Friday, March 07, 2008

Let's Check in with the Art Market Death Watch Cheerleaders

OK, so it's clearly not in my best interest to agree with the Art Market Death Watch Cheerleaders (AMDWCs). So take anything I say here with a grain of salt. But a round-up of their latest routines (Give me an "R" ....give me an "E"...give me a "C," "E," "S"...give me another "S"...give me an "I," give me an "O" and an "N") does warrant a bit of discussion and perhaps disagreement.

We'll start with our favorite cheerleader, MAO, who is among the most sincere, if overly excited, on the squad :-)
Well... there's been some record art sales going on in London the last few days... and while to the total sales dollars might be bigger then ever.. prices are really starting to show some real scary weakness. Could this huge art party really be over??
MAO cites the recent ArtTactic report that
About 60 percent of lots in a record series of contemporary-art auctions in London failed to achieve expected prices....

The evening sales at Christie's International, Sotheby's and Phillips de Pury & Co. raised 189.8 million pounds ($378.4 million) in February, the most for a series of contemporary sales in the British capital.

According to London-based ArtTactic's March ``Rawfacts'' bulletin, published today, most items sold for bids (or were left unsold) below or at the lower end of their catalog estimates, indicating that sellers and auction houses' expectations were not being met. These bid prices did not include auction-house fees, ArtTactic said.
This could mean many things, actually, the two most obvious being that 1) the market is cooling down or 2) the auction houses weren't effective in curbing seller's expectations for even higher returns (i.e, their valuations were influenced by past results more than solid appraisals or possibly by insistent sellers they didn't want to disappoint). This would indicate nothing so much as folks got too greedy. Another thing the report doesn't discuss is how the quality of the work being offered at these sales compared with that of previous, higher-performing contemporary auctions.

Another AMDWC we adore, the champion of new art, Mr. Holland Cotter, offers us another possible indicator of where the market stands:
Advertisements for the 2008 Whitney Biennial promise a show that will tell us “where American art stands today,” although we basically already know. A lot of new art stands in the booths of international art fairs, where styles change fast, and one high-polish item instantly replaces another. The turnover is great for business, but it has made time-lag surveys like the biennial irrelevant as news.

Maybe this is changing with the iffy economy. Several fairs, including Pulse in London, have recently suspended operation. And this year we have a Whitney show that takes lowered expectations — lessness, slowness, ephemerality, failure (in the words of its young curators, Henriette Huldisch and Shamim M. Momin) — as its theme.

A biennial for a recession-bound time? That’s one impression it gives. With more than 80 artists, this is the smallest edition of the show in a while, and it feels that way, sparsely populated, even as it fills three floors and more of the museum and continues at the Park Avenue Armory, that moldering pile at 67th Street, with an ambitious program of performance art (through March 23).
The problem with equating the choices in the Biennial with a statement about the market, however, is that the process for choosing the artists began long before the market got so turbulent. More than that, though, you could see a shift away from "high-polish items" in the galleries and art fairs beginning two seasons ago. I discussed this shift with a high-profile New York art critic a while back (not Mr. Cotter), and, whereas I felt it represented a maturing of the market in general (toward more "meaningful," difficult work and away from highly accessible eye candy), he disagreed and said the galleries were, as they always do, following the collectors, who wanted the shift. If he was right, then the Biennial isn't an indication of "Art" turning away from the market at all.

As always, it makes sense to bear in mind that the true impact of any economic downturn hasn't been fully felt in the art market until about 18 months have passed, meaning it's still too early to get an accurate picture. May you live in interesting times, indeed.

Labels: art market


Blogger Mark said...

Think of all the gallery track lighting and storage racks soon to be on Ebay...

That seals it! I'm gettin' out while I can. Laser Tattoo removal-that's where the money is!

3/07/2008 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Art on the high end is overpriced and as an investment cannot produce returns comparable with other assets.

I noticed the same thing that ArtTactic's did, there were some good headline sales but that was it. There will always be a few works that sell for peak prices, but the indiscriminate bidding up of lesser works is over, probably for several years. (i.e. Party’s over)

Bush says there will be no recession, we believe him right? Recent activities by both congress and the Fed suggest that something stinks in the kitchen, it may be a full fledged economic crash, or just a slowdown. Whatever, consumer sentiment stinks and that cannot possibly be good for the retail art market.

