Is the new normal the old normal?

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?

Plot twist for arts reporting

david_hfd_goliathThis wasn’t supposed to happen. Arts journalism is supposed to be going down the tubes. But here in New York, two arts sections are being expanded, with professional writers, editors, and, for now, what counts for acres of newsprint space these days.

Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is making culture a frontline in its impending war against the New York Times, with the addition of arts reporters in its soon-to-be launched local section. And last week, The New York Observer, the scrappy pink rag read by culture and media mavens around town, announced a major expansion of its arts coverage, starting March 31, under former Wall Street Journal culture editor and AWS-friend Alexandra Peers.

What can this mean for the visual arts? We may get some behind-the-scenes reporting on the art business, as the Observer has reliably done on the media and film businesses. Peers, a 22-year veteran of arts journalism, summarizes her aspirations for the section this way: “As entertainment, pop culture and TV coverage mushroomed in the past few years, fine arts got a little lost in the shuffle. The same culture sections that are recapping “Lost” don’t want copy on Marina Abramovic; it just doesn’t jive. At the same time, people are choking the aisles at the Armory fair and lining up round the block to see Gogo’s Picasso show. The fine arts needed more of a place of their own.”

Peers believes the Observer can use the new space to go beyond the usual suspects. “You would think the art world was just Gagosian, Richard Feigen and Philippe de Montebello having espresso at Sant Ambroeus. Which of course it is, but I hope to pull in a few more of the players: curators, photo gallerists, museum trustees, bloggers, the foundations. The art world’s power base is broader – and more interesting – than most general readers know.”

Amen. It bears noting, however, that these experiments will need to be backed up by advertising sales and buzz. Continue reading “Plot twist for arts reporting”

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.

Art investor numerology

homeStatistics, statistics, and more statistics. Now that it’s snowing again and I am trapped in the house, I have cracked open the revised and expanded edition of Skate’s Art Investment Handbook. This well-informed, astute, efficiently written compendium deserves to be in the library of anyone seriously interested in the art market, investor or not. It has the additional virtue of treating its topic with a healthy dose of skepticism and occasional humor—as could be expected from a Central European author.

The hefty tome turned up in the mail the other day, and, somewhat to my surprise, I actually enjoyed thumbing through it. The work of a team lead by the Russian financier Sergey Skaterschikov, it includes a solid overview of the art and art-services market, along with detailed analyses of the market’s top tier, the 1,000 top-selling works at auction tallied in the so-called Skate’s Top 1000.

The book should delight all cultural enthusiasts who thrill to obscure quantitative trivia. We learn, for example, that:
• Works by 300,000 artists, valued in total at $400 billion, are available to trade at any time on the global art market, resulting in a trading volume of $60 billion per year (with 90 percent of transactions falling under $10,000).
• One million individuals and estates, 50 art funds, and 500 museums buy art regularly.
• The 1,000 most expensive works sold at auction since 1985 were made by 183 artists and are collectively valued at $13.2 billion as of Apr. 30, 2009.
• The world’s museums hold 100 million works of art; 100,000 of these can be expected to come to market annually through deaccessioning.
• Art valuation decreases with size. Continue reading “Art investor numerology”

Is it just art or is it progress?

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Can you keep a secret? But please don’t tell anyone, because if you do, knowing how the art world is, no one will go see the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim. No, its not that the museum’s walls are completely bare and that the admission price continues to be the same. No, its not that there is an uninhibited couple endlessly kissing amidst the Rotunda. No, its not that the show is not worth visiting —on the contrary. Ok, here it is: the work is not really a performance art piece, and not so much of an artwork either: it is an education program.

I imagine that no one will agree with me, but that’s OK— I have my reasons. Sehgal took a situation that takes place daily at the museum —people having directed or undirected conversations— and extracted the art from the equation. (In the spirit of disclosure, I used to work at the Guggenheim’s education department there for seven years, organizing the museum tours and talks, which may have colored my experience, but I think that is besides the point).

