real coolness comes from within: on the outside, my car shows the formal elegance and effortlessness of a white cloud.”

Between this quote (implying that coolness cannot be contained in a car) and the fact that he turned away from the camera in the official photo, I’m hoping Buergel realizes this is all looking sort Continue reading “Finally, Documenta announces… VIP cars?!?”