Wednesday, December 31, 2008

UPDATED: The Pending End of the "Up Is Down" Era

UPDATED with the answers and a very embarrassing admission

Helping a friend bubble wrap a large abstract painting the other day, I recalled how many times I've been in a studio of a painter who works in abstraction and had one of two experiences. Either it had been years since I had seen a particular abstract piece but upon noticing it again realized, often to the artist's surprise, that it was upside down (my one and only memory parlor trick) ... or ... I watched as the artist his/herself tried to recall which was the correct orientation of a piece. Together those experiences might suggest I find it odd that artists sometimes forget the orientation of an abstract piece, but my parlor trick is inconsistent enough that I actually totally empathize.

Toward that end, and as my parting gift to 2008 (what a wild and in so many ways awful year it's been), I offer the following highly irreverent quiz (with sincere apologies to the artists). Among these well known works, can you tell which is upside right and which is upside down? I've ordered them according to what I consider easiest to hardest and I should note that in a few instances the image has been cropped ever so slightly to remove a tell-tale signature or other indication:

A. Kasimir Malevich: (correct)

B: Georges Braque (Upside down)

C: Barnett Newman (upside down)

D: Jasper Johns (correct)

E: Jackson Pollock (correct)

F: Joan Miró (correction: Image that had been here was actually a parody of a Miró, NOT an actual bad. What I get for taking short cuts). It was upside down, but I've deleted it to not further my offense to the parodying artist.

G: Wassily Kandinsky (correct)

H: Kasimir Malevich (upside down)

I'll post the answers next year.

Have a healthy, happy and prosperous 2009 everyone!


Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Constant Crisis of Faith : Open Thread

We recently saw the film version of Doubt and that got me to thinking about the issues of certainty and how debilitating uncertainty is and whether it's something that is increasing in our time (with the economy and terrorism and global warming and the global crumbling faith in the nation synonymous with Democracy) and then I read the recent ARTnews Retrospective column in which they look back at issues past and consistently demonstrate how little actually changes in the way we look at or think about art (or, in other words, how we look at or think about ourselves). So many times over recent years I've heard desperation expressed by artists about the state of things, how we've moved away from what was important or true, how perhaps we need a return to this or that basic, or at least a new focus on spirituality. And then there's this:
75 Years Ago
The modern artist suffers even more than society as a whole from the lack of any vital religious impulse.
—“The Religion of Art,” January 6, 1934
So when contemporary artists express a longing for that time when there was a more vital spiritual impulse in society, they're referring to some time pre-1934?

Or maybe I'm reading that wrong. Maybe there's a critical difference between "vital religious impulse" and "vital spiritual impulse." Maybe the 1934 modern artist suffered more than society as a whole from the lack of a religious impulse because that meant fewer commissions from churches or other houses of worship. But a spiritual impulse might be entirely different. Maybe the lack of that comes later, as a result of a lack of any vital religious impulse and does indeed leave artists floating about, looking for solid ground on which to plant their creativity.

Or maybe there has always been a constant crisis of spirit among both society at large and especially among the artist community because that's simply the human condition. Doubt is merely part of being mortal. Certainty is a curse reserved for the gods. Anyone with their finely tuned antennae out would have to notice and be affected. No?

Consider this an open thread on vital religious/spiritual impulses, art making, and whether or not any of this is new.


Monday, December 29, 2008

What Becomes a "Semi-Permanent" Collection Most?

I don't really have a dog in this particular fight, per se, but as someone working to have the art by the artists we represent acquired by museums, I do feel my opinion on the matter in general is worth considering carefully. The following is meant to spark conversation as well as point out my personal observations only (i.e., not suggest I have any authority in this realm):

In response to a controversy over the deaccession of two paintings by New York's National Academy Museum, the New York Times' Jori Finkel (full disclosure: who I am acquainted with and adore) surveys those on both sides of the question of whether the strict rules by which museums must abide when deaccessioning work should be reconsidered. Titled "Whose Rules Are These, Anyway?" Jori's article focuses on two questions:
Why, several experts ask, is it so wrong for a museum to sell art from its collection to raise badly needed funds? And now that many institutions are facing financial hardship, should the ban on selling art to cover operating costs be eased?
Before Carmine Branagan, the director of the National Academy Museum, sold two Hudson River School paintings to raise much needed cash, she reportedly put out feelers to two museum associations she belonged to:
She knew that both the American Association of Museums and Association of Art Museum Directors had firm policies against museums’ selling off artworks because of financial hardship and were not going to make an exception.