For those of you who still have yet to visit, here is a report: As I went up the first ramp a 9 year-old girl greeted me. “Welcome, this is a piece by Tino Sehgal. Can I ask you a question? What is progress?” As we walked up the ramps, I spoke about wanting to become a better person when you grow up. While I was trying to explain that, a teenager appeared and took over, while the 9 year-old disappeared. “Can you elaborate?” As I labored to understand myself what I had meant after a few minutes a tall guy in his 30s arrived speaking to me about sprinting, which tied somehow with progress. He was replaced a bit later by an older man in his 60s who told me: “you know, my two best friends are alcoholic, and I wonder what that’s about.” This conversation became the most existential of all, so much so that neither of us had realized that we had reached the top of the ramp and my interlocutor was so absorbed by it that he temporarily forgot that he was part of an art piece. “Oh my god”, he said. “Usually I am not here by this point”. Then he added: “Thank you. This is a piece by Tino Sehgal” and left. Finally alone, I felt a bit of melancholy at that point, I am not exactly sure why. Continue reading “Is it just art or is it progress?”

The state of the arts is … blah

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?

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?

Requiem for a magazine

356_id_june_cover_400I attended a wake for I.D. magazine last night in New York. Not I.D., the fashion magazine. I.D. the design magazine. Now dead.

Like so many of its recently-axed midsize peers, I.D. — International Design — leaves a much larger hole in our cultural landscape than its modest circulation numbers suggest. Say what you will about the promise of online media, there is a kind of energy and legacy that develops around a magazine that remains unique to the form. A great magazine is a network and a through-line: something that, done right, can lend a segment of our culture a sense of coherence, validation, continuity and substance. The event last night, attended by several generations of former editors and contributors, was a clear manifestation of the kind of discourse a magazine can create. It is a decades-long conversation between those who care about something, and one that is unlikely to be satisfyingly supplanted by an online alternative, at least not soon.

Along with these magazines, we usually lose their archives and libraries, their established voices and obsessions, their particular and often quirky ways of going about things. Also gone, or left without a common anchoring point, are the clusters of fans and gawkers who follow the moves of these magazines avidly and who are tied together by their love or hate of what their current stewards decide to do.

For design, the loss of I.D. (disclosure: my wife used to work there, and I had written for them on occasion) means the loss of a platform for serious dialogue about a cultural form that sorely needs it. Design is one of the most exciting corners of our culture right now. But without a thoughtful exchange of ideas, it devolves into mere consumption, trapped in its own glamorous, self-referential ghetto.

I.D. gave expression to the highest ambitions of design. At its best, it reminded us that design is about art, urbanity, civilization, and our shared hopes for a better future. We can all drink to that.

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.

Quest for art’s Idol-Talent-Factor-Runway

c1823697b82db33bb0dcc11edf3397e579847b3aA new four-part reality show, School of Saatchi, begins tonight on BBC television (and will be viewable online). Six artists from an open submission competition are selected, first by a panel of judges – artist Tracey Emin, critic Matthew Collings, collector Frank Cohen and Kate Bush, director of the Barbican Art Gallery – and then vetted by Charles Saatchi. The London-based collector does not himself appear on screen, despite – or perhaps because – he’s trailed as ‘one of the most influential and enigmatic figures in the art world’ (full disclosure: I was asked to appear in some guise in the programme, but declined). Anyway, the show’s tone is Identikit reality TV fare – a set of silly tasks and crashing verdicts that are peppered with a cheeky voiceover and incidental music.

In the same vein is the yet-to-be-aired ArtStar on US network Bravo, produced by that well-known art world luminary, Sarah Jessica Parker. The only other judge revealed so far is Simon de Pury, who’s no stranger to publicity, or indeed to the conflation of art with the world of pop music, seen here belittling his profession to a thumping Euro-house soundtrack and now fresh from his Saturday night auction/performance, in which he sold music-related art to the live accompaniment of techno DJ Matthew Herbert.

But back to the slow creep of art on reality TV, there’s obviously a place for the kind of populist programming that can cut through the crap that the general public usually associates with our intellectually elitist art form. However, there’s also an unhealthy tendency here that assumes you can uncover artistic talent like you can with a singer or rock star – by putting them in front of an audience or a panel of judges and expecting them to perform, explain and show off their work.

