Monday, March 09, 2009

A Quick Note On Little Ways That Artists Can Help

Thumbs up to the New York Times for placing Sunday's profile on Larry Gagosian and how he's dealing with the downturn in the art market in the Business section where it belongs.

Thumbs sideways for the article's writer, David Segal, and the section's editors for puffing up the article with more of the same old anecdotes we've read time and time again on the tight-lipped uber-dealer (seriously, my journalism friends, a moratorium on the Schjeldahl shark quote already, OK?). The truly "new" parts of the story here were an opening to the question of whether Gagosian is (like AIG, Ford, and Citibank) "too big to fail" and what one can piece together from the nebulous snippets to discern how Mr. Gagosian is handling the downturn.

Thumbs way, way up to Mr. Ed Ruscha, for a quote that made my weekend and did more to reveal who the man behind the dealer myth is, at least in the eyes of his artists, than any profile I've ever read:

Were Mr. Gagosian to actually flame out, many in the business would quietly exult. But that would be a mistake, says Stefania Bortolami, a gallery owner.

Ms. Bortolami isn’t alone in believing that Mr. Gagosian has achieved the contemporary art market’s version of too big to fail, though for reasons that have nothing to do with toxic assets. The glamour and networking energy that he has brought to the business added a zero to the price of just about everything, Ms. Bortolami says. If his business were to fold, the new buyers he brought to the market, as well as a lot of added, buzz-laden value, would disappear along with him.

Ed Ruscha says he won’t let that happen. “If it springs a leak,” he says of the Good Ship Gagosian, “I will roll up one of my paintings and plug the hole. As long as Cy Twombly does the same.”
Of course, Mr. Ruscha benefits greatly from Mr. Gagosian's sustained stature, but in an era with nearly cannibal-ish death watches in some quarters (I've said all I have to say on the one you all know I'm referencing), I find the way Mr. Ruscha is willing to step up and participate as a partner in the survival of his gallery a truly inspiring reflection of his dealer. (Not all dealers accomplish for their artists what Mr. Gagosian has managed, it's true, but then he's been at it a good deal longer than many of us. :-)

I should note, in full disclosure, that the artists in our gallery have all been total heroes in how they're willing to help us trim costs over the past few months (I mean it...you guys rock!!). But I'll lead off from the Ruscha anecdote to note that now is not the time, for any artists, for prima donna poses or unrealistic expectations.

There is much to be gained for artists if their gallery survives the downturn in terms of sustaining their position in the market, their name recognition, their dialog with the public and critics, etc., etc. I fully understand that it's very tough for artists as well (believe me, I know that never really ends for 95% of you), but in fighting for that place in the history books, it's smart to keep your eye on the longer war and not let a few set-backs in the current battles lead you to throw out all you've worked for all these years. I'm not suggesting you offer up a painting to plug up any holes, but do keep in mind that all art dealers are facing a challenging new reality in the martket, even the likes of Mr. Gagosian, and that by letting your dealers know you understand the situation and doing what you can to help them trim overhead (by, for example, occassionally calling in a favor to help move artwork or happily responding to the after-party idea that's not quite as extravagent as your last one or simply letting your dealer know you've heard it's tough going out there [believe me, the emotional support is huge]) you can help yourself as well.

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29 Comments:

Blogger Tom Hering said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

3/09/2009 05:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i thought the gagosian article read like an obit

3/09/2009 06:53:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Am I wrong? The best help I can offer my dealer is a stubborn refusal to up production, or to make changes that bait collectors

Not wrong so much as somewhat frustratingly off topic. The point I am making is that dealers, like any other small business owner out there in this economy, are having to trim costs and it is immensely helpful if their artists can help them in that if only by lending moral support and/or understanding that they have to do so.

I can't help but feel that this straw man you're interjecting (that somehow this was an opening to discuss artistic integrity) is an effort to change the subject. While perhaps understandable if the notion of lending moral support to your gallery makes you uncomfortable, but certainly not something that will specifically aid in the need to trim expenses.

3/09/2009 07:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

Edward, you're right. It wasn't my intention to change the topic. My sincere apology.

3/09/2009 07:07:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I'm not buying into any of this.

LG isn't AIG or GM or CitiBank, he's an art dealer, a retailer like Circuit City or Tiffanys. Can he go bust? probably not but he certainly will feel the pinch with a few extra zeros than the rest of us.

The art market is following the stock market into a black hole, the peak to trough losses are going to be around 75% before it's over. This also will hold true for high end or blue chip art as well. Art was severely overpriced in 2007 and it is apparent that there is no real floor now for the broad market, not just the few choice headliners. The auction houses have been playing games trying to maintain the impression that the market is down but not crashing.