I’ve seen a few Biennial’s and typically by the time something has made it to the Biennial it’s entered into the mainstream and peaking. I do think one can make an argument for new art being birthed during a recession, but the Whitney ain’t that, too fat, it happens at the street level in the galleries. We’ll see, I’m hopeful.

3/07/2008 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Does the concept of selling more art at lower prices rather than less at higher ones apply to a gallery?

3/07/2008 11:29:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Depends on what you mean, Molly.

If you mean can a gallery take on more, less expensive work and sell lots of it (a la Jen Bekman's 20 x 200 project or the Pierogi flat files), the answer is clearly yes.

3/07/2008 11:40:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

On the other hand, rising prices increase demand

3/07/2008 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger Molly Stevens said...

Thanks. Those are good examples. Although, I assume that this way of functioning is considered less prestigious both for the artist and the gallery.

3/07/2008 11:50:00 AM  
Blogger Mike @ MAO said...

Wow.. calling MAO a death watch cheerleader.. Not that's not FAIR Ed!!

MAO's just trying to see through some of the fluffy upbeat.."Everything is Rossie..", and "We're doing great!", smoke so many gallerinas blow up our ass.. When we ask how's business?

Yes.. This Nation is in a huge recession.. and the clueless Bush Administration needs to do something!

Oh.. and for all those who've asked.. NO..that's NOT a photo of MAO.. We have much more hair (all be it grey) than the guy in that photo!

3/07/2008 11:55:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I'm not sure that's true for art, George. Psychologically it might fool some folks into thinking they better move and get that Artist X now, but most seasoned collectors I know are excellent judges of the value of work and refuse to buy when it's overpriced.

Molly: Although, I assume that this way of functioning is considered less prestigious both for the artist and the gallery.

Not necessarily. Jen's recent press has been incredible, and Pierogi is already a New York legend. I can't attest to who Jen's collectors are (I know a few who are impressive), but Pierogi sells to the best collectors in the world.

As for the artists, it may boil down to their personal philosophies about the market. More democratic artists aren't as concerned with their price points as they are with the work getting out there. Others might focus on having the highest prices for their work (calling Mr. Hirst, Mr. Hirst pick up the white courtesy telephone), but you can argue that that reflects on their philosophy, art, or point of view as well IMO.

3/07/2008 11:58:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


You're right. It's not fair. You'd be the captain of the football team, not a cheerleader.

When we ask how's business?

You must be getting a sincere answer from some galleries, though, no? Most I talk to admit they're feeling a chill. However, it's hard to say how much of that is psychological.

Yes.. This Nation is in a huge recession.. and the clueless Bush Administration needs to do something!

Personally, I think what Stephen Roach said makes the most sense:

By focusing on exports and on infrastructure spending, we might be able to limit the recession. Such an approach might also set the stage for a more balanced and sustainable economic upturn in the next cycle. A stimulus package aimed at exports and infrastructure investment would be an important step in that direction.

but you're more knowledgeable in these things than I am. Your take on Roach's approach?

3/07/2008 12:04:00 PM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Nice post, Ed. I had the same reaction, Cotter's attempt to present an economic historical reflection of the times is not, in my view, adequate, it is a forced and journalistic hook that utterly fails in its adequacy to the presentation of work at hand. If we fall back on the curatorial emphasis alone, the interest in failure marks a very welcomed shift from parody - which for anyone well-versed in the history of contemporary art is a turn away from conventionalist marketablity. Cotter resorts to a weak and empty formalism seeking content in the use of shoddy materials as an "economic recession." It is a flat and empty read that addresses the presumed interests of the readers of the New York Times, rather than the actual interests of the artists who have made this work.

Anyone who has been around has seen much of this stuff already - it has been in the galleries, whether it was in past years fairs, downtown, mid-town, wherever - it has proven its marketability. This is no "introduction." Heck, Spike Lee's (emotionally manipulating - and succesful) documentary already aired on HBO. This, and many of the other pieces in the show, are working pretty hard to ask the art world to look past its own money-obsessed navel.

