Thursday, December 28, 2006

Tyranny of the Top Ten List

As I noted about this time last year, I'm hopeless at generating any sort of top 10 list. It's not that my ADHD-riddled mind starts to follow any old tangent down the surreal path of recollection, landing me at some synaptic crossroad between my grade school teacher's anything-but-clandestine flirting with the gym teacher/vice principal and the smoke-dried carcass of a rabbit hanging in the window of a butcher's shop in Oporto...OK, so yes that is my problem exactly,'s more that I myself don't much care past #4, and so find writing the explanations rather tortuous beyond that point.

Having said that, I truly adore other people's Top Ten Lists and consume them like sugar-coated popcorn. But, really, (Artforum, are you listening?), who can really stand to read more than one person's opinion of the top 10 within any given field at a time? Aren't multiple top ten lists of the same topics oxymoronic?

Therefore, for what's likely to be my last post of 2007 (barring some major blog emergency), I'm spanning the blogosphere for Top Ten Lists on various topics, and wishing you all a Very Happy New Year in the process. Here, in no particular order, (except perhaps the first one) are my Randomly Assigned 10 Top Ten Lists published on the blogosphere in the final month of 2006.

  1. Tyler Green's Top 10 List of 2006. OK, so this one I look forward to more than most. Knowing how many exhibitions he sees coast to coast each year makes his list of outstanding exhibitions the one to note.
  2. Top 10 Feminist Victories for 2006. [From Tennesse Guerilla Women] Includes Nancy Pelosi as "the first woman and first self-identified feminist Speaker of the House." Go Nancy!!!
  3. Top 10 Metaphors of 2006. [From the Metaphor Observatory] Attributing the bounty of metaphors that emerged this past year to "a relatively sleepy news year where peace was no longer a destination and we had lots of time for commentary," this list includes, at number 3: "fallout - Hitting every form of press from Three Mile Island all the way to Chernobyl was the negatively-charged article "Foley Fallout". The explosive headline was scattered across several networks in the U.S. and in blogs around the world, and lasted so long on C.N.N. that they even changed the font to keep it fresh...."
  4. Top 10 Better Business Beureau Scams. [via Improve Gas Mileage] Includes the year's most notorious attempts by con artists to play upon the public's sympathy/greed/ambivalence, etc. Including, at #9, The Oprah Ticket Scam, where "consumers are sent a letter or e-mail, claiming they've won a trip to a taping of the Oprah Winfrey Show in Chicago. All they have to do is send personal information to verify who they are. That information is then used to steal the consumer's identity."
  5. Top 10 Astronomy Images. [From Bad Astronomy Blog] Includes (at #5) the truly astounding image of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station shot in front of the sun:

  1. Ten Worst myspace Personalities. [Via Tuna Crust] Including, at #5, "No Shirt Guy - We know you think that your bare chest is the ticket to the female promised land, but you're wrong for two reasons: 1) You're really not attractive 2) Girls hear the 'I'm an idiot' that your picture screams so very, very loudly. "
  2. Ten Most Dangerous Toys of All Time. [From Another Storm] This is a nostalgic list for me. Did my parents miss buying us a single one of these? At # 6: "Bat Masterson Derringer Belt Gun–Somebody actually got paid to come up with the idea of combining a belt buckle with a cap gun. Ouch."
  3. Top 10 Crazy Person of 2006. [From Jack Cantey's myspace] Highly irreverent, and spot on, IMO. Includes, at #8: "Evan Bayh. It took him an entire week of presidential campaigning in New Hampshire to figure out what the rest of the nation already knew: Who the fuck is Evan Bayh?"
  4. Top 10 Sex Toys of 2006. [From the probably not work-safe Fleshbot]. OK, so this one is here because, as usual, I started to nod off while compiling this list, and, well, as #6 tells you, this one is anything but dull: "Talking Head Vibrators. Four out of five Fleshbot staffers we discussed this with expressed some discomfort with the idea; as one of them put it, 'Having someone whisper sweet nothings in my ear is one thing, but hearing my lover's voice come out of my pussy while I'm trying to get off is just plain creepy.'"
  5. Top 10 Strangest Lego Creations. [From TechEBlog] Not at all sure what it means that three of these 10 reference toys (of one sort or another), but...these are too wonderfully weird not to include here:

Have a joyous New Years Eve, y'all!

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Ouroboros (or "Is Transparency in the Market a Good Thing for Art?")

In a rather sensationalistic, but somewhat anticlimatic, article, the Art Market Editor at The Art Newspaper, Georgina Adam, bemoans "the poor transparency of the art market, despite its huge—and growing—value."

All attempts to measure it accurately, to predict its performance, to analyse it, either through sectors, individual artists or “baskets” of works of art, have floundered.
I read the article with anxiety because its headline roared, "Why you cannot trust dealers’ prices—or auction results either," only to find that the article then focused on the perhaps least common of examples of pricing (record-breaking private sales between private collectors brokered by dealers). To be fair, the article does delve into the interesting question of whether auction prices (supposedly the only transparent metric in the art world) are exactly what they seem (although, again, it uses the rare exceptions to live up to its hype):

But even with auctions there’s often more than meets the eye. For example, Cézanne’s Rideau, Cruchon et Compotier, 1894, was sold at auction for $60.5m (Sotheby’s New York 1999), but the deal was never completed, and the still-life was later resold for “significantly less” to Steve Wynn. Most lists of the most expensive paintings sold at auction still cite, somewhere in their nether regions, Van Gogh’s Irises, 1889, which sold for $53.9m in 1997. In fact the work didn’t sell—Sotheby’s lent half of the price to the Australian tycoon Alan Bond to buy it. He never paid up and the painting ended up in the Getty, for—you’ve guessed it—an “undisclosed price”.
Overall, though, its headline is misleading, IMO.

