Archive for the Art market decline Category

Enjoying the recession, artists?

Well, here’s a chance to tell people just how much you’re enjoying it. McKnight Foundation LINC + Helicon Collaborative are is polling experiences of individual artists within the recession. (Helicon helped design the survey, and McKnight Foundation is helping distribute it to MN artists).

Here’s hoping it’ll do some good, somehow.

If you thought the news hasn’t been bad enough for the arts over the past few years, that was before the culture brought out the salt.

Consider item one: The amendment that was supposed to dedicate a portion of a dedicated sales tax to support the arts in Minnesota gets coopted by rich organizations of an, at best, nebulous artistic nature. This includes greedy history centers, a zoo, a public television station, and a juggernaut public radio empire (all of whom, unlike true arts organizations, have armies of lobbyists at their disposal).

Then, it is announced, some of the nation’s leading artistic organizations are announcing bad news. Many of these venerable institutions — the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and other key components of the culture industry in New York City — lost between 30 and 50 percent on the value of their endowments in 2008. The main reason? Overly agressive investment strategies:

Endowment asset allocations [in recent years] moved away from the safety of fixed-income instruments, such as high-grade bond funds, to the volatility of domestic and foreign equities and even to “alternative investments,” such as distressed debt and venture-capital equity. This investment strategy paid luxuriantly during the good times, resulting in bloated budgets and massive expansions. Yet with only quarterly meetings, arts boards proved too slow to navigate away from the hazardous investments once the bad times began. In short, arts organizations adopted bad habits.

This NYT quotation of the day caught my eye (for obvious reasons):

“Nobody wants me to do anything, so I’m just doing what I want.”
Liz Fallon [no relation], visual artist, Portland, Me.

It’s from an article on how the recession is affecting artists called “Tight Times Loosen Artists’ Creativity.”

Here’s another quote:

“This too shall pass. Artists must continue to create no matter what happens around them.”
–Diane Leon-Ferdico, painter, Elmhurst, Queens

In the wake of the recently announced demise of VACUM, the Art Newspaper posted a story on the forced death march facing arts journalism. Here’s some key info:

Arts journalism as we used to know it is sinking with the ship…. The problem is that the cuts [to newspapers] are deepening an already miserable shortage of resources, set against a cultural universe that continues to expand [emphasis mine]. We are past the tipping point: it has become acceptable to run a paper with just a skeletal culture staff. Specialised writers are giving way to generalists. Culture sections are being tossed overboard (standalone book review sections, in particular, are a dying breed). Article lengths and “news holes” (space for editorial content) are shrinking. All this has eviscerated newspapers’ ability to deliver quality arts coverage, which, as a result, must migrate elsewhere…. Many experts believe that daily newspapers will never find a way back to sustaining solid arts journalism. Magazines are doing marginally better, but they cannot shoulder the burden of timely local arts coverage, especially for non-specialist readers — and some are folding.

None of this is a surprise to me, of course. Whereas I once had no problem finding home to 30+ yearly articles (even as I struggled to keep up on a dayjob) in local and national magazines, newspapers, newsweeklies, and online magazines, this has for the most part gone away in the past year. Most of these formerly welcoming venues have folded or been forced to cut back their space for arts writing. In fact, I’m back to writing almost solely for the first publication that was brave and daring enough to accept my very first review back in 1997. This is less of a tragedy for me than it sounds. While I’ve enjoyed writing about and supporting local art, it has not been without its hassles. And arts writing has never been much of a money-making venture.

This downturn in fact has given me freedom to evolve. I’ve been dabbling this past few months — ever since my most recent online magazine venture folded for budgetary reasons — with other writing forms: poetry, journalism, essays, fiction, memoir,… not to mention my eccentric and self-absorbed blogging (blogging, BTW, seems to be what the Art Newspaper pins all future hopes, even as it acknowledges that a general lack of funding for the practice keeps it marginal and ephemeral).

What’s perhaps the only unfortunate thing about this death of arts writing is the effect of the decline of attention being paid (not just by me, but by other writers across the board) to local artists. As the article hints, cultural production continues to expand even as less public attention is paid to it. As evidence, I note that today I am receiving more notices from artists — in the mail, via email, on Facebook, etc — than I ever have. Artists seem increasingly desperate for someone to notice them.

Alas, poor artists. In response to all your notices, emails, and public interruptions, all I can say is: Sorry. I can’t respond to your art, at least not in any official published way, but hey, that’s the way it goes.

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Artists seem more and more inclined, these days, to shrug and toss in their art rags — giving up all hope that there’s anything left for them to strive for. And I, for one, can hardly blame them (so intent have I been this past year-plus documenting the constant trials and disappointments of a fast-fading art market).

This artistic fatalism is a pity of course, on one hand, as without something to strive for you lose a large portion of the potential pool of artists seeking to make it. And, as a result, logically the quality of art declines for the foreseeable future…

On the other hand, as I pointed out the other day, once all the hoohah and art-world striving has gone away, we end up with a lot of idealism about the purity of the practice of art.

