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?

Too much of a good thing?

creativityWe’ve heard the business gurus: This is the age of creativity. Only the dreamers survive. The MFA is the new MBA.

But hold on. Stefan Leijnen and Liane Gabora, researchers at the University of British Columbia, Canada, point out that too much creativity may not be a good thing. Their argument boils down to this: Innovation–creativity–is necessary to introduce new ideas. But for any innovation to take root, it must also be copied. Society depends not just on creators but also on followers. If everyone invented and no one imitated, we wouldn’t advance through innovation.

Come to think of it, this latter scenario bears some resemblance to the current state of play in the art world, where following in earlier innovators’ footsteps is seen as a somewhat passé notion. Instead, it’s all creativity all of the time. The Canadian researchers have drawn up a chart to find a productive mix of innovation and copying. Where would a healthy balance lie for the visual arts?

Writers and thinkers have been raising doubts about excessive uniqueness elsewhere. Art market expert Maurice Rheims wrote, quoting an antiques realer, that for a thing to have value “it must be rare, but not too rare.” Continue reading “Too much of a good thing?”

Does who owns art change it?

imagesA couple of weeks ago Tyler Green posted an interesting interview with New Museum director Lisa Phillips about her institution’s decision to put on shows drawn solely from various high profile collections (Dakis Joannou, New Museum trustee, will be the first beneficiary of the new curatorial program).  I’m happy to debate the merits of such a program (I see the conflicts, but I also see the value too), but what caught my interest was this loaded question of Green’s:

Do you worry that your decision could reinforce the notion that art is a luxury owned by the privileged few rather than a means through which artists engage communities and nations and societies in a broader discourse?

My response in reading this was: “Why can’t it be both?”  That much art–and much of what we recognize as the best and most important art–has always been a luxury good is of course no defense for why it should or will always be so, but it seems to me that the opposition that Green puts into play here is a false one.  I don’t see how a “luxury,” which I take simply to mean a good or service that comes with a high price tag, is inherently incapable of engaging with “communities and nations and societies.”  Who “owns” this luxury, especially if that luxury is work of art, should have little to do with whether the work is engaged in a “broader discourse.”  This leads me to a series of questions: Continue reading “Does who owns art change it?”

What recession art?

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

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

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

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

Sold masters

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

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

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

Temperature check in Beijing

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

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

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

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.


Continue reading “After the dead tree”

Art workers in the scarcity economy


Eva Diaz writes:

I’ve been getting many emails recently about the Parsons Fine Arts part-timers layoffs situation, and indeed about the New School students’ takeover of the campus last Thursday.  (Full disclosure: I began teaching Art History at Parsons/The New School part-time this semester, and though my students are mostly drawn from the affected Fine Arts MFA program, I am technically in a different department and haven’t been privy to any departmental or administrative conversations.  For more information, see the NY Times  and Artnet  articles from April 3; check out the NY Times  from April 11 for information about police brutality at protests calling for the resignation of New School president Bob Kerrey.)

I, like many people, view the layoffs as a confusing situation.  In many ways the rhetorical positions put forward by both the union and the Kerrey administration are unsatisfactory.  How can curricular excellence and much-needed improvements be instituted while defending some of our most vulnerable art workers: adjunct teachers?

It is important to point out the larger issues of the proletarianization of the academy, the utter lack of job security in a scarcity economy, and the repeal of the notion of tenure in the humanities (and its near impossibility in an art school).   But let’s look at the money situation, always the administrations’ justification for why no-benefits, part-time work has become so pervasive.  Tuition has become outlandishly expensive, but where is the money going?  Here’s some basic back-of-the-napkin math: Continue reading “Art workers in the scarcity economy”

“Recessional Aesthetics” at Dia

recession-specialFrom Eva Diaz in New York City:

Speaking of the appropriation of empty real estate for art venues in Dubai and elsewhere, a fascinating mise en abyme is taking place at the former Dia space in Chelsea. Dia pioneered the Chelsea art frontier, then sold the building four years ago to a developer who, due to the bummer economy, failed to find tenants for a proposed “apartment gallery hybrid” (this according to the  NY Observer). The space has now been donated to the rechristened “X” non-profit contemporary art center for one year.

In a self-reflexive panel touching on new, non-market/real estate-driven hybridities in such improvised sites, Hal Foster and David Joselit last Thursday conversed about the current and possible future effects of the economic downturn on the wider field of art: its production, reception, distribution, and consumption; its educational institutions and institutions of display. Unfortunately it was an abbreviated session—someone in the audience fell into swoon half way through (an event later judged unrelated to the fraught topic at hand).

The evening was structured around as a series of insightful, speculative questions that posed tentative propositions about how to combat the privatization of cultural institutions and the financialization of art. Here’s quick telegraph of the five questions Foster and Joselit were able to cover, which involved some apposite participation from the large audience:

Will the social role of the artist change in the new “undercapitalist” economy?   Is the neoliberal art museum sustainable?   Will art biennials wither away?   What will be the effect of the economic crisis on art schools?   Will art criticism regain its place in the art world after being marginalized in the market boom?

The last question raised the very pertinent issue of what constitutes expertise in the field of criticism, latterly turned into generalized judgment or appreciation on the part of dealers, collectors, etc. Is there a place left for the common set of terms that a critic provides?Or has the globalization of the art world meant that a form of market-driven relativism supplanted criticism—disguised in the pluralism of purchasable media, the near ceaseless ahistorical plundering/pastiche of prior practices as fodder for new work, and the surfeit of MFA-equiped contemporary artists and surplus of biennials and art fairs?