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Artworld Salon » Economics
Artworld Salon

Opinion Analysis Debate

Too much of a good thing?

Sunday March 4, 2012 | 23:58 by András Szántó in New York City | permalink

300px-supply_and_demand_curvessvgWith the Whitney Biennial, Armory Show, ADAA Art Show, Independent, Moving Image, Nada, Scope, and Volta fairs, their sundry offshoots and side events, innumerable gallery openings, and the auction season about to rain down on us here in New York, this may be a good time to talk about artistic overproduction. And right on cue, along comes Adrian Ellis’ cogent essay on the supply-demand problem in Grantmakers in the Arts Reader, an obscure but important journal for cultural-policy wonks.

Some Reflections on the Relationship Between Supply and Demand in the Formalized Arts Sector” is more titillating reading than its title suggests. It’s framed in response to NEA Chairman Rocco Landesman’s refreshingly impolitic claim, not long after his appointment, in 2009, that the arts sector may be overbuilt. The Chairman was met by predictable howls of indignation at the time. The reigning orthodoxy is that no amount of art can be too much—economics be damned. But let’s admit he had a point.

Ellis credits Landesman (brother of Artforum publisher Knight) for sparking a conversation about the imbalance between the amount of art emanating from the cultural-industrial complex of 501c3 organizations and the amount of art that regular folks actually have an appetite for consuming. In fact, this debate has been quietly raging for years, especially inside foundations. In any event, the article is a must-read for anyone who wishes to speak knowledgeably about our besieged arts infrastructure, and what should be done about it. Read More »

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What would you do with $250 million?

Sunday February 5, 2012 | 16:34 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

Card PlayersAccording to ArtWorld Salon contributor Alexandra Peers, in an article for Vanity Fair online, the Royal Family of Qatar has celebrated a decade of high profile Art buying by spending that amount on the last of Cezanne’s Card Players.  (The painting was purchased from the estate of the late Greek shipping magnate George Embiricos.)  That is quite a number, and a new record for the highest price paid for a single work of Art.  You could pay for the entire budget of the Museum Of Modern Art in New York for almost two years with that sum.

And what else?  I started to wonder.  Here is my quick list.  In January 2012, US$ 250 million buys:-

1 Cezanne
10 decent sized mansions in the Hamptons
100 upper-middle class family homes in Beijing
1000 Ferrari 458 Italia Coupes in Rome
10,000 Ducati 1199S motorcycles in Paris
100,000 complete (3 yr) high school educations including accommodation, food and healthcare in Lhasa, Tibet
5,000,000 milking goats in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
50,000,000 egg-laying chickens in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Interesting, no?   So let me ask you again.   What would you do with $250 million?

Occupy the museums … or, simply don’t

Thursday October 20, 2011 | 12:57 by Edward Winkleman | permalink

thumb33I have been watching and, in spirit, am all for the Occupy Wall Street protests because I feel the issues being raised need to be discussed. I truly wish the banks would get involved, to help balance out the conversation, but apparently they’re too busy raking in record profits.

That said, I find the Occupy the Museums notion a bit too misguided (and more than a bit ironic) to let it go without comment.

In a nutshell the message of the Occupy the Museums effort is :

Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are
at your door!

Let’s begin with the fact that despite $20 and $25 dollar entry fees, the people seem more than happy to keep passing through the doors of New York’s museums :

What’s more, they offer alternatives for people who can’t afford those fees. So there’s apparently NOT a serious “access for the people” issue here.

More specifically, Occupy the Museum’s rallying cry is: Read More »

Double dipping?

Sunday August 21, 2011 | 14:20 by András Szántó in Long Island, NY | permalink

elevatorTalk about a double dip recession has coaxed the oracles of the art world away from their swimming pools to their laptops. Savvy trend-watchers have been grappling with a surprisingly meaty question for this time of the year? Will the art market follow equities into “correction” territory, or worse, this fall?

The verdict? Maybe. Or maybe not. They don’t call it the dismal science for nothing.

