As someone who as taken an interest in what I have called the art world’s ‘pedagogical impulse’ and what others have dubbed its ‘educational turn’, I was of course tickled to read that yesterday marked the first day of classes at Glenn Beck University. As the news outlets have reported, Beck U teaches courses such as ‘Hope’, ‘Faith’, and ‘Charity’, rewrites, apparently, of standard disciplinary topics, such as History, Religion and Economics, though inflected with Beck Inc.’s brand of newspeak and ‘taught’ by some questionable characters (only one of Beck U’s instructors is an ‘academic’ in the conventional sense). And this for only $74.95/year.
That’s a comparative bargain, unless of course you consider iTunes U, which offers an immense array of course lectures taught by academics (some award winning) from institutions (‘esteemed’ ones we would say) with brand names such as Oxford, UC Berkley and Yale, and all for the low download price of $0.00.
Of course, Beck U’s point is that it is exactly such institutions of Higher Ed which are mired in what it would call bias and what most everyone else calls reality. (Best that one take American History from the likes of David Barton, whose campaign against the First Amendment of the Constitution is grounded upon the persistent falsification and misattribution of historical quotation, rather than from, say, the Gilder Lehrman Institute).
Now, one cannot but view Beck U as a cynical foray into the education business (and probably something very much akin to Thomas Kinkade‘s successful foray into the art business), because a business it is, but I also cannot help thinking that part of what prepared the ground for Beck’s easy entry into this likely very lucrative landscape, aside from the obvious platform of the internet, has to do with a greater crisis of authority, institutional and otherwise, that shapes so much of what we hear and see today, both at large and in the art world itself. Continue reading “The educational worm turns”
Here in London a stunned silence greeted the surprise news that Charles Saatchi was to ‘donate’ his recently opened Saatchi Gallery and part of his collection to the British nation, perhaps as soon as 2012. The surprise came, not only because Saatchi doesn’t seem like the retiring type – he can still be seen feverishly buying up graduate and degree shows – but mainly because no one knew it was about to happen. Not even the newly installed government had been prepped, with the Culture Minister blurting out something about philanthropy “being central to our vision of a thriving cultural sector and this is an outstanding example of how Britain can benefit from individual acts of social responsibility.”
As well as the headline figures of the 200 works being donated (including Tracey Emin’s notorious bed and various bits by the Chapmans and so on), valued at around £25 million, there was no little devil in the detail. None of the running costs will be passed to the state, which makes a change from those country piles that get left to crumble without National Heritage status, and the gift is not in lieu of taxes, said the small print. So what is this donation really about, if Saatchi is not going to retire anytime soon, as a gallery spokesperson revealed (although he will be past pensionable age, turning 70 in 2012)?
Well, despite grumbles that Saatchi’s collection isn’t comprehensive or coherent (there is no film or video admittedly), this is a fantastic offer for London (it’s free!). But the decision to change its name to the Museum of Contemporary Art London does present a problem for the current holder of nominal MoCA status, namely Tate Modern. And there is some history here. Nicholas Serota was rumoured to have refused a donation of Saatchi’s YBA holdings, so perhaps bad blood remains. Either way, should a collector be allowed to impose his taste on a nation in this way, leaving a marker of his personal choices for posterity to validate it as part of a millennial canon? Shouldn’t our nation’s keepers decide what flows into this cache? Or is this what has always happened with bequests to the nation and this is just another mausoleum by another name?
A 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?
While North Korean art is making a bid for attention in Vienna, in South Korea, where I just spent a week at the UNESCO World Conference on Arts Education, the art world is showing remarkable vigor. This peninsular country of 60 million, one-fifth the size of France, is the real miracle of Asia. It suffers from few of the chronic structural weaknesses of Japan, or the social and environmental ills of China or India, or the artificiality and overreach of newly rich Gulf nations. It’s the Switzerland of the East. And art is a key part of the equation.
There is no shortage of science-fiction-like mega-projects here, including the Global City of Saemangeum, to be built on the world’s largest reclaimed land mass behind a 33 km sea dyke, the world’s longest, which was just completed after 19 years of effort. But this is no Dubai. I asked a government official in the ancient city of Jeonju, which hosted my group in a bid to become a UNESCO Creative City, what’s the goal for South Korea in the years ahead. He said, “to get to between 5th and 10th in GDP in the world.” He didn’t mean per capita.
