Category Archives: Marketing

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

Hey friend, can you spare $150 million?

sundancesolar_1868_1630372Here comes news that Kickstarter, the three year-old online fundraising company, is set to distribute more money next year for cultural projects than the National Endowment for the Arts. That’s right: Kickstarter’s bootstrapped giving may exceed the agency’s circa $150 million budget. And it’s growing.

The announcement signals just how rapidly our funding mechanisms are turning obsolete. It also highlights the roundly different priorities that come into play when funding choices are left to “regular folks” rather than “experts”. Kickstarter’s top three, million-dollar-plus earning projects so far have been an animated film, a design for an iPad dock, and a computer game.

None of this bodes too well for the sort of organizations and initiatives that benefited from arts funding in the past.

For half a century, US philanthropy consisted of a cozy collaboration between tax exempt fine arts organizations and tax exempt giving bodies. For all the efforts foundations spend analyzing their own behavior and chasing innovation, as organizations they remain stunningly risk-averse. Now along comes a giving method that blithely sidesteps the old categories of patronage. Its very success is an indictment of the inefficiencies and blind spots of the old model.

The problem is that the direct democracy represented by Kickstarter will not provide a full answer to arts funding, any more than blogs and tweets can replace professional news gathering operations. Continue reading

Museums 2.0

pcb

Adam Levine writes:

Amidst the glamour of Art Basel, earlier this month, one panel in the “Conversations” series—moderated by AWS’s Andras Szanto, as it happens—stood out in its attempt to tackle a more intellectual topic: How museums will operate in the digital world?

The discussion revolved around the use of digital media in three areas: (1) platform development, (2) marketing strategies, and (3) business models and fundraising. I’d like to offer additional models that complement what was discussed in Miami.

One of the panelists, Max Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art, has arguably done more for the development of open-source museum platforms than anyone. That the IMA is incurring most of the costs for such efforts seems unreasonable and inequitable. Crowd-sourced models of fundraising were discussed, but no mention was made of crowd-sourcing development. One model that has been profitably used elsewhere is for a pool of money—raised from multiple institutions all interested in open-source museum software—to be awarded as a prize for superior development work. The template for this strategy, the so-called “Netflix Challenge,” was quite successful.

In the portion of the Miami conversation on marketing strategies, little was made of the ability to develop targeted campaigns on the basis of what people are viewing online or in the galleries. Such data, which is already available given current technologies, holds the potential for a more intimate museum experience. Using technology of the sort the company Art.sy has developed, museums can market exhibitions to visitors on the basis of their preferences. They can even suggest new works to visitors on the basis of things that they have liked in the past. Similar technologies, deployed much like “smart shopping carts” in supermarkets, could conceivably be used in certain museum settings as well. Continue reading

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

“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?

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

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?

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

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

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?

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?

Green shoots for arts journalism

light-at-end-of-tunnelI 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. Continue reading

Art Gallery 101

978-1-58115-664-5-2This 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.

After the dead tree

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.

tanpic

Continue reading

The prize of desperation

3_1466I’m going to go out on a limb and say something that will probably get me branded an elitist, a staunch defender of the status quo. I don’t like this big new art prize.

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. Continue reading

The rat, the rabbit and Yves St Laurent

ysl-bronzesThis just in from Art Newspaper Editor, Georgina Adam.

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 Ricqlès 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. Continue reading

of Buyers and Sellers…

mugrabis-nytAmongst 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? Continue reading

The Singapore experiment

kinesisk-tempel-singaporeWhat kind of an art world do you get without critics? To some, the question may sound hypothetical. But as I learned in Singapore last week, such scenarios exist, and may become more common.

In every tangible respect, the visual arts in Singapore are in an enviable situation. The small island nation sees cultural investments as a step toward a high-tech, educated, information society. The major arts facilities are glittering after ambitious additions and facelifts. The display technology in the top museums is world class. There are for-profit and non-profit art galleries. More and more institutions are being built. Artists can learn in prestigious training programs, some managed in partnership with reputable foreign institutions. Grants for travel and production are widely available.

The missing element is criticism. There is none. Newspapers offer reportage, but no reviews. There are no local criticism journals or websites, no training in criticism at universities. In talking with students and artists from around Asia, it quickly becomes clear that while western-style art cultures and art markets are proliferating, criticism is not necessarily being added into the mix. There is one silver lining: More direct contacts between artists (in person or online) not only to chit-chat, but to seriously debate the merits of each other’s work — the kind of intense, one-on-one dialogue and discourse we only read about in the history books.

With Asia exerting a more powerful influence, and with the Western arts press in decline, could the absence of criticism become the norm, not the exception?

Goodbye to all that

newspaper3With The Minneapolis Star Tribune filing for bankruptcy protection yesterday, this is a good time to talk about what happens to the arts when newspapers go away.

I was talking to a friend who tracks journalism trends closely earlier this week and he said, “2009 is going to be a real game changer.” He listed the latest casualties, which now include some of the most venerable titles: The Los Angeles Times facing the real possibility of closing. The San Francisco Chronicle losing a billion dollars for its parent company. Seattle’s second paper shutting down. Same in Denver. Papers in cities like Detroit scaling back to publishing a few days a week. The Miami Herald up for sale, but only the building seems to be worth anything. As layoffs and heretofore unthinkable page A1 banner advertising attests, even The New York Times is in deep trouble.

Are we ready for a world in which major metro dailies don’t arrive on our doorstep every morning? Or have they already lost their relevance? After all, in most American cities, a vibrant discourse conducted by dueling critics at rival newspapers is already a distant sepia-toned memory.

My friend, the publisher of a major arts website, worries more about city hall reporting than arts coverage. “Writing about art will always be glamorous and people will do it,” he said. “But what about those unglamorous stories about city government, which nobody else wants to do, and which don’t sell ads?” With so much arts coverage being opinion based — under the fancier name of criticism — blogs have absorbed arts coverage more successfully than hard news. Moreover, many papers say they’re ready to cover newsroom expenses solely with online advertising. The extinction of dinosaur papers printed on dead trees may even leave more breathing room — i.e. ad revenues — for nimbler upstart species of news media.

All points well taken. But call me nostalgic, I still don’t feel the online world fully substitutes for coverage in big metro dailies. Where do we go from here?