More than that, the conclusion Ms. Adam arrives at got me wondering whether or not the call/search for more transparency in the art market isn't contributing to the accumlative commodification of "Art" in general. Has the market, like the legendary serpent devouring its tail, entered a vicious cycle in which the more its self-appointed monitors worry about predicting "its performance," the more artwork that meets market expectations will rise to "the top," and the more art becomes a predictable investment, the more those investing will come to expect (demand) greater transparency, ad infinitum?

After all, today, who exactly is demanding the art market be measured "accurately, to predict its performance, to analyse it, either through sectors, individual artists or “baskets” of works of art." Who even talks like that in the context of "art"?

I know the answer to that question, of course. My only question here really, is what's left when the hungry serpent reaches its head?

Friday, December 22, 2006

Something (Slightly) Naughty; Something Very Nice

As this will be the last post before Christmas, I wanted to wish you a very Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, a Joyous Festivus, or Fabulous (however you spend the remaining days of the year) and wish you and yours peace, health, and prosperity.

Something (Slightly) Naughty
Word on the Street (that would be 10th Avenue in Chelsea) has it that the Miami art fairs this year saw a surprising spike in the number of collectors who asked dealers right away, "How old is this artist?" Before asking what exhibitions they've had, what school they attended, how long you've been working with them, etc. The interest in age was up front and center. Most of the dealers I know confess there's simply no good way to respond to this question, so I'm opening up a thread for suggestions.

In the spirit of the season, I'll ask that we give such collectors our collective benefit of doubt (i.e., please assume they don't know just how offensive this practice is). In fact, one dealer friend of mine who responded to that question with "Why do you ask?" had the collector respond, "I don't know really. I'm following my friend around the fair and I keep hearing him ask that, so I thought...."

So, as tempting as it might be to retort, "Ahhhh.... you're speculating, are ya?" do consider offering a more subtle approach. My favorite so far is a variation on the theme of "Oh gosh, so much younger than you would expect given how well he/she paints/draws/etc.."

Something Very Nice
Bambino and I are heading of out town for a few days. But we wanted to let you know that we truly appreciate all the support and kind responses we receive because of the blog. In fact, as our Thank You, here's a little pressie from us to you: Happy Holidays! (try reloading the page if it doesn't load the first time).

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Angels on the Head of a Pin (Open Thread)

With trepidation that this might put off (bore) the very sort of incipient collectors we were brainstorming on resources for yesterday, I found the discussion the thread prompted fascinating (in the way that scholars once found it fascinating to debate how many angels might fit on the head of a pin, perhaps, but...). Still, because the conversation that sprung up is important to me, but I'd like to keep that thread for resources suggestions (or debates about whether learning art history is important for new collectors), I'm gonna graft that part of the discussion there into this new post (which means, please feel free to make your same points again here).

To get the ball rolling, I'll start with the comment by Bill Gusky, who noted:

In our current post-art-historical era, are developments still really taking place -- developments in the sense of a continuity of progress of some sort?

It appears more to me that trends emerge and recede but no true movements in the art historical sense seem to be rising into prominence. It's quite exciting -- makes you wonder how this will be viewed in fifty years.
This follows from an excellent discussion on Bill's own excellent blog that you should read as well.

To throw fuel on the fire, I'll note that I recall vividly the first conversation I had with an artist after reading Danto's collection, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History. It was with a young artist and the idea that Art had ended nearly drove her to distraction. "How can you know, from this vantage point?" was her refrain in disputing the notion. I had to agree that it was impossible to be certain.

In yesterday's thread, Marc Snyder argued though:

It was really only the modernist true believers that emphasized the idea of progress in art, which could lead you to believe that a close inspection of what was going on around you could somehow allow you to deduce what the next big thing would be.
Now I'll confess to being (or having been) a modernist true believer, so it's hard for me to dispute that objectively.

However, last night in another conversation with an abstract painter, I discussed the issue of whether or not developments were indeed still taking place. This painter, whose approach to abstraction is so circular it begins to make one dizzy to discuss it (which is a very nice feeling in that context, I have to say), suggested that perhaps Pluralism is indeed a significant development in art history in and of itself. I can't reconstruct his exact argument without getting knee-deep into his process, which I don't have time for, but it was a rather convincing suggestion.

Indeed, the opening up of art history, whereby artists are not excluded from this or that exploration because of geography, gender, or even time, would seem a logical next stage after the boundary-bursting efforts of Post-Modernism, no? But then that demands to be answered in the context of intent. Analytical Cubism was a very intentional development in Modernism, for example. Which leads me to wonder whether developments happen by accident? If not, then perhaps our post-PoMo era indeed is "Development" free.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

How to Learn to Stop Guessing and Love Contemporary Art

One of the most daunting challenges to collecting contemporary art is learning enough art history to distinguish between an important development and something derivative. There are literally hundreds of thousands of contemporary artists worldwide, and like it or not, those who get attention first for some fresh body of work, are the ones who get to stake claim to that development (even if they weren't the first to do it), so it's often not even simply a matter of spotting an important development in an artist's work, it's knowing whether someone else is already getting credit for it. But let's start with spotting one.

