Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Does It Take a Shark?

In a reversal of the frequent number of articles in the Arts section of The New York Times that discuss the current art market, I was pleased this morning to see an article in the Business section that discusses how "many business travelers are finding ways to turn their travel for work with time for cultural and historical sightseeing." Pleased, that is, until I read it:
As work is increasingly making inroads into leisure time, many business travelers are finding ways to turn that equation around — combining their travel for work with time for cultural and historical sightseeing.

“Cultural tourism can be an extension of business, it’s not just fluff,” said Patricia Martin, a marketing consultant and author of “Ren Gen: Renaissance Generation” (Platinum Press, 2007).
It was daring of the reporter to include that quote on "fluff," as the entire following article can be summarized as "One person I talked to stopped to visit a cultural institution on a business trip, then another one did the same, then a different one did the same, then another one did same...." By the end of the article I was wondering whether the paper's readers wouldn't have benefited more from a blank space in which to take notes or mindlessly doodle. There were no trends cited or insights offered other than the fact that so many people have to bring Blackberry's on their vacations (because their work day never ends) that it's no wonder they squeeze in some cultural activities between convention halls and airports. Only whereas I conveyed that idea in 30 words, the Times article did so in about 950.

Mind you, I'm a bit jet lagged (got in late from London last night) and the fair was hard work (more on that later), so I'm sure I'm being harsher on the reporter than she deserves, but I was truly looking forward to the article, based on the teaser on the Business section front page, and by the end of it was annoyed I had read the whole thing. I'm not sure what I expected really (insights into the broadening of art's appeal to the middle classes, I guess), but it did dawn on me by the end of it that the depth of "art" discussed in that article is actually about par with the depth of "business" discussed in most articles in the arts section. It's understandable that most business people are perhaps perplexed by art, but it's actually quite surprising how many art people are so perplexed, if not totally laissez-faire, about the factors that affect their business.

Which brings me back to London. Among the topics that dominated after-fair drinking sessions were (surprise, surprise) anxieties about the market, the sky-rocketing costs of doing art fairs, the desire to sell more work in the actual galleries (rather than at fairs), how the business is evolving/responding to such matters, etc., etc., etc. With very few exceptions, though, most of us hashing out these issues don't have much pure business expertise. None of us had MBAs or were schooled in the subtleties of market influences. Most of us come from art history backgrounds or were artists before we opened galleries. We may well have good instincts with regards to the the ins and outs of the quirky, secretive, unregulated art market, but that's almost exclusively reactionary in nature. I can count on one hand the number of galleries, for example, I know who changed the business through innovation or instincts. What other thriving business can you say that about? This despite the fact that the market has grown so large now that it will almost assuredly have to evolve to where it begins to behave more like other markets (more on that later this month).

There's another article in the Times today about the Damien Hirst piece that's on exhibition at the Met for the next three years. This one's in the Arts section and only tangentially discusses financial issues, but it served as a fitting metaphor for what I feel is the key to the changes we're all about to witness in the art market. Here's the piece in question: Damien Hirst, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”

Clearly there are business geniuses in the contemporary art market. Larry Gagosian turned a poster shop into an international conglomerate. There are others I admire for their savvy as well. But most gallerists (at least at our level) run their spaces like Mom and Pop shops, and as much as I love both the feel and overall aesthetic of such spaces (and as much as I feel that "Art" is better served by such an approach), there's no mistaking that scent in the air...that electrical smell that foretells of an approaching storm. Nice people with nice galleries are possibly going to be swept away in the resulting torrent. Auction houses are already buying galleries, and rumors of other models for corporate-like takeovers are swirling. Bigger fish, with killer instincts, will be fine, of course, but something somewhere simply has got to give. There will be something like 23 art fairs in Miami this year. The only people seeing all of them will be endurance-based performance artists. Many of the participating galleries will not recoup the costs of their booths. It's almost a statistical certainty. Will the smell of blood in water with so much money involved bring 'em circling?

Mind you, the best advice the experts can give for escaping unscathed should a shark advance upon you is to punch it as hard as you can in the nose. I'm not sure that will provide as much business satisfaction as it might personal satisfaction in the coming art market evolution, though, so I'm more inclined to think the more nimble a smaller fish can be, the better are their odds of swimming circles around any predators. du dun du dun, du dun du dun

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21 Comments:

Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Glad you're back!

Can't tell if your "du dun du dun, du dun du dun" is the soundtrack to Jaws or Beethoven's Ninth...

10/16/2007 10:42:00 AM  
Blogger Tyler said...

Great. So you're jet-lagged and you're still smarter than the NYT. What does that say about them?!

10/16/2007 11:04:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

Star Wars, I would guess :P

10/16/2007 11:31:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Hi Molly and Tyler...thanks for the welcome notes.

Still, as jet lagged as he is, Bambino's clearly the more clever one in the family...you had to visit Year 07 to understand that line, perhaps, but it had me snorting coffee out my nose.

10/16/2007 11:36:00 AM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Welcome back! We missed you!