Adam Lindemann in the New York Observer compared art unfavorably to gold. “Despite all the talk of art as investment, and the fact that a lot of art has appreciated, I think you would still be much better off with gold,” he concluded. Noah Horowitz, answering interview questions in the same publication, said art has more in common with gold—as “as a durable good,” he argued, it “is attractive to people in times like this.” However, he cautioned, “If we see a decrease in wealth levels of the elite, that’s one way to gauge how art will be valued.”

With more gyrations almost certain to roil the financial markets, expect a spike in art-market prognostication in the weeks to come. Yet as Noah correctly points out, we’ll need to get past the big fall art fairs to get a true read on the market’s direction. In the meantime, here are three dynamics to watch.

First, will the bifurcated trend pattern separating hyper-luxury from everything else persist, or will a potential downturn be severe enough to sink all boats? The post-2008 experience tells us that horrible things can happen to the economy while the upper-upper tier of the market chugs along, relatively unscathed.

Second, has so much excess been built into the art market as to threaten a nosedive? Read More »

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Are we booming yet?

Friday July 1, 2011 | 16:21 by András Szántó in New York | permalink

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. Read More »

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The season of our disconnect

Tuesday June 21, 2011 | 14:21 by András Szántó in New York City | permalink

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? Read More »

The season that was

Monday May 23, 2011 | 10:45 by András Szántó in New York City | permalink

large_big-fish-detailLooking back over the season that just passed, consolidation is the word that best describes the dynamics of the art world now. Large entities are getting larger; smaller ones are still squeezed or struggling. The art system is mirroring larger trends in society, where recovery has come sooner to the more fortunate and the gap between the haves and have-nots has, if anything, widened.

Large institutions and corporate entities have locked in gains and begun to expand franchises. It’s a good time to make a deal, whether inexpensive real estate, cheap credit, or distressed partners prompt the opportunity.

Here in New York, large museums are showing anew an appetite for expansion. The Whitney had reason to celebrate at its gala last week, having just leased its Madison Avenue Marcel Breuer building to the Met, clearing the way for downtown construction of its new Renzo Piano headquarters. For the Met, this will be the first foray off Fifth Avenue since the opening of the Cloisters. Meanwhile, MoMA has paid $31 million to buy the beleaguered Museum of Folk Art. And the Guggenheim is eyeing a branch in Helsinki.

On the commercial side, the three main auction houses booked respectable quarters, and Phillips has moved into its flashiest digs yet, on Park Avenue. The houses are aggressively building markets overseas and pushing the boundaries of their operations into new aesthetic, digital, and financial territory. Hiring is back. Furloughs have yielded to pay increases.

Consolidation continued in the gallery business, too. Gagosian’s far-flung satellites are filling mailboxes with thick cardboard invitations almost daily. A small cluster of galleries with a truly global reach is leaving everyone else further behind. Corporate muscle is the most obvious in the seemingly never-ending expansion of art fairs. In a long awaited move, Art Basel has planted its flag in Hong Kong. Frieze announced a bold incursion into the Armory Show’s back yard, on New York’s Randall’s Island, and is also launching an old master’s fair back in London. Read More »

Enlightenment comes to Tiananmen Square?

Tuesday April 5, 2011 | 15:14 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

NMCThe Art Newspaper leads this week with a thought provoking and fact-filled article on a huge co-operative Arts project between the German and Chinese governments to bring major works from German museums to the newly re-opened National Museum of China on Tiananmen Square.   The theme of the exhibition is the European Enlightenment, and the story is by our own András Szántó.

A glimpse of the exhibition:-

Over dinner on a bitterly cold January night in Beijing, I asked Cordula Bischoff, the Dresden-based curator of “The Art of the Enlightenment”, which object in the exhibition best represents its message. Without hesitating, she pointed to a silhouette print in the advance catalogue. The work, attributed to Johann Heinrich Lips, depicts Voltaire, the French philosopher, holding a lantern that shines a light outward beyond the picture frame. “He is carrying the light and leading the visitor out of the exhibition,” she said. “It tells everything.” Bischoff’s counterpart, Chen Yu, a curator at the National Museum, nodded in agreement. “This picture is a metaphor of the Enlightenment,” he said. “The European Enlightenment is still influencing people everywhere in the world. Chinese people are still enjoying its fruits.”

