The new sin tax: museum tschotchkes

TschotsckesMug.jpgMove over, cigarettes. The New York Times reports this morning that N.Y. State officials plan to offset government spending by levying a tax on museum gift shops. For years lawmakers have been asking why an Alessi corkscrew should be taxed in one kind of shop but not in another. Now it’s official: “An array of smaller tax law changes — requiring nonprofit organizations like museums and advocacy groups to collect sales taxes on T-shirts, mugs and other items — will bring in more modest amounts.” The same politicians who walked way from half a billion dollars in annual revenues from a Manhattan traffic congestion charge will combat future deficits with a tithe on postcards and mouse pads.

The call for ethical cleansing is ringing anew not just from Albany but also from the inner precincts of the art world. The always sharp Adrian Ellis has penned a pointedly polemical article in The Art Newspaper entitled “Museums should beware of being used as marketing tools.” Never one to mince words, he casts a stern gaze at museum acquisitions of contemporary art — around which he detects the odor of “insider trading” — and concludes that in some cases “museums serve as accomplices, albeit unwilling, to a sequence of events in which their standing is appropriated for private gain.” Read and discuss.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the gift shop, the new regulations may open the way for unexpected consequences. The chimera of educational (and therefore tax-exempt) intent having been dispelled, museums may start to stock their shelves with more nakedly profitable goods. (Sandro Chia’s excellent but hard-to-find Brunello di Montalcino could be a start.) The Times is already discussing museum souvenirs in one breath with tobacco and massage parlors. So what’s next — warning labels?

Dissent and its consequences

DISSENT_TERRORISM.jpgOne of the leitmotifs running through much of the chatter about the just-closed fairs and the ongoing Whitney Biennial here in New York has to do with the palpablility of politics, or of political content, or of “commitment,” in contemporary art. The question seems to be one of whether our art should or indeed needs to be more “activist.” And following closely is the question of whether we, as critics, historians, artists and other devotees to the art and culture industries, need to be more “activist” ourselves.

I bring this up because I was reading through a recent special issue of October, the contents of which took the form of myriad responses to a questionnaire on the problem of contemporary political “passivity.” Needless to say, the war in Iraq forms the backdrop for such an inquiry. And the last question of the bunch asked “What, if anything, can be done to make intellectual and artistic opposition to the war more active and effective?”

Responses to this question were understandably–and perhaps understatedly–varied, but one struck me as worth reflection, if not debate. Critical Art Ensemble offered that we, presumably as intellectuals and artists, must “be more daring and less afraid,” and then they continued with, “losing a job, being beaten, or going to jail isn’t the worst that can happen.”

I must confess that this bit caught me up. To be sure, CAE’s list is aimed at increasing the numbers of those who would choose to man the (police) barricades in demonstrations of resistance to our current administration’s asinine execution of a debatable foreign policy. But I imagine for many people, and not only in the U.S., these three actions are indeed and exactly the worst that can happen to a human being, especially given the rather sinister way in which their combination has become a hallmark of the war on terror: think extraordinary rendition, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo.

It occurs to me that only someone who has never lost a job (upon which daily survival depends), been beaten (and so by it lost, say, an eye, or the ability to walk), or gone to jail (without recourse to a legal defense) would think these potential returns for dissent something less than “the worst that can happen.” Nevertheless, the question remains, if opposition and activism is the goal, how does one “be more daring” and of what should we be “less afraid”?

Museums vs. collectors?

A report from new AWS contributor Leif Magne Tangen

Carte_B.jpgThe debate about the power of the collector has been going on for some time now. An interesting project in Leipzig will certainly raise eyebrows again in this regard.

The Museum of Contemporary Art (Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst, or GfZK) is opening its 2008 winter season with an ambitious project: Over the next two years, the museum will invite 11 collections, collectors and galleries to display their collections of art in any way they see fit. No interference. No questions. No veto.

The title of the project says it all: Carte Blanche.

