“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.
In case 5,000 words of policy analysis shatters your own demand curve, here’s the gist: “supply has overshot demand and failed to stimulate demand sufficiently for it to catch up.” And no wonder. A stunning data point is cited, courtesy of Americans for the Arts: “between 2003 and 2009, a new nonprofit arts organization was created every three hours in the US.”
Ellis finds no quick fixes. Cultural nonprofits present a depressing tableau comprised of a few bright spots, sprawling grey zones, and far too many institutions on the brink of a “death spiral.” Why is it so hard to rein in arts production? For several reasons. Arts facilities are “bespoke” and therefore difficult to repurpose. Mergers run up against ingrained attitudes. Organized labor, especially in the performing arts, adds “inflexibilities.” The absence of liquid capital markets makes financing change a challenge. The huge civic effort required to build cultural institutions also makes it tough to accept their failure.
The future is none more bright. Ellis predicts a tough slog of “hypercompetition,” obsession with earned income, cost cutting, nervous debate about “recalibrating supply and demand,” and, in a dismaying paradox, “risk-averse funding and programming strategies at the very time when strategic innovation should be encouraged.”
The situation may be less dire in the visual arts, Ellis allows. Museums seem better equipped to lure today’s audiences. He credits their flexible opening hours and the range of activities they offer visitors.
There may be more reasons to be sanguine, I believe. The visual-art sector is a unique “public-private partnership” where the for-profit side—galleries, auctions, fairs, arts media—invest significant money and effort into marketing, generating the heat and hype that raise public awareness, audience interest, and philanthropic support for the whole enterprise. The nonprofit side—museums, art spaces, academics—profit from this adrenaline boost while providing legitimacy for it (even while bemoaning overhyped artists and their inflated prices).
I put this notion to Adrian Ellis (disclosure: we’ve done consulting and a lot of thinking together about these issues) and he emailed back in agreement, up to a point. “I think what you say applies to the high end of contemporary art, and there’s a synergistic relationship between the auction houses and galleries and the art machine’s interest and those parts of the nonprofit ecology that feed and support it; but this eclipses the vast mass of institutions and, within institutions, collections.” He followed up with this timely quote from White Cube’s Jay Jopling, from The Financial Times:
“The blurring of public and private has happened in many ways. Our Chuck Close show went to the Hermitage [in St Petersburg], Gilbert and George’s ‘Jack Freak Pictures’ toured internationally to museums. And collectors engage with the scale of large works such as Anselm Kiefer’s [Kiefer’s museum-quality ‘Il Mistero delle Cattedrali’ show at White Cube closed last week] – we sold to private and public collections in America, China, Germany. Many collectors now go beyond putting things on walls, beyond buying as an investment. They are passionate about display, they want to leave something, a mark, a legacy, a contribution.”
It may be well true that the symbiosis of commercial and noncommercial energies leaves the art world in a stronger position to buck the trend described in Ellis’ essay. But with about 400 art events in Manhattan next week, I’m not so sure. So which is it – best of both worlds, or impending death spiral?]]>
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. Arts funding writ large requires investments into things few individual givers get excited about. As elsewhere, technology promises liberation from caution and elitism, but also a drift to the lowest common denominator.
Even so, Kickstarter is a profoundly disrupting philanthropic technology. And it has major implications for commercial art-world gatekeepers, too. What Kickstarter does so well is call our collective bluff. Its verdicts about merit — expressed in the tangible metric of real dollars from real people’s pockets — carry a kind of instant legitimacy that’s hard to beat.
If you can’t beat them, join them. But how? Adopting Kickstarter’s grassroots logic goes against the grain of old-school cultural stewardship. From foundation boardrooms to gallery back rooms, the cultural system is still, by and large, a smoke-filled room—an insider’s game.
