Whither curatorial studies?

top_left_metThis in from Eva Diaz:

Following on the previous piece on museum directors, I was surprised–yet somehow not surprised– that the list didn’t mention artists, curation, or really much about museum  content.    One would think that such a list of “improvements” to museums would include the requirement that museums strive to better their shows and content?   In particular, the list missed mentioning curators; you know, those poor souls who the Association of Museum Directors employ, and who are ostensibly the creative agents within museum institutions. That omission got me thinking about what curators do, about the curatorial profession, and about the pedagogical cottage industry of curatorial studies.

That means asking “why the global proliferation of post-graduate/MFA-granting curatorial programs today?” And that begs a related question of just what is “curatorial studies” as a discipline.   Maybe the problem is that it isn’t one at all.   

Perhaps it’s easier to begin by asking what sort of professional outcomes curatorial studies presents its graduates.   As a degree (M.A.) or credential, it doesn’t offer much professional security in academia, which generally reserves permanent or tenured positions in the arts for holders of terminal degrees such as art history Ph.D.s or art practice MFAs.    The close connection (and often asymmetrical relationship) of curatorial studies programs (no PhD)  to art history departments (PhD-granting) means that the seat of their graduates’ professional aspirations aren’t in academia, but elsewhere. Where is that elsewhere?

Simple answer, right? To curate, that is, to organize art exhibitions (and to produce and perhaps write for art catalogs that result from those exhibitions) happens in but a few sites: art museums, non-profit or university art centers, and commercial art galleries.   Curatorial studies programs feed students into these three institutions; the art magazine world and the grant-giving/foundation sector can be folded in here too, though generally they do not involve curating narrowly defined.   Working as a curator generally means intersecting with at least one of these art display institutions, whether or not the curatorial work is independent or salaried.   Though these sites have different masters, different “employers” so to speak, the non-profit and museum worlds in particular share certain professional similarities.   Yet curatorial studies programs don’t seem designed to educate students about the expectations of these institutions.

Continue reading “Whither curatorial studies?”

By popular demand

10commandmentsAt the recent Association of Art Museum Directors conference, I read a 10-point “Recovery Plan” for museums. Several people asked for it after the conference, so here it is. Thoughts welcome.

1. Avoid rash moves that alienate private benefactors, who have been the bedrock of your support since the 19th century.

2. Develop realistic ethical protocols that maximize giving while safeguarding curatorial independence.

3. To tap government support, make a better case about your public benefits.

4. Make yourself culturally indispensable by opening up prudently to amateur and informal culture and – yes – commercial culture.

5. Push for new infrastructure: develop loan and credit facilities, adopt best management practices, harness new technology.

6. Think harder about mergers, partnerships, and collaborations.

7. Develop a joint communication and marketing effort to take charge of the public debate about museum ethics.

8. Address the collapse of quality arts media and do more to tell your own story directly to the audience.

9. Enhance your professionalism through better education, including training in arts business and administration.

10. Start buying the inexpensive wonderful contemporary art which about to hit the market, and which will make you look very smart tomorrow.

Will LA lead the way?

lamocaThe future of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art is being decided as we speak. Two scenarios have been preoccupying the press — a LACMA-MOCA merger or a “bailout” by Eli Broad — and the final outcome may be a mix of the two, or something different. This is LA, a city of white knights and twisting plots. Events don’t always follow the predictable screenplay. (I have long been a fan of a Getty-MOCA combo, but that, apparently, is not in the cards.)

Whatever happens, the art world is watching because MOCA’s problems won’t be the last. Museum finances across the country (and the world) are shaky, and some institutions are stretched to the limit. As Warren Buffett likes to say, “It’s only after the tide goes out that you see who’s swimming naked.” But curiously, while much talk in the boom years centered on Faustian bargains that museums make to survive, it is only now, with the protective cover of philanthropic and endowment revenues suddenly removed, that the truly tough choices must be made.

Here might be the silver lining. In a world where Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, we have yet to read about a single proactive arts merger in the papers. Cities across the nation are dotted with cultural institutions that cannot pay their way and are going after the same benefactors. But mergers and combinations remain options of last resort. That has to change.

The news from LA may also make future benefactors more cautious about building new infrastructure where institutions already exist. The museum landscape of LA is the ultimate example of the principle of “to each patron his own edifice.” Last but not least, if things get worse, we may yet witness a reassessment of government’s role in the arts, as happened on Wall Street.