In fact, there is nothing new about collectors being given freedom to do what they want in a museum. We have a prime example only 200 km away from Leipzig, in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum in Berlin. Parts of that public institution now house two private collections, the Sammlung Marx of Erich Marx and, since 2004, the much discussed Friedrich Christian Flick Collection.

Are museums are losing the battle for artists? Today we have more large private collections of contemporary art then ever. We have private galleries that are larger than some museums, doing blockbuster shows. Meanwhile, museums are re-selling parts of their collections and private collectors are hiring curators and consultants to “direct” their collections. Collectors are even building their own museums.

Leipzig director Barbara Steiner says in the introduction to the Carte Blanche project:
“In view of the most recent developments, the often undue influence of collectors, gallery managers and other enterprises on facilities funded by the public purse seems less of a problem than the tendency for private individuals gradually to lose interest in these museum.” She wants to find out “whether new partnerships between public bodies and private supporters can be created at all, how such an interaction might look, what the consequences of such forms of cooperation would be for the development of art and its institutions, also when considered against the background of the establishment of our institute.”

Is there an American view on this? Will private influence destroy the public sphere? Is there too much influence already from private collectors in your view?

p.s. Full disclosure (before I get hunted down by Tyler Green): one of the artists featured in the opening show and in a double solo show later this year, Mark Lombardi, is represented by Pierogi. I work as a director of Pierogi for their Leipzig gallery.

Art writing reality check (time for a new code of ethics?)

Lichtenstein___Art_Critic.jpgThe recent chain of events that led the Village Voice (one of New York’s most important sources of arts criticism) to end their relationship with critic Christian Viveros-Fauné raises some questions about the practicality of applying The New York Times style code of journalistic ethics to the arts publications that can’t offer NYT-sized salaries.

Indeed, given the widely perceived diminishing influence of art criticism (due to the overwhelming power of certain collectors and the market in general in determining what art is seen as important by museums and other collectors), a question I heard repeatedly in the wake of the Voice’s decision was, is it even realistic to expect quality criticism from writers without deep interest/influence in the commercial side of the art world?

The case in point revolves around a Q&A interview by Tyler Green with Christian Viveros-Fauné (see parts one, two, and three) that culminated in Tyler asking Christian:

You’re a managing director of a commercial art fair, Volta, and an organizer of another commercial art fair, Chicago’s Next fair. At the same time you’re a writer, a journalist, you’re the art critic for the Village Voice. Why isn’t that the most basic kind of conflict of interest?

Christian responded with perhaps a too honest answer that included several of the key issues leading me to wonder just how practical (if not how adhered to) the current code of ethics really is [all emphasis mine]:

I believe you can wear a lot of hats in the art world, and one needs to because, among other things, critics can’t survive on the money that they make from writing. Very few critics can. And, not only that, but I’m interested in curating, and I firmly believe that there is no interest in the art world without a conflict of interest.

Now, that may seem counterintuitive, and it is, but I would argue that the art world is counterintuitive in the extreme. In what other industry, for example, does one of the major magazines that chronicles both the creative and the business end of the art world establish an art fair of the same name. Obviously, I’m talking about Frieze.

And that’s nothing. Examine, for second, the practice of writing catalog essays. You know and I know that there is no such thing as a negative catalog essay and the reason for that is obvious: one way critics make money is by writing promotional copy for galleries and, hopefully, artists they like or love. And then there’s the business of curators and critics slinging their asses around to universities and institutions for speaking engagements.

Shall I go on? I mean, again, what I’m arguing for here is honesty all the way around.

In light of the practicality of living on what arts writing pays and being insightful without inserting oneself deep within the commercial structure in this particular age, and given that whether there’s a more pressing conflict of interest to address is no longer relelvant, perhaps attention can now be turned to the issues Christian raises. In particular, is it time for the code of ethics to specifically address critics lecturing for money at universities whose artists or exhibitions they later write about, accepting paid travel and hotel expenses in return for press (and the rules for acknowledging that), confluences of power like that represented by the Frieze art fair, writing catalog essays for pay, and the rest of it?