Category Archives: Fairs

Too much of a good thing?

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. Continue reading

Are we booming yet?

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. Continue reading

The season of our disconnect

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? Continue reading

The season that was

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. Continue reading

Miami debrief

img00057-20101203-1332The results are in, and it was a good year in Miami. Smiles were seen on dealers’ faces at every category of fair. Here’s a distillation of the general consensus.

Art Basel: Large work. High prices. Improved layout. Art Nova and Art Positions came into their own. Swarms of high-end buyers and, notably, museum types.

Design Miami: Smart move to South Beach. Needs critical mass.

Art Miami: Comeback story. Medal for Most Improved Fair of the Year. Nice video section.

Pulse: From strength to strength. Photography! Ice Palace still the nicest place to hang out.

Nada: Great vibe. More serious. This year, they sold work.

Seven: Admired newcomer. Innovative team salon approach seems to be working. Likely to be imitated.

Scope/Art Asia: Art Asia growing fast. Scope super international. How soon will Art Asia devour Scope?

Fountain: Cool. Political. Performance! Charged one and all for entry. Really?

Red Dot: Weak. Continue reading

The Appeal of SEVEN

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. Continue reading

It’s Friezing over here

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.

Money for nothing

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. Continue reading

Berlin calling

hanf-hausA cheap plane ticket purchased on a whim resulted in me attending Berlin’s recent “Gallery Weekend” (and the May 1 ‘riots’ party). As I have not really been to Berlin in years, it gave me a lot to think about. I decided to go with an open mind and little advance research, to get a reasonable overview of the scene. I did find out about a few openings, but also came across velvet ropes and guest lists.

My first impression is that the scene is much, much bigger than before, so big that one really needs to make choices about what to see and do. I guess there are 500 some galleries in Berlin, 40 of which participated in Gallery Weekend.

My second impression is that the Gallery Weekend was trying to be just that—a weekend for a carefully selected group of people. If you came, like me, without a particular invitation, you were pretty much on your own. If I didn’t know people in Berlin, I would not have met a soul. I would have eaten every meal alone. I imagine that would have turned me off deeply if I were a serious collector who didn’t have a particular gallery invitation.

My third impression was that the programming was decidedly blue chippy international artists, rather than being focused on the new and local talent on which Berlin has built its reputation.

I do wonder what exactly this Gallery Weekend is meant to accomplish. Zürich has done them for years. There, it is clear where you are supposed to be and when; there are gallery clusters, so the openings are split over three days for the three clusters. Continue reading

Miami syndrome in New York

the-birth-of-piggybacking

There must be an astronomical term for this week’s stellar array of events in New York. It’s certainly a cluster of some sort.

Once distant galaxies, the ADAA Art Fair and the Armory Show, are opening on back-to-back nights this year, forming a unified mega-event constellation. They are flanked in time and space by the Whitney Biennial and the William Kentridge juggernaut, which is merrily winding its way from the Southern Hemisphere through the top cultural institutions of Manhattan. Established events with names invoking celestial phenomena—Nova, Scope, Pulse—add to the epic convergence. Toss in the newcomers, such as the Independent art fair-exhibition hybrid, plus dozens of piggybacking gallery shows, lectures, panel discussions, and cocktail parties, and the results will overwhelm the endurance and attention spans of even the most dedicated art-world regulars.

What we are witnessing, in fact, is the Miami syndrome, transplanted to New York. Opportunistic calendaring, mixed with fear that collectors will only fly in once, has created a matrix of activity that is as impressive as it may be self-defeating. Game theorists call this the tragedy of the commons: Too many cows grazing on the too little land. We shall enjoy it while it lasts. But will quantity translate into quality, sales, and critical impact?

Three cheers for austerity

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.

Miami debrief

south-beach-miami-beachDepending on which papers and blogs you read, the art fair in Miami either was or was not as subdued as last year, the big fair either was or was not so huge as to be unnavigable, the parties were or were not as hedonistic as in the past, the art market was or was not back with a vengeance–and so on. On the the whole, there were many reasons to be happy and to be entertained. The truth is, Miami’s art fair week is so vast, so complex, so overwhelming and inexhaustible, that everyone’s personal experience will be different. What were your impressions?

What to expect when you’re expecting to go to Miami?

If you’re packing your bags to Miami, let us know what you are expecting? What year will 2009 look like? Will it be like 2008, when the financial crisis cast its pall over the fair? Or will it be more like 2005 and 2006, when exuberance began to overwhelm the art? In recent days, commentaries have issued from both schools of thought.