What do you see as the larger lessons of Los Angeles?

And so it starts…

christies-unsold-bacon-portrait-of-henrietta-moraes-1969Bloomberg today reported the dramatic drop in prices achieved at all the major auction houses this weekend.

Sales by Sotheby’s, Christie’s International and Phillips de Pury & Co made a combined 59 million pounds ($102 million), against minimum estimates of 106.2 million pounds, according to Bloomberg calculations. They follow a five-day auction by Sotheby’s in Hong Kong this month that raised HK$1.1 billion ($141.7 million), also about half the presale estimate, as buyers shunned some top lots for being too expensive.

This is of course to be expected as much of the collector market focuses on wealth preservation rather than spending. And galleries in New York have noticed a softening for some time.  Interestingly, though, one normally expects an art market correction 6 to 9 months after stock market crashes.  The question now is whether this is the start of a rout in the contemporary art market or merely a short term, financial market correlated, “correction.”

It also, by the way, raises a question about the other major art story of last week about recent moves by two former senior US museum directors to the private sector. Robert Fitzpatrick moved from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to Christie’s Haunch of Venison, and David Ross moved on from his days at the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco to be a partner at Albion.  Whilst I fully understand the attractions of better salaries and less stifling boards, I wonder if their timing was all it could be?

Not everyone is worried though.  I have spoken to two collectors this weekend who said, in effect, “finally a correction: maybe prices will come down to a more reasonable level and we can start buying again.”

So what do you think: Short term correction or start of a rout? A good thing or a bad thing?

What’s next for nonprofits?

Armory
Now that government regulation of investments and markets is suddenly back in vogue, it’s only a matter of time until the reformers and the ethical cleansers train their sights on the least regulated market of them all–the art market. This will take time, but stay tuned. As last week’s exchanges made clear, taking a measure of post-bailout art values is also an exercise for another day. Only the November auctions will give us clear signals about the market’s health or decline.

This gives us breathing room to look further afield. What are the wider effects of the financial meltdown? To launch what might be a recurring feature about “What’s next?” let’s look at what the latest turn of events means for nonprofits. The postmortems have already begun. The Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post published articles over the past weekend about nonprofits bracing for the worst. The Journal points out that U.S. charitable donations grew a paltry 1% in 2007–that’s before the bad news hit. And although, as the Post reminds, corporate donations amounted to only 3% of the contributed income of nonprofit arts groups, some of the most generous sources of corporate giving are likely to vanish, at least for now.

So what is a nonprofit leader to do? As always, the worst-hit will be mid-size groups with high overhead and weak fundraising potential. These would do well to take a look at the astonishing flexibility that giant financial firms have shown in this crisis. If Merrill Lynch can be sold in a day, arts organizations, too, can adapt. For museums, there are undeniable threats in this new environment, including the possibility of tougher Congressional scrutiny of tax exceptions and loopholes. But there might also be a distant silver lining in the form of lower acquisition costs and more revenue from visitors–museums are an inexpensive family pastime, especially compared to a weekend in Turks and Caicos.

The real benefits of an economic downturn for nonprofits may be less obvious. The pendulum may be swinging back to a point where nonprofit art-world institutions start to matter more again. Creative Time’s current event series, Democracy in America, which culminated with the well-timed opening of a sprawling exhibit of political art at the Park Avenue Armory last weekend (see picture) may be a sign of good things to come–evidence that the art world may be ready to rejoin the “reality based community.”

9/15

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The topography of Wall Street and the financial system was redrawn over the past weekend. So what’s next? And specifically, what’s next for the art market? In recent months, heightened anxiety about the credit crisis and the meltdown in global finance did not translate into a flight from art purchases. Quite the opposite. Will the current jitters cause collectors and investors to look to art as a safe haven, or will they put the breaks on a long boom that has persisted, with a brief interruption in the early 1990s, for almost a quarter century? What does it mean for nonprofit institutions which rely on donations, and for art sales that depend on loans, guarantees, and credit? Who stands to lose or gain from the next round of transformations? And on the eve of a historic single-artist sale, are we going to witness a turning point in the psychology of the art world and the art business? I invite our panel to submit educated guesses.

Summer reading: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark

Shark_Thompson.jpgA side benefit of the boom has been a stream of new books on the business of art. Given the lack of independently verifiable data, especially about the gallery trade, these books usually promise more than they can deliver. Don Thompson’s The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Art and Auction Houses (until recently available only in the U.K.) is no exception. But it qualifies as recommended reading for anyone looking for a quick overview of how the art world works.

