Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Head, Heart, Sex || Good, Fast, Cheap

There's a basic project management principle that insists you can maximize at most two of three constraints (time, money, quality) in the creation of anything. Said another way, you can get something Good and Fast, but not Cheap. You can get it Fast and Cheap, but not Good. Or you can get it Good and Cheap, but not Fast.

I was looking at a diagram of this principle recently:

when it reminded me of something a curator from Central Asia once said to me about how people throughout most of the rest of the world view art. She simplified the idea by noting that good art appeals to all three: the head, the heart, and one's sexuality. Her argument was that it's by embodying appeals to all three that an artwork overwhelms and awes us. It's by appealing to all three that an artwork reaches greatness.

Indeed, art that engages you on all three levels is easy to recognize when you see it (ever catch yourself wanting to lick an abstract painting?). And yet too often (not always, but too often) when looking at a good deal of the art about lately, I sense one of those three (head, heart, sex) is missing in the work. It's almost as if, due to constraints, artists are accepting that the production triangle premise applies to art as well. You can get it Smart and Powerful, but not Sexy. Or you can get it Sexy and Powerful, but not Smart.

Of course, what appeals to your head or heart or sex may do little for me, but I do wonder whether some merging of the two sets of constraints hasn't occurred, and that time itself isn't the crux of the issue here. Reading a passage in Kenny Schacther's impressions of FIAC on Artnews reinforced this suspicion. In particular was this observation and, more importantly, conclusion:
Also at Rech were examples from highflier Alex Israel’s ongoing series of cartoonish silhouette self-portraits. These began, a few years ago, as outlined blocks of color. Over the course of successive fairs, they have grown to incorporate a Hallmark Card-kitschy pier scene. For FIAC, Israel had introduced a director’s chair superimposed over his face, yet another reference to his home base of Los Angeles. Israel’s series has become, in effect, a form of art-fair art. Rather than going out on a limb and offering brand new bodies of work at fairs, artists are instead making incremental tweaks. Which is understandable—but I’m ready to be wowed anew. [emphasis mine]
I know, I know, insisting we're ready to be wowed anew can also part of the problem: Here we are now, entertain us.

But in an ideal world, artists would feel empowered to say, it's not there yet...this is not yet the best I can needs more of that third component. And maybe it's simply having the metaphor to identify and express that need that will help.  


Monday, October 27, 2014

Reconsidering Museum Metrics for Measuring Success

Much of what ails the art world at the moment boils down to the metrics used for measuring success. Whether a work sells at a fair or not is considered a measure of its quality. What price a work may bring at auction is consider a measure of its importance. The overarching trend here is to lazily borrow metrics from other asset markets or entertainment channels, even though most everyone will argue that true importance and quality in art transcend mere market concerns or popularity.

In the contexts of the actual art market, like fairs and auctions, this is simply a challenge dealers and artists themselves must work harder to overcome (more on that in a follow-up post). In the contexts that we at least pretend are less commercial, though, like museums, the growing reliance on such metrics is systematically changing what it is museums view as their mission. In particular, attendance or even ticket sales (a clear market concern) have become the metric by which a museum exhibition or program is judged successful or not.

To some degree this makes sense of course. If no one sees a museum exhibition, what's the point of all the work and money that went into presenting it? Some indication of how many people the promotional efforts for an exhibition brought in is good to know.

But a huge amount of effort is put into documenting the attendance and subsequently the rankings of the world's museums, while scant attention is paid to other metrics, like quality or influence. I realize those other metrics are more difficult to assess (hence my charge that it's laziness that's leading museums and press outlets to substitute attendance for more meaningful metrics), but it's not impossible. It's simply a matter of choice.

Take for example, the awards given out by U.S. chapter of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA-USA) for best shows in museums and galleries. While the arts press cover these annual assessments of quality-independent-of-attendance, they get very little attention in the mainstream media. One might think that's due to a lack of interest in art among the general public, but I'm convinced it's mostly a matter of increasing the profile of the awards ceremony. Think about economics and physics, for example. Achievements in these fields likely generate even less interest among the general public than art does, but the profile of the Nobel Prizes given out in those field gains its recipients guaranteed front-page headlines in newspapers around the world.