And a comment by a local resident:-

This is an era of tremendous change. It is time to pause and reflect. Are we a leader economically? Spiritually? It’s part of the opening up after 30 years. What have we lost and what have we gained?

As Andras points out, Confucius was an inspiration to many of the leading lights of the European Enlightenment and so it seems the cycle of inspiration returns.   One wonders, though, what the results will be as China is really only taking its first hesitant steps forward culturally, even as it charges forward economically.

You can read the full article here.

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Painful cuts for Dutch arts funding

Friday March 18, 2011 | 14:55 by András Szántó in Amsterdam | permalink

vrom_holl_china
FROM ANDRAS SZANTO AND JONATHAN NEIL, ON THE ROAD IN THE NETHERLANDS

They knew it was coming. A succession of governments in the Netherlands had warned over the years that the country’s arts subsidies are not sustainable. But the recent economic crisis gave Holland’s right-wing political leaders an excuse to do the unthinkable. They will ax $200 million of the $900 million federal arts budget. Factor in 20-40 percent cuts in local funding, and the Dutch system may lose $1 billion in support by 2013. Europe’s most generous arts funding regime is about to turn into a laboratory for transitioning to, well, no one knows what exactly…

Many arts officials are blindsided. In discussions with artists, museum directors, and art dealers this week, on a study tour with the Sotheby’s Institute, we heard complaints about the sudden cessation of public largesse, but little in the way of solutions. Hopeful arts managers spoke of how “the market” and “companies” will need to share the burden. But there are few incentives for the private sector to do it.

In fact, Holland’s usually circumspect and methodical policymakers are being less than consistent. Appeals for philanthropy and sponsorship are not being counterbalanced with tax breaks. Even while the government seeks to shift arts promotion to the private sector, it has raised the gallery sales tax by 13 percent.

Arts institutions find themselves in a fix. They lack tools to function in a more “American” system. Museum directors are looking for expertise in fundraising and marketing. Endowments, private patrons, and boards of directors with fiduciary responsibilities are still largely unknown here. Cultural groups have little access to credit facilities. Experiments with bonds, subsidized loans, and art landing are in their infancy. Institutions are being asked to act independently, yet they don’t control their own assets and destinies. And as government representatives, they can hardly raise their voice in protest.

Where will it all lead? Some believe the current government is simply anti-art, seeing culture as a left-wing “hobby.” Others are more realistic. They acknowledge that Dutch arts leaders have refined the craft of lobbying government, but they don’t quite know how to court the public and the commercial sphere.

Whatever the case, look to Holland in the next few years as a test case for what happens when a great welfare state’s cultural machinery is pushed into a closer alliance with the market.

Museums 2.0

Friday December 24, 2010 | 11:35 by The Transom | permalink

pcb

Adam Levine writes:

Amidst the glamour of Art Basel, earlier this month, one panel in the “Conversations” series—moderated by AWS’s Andras Szanto, as it happens—stood out in its attempt to tackle a more intellectual topic: How museums will operate in the digital world?

The discussion revolved around the use of digital media in three areas: (1) platform development, (2) marketing strategies, and (3) business models and fundraising. I’d like to offer additional models that complement what was discussed in Miami.

One of the panelists, Max Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has arguably done more for the development of open-source museum platforms than anyone. That the IMA is incurring most of the costs for such efforts seems unreasonable and inequitable. Crowd-sourced models of fundraising were discussed, but no mention was made of crowd-sourcing development. One model that has been profitably used elsewhere is for a pool of money—raised from multiple institutions all interested in open-source museum software—to be awarded as a prize for superior development work. The template for this strategy, the so-called “Netflix Challenge,” was quite successful.