Thompson, an economist and branding expert, undertook a yearlong “journey of discovery” for this entertaining study of the “economics and psychology of art, dealers, and auctions.” By his description, the book “explores money, lust and self aggrandizement of possession, all important elements on the world of contemporary art.” He admits “much of the anecdotal material and some of the numbers in the book are single-source stories and facts,” which are often “embellished in the retelling” and “accepted as fact because they are repeated as fact.” The candor is refreshing. And to be sure, Thompson has a keen eye for the telling statistic.

With these provisos out of the way, and no endorsement of the accuracy of what follows, here is a glossary of facts and figures from the book (all offered by the author without the benefit of direct references or footnotes):
• “Eight of ten works purchased directly from an artist and half the works purchased at auction will never again resell at their purchase price.” Continue reading “Summer reading: The $12 Million Stuffed Shark”

Notes on ‘Art and Money’

money_art_05.jpg

On the 14th, Artforum hosted a panel at the New School with the stripped down and self-evident title “Art and Money.” The panelists included Tom Crow (much esteemed if somewhat dusty art historian currently installed at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts), Amy Cappellazzo (International Co-Head of Christies ‘s Post-War and Contemporary Art department, art world punching bag and proud mother of the auction house as “big box store” analogy), Yinka Shonibare MBE (perhaps the very definition of the post-historical, post-colonial, post-black artist), Kathy Halbreich (former Director of the Walker and now MoMA’s image disciplinarian-cum-Kultur defender) and Jeffrey Deitch (maestro of the art world spectacle who never met a hipster he didn’t like); it was, to say the least, an almost perfectly diverse array of the art industry’s different player positions. Tim Griffin (Artforum‘s soft-spoken editor) moderated the event.

The house was packed, no doubt in anticipation of the rhetorical grenades that the panelists, antagonists all, would lob into one another’s laps. But once again, “politesse” was regnant (see Andras Szanto’s dispatch from the ADAA/MoMA Panel back in February). Here is a brief rundown of the more and less interesting of the panelists’ comments:

Deitch opened with an astute statement on how the artworld had become the newest “platform” upon which “creative people” from all disciplines gather, adding that “people at the top of their game like to meet one another,” which sounds a lot like celebrity culture entering a plea of Innocent.

Shonibare noted that a “bigger market” makes room for “bigger thoughts.” As to whether those thoughts are actually better, he withheld judgment, but did add that bigger work continues to run the risk of appearing “superficial.” Continue reading “Notes on ‘Art and Money’”

The new sin tax: museum tschotchkes

TschotsckesMug.jpgMove over, cigarettes. The New York Times reports this morning that N.Y. State officials plan to offset government spending by levying a tax on museum gift shops. For years lawmakers have been asking why an Alessi corkscrew should be taxed in one kind of shop but not in another. Now it’s official: “An array of smaller tax law changes — requiring nonprofit organizations like museums and advocacy groups to collect sales taxes on T-shirts, mugs and other items — will bring in more modest amounts.” The same politicians who walked way from half a billion dollars in annual revenues from a Manhattan traffic congestion charge will combat future deficits with a tithe on postcards and mouse pads.

The call for ethical cleansing is ringing anew not just from Albany but also from the inner precincts of the art world. The always sharp Adrian Ellis has penned a pointedly polemical article in The Art Newspaper entitled “Museums should beware of being used as marketing tools.” Never one to mince words, he casts a stern gaze at museum acquisitions of contemporary art — around which he detects the odor of “insider trading” — and concludes that in some cases “museums serve as accomplices, albeit unwilling, to a sequence of events in which their standing is appropriated for private gain.” Read and discuss.

Meanwhile, downstairs in the gift shop, the new regulations may open the way for unexpected consequences. The chimera of educational (and therefore tax-exempt) intent having been dispelled, museums may start to stock their shelves with more nakedly profitable goods. (Sandro Chia’s excellent but hard-to-find Brunello di Montalcino could be a start.) The Times is already discussing museum souvenirs in one breath with tobacco and massage parlors. So what’s next — warning labels?