While I appreciate Ed Ruscha's gesture, the hole in the dyke is a lot bigger than he can plug on his best day. Inventories for both dealers and focused collectors, the Warhols, Basquiats, etc, have fallen from peak values by 50% at a minimum. Any business person, a shrewd collector, will know this and the private market will decline quietly as well. The real question here, is who will be left standing in 2012 when this cloud has passed?

3/09/2009 07:51:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

BTW, the comment in the Times article about trading this for that, is a way of not acknowledging that prices have declined.

3/09/2009 07:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Chambliss said...

This is a non-story, full of hearsay and agitprop. No one knows if LG is flaming out, so we are left with ex-girlfreinds and pursed-mouthed college roomates. This kind of nonsense is a regular menu item at the NYT. I remember the trend beggining when I read a "what-if" article proposing that Mozart might like Madonna if he were alive today.

Huffington Post, Bloomberg, NPR. Just the facts.

3/09/2009 09:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"The real question here, is who will be left standing in 2012 when this cloud has passed?"

NOBODY if we do not all put our heads together and figure out how to get through this.

3/09/2009 09:38:00 PM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

I think it is heartening when gallerists and artists are realistic about the types of economic times we are in. In my (non art related) business, there is a similar loss in revenue, and a similar tightening of belts, but it is good to see the coming together in both markets. It will be those attitudes that survive and prosper when things start showing signs of life again.

3/09/2009 11:04:00 PM  
Blogger Pretty Lady said...

I thought the Gagosian article read like the profile of a sociopath. I've always been more than willing to treat my dealer like a human being; perhaps this is one of the reasons that dealers like Larry Gagosian have never given me the time of day.

Oops, have I just torched my career? 'Reckless' is my middle name...

3/10/2009 12:14:00 AM  
Blogger David said...

The real question here, is who will be left standing in 2012 when this cloud has passed?

The people who kept their day jobs?

3/10/2009 02:40:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My concern in the downturn is for the young people who work for galleries and the young artists getting a start. Those of us who have been around awhile have been through tough times and many of us have safety nets. I want the young people to be able to stick around and provide vibrancy for the upcoming generation.

3/10/2009 07:17:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

David said: The people who kept their day jobs?

I meant "which galleries" ... but day jobs are good according to Cotter. The problem is that unemployment is running at a 7 Million a year rate, they better fix that.

I agree with Anon about how the problems will affect young artists. When I was a young artist, a weeks work as a carpenter paid my expenses for a month. Work a month and I got three months in the studio. Those days are gone, even without a recession. On the other hand, I think the safety net has been pulled out from under a lot of workers over 40.

I suspect that in spite of the severity of the downturn, young artists will be better off. Yes trust funds or daddy's checks will shrink but the young can "get by" with less. If what I saw at Hunter this week is any indication, about 90% of the MFA grads should look for another line of work. On the other hand, I attended Scope and had a ball, rough and ready for the future.

As for LG - folks have penis envy.

3/10/2009 08:44:00 AM  
Anonymous Biff said...

" I fully understand that it's very tough for artists as well (believe me, I know that never really ends for 95% of you), but in fighting for that place in the history books, it's smart to keep your eye on the longer war and not let a few set-backs in the current battles lead you to throw out all you've worked for all these years."

As of now, it's assumed that the death of the gallery venue as we know it, is the death of visibility, viability and an income from the production of one's personal fine art work. While this may be largely, or temporarily, true, there are many roads to Valhalla. A sea change in the effective working machinery of a market might present the necessity and opportunity for a change in the structure of the entire endeavor. Perhaps fewer prima donna artists, perhaps more involvement from the artist in providing collectors, and/or new ways for artists, collectors and galleries to learn about one another? Regardless, the relationship of artist to gallery seems likely to go through an evolutionary step. Outside of attrition, a positive one for all I hope.
Also, the only war, I might suggest is, not viability with the history book of the future, but the relevance of the art itself for its' moment - from which (idealistically speaking) all else must follow regardless of venue.

3/10/2009 09:12:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

[I'll try to restate my original comment.] I'm not sure what an artist can do to help his dealer trim costs, but I'm sure about what an artist can do to help increase his dealer's sales. The artist can re-evaluate himself (commitment to studio, integrity of art vs. market considerations, etc.) and try harder - take one extra step in everything he does (from conception to execution). If, as I've read in a number of places, the focus of collectors is shifting back to questions of art and away from questions of investment and one-upping other collectors, then this is indeed the time for an artist to re-evaluate himself. Hard as that process might be. Producing better art, if one can, will do more than anything else to help everyone involved. (All the little ways of helping, like making supportive comments to one's dealer, should be a given. Supportive comments may be rarer than I suppose, though.)