Apart from some cash, an exhibition, a studio space and some residual fame, will such talent spotting ever result in serious appreciation for any of the so-called Next Big Things plucked from obscurity? British artist Phil Collins has already explored the phenomenon of the negative impact such makeover/reality/talk shows can have on its participants in a piece for the Turner Prize in 2006 called Shady Lane. Maybe he’ll be counselling fellow artists from now on: Do you feel your life has been ruined by your appearance on television?

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?”

Political nostalgia

spero-001Catherine Spaeth on Nancy Spero and political art:

Nancy Spero’s death the Sunday before last invites reflection upon what it means for an artist to be politically engaged at this time. Today the New York artworld appears to be more at home with the post-feminism of Lisa Yuskavage, Marylin Minter and Vanessa Beecroft. It may well be that, above all, it is Nancy Spero’s importance in the history of political engagement and feminism for which she will be remembered.

Her dismembered and spewing “female bombs” were a personal and unflinching personal protest of war. Before self-identified feminism in art, these images laid the ground for that feminism. In 1976, upon seeing her relentlessly descriptive series Torture of Women, Donald Kuspit wrote that Spero was “haunted by the death of women.”

I was too young to have seen Spero in an exhibition context at this time, but by the time I was able to she had become a legend. My strongest experience of her work was at the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Nancy Spero’s piece, Homage to Ana Mendieta, was a simple gesture – the stain of hands smearing blood upon the wall – but huge in largesse. Ana Mendieta “fell out of her window” in 1985 after a fight with her husband the artist Carl Andre. The artworld was divided over the outcome – Andre stood accused, but it could never be proven. Homage to Ana Mendieta was mournful, defiant and accusatory, the Whitney lent its walls to a political statement that would not leave those walls out of the picture. Spero’s homage was a message from and about a political situation, and inside of this situation it was as though other feminist gestures were taken up by these hands as well, appearing small in the force of its message. Continue reading “Political nostalgia”

Saudades of a collection

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Only a few hours ago the art world learned of a tragic event: on Friday night nearly 2,000 works by Brazilian artist Hélio Oiticica perished in a fire. It is an incalculable loss of the work of someone who is increasingly recognized today as one of the most influential Latin American artists of the XXth Century. Although the actual number may be lower, the initial and estimate of the lost works was a mind-numbing 90% of Oiticica’s entire production.

The collection at that moment was temporarily located in the house of Oiticica’s brother, Cesar Oiticica, because of a dispute between the Oiticica family and the city of Rio regarding unpaid fees for the lending of the works and, ironically, because of an an argument around the safe storage for these pieces. This past April, the Centro Municipal de Arte Hélio Oiticica opened a large retrospective of his work, which prompted the quarrel that resulted in their temporary relocation on Cesar Oiticica’s house in the Rio neighborhood of Jardim Botanico. Cesar Oiticica claimed that his house was conditioned with adequate alarms and climate control systems— which in any case didn’t help to prevent the fire.

It is true that fires happen everywhere and in the most secure institutions. But after the initial shock and mourning passes, there will be important questions to ask around the circumstances of this loss. Continue reading “Saudades of a collection”

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?”

Ruscha to the White House

30720817jpgMove over, healthcare. The news of the day is the installation in the White House of 45 artworks that have been loaned to the Obama family by Washington museums. Ed Ruscha’s “I think I’ll…” painting will now refreshingly grace the private residence. One can imagine the staff meeting where they green-lighted the loan request for a work that openly addresses the theme of indecision—an unusual message for any politician, and quite a leap from the resolute cowboy sculptures that adorned the White House under its previous tenants. Other works to be installed offer a kind of visual Rorschach test of a culturally hyper-sensitive administration’s leanings and talk points. It’s a tasteful and astute mix, including abstract and figurative works, Caucasian and African American artists, living masters and dead ones. The aesthetic sweet spot of the Obama collection is somewhere in the neighborhood of Richard Diebenkorn. What does this all mean? And what should be hanging in the White House at this juncture?