Pointless punditry (why critics don’t matter, ch. 35)

Portrait_of_the_Art_Critic_Vladimir_Stasov__by_Ilya_Repin__1883.JPGFor this post, I was going to write about the Whitney Biennial. I was planning to coin the phrase “Unfinish Fetish” to describe the prevalence of inexpensive and coarse materials in the show. Alternatively, I might have written about the surprisingly solid auction sales of recent weeks. Or I might have devoted an article to the excitement of the ADAA fair and its ebullient opening in New York.

But none of this would have mattered much, because, you see, pundits don’t matter much. That was an insight I gained last weekend at a conference organized by the Museé D’Art Contemporain de Montréal.

The Max and Iris Stern International Symposium on the State of the Contemporary Art Market coincided with the worst snowstorm in the city since 1971 (a pundit may have observed the symbolism of this fact). A highlight of the event was a presentation by Michael Moses, the economics professor of Mei-Moses index fame. The talk included fresh figures from 2007, according to which art solidly outperformed stocks last year. The Mei-Moses jumped just over 20 percent, against a 5.5 percent uptick in the S&P 500. (The real money was in gold, which shot up 31 percent.) No surprise, but 2007 was the first year since the inception of the index that fine art values measurably outperformed real estate.

But the statistics that raised the most eyebrows had to do with “citations.” Does a mention by a critic or a selection by a museum curator make a difference in the sale price of an artwork at auction? No. “Art critics and museums are basically meaningless.”

Well, almost meaningless. Only when there had been at least 11 citations by critics or selections by curators (as noted in the auction catalog) did citations make a dent on prices. Of 12,000 works analyzed by Professors Mei and Moses, that could only be said about 185 objects. Even then, the impact was a paltry half-percent.

The findings raise interesting questions when it comes to journalistic accusations of “collusion” by “interested parties” who loan artworks to museums to get them talked about by critics. This may matter for contemporary art, which does indeed get a bump from museum exposure and critical validation, as the creators of the works at the Whitney Biennial, finished or not, will soon find out. But in most cases, where artists already present at auction are concerned, the data do not confirm the conventional wisdom that citations matter.

Last point: If you can make it to Montréal, don’t miss “Cuba! Art and History from 1868 to Today” at the Museé des Beaux-Arts. It may be the best exhibition you see this year, and it won’t be coming to the U.S.

Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, post-Krens?

This thought in from Steven Kaplan in Manhattan

Thomas Krens will step down after nearly twenty years as director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, and the search for his successor has officially begun. This announcement is barely two days old, but the art pundits are already circling like hawks high above the Frank Lloyd Wright rotunda, gliding over the thermal gradients for indications of future trends, while also hunting smaller anecdotal tidbits to feast upon.

If the age of Krens is soon to recede in our collective rear view mirror, how will it be remembered? As a period when the establishment of a coherent aesthetic identity for the museum took a back seat to the art of the deal? When international franchising and corporate sponsorship became overriding determinants of exhibition content? When fashion, architecture and other borrowed interests reigned at the expense of the art itself? Or did Krens manage to create a system of patronage and power that will endure? Was he in fact a visionary, an advocate of his own peculiar manifest destiny: always expanding, always seeking out new funding, always ready to open his doors if the price was right, while placing greater and greater financial demands upon his board of trustees, who perhaps finally had
no choice but to mutiny?

Gehry_Guggenheim_Abu_Dhabi_.jpgPart of the answer will be determined by the policies and personae of his successors. In particular there remains the legacy of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, the jewel of his franchising effort, “35 percent larger than Bilbao”. A major mission for Krens (and starchitect Frank Gehry) is the completion of this monolith in the desert. It is the fulfillment of his expansionist dream and his ultimate expression of museum realpolitik. Because when domestic benefactors such as Peter B. Lewis balked at the huge cost of funding the satellite projects, Krens did an end run and appealed directly to the oil-rich sheiks — in much the same way that the banks have recently looked to UAE money to bail them out of the mortgage crisis.

The Guggenheim is presently committed to building their satellite in Abu Dhabi. But as the museum reassesses its priorities, considers its post-Krens identity, and examines its finite resources, one can imagine a revision of this decision. Especially in light of the Emirates’ policies of not allowing entry to Israeli passport-holders and their censorship of gay content and nudity in the art to be exhibited.

The final decision of whether or not to proceed is reserved to the museum’s board of trustees. But I would pose the following questions to ArtWorld Salon readers: Should institutional initiatives be reconsidered in light of new economic realities and new leadership? Should the leftover projects of an old regime be cleared out, to allow the new director a “clean slate”? And might the fate of the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi give us some indication of how museums will operate in a post-Krens era?