3/10/2009 09:32:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

As of now, it's assumed that the death of the gallery venue as we know it, is the death of visibility, viability and an income from the production of one's personal fine art work. While this may be largely, or temporarily, true, there are many roads to Valhalla. A sea change in the effective working machinery of a market might present the necessity and opportunity for a change in the structure of the entire endeavor. Perhaps fewer prima donna artists, perhaps more involvement from the artist in providing collectors, and/or new ways for artists, collectors and galleries to learn about one another? Regardless, the relationship of artist to gallery seems likely to go through an evolutionary step. Outside of attrition, a positive one for all I hope.

I don't disagree with any of that Biff. I do think, however, that until such time as those models are invented, or artists can incorporate them without distracting too much from their studio practice (there is a growing interest in the potential of working with an "artist's manager," but how that differs significantly from "private dealer" remains unclear to me...and of course, it leaves out any regularly scheduled controlled-space exhibitions, but...), I think it's best to not assume the death of the gallery will be quickly followed by a system that will attainable for any artists other than the rare, select few, which sounds like a bad option to my mind.

the only war, I might suggest is, not viability with the history book of the future, but the relevance of the art itself for its' moment

Both are important, with the latter obviously being more important for the artist staring at a blank canvas (or whatever), but once the end of an artist's life approaches, the former will take on much more importance as well.

3/10/2009 09:34:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I appreciate the re-statement, Tom...thanks!

e_

3/10/2009 09:35:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Tom said: but I'm sure about what an artist can do to help increase his dealer's sales.

Oh, I don't think so, your following comments suggest that the artist isn't already doing this, or is just pandering to the marketplace. Go ahead, pander to the marketplace.

The problem with all the arguments for "producing better art", is that they have no obvious course. Everyone here thinks they are producing "better art" and we all disagree on what it is.

Are we, as artists, supposed to track the "focus of collectors?" or just settle for the "flavor of the month?" Now, I suppose either would suffice to pad the coffers a bit, but just a bit, not enough to put one on a track to Larry G's house of enviable riches.

In the end, artists might just need to understand what direction they are headed in, the marketplace has many venues, not all lead to fame and fortune. What are you doing and why are you doing it. Does anyone care?

3/10/2009 10:25:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

I said "the marketplace has many venues" which relates somewhat to Biff's comment. In my opinion, the gallery system is essential to the way art is disseminated in the culture. One might look at a gallery exposition as a form of advertising, which is partially paid for by sales.

The success of any artist is going to be determined by both how visible the artist is and by how influential the work is. This influence can be measured by how the work enters the culture in other ways, through museum exhibitions and in the critical discourse.

If the alternate approaches to selling and exhibiting ones work do not lead towards my second point, the establishment of influence and identity, then they become problematic.

I have seen a number of alternative approaches over the years, in almost every case the artists involved are on a career path leading them towards gallery representation (the system) Check out heliumcowboy artspace a german collective I saw at Scope.

3/10/2009 10:26:00 AM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

I might bring a slightly different perspective as a (beginning) collector with a (modest) collection.

The current gallery model is very helpful to me - in that they are curated by the gallerist (or designee, of course, in some cases or some exhibitions). The curator by applying a smart filter, can bring elements forward as well as have a coherent aesthetic. This careful programming and focus has been invaluable in getting me to take the plunge and indeed add to my art. I am not sure I would have ever felt comfortable or developed any artistic "taste" without this curating function("taste" being "learning what I like") without that curating function.

It also helps me as a buyer, to know the gallery is promoting the artist - meaning I am buying "into" an artist to see where he or she will go with their artistic vision - and while I have no intention of "cashing out" if it ever became an issue, I like the idea of some of my purchase is supporting both the artist and the curator/promoter.

Gagosian does this, but on a large scale and with artists who have hit the top of their profession - and it is good that the artists like him and trust him so much they are willing to "go this distance" - and to feel that kind of support (be it moral or some sort of material support) I am sure will help both the artist and gallerist. Oh, and a lot of really really good promoters and sales people appear to be a bit odd and slick to those of us less able to schmooze. (I certainly couldn't do his job!)

While there undoubtedly other business models, the gallery model is one that has been honed over decades and seems to work rather well. For me at least.

3/10/2009 11:13:00 AM  
Anonymous Cedric Casp said...

There is an art center in Montreal who lost nearly everything some years ago. The government cut them down and they didn't have the means to rent a local. They still exist today. They are called Dare Dare. It's some sort of mobile office that they set in a
different abandoned zone every
year. The artists are invited to temporarely occupy the nearby environs. Anything is possible.

3/10/2009 11:25:00 AM  
Blogger William said...

Larry is the top of the heap, that's for sure. Whether anyone will matter in 2012 is no indication of long term viability, though 2112? Maybe a hundred years will provide enough time to sift through the heap and see what was decoration and what represented the cultural currents.