In the portion of the Miami conversation on marketing strategies, little was made of the ability to develop targeted campaigns on the basis of what people are viewing online or in the galleries. Such data, which is already available given current technologies, holds the potential for a more intimate museum experience. Using technology of the sort the company Art.sy has developed, museums can market exhibitions to visitors on the basis of their preferences. They can even suggest new works to visitors on the basis of things that they have liked in the past. Similar technologies, deployed much like “smart shopping carts” in supermarkets, could conceivably be used in certain museum settings as well. Read More »

The Appeal of SEVEN

Wednesday November 24, 2010 | 17:17 by Edward Winkleman | permalink

sevenBack in 2006, in an article titled “A storm of art as Baselmania engulfs Miami,” New York Times art critic Roberta Smith predicted that

Art fairs will continue to flourish until the bottom falls out of the art market, or until dealers, who invented them, decide that there is a better way to do things.

The global recession never quite saw the bottom fall out of the art market, but it has arguably spawned a number of dealer-invented alternatives to the more traditional art fair model, such as Independent in New York, Sunday in London, and ABC in Berlin. But back in 2006, Smith highlighted one pioneering effort as an indication of what she thought the future held:

Two dealers already on this quest are Ronald Feldman, a longtime SoHo gallerist, and Joe Amrhein of Pierogi, a Williamsburg fixture. They have rented a raw one-story building in the Wynwood district here and filled its 12,000 square feet with works by artists they represent.

Fast forward to 2010, and the model Pierogi and Feldman built has evolved into a venture that now includes seven contemporary art galleries, including London’s Hales Gallery, who began participating in 2007, and New York’s BravinLee programs, Postmasters, P•P•O•W, and (my own gallery) Winkleman, who all join for the first time this year. The focus of this expanded effort, called simply SEVEN, is in creating an exhibition experience within the context of Miami’s art fair week defined by the needs of each artist’s work. The press release on the event’s website explains this idea in more depth. What the press release doesn’t explain is how each decision about SEVEN (whether on marketing, installation placements, shipping costs, etc.) is agreed to by us, the participating dealers, and that the costs are so significantly less than participating in one of the larger fairs that the 24,000 square foot space we’ll be sharing this year offers an opportunity to present work in Miami that would be cost-prohibitive, if possible at all, at the big box fairs. Because each of the participating galleries’ programs include presenting large-scale installations, for the first time we new participants have the chance to bring such work to Miami and better reflect what we’re about to that audience. Read More »

Art & finance: the latest from the barricades

Tuesday November 2, 2010 | 00:36 by The Transom | permalink

stages_eiffelAdam Levine of A.R.T. filed this report from Paris:

Last Thursday, October 21, Deloitte sponsored its third annual ‘Art & Finance’ conference, in Paris. The overlap between the worlds of art and finance is, to the discomfort of many people in and around the art world, not insubstantial (though not yet ‘substantial’ either). Whatever the case, it is growing. A number of themes emerged at the conference, three of which are worth highlighting.

First, there was widespread agreement that the market is opaque and inefficient. The consensus of this self-selected group of art and finance enthusiasts is that something needs to be done.

Second, the next step forward would be to create a viable index that could be traded (and used to hedge against risk). A corollary, of course, is the illiquidity of the art market. I have been struck by how clever some of the methods for indexing the market are (particularly in dealing with the liquidity issue). I am equally impressed by the application of macro-economic theory to the art market. Without getting too far into methodology, however, I wonder if we have it wrong when we try to analogize standard economic models to the art market. Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel. But given the lack of identical product in the art space, I feel new methodologies will need to be explored.

The final theme to emerge at the conference was that art has become an asset class, and it should be treated as such, particularly by wealth managers. But clever arguments about asset allocation and fiduciary responsibility ran up against an uncomfortable reality: Art collectors, unlike those at this conference, on the whole do not appear to think of their art as part of their investment portfolio. Read More »