Finding a balance between these two ways to support worthy creative causes is an urgent priority. Any ideas?]]>
And what else? I started to wonder. Here is my quick list. In January 2012, US$ 250 million buys:-
10 decent sized mansions in the Hamptons
100 upper-middle class family homes in Beijing
1000 Ferrari 458 Italia Coupes in Rome
10,000 Ducati 1199S motorcycles in Paris
100,000 complete (3 yr) high school educations including accommodation, food and healthcare in Lhasa, Tibet
5,000,000 milking goats in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania
50,000,000 egg-laying chickens in Dhaka, Bangladesh
Interesting, no? So let me ask you again. What would you do with $250 million?]]>
I think it is a fun premise and I like the comparison of the “refreshingly short” and eloquent statement from Akron Art Museum: “to enrich lives through modern art” with the tomes of MOMA, The National Gallery and Boston’s MFA. The latter three of course were developed and approved by large Boards; and you know what they say about anything done by committee. (Though to be fair, both MOMA and the National could have stopped at the end of their first sentences and done OK; while the MFA does a decent job with its last…) András then goes on to draw parallels with the ongoing transition of Museums trying to more proactively respond to their market places and suggests that woolly mission statements are a symptom of woolly thinking about the role of Museums in the modern world.
It is a reasonable inference but may be too harsh. Some people are just bad at being concise. And the bigger the board the less concise they will be. I do always admire any organisation (corporate or non-profit) that can encapsulate something important in a few words (so kudos to Akron) but just because they cannot explain simply what they do, doesn’t always mean they cannot do it. Take a look for yourself (the links are above) and then visit your local grand institution over the holidays and make-up your own minds. And if you feel so inclined do come back here and offer a comment. In the meantime: happy festivities to all from everyone here at ArtWorld Salon.]]>
Making its way across the web as I write is a story about the exploitation of performers at the hands of Marina Abramović. ARTINFO is running the best recap of the story, and Hrag Vartanian at Hyperallergic has picked it up and carried it as well, but here’s a brief:
Abramović was tapped by LA MOCA to produce a performance work for the Museum’s annual gala. The outcome? Each table at the gala comes with a performer getting paid $150 to sit under it on a slowly-rotating lazy-susan with his or her head protruding up through the table’s center, which carries the promise of intermittent and likely uncomfortable eye contact throughout the evening. One human-centerpiece-to-be was none too happy about such future prospects and sent a missive to Yvonne Rainer, presumably because Rainer’s position in the artworld is unassailable, her politics predictable, and her network far reaching. Rainer in turn decried the spectacle in a letter to Jeffrey Deitch, which was published on the web as co-signed by Douglas Crimp, Taisha Paggett and, according to ARTINFO, Tom Knechtel and Monica Majoli.
In response to Rainer, Abramović told ARTINFO, “All these accusations, you can’t have them before you actually experience the situation and see how I can change the atmosphere [of the gala], that’s my main purpose.” And in a comment to the LA Times, Jeffrey Deitch said, “I would just hope that when people make allegations like this, they would actually come to see the performance and talk to the performers.” To make good on that, Deitch invited Rainer to a rehearsal of the piece.
A ticket to see this performance costs at least $2500, so entreaties to see it before judging it are disingenuous. But more importantly, such entreaties are missing the point of the work itself, which is odd, since they are coming from the artist creating it and the institution hosting it.
After all, to take part in the performance costs the performers their labor for at least the duration of the gala, but it also, as we know, costs the duration of the tryout and of the rehearsals too, and the value of this labor and time, as Abramović and the museum have priced it, is $150. The tenor, if not the point, of Rainer’s letter, was to point out the exploitation of the performer in this situation, because the tenor, if not the point, of the performance itself, the thing that would make it possible for living centerpieces to “change the atmosphere” of the event, turns on the condition of their being exploited.
Which is to say, it is exactly the stark confrontation between the gala’s (monied) patrons and the (not-so-monied) performers-turned-centerpieces that is meant to be “experienced” and which gives the performance its reason for being—it’s the very thing that would make it possible, in fact, for Abramović to conceive of the work as something that might “bring some kind of dignity, serenity, and concentration to the normal situation of a gala.” Would not the change of atmosphere be entirely different if, for example, Eli Broad and Larry Gagosian and Dasha Zhukova were sitting under those tables? How would dignity or serenity or concentration ensue from such a reversal?—the whole point is that it would be a reversal, that such asymmetry between patron and performer is what the performance is about.
