Art & finance: the latest from the barricades

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. Continue reading “Art & finance: the latest from the barricades”

Three cheers for creative enterprise

changeIt was the kind of scene teenagers dream about experiencing one day, after they’ve gone to college and moved to the Big City. A rambunctious, casually hip crowd spilled onto the sidewalk last night at 190 Orchard Street, on New York’s Lower East Side, where the Rooster Gallery was celebrating its inaugural opening.

I was there because the two founders happen to be former students of mine, Alex Slonevsky, a gregarious graphic designer, and Andre Escarameia, a transplant from Lisbon and a talented art writer. They met as art business students at the Sotheby’s Institute two years ago. Now here they were, opening their own gallery.

Rooster, like many of its L.E.S. peers, is a narrow storefront, surrounded by bars, Chinese massage parlors, funky boutiques, antique shops, espresso places, and the like. It has a tiny black spiral staircase in the rear leading down to a basement space that might have stored sweet pickles, buttons, or ladies gloves at one time. Now, thanks to a lot of sweat equity, the shop has been reborn as a classic white box. It is handsomely lighted and installed, with smart graphics in the front window and a tightly edited show of six attention-worthy Portugese artists. The gallery comes into this world fully formed. It has a program of future exhibitions, a slick website, a Facebook page, professional press releases, a cool logo, and even a philanthropic sponsor for the first show. A color photo next to the door struck me as a kind of good luck charm for the undertaking. It depicts a stack of coins rising, like a miniature skyscraper, from a hardscrabble vista of dirt and glass shards.

I mention this opening not just to plug two young dealers, but more importantly, because it is yet another sign that something is stirring in the New York art world. Quite predictably, as happened in the seventies, and after the early-eighties crash, and again after the early nineties crash, a new crop of creative entrepreneurs are entering the scene. Where others have seen trouble, they see opportunity. They are showing work on a realistic scale, at realistic prices, by artists who may have gone unnoticed at the full-throttle peak of the boom. Continue reading “Three cheers for creative enterprise”

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.

“Curator” R.I.P.

rip“Behold our fall collection,” trumpets the mail order catalog of Restoration Hardware, the home interiors chain. “No longer mere ‘retailers’ of home furnishings, we are now ‘curators’ of the best historical design the world has to offer.” And so another of our words bites the dust. The word “curator” is becoming overused to the point of losing its meaning.

A curator once had to be assigned to specific collection—the word is rooted in the notion of caring for someone (etymology links curators to insane asylums). In recent years, however, “curation” has been de-linked from any fixed array of things. A curator is no longer a warden of precious objects but a kind of freelance aesthetic concierge. The task now simply involves a clever way of putting works together to follow a purported theme. Independent curators are hired by museums on installation hit-and-run missions. The independent curator has migrated into the realm of commercial galleries. And as the New York Times announced last week, private dealer Phillipe Ségalot is putting together an auction at Phillips “like a guest curator at a museum.”

It was perhaps inevitable that “curation” would jump over the artworld fence, to be embraced by commercial marketers eager to elevate ordinary goods into the realm of Olympian taste. Glossy magazines write breathlessly about beautifully curated retail emporia. One reads about well-curated lifestyles, cheese trays, and sock drawers. Our daily information diet comes to us from curators of the news. I’ve heard people say they curate their schedules and dinner parties.

Through adoption into the lexicon of commercial marketing and quotidian speech, “curator” and “curate” have entered the graveyard of words that have become terminally diluted in their meaning even while—or precisely because—they are issuing from more and more lips. A case of linguistic atrophy and opportunism? Or an apt reflection of the messy but exciting amalgamation of everything in today’s culture?

“Russia takes the lead in regulating…”

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.  Continue reading ““Russia takes the lead in regulating…””

Eli Broad raises the stakes in Los Angeles

los_angeles-3I’m in Los Angeles, where the chatter is about Eli Broad’s decision to build a museum for his art collection downtown, in a 120,000-square foot complex designed by Diller and Scofidio. The choice puts to rest some questions about the fate of Mr. Broad’s collection. It also leaves a larger question open: Is adding another museum to LA a good idea?