Of course it helps that the prize is handing out by a King, and that the pomp and circumstance surrounding it is newsworthy in and of itself, but that's kind of my point. If the AICA-USA awards could raise their profile, perhaps media outside the arts press would take notice. Ideas here might include inviting a celebrity master of ceremonies. One with bona fide art world credentials (say Steve Martin) would be better of course, but one with a built-in audience would certainly help. The point would not be to overshadow the art, but merely to raise the ceremony's profile and help communicate out that attendance alone is not the only way to measure the success of an exhibition.

Why this is important is because the more mere attendance rises as the most important metric for success, the more we'll get crowd-sourced exhibitions and mindless waterfall rooms or other spectacle-based shows designed to increase attendance and little more.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Market Participant's Welfare

There's a generally accepted rationale in most markets behind outlawing monopolies (where one seller controls a market) or monopsonies (where one buyer controls a market), which is that they lead to price distortions which "can have an adverse effect on market participant's welfare and reduce the efficiency of market outcomes." Efficiency is fairly easy to defend in such contexts, but "welfare" is a rather vaguely stated concern.

That it is a concern, however, underscores the fact that all markets are considered part of the social contract, and that they exist to serve humans. They are not some perfect natural phenomenon following universal laws that fell to the earth from the heavens. They emerge or are intentionally created because humans wish to exchange something with other humans, and even in extreme laissez-faire contexts there's still a desire that such exchanges operate as fairly as possible. Again, because they serve humans, who hold grudges, which can be very bad for business, or society in general, depending on their severity. 

And yet, despite this vague concern for the welfare of market participants...this aversion to a winner-take-all-through-any-means-necessary-because-that-would-disrupt-the-social-contract-which-could-be-bad-for-business-or-one's-own-health style of exchange...many people today, smart people, passionate people, seem to feel that "the market" is a force whose power cannot be tamed. Granted, many people have no interest in taming it, and that's understandable (it's certainly a valid choice here), but this complete surrender by others who would see certain markets tamed (or re-imagined a bit to, you know, better serve humans) is misguided, in my opinion.

I'm talking mostly here, of course, about the art market. And increasingly I'm hearing that because there's now so much money in it that the market's too powerful and nothing's going to stop it from continuing on its "market first" path. The best anyone who wishes to put "art first" can hope for, they'll say, is some sliver of attention or trickle down under the radar of the almighty market.

This is leading outsiders with precious little experience in the art market (and certainly little experience within the trenches of the art world) to begin condemning "inefficient" practices that have long been in place within the art market. Such practices would never exist in other, more transparent markets, they'll argue (note "transparency" here is often code for increased market efficiency, with an eye toward eliminating more "human" concerns that don't contribute enough to a desirable return on investment), and make broad proclamations that completely ignore why such practices emerged in the first place: as means to support artists' production outside the immediate declarations of "valuable" or "non-valuable" that an accelerated, market-first culture would demand. 

In the cellphone market, for example, a smartphone maker might entirely crash and burn based on a significant investment in a model the public rejects. But the art market as it has evolved is only part "market."  It is also, by design, part support network, because it's historically chosen to put market participants' welfare at the top of its priorities. It has done so not through naivety about how markets work, but rather through a thorough understanding of how the creative process works. Through an understanding that the greatest art of any generation often requires nurturing and patience. That at the center of the entire market, indeed its entire raison d'etre are not mere corporations and their consumer-tested products, but humans...often very sensitive, brave, extraordinary humans who can contribute more than mere gadgets or profits to society and the entire world. They create the talismans, the treasures, the ideas and objects that give all the rest of this increasingly market-oriented existence meaning.

