Thursday, January 25, 2007

Funding and Flipping and Pint-Sized Picassos

Three stories caught my eye while scanning the art news this morning.
First was that the Bloomberg administration and New York City Council have agreed to rework the way New York arts institutions receive City money:

The hope is that arts groups will find it less necessary to appeal to their council representatives for small amounts of financing, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at the news conference, in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn. [...]

“There will no longer be any cut and restoration dance,” he said.

“They can stop all the lobbying,” he added, “and get back to what they’re supposed to be doing.”


Arts organizations outside the Cultural Institutions Group are expected to compete for the $30 million between March and June of this year, Mr. Bloomberg said. Peer panels will evaluate the applications on a range of criteria, from education programs to management and financial stability.

“What this does is tell groups, ‘You’re going to move forward, or we’re going to take away funding and give it to groups that are moving up,’ ” said Dominic M. Recchia Jr., chairman of the City Council’s Cultural Affairs Committee. “It’s a sign that you have to produce.”

Organizations with large building programs will receive multiyear appropriations, the mayor said; smaller groups will have to apply on an annual basis. “They’ll have to keep proving themselves,” he said, adding, “It will give the city new ways to discover and reward excellence in our cultural institutions.”
As it should be.

The second story is somewhat sensationalistic, but might indicate the first real evidence that the art boom is slowing, for real this time:
Like shrewd traders making timely killings on Wall Street, a small group of collectors have been selling off some of their bounty in recent months and reaping king-size profits.

Such boldfaced names as Hollywood mogul David Geffen, plastics magnate Stefan Edlis, former equities star Kent Logan and 30-something hedge-fund whiz Adam Sender are among those who’ve been divesting themselves of major works. [...]

Whether it’s simply a matter of taking advantage of a very hot market or lining up the funds for more-expensive prizes (many have speculated that Geffen is pooling his resources in order to buy the Los Angeles Times), there’s a palpable and growing sense that a “cash in your chips” mentality is taking hold of the upper tier of the market.

“It’s very aggressive now,” says one New York art adviser. “These collectors have been exposed to a lot of aggressive behavior from dealers, and now it’s their turn.”
There is a possible third explanation: this is simply how the art market has evolved. It's the new reality. With a good deal of work priced as highly as it is, and many colletions too large for their owners to really bond with each work (and many collectors having bought young artists in bulk), not every individual piece will have the same emotional value and some works are bound to be seen like any other commodity that the wealthy move around to suit their needs. In other words, perhaps more collectors are behaving like Saatchi, who, as the article puts it, is "known as much for disposing of art as acquiring it." The point being, though, he's still acquiring it. Moreover, maybe it's not the art market that's changing as much as the "art" of collecting.

Then again, this might be the beginning of a serious downturn. We'll see.

The final story probably deserves its own thread, but we've covered a good deal of its subplots here before. It's a swirling mix of topical issues, centering on a supposed art prodigy, a documentary filmmaker who wanted to believe, a family that now feels betrayed, and the ever-popular notion that contemporary art is a scam:

The painter, Marla Olmstead, was 4 years old when her work, with its vivid swirls of colors and dynamic brush strokes, began selling for thousands of dollars. She became a news media cat toy, with writers and camera crews parachuting into Binghamton, N.Y., from all over to cover the prodigy, a term her parents, Mark and Laura Olmstead, have never used. As often happens, the coverage crested, then curdled, and it was alleged by Charlie Rose on “60 Minutes” that her father, a night shift manager at a Frito-Lay plant and an amateur painter, was helping her with the work.

Back in 2004, [Amir] Bar-Lev, a filmmaker who directed the documentary “Fighter,” an intimate, hilarious portrait of two Holocaust survivors, read a commentary about Marla by Michael Kimmelman, chief art critic for The New York Times, and thought it would serve as the basis for a good film about the subjectivity of expression in the context of modern art. (Mr. Kimmelman also appears in the

The documentary gradually became a meditation on truth instead, one that manages to explore and sometimes indict the motives of all the adults who have swirled around Marla: her parents, gallery owners, reporters and, eventually, the filmmaker.

The film, “My Kid Could Paint That,” also reportedly delves into what happens to normal people who get caught up in a big story and indicts the media itself as much as the art world:

“Amir did not set out to use the family in the course of making his film,” said Elizabeth Cohen, a reporter for the Binghamton Press and Sun-Bulletin, who figures prominently in the documentary. “The film makes us confront the realities of the media process, the predatory aspects of journalism, filmmaking and storytelling. There is a constant need to feed a 24-hour news cycle, but what about the people we write about? What happens to them?”

