Monday, November 19, 2007

The Alarm and the Arrogance: Galleries Vs. Auction Houses, Round II

As I've noted a few times here and perhaps enough times in the gallery to inspire parody, the difference, as I see it, between the central purpose of a gallery and an auction house is that a gallery is focused on getting the public to agree that their art is important (and, because of that, worth purchasing) whereas an auction house is focused on merely making their art expensive (after the work is seen as important already).

In response to
last week's post on the dangers of rushing work to auction for living artists, Jonathan T.D. Neil, writer*, art historian and partner in Boyd Level, forwarded me a much more in-depth distinction, as outlined in a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal by ADAA President, Roland Augustine. The letter is behind a subscription firewall on the WSJ's website, but it was written in response to this free article by Lauren Schuker on how the rivalry between galleries and auctions houses is heating up. First Mr. Augustine's distinction:
Galleries and auction houses have different purposes. Galleries protect the emotional and economic connection between artist and collector while creating an appreciation in value. Auction houses provide liquidity and, in our current market, help owners quickly maximize profits. Sometimes this creates friction.
That friction seems to have two highly opinionated voices personifying it. On the side of the galleries, as befits his position as ADAA president, is Mr. Augustine, who has said,
"We all need to be more careful about our affiliations with the auction houses," he said, his voice rising. "You can't just let them fund a dinner or event. There is more to it than just money, or sponsorship. Our reputations -- and our clients, our artists -- are on the line."
On the auction side of the issue, the voice that seems to be the most controversial belongs to Amy Cappellazzo, international co-head of Christie's postwar and contemporary department, who has said:
It's a changing world and you have to be really nimble as a business to survive -- the art world is moving much faster these days.... And a market is a market -- it doesn't consider feelings of artists or dealers in the process.
In case you're missing the subtext here, the auction houses are muscling their way in on what has traditionally been the galleries' territory and there seems to be no stopping them, hence the alarm on Mr. Augustine's part and the arrogance on Ms. Cappellazzo's part.

Serving (in the WSJ article at least) as the voice of moderation in all this is gallerist Jeffrey Deitch, whose gallery was co-owned by Sotheby's between 1997 and 2000. Mr. Deitch takes the position that:
The auction houses need the galleries and the galleries need the auction houses -- as dealers, we too can really benefit.
I tend to think he's right. As a character said in the film No Country for Old Men**, (I'm paraphrasing here) you can spend so much time trying to get back what you lost (or protect what you think you're losing) that you don't realize you're losing lots of other things in the process and sometimes you're better off just tying a tourniquet around the whole darn thing. Indeed, every time I catch myself expending energy trying to protect my little piece of the pie, I remember that I could just as easily spend that energy working to increase the size of the pie. Which isn't to say the galleries should let the auction houses walk all over us. But the market cares just as little for the feelings of auctioneers*** as it does the feelings of dealers or artists. And the wise gallerist perhaps works to find how that can be exploited in return.
*Don't miss Jonathan's wonderful interview with the legend John Baldessari in January's issue of Art Review. (It was temporarily posted on
his blog here, but you'll have to wait for it now. Believe me it's worth it.)

**Loved it! Scary, bloody, wonderful.

***Seriously Amy, you don't think, in your more generous moments, that the market could/should have built-in considerations for the feelings of artists? Brrrrrr.

Labels: art auctions, art market


Blogger Edward_ said...

Donna, while I truly appreciate the spirit and effort of posting the interview, I have to believe Jonathan took it down from his site for a reason, so I've deleted it here.

11/19/2007 10:45:00 AM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

[referring to Mr. Augustine] In one of the more combative moves, he is blacklisting clients who resell at auction art

I would say anyone who uses the word Blacklist is desperate to defend their relevance, and likely to alienate themselves in the long run, It's not exactly acting in the best interest of artists.

Yes Ed don't expend energy to defend the old system, EVOLVE, as WDB wrote, The Times They are a Changin' as BD sings, the Paradigm is shifting, the tectonic plates are giving way, as the old Zen master says the little reed who bends in the wind will still be standing after the storm. We all know the fate of the tall tree.

There are a lot of concepts orbiting the art blogosphere as to what the shape of the new art market will look like. The question is who will take the first step towards it.

11/19/2007 01:42:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

It's not exactly acting in the best interest of artists.

Because we can't see what the future looks like, I'd say there's a good chance it might not be, but there's no doubt in my mind that Mr. A feels he is doing exactly that: acting in the best interest of his artists.

11/19/2007 02:00:00 PM  
Anonymous Henri said...