Underlying South Korea’s epic success, of course, is the most comprehensive public education effort in its hemisphere, and possibly the world. South Koreans are simply obsessed with learning, and the results are plain to see. Korea’s literate, world-wise population is, among other positive traits, deeply interested in the arts. This is probably the only place in the world where Bach can be heard in the bathrooms at a highway rest stop.
Here’s the most impressive thing about South Korea: It seems to have found a balance between warp-speed development and respect for local identity. As part of this balancing act, the state is extremely generous to local art. Seoul alone installs more than one thousand public art works a year. Historic sites are preserved and documented meticulously. Local governments are building creative complexes for artists where they can live, create, and interact for six months at a time. Arts patronage is considered obligatory for big firms and wealthy business clans, for reasons of both national pride and marketing. There is no interest in the wholesale franchising of Euro-American culture here. The country is open to foreign influences—Seoul’s top Zagat restaurant is Italian, the pastries of choice are French, Starbucks is ubiquitous, and women are as label conscious as anywhere—but the country has avoided drowning in globalization. Continue reading “Meanwhile, in South Korea”
As South Korea and the world tries to sort the best response to the latest provocations from North Korea, an exhibition of contemporary ‘official’ art of the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea) opened at the MAK (the Museum of Applied Arts) in Vienna, with a rather dodgy title. “Flowers for Kim Il Sung” was launched despite opposition and questions about the nature of the museum’s collaboration with the Pyongyang regime.
By admission of MAK director Peter Noever in a number of interviews, the work is presented without any critical context.
Perhaps there is no other art in North Korea, as it seems the MAK believes. While that may be true, it is hard to imagine that much first hand research went into that position being taken. Perhaps the director’s trip to the DPRK was not so unlike this one taken by Vice correspondents:
Watch all three episodes. But perhaps it is another experience for a European museum director.
Surely there is a difference between exhibiting a display of historical propaganda versus a contemporary, active one constructed through forced labor and dictated entirely by one family’s aesthetic viewpoint, if you can even call it that.
The MAK makes a case that this show fits in a tradition of previous exhibitions centering about specific political systems, and yet the defense of this show is that it is about aesthetics, not politics, and about seeing the visual production of an ‘other.’ It is hard to imagine that this will open doors for us to see anything except what the current regime wants us to see. Continue reading “Blumen for Peter Noever”
For its tenth birthday weekend just gone, Tate Modern staged No Soul For Sale, a non-profit ‘Festival of Independents’, bringing 70 artists’ collectives, publishers and non-commercial spaces from all over the world to fill its Turbine Hall. Well, perhaps ‘inviting’ would be a more accurate word to use, rather than ‘bringing’, as each participant had to pay their own way, with resourceful galleries doing last minute fundraising events and even garage sales to afford their flights to London from as far and wide as Beijing, Rio and Melbourne. A necessarily scrappy and messy affair ensued, with many No Soul For Salers showing only what they’d been able to squeeze through hand luggage or the symbolically empty packages they’d sent ahead of themselves.
This perceived lack of financial support drew fire from an anonymous British group of artists and arts professionals, calling themselves Making A Living. In an open letter to Tate, widely emailed and posted online, they took umbrage with No Soul For Sale’s ‘romantic connotations of the soulful artist, who makes art from inner necessity without thought of recompense’ as well as the concomitant expectation that ‘we should expect to work for free and that it is acceptable to forego the right to be paid for our labour.’
In an interview I conducted beforehand with the curators of No Soul For Sale – Maurizio Cattelan, Massimiliano Gioni and Cecilia Alemani, with Vicente Todolí on behalf of Tate – here, they defend the event (once previously staged as part of X-Initiative in New York) variously as ‘a tribute to the people, the artists and the art lovers who work beyond the traditional market system’ (Cattelan), or an act of ‘hospitality and generosity’ (Alemani). While Gioni adds that, ‘Nobody really ever pays respect to the people who work in situations in which there is very little money involved and yet a lot of energy and enthusiasm’, Todolí qualifies this by saying: ‘Obviously we are not the only ones being hospitable here. All the participants are … as generous as Tate, if not more. But that’s when things get interesting: when people are willing to share, going beyond any immediate quantifiable gain. Continue reading “Money for nothing”
There’s been much fuss over “Nude, Green Leaves and Bust,” the 1932 Picasso that sold for $106.5 million at auction last week. Roberta Smith devoted an article in “The Week in Review” section of the New York Times to the guessing game about the anonymous buyer. Bemoaning the “irksome” secrecy of art sales, she conjured a rogue’s gallery of possible bidders, including “Buyer X,” a “puppet master,” a “Russian oligarch” fearing “home invasion or too much unfriendly attention from Vladimir Putin,” and “someone with vast sums of money stashed in a Swiss bank account or a dubious tax shelter.” All very James Bond. Buyer X must be smiling.