Even so, she said, she was not prepared for the directors group’s “immediate and punitive” response to the sale. In an e-mail message on Dec. 5 to its 190 members, it denounced the academy, founded in 1825, for “breaching one of the most basic and important of A.A.M.D.’s principles” and called on members “to suspend any loans of works of art to and any collaborations on exhibitions with the National Academy.”

Ms. Branagan, who had by that time withdrawn her membership from both groups, said she “was shocked by the tone of the letter, like we had committed some egregious crime.”
OK, so Ms. Branagan followed the proper chronology here, IMO, by withdrawing from the groups before moving forward with her obviously tough decision. As for the rest of the museums who might consider following her lead (and the slippery slope argument seems to be the museum associations' biggest concern), it does seem to me that the time to suggest that rules are antiquated is before one breaks them, not after. In other words, the members of the associations should work to change the rules, not complain when they are enforced.

The AAMD considers the rules important enough to list its position on it at the top of their Position Papers and Reports. Indeed, their position seems fairly clear:
Deaccessioning is practiced to refine and enhance the quality, use, and character of an institution’s holdings. There are two fundamental principles that are always observed whenever an AAMD member art museum deaccessions an object:
  • The decision to deaccession is made solely to improve the quality, scope, and appropriateness of the collection, and to support the mission and long-term goals of the museum;
  • Proceeds from a deaccessioned work are used only to acquire other works of art—the proceeds are never used as operating funds, to build a general endowment, or for any other expenses.
Funds from deaccessioning can be invested in an acquisitions endowment earmarked to support the long-term growth of a museum’s collection.
Again, I'll stay out of whether or not the AAMD was unduly harsh in their response to the National Academy Museum's decision, but in researching this question, one phrase museums use jumped out at me as perhaps sorely in need of reconsideration. What does it mean to have a "Permanent Collection" if deaccessioning is not so seriously regulated or discouraged? The National Academy Museum takes considerable pride in discussing their "Permanent Collection" and discusses it in terms that suggest they understand that the need for regulations is how such a collection comes to be:
Masterworks in these and other styles have come into the Academy's collection mainly as gifts from newly elected National Academicians in compliance with membership requirements; thereby continually enriching the collection. [emphasis mine]
Moreover, what does the term permanent even mean if a museum can define "financial hardship" in any way they wish and use that as a reason to sell off work for purposes other than increasing the collection? Actually, to be quite literal about it, what does permanent even mean if they ever sell any of the work in it at all?

UPDATE: Don't miss Tyler's take on this.
UPDATE 2: Also be sure you catch Donn Zaretsky's well-balanced discussion of the strict anti-deaccessionists arguments.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

It's Good to Give: Art Fag City Fundraiser!

"Don't say that you want to give, but go ahead and give! You'll never catch up with a mere hope."
----Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

'Tis the season to be generous, and one of the most generous art bloggers I know, the delightful Paddy Johnson, is hosting a holiday fundraiser for Art Fag City, one of the very best sources for NYC art news and gossip out there. You know you love it, so why not support it?

Besides, it's the end of the year; you're gonna have to prepare your 2008 taxes soon; your accountant is going to be positively scandalized by the paucity of deductions you can scrape together; and a donation to Art Fag City is tax deductible!

See here for more information: The Art Fag City Year End Fundraiser

Don't be shy! Support your local blogger!!!


Saturday, December 20, 2008

Happy Holidays!

Just because the world is falling apart all around us doesn't mean we have to forget how to enjoy ourselves with our families and dear friends...wishing you and yours the Happiest of Holidays!

My favorite photo from Miami this year (left to right: yours truly, artist Amanda Church, artist and Momenta Director Michael Waugh, Bambino)


Friday, December 19, 2008

Prosecute Bush

There are but 32 days left in the total clusterf*ck that has been the presidency of George W. Bush. As happy as I am to see him go, I hope this is not the last we hear of him. I fully expect to see him brought to trial for war crimes. Andrew Sullivan has boldly been beating this drum for some time now, while the mainstream media have cowardly been focused on how foul-mouthed the Governor of Illinois is to distract us all, but when you read the actual findings of the bipartisan group of Senators who examined the Bush Administration's active lead in torturing innocent people, you cannot sit by and let that smirking incompetent slink away. The report indicts Rumsfeld and other top officials by name, but Bush too must be held accountable. He cannot be allowed to have overseen this and not be tried. Why?