More often than not, the apparatus unpacks, gets what it needs and then leaves town, leaving the subjects to try and reassemble their lives. Speaking on the phone, Ms. Olmstead was friendly, but understandably reluctant to re-engage with the press. It was not the first time she had heard something along the lines of, “Hi, I’m from the media and I’m here to help you.”

Again, we've discussed most of that before, but on the heels of lecturing to a group of BFA students recently (hi folks!), where the question of whether someone's art career is really over if they haven't made it by the age of 30 came up, I find the notion that working artists might also have to compete with 4-year-olds for the world's attention a bit too absurd for words. So, despite not having enough information to really say one way or the other, I'll confess to wanting to believe the father was responsible for painting (or at least resolving) the works:
In a talk with Ms. Olmstead [Marla's mother], Mr. Bar-Lev reveals that he has doubts about the agency of Marla’s work — his effort to film her working have produced paintings that don’t resemble the other finished work.
Which got me to thinking about my feelings on prodigy in general. I love the idea of a Mozart, for example, but the idea of a pint-sized Picasso creeps me out a little bit. Perhaps it's because I don't work in the music industry or because Mozart is no longer with us, but he seems truly marvelous. But Marla, with her work selling for thousands of dollars, is problematic for me, I'll admit. Not only because of what she represents for older artists not selling their work, but also because she would, if truly a prodigy, confirm the film's title to a good number of people and add high-octane fuel to the scepticism about contemporary art in general. Then again, no one assumed that just because Wolfgang could bang 'em out at age four that anyone else who sat down at the piano would sound anything close, so, perhaps my misgivings about pre-school art stars are unfounded.


Anonymous bnon said...

I believe that I've read some reliable stuff on prodigies, but I can't remember from where. But the relevent bits are that there are virtually no child prodigies in the arts aside from music. So I wouldn't worry. If Marla's paintings happen to match up to a current trendlet in art, then so what? I can't imagine she did the cognitive parts--submerging herself in art history as well as surveying the contemporary field and carving out a niche, etc.--that adults do.

Music is different. Mozart did serious work at an early age. I don't know this, but I imagine that prodigies can have technical mastery (as in math) and simply may also have a deep feeling that they can convey. This is enough to make important music, perhaps, but not art, poetry, novels, etc.

1/25/2007 10:04:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

One family is selling:

De la Cruz Family, of Miami and Puerto Rico, are selling their stuff. Instead of giving it to museums they sell it at auction. For the Miami clan , this is the second time around.

Still, they love the $4,000. range in painting and buy in bulk.

Go figure. Some dealers don't like them anymore.


1/25/2007 11:00:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

Here in LA I'm seeing many solo shows of BFA candidates in galleries. I really look forward to seeing solos of grade school students in Culver City next.

Wisdom is not valued as much as energy in this country. And anger/angst are ipso facto truth. Truth (aka truthiness) trumps thoughtfulness.

I enjoy seeing the work of young artists, but I also enjoy seeing the work of older artists. Too bad the art world seems intent on defining itself so narrowly.

1/25/2007 11:48:00 AM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I've heard that there are really only three types of true child prodigies: music, math, and chess... and that these are all stem from the same root (math).

A couple of years ago a friend showed me an article (perhaps from the NYT?) about child painting prodigies. The article included paintings of both children and famous abstract expressionists. I was able to pick out the children simply by looking at the work that seemed less layered & nuanced (plus I recognized the Pollack and Rothko :)

I'm sure there are children who have very good technical skills--but I doubt many have the depth of experience to do much of interest.

1/25/2007 01:11:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Child prodigy" usually translates into a domineering transferrence of the parents' dreams upon the offspring.

Pushing a kid into the art world, entertainment industry, science, etc., is fairly disturbing any way you look at it.

A 4 year old can't make its mind up if it wants a Kit-Kat bar or a Jawbreaker, let alone what they want to be when they grow up.

1/25/2007 02:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've lurked here for a while, but felt like commenting on this one.

I first learned about Marla a year ago, and at that time wondered about her, the art, and her parents. I have no idea if what she does is really that great, or if it only seems great because children's art has been a source of artists' imspiration for much of the 20th c. In addition to its spurious scientific foundation, the concept of an Artist Child Prodigy runs into this fascination with the imagery children create and further muddies the waters. It also seems probable that what we take for a child's genius amounts to no more than the difference between what we are accustomed to seeing and their comparatively untrained, innocent eyes.

1/25/2007 02:50:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks for joining the discussion Mary Ann.

I agree that fascination with the imagery children produce is key here (it's hard not to project all kins of insight and importance onto it, at least with regard to what it means "to see").

Quick question, though, I'm not quite sure I understand "the difference between what we are accustomed to seeing and their comparatively untrained, innocent eyes." Is there another way to put that?

1/25/2007 03:22:00 PM  
Anonymous Karl Zipser said...


