There was a lively discussion in my class the other day about boom-time art. Some students said fast times produce “vulgar” art; others disagreed. The point was that they found connections between the economic climate and the sort of art being made and sold.
By extension, it’s worth asking if the recession has given rise to any particular kind of art. My informal gallery scan suggests that works on view, on the whole, are getting smaller. Has substance changed, too? Will it? Should it?
There are signs that, beyond what Lindsay Pollock described as “the Darwinian game of gallery musical chairs,” art is being influenced by the downturn. BravinLee gallery in Chelsea is producing limited-edition rugs by various artists, with some of the proceeds going to charity. “Art needs to get out of the white box,” said John Lee in Pollock’s report. “This is born out of the current economic environment in a way.” Another item in my mailbox heralds a group show, opening this week, titled “Art of the Crash” at FusionArts Museum, on the Lower East Side. It’s something to do with sculpture made from the “detritus of Detroit.” Art of the Great Recession? You judge.
Now, with exquisite timing, along comes Morris Dickstein’s book on art in the 1930s, “Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of the Great Depression,” in which the CUNY professor surveys the artistic response to the calamity to which our times have so often (and so misleadingly) been compared. Read More »
A Rembrandt is coming up for auction this fall, highlighting anew the relationship of old-master and postwar-contemporary values. “Portrait of a Man, Half-Length, With His Arms Akimbo,” from 1658, owned by pharmaceutical heiress Barbara Piasecka Johnson, is the kind of picture that comes to market only once in a blue moon. It’s a museum piece. The Christie’s estimate is $30-41 million, a record for an old master.
Compare that to sums recently paid for new and historically recent works: a reported $140 million for a Pollock, $86 million for a Bacon triptych, almost $24 million for a Koons sculpture (unadjusted dollars). If the sale comes in toward the low end of the estimate, the Rembrandt would be in the same league as Lucian Freud’s “Benefit Supervisor Sleeping” (close to $34 million).
To be sure, those extraordinary prices are from the frothiest of the boom years. But the question remains, as the downturn approaches its anniversary, has the widely anticipated realignment of old master values come about? Is there really a “flight to quality” and blue chip art?
So how does it feel where you are? Arriving back in Beijing after 3 months traveling I passed through the requisite temperature checks at the airport (swine flu mania abounds); and so I thought I would do the same for Art markets around the world. I touched base with gallerists, collectors and intermediaries in the US, UK, France and Switzerland. Without wishing to over generalise: the Americans were still mostly doom and gloom; while the response from Europeans was more varied, with some friends reporting good works finding new homes. This is rather at odds with the general Economic environment. I heard more about “green shoots” while traveling in the US than in Europe. But maybe the American collectors had had more money in the game to lose?
So it has been interesting to arrive back in China and talk with friends in Beijing and Shanghai. Unsurprisingly, things are at least a little more positive here. Whilst there has been a general pull back from foreign buyers, young wealthy mainland Chinese buyers seem to be taking up some of the slack. The locals might prefer “decorative” to “difficult” and positive themes rather than negative or political, but they are starting to buy some of the same “big brand” names that the foreigners have made so popular over the last 8 years. And brand names have always been important in China, for all products.
But the foreign buyers haven’t disappeared completely; they are just taking a little more time and doing a little more due diligence. Read More »
I am going through new online ventures submitted for the National Summit on Arts Journalism, scheduled for Oct. 2 at the University of Southern California, a collaboration between the Annenberg School for Communication and the National Arts Journalism Program, with support from the Hewlett and Mellon Foundations and the NEA. Web broadcasting and satellite events at schools and cultural institutions around the country promise to make this something of a benchmark moment in our ongoing narrative about journalism’s transformation from a top-down, dead-tree medium to a digital, democratic, diffuse, dialog-oriented domain that bears less and less resemblance to the news media of old.
The agony of print journalism’s attenuated demise continues to dominate pubic discussion about journalism in general and arts journalism in particular. Nonetheless, as I argued recently in The Art Newspaper, we’re seeing the emergence of new communication and business models, some of which may not look anything like the journalism we used to know, but which are filling the void left behind by imploding newspapers and struggling magazines.
When the idea of the summit was hatched, it was hard to predict how many projects would come out of the woodwork. But after this week’s deadline, the tally has topped one hundred—a remarkable number, in my opinion, and a sign that at long last we have entered a new phase. Read More »
We interrupt the summer doldrums with news that “controversial graffiti artist” Mat Benote has surreptitiously installed one of his own works in the Guggenheim Museum. This cheeky guerilla action raises anew questions about authority and power in the art world.
Benote apparently hung up his work—a kind of Russian Avant-Garde-ish abstract composition, in black and red, accompanied by a wall label—during normal business hours, unnoticed by Guggenheim security guards or patrons. The press release somewhat hyperbolically claimed, “a piece of art was added to the museum’s permanent collection in the form of a gift by the artist.”