The question is: shall we have an art market that is like the publishing industry, with one Publishing Conglomerate printing forests full of pablum and only marketing 10 books, or shall we have one that is like Mexico, where 'success by imitation' is the sole business model? Do we have any other choices? Is there any possible system where Quality is a factor?

10/16/2007 11:37:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

This article on the Year 07 fair by the charming Meredith Etherington-Smith, lets you in on Bambino's joke.

I don't mind noting that Meredith wrote:

One of the most impressive installations at Year_07 was presented by New York’s Winkleman Gallery. Jennifer Dalton’s series “What Does an Artist Look Like” is based on images of artists in the New Yorker from 1999 to 2001.

PL...thanks for that thoughtful comment. I'm working on a post on "alternative" gallery models and that will be helpful.

10/16/2007 12:19:00 PM  
Blogger Heart As Arena said...

They're baaaaack. Y'all were TOTALLY missed. Congrats on the nice write up. Jennifer Dalton RULES.

10/16/2007 01:26:00 PM  
Blogger prettylady said...

Nooooo.....nooooooo....not the dreaded 'alternative artspace'! My résumé is full of those!

10/16/2007 01:49:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

alternative COMMERCIAL gallery business models..

10/16/2007 02:09:00 PM  
Blogger Hungry Hyaena said...

Edward:

Good to have you back in the saddle.

A few tidbits:
- I'm a bit surprised by this post, actually, although I wholeheartedly sympathize. I look forward to your related follow-ups.

- You may have already read it, but I only recently came upon Jonathan Jones celebration of Hirst's skull (from the June 5, 2007 Guardian). Reading your post reminded me of Jones' review.

- The punch the nose technique does work on sharks. My father worked (briefly) as a spear diver off Hawaii and the Fijian islands. He was "molested" by several sharks - they were interested in his stringer of reef fish, not him - and the nose punch always drove them away. It's an oh-so-sensitive spot, I suppose.

10/16/2007 04:19:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Ed sez:
By the end of the article I was wondering whether the paper's readers wouldn't have benefited more from a blank space in which to take notes or mindlessly doodle.

This is one of the more amazing put-downs of journalism I've read. Brilliant!

10/16/2007 06:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw D.H.'s shark today at the Met.

Nice. Good room. Few people in the museum.

Perfect.

10/16/2007 08:57:00 PM  
Blogger Rich said...

Ed, glad you're back and congrats on a good review. As for sharks, if they mean business you never see them coming. If you seen them coming they don't mean any harm. If the analogy with the art market holds then we're in for a surprise, even if the surprise is benign...

10/16/2007 09:57:00 PM  
Blogger John Hovig said...

I saw the pickled shark a few years ago. The tank was murky and the whole thing was unmoving. (And I like Hirst). But the funniest part was that the Saatchi Gallery is in the same building as the London Aquarium.

Live shark swimming around a tank: Threatening. Dead shark floating in a tank: Not so much.

As for the NY Times, selective quotation of the vox pop is a time-honored journalistic tradition. Stand on a street corner until you find a few people who fit the narrative you're trying to force, then call your editor real quick.

As for the possible tidal wave of art dealer bankruptcies coming up Any Day Now, it's said that GE lets its bottom ten percent go every year. Circle of life and all that. Hakuna wateva.

10/16/2007 10:19:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

As for the possible tidal wave of art dealer bankruptcies coming up Any Day Now,

Although that possibility is certainly on many galleries minds, no one is actually so worried about that as much as they are the model will change and they'll be playing catch up rather than riding the front of the wave.

10/17/2007 07:35:00 AM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Rich says:
As for sharks, if they mean business you never see them coming.

I just heard on the radio yesterday about a woman who fought off a great white shark. It knocked her from her surf ski and tried to eat her, but she beat it back with her paddle.

Now if only we could get her into the Met.

10/17/2007 10:49:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've always wondered about art fairs...unless you are participating in a seriously blue chip fair, it must be pretty tough to make a profit, as it costs a fortune to fly 2 or more people, put them up, meals, socializing, etc. in an expensive city.

of course there are other benefits, like exposure for your gallery and for your artists, later sales, etc...but I would be curious to know your take on sattelite fairs in miami, london, NY... money well spent or just something one is expected to do?

10/17/2007 10:14:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

in this article you mentioned

endurance based performance artists.

could you talk more about this? or perhaps point me in a direction to find out more about things such as these...

10/18/2007 02:08:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

endurance based performance artists.

I mean artists like Vito Acconci, Chris Burden or Marina Abramović, whose work sometimes involves subjecting themselves to a task that requires a near superhuman degree of endurance. Most notable recent example being, perhaps, Abramović's "The House with the Ocean View" (2002). Exit Art did an exhibition on Endurance based work back in 1995. Details here.

My joke was that to set out to visit each and every fair in Miami this year would require a similar discipline and patience.

10/18/2007 02:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah! yes, I have heard similar sentiments regarding fairs.

10/19/2007 09:48:00 PM  
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10/24/2007 06:01:00 PM  

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