What is for sure is that after a surprisingly robust auction season, reports of stabilization from galleries, and signals of strength from emerging markets like Abu Dhabi, an ebullient Art Basel Miami Beach would ring out the art-market season on a note of renewal. I for one am looking forward to the reunion aspect of the week, which, regardless of the business being transacted, is unsurpassed. The art world always finds confidence in numbers and tribal proximity. (Disclosure: I’m moderating an Art Basel Conversation, with five museum directors, Friday morning.)

So, what will be the surprises? Where to look for new energy? And what will it all mean? Send your thoughts.

Let’s all pretend it’s all going to be OK

FriezeFairSosnowksa.jpgWitnessing the first throngs of yet another busy fair opening, it’s odd to observe what a delicate house of cards this whole art world of ours is, not to mention that I am sat in the ironically flimsy tent of the Frieze Art Fair, this year given an even more precarious feel by a mysterious dent caused by Monika Sosnowska’s crash-landed sculpture which was removed from the roof before the opening (amazingly because the artist felt it looked too dishonest).

Across town, away from the moneyed aisles of the fair (where everyone is kidding everyone else that it’s a good year) is an interesting show called ‘Pop Life: Art in a Material World’ at Tate Modern, which piques the whole fragile institution of the contemporary art market. Its starting point is the vagary of late cash-for-portraits Warhol and his assertion that ‘good business is the best art’. What follows is a torrid wave of money- and publicity-hungry artists leaping from Keith Haring and Martin Kippenberger to Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst and Takashi Murakami et al.

There’s much of the vulgar boom-time art that was discussed a couple of weeks ago here, but also some of the career-making moves of artists (whether knowingly or not) such as David Robbins and Gavin Turk. Continue reading

The expectation game

piazza_san_marco_with_the_basilica_by_canaletto_1730_fogg_art_museum_cambridgeHave you ever wondered if the success of today’s visual art mega-events depends less on their content than on the expectations surrounding them? The Venice Biennial and Art Basel’s 40th edition are a case in point.

Venice is a classic example of an event that art insiders love to hate. Every two years, a superstar curator is asked to prepare a vast exhibition in a difficult and historically charged venue, with limited resources, a ridiculous timeline, Italian ineptitude, and a spaghetti bowl of national pride, politics, and pavilion positioning thrown into the mix. Then the art crowd descends and, between bouts of champagne drinking and Vaporetto riding, it delivers a categorical judgment—usually negative. The pop psychologist in me believes that some folks have so much fun in Venice that they have to declare the Biennial a failure and a bore. This is partly intended to make their expense-account journey look more like a hard-working professional chore than the sybaritic fun ride it is. (You may discern a note of envy: I wasn’t there.) After this year’s opening, the commentariat appeared to be speaking from the same talking points. The line was that while the last Biennial was awful, this one—organized by art-world wunderkind Daniel Birnbaum, who is undoubtedly one of the smartest young figures on the scene—was banal and flat. Really?

Contrast with Basel. It’s a trite metaphor, but the world’s leading art fair, which occupies the same space as Baselworld, the epic watch fair, really does run like clockwork. Continue reading

Dubai on my mind

museumislamicartWithout exception, every person who heard about my recent trip to Dubai asked if I saw a parking lot at the airport filled with abandoned cars left behind by indebted foreign workers. I didn’t. But that powerful image seems to have been indelibly etched into the minds of newspaper-reading Westerners.

I did see many stalled skyscrapers and more than a few unhappy expatriates. Yet for the arts, the economic slowdown, here as elsewhere, presents a more mixed picture. In Dubai, it’s about switching from golden dreams to silver linings. I had an interesting conversation with an arts administrator who is matching up arts groups with empty real estate—just the kind of win-win deals we saw in New York City during our own years of blight. It may be that by suspending its mega-projects, Dubai will leave breathing room for scrappy local arts initiatives to take root and evolve haphazardly and organically. Culture sometimes works in such unpredictable ways.

Elsewhere, there was scant evidence of global financial Armageddon. The Art Dubai fair was, by all accounts, the best so far. It has matured into an indispensable regional fair, with dealers from neighboring countries reporting decent sales. The Global Art Forum conference (where I was a moderator) drew an international A-list crowd and played to a packed house in its lovely tent by the sea. The gigantic luxury hotel complex where these events took place was completely sold out. The Sharjah Biennial, timed to coincide this year with Art Dubai, was widely praised by those who made the short trek to the smaller Emirate east of Dubai. Going in the other direction, Abu Dhabi, sitting on vast oil reserves, is pressing on with huge cultural and educational projects. And in Doha, Qatar’s thriving capital, we were shown around I.M. Pei’s magnificent Museum of Islamic Arts, just the first of several treasure troves occasioned by the epic collecting spree of the local ruling family.

