Tuesday, May 29, 2012

How Long Does an Art Scene Last Anymore? | Open Thread

Count me among those who enjoy the energy and unbridled optimism of new art scenes. That combined sense of raw creativity and "taking on the world" attitude is empowering and contagious and, let's face it, most of the best parties happen in the "happening" places. This weekend, for example, in Bushwick (New York's rising scene in Brooklyn) in conjunction with its annual open studios, not only is this event so of-its-time that it has its own app, it's also got its own version (smackdown?) of the dominant force in the art world at the moment: the art fair. As GalleristNY reported a while back:
Since the worldwide explosion of fairs began about 10 years ago, some artists have made their peace with them, and even deign to show up at their galleries’ booths to chat up collectors, while others have remained ambivalent, or aloof. [artist Jules] de Balincourt is taking a different approach: for two days, June 2 and 3, he’s having his own fair, in his studio, known as Starr Space. And he’s calling it Bushwick Basel, thumbing his nose at the world’s most important modern and contemporary art fair, Art Basel, which takes place annually in Basel, Switzerland, in June. “It’s kind of a parody,” he said. “But kind of not.”

Instead of the 300 brand-name galleries hosted by its namesake, Bushwick Basel will have just 11, all of them little known outside of Brooklyn, including some Bushwick stalwarts like Regina Rex, Norte Maar, Storefront Bushwick, English Kills, Parallel Art Space (formerly Camel Art Space) and Valentine, as well as newbies like Airplane. “This is the salad bar of galleries,” Mr. de Balincourt said. “You can sample and see.”

He is rolling out his salad bar on the weekend of Bushwick Open Studios, put on annually by the nonprofit organization Arts in Bushwick. This year 450 spaces representing thousands of artists will open their studios to the public, presenting everything from straight-up art exhibitions to musical performances—or just about anything the artist wants to do. Because the event, which began in 2007 with 150 spaces, is open to anyone willing to pay the $35 entrance fee (or volunteer for five hours), it is sprawling and hit-or-miss.
Again, how can you not want to inhale that energy?
Seriously, get it while it lasts.
Having opened our gallery in another, then, new and exciting scene (Williamsburg), I've had a front-row seat for how scenes explode and then fade away. Usually it's a matter of real estate or other forces beyond the galleries' control (for us, the main impetus to moving into Chelsea was how frequently the L Train [the only easy means of getting to our space] was out of service over the weekends back then) that chip away at the energy and excitement. Sometimes, it's simply time. People grow bored with the same conversations or the same bars for after parties or what have you. Other times, it's the seemingly spontaneous emergence of a newer scene somewhere else, and the energy addicts abandon their old haunts for The New...always The New.
Or should I say "Neu"? As Artforum reports:
In a rather hyperbolic article for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Niklas Maak writes that “concern is growing that Berlin might be over soon, as an art center.” He explains that several factors, including the end of Art Forum Berlin, have caused many to perceive that the Berlin scene is undergoing a sort of brain and money drain. According to Maak, it has become much more difficult for artists and dealers to find visibility. He suggest that this was evident in the latest Berlin Gallery Weekend, where most of the interesting work was shown at non–art institutions. The Deutsches Architektur Zentrum, for example, exhibited the collective sculptures of architects Johanna Meyer-Grohbrügge and Sam Chermayeff. As critics debated the weekend’s most successful sites, however, one notable addition to the gallery weekend went beyond the physical world entirely: This year, new software allowed users to virtually navigate Berlin Gallery Weekend via a preselected avatar.
Apps and avatars. Perhaps technology is the art scene killer. Seriously.
Not so much due to this or that app or avatar, per se, but indeed as everything else accelerates in the information age, I wonder how long a new scene can last these days. Williamsburg was hot for about 8 years, 1997-2005. Don't get me wrong, there remain world-class spaces well worth your visit in Billyburg, and I love the place, but clearly there's not the concentration of spaces and events there once was.
I mean, I've visited Bushwick spaces perhaps a dozen times, but because of social media, online broadcasts of events, and other technology that permits me to stay where I am but feel much more connected, I can't help feel that I've been there many more times than that. Indeed, I wonder if my sense of "knowing" Bushwick (and perhaps one day sooner than normal, yearning for "The New" again) hasn't been artificially accelerated. Take, for example, the odd fact that although I've gone in, I've never actually eaten at Roberta's (who can wait 40 minutes for pizza?), but I do have that "been there, done that" sense of accomplishment when ever its name comes up.
Consider this an open thread on the life expectancy for any new art scene and the factors that nudge it toward being "over."