Really? Much like the Grand Rapids ArtPrize discussed in an earlier ArtworldSalon post, the intervention brings up some interesting concerns. If a work is hung on the wall of a museum, without the sanction of curators, is it to be considered part of the museum’s art program? Can anyone bring in a picture, hang it on the wall, and thus confer upon it the status of museum piece? If so, are then random objects in visitors’ handbags also properly seen as part of the museum’s temporary exhibition programming? By extension, are the visitors themselves to be considered a kind of accidental social sculpture, by virtue of performing their pattern of human interactions inside the symbolically charged confines of the museum? Or will these visitors have to be labeled an artwork, by someone such as Benote, to be so considered?
Questions also run in the opposite direction: If an artwork looks like a run-of-he mill abstract composition, neatly applied on a two dimensional surface, installed like a precious painting inside a top-flight museum, with a wall label, is it still “graffiti”?
Perhaps the most fun question for this Salon may be: What were the Guggenheim’s esteemed curators supposed to do? Lemonade, anyone?
For a while now, there has been a degree of discomfort with the notion of an ideal viewer. At its extremes, the dangers of such an ideal are the failure of one’s poorly aimed presumptions as to what an audience is, or the presumptuousness of constructing a subject, of producing a consumer.
Rirkrit Tiravanija’s recent contribution to “Cinema Liberte/Bar Lounge,” in collaboration with Douglas Gordon at the Guggenheim’s “theanyspacewhatever,” was - despite its generosity - a coldly sceptical response to this situation. Served Illy coffee by Illy baristas, the failure to mean was offered as a gift, and this gift in turn was a lifestyle brand. As though wishing to correct this situation of art, Michael Fried in ‘Why Photography Matters” describes work so saturated by artistic intent that the audience is shunned from the space of it.
In a July 11th discussion on “Art and Power” at The Drawing Center in New York, the artist Alexis Knowlton shifted the terms away from the ideal viewer and back towards artistic intent. She invoked a term coined by Jerrold Levinson, “hypothetical intentionalism.” Already standard jargon in the philosophy of aesthetics, these words, for better or worse, have not yet found their way into artworld discourse. In October-driven art history and criticism (inaugurated by Rosalind Krauss’s 1976 essay in Vol. 1 on Vito Acconci, “Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissicism”), the artworld has been more at home with the problem of the viewing subject.
For Knowlton, the very worst symptom of ceding artistic intent is what she refers to as SLAT: Super Lame Art Thematicization. The current Venice Bienniale, “Making Worlds” and the New Museum’s recent “Unmonumental” are, in her opinion, cases in point. Read More »
This week marks the publication of Edward Winkleman’s How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery. For those familiar with Ed’s writing from ArtworldSalon—not to mention his own blog—the book may come as a surprise. Although fully qualified to speak as an art-world insider, armed with the requisite attitude and gossip, he chose the more difficult, and in my opinion braver path: To share basic, practical information with younger colleagues about the particular challenges of running an art gallery. Never has such information been more needed than now, when every penny counts and when dealers, both novices and veterans, must think anew about every facet of their business.
Part Bible, part user’s guide, Ed’s book offers calm and steady, and above all honest, advice on questions younger dealers always want to know about, but are often afraid to ask. How much should I pay myself? Where should I advertise? When do I need a lawyer? But even the best-laid plans can skid off the tracks because of the minutiae. One of the virtues of Ed’s book is that it delves into seemingly mundane, nevertheless important matters that others might have glossed over. No detail escapes his attention: from staff dress codes to the best choice of gallery paint color; from industry-standard salary levels to the wisdom of including packing tape in your “art fair survival kit.”
If you’re planning to open a gallery, buy this book. If you’re planning to stay in business, buy this book.
Have 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. Read More »
The nice folks over at The Art Newspaper asked András for his thoughts on what would happen to Arts writing with the decline of the Press. His response can be seen here, or after the break.
I am talking about the ArtPrize [sic.], the “radically open” art competition with the greatest payout in history: $250,000 for the winner ($100,000 for the runner-up) in an American Idol-style contest based on voting by the general public. It’s being funded by a well-meaning young gentleman named Rick DeVos, who won a contest of a different sort — genetic — and leveraged his inherited fortune with entrepreneurial feats of his own. The contestants will register online, ship their work to Grand Rapids, Michigan, and the rest will be up to the good folks who happen to be in town during an exhibitionpalooza weekend event where the voting takes place.
So what’s wrong with this picture? I can think of four things.
First, I have nothing against discovering those hidden diamonds in our midst (I, too, watched the Laura Boyle video and got misty-eyed), but public polling is not the best way to reward human accomplishment. The Olympics, the Nobel, or the Pulitzer Prizes are earned in arduous, sometimes lifelong ordeals of jumping over physical and mental hurdles. Judgment by juries and peers has a lot to do with the authority of these awards. Read More »
From struggling academics, to struggling artists. The New York Times started a blog titled Attention Artists!, on the recession’s impact on artists. So far, responses have been surprisingly sanguine, ranging from “I am completely adapted to being satisfied from my work and my work alone,” to “I think that the recession is making people understand the intrinsic and real value of art.” Some artists wax lethargic about their financial woes. But a more characteristic comment would be this: “The sick economy, combined with the collapse and confusion of the corporate music business, has actually been good for those of us who have existed on the fringes for years.”