We pay, you stay: US museums look more attractive

HP_20061208151116_001.JPG With all the empty directorial posts floating around (the Guggenheim, the National Gallery in London etc) and the brain drain that is steadily sucking talent from institutions towards the commercial art sector, museums are having to cough up big in order to keep their best staff from straying. For the most part, the bar is still way below corporate CEO standards, but who’s to say that Phillipe de Montebello didn’t richly deserve his recent $4 million golden pat on the back, after 30 years of solid service to the Metropolitan, America’s largest and most complex arts institution?

However, while museum directors should be handsomely paid for guarding our national treasures (don’t get me started on ‘dodgy’ expense accounts) and no ceiling price can be placed on talent, there is a clear disparity developing between what a museum director gets paid in the US and what he or she would get in Europe. What is the difference between Glenn Lowry’s job at MoMA and say, Nick Serota’s at Tate, apart of course from the gaping $750,000 chasm in earnings (Lowry’s $1.14 million compared to Serota’s $390,000 all in, according to The Art Newspaper)?

Perhaps this is easy to answer given the different funding options available to both men – rich trustees and donors on one side of the Atlantic and poor government funding and limited handouts on the other. But this doesn’t tell the whole story, because Tate is still wealthy enough to run four separate sites in Britain concurrently and build a  £215m extension to Tate Modern (having announced a record 7.7m visitors for last year). Perhaps, in Europe, we expect our public servants to be just that and no more. How long before the museum director post becomes so devalued over here that all eligible candidates begin defecting to the team with the biggest financial clout?

Engineering the (stealth) blockbuster

Unknown MonetCan you cook up a blockbuster? This is what one curator in a prominent London institution (no names) came to ask me, for a series of interviews that may or may not result in the magic formula for big box-office success. There are various ingredients you need for the cauldron of course; a big-name artist, a spectacular debut or once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a press deluge and an overstuffed gift shop.

Getting thousands of people through the doors of an exhibition every day used to be so easy – bring in Monet, Matisse, Picasso or all three (Motisso?) – and listen to the cash registers ring out. Nowadays the hugely increased financial pressures of staging such mega-exhibitions – from insurance and shipping to marketing and advertising – mean that the anatomy of a blockbuster show is having to change.

Later this year in London there are a couple of old-fashioned crowd-pullers – terracotta warriors and China coming to the British Museum and Tutankhamun at the old Millennium Dome (now ‘The 02’ venue) – but these are tried and tested recipes. Some museums are now resorting to what I call ‘Stealth Blockbusters’, which on the surface promise the big names and jaw-dropping experience, but can often deceive through clever titles or curating by the back door. For example, the Royal Academy (which has cancelled ‘The Arts in Latin America 1492-1820’ from its autumn slot, because it can’t afford to ship the 250 pieces from LACMA) has recently put on ‘The Unknown Monet’ and ‘Impressionists by the Sea’, which were worthy, scholarly shows with few outright masterpieces. However, once given the sheen of blockbuster glamour and the catchy title, they hit the headlines – and presumably their visitor targets.

Robert Storr put it well before unveiling his Venice Biennale: ‘Once you have enthralled the public enough to get them through the doors, one of the greatest tasks of museums and curators is disenthralling.’ But how long do we wait before we come stomping out of our museums demanding our money back for misrepresentation?

Mission creep: the museum-director dilemma

I met up with a few artworld friends for drinks last night, and the conversation turned to the Sunday Times piece on Philippe de Montebello’s Met leadership and the inevitable speculations about his successors. Soon after she left us to go have dinner, Alexandra Peers blackberryed me: “Just heard Lisa Dennison has left the Gugg to do business development for Sotheby’s.” Lo and behold, another museum-director slot to be filled! That makes 25 in the United States, based on the Sunday Times article on the Getty’s museum-director training program.