Efficiency is a fine goal in any market, but when it takes on more importance than the support network or the actual reason the art market exists, it's time to show its advocates the door. It's not your run-of-the-mill market, by design. Stop trying to make it one.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Announcing the Curatorial Advisory Committee for Moving Image New York 2015

We are very pleased to announce the members of the Curatorial Advisory Committee for the fifth edition of Moving Image New York:
  • Paula Alzugaray - Independent Curator (Sao Paulo, Brazil)
  • Robert D. Bielecki - Collector and President of the Robert D. Bielecki Foundation (New York, NY)
  • Alice Gray Stites - 21c Museum Director (Louisville, KY)
  • Sylvain Levy - Collector, DSLCollection (Paris, France)
  • Arja Miller - Chief Curator, KIASMA Museum (Helsinki, Finland)
We  invite you all to visit Moving Image New York, March 5-8, 2015, to be held again in the Waterfront Tunnel.

For updates and more information, visit

About Moving Image

Moving Image New York will take place March 5-8, 2015. Located in the Waterfront Tunnel event space between 27th and 28th Streets with an entrance on 11th Avenue in Chelsea. Moving Image will be free to the public and open Thursday – Saturday, March 5-7, 11–8 PM and on Sunday, March 8, 11-4 PM. An opening reception will take place Thursday, March 5, 6–8 PM.

Moving Image was conceived to offer a viewing experience with the excitement and vitality of a fair, while allowing moving image-based artworks to be understood and appreciated on their own terms. Participation is by invitation only. The newly formed Moving Image Curatorial Advisory Committee for New York 2015 is inviting a selection of international commercial galleries and non-profit institutions to present single-channel videos, single-channel projections, video sculptures, and other larger video installations.


For more information, please contact Murat Orozobekov at or 212.643.3152.

Moving Image, LLC
303 East 37th Street, #6P
New York, NY 10016

T: 212.643.3152

Friday, October 10, 2014


Here's a video of the presentation I gave last week in Barcelona. It's long-ish, but as I note, I was excited to participate in Talking Galleries (in addition to loving this context and the exchanges this excellent symposium manages to produce again and again) because I'm still finalizing the manuscript for my book and still welcome feedback to the ideas/conclusions I share here. Which is my long-winded way of asking you to share any feedback here as well.

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

"Art and Commerce" ...A Growing Redundancy?

Among the themes that emerged from the Talking Galleries, perhaps the most difficult to talk about is how the contexts that have long been considered "non-commercial" are now being quite openly discussed as the best place to buy important art. I'll get to why it's difficult to talk about in a moment, but Georgina Adam recently summarized the gist of the issue for the Financial Times (behind firewall):
“There’s no point in pretending any more; biennales are as commercial as art fairs,” was a point stressed by curator Mark Coetzee, at the Talking Galleries symposium in Barcelona this week (disclosure: I am an organiser).

Coetzee is director and chief curator of the Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) which is being built on the waterfront in Cape Town and due to be completed in 2016. The $120m building is funded by former Puma chairman Jochen Zeitz, now a director of luxury-goods group Kering.

In fact, added Coetzee, “99 per cent of our acquisitions are made in biennales. Fairs cannot provide the scale of works we want, nor the critical importance; artists push themselves more for biennales.”

[EW: I'm rather sure Mark was employing hyperbole with the 99% figure, but the point is it's too large a percentage to ignore.]

The Venice Biennale has been a source for many of his acquisitions, including the Golden Lion-winning Angola pavilion by photographer Edson Chagas in 2013, along with photographs by Zanele Muholi from the South African pavilion and sculptures by Michele Mathison from the Zimbabwe pavilion.