We could discuss ad nauseum all that's wrong with the "lust for the new," but today, prompted by a suggestion by the gallery's "guardian angel" I wanted instead to share a few ideas and open up the thread to others for how new collectors can best come up to speed on contemporary art history with particular emphasis on what the major important developments have been (if you can't see how doing so might benefit your own career as an artist, give it a few more moments...ahh...yes...OK, so now, chip in).

To start things off, I'd like to recommend three steps for grounding oneself in the basics of contemporary art and what got us here (and if you have suggestions, try to categorize them within one of these steps):

One: Get an overview of all of art history the fun and easy way: "Art History at a Glance"
Two: Spot a development: What exactly is a "development" in art and how do these play themselves out in the art market?
Three: Learn more at a doable pace: OK, so you've got the basics under your belt, how do you add depth without drowning?

    1. Of course if you only begin with contemporary art, you're gonna miss what's simply (as the Propellerheads termed it) "history repeating." So an overview of art history in general is your best starting place. Fortunately The Metropolitan Museum of Art has put a wonderfully accessible timeline on their website. With worldwide coverage, cultural and political contexts, and "Key Events" lists, it's a treasure trove of bite-sized information with really great images. Even if you know your art history well, you'll find this site fun and easy to navigate. [Thanks to SP for the reminder about this site!]
    2. But knowing art history isn't exactly the same as recognizing what developments are noteworthy in the art market. For a truly insightful look at how epiphanies in the studio have changed what's exhibited in the galleries (at least in the US during the 20th century), and therefore what can make for an exciting and historically important collection, I'd highly recommend the series of interviews with some of the nation's most influential art dealers: The Art Dealers, Revised & Expanded: The Powers Behind the Scene Tell How the Art World Really Works by Laura de Coppet. I've read this collection 5 times and recommend it to each beginning gallerist I meet. There's no reason collectors shouldn't also know "how the art world really works" as well.
    3. Finally, once you're well grounded and want some more indepth information, but aren't able to return to college for a degree in art history, I'd recommend another excellent collection, this time of essays: Concepts of Modern Art: From Fauvism to Postmodernism. As with the Art Dealers book, the value of this collection is the overlapping of stories and players, permitting you to see the all-important transistions more clearly than if you studied invidividual movements on their own. Stopping at "Postmodernism," it won't highlight the important developments happening as we speak, but you'll see patterns that you can look for...telltale signs you can recognize today that the art world is restless and major changes are about to occur again.
    Other suggestions for resources for learning art history with an eye toward both limited time and becoming a better collector of contemporary art?

    Tuesday, December 19, 2006

    The Importance of Symbols

    As if in response to Cedric's comment yesterday that "American museums are rich in art mostly because of the two big wars, which resulted in all artists, collectors and galleries moving to USA with all their art," today Randy Kennedy has an article in The New York Times about the Monuments Men, whose job it was to track down and repatriate art looted by the Nazis during WWII:

    The story might sound like grist for a Dan Brown novel or a Steven Spielberg treatment. But the efforts of Allied officers and soldiers like [Bernard] Taper to save and repatriate stolen treasures during and after the war is a chapter of World War II history still not particularly well known. Even during the war their work — when compared with saving lives and preserving ways of life — was sometimes discounted. Some members of the military referred to these soldiers as “Venus fixers,” a term with more than a hint of the effete.

    But the accomplishments of these soldiers, better known as the Monuments Men, are finally starting to come into sharper focus. “Rescuing Da Vinci,” a lavishly illustrated book devoted to them, with dozens of pictures newly unearthed from archives, has just been published by Robert M. Edsel, a retired Texas oilman. Mr. Edsel, 49, became obsessed with the story several years ago and even established a research office in Dallas, his hometown, with the goal of telling it better.

    This month, in large part because of his work, Congress passed a resolution honoring the Monuments Men (whose number also included some women and civilians), saying that the value of their work “cannot be overstated and set a moral precedent” for the preservation of culture.
    Note that the effort was twofold. "Save" and "repatriate" (although I'm sure some of the found treasure made its way to US shores, in general the effort was designed to return the work to its rightful small advance for humanity given the centuries long tradition of the spoils of war going to those among the victors who actually found it).

    It's a fascinating article (and it looks headed toward a major motion picture if Edsel has his way, it seems), but what intrigued me most about the article was the competing priorities of widespread upheaval: "saving lives and preserving ways of life" vs. "the preservation of culture." Any fool who would save an artwork over another human's life deserves total scorn (and possibly prison), IMO, but I think the members of the military who mocked the Monuments Men missed something essential about what their efforts represented.

    Forget aesthetics. Let's consider artwork, for the purposes of this post, as symbols. We know that you can manipulate the wrath of people through how you use symbols (paint a swastika on a temple, print a cartoon of Allah, burn a US flag, etc. etc.), so clearly we place deep importance in them, but I'm beginning to see that important symbols are more than stand-ins for things we value already (like faith or nationalism)...they are actually something we NEED to get on with our lives when faith or nationalism have failed us. Symbols unto themselves, without any particular ideology or history attached, fill a universal need for humans. I'm not exactly sure what the essence of that need is, but I believe it's something the mocking military men would crumble without.