During our cocktails, I had pointed out the fact that at any given moment there seem to be 20-odd open museum directorships and only a half-dozen names in circulation as their likely occupants. Often, of course, those are other museum directors, and when they switch slots, the dilemma remains. Now, musea are not my forte, but from my relatively outside perspective it seems the problem lies in the way that the job has evolved through mission creep over the years. In addition to the classic connoisseurship required, fund-raising and business skills have become a big part of the job, as has the ability to deal with major construction projects and foreign governments. The Getty article quoted Cloisters/Met curator Julien Chapuis saying: “I’m concerned that the next generation of museum leaders will be business people not trained in art history, people who have little knowledge of the collection, which for me is the raison d’être of a museum.” Then again, a museum director needs to have the respect of his curators. As the Guardian reported when London’s National Gallery director Charles Saumarez Smith quit, he was said “to have been undermined by a cabal of his own curatorial staff who belittled his intellect and thought him a poor connoisseur.”

So it seems today’s ideal museum-director candidate would have a PhD in Art History, an MBA, plus several years of Foreign Service and corporate experience under the belt. It’s a tall order, which may explain why it’s so frequently found to be difficult to fulfill, especially outside the top institutions. As I suggested to my drinking companions last night perhaps it’s time to widen the notion of how museums are led: Splitting the job into business and art functions, rather than desperately seeking candidates combining all the skills required in the modern museum era and paralyzing the institution until the ideal candidate surfaces. Thoughts?

Art about boom is a bust

Elmgreen and Dragset, Prada Marfa, 2005$72.8 million for a Rothko? $71.7 million for a Warhol? More than $870 million spent on contemporary art in a single week? What does it all mean?

I headed for answers to the conveniently timed “The Price of Everything” exhibition, just across from the Empire State Building at CUNY’s art gallery on Fifth Avenue. The subtitle of the show, on view through June 24 and organized by the Whitney Independent Study Program, is “Perspectives on the Art Market.” The exhibition promises to illuminate the logic of the commercial art world by “evaluating and examining the different economic structures that comprise today’s expanded art market.” The selected artists “invite a skeptical awareness of market mechanisms” and “an active engagement with possible alternatives.”

I was hungry for enlightenment. These days, aren’t we all trying to figure out how a piece of canvas with half a gallon of paint can metamorphose into an asset comparable in value to the lifetime earnings of two-dozen tenured art historians?

Here’s what I found. In a dimly lit, shrine-like room, covered in red fabric, works by four famous artists that had been donated by the Whitney Museum to corporations in recognition of their support of the arts. On a ledge circling the gallery below the ceiling, a visually arresting piece by Fia Backstrom consisting of pages from Artforum magazine (according to the catalog, the work “considers the economic basis of Artforum by drawing attention to its large volume of full-page advertisements.”) To the side, photos of the artist Marianne Heier documenting her donation of a check to a struggling alternative art gallery. (“The hidden economic infrastructure of the commercial art gallery is often rejected by many artist-run spaces.”) Continue reading “Art about boom is a bust”

USA: Today, Tomorrow, Every Day

USA_OD.jpgIs it just me or have others noticed the ubiquity of American exhibitions in West London over the past year? Whether it’s NY Fashion at the V&A, yet another exhibition of an American artist at the Serpentine — old (Ellsworth Kelly) or new (Paul Chan) — or group shows put together to show visiting Americans some American art at Frieze fair time (the Royal Academy / Saatchi’s USA Today or the Serpentine’s Uncertain States of America), it looks like London’s expensive postcodes just can’t get enough of a good thing.

The combination of American corporate largesse, political will (the US Embassy funded Karen Kilimnik’s recent show at the Serpentine) and rich friends (cocktails with the Blairs for American Friends of the Tate) is convincing enough as it is. Combine this with a dearth of curators that can look beyond – or are interested in anything other than – the Euro-American nexus, and we see a pattern emerging. One in which much of London’s public art world (at least in those parts of town where corporate hospitality is at a premium) seems at risk of being ‘captured’ by one country. So while the world rhapsodises about ‘new’ art coming out of Asia, London gets to see very little of it, whereas Tate Liverpool is showing contemporary Chinese art and Newcastle’s Baltic had a recent Subodh Gupta show.

One wonders how long this will continue? As the 2012 London Olympics-related cuts to arts funding start biting, the allure of American patronage will only grow stronger. Perhaps, as the current show of British photography at Tate Britain suggests, American Friends will act with ‘enlightened self-interest’ and start supporting non-American shows, lest the natives get restless.

Or perhaps London is set to be the battleground for a cultural version of the new Great Game — one where America is the dominant power; the Russians have an outpost in the Hermitage Rooms at Somerset House, which can be leveraged by Russian oligarchs (once they grow tired of running football clubs or funding revolutions); and the Chinese have the Red Mansion Foundation ‘co-producing’ exhibitions. The only ones yet to show their hands are India’s billionaires and its ranks of art-market entrepreneurs. Surely it is only a matter of time — I’d give it a few months.