It’s Friezing over here

Thursday October 7, 2010 | 17:16 by Ossian Ward | permalink

My barometer keeps jumping. One minute it’s backs-to-the-walls time, art2095friezejeppe_heinthe next it’s all lavish parties and third venue vernissages. It has seemed like a growing, healthy trend for performative, lively and cheap art would be neatly distilled in the line-up for this year’s Frieze Art Fair Projects, curated for the first time by Sarah McCrory, formerly of south London’s small curatorial hotbed, Studio Voltaire. McCrory has commissioned Spartacus Chetwynd (née Lali Chetwynd) and her travelling troupe of players to create daily spectacles in the fair on the obscure subject of tax havens (of course, much inter-fair art revolves around the necessarily thorny question of the perceived evils of the surrounding arena of commerce). A wandering group of ‘Ten Embarrassed Men’, by Swedish-born artist Annika Ström, will prowl the fair looking shamefaced – the emasculation of artists or bankers, maybe? There will also be judiciously placed charity boxes (designed by artists, of course) to tempt collector’s monies elsewhere, as well as lots of free-to-air fun in the surrounding park.

Who are they all kidding? Hauser & Wirth are opening their third or fourth space in London (I have genuinely lost count, but it’s definitely the biggest) with a retrospective of fabric works by Louise Bourgeois. Sadie Coles upscales next-door, the Blain-Southern dealership duo split from their Christie’s holding pen, Haunch of Venison, to open a new gallery as well. Then there are Russian squillionaires galore putting on one-week one-offs including pricey Picassos, New York galleries dipping their toes here… I could go on, ad infinitum. My magazine lists some 200 shows on, or opening, in the now designated ‘Frieze week’ frenzy, most of them seemingly launching on Tuesday with a brunch, lunch, press view, rooftop after-party or oyster-laden dinner. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Is art in some kind of reactionary, recessionary funk? The more it gets hit, the harder it fights back? Or are the commercials slowly moving back into easy street, while the public sector prepares for a governmental pounding at the hands of David Cameron’s October 20 spending review/slash-fest? It could be a fall bounce or just the preamble to another, bigger fall.

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“Russia takes the lead in regulating…”

Friday September 10, 2010 | 13:11 by Ian Charles Stewart in Beijing | permalink

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.  Read More »

Money for nothing

Tuesday May 18, 2010 | 15:47 by Ossian Ward | permalink

For its tenth birthday weekend just gone, NSFS logoTate Modern staged No Soul For Sale, a non-profit ‘Festival of Independents’, bringing 70 artists’ collectives, publishers and non-commercial spaces from all over the world to fill its Turbine Hall. Well, perhaps ‘inviting’ would be a more accurate word to use, rather than ‘bringing’, as each participant had to pay their own way, with resourceful galleries doing last minute fundraising events and even garage sales to afford their flights to London from as far and wide as Beijing, Rio and Melbourne. A necessarily scrappy and messy affair ensued, with many No Soul For Salers showing only what they’d been able to squeeze through hand luggage or the symbolically empty packages they’d sent ahead of themselves.

This perceived lack of financial support drew fire from an anonymous British group of artists and arts professionals, calling themselves Making A Living. In an open letter to Tate, widely emailed and posted online, they took umbrage with No Soul For Sale’s ‘romantic connotations of the soulful artist, who makes art from inner necessity without thought of recompense’ as well as the concomitant expectation that ‘we should expect to work for free and that it is acceptable to forego the right to be paid for our labour.’

In an interview I conducted beforehand with the curators of No Soul For Sale – Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, with Vicente Todolí on behalf of Tate – here, they defend the event (once previously staged as part of X-Initiative in New York) variously as ‘a tribute to the people, the artists and the art lovers who work beyond the traditional market system’ (Cattelan), or an act of ‘hospitality and generosity’ (Alemani). While Gioni adds that, ‘Nobody really ever pays respect to the people who work in situations in which there is very little money involved and yet a lot of energy and enthusiasm’, Todolí qualifies this by saying: ‘Obviously we are not the only ones being hospitable here. All the participants are … as generous as Tate, if not more. But that’s when things get interesting: when people are willing to share, going beyond any immediate quantifiable gain.

Read More »

A dash of cold water

Tuesday May 11, 2010 | 17:41 by András Szántó in New York City | permalink

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?

Museums and salaries

Monday April 26, 2010 | 13:50 by András Szántó in New York City | permalink

humanpyramid-1The New York Times today reported the incomes of cultural leaders. Look for the imminent brouhaha about how much some directors are making (even though compensation for many has recently been reduced). Yet if salaries at leading museums run between half a million and a million dollars, that seems reasonable in light of the complex responsibilities and unrelenting pressures involved.