For example, some artists whose work struck me in the galleries, and that I showed to people, were Charles Long and Daniel Joseph Martinez. The first appealed to me first in very formal terms, in the way Rebecca Warren might, but there was extra glee in the fragility of excreted refuse, and Martinez's Divine Violence was striking for its mortuary range. A recession? That is not art criticism. Failure and loss are deeper than anyone's pockets.

3/07/2008 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Ed, regarding Stephen Roach.

The current economic problems are a direct result of the financial sector (banks, brokerages)screwing up. It will only be solved when they unwind their credit problems. Infrastructure repairs cannot occur without financing, that’s in the toilet at the moment. More exports is a good idea, but if we enter a deeper recession than expected, the world will slow down dragging down exports. Roach is a banking roach.

3/07/2008 01:07:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/07/2008 01:37:00 PM  
Blogger kalm james said...

Not to hijack the downer momentum of the discussion but… to lighten your day, check out “2008 Whitney Biennial Busted” at

3/07/2008 01:42:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bush says there will be no recession, we believe him right?

I do due to 10 little letters


big news of the day
Home debt greater than equity for first time since '45 (google it)

Pending home sales flat

Foreclosures hit record

It's gonna be a bumpy ride

3/07/2008 03:08:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

maybe we need the realignment because over the last 10 years banks have been giving credit willy nilly, and then selling on the debt, I am no finacial expert , but every layman, to politician to americans buying english football teams have got on to the fact of buying now and paying later, passing on interest fees or repayments by guarenteed calatoral.
There are too many wannabee developers, buy too lets, too many galleries, too many fairs, too many artists!
I just wish I bought oil 10 months ago at $67 a barrel.

3/07/2008 03:31:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

put your money into the Yuan

3/07/2008 03:41:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I just wish I bought oil 10 months ago at $67 a barrel.

In ten months you'll be able to say the same thing about US stocks.

3/07/2008 03:48:00 PM  
Blogger William said...


Possibly the speculative collectors will drop out of the market more quickly than others, but here's my worry. People who've been holding onto art of questionable value may rush to unload the works before the market gets any worse, that's the justification for selling, and the demand will simply not be there. The value of the work will drop and when collectors realize they can't sell the work for what they paid for it there will be an increased wariness of buying emerging art.

It's a self-fulfilling prophecy in some regard. I hope collectors will hang onto the work they bought over the last eight years instead of flooding the market with all those big paintings they acquired.
So urge your collectors and friends not to sell. It will only compound the problem.

And you better hang onto my drawing sir, don't put me out there in the cold anytime soon!

3/07/2008 04:17:00 PM  
Blogger Mike @ MAO said...

Mr. Roach.. my be correct in the long run..
Actually the US dollar's huge fall in value vs. the Euro, British Pound, and Yen.. all will improve US exports.

But, the problems isn't US exports.. but credit. Household credit defaults have turned into financial Ebola! It's spreading everywhere...and now killing the entire financial system.

In MAO's opinnion, government needs to stop the contagion, by shoring up lenders
so responsible consumers and companies can get loans again.

Until this improves..real estate, US employment, local municipalities, and US companies (aka..stocks) will all continue to fall apart.

We know.. MAO's such a Debbie Downer..and not much of a football captain !!

3/07/2008 04:20:00 PM  
Anonymous Bambino said...

And thats why we love MAO

3/07/2008 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

And you better hang onto my drawing sir, don't put me out there in the cold anytime soon!

You kidding me? We LOVE that drawing, Bill. They'll take it when the peel it from my cold, well, or at least when they ask me for it for your retrospective ;-)

shoring up lenders
so responsible consumers and companies can get loans again.

Question on that though: are we talking self-regulation or gov't regulation to separate the "responsible" from too-risky borrowers?

3/07/2008 04:52:00 PM  
Blogger David said...