    Consider this piece by our artists Gulnara Kasmalieva and Muratbek Djumaliev. It's an intentionally humorous photograph, cropped to emphasize the ridiculousness of its story, but the more I think about why it came to be, the more I think it provides insight into something very profound about mankind.

    This "Horse" didn't exist 20 years ago. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the ubiquitous statues of Lenin were toppled throughout the 'Stans, leaving just the platforms they had once stood on. Slowly, and independently, though, the people of the various villages began to suggest they wanted to build new statues in their place. But of what? Of whom? Throughout Central Asia now, you'll find statues to local heroes...some ancient, or not so ancient, warrior that the elders hurriedly researched and concluded was the new symbol of their values and heritage (now that Lenin was no longer forced upon them). Across the 'Stans, it didn't really matter what this new hero looked like as an individual (hence the cropping of the photo). The characters are fungible (and many of the likenesses only guesses). What mattered was that some symbol be erected to fill the void.

    What void, you ask? I'm not exactly sure, but I do know the ribbons tied to the horse's legs represent an ancient (I believe Shamanistic) tradition of making a mini-pilgrimage to honor a marriage or death or other such event to a special/sacred place where one would pray and mark the event. As evidence of that journey, the honoring folks would tie a ribbon (you'll see hundreds tied to certain places throughout Kyrgyzstan), although increasingly now they'll take a photo as well. Given that the character riding this horse in this photo was barely, if at all, known to the locals 20 years ago, the fact that this statue has so quickly risen to become such a destination suggests it fills some human need.

    In other words, the artworks the Monuments Men saved and returned are more than mere symbols of European tastes or fashions, but rather something far more essential to being human. When we journey to foreign museums or have our photos taken next to this or that statue, we often feel we're simply checking off another item on our "been there, done that" list, but we're actually participating in an ancient ritual (think about it...the way we'll pose in front of any old milestone in some two-horse town, even if we'd hardly register that same structure in some other's a compulsion). We gravitate toward such symbols. We build them if we go some place that doesn't have any.

    There's something reassuring about such symbols being where they belong, as well. Repatriating the looted paintings restores the balance that the war had disturbed. If they're not in their right place, we can't rest somehow.

    Yes, I've reach that rambling point and have to wrap this up. I realize I'm mixing a few ideas here...feel free to help me sort them out.

    Monday, December 18, 2006

    How to Win in Iraq

    Although I'm sure I can withstand at least two more instances of the Bush administration's core of combat-allergic senior officials suggesting they best understand the situation on the ground in Iraq (better than Baker et al., better than the Democrats, better than the military itself often) before my head explodes, there's really no point in pushing it. So in honor of an American soldier who, before he lost his life in Iraq, gave us the following insightful explanation and plan for making a significant difference on the ground in Iraq, and because, as Martha Raddatz notes in her report, we have no way of knowing whether or not the President is ever going to see this plan himself, I'm doing my part [even though this is days old now] to help spread the word on this gift of clear communication from an American who clearly had a very big heart and deserves his nation's lasting gratitude. [via Sullivan] From ABCnews:

    [A] young captain serving in Iraq's violent Al Anbar Province has offered a simple explanation of what the problem was in Iraq and how to solve it. Among his observations is the importance of having a moustache in Iraq.

    In a military known for its sleep-inducing, graphically dizzying PowerPoint presentations, the young captain's presentation, which has been unofficially circulating through the ranks, stands out. Using stick figures and simple language, it articulates the same goal as the president's in Iraq.
    Here's the presentation itself. Please read it, and if you happen to meet up with the President, ask him to read it as well.

    Good Repo Man, Bad Repo Man

    The Greeks and Italians are on a repossessing spree...publicly shaming (or simply suing) the museums of the world for the return of their heritage they say was illegally exported. As "news," that story is beginning to collect cob webs, I know. What's somewhat fresher about the spree, however, is how those same authorities are asking very nicely from others whom it would be seen as inappropriate for them to badger too heavily. For example, the Italians had been very polite earlier to the elderly New York Collector Shelby White:

    Rather than implicitly threaten legal action, however, as it occasionally has in pursuing objects in major museum collections, the government hopes to rely on moral suasion, said Maurizio Fiorilli, a lawyer for the Italian Culture Ministry. He said negotiations would begin in earnest in December.

    And then last week it was reported the Greeks have taken a similarly gingerly approach with another person they claim has possession of part of their heritage: the Pope.
    Archbishop Christodoulos, the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, has asked Pope Benedict XVI to return a fragment of the Parthenon to Athens, his spokesman said. Christodoulos made his request during his first-ever visit to the Vatican, but has yet to receive a response, spokesman Viki Markaki said.
    I understand there's a PR reality to the different approaches, but it does make the heavy-handed stance the Greeks and Italians are taking with museums seem like theater more than justified righteous indignation. Oh, I know, the musems are seen as behemoth bureaucracy bullies, so it's OK to beat up on them. Or, because they're so well armed with high-powered lawyers and trustees, the big artillery of public humiliation or litigation is seen as the only threat they'll respond to, but despite their size, I tend to think of the museums as belonging, in part, to me, and I so I resent the offensive approach taken with them, when clearly more well-mannered approaches are available.