Collectors are now getting into the process even before the biennale showings: this week London’s Zabludowicz Collection opened “Priority Innfield” (2013), a multimedia work by Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin which made a huge impact in Venice in 2013. The production was partly funded by the artists’ galleries, Andrea Rosen and Regen Projects, and partly by the collection’s founder, Anita Zabludowicz – who pre-purchased it.
In fact, during the Q&A of my presentation on strategies for mid-level galleries, Mark had asked me directly whether dealers shouldn't focus their efforts on attracting the attention of the big biennial curators. Here's where this gets difficult for me to talk about. Generally, I like to think the art world can remain a spectrum of exhibition opportunities for artists, from the most commercial (art fairs) to the least commercial (university gallery spaces[?]), with a reason to view the curatorial processes for each differently, and an opportunity to consider the art exhibited within them differently. Once the entire contemporary art world becomes one big shop-op, I can't help but feel something is lost in terms of art viewing contexts. I responded to Mark that I can't bring myself to contribute to the blatant commercialization of biennials because then I would also be to blame for the whittling down of any significant non-commercial contexts. I think the smile he shot me would be best described as "bemused." And fair enough, but...

Alain Servais, one of the private collectors at Talking Galleries shared that he collects as much as 50% (in value) of the art he buys these days from museums and biennials, and much, much less from fairs than he once had. Alain and I have talked about this and he cautions me not to give in to my idealism or romanticism about all this, but to not to be blind to the practice either.

Not entirely able to suppress my romanticism (so sue me), there are two things this brings up for me. First is Mark's statement that "Fairs cannot provide the scale of works we want, nor the critical importance." Combined that sentence makes sense, but the first part alone isn't quite true. Art Basel's Unlimited section presents works as big (if not bigger) than you'll find in any biennial (and if I had to guess, I would say directly in response to the sales now taking place via museums and biennials).

The "critical importance" factor, though, on the face of it remains a distinction. Assuming the big curators are making their decisions wholly independent of the knowledge that whatever they include in a biennial will be promoted and likely sold by those artists' galleries, having work selected for such exhibitions remains a prestigious stamp-of-approval from the non-commercial (presumably more critically independent) sector. But how long that distinction can pass the laugh test remains an open question to my mind. When curators need to raise funding for exhibitions, and collectors or trustees with deep investments in artist X or Y come to their rescue, how long can conflicts of interest remain at bay? When does the whole thing open up, as it does in commercial galleries, to an acknowledgement that "all you see is for sale"? And how can that not change how visitors view the work?

Secondly, and more immediately an issue, in my opinion, is the selective sponsorship opportunities being offered by museums to commercial art galleries. It is appropriate to acknowledge when an artist's galleries contribute to make an exhibition possible (particularly on a wall label if the work is presented courtesy the gallery, in the same font as the rest of the text, or in a comment in the catalog), but it's another to auction off the right for exclusive front-and-center promotional opportunities, complete with the gallery's logo featured prominently in the lobby and on the website. On one hand, this notice in which the Whitney acknowledges the following for the Jeff Koons exhibition:
Leadership support for this exhibition is provided by
is at least truth in advertising, but it opens up questions about context to my mind. Koons has many other dealers around the world. I couldn't help but wonder while touring the show, how much it cost to get the exclusive billing like this, going beyond the conversations Gagosian was having with collectors at the opening (which I would have as well were I in his shoes) into a tacit acknowledgement that essentially the museum has endorsed his preference that you call him first if you're buying.

Of course, Koons is perhaps the wrong artist to use in arguing for a distinction between "art and commerce," but each of us plays a role in blurring the lines here with each choice we make or opinion we withhold on whether a distinction is important. The spectrum of contexts doesn't have to exist, but it's reassuring to me that it can. If we let it.

Friday, October 03, 2014

It Takes an Ecosystem

My friend, the curator and critic Christian Viveros-Fauné, invited me to join him on stage with the artists Jordi Colomer and Rainer Ganahl, at the Talking Galleries symposium in Barcelona earlier this week, for a discussion titled "What Do Artists Want from their Galleries?" I'm not sure I contributed anything significant to the discussion (and there were some folks afterward who said they thought a discussion like this without any dealers taking part might solicit more frank responses), but I was happy that Christian cited an earlier post on this blog in which a commenter reminded us in the simplest terms: "No art, no art galleries."