Still further, on the third hand, as Jeanne Finley astutely alerted me recently by sending a link to an upcoming show at the San Jose Institute of Contemporary of Art called “It’s Not Us, It’s You,” artistic fatalism also means also we end up with a number of artists who embrace the current age of artistic failure and employ it as an art-making strategy.

From the show’s description:

It’s Not Us, It’s You is an exhibition that explores the inevitability of rejection in our lives – a timely topic in today’s woeful economic climate. Through a tragic and sometimes heartbreaking lens, the artists in this exhibition respond to the reality of rejection with subversion, self-reflection, humor and brutal honesty. The show is guest curated by artist Ray Beldner and includes paintings, sculpture, video, and multi-media work from artists Anthony Discenza, Stephanie Syjuco, Michael Arcega, Kara Maria, Steve Lambert, Jonn Herschend, Dee Hibbert-Jones, Nomi Talisman, Desiree Holman, Orly Cogan, Kate Gilmore, Robert Eads and Arthur Gonzalez.

As part of It’s Not Us, It’s You, Beldner is compiling a book of artist rejection letters. Artists are invited to send their rejection letters via email to info@sjica.org with “FOR REJECTION SHOW” in the subject by March 28. The ICA promises that no entries will be rejected for this project.

That said, you all should stay tuned to CAFA, because coming up this week — as previously announced — we will be posting student project descriptions from Professor Jeanne Finley’s graduate level seminar on Failure, a course that is currently running at the prestigious California College of the Arts.

These are a fascinating look at the expectations and assumptions of young artists coming of age in this very age of artistic failure!

We here at CAFA HQ recommend all of you check out Holland Cotter’s recent NYT article “The Boom Is Over. Long Live the Art!“ 

In it, he writes: “The contemporary art market, with its abiding reputation for foggy deals and puffy values, is a vulnerable organism, traditionally hit early and hard by economic malaise. That’s what’s happening now. Sales are vaporizing. Careers are leaking air. Chelsea rents are due. The boom that was is no more.” But instead of wallowing in this failure and bemoaning this decompression, an accusation that has occasionally been leveled at this site, Cotter sees this moment as mostly a hopeful one:

It’s day-job time again in America, and that’s O.K. Artists have always had them — van Gogh the preacher, Pollock the busboy, Henry Darger the janitor — and will again. The trick is to try to make them an energy source, not a chore.

At the same time, if the example of past crises holds true, artists can also take over the factory, make the art industry their own. Collectively and individually they can customize the machinery, alter the modes of distribution, adjust the rate of production to allow for organic growth, for shifts in purpose and direction. They can daydream and concentrate. They can make nothing for a while, or make something and make it wrong, and fail in peace, and start again.

Still, lest we give Cotter and his boundless hippie idealism too much credit, you should know that Cotter, and most of the New York artcritiscenti, have been salivating for this boom to be over for much of the past two or three years, as I recounted in this essay from May, 2007:

While I have been pondering, this past autumn and winter, the issues related to why a person decides to take on the artist’s mantle, numerous art critics and observers have commented of late on the wild-and-wooly nature of the current art market and the great rewards within reach of an artist who is able to “make it” today. In December, Peter Schjeldahl in the New Yorker called the current art market an “art-industrial frenzy, which turns mere art lovers into gawking street urchins.” In mid-January, Holland Cotter in the New York Times called contemporary art “largely a promotional scam perpetuated by—in no particular order of blame—museums, dealers, critics, historians, collectors, art schools and anyone else who has a sufficient personal, professional or financial investment riding on the scam.”

Two days later, Jerry Saltz described, in eloquently jarring terms, what he thought of the art market: “A private consumer vortex of dreams, a cash-addled image-addicted drug that makes consumers prowl art capitals for the next paradigm shift… a perfect storm of hocus-pocus, spin, and speculation, a combination slave market, trading floor, disco, theater, and brothel where an insular ever-growing caste enacts rituals in which the codes of consumption and peerage are manipulated in plain sight… an unregulated field of commerce governed by desire, luck, stupidity, cupidity, personal connections, connoisseurship, intelligence, insecurity, and whatever.”

At the end of January, Charlie Finch on ArtNet.com explained that the art market’s arbitariness “disregards questions of esthetics and connoisseurship.” And he said such distortions in turn “affect the traditional ways we think about the art market.” And Jed Perl, one day later, in an article about money in the art world subtitled “How the Art World Lost Its Mind,” bemoaned the “insane art commerce of our day” and proclaimed “the essential problem in the art world today is that in almost every area, from the buying and selling of contemporary art to the programs of our greatest museums, there is an obsession with appealing to the largest imaginable audience. And in practice this means always operating as if painting and sculpture were a dimension of popular culture.” He explained that when we see artists “whose careers are barely a decade old dominating the auction rooms, with their work selling for millions of dollars, we are being told that a widespread consensus can crystallize in a moment—and this is a pop culture idea.”

Cotter and his ilk were not really exhibiting much insight, as one of the the easiest things in the world to predict is that an overinflated bubble will eventually burst. Further, these critics didn’t really offer many useful thoughts in the midst of the market, as they seemed to prefer instead simply to kvetch and complain about the situation, revealing the sour grapes they were tasting from their loss of cultural import in the face of the market boom. Nor is Cotter particularly unique in suggesting that arts folk will get back to simple brass tacks after the dust has settled (I did the same here and here; it’s a pretty easy call).