I'll give you three reason
  1. Mohammed al-Qahtani, had been threatened with military dogs, deprived of sleep for weeks, stripped naked and made to wear a leash and perform dog tricks. This year, a military tribunal at Guantánamo dismissed the charges against Mr. Qahtani.
  2. Khaled El-Masri, a German citizen wrongly abducted by the US, tortured, and then set free, having been cleared of any charges : "I was dragged across the floor and my blindfold was removed. I saw seven or eight men dressed in black and wearing black ski masks. One of the men placed me in a diaper and a track suit. I was put in a belt with chains that attached to my wrists and ankles, earmuffs were placed over my ears, eye pads over my eyes, and then I was blindfolded and hooded. After being marched to a plane, I was thrown to the floor face down and my legs and arms were spread-eagled and secured to the sides of the plane. I felt two injections, and I was rendered nearly unconscious. At some point, I felt the plane land and take off again. When it landed again, I was unchained and taken off the plane. It felt very warm outside, and so I knew I had not been returned to Germany. I learned later that I was in Afghanistan."
  3. Maher Arar, Candian wireless technology consultant, wrongly abducted by the US, tortured and the set free, having been cleared of any charges:

    Early the next morning Arar is taken upstairs for intense interrogation. He is beaten on his palms, wrists, lower back and hips with a shredded black electrical cable which is about two inches in diameter. He is threatened with the metal chair, electric shocks, and with the tire, into which prisoners are stuffed, immobilized and beaten.

    The next day Arar is interrogated and beaten on and off for eighteen hours. Arar begs them to stop. He is asked if he received military training in Afghanistan, and he falsely confesses and says yes. This is the first time Arar is ever questioned about Afghanistan. They ask at which camp, and provide him with a list, and he picks one of the camps listed.

    Arar urinated on himself twice during the interrogation.

    Throughout this period of intense interrogation Arar was not taken back to his cell, but to a waiting room where he could hear other prisoners being tortured and screaming. One time, he heard them repeatedly slam a man’s head on a desk really hard.
It's hard enough for me to stomach the idea of Americans doing this to people we have some right to believe meant us harm (we're supposed to symbolize something better than that), but when you know that the mindless incompetence that defined the Bush administration led to untold number of innocent people being abducted, without any access to lawyers or their families, and then sent to be tortured (an interrogation technique that has proven to be inferior if not downright counterproductive), any American who believes that we stand for a belief system incompatible with such horrors must demand Bush be held accountable.

The New York Times holds out little hope that President Obama will do the right thing here:

A prosecutor should be appointed to consider criminal charges against top officials at the Pentagon and others involved in planning the abuse.

Given his other problems — and how far he has moved from the powerful stands he took on these issues early in the campaign — we do not hold out real hope that Barack Obama, as president, will take such a politically fraught step.

At the least, Mr. Obama should, as the organization Human Rights First suggested, order his attorney general to review more than two dozen prisoner-abuse cases that reportedly were referred to the Justice Department by the Pentagon and the C.I.A. — and declined by Mr. Bush’s lawyers.
Personally, I don't care about Mr. Obama's political capital. I understand there are many problems that impact the lives of millions of Americans he needs bipartisan support to address, but the needs of the many do not trump the right to justice of the few. So long as he's clear that it's justice he's after, I believe Obama would have enough support to bring this to trial. Yes it would be ugly. There are horrendously cowardly torture apologists with megaphones who will defend this abomination (many of them willing to send a "few bad apples" to the gallows when their fearless leader convinced them that's where the buck had stopped, but now that they know better, their balllessness has been revealed).

I know how unpleasant all this is for most of us. I too wish it would all just go away, and I know that letting Bush slink off to his ranch is seemingly the fastest way to do that, but for just a moment imagine he does. Imagine he's safe and sound in Texas, sleeping well in his wealth and security, and the whole thing blows over. It's easy to do actually, and I find comfort in it until I attempt to put myself in the shoes of those who have been tortured or their loved ones. Try it.

Imagine someone lying in bed next to the man they love. A man who's been a good family man, good father, good citizen, and good spouse. Imagine that man wakes in the middle of the night, in a cold sweat, silently but violently mouthing the same screams they had tortured out of him in Jordan or Afganistan. Imagine the terror in his face when the light is turned on, how he weeps as he's rocked back to sleep. Put yourself in the position of that person holding him. As you do, you outline the scars of where he was beaten with your fingers. You imagine the agony in his mind every night as it tries to sift through the dark months of being locked in filth, the beatings, the blood, the lonliness. Imagine how it feels when it dawns on you that this man you love will have these same nightmares the rest of his life.

As gratuitous as that may seem, all I have to do is imagine this happening to someone I love and the question of whether you let Bush slink off becomes crystal clear.