Indeed, it behooves everyone in the art world to keep that simple fact firmly at the forefront of their thinking about the art world and the art market in particular. Many artists feel they are the least powerful participants in this chaotic circus, but without those among them making the artwork that inspires the rest of us, we're a vast, complex system with no purpose.

And yet, twice over the past week, two very smart people in the art world pointed out that that complex system (once the art for it exists) requires a wide range of people doing various things for a truly supportive network to emerge and survive. In other words, in the global marketplace of ideas, let along the marketplace of objects, it takes an ecosystem to build the machine that gives us the best chance of promoting and preserving the innovations and artwork that inspires us the most.

That's a fairly obvious and perhaps lofty statement, as I've phrased it, so let me switch to the two smart people I referenced above. First was Mari Spirito, Founding Director of the innovative and influential Protocinema program in Istanbul, who moderated a discussion at the Moving Image Istanbul art fair last weekend with artist Atalay Yavuz and art historian/arts writer Nicole O’Rourke. During the Q&A segment, someone asked Mari how art fairs overall factored into the picture for her, and her response was among the most concise and insightful on this topic I've ever heard. Acknowledging that fairs may not represent the ideal context for experiencing artwork, she said nonetheless these are the venues in which all the various players in the art world congregate and exchange ideas. Comparing the collectors, critics, artists, dealers, shippers, art handlers, fair directors, curators, etc., to the birds, insects, flowers, animals, etc., of a natural ecosystem, she noted how they all have an important role to play and how their interaction is essential to the health of the system. She noted how at a fair, a chance encounter between a curator, a collector and an artist (for example) can spark an idea that leads to a project, that then leads to something remarkable. And while she simply meant to explain why she appreciated art fairs, I took Mari's answer to be more importantly an awareness of how we all depend on each other in this goal of supporting and promoting the best art of our generation. 

Now, that again probably sounds a bit too lofty, so, as Murat is fond of saying, "let me break it down for you."

Actually, I'll let what the second smart person, Mark Coetzee, said at Talking Galleries break it down for us, given that he's currently engaged in actually building such an ecosystem from the ground up in Cape Town, South Africa. Mark, the Director and Chief Curator of the upcoming Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA), gave a riveting presentation of not only the contemporary art scene that's growing by leaps and bounds in Africa (particularly in countries in the South of Africa, but more and more across the entire continent), but also of how his previous experiences in various countries around the world [as Curator, Zeitz Collection (Switzerland); Cultural Specialist, Zeitz Foundation (Kenya); Visiting Professor, New World School of the Arts, University of Florida (Miami, USA); and Adjunct Curator at the Laumeier Sculpture Park (St. Louis, USA); and previously the director of the Rubell Family Collection (Miami, USA)] has taught him that if a new museum as ambitious as Zeitz MOCAA doesn't have the infrastructure in place to support it, it's odds of succeeding drop considerably.

To that end, it is obvious, Mark noted, that more education (particularly for curatorial studies) was essential in Africa, that more patronage needed to be encouraged (although they seem to be doing ok in general there), that galleries and fairs and even auction houses needed to be founded and supported by the entire arts community, if this visionary museum were not only to open, but to thrive and strengthen the opportunities for current and future artists in the continent. In short, it would require an entire ecosystem.

Explaining this to various members of the current community, who might see the advance of one or more components of an entire ecosystem as a threat to the control they currently enjoy over a segment of the scene, was something Mark told me was critical to the museum's success. If they can't understand its importance, he would have to keep forging ahead around them, because the increase in the work they might have to do because of new competing forces was minor in the overall scheme of things. His insights into this were very impressive. He convinced me, as well, that every scene that wants to thrive would be wise to embrace the entire ecosystem model, even should it temporarily inconvenience some of the currently long-suffering players.

In the end, everyone benefits from there being a much bigger pie, than they do by foolishly or fiercely protecting their little slice of the current, smaller pie. It's not always easy to see things from that point of view, but it's clear when folks act in ways that don't recognize it, they're generally doing so quite selfishly. Which is understandable, but not productive in the end.