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Why Can't Dealers Be "Honest"?

As if to brandish their insider credentials, often you'll hear folks in the art world "decode" for the layman the responses from gallerists asked "How was the art fair?" You've seen or heard these equations:
  • "It was fabulous. We sold out everything in the first 10 minutes." = We had sold most of the work via jpgs before we arrived.
  • "It was a good year for us." = We covered our expenses and made a little bit of money.
  • "We did OK" = We failed to break even.
  • Etc., etc.
Generally, this is done with a warm sense of humor, but more and more frequently, as the market endures this seemingly interminable "event-driven" sales phase, the "translations" are being bantered about as if evidence of egregious duplicity on the part of dealers. "Why can't dealers be honest about how things are going?" is a common refrain to learning they had spun the outcome of a fair in the very best light.
Asher Edelman recently mused on the heart of this issue [h/t S.T.]:
The average gallerists (not the few at the top) are struggling, some on the verge of closing or reducing their spaces and staff. Some, having decided to close, leave the business. Art fairs, I read all the time: “We did very well. We broke even and made great contacts for the future.” As art dealers are prone to optimism, I think that means, “We didn’t do well at the art fair.” Private dealers call each other daily to complain that the auction houses and art fairs are taking their business away.
Before we delve into the logic of being prone to optimism, though, I'd like to spread the defensive posture around a bit here. This quote popped up recently on Facebook. I copy here, for further discussion, my response from there:
Why is that such a noteworthy custom? Don't artists do the exact same thing when asked how their shows went? I have never heard an artist say "I got no press, no sales, and no one other than a few of my friends saw it." Even if all that is true, they'll say "I got some great feedback" or "It was great to get the work out there" or something of that ilk. It's not like dealers are unusual in putting the best spin on things.
And the same can be said for curators and others who take huge gambles (either with money or reputation) to present their wares to the buying and/or visiting public.

In other words, the optimism is a choice. Like deciding the glass is half full, rather than half empty. And it's actually better for you than its opposite, as Jane Brody recently discussed in The New York Times in an article titled "A Richer Life by Seeing the Glass Half Full":
In one study, adults shown to be pessimists based on psychological tests had higher death rates over a 30-year period than those who were shown optimistic. No doubt, the optimists were healthier because they were more inclined to take good care of themselves.
 More than helping one remain healthier, though, optimism is solid business strategy:
In a book called “Breaking Murphy’s Law,” Suzanne C. Segerstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Kentucky, explained that optimism is not about being positive so much as it is about being motivated and persistent.

Dr. Segerstrom and other researchers have found that rather than giving up and walking away from difficult situations, optimists attack problems head-on. They plan a course of action, getting advice from others and staying focused on solutions.
Wallowing in the most negative spin one can put on the outcome of some huge effort (and art fairs are huge efforts, believe me) may feel more "honest," but it doesn't help one's business grow. Neither does blatant fantasy, for sure, but a healthy dose of looking on the bright side is clearly smarter than the alternative.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