    Perhaps I'm naive. Perhaps the Met or the Getty or whomever would simply laugh off any appeal not backed up with serious legal consequences. Perhaps the Greek and Italian authorities did, indeed, initially ask nicely, only to have such requests fall on deaf ears.

    But by the time it all reaches the tabloids (and there's that paper-selling whiff of public humiliation attached), I can't help but feel everyone loses in a way. The romance associated with the work, for me, has been tainted, brought back to its native shores not through conquest or adventure, but through the anti-climatic, penci-pushing clamor of the wonky class. I'll never travel to see those works in Greece or Italy and not associate that degree of drudgery with them.

    I know how that will strike many people: who cares whether your twisted sense of romance is satisified or not...the work belongs back in country X.

    I'm not arguing it doesn't...just that it's often a pity how it's getting back there.

    Friday, December 15, 2006

    Fair Fatigue

    The collectors are already saying it. The writers are already saying it. So it hardly behooves the gallerists to pretend they don't understand why. Despite how much I like them personally, I'll join in and admit: there are simply too many art fairs.

    Several of our biggest collectors didn't make it to Miami this year, with one reporting, "We just did Frieze, and then went to Shanghai, and that's enough...we're staying home this year."

    From the globetrotting Marc Spiegler in The
    Art Newspaper:

    [F]air fatigue has become a common condition in the art world. The biggest complaint is the sheer number of events that suddenly seem compulsory. “Whenever I hear about another fair starting, it’s almost physically painful to me,” says Munich’s Michaela Neumeister, a senior partner at the auction house Phillips de Pury. “It feels like the art world has become a gypsy circus, running around to fairs. When I entered Art Cologne last month, I suddenly felt I had an art hangover—it seemed like the paintings were all melting into each other in front of my eyes.”
    Read the whole thing. Given how The Art Newspaper's daily readership skyrockets during fairs, it's impressive that they're running that piece. Here's another excerpt that I found personally poignant:

    Which brings us to the galleries, those who arguably benefit the most from fairs. With the exception of major dealers in London and New York, most galleries would founder without fair sales. That said, fairs remain by far the most expensive way to sell art. A recent Art + Auction calculation estimated the cost of running an 80 sq. m booth during Frieze fair at roughly $100,000 all told—including $1,000 for empty crate storage, $326 for the door to the booth’s storage area, $1,500 for cellphone roaming charges, etc. At Art Basel/Miami Beach, renting a similarly sized booth would cost $10,000 more; at the Armory it would run an extra $20,000. And the toll on the gallery staffs is punishing. First come weeks of preparation then the draining days of booth duty and nights of mandatory socialising, and finally the follow-up work of trying to convert contacts into clients and sales into payments.
    But that's the catch. Most of the galleries at our level financially live from fair to fair. We often hear that collectors are not buying in the weeks to months leading up to a major fair for fear that the galleries are holding back their best pieces to have them at the fairs. And it's often true. Dealers feel the pressure to do this in order to get accepted into the bigger fairs. So it becomes a vicious circle.

    I'll come clean here. When I started off in the art world, I worked for a works-on-paper gallery that looked at fairs as a way to clear out inventory. You'd install the work as handsomly as possible, and have the supplemental educational materials ready to help sell the work, but you weren't pressuring the artists to come up with the largest etching ever, for example, just for the fair.

    To this day, I still resent the application process for many fairs that encourage curated booth submissions. Curating exhibitions is what we do in our gallery. If we're putting that much time and effort into an exhibition, it's nice to have it last more than four days. I get that fairs are the new biennials, and as such the art world wants to see new and bold work there, but biennials last longer than a weekend.

    I recently met up again with two artists I've known for a long time who managed to get a booth at one of the fairs in Miami by pretending to have a physical space in some location no one obviously bothered to check. They've done this twice now at different fairs. It's a wonderful project (which I hope you're documenting well, you hear me??), but to a large degree it's being done in earnest by art consultants and others who feel no need to run a physical space when they can bounce from fair to fair and make just as much (probably more) money. That's hardly new (private dealers have done more or less the same for years). What is new is how many fairs there are, permitting the spaceless dealers to operate more or less year-round.

    I had a great conversation with a truly brilliant collector of contemporary art in Miami (who I'm trying to convince to do a guest column show him some love [at least anonymously until he agrees]), who expressed frustration with what's happening to collecting. The furious pace at fairs is leading him to increasingly bypass the emerging artists and lean more toward established ones. The irony here, of course, is that it's the galleries showing emerging artists who need the fairs the most to survive.

    I'm not at all sure what might help this situation actually. I fantasize about the UN outlawing fairs altogether worldwide (I know...they couldn't...let me fantasize, will ya?), for at least three years, forcing collectors to buy from the gallery exhibitions again...slowing down the whole process, letting dealers concentrate on what's shown in their spaces, rather than calling in for reports of how it's going from airports and hotels. Just for a while (I do love hotels). Perhaps the quality of the exhibitions in the galleries would rise to where the fairs seemed less essential, as well. I don't know.

    I do know that collectors are getting tired though. When buying art ceases to be fun (i.e., when it becomes too much like hard work), the odds are it won't continue to attract too many folks outside the speculating set.