Bush must be held accountable.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Short Note on the One-Size-Fits-All Myth

NOTE: Unlike the last time I used an actual exchange with an artist to illustrate a point about the gallery business, I'd like to request up front that readers appreciate I don't do so in order to elicit comments that chastise them for their "naivety" or any other such quality (it's impossible to provide a full picture in a short description). In other words, in case the artist reads this post and recognizes himself, I'll ask that you not comment on what it seems he should have known already. This thread is designed to explore why a notion is out there...not why one individual didn't fully understand something. I'll aplogize in advance for how impatient I must have seemed in this exchange (it's stressful out there).

I got a cold call email from an artist the other day asking me to look at the attached jpegs of his work. I'll be honest, we're not accepting submissions at the moment and I am not currently able to devote as much time to reviewing jpegs as I had been, so it's really hit and miss as to whether I'll actually open the files unless I was expecting them. I did in this case, more as a means of responding to the note in his email which read:
I've enjoyed reading your blog, and because you said you do look at submissions sent by email, I've attached three 72 dpi jpgs
I wrote back:
I've also said it's important to visit the gallery, strike up a conversation with the gallery in person, make sure your work is a good match for their program, and then send an email asking if they'd like to see images. Going about it the way you are is taking a few too many short cuts, I'm afraid.

Have you been to our gallery?
As beautiful as your paintings seem to be, we don't show [xxxx] generally, so they are not right for us. You're better off targeting a gallery that focuses on [xxxx]. Search through this website for those that do, go visit them, and then try sending images after you're sure it's a good match:

Best of luck
I'm not sure what got into me, actually. I had plenty else to do than strike up a dialog about this. I guess the notion that my advice had been truncated in someone's mind was alarming, so I wanted to set the record straight.

Next time I checked my email, there were three additional messages from this artist (all sent within one afternoon). The final one read:
in all candor, why is it not enough that you like the work (assuming it was a match for your gallery)?
Mind you, I had not replied to any of these yet, so by the time we got the third email, most of the dialog was between this artist and his sense of what I had meant, not what I had actually written.

I replied:
You're asking, so I'll tell you, but I'll also note that it's probably not going to be helpful to securing a relationship with a gallery to send them three emails in a row after a lengthy response that noted "You're better off targeting a gallery that focuses on [xxxx]." In other words, I could spend 24 hours a day answering such questions if I made a habit of it, but I don't have that much please do consider the dealer's time and at the very least wait for them to get back to you before bombarding them with new emails.

Take this advice if you like, but please note I can't continue this conversation after this:

Your work seems accomplished enough for you to find the right gallery, but how you go about it is very important. The reason it's very important is that there are thousands of very, very talented artists out there looking for galleries but, especially with the economy the way it is now, no where near enough galleries to work with them all. You need an advantage to beat them to the spot in a gallery roster beyond just your work. and you need part of that advantage to be a subtle indication to the dealer that you are not going to be a handful to deal with when they're struggling to deal with economy.

Three emails in a row will put someone off. They will conclude you are high maintenance or desperate and neither is attractive to many dealers...the right match of personalities is a critical part of the equation.

Dealers are generally pro-artists. That means that although they may not wish to work with a particular artist, they don't like to be discouraging. That means you have to parse what they say about your work and not assume some encouraging note means if you keep asking they'll work with you eventually.

I wrote " As beautiful as your paintings seem to be " but you translated that as " you like
the work ." To be blunt, I never said I like your work. (I never said I didn't, but my point is don't jump at any encouraging response as an opening you have to keep trying to widen). I meant it when I said you're best going after a gallery that focuses on [xxx].

Why it's not enough that I see your work as accomplished is that I have a very specific program and many, many other New York dealers do as well. Galleries in New York often focus on a niche as a business strategy. While I personally think your work is accomplished, it's not something I have clients for, because I have focused my energies on clients that buy other type of work .... It makes no business sense for me at all to deal in your work...I have no collectors for it. Now it's feasible that a gallery that doesn't focus on [xxxx] might have collectors for your work so don't limit who you approach to just dealers who only show [xxxx], but knowing my collectors and what they're looking for, I know my program is not a good match for your work.

I hope this helps. Seriously...but do be careful not to come off as high maintenance at this stage of getting to know a dealer...especially now...we're all stressed out.
OK, so the point of this really isn't how anxious this artist was (so let's not pile on, please), but rather how it seems to be widely misunderstood that any dealer who considers your work good should be able to represent it. Some programs are not focused on a particular niche and can indeed represent a wide variety of genres and or types of art. Others clearly (or so it seems to me) are focused. As a dealer this seems very, very obvious to me.

Does it not seem so to artists?


Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Miami Debriefs Summary

It's now officially a week and a day since we returned from Miami, the art shippers have returned our stuff, and we're neck-deep in follow-up (not to mention slush), but I've finally found the time to survey the responses to the annual Artfest in the blogosphere and overall, considering the news out of Washington and Wall Street everyday, it went better than expected. It certainly seemed to be a good year for art. Here's my round-up of the round-ups
  • Providing perhaps the most comprehensive round-up and so many photos you'll feel like you were there yourself, Joanne Mattera takes the prize for in-depth coverage of the art on view.
  • Also indepth, but more about the overall scene than just the art, per se, Paddy Johnson's coverage provided plenty of analysis and juicy tidbits.
  • Speaking of juicy tidbits, for the best in coverage from the collector's point of view, our man in the aisle, Mike @ Mao highlights some of the best new finds and even prices.
  • For analysis of what it all means, you can't beat Artworld Salon founder András Szántó's wrap-up report.
  • Brian Sherwin also takes a long-term view at myartspace.
  • Roberta and Libby offer a fun-fact-filled summary as well.
  • And those are just the bloggers I know personally. Here's a list of other blogs who covered the fair as well:
OK, so that should keep you busy catching up if you missed it. Please add a comment if you also blogged about Miami and I don't have you listed here.


Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Opportunity Favors the Prepared : Open Thread

There's a meme in the art world that's been floating around for some time now. Essentially it suggests that the more global the art market (indeed... the entire art world) goes, the less feasible it becomes for Mom & Pop shop-style galleries to compete and/or survive. This was before the global economic downturn. It's been suggested on this very blog (by George, if memory serves me right) that, like in any other industry, collaboration, if not consolidation, will eventually become necessary. The example most often cited when this idea crops up is the LVMH fashion and luxury company model. Serving as the umbrella corporation for about 60 sub-companies that run more-or-less autonomously, LVMH fashion companies include Louis Vuitton, Fendi, Donna Karan New York (DKNY), and Marc Jacobs to name but a few.

The beauty of this model is that global competition requires certain costly expenses, but that some of them can be centralized to save each sub-company (through bulk purchases or group discounts, perhaps, or retaining certain expensive experts at a better rate). How this could work for galleries, I'm not so sure actually. There are a few fundamental differences between how a commercial art gallery and how a fashion design company run that make this example an imperfect template, obviously, not to mention that, as one influential young art dealer I talked to about this idea in Miami noted, "Many art dealers can't stand each other."

That may be the case, but in reading the article in today's New York Times about how the Brooklyn Museum and the Metropolitan Museum will be sharing the Brooklyn Museum's world class costume collection, it became apparent that such concerns are not always the determining factor:
Still, it will formally retain a separate identity of sorts: it will be known as the Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

“Clearly this was a hard decision to make, since it is a highly important part of our history,” said Arnold L. Lehman, the Brooklyn Museum’s director.

But he said the cost of maintaining the costume collection, much less showing it, had been a major concern for him since he was hired as director in 1997.

“Costumes are the most fragile, the most difficult and the most labor-intensive objects that an institution can own,” Mr. Lehman said. “Although we have sustained and grown the collection over the years, we do not have the existing resources to make the kind of use that we will be able to make now.

“This is not just a transfer but a partnership. We can draw upon it in a way we were never able to before.”

Mr. Lehman said that under the deal the Brooklyn Museum would be able to include the collection in shows, and that both museums planned to present exhibitions in 2010 focusing on different portions of the combined collections.
Two parts of that interview with Mr. Lehman stuck with me after I read it. First is that he acknowledges that the decision was difficult, but that financial realities led this to be a better choice for the collection (the Met has the funding to conserve it). Second, by both museums viewing the deal as a partnership and maintaining the original name of the collection, the identity of the collection is preserved for the most part. In the end, as difficult as this must have been, it seems the responsible decision: it protects the collection, it pays proper homage to how it came to be, and most importantly it ensures the public will have access to the collection moving forward.

So, back to our Mom & Pop shop question. The larger galleries (those with multiple locations and multiple directors) more or less emulate the LVMH model to some degree already. There may be less autonomy for their directors than Donna Karen enjoys, but they've managed to maximize their resources efficiently through specialization and strategically placed distribution outlets. Many of their directors will break out and start their own eponymous galleries one day, but while they work for someone else, they have the freedom to focus on their part of the overall program and build their artists' markets without too much distraction from the overarching concerns that weigh down the owner/directors of smaller spaces.

I could go on, but my point is simply that spending time on the more mundane tasks or concerns is not the favorite part of the job of any dealer I know. Most dealers wouldn't miss worrying about some parts of the business and might welcome ideas that spread such distractions around. In New York, in particular, the single biggest overhead expense and most pressing concern in the current economic situation for most young, small galleries is their rent. In the past, all kinds of models have been tried to share this expense (trading off shows in the same space, art mall locations, etc.), but it's difficult to promote a unique vision from a cubicle (or so the argument often goes, but in truth some of my very favorite gallery programs exist in odd little rabbit warren-like spaces) or to maintain consistency if you're too nomadic.