In the Gulf Region, the global crisis has stalled some plans but not others. So the question arises, two years into this downturn: Will all emerging markets and scenes suffer in equal measure? Which regions will experience the greatest setbacks, and which ones will get through this difficult period unscathed?

Wishful remedies

small-is-the-new-bigThe abundance of unusually available VIP cards that started to circulate a few weeks before the Armory week foreshadowed what was to come: a slow fair with dealers putting the best face, few red dots in sight —now with the pretext that they are not anymore in vogue—and a rather enjoyable Armory vernissage on Wednesday night where art could be seen at a more leisurely pace. Only that the art on view turned was rather safe and unchallenging, in the best cases tending to small works by major artists — a good compromise between maintaining quality and affordability. Dealers appear to hang in there, many more accessible and nicer to customers than usual, trying not to compromise their prices, although the word out there was that all price tags were negotiable.

I thought about the early years of decline of the Thomas Blackman Art Chicago fair in the late 90s, where major galleries started pulling out, the over-commercial quality bar started to descend, and modernist works and even furniture started to appear. Only that, as we well know, what we are seeing this week in New York is the symptom of something much larger. It has hit the art world so hard that we are still trying to come to grasps with it while remaining in autopilot. This past December in Miami there was still a sense of denial and a series of jovial comments of the kind of “well, the market was so unreal and out of control, now we have come back to reality”. But now that the Dow went under 7,000 and reality is much worse than previously thought, it is much harder to remain upbeat. Perhaps sales may turn out to be better than expected, but right now the current system of multiple fairs feels incongruous. The crowds may be still there, but without sales, an art fair booth becomes little more than an expensive, overblown ad. Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

A plea for optimism

miami_beach_nightThere is a question circulating around the art world blogosphere: Will Art Basel Miami Beach, and all of its attendant satellite fairs, be a gallery killer?

The rationale behind the question works something like this: Given the way the art world’s schedule runs, one assumes that most galleries paid for their art fair real estate many months ago.   And given that many galleries have begun to rely upon their fair sales to remain profitable, if not solvent, in a down turn, the art fairs begin to look like a bigger and bigger gamble, akin to doubling down on an otherwise iffy hand.   With the US economy in tatters, and knowing that the full scope of the financial crisis has yet to come into focus (not to mention the dismal performance of the fall’s contemporary art auctions), can there be any doubt that real buyers will be few and far between, and that only those galleries with (enough) cash already in the bank will still be around this time next year?

I do not relish what I believe to be the answers to these questions.   The sought after purification of the art world’s soul will be seen–if LA MOCA’s potential collapse has not shown it already–to affect the avant-garde and the opportunists alike.   So I ask, where is the silver lining?   What should an optimist for the future of the art world be looking for?   What might we find in Miami that we did not expect or could not have foreseen?

Message in a bottle

us-cover1Sarah Thornton’s book Seven Days in the Art World, which documents the frenzied peak of the recent art boom, arrives next week in American bookstores, just as that boom appears to be sputtering out. Some would call this bad timing. In fact, it’s a stroke of good luck. It puts Ms. Thornton, a Canadian-born, London-based sociologist-turned-journalist, in the enviable position of having captured an epic chapter in art-world history in its entirety. It’s all here, a message in a bottle to be consumed now, to reflect on what just happened, or later, when the action heats up all over again, as something of a cautionary tale. Each chapter examines a facet of the art world – auctions, dealers, art fairs, and so on – in a fluid, breezy style that masks some serious heavy lifting. The intrepid author has spoken to “everybody” in the art world. No detail escapes her attention, from the desk arrangements of her interviewees to their designer footwear. Underneath the glossy surface, however, lurks a sociologist’s concern for institutional narratives as well as the ethnographer’s conviction that entire social structures can be apprehended in seemingly frivolous patterns of speech or dress. And clearly, Sarah (a friend of artworldsalon) was having fun. We caught up with her on the eve of her US book tour to ask her some questions about the book:

ARTWORLDSALON: You are a sociologist turned writer. What was your biggest discovery about the art world?

SARAH THORNTON: I never had a Eureka moment. Instead, I experienced unfolding revelations. I think that’s how the book reads, too. One reason the art world fascinates me is because it is so full of conflict. It’s at once idealistic and materialistic, exclusive and open, petty and lofty. Moreover, the art world is so full of warring factions that writing this book has been like walking through a minefield.

Your book appears in the US just as global markets, and it seems the art market along with them, are entering a period of turmoil. How does it change the book’s message?

I see the book as having a handful of themes. It is a social history of the recent past – a remarkable period in which an unprecedented economic boom infiltrated every corner of the art world, even the consciousness of art students sitting in a left-wing conceptual art think-tank in the middle of the desert. It helps to have documented the structures and dynamics of a bull art market, because we forget them so quickly. Continue reading