I've been thinking about the "child artist" topic lately and I came to the conclusion that it is really the combination of child and interested adult (usually parent) that is key to creating children's art -- if such a thing exists at all. Yes, the kids make all the stuff of course (although it can be fun to draw along), but the process of selecting, editing, cropping, framing -- these go to the adult for the most part. The adult, let's say parent, then becomes almost like a photographer working with a quirky camera. They can't quite control where to point or what to shoot, but they do the darkroom work.

Without having seen the film you refer to, I'm inclined to agree that the parent probably did have a major role in the 4 year old's art. The question then becomes, so what? Should we compare this kind of thing to work made exclusively by grownups?

Putting it this way, I find it difficult to make a quick answer. The one thing that is clear is that if the work is going to compete with real art by real grownups, it should be judged on an equal basis. That is, it has to really be as good as grownup work.

If we want to focus on the children's art for its own sake (and that's my interest in the topic), we can look at it in a different way. For an artist it is fascinating to see the simple pleasure that children take in making their artwork, whatever it's quality.

1/25/2007 03:30:00 PM  
Blogger dcfa said...


This is so funny. I didn't see the article about Marla today but I have been following the story a bit over the last year or so. I grew up in Binghamton, her dad and her Binghamton delaer were in my high school class.

Granted I haven't seen either in 20 years (Am I really that old?) but they were both decent, nice guys. Mark was a jock, quarterback, basketball star and Anthony was an artist. I'd hate to think they were making the paintings themselves but it would add something interesting to the story.

There is little if any news in Binghamton and when Anthony opened a gallery there it got a lot of attention. I suspect it was total fluke that it hit the national news media and they just went with it. Have you been to the website? It looks like 4 year old art to me.

1/25/2007 05:02:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

I had a teaching experience with some kids and the topic was macro-photography. I wanted the kids to take macro pictures of the toy environments they created.

It was very hard to explain them the exact technology trick I wanted and how to achieve it, but the results, frankly, some of it is as good as any professional photographer would do.

So yes, if an artist use a technique that can be replicated by a child, there is no reason why the child can't produce something as good looking as the great artist. Say, Barnett Newman.

If you don't want to make art that a child can make, well, do something a little bit more sophisticated technologically than a couple large fluffy strokes, or a screenprinted photo with splash of colors above it.

The rest is all conceptual wanking.
I find that conceptual wanking as been in the most part like we the adults were the children teaching to ourselves the basic affects, principles, parameters, etc, of art.

Conceptual likes to think of itself as smart but it is actually more "dumbfounding". A good part of it was about revealing all the dumbness in art.

If I like a child's work, there is no reason to not equal it aesthetically to a Rothko, apart from intellectual intention and historic position ("I dit it first, gna gna").

And it can, it will happen that a Picasso start doing great works at 5 years old. Usually by talking to them you can get a sense if they truly "mature" early or if it's a gimmick organized by the parents, but never forget Leopold Mozart.

And by the way, Mozart might be referred as one of the greatest composer ever, but I've listened to the box sets. A lot of it is boring falling-down-the-good-notes.

Bach was way more interesting (taking lots of detours before the good note), as was Wagner (total weaving of music themes).

So ok, it's hard to write down by ear a whole compo in one night, but I don't get this experience in the music. You could as well be pushing a button and do techno music. I guess Moz is just not falling in my tastes.


Cedric Caspesyan

1/25/2007 07:46:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

One of the typos I hate the most (being an expert in bag english writing), is confusing as with has, as I've done above. Sorry.


1/25/2007 07:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Edward, you asked if I could rephrase "the difference between what we are accustomed to seeing and their comparatively untrained, innocent eyes."

No problem.
Goethe once commented on the connection between what a person sees (and has seen over the course of a lifetime) and how this influences what s/he might paint. " . . . our eyes are educated from childhood on by the objects we see around us. . . ." This education, he asserted, was responsible for the differences between Northern European painters and Venetian school. I agree that most artists can not help (not that they necessarily should) inheriting a tremendous art-historic legacy--a context in which their work will be seen and judged. With that legacy comes baggage that many artists have attempted (not always successfully) to throw off. Children simply have far less exposure, education, training, etc. within that pre-existing visual structure. They are more likely to be free from, more innocent of association with it than their older counterparts.

1/26/2007 03:18:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Got it....thanks Mary Ann.

1/26/2007 08:08:00 AM  
Blogger Timmer said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

1/26/2007 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger Timmer said...

My opinion is that there is no way a 4 year old could finish those paintings. They do not yet possess the developed fine motor skills to polish it off, most are struggling to tie shoe laces! Their concepts of self, bears and kitty cats are translated as globular circles with sometimes 2-3 marks for eyes and stick like protrusians for arms and legs.

1/26/2007 04:56:00 PM  

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