The Fine Art of Condescension

Budapest National GalleryAccording to the London Observer, Dr. Charles Saumarez Smith, outgoing director of Britain’s National Gallery, had this to say recently about his difficulties raising money from the government: He did not want his institution to end up like “the National Gallery of Budapest.” He was worried his museum would be left “endlessly reshuffling the works it already has.”

Being in Budapest at the time of those remarks, I can report they didn’t ruffle many feathers. Rather than pretending to be a comic emblem of artistic failure, Hungarians are busily rebuilding an artworld from the mess left behind by communism. There’s a long way to go, but signs of progress are everywhere. Among them is a promising changing of the guard at several top institutions and a de-politicization of culture in general. State money doesn’t flow to the arts as lavishly as at points west, but museums are getting facelifts, and yes, some are acquiring.

New facilities are coming online, from the Ludwig Collection on the Danube embankment, to a private museum near Lake Balaton founded by a bespoke shoemaker with a passion for collecting, to the sleek 1950s bus depot in the heart of Budapest that’s supposed to become a new design museum. Corporate support is kicking in. Private money is on the way, if the frothy auction market is an indication. Patronizing the arts is newly fashionable.

As far as the National Gallery of Budapest – properly called the Hungarian National Gallery – is concerned, Dr. Smith’s condescending comparison is somewhat misplaced. Continue reading “The Fine Art of Condescension”

Clippings from the salon floor, #6

America First in Venice? Venice Biennial director Rob Storr, quoted in Time’s Talking Bout the Biennale Q&A (via MAN): “America has been, in terms of markets, exhibitions and publications, the 300-pound gorilla. It’s not in the place where it was in the ‘60s and ‘70s but it still weighs in very heavily. So if you are an American you’re seen as part of that sizeable American art world.” Later on Storr says “[the biennial] has about 96 artists. A larger number of Americans than I would have expected going into it — about 22.” That gorilla’s looking strong, huh?

More Storr… From the same article cited above: “Biennales are a crash course in contemporary art, a place where the general public at a relatively low cost can come and find out what’s going on in the world. In my mind the real audience for the Biennale are students and travelers who have sufficient income to make a trip to Italy and who don’t have access to much contemporary art at home… But attendance has sloped off over the last decade or so. I’m not sure why.” Um, maybe because the “real audience” is surrounded by newConArt museums and art fairs in the convenience of their own homelands?

Magical museum thinking: Bloomberg’s Martin Gayford musing on how the job posting for Charles Saumarez Smith’s replacement as director of London’s National Gallery should read: “Wanted: Capable administrator and art world diplomat, able to conjure tens of millions of pounds out of thin air, time and time again.” Equally well-put: “Now, the masterpieces outside museums are as rare as snow leopards or Yangzi dolphins.”

A director ´s dreams, a visitor ´s nightmare: From Eric Gibson’s Opinion Journal piece on overcrowded museums (via AJ): “Art museums are now mainstream, the leisure destination of choice for a large segment of the population… [At the British Museum] the Rosetta Stone was so mobbed that the only way to “see” it was to hold your camera aloft and hope that there would be a decent photograph to look at when you got home… The viewing conditions are now so difficult that, in the midst of a crowded museum, you find yourself wondering why the director and curators went to all the trouble to acquire such fine objects and persuade you to come look at them if they’ve made it impossible to really see anything.”

Explosive Language “Nazi Looted Art” author Gunnar Schnabel cited by Bloomberg, re Germany ´s unresolved WWII restitution cases (via AJ): “It’s like hiding a nuclear bomb under the bedcovers. There are so many cases that need to be cleared up, thousands of them in Germany alone.”

Indian bazar: More signs of India’s art market growing pains, from the Times of India article Taxmen raid 25 art galleries in Delhi, Mumbai: “A large part of the deals were found to have been made in cash, sources said… The Income-Tax department believes that the galleries were resorting to large-scale under-invoicing, reporting lower value than what they earned through sale of art work, and did not show a large number of works in their inventories raising apprehensions that many transactions were not being reported to the taxmen.”

