Wednesday, April 08, 2009

"I've Seen the Future, and It Belongs to the Dead"

Two separate observers of the art market share the view that the art market's return to life will be led not by emerging contemporary art, but by big brand name dead artists. The fact that they disagree as to which dead artists will save the market is interesting though.

Artnet critic and man about town Charlie Finch predicts it will be "classic contemporary":
What this means for the art market is simple: a steep drop in prices for the work of younger blue chip artists awash in inventory both present and future, and an expanding universe of price appreciation for the limited set of artworks created by those gone by. [...] If the supply is limited and the art tied to a historical movement, dealers’ pockets should soon fill with devalued bucks which they in turn will reinvest in inventory. Let the boom begin!
Editor at large of The Art Newspaper Georgina Adams predicts the ghosts who will save us will have been dead a bit too long to qualify as "contemporary":
But now contemporary art is the most damaged sector of the market, and fields where connoisseurship is still important have come back centre stage. “Old Europe”, with its expertise and long collecting traditions, is suddenly looking stronger and stronger.
Personally, I think it's unwise to bet against the living. There has been an evolution in how quickly human history can change since the dawning of the mass interconnectivity brought on by the Internet and cable news. From the way the Berlin Wall came down, the Soviet Union collapsed, the budget surplus the Clinton administration led us through became the unimaginable debt-legacy of the Bush administration and the Republican's "permanent majority" evaporated into thin air, to how supposedly "everything changed" one day in September nearly eight years ago, I've learned to stop underestimating how quickly world events can develop these days. The one thing all those unimaginably fast events had in common was that they were initiated and/or accelerated by people who believed in a different (and arguably for them "better") future.

The truth of the matter is I don't know exactly what will spark a resurgence in the living contemporary art market (though I'm not convinced a boom there requires either excessive conspicuous consumption or any of the other postmortem explanations we're seeing for the one that ended last fact I'm not convinced a "boom," per se, is required as much as an education-led expansion into a broader market of informed collectors among those currently not prioritizing art among their steady purchases).

Indeed, I think this particular market didn't crash, but rather merely froze. Most dealers I talk to (mostly my colleagues in the emerging art market) report a slight thaw since January. Whether that's enough to prevent what Mr. Finch described as "the expectation ...that galleries would quietly close for the summer and fold, and just not reopen in September" or not remains to be seen, of course. But if I had to bet on artists (and dealers) of eras gone by or those who believe in the future of art, I'd keep doing what I'm doing and put my money on the living. There aren't going to be too many unimaginably quickly evolving developments among our dearly departed.

Labels: art market


Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

What makes this different is that this recession is characterized not by a failure of supply (oversupply) but a failure of DEMAND.

As a consequence, we have seen people being unwilling to buy what they view as a luxury (and in many ways purchased art is the ultimate luxury) at any price and at any discount.

How the recovery happens and which segment recovers in the art or greater market, really depends upon what relationship people will have to their luxuries. Early signs are pointing to a population at large being more choosy as to what luxuries they indulge, so if this bears out, then I think you are right - broad based, high value/quality education driven collecting.

Assuming dead artists will lead the charge is like saying Blue Chip Stocks will be solid buys in a recovery. Nice that they have "figured it all out" and also "could you have placed a safer bet?"

4/08/2009 09:08:00 AM  
Blogger Bromo Ivory said...

One other point:

I find it distressing that Thomas Frank was right in that we treat "the market" as some sort of anthropomorphic deity. "The market" is really a statistical measure of lots and lots of individual transactions, not some sort of god that invisibly sets prices and wages.

Art isn't a commodity, and it really shouldn't be.

4/08/2009 09:11:00 AM  
Blogger jami said...

I think this will lead to smarter collectors looking for quality work that will live past the latest trend and hype, and hey maybe there will be a market for us older living artists as our time is limited!

4/08/2009 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger Tom Hering said...

It might not be so much a question of dead artists versus living artists (a "brand" or reputation question). Instead, it might be a question of lasting craftsmanship and pure visual pleasure (old values in art) versus a cerebral/ephemeral emphasis (new values in art). In highly uncertain times, it is natural for tastes to turn back to what has stood the test of time - to art that was meant to stand the test of time (even if it was also, in its own time, meant to be experimental).

4/08/2009 10:24:00 AM  
Blogger George said...

Bromo sayz: What makes this different is that this recession is characterized not by a failure of supply (oversupply) but a failure of DEMAND.

Well yes and no. All recessions are caused by a failure in demand, what makes the difference here is how this failure is caused.

In the typical oversupply initiated recession, there is more product and not enough buyers. The demand hasn't grown rapidly enough to meet supply.

This recession is the result of a banking panic (like 1908) which constrained financing for the consumer. While it is true, excess supply was not the precise cause for the current contraction. If we assume that there will be an improvement in consumer confidence, two factors seem to be at work here.

a. The demand for goods such as automobiles has been affected by the unavailability of financing. Once financing becomes available again, auto sales and other large ticket durable goods should start to improve.

b. The earlier demand for other goods, real estate for example, drove the prices to unsustainable highs. As a result, until prices revert towards the mean, come down, the contraction in demand will persist.

The problems of the art market fall into the second category, at auction contemporary art prices, had risen to unsustainable levels and are now in a free fall. Until prices revert towards the mean, the auction markets will remain soft.

The excitement over the Yves Saint Lauren sale and the recent results from Hong Kong are not really good indicators of how the markets are faring.

Further, Mr Finch seems to want to assume the role of "art market tout" with the belief that collapsing markets can somehow be sweet talked into reversing direction. Unfortunately history has shown that this is not the case, markets do what they have to do in order to reach equilibrium.

Jami says I think this will lead to smarter collectors looking for quality work that will live past the latest trend and hype.

This would be nice but there is not a chance of it happening. People assume the herd instinct and behave in predictable ways allowing themselves to be exploited. Unfortunately the art world is as much a victim to its own predictability as are the collectors, and artists for that matter. Good ol' PT Barnum had it down.

4/08/2009 03:31:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

Tom suggests that it is natural for tastes to turn back to what has stood the test of time

This is a more or less a definition of 'blue chip' art, but if it becomes overpriced the demand will shrink.

Your comment on question of lasting craftsmanship and pure visual pleasure (old values in art) versus a cerebral/ephemeral emphasis (new values in art) is generally irrelevant to pricing and only reflects a set of values prevalent to one era or another. Interest fluctuate between those polarities and prices follow.

4/08/2009 03:41:00 PM  
Anonymous Cedric C said...

Art can survive without a market.

If people stop buying the new it will only be more interesting. A complete division between contemporary arts and the art market? Ah! Institutions and the legacy of art criticism won't buy that. The role of collectors would (finally) be discredited, and it would just be different places for different art, while only a few priviledged (or radical nutcases) could afford making contemporary arts.

The reality is buyers keep bypassing things they feel has no value, which the smarter people are getting, and soon and later everybody jumps like mad because they realize most good pieces are gone.

You buy Hirst? I buy old. You come and buy my old? I'll buy the next Hirst.

Cedric C

4/08/2009 06:55:00 PM  
Blogger Julie Sadler said...

This post made me think about Larry Salanders' idea of pushing the old masters...
Maybe he was onto something (besides everyones' wallet!)

4/09/2009 09:57:00 AM  

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