New York would seem to have a confluence of interesting opportunities at the moment, though. On one hand you have a city in which new spaces built to be condos are seeing enough units go unsold that developers are temporarily renting them out instead. On the other hand, you have young dealers who could used a break in their rent until the market picks back up again. What's needed is for some developer who understands that the rich international collectors who would visit a destination gallery location (some space with 10-15 strong young galleries) are precisely the clients they'll want to be marketing their available condos to, and what better way than by having them continuously visit the location? Yes, that would mean the galleries would be moving out again in a few years when the economy picks back up, but that seems a less drastic and more autonomy-preserving step than some of the other models.

It's obviously too early yet for most galleries to go through all this trouble, and, of course, no developer has yet stepped up to offer such a deal, but the economic outlook suggests we'll have plenty of time to brainstorm on such matters over the coming months. Opportunity favors the prepared. Other ideas on this?


Monday, December 15, 2008

Passing the Exhausted Hares

Over the summer I promised to reveal the special project that forced me to cut back on blogging. I was hesitant to do so for two reasons: 1) I wasn't at all sure how it would turn out and whether my publisher would like it (yes, I wrote a book); and 2) as the world economic situation crumbled all around us, I thought it a particularly cruel joke by God that this would be the backdrop against which I announced a book titled How to Start and Run a Commercial Art Gallery. There's not much information about it yet up on Amazon* (it comes out in July 2009), but I am relieved to report that my publisher said he enjoyed reading it, so I'm more comfortable announcing it.

The second issue, though, remained a source of hesitation. I asked my publisher (it feels so strange to use that phrase, "my publisher"...[OK, who am I kidding? I love using it]), the truly brilliant and very patient Tad Crawford of
Allworth Press, whose art world publications are more artist-centric and bursting with useful information than those of any publisher out there IMO, whether he was sure he wanted to launch such a book at a time when galleries, like every other small business, were struggling. Mr. Crawford assured me that the book will be marketed with a shelf-life in mind of about 10 years, and that in that context, now is actually a very good time to get such a book into the market, as now is when people who may want to open a gallery when the market turns up again should begin planning for it.

As we get closer to the pub date, I'll share excerpts from the book. I think there is plenty in it that could help artists wishing to work with a commercial gallery, collectors, and budding dealers. Much of it is based on interviews I conducted with experts in the gallery business and related fields, but much of it is also based on the very conversations we've had on this blog. Toward that end (and I do so in the book as well), I would like to thank those of you who regularly contribute to the conversations here, sharing your insights and/or questions about the business. You continuously refine what I think it means to run a commercial art gallery.

In thinking through Mr. Crawford's long-term view of the book's potential market, though, it dawned on me that a long-term approach to their own market is something artists should be thinking about now as well. As the market turns down, some galleries close, non-profit spaces see their budgets tightened, and exhibition opportunities in general become harder to find perhaps, now is the time to think past the recession in terms of where your career can go.

That may mean scaling back on your studio expenses but taking advantage of how much nicer everyone becomes when times get tough to network more with curators, collectors and other artists. It may mean freedom to start that large, time-consuming project you had put off because of the constant demands to produce for your market. It may mean simply digging in to explore that subject or sharpen your skills in a way the hectic feeding frenzy we're leaving made feel indulgent or impossible.

The opportunity now, obviously, is to be the tortoise, moving forward confidently, and passing the hares who will wear themselves out long before the finish line.

*Bambino thought it hysterical that the book is already discounted on Amazon. He nearly laughed himself into a fit. Have I mentioned he's a direct descendant of Genghis Khan?

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Friday, December 12, 2008

The Immortality Paradox

This isn't an art issue so much as a sociological or perhaps moral issue, but this post about the appeal of Dracula on Jonathan Jones art blog reminded me of an ongoing dialog I have with an artist about post-human or transhumanist ideals, such as the extension of human lifespan, presumably indefinitely, and the rather confusing backlash toward such notions.