As you've pointed out on many occassions the times have changed. But so has the nature of the art that is being hoisted on the market. Yes there are pockets of sanity here and there, but the sad truth is that so much art that we see in the auctions, corporate settings and museums is made specifically for the equestrian classes. Do Koons or Murikami or even Richard Prince really have any weight with the generations of artists struggle to find a new vision? I do not think so. Their ideas are hermetically sealed. This type of art is made to be an investment vehicle, and it plays up to the powers that purchase it. It's not the old systems artists want back. It is a new one different than this current corporate cluster-f*&# (I did that for propriety.)

I don't know about the survival rate of reeds - the world is full of them, but I do know that the fallen tall tree is always lamented and remembered. Maybe it's time for a few tall trees willing to brave the storm.

11/19/2007 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

but there's no doubt in my mind that Mr. A feels he is doing exactly that: acting in the best interest of his artists.

Will it be in the best interest of an artist when a blacklisted collector offers an un-godly sum for a piece of work and Mr. A still refuses to sell to them, which brings up an interesting question,Can he? is he obligated to take any offer to the artist, and would it be up to the artist to decide who to sell to? Unless the blacklisting is just a ploy to get said collector to make such an offer, and Mr. A does sell to said collector. In which case it's just business as usual and money rules.

But to play devils advocate he did seem to be saying it acting in the role of president of the Art Dealers Association of America, whose job it would be to protect Art Dealers, if he were acting in the best interest of Artists he might say something like, "yes it would be a good idea for artist once established to by pass galleries altogether and let auction houses sell the work to the highest bidder, not sell it to the next person on the galleries waiting list at a discount regardless of what other collectors might be offering."

again it comes down to a changing market and the decreasing ability to manipulate it.

Mr. Deitch continues to work closely with the auction house. "The auction houses need the galleries and the galleries need the auction houses -- as dealers, we too can really benefit," he says.

I am interested in more details about what Mr. D has in mind.

11/19/2007 02:47:00 PM  
Blogger Carol Diehl said...

I couldn’t care less about the feelings of auction houses, gallerists, or even artists. But I do care very much about visual art as one of the ways a culture evolves and enriches the world. It’s important to me to have this way of communicating that’s not based on words, that enhances our emotional and intuitive nature. Now that it’s become a “market” rather than a “scene,” those possibilities are eroding. What we’re seeing, not only in the auction houses but in the museums as well (see “Museum’s Solicit Dealer’s Largess” in the NY Times yesterday), is what a collusion of commercial interests wants us to see. So whereas before when there was a kind of consensus among art world insiders—artists, critics, curators and galleries—as to what was important, the dollar value of an artwork was loosely based on its value to the culture, its influence on other artists, one generation inspiring the next. Now it’s based on what somebody can talk somebody else into, a game the collectors are playing amongst themselves that has nothing to do with what artists or critics—-the people who spend their lives thinking about such things—-care about. As such, I wonder how long it can last, but we’re the losers, because we’re being robbed of the inspiration and dialogue that great art is born of. In a way, what’s happening in the art world is the opposite of what’s happened in pop music where the once all-powerful record companies are mercifully dying, and as a result, there’s more good music out there than any one person can keep track of. So when Joseph Giannasio, above, questions what the “shape of the new art market” will look like, surely it will be different, but why must it be a “market?” Perhaps the market will continue to spin its own insider web, but I think the true artists of the future will be more like Banksy, Jenny Holzer, Christo and Jeanne-Claude, and Olafur Eliasson who, while interacting with commercial interests, have figured out ways to make a global impact without pandering to them.

11/19/2007 03:01:00 PM  
Blogger Chris Rywalt said...

Carol Diehl writes:
Now that [visual art’s] become a “market” rather than a “scene,” those possibilities are eroding.

This statement needs a whole lot of supporting evidence. Visual art is a market now? It used to be a "scene"? What's a scene, anyway, and how does it differ from a market?

I'm not saying I disagree with the sentiment in your comment; I'm just not sure there's some "golden age" we can harken back to. In fact I always get suspicious when someone starts talking about how things were better in the past -- usually believing that involves eliding huge amounts of real world events.

11/19/2007 03:23:00 PM  
Blogger Joseph Giannasio said...

Carol Diehl said...

So whereas before when there was a kind of consensus among art world insiders—artists, critics, curators and galleries—as to what was important, the dollar value of an artwork was loosely based on its value to the culture, its influence on other artists, one generation inspiring the next

I believe that is still the way it is ultimately (as bolded), and that if the bubble actually ever bursts, that will be what will retain its value.