The answer is complex, and responses vary depending on the professional and institutional loyalties of the folks doing the talking. In my view it boils down to this. Adding another art institution to LA’s “cultural corridor” is probably good urban policy and it may not be the best cultural policy. In the long term, however, what really counts is not whether Mr. Broad builds his own museum, but whether he can get other Los Angeles philanthropists to follow in his lead as an art patron.

Downtown LA has come a long way since MoCA opened across the street from the planned Broad museum. Diller and Scofidio, coming off recent triumphs in New York, will no doubt deliver an edgy-yet-contextual neighbor to Frank Gehry’s iconic Disney Hall and Rafael Moneo’s sublime Cathedral, just around the corner. But the area still lacks critical mass. For Los Angeles, a city trapped in a state of permanent becoming, filling another empty lot downtown will be another step toward creating a lively cosmopolitan district with enough density and foot traffic for someone to want to hang around. It may even be a kind of tipping point.

But sound urban policy is not always great cultural policy (as much as arts advocates would like to believe). Continue reading “Eli Broad raises the stakes in Los Angeles”

Revenge of the apps

explorer_iphoneI’d like to enter a contrarian view about navigation apps, which are poised to infiltrate our endearingly technophobic art institutions. Forgive me for sounding like a cave man. But then, this post was inspired, in part, by the American Museum of Natural History, which just launched an ad campaign flouting a nifty new GPS-enabled navigation tool.

There is no denying that such apps are a convenience. Loaded onto iPhones and other devices, they can lead the cultural explorer on journeys more precise and information-larded than anything enabled by a brochure or wall map. They help shift the costs of way-finding and education from the organization to the visitor. They are easy to update. And they’re cool. At the labyrinthine Art Basel fair last June, an astonishingly clever iPhone app helped collectors locate their favorite galleries or a decent sandwich.

So what’s not to love? Quite a bit, I think. For museums especially, such apps come loaded with subtle butterfly effects that techno-evangelists ignore at their peril.

First, they represent to an incursion of technology into a refreshingly gadget-free domain heretofore devoted to physical objects and direct collective experience. There is a case to be made, perhaps, for exempting some areas of life from the relentless digitization and intermediation of everything. Of course it’s easier to find the great blue whale by letting your PDA guide you. But what about the joy of aimless browsing and discovery? Here as elsewhere, technology has a way of taking the mystery and the surprise – not to mention the unpremeditated educational encounter – out of cultural experiences. What’s more, it subtly transforms a group dynamic into a bespoke, private pursuit. Analogies with newspapers abound. Continue reading “Revenge of the apps”

Charles in charge

Here in London a stunned silence greeted the surprise news that Charles Saatchi Charles Saatchiwas to ‘donate’ his recently opened Saatchi Gallery and part of his collection to the British nation, perhaps as soon as 2012. The surprise came, not only because Saatchi doesn’t seem like the retiring type – he can still be seen feverishly buying up graduate and degree shows – but mainly because no one knew it was about to happen. Not even the newly installed government had been prepped, with the Culture Minister blurting out something about philanthropy “being central to our vision of a thriving cultural sector and this is an outstanding example of how Britain can benefit from individual acts of social responsibility.”

As well as the headline figures of the 200 works being donated (including Tracey Emin’s notorious bed and various bits by the Chapmans and so on), valued at around £25 million, there was no little devil in the detail. None of the running costs will be passed to the state, which makes a change from those country piles that get left to crumble without National Heritage status, and the gift is not in lieu of taxes, said the small print. So what is this donation really about, if Saatchi is not going to retire anytime soon, as a gallery spokesperson revealed (although he will be past pensionable age, turning 70 in 2012)?