    Thursday, December 14, 2006

    The Collector as Purist

    It takes a good deal of self-confidence to excel in the art world. Whether as artist, curator, critic, dealer or collector, trusting one's instincts to the point of believing in one's own superior judgement is not a rare trait among those who claw their way to the top. Not in any field actually. But in the art business, where what gets elevated/celebrated often goes on to represent a generation's values and priorities for (more or less) eternity, such confidence misplaced or misapplied can lead to embarassing legacies and handicapping stipulations that don't serve the art (or its future viewers) nearly as much as they do the ego of the stipulator. Again, this applies across the board, but as the title will have told you, I'm singling out collectors for today's tirade.

    Now I've been lucky enough to view the collections of some of today's most brilliant collectors, true visionaries with knowledge far beyond my own and a breathtaking grasp of what their collections means. I've seen collections that reflect a finger on the pulse of contemporary art so acute that it's crossed my mind how some of today's biggest biennales could have benefitted by including these collectors on their curating teams. In other words, there are collectors who do indeed have superior judgement.

    But like any authority, the wider a collector goes on to cast their net, the less likely it is they'll be as successful/insightful across their entire catch. And given that, the more particular they are about how their collection is accessed by the public (if it eventually is), the less likely it is they're actually serving the public as much as they think they are.

    Consider Charles Lang Freer [pictured above]. In an article in today's Wall Street Journal (which upon searching I must conclude isn't online yet), Milo Beach notes how the self-made railroad magnate donated his 2,500 works of art (including the world's largest collection of work by Whistler and reportedly the US's first [or second] most important collection of Asian art [depending on whether you ask the MFA in Boston or not]) to the Smithsonian Institution with some rather stringent conditions attached [retyped by yours truly...all typos mine]:

    The gift took four years of negotiations and the strong support of President Theodore Roosevelt and Alexander Graham Bell. Despite extraordinarily generous terms, the collection seemed eccentric to Washington officials of the time, and it came with restrictions that would today be unacceptable. For example, only objects owned by the gallery could be shown within its walls, and there could be no loans to other institutions. [...] By refusing to allow loans from the collection, Freer sought to ensure that the works would always be available in Washington for any interested visitor, for whose use he also assembled a major research library. As the museum world changed, however, the gallery, unable to participate in major international exhibitions, became known as a scholarly retreat. This meant that the arts of Asia had a very limited public presence within the national museum system in Washington.
    The article discusses how the gallery has worked to compensate for these restrictions (building the Sackler next door has helped, as have educational programs and public presentations), but the overall impact of Freer's insistence on his own particular vision for the gallery has been to limit its usefulness as a public institution.

    But here's where all this reconfirms my own opinions on the matter. Although Freer stipluated that no additions to the American section of his collection were permitted, he was indeed such an expert in Asian art that the knew his Asian collection was incomplete and agreed that important objects could be added to that section after his death. The problem with his assumption regarding the importance of his American choices, though, is neatly reflected by the central place therein of works by Thomas Wilmer Dewing and Dwight Tyron.

    "Who?" you're thinking.


    Now I'm a big fan of eclectic/eccentric collections (one of my favorites by a gallerist friend includes only works by anonymous artists, with every choice made based on quality alone), and of course the greatest pleasure in collecting is how it reflects one's own personal tastes. But once a collection is donated to the public, I feel certain considerations (e.g., the collector most likely can't actually see the future) should encourage collectors to be as flexible as possible with restrictions. Purism in a private collection is actually a good thing, IMO. Purism in a public collection is not as much a service as it is a self-portrait/monument. Interesting for a limited period of time, perhaps, but hardly the gift that keeps on giving as generously as it might for eternity.

    Tuesday, December 12, 2006

    Bambino & the Jellyfish

    I've chosen to open this thread with my favorite photo of our trip to Miami (my apologies for being so silent during the fairs...I was exhausted). I'm offering up this moment of levity to balance out the very-much-like-sausage-being-made discussion of the inner workings of fairs and what they've become that follows...but first...the beach. Let me take you there...

    Take a deep breath of the salty sea air, feel the cool sand squishing between your toes (watch out for the jellyfish), listen to the waves rolling in and the wind punishing the red flags on the lifeguard stations...ahhh...just relax...

    You relaxed?

    OK, so now shove that thought aside, and buckle your seat belts...'cause there's a whole lot of everything to get out of my system here.

    Miami was a blur. From the set-up to the plane ride home, I was mildly amused and continually surprised by my ability to keep moving, keep talking, keep packing, keep thinking (as it was). I saw so many people I adore, so much very good artwork, too many parties (yes, in the end I caved), bands, dive bars, etc. that it's impossible to reflect and choose what to share of all that. Besides, other bloggers did it live and better than I could have.

    AND...I only did a fraction of what was available.

    By day 3, the only folks dragging more than the gallerists were the glassy-eyed collectors and curators who had bravely (if not wisely) attempted to see it all. They moved in this touchingly slow shuffle...checking wall labels like a still-half-asleep hungry person sniffing a block of cheese in the fridge at 4:30 am. I found myself continuously boiling down my explanations about work in our space, making them more concise, so as not to make our visitors' poor brains explode from too much information (the way mine had by day 2).

    The only thing that saved us (re-energized us) each day was the booze. Cocktail hour started generally two hours before we closed every day, and we moved from the free beer that Aqua graciously supplies to enliven the evening hours to the bottle of Red Label I quite smartly picked up on the day of the preview. That gurgling sound emanating from my torso is my liver attempting to detach itself and burst through my belly in self-defense.