Anyway, on one score, the article, along with most others I have read, is unambiguous: The Picasso claimed “the highest price ever for a work of art at auction”—a “world record.” Technically speaking, the number is the highest—the largest pile of US dollars ever spent on an artwork at auction. But adjusted for inflation, this Picasso is a far cry from Van Gogh’s 1989 record-setter, “Portrait of Dr. Gachet,” which, at $82 million at the time, would be worth about $140 million in today’s dollars.
Leaving out inflation is a bit like measuring one high jumper’s performance in inches and another’s in centimeters. It’s worth noting, for context, that we have had at least three private sales in the neighborhood of $140M in recent years. And there have been a couple of auction sales exceeding $106 million in 2010 dollars, including a Picasso, “Garcon a la pipe,” which sold in 2004 for just over $104 million.
All of which is to say, Buyer X doesn’t get the gold medal after all. As Smith rightly points out, record mania is something of an irksome diversion in itself. In any event, the search for the mystery collector continues. Anyone have a clue?
A 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 “Berlin calling”
The New York Times today reported the incomes of cultural leaders. Look for the imminent brouhaha about how much some directors are making (even though compensation for many has recently been reduced). Yet if salaries at leading museums run between half a million and a million dollars, that seems reasonable in light of the complex responsibilities and unrelenting pressures involved.
The real issue with nonprofit compensation, I believe, lies not at the executive, but at the mid-management level, and at the lowest rungs of arts organizations.
Not long ago, someone I know interviewed for a job in a museum outside New York. The position involved responsibility for a core aspect of the museum’s activities. The candidate had a decade of experience and a great track record. The pay being offered turned out to be about one-twentieth of the director’s $1 million salary. That kind of discrepancy between a manager and a chief executive is one thing cultural groups don’t need to copy from the private sector. No wonder museums are plagued with morale problems.
The situation is worse further down the ladder, where staffing is left to volunteers and interns making little or no money. The rewards for entry level positions are now so low that they are scaring off the best talent. One can only wonder if today’s struggling interns and junior assistants will change the situation once they make it up the slippery pole to those seven-figure jobs?
Rather than worry about arts salaries at the top, the press would do well to focus on income patterns among the rank-and-file. I’d be curious to hear what others think about equitable wages in the sector?
Randy Kennedy has finally brought the Craig Robins v. David Zwirner legal spat to the pages of the great Grey Lady; so, now would seem to be as good a time as any to open up this issue for debate. That issue, as laid out by Kennedy, turns on the presumptive practice of art-world “blacklisting,” whereby collectors are kept from purchasing works by artists they covet because the dealers or artists fear that those same works will soon find their way to the auction block. In this case, Robins sold a work by Marlene Dumas, and allegedly did so a bit too early for the artist’s taste, which is why, according to Robins, he was blocked from buying new pieces from Dumas’ recent show at Zwirner’s.
You see, the art world doesn’t like speculators. Well, that’s not exactly right. The art world doesn’t like anyone else speculating on what it’s already speculating on. And it’s this attitude, largely hypocritical in character, which has likely brought Zwirner’s lawyers to characterize Robins as a petulant child who is being told he can’t have the big red and white lollipop in the gallery window. Or rather,
“By bringing suit,” the gallery’s lawyers argue, “the wealthy Robins has literally made a federal case of not being able to buy what he wants, when he wants.”
Kennedy goes on to offer some choice quotes from Allan Schwartzman and Jeffrey Deitch about dealing with speculators and the difficulties of “placing” works of art with the right “serious” collectors (as opposed to those who will flip the work to make a quick buck) or simply selling them to some schlub just in off the street with a briefcase full of cash. But then to “place” a work is a form of speculation in and of itself, no? After all, even if that schlub loves the work so much as to never even entertain the possibility of selling it, “Some Schlub'” under the “Collections” column on the artist’s CV doesn’t exactly send prices soaring. We call this the problem (and power) of “access.”
To my mind, though, the “blacklist” issue misses the point (and perhaps purposely so, if Zwirner’s lawyers are trying to deflect attention). Continue reading “Win, place, sell”
Bloomberg reports that helicopter commuter service has been restored to Wall Street. A friend at a large bank says that with fears of a meltdown abated, the solidarity in the company is also gone. Cultural endowments are growing again, we learn from The Art Newspaper, and museums are dancing back from the brink. Even day trading is back in fashion, if The New York Times can be believed.