Very interesting post and comments. Mao says "could the party be over?" So many parties are clearly over. The trick for an artist may just be to party on regardless. May you live in interesting times indeed. I didn't find that Mr. Cotter made such a big deal over the Biennial reflecting the market and the times, he just mentioned it. That's the thing about art. It will reflect it's times inevitably. I'm not talking about a one to one, season to season, Biennial to Biennial correspondance necessarily, but long term, looking back, it's there. That's the basis for connoisseurship. Every maker puts something of themselves into what they make. The words that stood out for me in Cotter's piece were "transience and ruin", "abjection", buzzwords maybe for insiders, but how could these themes not fit the times. I also liked "the overall tenor of the show is low-key, with work that seems to be in a transitional, questioning mode, art as conversation rather than as statement...". That seems healthy actually, and interesting, as a concept anyway. I haven't seen the WB yet, I saw Unmonumental and this seems from what I'm reading, to follow on from that show. I don't think its a conspiracy by collectors. I think it's these weird and dangerous times we live in.

3/08/2008 10:40:00 AM  
Blogger Catherine Spaeth said...

Cotter aptly describes a shift in what has become visible, from "one high polish item" that quickly replaces another to a more plain and shabby field by comparison. But to link it to the recession -bound headlines is to miss real politics entirely, which far precede worries as expressed in the Wall Street Journal, and are invested more in the agency of "criticality," that both the artists and their curators exhibit, than being a passive reflection of the stock market.

The link to Unmonumental is important, this is also a very political show, in my mind, as in that exhibition there is an attempt to politicize the strong pull of visual interest away from the high polished item and back towards the material specificity of the local incident, as embedded in narrative as it might be. The biennial in contrast is more stark and withdrawn, the larger critique seems to be a more general anti-modernist one, and much of the work exhibited is more overtly political.

So, yes, they fit the times as a form of address (different than a "transitional"conversation - read: WEAK), but let's not evacuate that agency by reducing it to a mere reflection of the economy. The review is fine enough, but it sure got off on a bad start, and, I think, totally misrepresents the ambitions of many of these artists.

On economics, there is a beautiful little essay on the role of the art critic as "being in debt" to the objects they describe (Jan Verwoert, "Talk to the Thing,"in The State of Art Criticism, published this year by Routledge.) I don't see Cotter here living up to his own indebtedness as a critic to the work he should have been describing.

3/08/2008 12:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think so.

Most of the work at the Biennial and the New Museum I saw already, done by others.

For example:
For those around Chelsea when all started DeChiara Stewart Gallery had Omar Lopez-Chahoud, Charles Goldman and others doing all of this.

Who can forget Omar's shelves, copied by so many. His found stuff was 10 better than a whole floor at The New Museum. Please.

No politics, economics anything, just his work.

Charles Goldman did the wood and everything else years ahead. Please.

Look for it, plenty of photos around.

3/08/2008 12:21:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The economy is going to crash because it's based on borrowing abroad. For years we were encouraged to save because banks could then loan out that money. Now we are encouraged to buy on credit and the country borrows from China. A bloated system.

Capitalism as we have it now - and I include the art market - is a Ponzi scheme. If it doesn't keep growing, it collapses.

Many of us have lived through the downs and ups of the market. Artists keep on working regardless.

3/08/2008 08:25:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across this and it seems relevant to past discussions on Politics (and might be considered Tough Love)

'Is Impeachment Necessary to Protect the Constitution?': Town Hall Meeting

Sunday, March 9, 2008 at 4:00 PM

Judson Memorial Church
55 Washington Square South
New York , NY 10003

more info

check it out if you get a chance.

3/09/2008 08:42:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

Catherine said:

"The review is fine enough, but it sure got off on a bad start, and, I think, totally misrepresents the ambitions of many of these artists."

Fair enough.I love the title "Talk to the Thing" and will look for the essay. Always good advice for a critic.


"there is an attempt to politicize the strong pull of visual interest away from the high polished item and back towards the material specificity of the local incident, as embedded in narrative as it might be."

That's starting to sound like (forgive me) craft, which interests me. Craft is a dirty word in "fine art" circles, but the popularity of DIY craft, and its adoption by contemporary artists is an interesting phenomenon, from an artist's point of view and as politics, and Unmonumental was very DIY.

3/09/2008 10:34:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anyone notice Tyler Green's "weekend observation" on this subject? From the ethics committee of journalism himself...???

3/10/2008 10:26:00 AM  

Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home