My feeling is if Larry collapses, he's at the top of the heap, there won't be anything left underneath him either. I find it sad to feel hopeful for someone like Larry who is the face of opacity and backroom dealing in the art market, yet, if Larry goes I'm sure the rest of the market will have collapsed underneath him. At this point, it's probably smart to separate the market from the larger art world, which includes academia, institutions, non-profits, artist-run spaces, collectives, and the whole lot of artists just working out there without commercial representation. It's clear that change has arrived, and everyone is figuring out other ways to survive than depending on the sales we've experienced during the boom.

3/10/2009 04:04:00 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Ed wrote, "...there is a growing interest in the potential of working with an "artist's manager..." Ed, or anyone: can you say more about this model?

3/10/2009 04:07:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

I can't imagine that LG's way of doing business is the same as the smaller dealer who runs a modest enterprise, has a small staff, and keeps expenses under control.

When you fall from a first-floor window, you may twist your ankle, but you'll walk away in one piece. Fall from a second floor window and you'll sustain some broken bones; still, you'll heal. But fall from on high and you're gonna splatter.

Then again, I'm a painter not an economist. So who knows?

3/10/2009 06:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

" or happily responding to the after-party idea that's not quite as extravagent as your last one"

Unless by "extravagant after-party" you mean taking a few people out to dinner, I've never had a dealer throw me an extravagant after-party. And that's always been fine with me. I prefer they spend that money on more important things such as well-placed advertisements for the show. Seriously, if lavish after-parties are one of the things that the dealer is spending money on, as the artist who is a partner in business with that dealer, I consider that an irresponsible use of resources in any economy.

3/11/2009 11:00:00 AM  
Anonymous oil painting said...

art market is following the stock market into a black hole, the peak to trough losses are going to be around 75% before it's over. This also will hold true for high end or blue chip art as well. Art was severely overpriced in 2007 and it is apparent that there is no real floor now for the broad market, not just the few choice headliners.

3/11/2009 11:23:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I disagree Oriane. At a certain price point, the lavish dinner can greatly help sell the work...regardless of whether that seems wasteful to some or not...artist and gallery do benefit. Galleries don't tend to plan such events unless they think they'll pay off. Art is a luxury item. No one needs to buy it. People with the kind of money needed to purchase 6-figure art or even 5-figure art see such events as a way to relax and have fun...when buying art ceases to be fun, often they reconsider how much more art they really want. I should note that we don't usually have lavish dinners in our gallery either...this was simply an example that I feel everyone can relate to.

As for the modest dinner you say you're used to, though, when even that is reduced to a trip to "Cafe Sabrett," it might be clearer where I'm coming from.

The overarching point here is not whether you feel you're spoiled already or not (and if you're not that lets you off the hook), but rather to accept that there's a new normal across the board and it's probably more thrifty than whatever the old normal was.

I think there is a role for all the partners in a gallery to play in adapting to the new normal. For artists, I feel it's mostly understanding that belts need to be tightened and not add to the stress dealers already feel by arguing about that. Anything artists can do to help trim expenses beyond that is great too, though. The key at the moment is to keep the whole boat afloat so the gallery and its artists are well-positioned on the other side of the downturn.

3/11/2009 11:33:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Ed wrote, "...there is a growing interest in the potential of working with an "artist's manager..." Ed, or anyone: can you say more about this model?

I'll leave it to someone else... not wanting to give my artists any ideas :-)

Just kidding. Essentially it's someone who works to sell the art from the studio. You need a fairly strong market and a certain price point before it's cost effective, but it does provide focus on your work rather than sharing the attention of a dealer with other artists. Again, the biggest downside I can see is the loss of regularly scheduled exhibitions and a presence at art fairs. Of course, that's assuming your manager has the kinds of connections with collectors and curators that your previous/potential dealer has.

3/11/2009 11:51:00 AM  
Anonymous Oriane Stender said...

Ed, of course you're right re lavish parties. The budget for that stuff does relate to the price of the art. I guess I was
a) assuming that most of here are not at that price level, and
b) indulging in that knee-jerk feeling that most of us have when we learn that Richie Rich has lost millions in the stock market. We've only lost thousands, Mr. Rich has lost millions, but still has a few millions left, so our immediate response is "f*ck him, I'm glad he's lost millions." So my reaction was one of "I'm glad those jerks who had the huge lavish parties can't have them anymore." Of course, we shouldn't gloat because Mr. Rich losing millions is not in our best interest due to that old trickle-down thing. Without those extra millions, he is less likely to buy our artwork or hire us to be his personal assistant or cater his dinner parties or install his shows, etc.

Just as I shouldn't be glad that the artists making the big bucks have to cut back. Many of those artists help support other artists too. I was being petty and petulant. Damn, it's easy to be petty these days, isn't it?

kisses,

O

3/12/2009 01:17:00 PM  

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