I'm still wrapping my head around several of the Post-Human ideas (this new ezine H+ is helpful in coming up to speed), but the one provoking the most extreme response is the notion that we will reach a point at which disease will be a thing of the past and even dying may be as well. The logic of the reason this should not be such a shocking notion was explained in the current issue of H+ in an article by Micahel Anissimov titled "Engineering an End to Aging" (retyped by me, all typos presumed mine):
The first thing to realize is that nature doesn't specifically want us to die. There is no "death gene." For any species in any environmental context, there is an ideal life span from an adaptive point of view -- an evolutionary optima. One evolutionary strategy includes species that reproduce quickly and die off fast. Another includes species that reproduce slowly and live for a long time. Call it quality versus quantity. Thankfully for humans, we're squarely in the quality column, but many would agree that 80 to 90 years is not enough.
The notion that we could engineer a means by which to live much, much longer if not indefinitely brings out some really irrational and ironically hyper-romantic notions in some people though. Consider one response [via Andrew Sullivan's blog] to the idea:
Here’s another moral imperative you transhumanist fools haven’t considered: we owe something to people who don’t exist yet. People who don’t exist yet are waiting in line to take our places. They can’t do that unless we die. Don’t nonexistent people have rights? Damn right they do. The right to demand our deaths.
Personally, I'm not sure how my universally recognized inalienable right to life is trumped by someone else's purported right to demand my death, but ....

But bringing things back to Jones' post on the "terrifying beauty" of vampires, it strikes me as odd that immortality is something we embrace (if not celebrate) in literature and entertainment (from Greek mythology to the truly horrid Hancock movie recently released), but fear in application. We clearly see it as superior to mortality and even romantic (Twilight is another good example of this). But when offered the opportunity (and nothing about transhumanist ideals demands it from anyone who'd rather die), people freak out.

The central posthumanist argument (as explained to me by an artist I know who's well versed in these issues) is that whether it's a good thing or a bad thing to live to be 1,000 years old is a decision the rest of us really need to leave to those who are 999 years old. Moreover, what is the art world itself if not an concerted effort to create, promote, collect, conserve, and present a part of ourselves that lives forever?

What am I missing here...why is this notion so offensive to some people?


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

96 Years Ago

Reading through a selection of works of W.B. Yeats, I re-encountered this poem from 1912 that seemed of relevance to current events:


You gave but will not give again
Until enough of Paudeen's pence
By Biddy's halfpennies have lain
To be "some sort of evidence,"
Before you'll put your guineas down,
That things it were a pride to give
Are what the blind and ignorant town
Imagines best to make it thrive.
What cared Duke Ercole, that bid
His mummers to the market place,
What th’ onion-sellers thought or did
So that his Plautus set the pace
For the Italian comedies?
And Guidobaldo, when he made
That grammar school of courtesies
Where wit and beauty learned their trade
Upon Urbino's windy hill,
Had sent no runners to and fro
That he might learn the shepherds' will. p. 194
And when they drove out Cosimo,
Indifferent how the rancour ran,
He gave the hours they had set free
To Michelozzo's latest plan
For the San Marco Library,
Whence turbulent Italy should draw
Delight in Art whose end is peace,
In logic and in natural law
By sucking at the dugs of Greece.

Your open hand but shows our loss,
For he knew better how to live.
Let Paudeens play at pitch and toss,
Look up in the sun's eye and give
What the exultant heart calls good
That some new day may breed the best
Because you gave, not what they would
But the right twigs for an eagle's nest!

--December 1912


The Champagne's Made from Sour Grapes

Two readers on yesterday's thread asked me to respond to Richard Polsky's predictions and observations about the downturn in the art market on artnet. I've always liked Mr. Polsky's candor and direct writing (I loved I Bought Andy Warhol) and there is plenty in his piece to agree with (people become nicer in tough times, people return to the basics in hard times, proven names will do better than newer names in tough times, this downturn will seriously impact print products [both magazines and gallery produced pieces like catalogs and mailers], and perseverance is the order of the day for everyone).

Where I take issue with Mr. Polsky---and there's no need to single him out on this account, I'll add that Mr. Hickey is even more guilty of this---is in the hypocrisy of the righteous indignation that serves as their posturing point...a self-declared right to distance themselves from the excesses they're criticizing because someone at one time disrespected them or made them feel envious, all the while each of them (especially Mr. Hickey) is as responsible as anyone for perpetuating, indeed for effectively selling (even through all the sarcasm) the glamor and attractiveness, indeed the very genesis, of all that excess. Consider this passage from Mr. Hickey's piece in November's Vanity Fair magazine:
I get a really “good colored” card, but even so, I know that there are better cards. I know that there are people around me who have the best card, the Willy Wonka card that will pass them through enclosures of escalating exclusivity and ultimately bring them into the presence of … oh, I don’t know … maybe Sir Nicholas Serota, the very icon of Labor gentry, in a tan, glen plaid suit, comfortably disposed in a Gehry Power-Play Club Chair with a matching ottoman to support his Crockett & Jones wing tips. Sir Nicholas will turn, smile, and lift a snifter of brandy to welcome the chosen, and someone’s life will be complete.
Indeed, both Hickey and Polsky doth protest a bit too much, in my opinion:
Polksy: "I don’t miss being mocked for not flying first-class, staying at the best hotels, or dining at appropriate restaurants"