What unites these factoids is a hardening sense that we’re getting back to normal, perhaps sooner than anticipated. And that’s a mixed blessing.
Only yesterday, the situation was so bad, it was forcing deep change. Original moves, like Jeffrey Deitch’s appointment to Moca, were spurred by a fighting spirit that compels people and organizations to act differently in a crisis. The Great Recession, however horrible, provided a need and a justification to do daring and draconian things. Pop-up galleries in kitchen showrooms were in (like this one, by two former students). Gaudy sculptures with fake diamonds were from a bygone era.
I’m happy that many of my friends survived the crash unscathed. I certainly don’t mean to romanticize struggle for day-to-day survival. But I do worry that the new ways of doing business are quickly becoming the old ways of doing business. As the discipline of hard times dissipates, can we recognize any silver linings in the form of lasting positive changes in creative, commercial, or institutional behavior?
This wasn’t supposed to happen. Arts journalism is supposed to be going down the tubes. But here in New York, two arts sections are being expanded, with professional writers, editors, and, for now, what counts for acres of newsprint space these days.
Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal is making culture a frontline in its impending war against the New York Times, with the addition of arts reporters in its soon-to-be launched local section. And last week, The New York Observer, the scrappy pink rag read by culture and media mavens around town, announced a major expansion of its arts coverage, starting March 31, under former Wall Street Journal culture editor and AWS-friend Alexandra Peers.
What can this mean for the visual arts? We may get some behind-the-scenes reporting on the art business, as the Observer has reliably done on the media and film businesses. Peers, a 22-year veteran of arts journalism, summarizes her aspirations for the section this way: “As entertainment, pop culture and TV coverage mushroomed in the past few years, fine arts got a little lost in the shuffle. The same culture sections that are recapping “Lost” don’t want copy on Marina Abramovic; it just doesn’t jive. At the same time, people are choking the aisles at the Armory fair and lining up round the block to see Gogo’s Picasso show. The fine arts needed more of a place of their own.”
Peers believes the Observer can use the new space to go beyond the usual suspects. “You would think the art world was just Gagosian, Richard Feigen and Philippe de Montebello having espresso at Sant Ambroeus. Which of course it is, but I hope to pull in a few more of the players: curators, photo gallerists, museum trustees, bloggers, the foundations. The art world’s power base is broader – and more interesting – than most general readers know.”
Amen. It bears noting, however, that these experiments will need to be backed up by advertising sales and buzz. Continue reading “Plot twist for arts reporting”
After the noughtie boom and the ’08-’09 bust, and even now with the art market engine appearing to turn over and offer the promise of a restart, might it not be time to leave behind the idea of assessing the art fairs as “shows” that are akin to exhibitions at kunsthalls, projects spaces, museums and galleries? Perhaps it is my own sensibility at the moment, but why do we, or should we, really care?
I think we’ve seen that some number of art fairs are now fixtures of the art world’s event-cycle; they offer a service that I think is reasonable: to bring together in one spot a wide variety of dealers from around the world to showcase the work of the artists they represent (and, in some cases, those that they don’t.) Are they ideal venues in which to view and to think about works of art? No. But do they offer, as Sarah Thornton wrote about the Armory, a “terrible viewing experience” because of their “indiscriminate lighting, bad acoustics, awkward floor plan, and dearth of food and drink”? I don’t think so. (If Thornton had added “droves of tourists snapping iPhone pictures and obliviously jostling everyone and everything while plugged into an audio tour,” I’d have thought she was describing what it’s like to visit MoMA.)
I just don’t find this kind of commentary interesting or necessary. Let’s treat the fairs like what we know they are: trade shows. What do I think of the trade shows? Were they strong? How did they look…”overall”? Are they forums for engaging with and thinking about and assessing the aesthetics and politics of works of art? Really? Are these the questions we want the answers to where art fairs are concerned? Did dealers make sales, and by making those sales, put money in their artists’ accounts so that those artists can keep doing what they do (or do something different, if they so choose)? That’s the bottom line question (no pun intended) in my mind. If the background din and lack of snacks made it harder for collectors to buy work, then yes, let’s talk about that. But if not, then let’s not.
And so sorry, but for as much as everyone squealed with delight about Independent (a.k.a. the ‘Black and White and Monochrome’ show), it was not that great. It was not some revelation. Was there good work? Of course. Was it self-congratulatory? Unquestionably, yes. But there I go, commenting on an art fair as it if deserved the attention. It is what it is…and that should be enough.