The real issue with nonprofit compensation, I believe, lies not at the executive, but at the mid-management level, and at the lowest rungs of arts organizations.

Not long ago, someone I know interviewed for a job in a museum outside New York. The position involved responsibility for a core aspect of the museum’s activities. The candidate had a decade of experience and a great track record. The pay being offered turned out to be about one-twentieth of the director’s $1 million salary. That kind of discrepancy between a manager and a chief executive is one thing cultural groups don’t need to copy from the private sector. No wonder museums are plagued with morale problems.

The situation is worse further down the ladder, where staffing is left to volunteers and interns making little or no money. The rewards for entry level positions are now so low that they are scaring off the best talent. One can only wonder if today’s struggling interns and junior assistants will change the situation once they make it up the slippery pole to those seven-figure jobs?

Rather than worry about arts salaries at the top, the press would do well to focus on income patterns among the rank-and-file. I’d be curious to hear what others think about equitable wages in the sector?

Is the new normal the old normal?

Wednesday March 31, 2010 | 14:24 by András Szántó in New York City | permalink

astrology-shelley-von-strunckel-mercury-retrograde-23Bloomberg reports that helicopter commuter service has been restored to Wall Street. A friend at a large bank says that with fears of a meltdown abated, the solidarity in the company is also gone. Cultural endowments are growing again, we learn from The Art Newspaper, and museums are dancing back from the brink. Even day trading is back in fashion, if The New York Times can be believed.

What unites these factoids is a hardening sense that we’re getting back to normal, perhaps sooner than anticipated. And that’s a mixed blessing.

Only yesterday, the situation was so bad, it was forcing deep change. Original moves, like Jeffrey Deitch’s appointment to Moca, were spurred by a fighting spirit that compels people and organizations to act differently in a crisis. The Great Recession, however horrible, provided a need and a justification to do daring and draconian things. Pop-up galleries in kitchen showrooms were in (like this one, by two former students). Gaudy sculptures with fake diamonds were from a bygone era.

I’m happy that many of my friends survived the crash unscathed. I certainly don’t mean to romanticize struggle for day-to-day survival. But I do worry that the new ways of doing business are quickly becoming the old ways of doing business. As the discipline of hard times dissipates, can we recognize any silver linings in the form of lasting positive changes in creative, commercial, or institutional behavior?

Three cheers for austerity

Friday February 19, 2010 | 16:08 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

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.

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The state of the arts is … blah

Thursday January 28, 2010 | 13:33 by András Szántó in Brooklyn | permalink

nai_one_pager_graph_thumbnailPresident Obama in his address last night studiously avoided the phrase, “the State of the Union is strong.” If there were a State of the Union for the arts, the speaker—Who would it be?—would likely have made the same choice. For all is not well on the cultural ramparts. Just as “Wall Street Prospers while Main Street suffers,” we’re seeing some profligate spending on art again, here and there, while artists and organizations on the ground are having a really tough time.

To measure the pain and the sorrow, Americans for the Arts, the Washington based advocacy group, has come up with a National Art Index, “the first study to measure the health and vitality of the arts in the United States.” It’s not a pretty picture. The index fell 4 points last year, reflecting steep drops in attendance and support, along with other downward trends. Thirty thousand arts nonprofits have been added since the index peaked, in 1999, so demand clearly “outlags capacity”—a problem that won’t go away even when the economy perks up.

Meanwhile, a group of arts wonks (myself included) are debating the language of arts-policy and advocacy this week at ArtsJournal. The headline so far: we lack compelling and uncompromised language to galvanize support for the arts and expand the purview of cultural policy to include the things that really matter, such as technology, media, and intellectual property regulation.

What does this mean for the visual art world? Americans for the Arts is largely concerned with the nonprofit arts. Its indeces may not faithfully reflect the condition of visual art markets and institutions. Are we any better off? What would be the right measures to diagnose the health of the visual arts? And where do you see the trend lines leading in the year ahead?

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