Artists may be blessed with strong survival skills, especially in the putting-a-brave-face-on-misery department. Or is this a form of “false consciousness” (to dust off another half-forgotten thinker who is suddenly back in vogue)? How realistic is this new silver-lining discourse?
The idea that art-market busts are good because artists can “take over the factory, make the art industry their own” and “daydream and concentrate” was given an airing in February by Holland Cotter in New York Times in a manifesto-esque article,“The Boom is Over. Long Live Art.” Lots of people who make their living in the art world took note, and some felt the critic may have missed the point. At this stage in history, must art’s credibility depend on proof of human suffering and absence of commercial success? “Certainly, the excesses of the art world were alienating,” observed Alexandra Peers, an ArtworldSalon friend, in a riposte to Cotter in New York magazine. “But there’s Schadenfreude in the argument that bad times are good for the naughty, naughty art world.”
So which is it: An outbreak of gooey-eyed Romanticism? Or a sober reckoning with tough but healthy new realities?
Without 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?
The 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. Read More »
The saga of the Chinese bronzes hammered down at auction during the Yves St Laurent sale and then not paid for, as a political gesture, raises many thorny questions.
Briefly, (and for those of you who were on Mars this week), the two Qianlong bronze heads, of a rat and a rabbit, were looted from the Yuanming Yuan Summer Palace in Beijing by Franco-British forces in 1860 during the Opium Wars. They were two of 12 heads which adorned a Zodiac fountain, five of which have never resurfaced.
The heads were offered for sale by Pierre Bergé, the late Yves St Laurent’s former lover and business partner, in Christie’s block-busting sale of their collection last week in Paris. The Chinese have been calling for the return of the heads, and a French association (AFACT) with links to China attempted to block the sale by bringing an emergency injunction in a French court shortly before the sale started. The demand was thrown out in no uncertain terms by the French “procureur” (prosecutor) for a number of reasons, some technical and others more fundamental. I was in court and subsequently at the sale when the bronzes were sold.
China was not able, legally, to claim the bronzes under international law, and does not want simply to buy them back – its position being that they were looted and should be returned. At no point did AFACT claim that Bergé was not the legal owner of the heads, and prior to the sale Bergé stated that he would be prepared to return the heads “when China respects human rights and frees Tibet”. This did nothing to improve Sino-French relations, which hit a new low after French President Nicolas Sarkozy met with the Dalai Lama last December in Poland.
At the sale, the two heads were “sold” to a bidder on the telephone, underbid by two other telephones for the first, and one for the second. The price was £20.4m each, including premium, and contrary to usual practice no paddle number was announced – “the buyer wanted absolute discretion,” auctioneer François de RicqlÃ¨s said afterwards.
On Monday this week a Chinese collector and auction house general manager, Cai Mingchao, announced that he was the buyer and that he was refusing to pay, as a patriotic gesture.
So here are some of the questions this saga raises. Read More »
Amongst all the excitement about new movements (see Ossian’s piece below) I find it hard to get my head out of the markets. To wit, there is a nice Konigsberg feature in the NYT Online this weekend about the Mugrabis and their buying styles. The title is slightly misleading (Is Anybody Buying Art These Days?) as it is entirely about the Mugrabis and mostly about their buying history, but it is an interesting read about one of the more focused market-makers of the last 20 years. Features of their approach include the somewhat indiscriminate purchasing of their favorite artists (supporting the notion that name matters more than quality, at least in a rising market), and their “addiction” to collecting. “We are addicts. That is what addicts do,” Alberto Mugrabi is quoted as saying. Many collectors would recognise that sentiment.
The addiction of art collectors got me thinking about the broader context of contemporary art-market values. At various points in the article, there are references to buying when cash was in short supply and to extending a collection even when the collectors were nervous about the market. Even quite recently, works were sold to free up cash for a possible market-downturn buying. That could be sensible triage, or an indication of how stretched the Mugrabis might be. Which raises a question about how stretched or indebted collectors are overall.
The current global economic woes are debt based. They have to do with the difficulty of companies or individuals who rely upon borrowing to conduct their business or run their lives. Operating on debt is not necessarily a bad thing. It can simply reflect the cyclicality of cash flows (people or companies needing to spend before they can sell or earn, and therefore needing to borrow to fund that spend). However, when lending dries up because of losses in another part of the debt market (high-risk mortgages in the current case), then companies or individuals who rely upon debt to conduct their operations run out of fuel. The only way to then raise cash is to sell existing stock, if they have any to sell. But when there is less cash to go around, sellers start to outnumber buyers, and prices plunge.
So here is the question: How stretched are the top collectors of the last five years? In any part of their lives? Read More »