There must be an astronomical term for this week’s stellar array of events in New York. It’s certainly a cluster of some sort.
Once distant galaxies, the ADAA Art Fair and the Armory Show, are opening on back-to-back nights this year, forming a unified mega-event constellation. They are flanked in time and space by the Whitney Biennial and the William Kentridge juggernaut, which is merrily winding its way from the Southern Hemisphere through the top cultural institutions of Manhattan. Established events with names invoking celestial phenomena—Nova, Scope, Pulse—add to the epic convergence. Toss in the newcomers, such as the Independent art fair-exhibition hybrid, plus dozens of piggybacking gallery shows, lectures, panel discussions, and cocktail parties, and the results will overwhelm the endurance and attention spans of even the most dedicated art-world regulars.
What we are witnessing, in fact, is the Miami syndrome, transplanted to New York. Opportunistic calendaring, mixed with fear that collectors will only fly in once, has created a matrix of activity that is as impressive as it may be self-defeating. Game theorists call this the tragedy of the commons: Too many cows grazing on the too little land. We shall enjoy it while it lasts. But will quantity translate into quality, sales, and critical impact?
Three makes a trend, the adage goes. So here’s one: The upcoming Whitney Biennial, the National Academy’s Annual Invitational, and Site Santa Fe have sharply curtailed their rosters of exhibiting artists. The reason is money. The outcome is just what the art world needs.
Bloated biannials and survey shows were a boom-time phenomenon we can do without. They are self-defeating in terms of their purpose, which is to provide a point of view about what’s going on. And for better or worse, art fairs offer a more comprehensive summary of the totality of artistic activity.
Cultural bloat is an understudied phenomenon. Its effects are subtle and pernicious. On the surface, bloat entices us with more and more of a supposedly good thing: brick-size novels, three-hour movies, fancier museum buildings and cultural extravaganzas that betoken civic pride and scaling national ambitions.
Underneath all this more-ness, however, lurks the shadow of unsustainability. And that’s hardly the biggest threat. The lure of large numbers relieves the pressure to leave material on the cutting room floor. The cacophonous results mimic the quick verdicts and ceaseless profusion of the marketplace. A more restricted format, by contrast, tilts power to curators. It flushes away the fluff and injects some editorial discipline into the enterprise of art. Think of it as slow cultural food: Harder to cultivate and prepare, more satisfying to consume.
There’s been a lot of writing lately about how austerity is good for art. Much of it is sentimental bunk. Artists deserve to live well, like anyone else. But a case can be made, I believe, for trimming output and narrowing distribution channels. We may have less art to see, but more attention to lavish on it.
Statistics, statistics, and more statistics. Now that it’s snowing again and I am trapped in the house, I have cracked open the revised and expanded edition of Skate’s Art Investment Handbook. This well-informed, astute, efficiently written compendium deserves to be in the library of anyone seriously interested in the art market, investor or not. It has the additional virtue of treating its topic with a healthy dose of skepticism and occasional humor—as could be expected from a Central European author.
The hefty tome turned up in the mail the other day, and, somewhat to my surprise, I actually enjoyed thumbing through it. The work of a team lead by the Russian financier Sergey Skaterschikov, it includes a solid overview of the art and art-services market, along with detailed analyses of the market’s top tier, the 1,000 top-selling works at auction tallied in the so-called Skate’s Top 1000.
The book should delight all cultural enthusiasts who thrill to obscure quantitative trivia. We learn, for example, that:
• Works by 300,000 artists, valued in total at $400 billion, are available to trade at any time on the global art market, resulting in a trading volume of $60 billion per year (with 90 percent of transactions falling under $10,000).
• One million individuals and estates, 50 art funds, and 500 museums buy art regularly.
• The 1,000 most expensive works sold at auction since 1985 were made by 183 artists and are collectively valued at $13.2 billion as of Apr. 30, 2009.
• The world’s museums hold 100 million works of art; 100,000 of these can be expected to come to market annually through deaccessioning.
• Art valuation decreases with size. Continue reading “Art investor numerology”
Can you keep a secret? But please don’t tell anyone, because if you do, knowing how the art world is, no one will go see the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim. No, its not that the museum’s walls are completely bare and that the admission price continues to be the same. No, its not that there is an uninhibited couple endlessly kissing amidst the Rotunda. No, its not that the show is not worth visiting —on the contrary. Ok, here it is: the work is not really a performance art piece, and not so much of an artwork either: it is an education program.