The "Market" is a necessary evil and a discourse about it is necessary to change it, Ed provides an excellent thought provoking forum here for questioning such things.

what’s happening in the art world is the opposite of what’s happened in pop music where the once all-powerful record companies are mercifully dying, and as a result, there’s more good music out there than any one person can keep track of

It's happening with art, and it is only a matter of time before it works itself out, but the downside is that unfortunately as you put it the galleries do create value, artist create art, the problem with all the music out there is not all the great music is making money for the musicians the way the record companies were able to do (it was their hubris and greed that did them in, they should have embraced napster ).

That is why a discourse is necessary to pool together many minds to identify and solve the issues of how to allow artist to continue to make art that as you poetically put it "enhances our emotional and intuitive nature" and to do that it take providing the resources the artist needs to work, and the "Market" is how that is done. As Confucius says "Love of Knowledge without love of Learning is presumptuous". So if you care about art, in the least care a little about artists.

11/19/2007 03:47:00 PM  
Blogger hovie said...

If the solution to free speech is more free speech, then the solution to free markets might be more free markets.

Maybe galleries like Luhring-Augustine and collections of individual galleries like NADA should open their own auction houses. They could offer discounts to collectors that resell the work of their own artists, and give royalties to their own artists as a retention tactic. It's a win-win-win situation.

They could also convert their long waiting lists into auction buyers: "We won't have anything new by that artist any time soon, but we expect to have two outstanding historical examples for resale next season." A four-way win.

P.S. Henri - Reeds don't survive so well in the art world.

11/19/2007 04:56:00 PM  
Blogger Carol Diehl said...

“Scenes” are characterized by an exchange of ideas, “markets” by an exchange of money. There’s no question that I’m grateful for the possibilities the boom presents to me and other artists for greater remuneration and interest in our work. It’s not just a Peter Doig going for $11 million; there is a trickle-down effect. However when collectors become curators, when galleries underwrite their artists’ museum shows, when collectors “look to the auction catalogues to define contemporary art today” (Jeffrey Deitch in the Nov. 12 New Yorker), are we really seeing the best the artists of our time are capable of? I agree completely with Henri above. Koons, Murikami, Prince—to the collectors they seem to be cutting edge, but to many artists their work already looks dated. The question remains, in the face of the corporate stranglehold, how do we bring new ideas to the surface?

11/19/2007 09:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Franklin said...

I wrote an essay a couple of years ago that addresses some of Carol's points. Hovie and I had the same thought regarding the article - the galleries ought to start running their own auctions. Nothing at all is stopping them.

11/19/2007 09:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What's going on in NY with the critics as well?

The New York Times' review today of the Pinta Art Fair by Holland Cotter says and I quote: " It’s a little embarrassing to watch the New York art world “discovering” Latin American modernist art year after year, as if forever only half-aware of its existence."

What is Mr. Cotter thinking? What makes him think that we don't know about it?

Why would he say that when the CVs of most(95%)of the artists he mentions have had shows in many galleries and museums in the last 10 years and there are 4 auctions of it a year in NYC.

What's going on?

MoMA had a show a few months ago by Modernist venezuelan artist Reveron and the ownwer of most of the art is also the sponsor of the Pinta art fair (Mrs. Cisneros).

He reviews both and nobody says anything! When mentioning that she is the owner of half of the show and a MoMA trustee, his comment is "whatever".

WHAT is going on?

11/19/2007 11:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

Wrether it's coming from galleries, fairs or auctions, I think most of what people are interested in within the artworld is scarcity. Objects are valued because they are rare.

I think we'll be able to really appreciate art again once we use the technology that is all available to make 100 000 copies of every artwork, and get rid of the problematic of scarcity that is just very blinding.

Let's face it, a lot of shit get sold for ridiculous prices. Only a bunch of lunatics who think they are better than everybody else in the world really value these things. Insanity prevails, but it's not artistic. Mostly it has become very hard for artists to be relevant because so much is happening on so many spheres in the aesthetic world. The population is evergrowing, we live in the age of filesharing. There is just no place for scarcity. You're just being a dinosaur, "visual" artist.

Cedric Caspesyan

11/25/2007 08:58:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Caspesyan said...

...And yes, we're soon to be able to reproduce a Van Gogh or a Warhol to the brushstroke and pigment.

There will be a day where the original will really simply be considered a blueprint, just like any bronze sculpture can be replicated by the thousands in copper.

The question will remain if we really value art or its scarcity, or the scarcity of objects that were used to make it (authenticity vs aesthetic, the presomption that your skeleton is not as pretty when the diamonds are fake).

Cedric Caspesyan

11/25/2007 09:20:00 AM  

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