As the Election Year Heats up: A Few Thoughts on Our Noisy, Noisy Democracy

A comedian told a joke once about how so often, when he paused to reflect on his life thus far, he realized what a jerk he had been about five years ago. After doing this several times over the course of a few decades (realizing that five years prior he had been quite the jerk), it finally dawned on him that he's more than likely being quite the jerk right now. That's why older people tend to be more quiet, he said. They've figured this out.
I think of that joke every time I catch myself in a position I had never imagined I would be back when George W. Bush was the President. Back then, I was convinced....convinced mind you....that GWB was not only the worst president the country had ever seen, ripping apart the very fabric of our democracy with his executive over-reach and arguably criminal wartime actions, but perhaps even evil enough to seize the power needed (or stage some national crisis) to get himself back into office for a third term, and perhaps more. He's stage a coup if he had to, I was nearly convinced.
I remember truly believing he was as close to a dictator as any president we had ever had and that he represented a real threat to our way of life. It was horrible to watch from my blog-and-Sunday-Morning-news-chat-show perspective. There in real time was the dismantling of the American experiment, to be replaced by a living Orwellian nightmare.
But then, of course, in 2009, George W. Bush vacated the White House, calmly permitting a member of the opposition party to take up residence there. Yes, the damage had been done, but Bush had exited...his reign was over.
Today when I hear the kind of rhetoric coming out of respected conservative quarters about President Obama, I recognize my own feelings about Bush 6 years ago. I realize that as insanely over-dramatic as they're being about Obama, I had been about Bush, and that if they're jerks now, that means I was a jerk then.
But what to do with that epiphany has not yet become clear to me. I don't believe I should have simply sat quiet while Bush misled the country into a costly war. I don't believe I was wrong to march and protest the horrendous Homeland Security Department's formation or the anti-American "Patriot Act." And, as I wrote frequently in this blog, I still think Bush should stand trial for war crimes, particularly for authorizing torture, even though I'm no longer sure there are three 6's tattooed on his forehead.
And so perhaps the point of my epiphany was to realize that those opposed to Obama's policies should speak up as well.  It's not only their right, it's essential if our democracy is going to creep forward. God knows I don't know everything. Obama doesn't know everything. What if, from our mutual vantage point on the questions most hotly contested issues (healthcare, banking regulations, taxing toward a more sensible level of income equality), we are...gasp...mistaken. Opposing view points help keep each side more honest and encourage more carefully developed policies. 
If there was no opposition to, for example, The Patriot Act, how much more limitation would a shaken government have placed on civil liberties than they did? Not that I was even remotely happy with the outcome. Just that it could have been (and without protests probably would have been) much worse.
And so, as Teams Obama and Romney begin flinging the mud in earnest, I steady myself for a noisy, noisy campaign season. The only thing I'll humbly remind those inclined to join in the ruckus is to remember that some day, about 5 years from now, you'll probably have an opportunity to reflect on your behavior during this period. It will, I'm sure, be refreshing to discover that you hadn't actually been that much of a jerk.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

"Internet’s over, people. Maurice Sendak just won."


Friday, May 04, 2012

In Praise of Choosing to Be an Art History Major

An oldie but a goodie:
An American businessman was at the pier of a small Belizean village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large lobsters, and a slew of red and yellow snapper. The visitor complimented the Belizean on the quality of his catch and asked how long it took to bring it in.

The Belizean replied only a little while. The American then asked why didn't he stay out longer and catch more fish and lobster?

The Belizean fisherman said, "I get up early and watch the sun rise, then I fish a little, come home and relax, play with my children, have a big lunch and take a rest with my wife. In the evening I stroll into the village where I sip cashew wine and play music and sing with my friends. I have a full and busy life."
The American scoffed, "I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing and distribution. You would need to leave Belize and move to Mexico, then LA and eventually NYC where you will run your expanding enterprise."

The Belizean asked, "But how much time will all of this all take?"

To which the American replied, "15-20 years."

"What then, Gringo?"

The American laughed and said, "That's the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich. You would make millions of dollars."

"Millions? Then what?" 