I imagine that no one will agree with me, but that’s OK— I have my reasons. Sehgal took a situation that takes place daily at the museum —people having directed or undirected conversations— and extracted the art from the equation. (In the spirit of disclosure, I used to work at the Guggenheim’s education department there for seven years, organizing the museum tours and talks, which may have colored my experience, but I think that is besides the point).
For those of you who still have yet to visit, here is a report: As I went up the first ramp a 9 year-old girl greeted me. “Welcome, this is a piece by Tino Sehgal. Can I ask you a question? What is progress?” As we walked up the ramps, I spoke about wanting to become a better person when you grow up. While I was trying to explain that, a teenager appeared and took over, while the 9 year-old disappeared. “Can you elaborate?” As I labored to understand myself what I had meant after a few minutes a tall guy in his 30s arrived speaking to me about sprinting, which tied somehow with progress. He was replaced a bit later by an older man in his 60s who told me: “you know, my two best friends are alcoholic, and I wonder what that’s about.” This conversation became the most existential of all, so much so that neither of us had realized that we had reached the top of the ramp and my interlocutor was so absorbed by it that he temporarily forgot that he was part of an art piece. “Oh my god”, he said. “Usually I am not here by this point”. Then he added: “Thank you. This is a piece by Tino Sehgal” and left. Finally alone, I felt a bit of melancholy at that point, I am not exactly sure why. Continue reading “Is it just art or is it progress?”
President Obama in his address last night studiously avoided the phrase, “the State of the Union is strong.” If there were a State of the Union for the arts, the speaker—Who would it be?—would likely have made the same choice. For all is not well on the cultural ramparts. Just as “Wall Street Prospers while Main Street suffers,” we’re seeing some profligate spending on art again, here and there, while artists and organizations on the ground are having a really tough time.
To measure the pain and the sorrow, Americans for the Arts, the Washington based advocacy group, has come up with a National Art Index, “the first study to measure the health and vitality of the arts in the United States.” It’s not a pretty picture. The index fell 4 points last year, reflecting steep drops in attendance and support, along with other downward trends. Thirty thousand arts nonprofits have been added since the index peaked, in 1999, so demand clearly “outlags capacity”—a problem that won’t go away even when the economy perks up.
Meanwhile, a group of arts wonks (myself included) are debating the language of arts-policy and advocacy this week at ArtsJournal. The headline so far: we lack compelling and uncompromised language to galvanize support for the arts and expand the purview of cultural policy to include the things that really matter, such as technology, media, and intellectual property regulation.
What does this mean for the visual art world? Americans for the Arts is largely concerned with the nonprofit arts. Its indeces may not faithfully reflect the condition of visual art markets and institutions. Are we any better off? What would be the right measures to diagnose the health of the visual arts? And where do you see the trend lines leading in the year ahead?
Those living in Europe are sometimes surprised by the shockwaves that private sector economic turmoil creates for Arts Institutions in the US. If you come from a region where large portions of a Museum’s budget comes from the public purse (in some countries it is all government funded) it can be eye-opening to learn that those well-funded US institutions that out-bid the Europeans at Auction are often largely privately supported. So an article in this week’s Art Newspaper by our own András Szántó is well-timed.
Private donors remain skittish. Corporate support is hard to find and ever more tightly tethered to marketing priorities. Public funding is jeopardised by imploding budgets and competing needs. Foundations, too, are smarting from losses. Some are rethinking their support for culture altogether. Venerable charities like the Ford and Rockefeller foundations no longer have divisions with “art” in their names. Museum income from tourists, members, publications, shops, rentals and restaurants is stagnant. It has been a perfect storm.
Whilst András is right to highlight the woes of incumbent institutions trying to fit existing plans into shrinking budgets, I wonder if some of this wasn’t inevitable? The hubris of recent years and the multitude of new small private museums seeded by privately amassed collections has spread curatorial resources rather thin and scattered good works into more buildings. Maybe we have too many institutions? András again.
Museums are joining forces more readily on publications and web projects, such as Artbabble, a kind of YouTube for art videos. But while content partnerships are proliferating, museums have stopped well short of the kind of consolidation that reshapes other distressed industries. “There is a pride factor that makes it very difficult to merge,” notes Maxwell Anderson, director of the Indianapolis Museum of Art.
One hears a gentle sigh of relief around the globe, as the financial markets rebound, so this may all soon become academic. But I wonder… So what do you think? A disaster for Art Lovers everywhere? Or a much needed shake-up amongst our venerable institutions?