Still, as you fans of failure know, such tawdry thoughts do make for pretty good reading…

The promise of America is that nobody is born to lose, but who has never wondered, “Am I wasting my life?” We imagine escaping the mad scramble yet kick ourselves for lacking drive. Low ambition offends Americans even more than low achievement…. Failure conjures such vivid pictures of lost souls that it is hard to imagine a time, before the Civil War, when the word meant “breaking in business” — going broke. How did it become a name for a deficient self, an identity in the red? Why do we manage identity the way we run our businesses - by investment, risk, profit, and loss?
Scott A. Sandage, Born Losers: A History of Failure in America (2006)

In American culture, the market is worshiped increasingly as an ideology rather than being seen for what it is—a natural product of human social evolution and a set of valuable tools through which we may shape a healthful and equitable society. It is under the spell of this ideology—this new religion—the we have fallen into complacency. Personal profit is no longer the means to an end but has become the end in itself. America’s traditional immigrant values of resourcefulness, thrift, prudence, and an abiding concern for family and community have been hijacked by a commercially driven, all-consuming self-interest that is rapidly making us sick.
– Peter C. Whybrow, M.D., American Mania: When More Is Not Enough (2005)


(Regarding what fed the Internet bubble that burst in the early 2000s): “You had a lot of novice investors who got into the market looking for easy money, without any regard to the fundamentals. These stocks were running on fumes.”
– Bernie Madoff, Washington Post, Jan 2, 2001.

To follow up on my previous post, about what we are (despite it all) thankful about in art, I’ve posted an homage to Grizzled Art Warriors on the Thousandth Word blog.

Here’s a bit of the crux:

…make no bones, the range of committed and long-suffering arts denizens in this hardscrabble metro area of ours—without whom there’d be scant art worth celebrating today—while not terribly broad, is very deep. Just sit down and make a list, and you will see. My own list of local artistic heroes, whose grizzled tales I have often found myself drawn to, is split in two. It starts with dozens of artists who, while I don’t always love every work they make, are to be admired for surviving through thick and thin and continuing the battle. Then it moves on to those few purveyors and supporters of art—gallerians mostly—who’ve survived the wars from their front-line positions, under constant assault (mostly from needy artists) and with terribly unreliable supply lines to sustain them.

Once again, I invite anyone with thoughts or memories to share–about parts of the art world that you are thankful for, or grizzled arts figures that you appreciate and love–to do so. You can comment here on this blog, email me at admin@artisticfailure.com, or comment on the Thousandth Word blog.

Hope, that all too scarce commodity of late, made a brief, mild resurgence earlier this month, only to suffer setbacks to late-November fear and panic. (November is just that way, or so I surmise in my latest piece on the Thousandth Word.)

But hope, as we all know, even if it often gets beaten down and left for dead never goes away. (I remarked on this tendency too, in two recent pieces on the local arts, again for the Thousandth Word.)

But you don’t have to take my word about hope. One of my favorite recent arts commentaries—a piece from the Art Newspaper earlier this month called “Tough Times Will Provide Opportunities“—suggests too that hope springs eternal, even in a collapsed economy, even in a bottomed-out market, even in the dismal contemporary art world. “So what’s next? Is the future of the art market that bleak?” the article asks.

No, this will be a market for new opportunities. Major collectors are waiting for prices to come down 30% to 40% from their peak, a correction that was already evident in the latest round of auctions in London in October… Further pressure on prices is expected, and it will take some time before the market has reached equilibrium… Now the question is: which artists will survive the adjustment? We all know what the last crash in 1991 did to hotshot artists such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Eric Fischl, Francisco Clemente and Sandro Chia. Their markets took 15 years to recover, and in real terms (adjusted for inflation) are still considerably below their peak, but at least their markets survived… The primary market is also likely to regain the balance of power compared with the auctions. The auction houses have dented their credibility as money-making machines, and would-be sellers are realising that the liquidity is quickly evaporating. In a falling market, the focus will again be directed towards the galleries that have proved their commitment to their artists… In the end, a correction is healthy for the sustainability of the future art market. The interest in art will not disappear, art and artists will not disappear—if anything, a tougher environment will be more conducive to artistic creativity, and hopefully the market will go back to focusing on what constitutes the real value of art, as art history is rarely made in the auction rooms.

While I haven’t been the most active poster over the past three weeks, I have been following one story carefully (and collecting multiple links on it)–i.e., The Meltdown of the Current Art Market. For your enjoyment, then, I’ve put together a Cavalcade of Links tracking the falling fortunes of the art market over the last month:

  • Tapped Out? (Big New York Auction Houses Brace for a Slower Dance at the Fall Sales), New York Times, October 26
  • Our False Oracles Have Failed, We Need a New Vision to Live By (Huge financial success has hidden the moral bankruptcy in our civilisation, we must rediscover our lost values or perish), London Times, October 30

And, my very favorite link of all: