Call for Artists, Making Money at Juried Art Fairs, Craft Shows and Festivals
This was a few days ago but worthwhile reading. I'd be interested in hearing your views! Copied below.
I had a Jerry Maguire moment last night. I couldn't sleep, so I decided to write. The following thoughts are a bit of a ramble -- a sketch, really -- and I leave it to others to expand on the dialogue. If I had a business manager, I'd probably be told that for someone who makes part of their living as an art dealer, putting these words "out there" is not a particularly bright move. If I had a boss, he might fire me. Fortunately, or maybe unfortunately, I don't have either.
If you were to walk through the aisles of any one of the dozens of art fairs that now take place globally on an almost weekly basis, you would get the sense that the art world is a happier place than Disney World. Big art, big artists, big dealers and big money play their roles in a hypnotic and well-rehearsed production, and toothy smiles abound. Yet this intoxicating spectacle is just the most public manifestation of a problem in the art world that has become increasingly obvious over the past decade: more and more, the cart is pulling the horse.
The horse in question is, of course, aesthetic production and the individuals and institutions that assiduously guard its sanctity. The cart is, at least on the surface, money -- and lots of it. Or is it? After all, money does not have motivation or intent, people do. I would argue that the cart is actually the insidious forces that have, over several decades, narrowed the gap between art and financial instruments, and in doing so have forced art to submit to criteria once reserved for commodities. Money is simply the scapegoat for a problem that is pervasive and systemic.
There was a time when art critics, art historians and curators held substantial sway as to what constituted significant contemporary art. They rode the horse, and collectors and art dealers happily went along for the ride. These days, curators are too often hamstrung by the demands of museum directors who are focused on attendance figures, and board members, who can have very real (non-aesthetic) interests in seeing that certain exhibitions take place. Critics have suffered an even worse fate. Those that are left have been neutered, and can seem more like public relations specialists than critical thinkers. Even the most influential, such as Roberta Smith and Jerry Saltz -- both tremendous art critics -- can barely move the consensus needle these days. The last time I saw that magic Greenbergian trick successfully performed is when Saltz's 2002 review of a show by Dana Schutz, it can be said, genuinely influenced an artist's rapid ascendency. That was twelve years ago.
"Consensus" may be the most important word in the art world today. Because of the patent impossibility of objectivity in the judgment of art, the notion of consensus has slipped into the vacuum. Nature may abhor a vacuum, but apparently the art world does even more. So much so, in fact, that the word "consensus" has come to be all but synonymous with another art-world favorite, "quality." Their combined weight, piled on layers of subjectivity, has, over time, exerted enough pressure to create a very strange substance: virtual objectivity. You can't see the stuff, but like theoretical dark matter, all evidence suggests that it is there, and that it accounts for a lot of the contemporary art world's mass. It is the substance that turns young artists into overnight superstars, dealers into mega-dealers, and collectors into tastemakers. It keeps the cart in front of the horse and it drives the art market. Unfortunately, it is highly unstable.
The art world and the art market are not the same thing, even though the general-interest press now, tellingly, uses the terms interchangeably. The latter should be subject to the former, but somewhere along the way there was a coup. When the public now thinks about the art world - if they think about the art world at all - the first thing that will likely come to mind is the unfathomable sums of money spent for a painting at the latest auction. I don't think there is any way to overstate the exclusion that this narrative creates. It moves art closer to commodity status in the collective consciousness, and in doing so, effectively tells the 99 percent that there is no point in thinking about the art world, or art itself for that matter. The message is clear: If art equals money, and you are not wealthy, then art is not for you.
None of this is to say that the art market is a bad thing. The dealers, collectors, auction houses and other players in the market all perform functions that are necessary if artists are to have a fair shot at making a living from their work. But the way the market is now structured is problematic. The top end is not the problem. The fact that the super-wealthy spend fortunes on works by artists such as Gerhard Richter and Andy Warhol is not particularly disturbing, as those artists are firmly ensconced in the art-historical canon. When it comes to artists like Jeff Koons and Damien Hirst, well, all I can say is, Good luck with that. The trouble really starts with the prices being paid for works by mid-career artists such as Christopher Wool and Richard Prince, and, of greater concern and with more frequency, for the work of emerging artists.
I am all about artists making money, but when a small group of mostly young white male artists such as Joe Bradley, Jacob Kassay, Lucien Smith and Oscar Murillo start to sell work for six-digit amounts, it should raise a lot of red flags. (And I am in no way making critical judgments about these artists and their work -- Joe Bradley, for one, may very well turn out to be a generational talent.) The age of the "ism" is over and in its place we have the age of instant "consensus" and the other big art world C word, "context." Right now the "consensus" is that serious art involves raw canvas, a smattering of paint, possibly an exposed stretcher bar, and a "who the fuck cares if it looks done" attitude -- some of this work is quite good, by the way. The "context" that this work is presented in is the hippest galleries and art fairs in the world. And collectors who do more listening than looking are lapping it up in large amounts and at absurd prices.
Expressed in the parlance of finance, all of these artists are trading at multiples that, if applied to a publicly traded company such as Google, would make the price of that stock more than $10,000 a share. When someone purchases a Lucien Smith painting for $150,000, they are effectively saying that they feel this asset has such potential for future growth that it warrants such a present price. (For finance geeks, it is a bet that this asset will generate enough future cash flows at a given discount rate to make the asset's net present value a positive number.) All of this sounds very sophisticated, but at the end of the day, and in common English, the only justification for paying such money for emerging artists is speculative. And we all know what happens to a market when too many speculators get involved.
Careless dealers are partly to blame. Auction houses, which can quickly establish a secondary market for an emerging artist, are more to blame. If there is one certainty demonstrated by modern economic history, it is that all things are cyclical. In the end, the music will stop, and when it does, chairs will be scarce. The results will be a decrease in art fairs, gallery closings, and, unfortunately, a lot of artists with ruined careers and no place to exhibit their work. Some, like that wise sage Paul Clemenza, would say:These things gotta happen every five years or so, ten years. Helps to get rid of the bad blood. Been ten years since the last one. You know, you gotta stop them at the beginning. Like they should have stopped Hitler at Munich, they should never let him get away with that, they was just asking for trouble.
Maybe they do. But certainly the severity of such a crisis could be reduced if the art world's internal structure were in better shape.
I think that art constitutes the single most important output of a given culture at any point in time and, therefore, that collecting art is a deadly serious enterprise. These days, collecting has become a form of entertainment and a competitive blood sport, where the quest for access has replaced the desire for aesthetic, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual nourishment. And so, naturally, the things that are the hardest to access have become the most valued (there is the old horse being pulled along again). In my life as a dealer, I am lucky to have worked with a number of collectors who are passionate about art and who dedicate a large quotient of their typically busy lives to it. Then, there is the new breed that all dealers are now more than familiar with. If you are at an art fair, they are easy to identify, because they spend more time examining resumes than looking at art. They also tend to herd together and gravitate toward the same things, which has resulted in a shocking number of private collections that are virtually interchangeable. Let me put it simply: Going to an art fair or gallery and spending a lot of money on the latest "hot" artist is not collecting, it is trophy hunting. When the art world slows down, these individuals will be the first to jump ship, as their motivations for interacting with art in the first place will have evaporated with the value of their art portfolios.
So, how do we fix the mess? Needless to say, this is a complex question. The best I can do is offer counsel directed to some of the art world's key stakeholders:
To artists I say: Keep making art and make it because you have a deep NEED to, not because you WANT to. Follow your own unique visions and not current consensus. You are the bedrock.
To auction houses I say: Cut the bullshit. You are not art dealers, and all the glossy sale catalogues and preview exhibitions in the world will never change that. Refuse to auction works by artists who have emerged from the studio less than three years ago. The few shekels that this reckless practice puts toward your bottom line are far outweighed by the instability you create in the art market.
To art magazines I say: No one cares about another analysis of Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, except for the two dozen people on the planet who actively trade in their work. Expand your editorial coverage beyond the same forty-or-so preapproved "art stars." Allow exhibition reviewers to take stances that might be in conflict with the interests of your advertising department. And editors, encourage your writers to communicate in a language that can be understood by more than the few who are fluent in artspeak. My favorite section of Artforum has always been the ads, and my guess is that I am not alone.
To museums I say: Expand your boards to include a wider demographic. Wealth and the ability to fundraise should not be the primary determinant of board eligibility. I understand that a stable financial house is essential to museums, but when stability necessitates an oligarchy you have a big problem, and should begin to question the viability of the institution.
To art collectors I say: Think for yourselves. Art collecting is a personal journey, not a social exercise. There is no such thing as a bad acquisition, if the motives and desires that lead to it are genuine. Support your local art communities, as there is likely a lot going on that is worthy of your support.
To art dealers -- including myself -- I say: Work with artists you believe in, and do the shows you want to do. Refuse to do business with anyone whose motives are even remotely speculative. Spend as much time educating as you do trying to sell. Always remember that it is artists first, everyone else second. Because the silver paintings are selling well, don't ask your artist to make more.
And to the art world I say. . . . You had me at hello.
Thanks a million for posting this. I cannot comment now since I don't have time, but I'll be back soon. I just wanted to quickly acknowledge your effort to post this. I do have something to say and will soon. WOOHOO!
I don't know how the comings and goings at Saatchi Gallery relates to my to my life in art or if their business has any relaveince at all where I'm concerned. I am not even sure if any of my customers know or care about that echelon of the art world, either. Gosh, are my collectors even Huffington Post readers? I dunno? I've never been.
Sometimes reading the reports about art-stuff like 90 million dollar diamond encrusted skulls is hilarious. The lifestyles of the rich and famous either makes me cringe, or chuckle, or both. I can’t imagine the buyer’s remorse overcoming a person who would purchase that skull. And I read a report that musician George Michael may have been the one thinking about being that very buyer? I wonder how happy he was with this report, that he might be the one buyer, uh, sucker, even thinking of plunking down that kind of bread for that kind of object. If he really was thinking about it, then maybe he was also thinking about spending a little more to buy something more sensible like a Munch or a Van Gogh. Or he might have been considering that he could spend much less and just support the arts in so many communities. Or maybe that he, or anyone for that matter with 90 million dollars to spend, could fund the careers of a thousand artists instead.
Those sales figures and stories are just so hard to believe. I think they are beefed with oodles of hype, certainly. I do agree with the writer of this Huffington Post editorial that magazines should quit writing about certain darlings, but that gripe falls on deaf ears. Those superstars keep the magazines in business through advertising dollars. Editorial coverage happens when artists and galleries advertise. It's the you scratch my back and I'll scratch yours priciple. We live in the payola age.
Looking at Saatchi Gallery's home page today, one could see the following message flowing across their computer screen: In the last four years The Saatchi Gallery presented 10 of the 15 most visited museum exhibitions in London (The Art Newspaper’s international survey of museum attendance 2013.) So there, they're even bragging about their role in high attendance records.
The paragraph with the most meaning for me in this Huffington Post article is the one starting with, “The art world and the art market are not the same thing…” I would say that there’s also a difference in those two places and the art studio. I think about this mostly when I think about why I make the picture frames that I do. I do them because I am driven to do so, not because I’m planning to ultimately sell them down the road at a show. Anytime I want to be disappointed about art, all I have to do is go to a show and not perform well. I can reassure myself that selling art is a very different animal than creating art and that selling it is far less important than creating it where I’m concerned. I have never been driven by money in order to create my art. I’m creating it to fulfill a need within myself to do so, and that happens here in the studio. And I'm rarely disappointed with what's happening with my art in my studio.
Well, Annette. What do you have to say about it?
I'm in Australia and it works quite differently down here as we don't have a big art market nor do we have art shows. 90% of 2D art here is sold through galleries or art competitions or in these days direct with the artist through their website. There are a few city galleries that think highly of themselves but art is not a general purchase in the majority of households. My MIL has no original artworks at all in her house. We have 2 paintings which we've only bought in the last few years and a few limited edition prints. Art is NOT encouraged as a profession unless you will be working for someone... mind you that doesn't stop people studying art at uni!
All that being said I love to create and would have to find an outlet for that creativity even if my work didn't sell :)
Thank you Annette for bringing this article to my attention. I'm new to AFI and have just now gotten around to looking through some of the backdated posts and this HoPo article is a doozy. It points to a phenomena that I've been considering for quite some time and is ubiquitous not only in the "art world" but the entire worlds of culture, finance, education,...you name it.
What I'm referring to is the "Bubble". The art world, at all its various levels, is in a bubble, just like a stock market bubble or a real estate bubble. And bubbles by definition pop eventually, but in their development stage they serve the people at the top of the food chain no matter what "field" the bubble is growing in.
As an artist I cut my teeth in the early 80's Philadelphia art gallery scene. It was developing into a bubble of sorts along side the East Village scene in NYC and the whole thing popped around 1989 with the blow up of the first latter day stock market bubble of around 1987. Tracking the stock market is a good way to track bubbles and we are now in the final stage of a series of bubbles that started with the 1980's. (The previous bubble era was the 1920' culminating with the 1929 crash and Great Depression.)
Having watched the 1980's go out with a bang I looked elsewhere for a steady living and picked up on the "street show biz" and never looked back believing this grass roots art arena was free of bubbles and crazy power manipulators. Pretty soon I was riding the 1990's street show wave and making a great living but developments in the field started to worry me. I noticed many of the shows started courting large corporate sponsors, the "numbers" were justifying this move, and soon booth fees soared and the entire street show circuit began to look like big business.
By 2000 the dotcom stock bubble blew and left the street show market more or less unscathed but the stakes were getting ever higher as costs rose and my sales were getting "toppy" and more and more dependent on repeat buyers. Next up was the real estate/stock market bubbles of 2006-2008 and this one was noticed by many and so ended the era of the street art show bubble.
We are today walking on the broken shards and making the best of it but I believe the real story pertains to what the HoPo article was trying to get at, namely, the question: who does the art world serve?. And from here it gets rather abstract so please bear with me.
Bubbles happen because those in charge let them happen, or more specifically aid and abet them so as to maximize their effect which is to clear the ranks below. Art world activities have through most of history been the purview of the rich and connected, until quite recently, with the advent of the metropolitan gallery scenes and the growth of street art shows. These phenomena greatly expanded the art market and made rather average people art collectors and grew the ranks of successful artists and this occurred outside the control of the society's elites. And if there is one thing elites don't like is the hoi polloi muscling in on their prerogatives.
Activities such as controlling the art world is part and parcel of the elite's self definition and to watch the art world expand to include the rest of us must be stopped. This procedure is very broad and can be listed under the category of "the destruction of the middle class" that one hears bandied about so I'm not saying a small group somewhere decided to wreck the art shows, but I am saying this is an ongoing process that during certain times becomes quite noticeable.
The HoPo article indicates a bewilderment at the apparent pointlessness of the art world, the 15 minutes of fame, and the rank promotionalism. This decadence is a bubble feature and will soon disappear as the third and final bubble of the new millennium blows up and takes with it whats left of the art world and returns the street shows to their modest roots and if we are young enough (I'm not) will witness the phoenix rise from ashes.