From one perspective, then, the thing that makes such a performance what it is is exactly the fact that most people—people who cannot afford to support LA MOCA by buying a gala ticket for $2500—won’t see it. And what makes such a performance from another perspective is that the people who are “performing” in it are exactly those same people. And it’s the confrontation between these two classes of people, the possibility of their mutual recognition, that makes the performance what it is—a performance of, if not about, exploitation. Seeing such a performance, and so “experiencing” it, if it is indeed to take place as described, wouldn’t change a thing.
[9/12 update: the LA Times runs a full story here.]]]>
That said, I find the Occupy the Museums notion a bit too misguided (and more than a bit ironic) to let it go without comment.
In a nutshell the message of the Occupy the Museums effort is :
Museums, open your mind and your heart! Art is for everyone! The people are
at your door!
Let’s begin with the fact that despite $20 and $25 dollar entry fees, the people seem more than happy to keep passing through the doors of New York’s museums :
What’s more, they offer alternatives for people who can’t afford those fees. So there’s apparently NOT a serious “access for the people” issue here.
More specifically, Occupy the Museum’s rallying cry is:
For the last few decades, voices of dissent have been silenced by a fearful survivalist atmosphere and the hush hush of BIG money. To really critique institutions, to raise one’s voice about the disgusting excessive parties and spectacularly out of touch auctions of the art world while the rest of the country suffers and tightens its belt was widely considered to be bitter, angry, uncool.
Er…uh…the critique of institutions is alive (*cough* #class) and well (*cough* #rank) by artists like William Powhida (whose new show opens Saturday) and Jennifer Dalton (whose current show ends this Saturday. (Full disclosure, I represent Dalton, but that’s why I find the notion that institutional critique is being discouraged so out of touch, it’s also why I can report that BIG money seems to get and does indeed buy such art as well).
So there really is no “hushing” going on here.
So if it’s not that “the people” are being denied access to the museums, and it’s not that artists are afraid to critique the institutions, what is it really that this protest can accomplish?
Their stated goals continue:
The members of museum boards mount shows by living or dead artists whom they collect like bundles of packaged debt. Shows mounted by museums are meant to inflate these markets. They are playing with the fire of the art historical cannon while seeing only dancing dollar signs. The wide acceptance of cultural authority of leading museums have made these beloved institutions into corrupt ratings agencies or investment banking houses- stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.
This strikes me as a gross oversimplification of what motivates curators and museum boards to mount shows. Although there is a popular sense that inflating certain markets does occur to certain decision makers at times, most museum curator I know are indeed passionate about the artists they work with, and the persuasion going on is, generally speaking, from them to the board members, not the other way around. Furthermore, the correlation between museum shows inflating the value of individual collections has never been shown. That’s a red herring that does a disservice to board members who could spend their money on far less altruistic things than supporting art and museums.
But I think this text jumps the shark with claims of “stamping their authority and approval on flimsy corporate art and fraudulent deals.” What is or isn’t “flimsy” is a matter of opinion, and the history of art is nothing if not a shifting of opinions. As for “fraudulent” deals, I think I’d consult a good libel attorney before throwing that accusation around so casually and indirectly.
Ultimately, though, I find this an opportunistic and somewhat ahistorical argument. Take this line:
For the past decade and more, artists and art lovers have been the victims of
the intense commercialization and co-optation or art.
That’s only true if by “past decade” you mean “past few centuries.” And it’s only wholly true if you acknowledge that the victimizers (i.e., those responsible for the “intense commercialization”) include many, many artists as well.
Mind you, I think the protest should move forward and I’ll be very curious to see how the museums respond. I suspect they’ll accommodate the protesters as best they can.
I just don’t think the motivation as outlined in the official text is even remotely accurate and probably won’t be very productive. Moreover, I think a better way to get the museums to change (if that’s your goal) is to encourage people NOT to occupy them…but that’s just me.]]>