    Despite all my moaning about how tough it is to party that hardy, though...the art in Miami was more often than not pretty damn good. I didn't make it to all the fairs, but what I did see impressed me more than I expected.

    The Fairest of Them All
    I know I should come up with some tragically hip reason for missing it (like, "Oh, it's just a review of what I've seen all year long anyway"), but the truth is I simply didn't make it over to Basel at all this year...not even the containers. I heard it looked great, but I was either scrambling to get work done at our fair or obligated elsewhere. I know it's like going to Egypt and not seeing the Pyramids, but what can I say? I'll catch it next year.

    I did manage to see a good cross-section of the satellite fairs, though, which is what I'd like to focus on for the rest of this rambling report. Specifically, I'd like to address what it means that the satellite fairs are not considered as good as Basel proper (few folks are denying that), but there's a remarkable disparity in which of the satellites folks do consider the "best" ones.

    The day I arrived in Miami I read
    an article in which Sam Keller (director of Art Basel) discussed the satellites, noting

    "I think it's good that there are twice as many fairs this year. Why not? There is enough for everybody. But there was already too much to do before all the parallel fairs. I don't think it makes sense to try to go to 10 fairs. You'll forget what you saw at the beginning when you get to the end,'' Keller says.

    From the start, the official Basel schedule has included a number of Off Basel events: museum and gallery shows, individual artist installations, and the satellite fairs deemed strongest by Basel organizers, such as NADA, -scope and Pulse. This year, the Basel schedule also endorses Aqua Art Miami, Bridge Miami and Photo Miami.

    "We think the NADA fair is one of the better ones," says Keller. "Some of the galleries that have been in NADA are now at Basel."
    So Pulse, -scope, Aqua, Bridge, Photo Miami, etc. come second to NADA, and the other fairs fall in somewhere after that is what that implies (and what I think most professionals would tell you if pressed), but I'm really beginning to wonder about the pecking order and its supposed importance.

    Consider, for example, this post by Paddy Johnson on
    Art Fag City (which, yes, mentions one of my artists, but that's honestly not why I'm linking to it). Money quote:

    I might as well just get this over with now: Art Basel is the best fair I have seen in Miami. I have some guilt in saying so, since it feels a little like supporting Microsoft, but what can you do? The show looks really good, there's a lot to see, and it's well organized. You have to give credit where credit is due.

    The question then, is who amongst the 14(ish) remaining fairs gets second prize? Most predicted that the runner up would be awarded to either Nada or Aqua, which is indeed correct, but the race is a lot closer than I would have expected.
    But I'm getting ahead of myself here...let's back up and get some much needed context....

    Art in Miami = Art Basel?
    A friend in Miami overheard a woman on her mobile say, "I'm over in the Pulse section of Art Basel." (For those who may not know, there is no "Pulse section" of Art Basel. Pulse is a totally separate fair in another section of would be forgiven for the association, though, given how professional Pulse looked and the quality of the work there, but I bet Art Basel would object to the blurring of their branding given how much they spend on it).

    Indeed, though, there seems to be a fairly widespread confusion, or perhaps ambivalence, about the distinction between the "Big" fair and the satellites among a large group of collectors. We've participated in three fairs in Miami over the past 5 years (two of them hotel fairs, which I rather enjoy [being quite fond of the old Gramercy Hotel fair], but which have had a stigma attached to them that Aqua is finally breaking it seems), and yet we still have dozens of collectors each year find us back in New York and re-introduce themselves saying "We met you at Art Basel last year." I never correct them, mind you, but it does strike me as odd.

    Perhaps to some folks it's just shorthand (or "art in Miami" is synonymous with "Art Basel" to them...and with so many fairs, who can blame them for not learning all the names), but other dealers have reported this blurring often enough to make me wonder whether collectors place as much importance on context as gallerists do. OK, so some clearly do. Younger galleries who get into the bigger fairs definitely see their prestige rise among the super collectors because of it (at least as long as they stay in the big fairs), but with the number of collectors expanding so rapidly that they can't all keep up with the fair rankings the gallerists all take so seriously, it does seem to be becoming a distinction without much significance (at least in the short run, IMHO).

    I won't comment on Aqua, which I love for too many reasons to list (but can't be expected to be objective about really), but between NADA, which we've done in Miami, and Pulse, which we've done in New York, I'd have to say that Pulse looked more like Art Basel to me (or at least what Art Basel looked like in the previous years when I got to see it, and which I have no good reason to expect changed all that radically this year, having seen the photos and heard the reports). But saying that (i.e., that Pulse looked more like Art Basel) isn't a criticism of NADA, nor one of Pulse. Both looked great and had very, very good art in them. NADA simply had a unique feel to it, whereas Pulse and (in previous years) Art Basel seemed more diverse. Very little conservative artwork would have seemed at home at NADA, but both cutting-edge and more conservative work would have equally fit in at Pulse, as they both do at Basel.

    But there's my puzzlement in a nutshell. If Art Basel is looking primarily to NADA for its new galleries, as Keller suggests, then that suggests to my mind that more conservative work will increasingly be out of place there (which may be countered neatly, I suppose, by suggesting that today's cutting-edge work becomes tomorrow's conservative work, and that today's conservative-looking work is either past its prime or derivative, but in the age of pluralism, I think that's an argument with razor-thin ice beneath it, honestly). My argument radar tells me there's a gaping hole here, but I'm too bloody knackered to find it.