Gallery Geekery A while back, we mulled the need for a Google maps/gallery guide mashup. This week, Gallery Hopper wrote: “The new “My Maps” feature of Google Maps allows you to create your own customized maps and I’ve given it a little spin using the April gallery picks I posted earlier this week. Now you’ll have a handy map to follow while running around the city looking at this months great photography.”

Reverse Engineering From the Telegraph’s Art sales: Technology fuels boom in print: “‘The computer is the new sketchbook,’ says Alan Cristea, who has led the market in British print publishing since the 1970s, when he began working with artists such as Richard Hamilton. ‘Artists like Hamilton and Julian Opie are now starting with the printed image and making paintings from prints.'”

Sgarbi the Destroyer I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I stumbled across this video of Italian reactionary culturati Vittorio Sgarbi’s MacBook-throwing television tantrum.

Art-market art, in the art market

When Edward Winkleman weighed in on Saltz vs Heiss, he wrote, “Perhaps a smart show about the current art market would require too much analysis (a CPA and a hedge fund manager might have to curate it) to be visually interesting or pleasing.” This aside got me thinking in two directions. First, that one of my favorite (conceptually speaking) recent shows, “Leftovers: A Selection Of My Unsold Pieces From The Private Galleries I Work With,” focused upon this very topic. Bulgarian artist Nedko Solakov had Mirjam Varadinis – the curator for a planned Kunsthaus Zurich show of his drawings – instead visit all his dealers and select the 2005 exhibition’s content from among their unsold Solakovs.

Solakov asked all the dealers for an explaination of why those works had not sold and posted their texts alongside their gallery’s “leftovers.” My favorite? Brussels dealer Erna Hecey, whose list revealed the haphazard traige of the supposedly rational art market: “The works are too expensive. The works are not expensive enough… The world is not ready for this work. This work comes a bit late… The works have not been presented enough. The work has been shown too often and everywhere… Mars was conjuncting in Pluto at the time of the show.” Naturally, the simple fact that these works were slated to be shown in a major cultural institution suddenly stirred interest among collectors. But Solakov pulled pieces out of the show if they sold before it opened, and scrawled an explanation in the gap left behind.

Second point: I’ve amassed many images of artworks created as counterpoints or commentary on the current market, which I use to illustrate my speeches about the artworld. I’m going to dump some prime examples in here for examination/discussion. A note to Artworld Salon readers: Send along images of works on this theme (ideally 494 pixels wide JPGs @ 72dpi) and I’ll update our premiere Artworld Salon “exhibition.”

William Powhida, Detail from Wall of Shame, 2007
(From his upcoming Schroeder Romero gallery show)

AVM_Powhida.JPG Continue reading “Art-market art, in the art market”

Museums vs. the market, Saltz vs. Heiss

Oh, what I would give to be in New York this week. It’s going to be stormy on the contemporary-art front, as people start to read, debate and then take sides over Jerry Saltz’s full-throttle attack on “Not For Sale,” the current PS1 show. Preparing the show – openly intended as a personal retort to the boombastic art market – legendary curator Alanna Heiss solicited pieces that the artists would not sell, i.e. art they valued more than money. The works included are perfectly fine, Saltz writes; but then he cites the show’s knee-jerk notions about the marketplace as grounds for suggesting Heiss should consider resigning her leadership of PS1:

For the director or curator of an institution that relies on the largesse of artists and dealers—who in turn depend on commerce—to claim an “allergy” to the marketplace is not only smug, it’s deluded and hypocritical. This goes double if that curator’s institution, like Heiss’s, is affiliated with the Museum of Modern Art, the very pinnacle of institutional power…. “Not for Sale” doesn’t fizzle because most of the artists in it are millionaires or famous or both. Nor does it fail because more than a third of the work on view is less than ten years old and fourteen of those pieces are less than five years old, making you wonder how ‘not for sale’ much of this art actually is. No, the exhibition fails because its ideas and construction are lazy.

I distinctly remember reading about this show just before it opened this winter. The thing that struck me as odd was Heiss’s response when the New York Times wondered how truly “not for sale” these works were. Her take: “If you sell a piece out of this show, you know what you’re doing. And it’s not my problem. It’s your problem.” Tough words. Strong tone. Yet when reading them I thought to myself, “Is she actually conceding that some of the work in the show might be less ‘Not for Sale’ than ‘Not for Sale at any price that’s been offered yet.’ And that’s not her problem? That seems a little too easy.” Continue reading “Museums vs. the market, Saltz vs. Heiss”