Hickey: "My exclusion from such intimate occasions—some imaginary, many all too real—makes me feel diminished, and it’s supposed to. Ideally, everyone at an art fair ends up feeling diminished."
Really? Does "everyone" end up feeling diminished...don't some people come there for the art and get a very happy dose of it? Doesn't someone get to walk away feeling good, having had an experience that surpassed all their expectations, looking forward to returning next year and feeling even better? Does walking in the door automatically make one jaded? Does everyone attending obsess over footwear, VIP card colors, and the deference paid to them by the hundreds of exhausted dealers doing their best to pay deference to thousands of attendees? Artists and dealers work very hard to present booths of significance and importance at these events...all this chatter about pecking orders is the excess in my opinion.

Moreover, it's the insinuation that something due to them is denied because of all the (as Polsky puts it) "Long Island housewives masquerading as art dealers" that forms the vantage point of their critiques and, well, that assertion taints the rest of what they're saying. In other words, it reads as sour grapes and is perhaps as responsible for all the focus on what's excessive about art fairs and hot markets as anything else.

Let's consider one of Polsky's central complaints: "I also don’t miss ...having to genuflect to dealers who had instituted a waiting list for their most desirable artists."

Here's a dose of tough love for Mr. Polsky (who I'm sure knows this already) or any other collectors. If your spending at a gallery puts you at the "425th collector" place in terms of the total support for the artists in that program, there are 423 other collectors who also feel slighted or insulted or forced to genuflect when new work by their most desirable artists becomes available. How do you suggest dealers manage all those bruised egos? It's a serious question. If there is some way short of adding 48 hours to every day or bottling endless energy and patience to communicate gently to very powerful people that someone else who spends more to support the program has earned the right to get first pick, I can guarantee you that dealers would be happy to adopt it. It's not in their interest to upset any of their clients.

Now I'm not saying that some dealers aren't simply little shits. And I can attest as well as any that dealers have bad days like anyone else, but I'm a bit over seeing how the villain in all these melodramas is always the dealer or the fair organizer or the person with enough money to buy access beyond that of the imperiled connoisseurs who've selflessly devoted their entire lives to art. My question is why the connoisseurs are so obsessed with the access and deference. I know they tell themselves that when the Long Island housewives retreat back to the spas and yacht clubs where they belong that they'll be able to focus on the art, but what they really mean was voiced by Mr. Polsky: "Dealers who wouldn’t give you the time of day (let alone let you use their bathroom) suddenly greeted you like an old friend when you walked into their space."

So dealers are human...sue them. When the market is hot and attendance in the galleries is high, there is simply too much work to be done to greet each and every person who comes in like an old friend. When things slow down, that's much more possible.

My question is what on earth does that have to do with the art on the walls?


Tuesday, December 09, 2008

It's Kiss or Kill

Dateline: Miami Beach, Florida: Naugahyde and a tie-dyed t-shirt

I imagine that the vapor trail in the sky I see from my South Beach hotel window is a NetJets leaving Miami with the very last uber-collector to get out of town, but in truth I know they all left Thursday or Friday.

Most dealers I know willingly acknowledged that things were a bit tougher this year than in years past. Miami was still Miami of course...parties, limos, glamor and yes, even art sales...but the fact that we needed our hoodies the night before the festivities began served as a fitting metaphor for the chill in the market. It didn't help matters that the headlines right as those NetJets were landing screamed "Recession" and the Dow plunged 680 points (nice timing, G-d...very nice indeed).

Given all that, traffic was surprisingly strong and dealers still sold, but a much higher percentage of dealers than in previous years reported that they didn't break even. What that might mean for the number of satellites next year remains to be seen for certain, but most observers are predicting fewer of them. Interestingly, Bambino and I noticed fewer artists approaching us with requests that we look at their work this year. Perhaps they read the post I did on this topic (suggesting it's not a good time) or perhaps the dealer they approached before us berated the idea out of them. In general, with times as challenging as they are and the costs of fairs as high as they are, I would restate that fairs are a particularly bad place to approach a dealer.

As always, it was wonderful to catch up with our dealer friends and collector friends...seeing them make the long hours of the fairs and the hard work and long set-up and dismantling more bearable.

I'll try to resume normal posting tomorrow (depends on whether I sleep in or not...highly possible).

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