Well, despite grumbles that Saatchi’s collection isn’t comprehensive or coherent (there is no film or video admittedly), this is a fantastic offer for London (it’s free!). But the decision to change its name to the Museum of Contemporary Art London does present a problem for the current holder of nominal MoCA status, namely Tate Modern. And there is some history here. Nicholas Serota was rumoured to have refused a donation of Saatchi’s YBA holdings, so perhaps bad blood remains. Either way, should a collector be allowed to impose his taste on a nation in this way, leaving a marker of his personal choices for posterity to validate it as part of a millennial canon? Shouldn’t our nation’s keepers decide what flows into this cache? Or is this what has always happened with bequests to the nation and this is just another mausoleum by another name?

Winners take all?

ny-ah912_moma_ns_20100628183228A researcher colleague wanted to call it the “Great Museum Cartel.” We were working on a RAND report on the visual arts, and it emerged that the vast majority of visitors, operating funds, endowments, and donations accrue to the top ten museums in the country.

Yesterday bought more confirmation of the winner-take-all pattern, when The Wall Street Journal reported that MoMA “attracted its highest-ever number of visitors, 3.09 million, during its 2010 fiscal year.” That’s up a quarter million from last year and a half-million from the year of reopening. Attendance is now double of what MoMA’s saw in its old building. Tourist numbers and memberships are also up.

Of course, there is fodder for doubters. While it’s heartening to see critical stalwarts Marina Abramovic and William Kentridge draw in the neighborhood of half a million visitors–more than the annual attendance of many respectable museums–the big numbers are partly linked to exhibitions with “strong public appeal,” with Tim Burton and Water Lilies clocking in well over 800,000 visits. Whatever the case, MoMA’s popular formula is working.

The larger question is whether such success is replicable, or even desirable in every respect. Another recent report about crowd-pleasing fare at a major New York museum, in Brooklyn, didn’t reach the same conclusion. What seems to be happening is that the biggest fish are capturing more attention, while medium and small organizations struggle to keep their numbers up. This pattern is holding true not just in museums, but also with galleries and art fairs, as recent lines outside Gagosian’s historical shows and the huge throngs at Art Basel pointedly demonstrated.

What can we read into these trends?

Meanwhile, in South Korea

dsc04620While North Korean art is making a bid for attention in Vienna, in South Korea, where I just spent a week at the UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education, the art world is showing remarkable vigor. This peninsular country of 60 million, one-fifth the size of France, is the real miracle of Asia. It suffers from few of the chronic structural weaknesses of Japan, or the social and environmental ills of China or India, or the artificiality and overreach of newly rich Gulf nations. It’s the Switzerland of the East. And art is a key part of the equation.

There is no shortage of science-fiction-like mega-projects here, including the Global City of Saemangeum, to be built on the world’s largest reclaimed land mass behind a 33 km sea dyke, the world’s longest, which was just completed after 19 years of effort. But this is no Dubai. I asked a government official in the ancient city of Jeonju, which hosted my group in a bid to become a UNESCO Creative City, what’s the goal for South Korea in the years ahead. He said, “to get to between 5th and 10th in GDP in the world.” He didn’t mean per capita.

Underlying South Korea’s epic success, of course, is the most comprehensive public education effort in its hemisphere, and possibly the world. South Koreans are simply obsessed with learning, and the results are plain to see. Korea’s literate, world-wise population is, among other positive traits, deeply interested in the arts. This is probably the only place in the world where Bach can be heard in the bathrooms at a highway rest stop.

Here’s the most impressive thing about South Korea: It seems to have found a balance between warp-speed development and respect for local identity. As part of this balancing act, the state is extremely generous to local art. Seoul alone installs more than one thousand public art works a year. Historic sites are preserved and documented meticulously. Local governments are building creative complexes for artists where they can live, create, and interact for six months at a time. Arts patronage is considered obligatory for big firms and wealthy business clans, for reasons of both national pride and marketing. There is no interest in the wholesale franchising of Euro-American culture here. The country is open to foreign influences—Seoul’s top Zagat restaurant is Italian, the pastries of choice are French, Starbucks is ubiquitous, and women are as label conscious as anywhere—but the country has avoided drowning in globalization. Continue reading “Meanwhile, in South Korea”

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 “Money for nothing”

A dash of cold water

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?

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 “Berlin calling”

Museums and salaries

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?