    Now, of course there's miles of background story here I'm conveniently leaving out, concerning not only our gallery, but the perceptions about pecking orders throughout the art world...but in order to discuss this in an open forum, I have to start somewhere. So in as gentle a fashion as I can, I want to ask what's been on my mind: What if there's an evolution to where there are three or even four "second-place" fairs? The organizers of all the satellites work their freakin' asses off and deserve the gratitude of art lovers everywhere. The quality at the satellites gets undeniably better each year. They are, like it or not, becoming as significant and well produced (if not better) as many biennials. Yes, I mean the satellites are. Of course if you participate in one or work for one, you're likely to see a big difference between them (that's natural I think), but there's a blurring that's growing and I can only see it doing more so as time goes on.

    UPDATE: I see Tyler Green has posted on the blurring of the lines that he noticed in Miami (more of curators than fairs, but I laughed when I saw he used the very image I had thought would complement this post, but didn't get a chance to snap).

    Wednesday, December 06, 2006

    Zone of Risk - Transistion

    Aqua's preview starts in a few hours, but we're ready. None of the photos so far are that interesting unless you've never seen a crate or chaotic gallerists before. Other, hopefully more engaging, images are forthcoming.

    A while ago, however, I promised to write something about the exhibition we attended in Bishkek during our trip there. I did finally write something, which Universes in Universe, the treasure trove of information about contemporary art from the Islamic world, has just published online. I had written more, but space constraints required some abbreviating. To the right is a still from Afghanistan artist Rahraw Omarzad's awesome video Closed Door. Other images from the exhibition start here.

    Of all the work in the exhibition, one stands out as capturing the essence of the exbhition's theme, the video by Kyrgyz artist Ulan Djaparov, which was installed at the end of a long winding tunnel. The video is a straightforward metaphor for the only rational human response to risky political and social transitions. Here's a snippet from the report that talks about his work:
    The location for the 3rd Bishkek Exhibition of Contemporary Art embodies the essence of its title: "Zone of Risk - Transition". The underground spaces
    below Ala-Too Central Square in Bishkek had been the local headquarters of the KGB. Their dusty marble floors and deserted rooms stand as a reminder of just how much has changed since the Republics of Central Asia were once part of the Soviet Union. More than that, however, lying right beneath the center of where the Kyrgyz revolution had erupted in the Spring of 2005, the location contextualizes immediately the very real consequences of cultural and societal transformations.

    Descending the gated staircase from Ala-Too Central Square into the exhibition, one first steps into an underground road that had permitted Soviet leaders to drive through a low-ceiling tunnel to just under the square, from where they could easily emerge for demonstrations. Effectively installed at the end of that long, curving tunnel was a video projection by Ulan Djaparov titled "Reaper." Dressed in a bright orange t-shirt and carrying a scythe, the only character is seen harvesting very tall weeds that had grown in a concrete trough of an abandoned, roofless building. Swinging his scythe rhythmically, he moves steadily through the somewhat ominous space, pushing ever forward despite being unable to see what awaited him at the end of his task.

    Sunday, December 03, 2006

    Miami Bound

    Bloggin' might be light this week (no way to tell yet). I'll try to post during the week, but may not find time.

    Please stop in if you're in Miami!


    Friday, December 01, 2006

    In What Context, if Ever, Should Art Be Free?

    Strange question from a dealer, I realize, but I'm also an art lover, so....

    Here's what prompted my pondering:

    In a move which could transform art publishing, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London (V&A) is to drop charges for the reproduction of images in scholarly books and magazines. Reproduction costs now often make it difficult to publish specialist art historical material. The new scheme will come into effect early next year.

    The V&A is believed to be the first museum anywhere in the world which is to offer images free of copyright and administrative charges. It also intends to take a “liberal” view on what should be deemed scholarly or educational. The new arrangements will normally apply to all books published by university presses. Free images will also be available for exhibition catalogues and journals such as Apollo and The Burlington.
    Personally I applaud the V&A for loosening their guidelines for reproduction fees, even while recognizing that they're not making that great a sacrifice here (as the article notes, "administering the system eats into the profits"), and it stands to reason that there may be residual benefits to publishers seeking their images first (they'll still be credited and folks will know where to find the real work). Of course, they're not giving away the art, just the rights to reproduce its image, but still, this was an instance where they had charged a fee even though the purpose of the reproduction was educational.

    Further fueling my question here is a conversation I had last night. I was talking with a music director for a private elementary school who wanted to produce "Oklahoma" with her students but the school couldn't afford the fees. This would have been for a free performance, open to the public, by children, mind you. I know that fees for plays for profit are standard (and rightly so), but it seemed a pity that she was gonna have to settle for a lesser musical that didn't cost as much. We both agreed that artists most definitely deserve to be paid for re-use of their work if anyone else is getting paid, but when does it make sense to be a bit more altruistic regarding royalties? Isn't there some value to the artist in having those students grow up to love "Oklahoma" and perhaps buy the movie, pay to see the play, or perhaps later produce it themselves as adults?

    Easy for me to say, I realize...I'm not an artist. But many of you are. What's your take on the free use of work you created in a non-profit or educational context? Never a good idea? Depends on the instance? What the hell you smokin' Ed?