The American said, "Then you would retire. Move back to a caye in Belize, where you would get up early and watch the sun rise, then fish a little, play with your grandkids, have a big lunch and take a rest with your wife. In the evenings you could stroll to the village where you could sip cashew wine and play music and sing with your friends."
There is nothing wrong with being driven to achieve in business. Some among the driven people have greatly improved the quality of life for all humanity (even as others have inadvertently generated new challenges for us), and no one should stand in the way or pooh pooh someone else's dream so long as the dreamer isn't infringing on any one else's rights. If you wish to get an MBA and work hard for 15-20 years, building an empire, by all means, carry on with your bad ass self.
Just don't imagine that your dream makes you superior to your fellow human beings who have a different dream. 
In what Adam Davidson (in his review in The New York Times) suggests may become the most hated book of the year, former Bain Capital (Mitt Romney's company) executive Edward Conard outlines his argument for why Americans should be happy about the growing wealth inequality in our country (in a nutshell: because it proves the economy is working and because we're all benefiting from it). There are three basic elements in Conard's argument (quotes are Davidson's words): 
  1. "[T]he superrich spend only a small portion of their wealth on personal comforts; most of their money is invested in productive businesses that make life better for everyone."
  2. When those investments are successful, Conard "concludes that for every dollar an investor gets, the public reaps up to $20 in value" [note others suggest it's considerably less than $20...others argue it's more like $5 value].
  3. "[W]e should all appreciate the vast wealth of others more, because we’re benefiting, proportionally, from it"
I would quibble with a few of the implied conclusions from this argument. One example Conard uses in particular suggests he's cherry picking examples and then looking at the economy less holistically than a more rigorous scholar would: 
He looks, in particular, at agriculture, where, since the 1940s, the cost of food has steadily fallen because of a constant stream of innovations. While the businesses that profit from that innovation — like seed companies and fast-food restaurants — have made their owners rich, the average U.S. consumer has benefited far more.  [emphasis mine]
A more holistic look at this particular example would need to consider the exploding obesity among the average US consumer, the costs associated with that obesity (in human, medical, and financial terms), and whether indeed the benefits are that significant. One can argue that just because food is cheaper doesn't mean people have to overeat, and of course they're correct, but there's no question that there's a direct relationship between cheaper fast-food and obesity among children.
A more holistic look at this particular example would also need to consider the implications of seed companies' patent enforcement practices. What has humanity gained when a few conglomerates have complete control over the pricing of seed? More importantly, what Conard sees as a relatively short-term benefit stands to become a long-term nightmare.
But in a vacuum, I would agree that the public benefits from wisely invested money and so again I say, if that's your dream, carry on with your bad ass self...go invest that money wisely.
But consider stopping short of viewing what it takes to achieve that dream some sort of universal religion. And most definitely stop short of proselytizing and/or moralizing from that religion's morally questionable point of view.
What's probably going to propel Conard's book to become quite hated is his disdain for people who don't view life's purpose the same way he does:
A central problem with the U.S. economy, [Conard] told me, is finding a way to get more people to look for solutions despite [the] terrible odds of success. Conard’s solution is simple. Society benefits if the successful risk takers get a lot of money. For proof, he looks to the market. At a nearby table we saw three young people with plaid shirts and floppy hair. For all we know, they may have been plotting the next generation’s Twitter, but Conard felt sure they were merely lounging on the sidelines. “What are they doing, sitting here, having a coffee at 2:30?” he asked. “I’m sure those guys are college-educated.” Conard, who occasionally flashed a mean streak during our talks, started calling the group “art-history majors,” his derisive term for pretty much anyone who was lucky enough to be born with the talent and opportunity to join the risk-taking, innovation-hunting mechanism but who chose instead a less competitive life. In Conard’s mind, this includes, surprisingly, people like lawyers, who opt for stable professions that don’t maximize their wealth-creating potential. He said the only way to persuade these “art-history majors” to join the fiercely competitive economic mechanism is to tempt them with extraordinary payoffs.
“It’s not like the current payoff is motivating everybody to take risks,” he said. “We need twice as many people. When I look around, I see a world of unrealized opportunities for improvements, an abundance of talented people able to take the risks necessary to make improvements but a shortage of people and investors willing to take those risks. That doesn’t indicate to me that risk takers, as a whole, are overpaid. Quite the opposite.” The wealth concentrated at the top should be twice as large, he said. That way, the art-history majors would feel compelled to try to join them.
What Conard seems to have no grasp of is that many people are not tempted by extraordinary payoffs. The necessary sacrifices and uncertainty seem ludicrous to many people. The ultimate purpose of an extraordinary payoff (most frequently imagined to be an early retirement that enables one to focus on one's passions from a point of security [Conard himself retired at 51 and now envisions spending his life being, as Davidson phrased it, "a public intellectual"]) strikes many as moronic, given how true security is a myth (just ask Steve Jobs) and the rest of that imagined payoff (living one's dream) is often theirs to be had throughout their entire life, not only after they've retired.
Isn't it smarter to live your life, like the Belizian fisherman, so you get to do the things you enjoy without having to wait 15-20 years doing things you don't enjoy?
Unless you enjoy the sort of business Bain Capital is in, why torture yourself? 

I know, I know, because the wealthy investor is helping humanity. Accidentally at best, mind you, and certainly not always, and certainly not in a way that is accountable to those who can't afford their products (or even for those who can afford their products, as in companies who make consumers sign contracts that prevent them from filing class action suits, etc.), and certainly not at the cost of profit whether the public need is great or not, and often certainly not without risks to the planet and the public's health, and certainly not in conjunction with the best principles of democracy, and certainly ....you get the idea. The suggestion that they're doing God's work is more than a little bullshit. They're trying to get insanely wealthy, and sometimes others benefit from their efforts and sometimes others don't. None of which supports Conard's claim that they deserve even more money, to my mind.
Conard strikes me as a man blinded by his own success. The hilarious irony of him wishing now to spend his retirement teaching others and being perceived as a public intellectual will surely occur to him one day.  If he's lucky, when it does occur to him, he'll be able to reach out to a few art history majors who can help him contextualize and/or channel that epiphany into something more productive/creative than an existential crisis.