Archive for the Commerce and the failure of art Category

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.

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.

Blank

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.

Have Paintbrush, Will Travel

A picture is worth more than a thousand words to the Canadian artist Katherine Dolgy Ludwig, who trades her watercolors for lodging at the homes of professors on sabbaticals.

Through the rental matchmaking service SabbaticalHomes.com, Ms. Ludwig has house-sat for academics in New York, London, Los Angeles, Paris, and Wales over the past seven years. Instead of paying them money, she gives them one of her vibrant artworks.

“Hosts can choose any of my paintings,” she says, “but often they’ll pick one I’ve done while living in their home. They say, ‘Wow, that’s my rug,’ or ‘That’s my kitchen in the background,’ or ‘There’s my pet,’ so there’s a personal connection with the painting.”

Ms. Ludwig trained as an architect but switched to painting and taught at the Ontario College of Art & Design. In 2006 she decided to paint full time. That has resulted in a series of fellowships in the United States and Europe, during which she cares for professors’ homes and, occasionally, their pets for weeks or months at a time while she paints and exhibits her artworks.

“It’s a very old tradition for artists to trade their work for necessities,” says Ms. Ludwig, who during one memorable house-sit three years ago “paint jammed” with the jazz musician Ornette Coleman, putting him and his band on canvas while they played on Manhattan’s Lower West Side.

As an artist on the rise, Ms. Ludwig has seen her paintings, bartered and otherwise, appreciate in value over the years.

“One of the first I traded was worth about $2,000 then,” she says. “Today it would be valued around $10,000.”

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:

The Art Newspaper this past week has proclaimed that “speculation in young artists” is ending in the wake of economic worldwide meltdown.

The effect? I suspect that it will hurt the smaller galleries that sell emerging or non-blue-chip art the most. I suspect, but don’t follow it closely enough to say for sure, that it will also happen sooner or later with Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern art markets as well… It’s been kind of like buying internet stocks—and we know how that ended. With the high prices for younger art “established” by a speculative market where can they go, relative to demand, but down? But galleries never lower their primary prices, so these works will sit in gallery storage racks—with zero revenue-flow for non-brand name dealers. I call this the death spiral for art: sinking prices and sinking demand.

Is there a silver lining in the midst of this gloomy forecast?

Perhaps a return to the importance of museums, critics and alternative spaces for validation and the introduction of new art.

Hm. A return to the importance of critics? That doesn’t sound so bad… (Except where are these critics going to publish their writing?)

Meanwhile…

On a completely different note, please come to the Art Happy Hour this Sunday, October 19, at 9 pm at the Red Stag Supper Club. (Art Happy Hour is the only true antidote to America’s ongoing Artistic Failure!)

I’ve been reading and writing about Canada’s ongoing national back-turning on its artists of late, which apparently is a huge subject up there because it keeps coming up of late. This most recent story, from the Oct. 11 Globe and Mail, is interesting because it discusses an arts event that was highly praised in Canada—the recent triumphant visit of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra to a sold-out Carnegie Hall—and describes how impossible it is, in our modern business-oriented economy, for an arts org to be deemed a success. “…the tour was an artistic and critical success,” writes Simon Houpt, “[but] those viewing it simply through a prism of profit and loss would call it a failure: The performance fee paid by Carnegie Hall didn’t come close to covering even half of the orchestra’s $466,000-plus costs.”

The author then looks closely at the upcoming budget for Volcano, a Toronto-based theatre company, which took the unusual step of opening its books to The Globe and Mail, and examines point-by-point how what people are willing to pay for art is vastly outstripped by the expenses incurred in mounting arts programming. The problem with art has long been noted by economists: The cost for the products of our economy become ever more based on the efficiencies associated with mechanization and mass production, so that a product like art that is impossible to make more efficiently (a painting will always take so long to make, a symphony always will involve so many producers) are regarded as too expensive to support in relation to cheaply reproduced good and entertainment (crappy cable TV, for instance). The arguments that people make against arts funding fail to take into account the simple human costs for art.

It’s interesting too to have read this story from the past weekend, from my own formerly artistically “enlightened” northern home state of Minnesota, just south of Canada’s southern border, about the impending doom facing pretty much all of our former artistic treasures. Art funders here, according to the story’s author Mary Abbe, are “bracing for rocky times.” Major arts orgs like the “Minnesota Orchestra, Guthrie Theater, Walker Art Center and Minneapolis Institute of Arts,” who are seeing their endowments rapidly shrink, are “braced for the worst.” At the end she quotes Jacques Brunswick, chief administrative officer of the Guthrie Theater, as he makes an (unconvincing) appeal: “It’s a rough time. I think the arts need people’s money now more than ever.”

And in response (in the Strib’s comments)?

Time to get back to the basics

When many are faced with homelessness, hunger and a lack of health care, it is time to get back to the basics. We have to pay off massive governmental and consumer debt that is strangling the country before we can make much progress. Also, we need to ensure our kids and even adults are getting adequate scientific and technical training so we can compete again in the global market. Given all this, the upcoming decides need to focus on basics rather than arts.

posted by rebeccalhoover on Oct 11, 08 at 7:29 pm |

A new story out in Time magazine discuss the inevitable news: As the rest of the world tanks culturally and economically, so apparently goes China.

At a Sotheby’s sale of 20th century Chinese artwork on Oct. 5, two-thirds of the 110 lots failed to sell, and many of the pieces that did find buyers went for below their estimated prices. By the close of the biannual sales of the world’s largest publicly traded art auction house, Sotheby’s took in about half what it had expected, at just over $140.7 million….

Many say the unimpressive results were a combination of already overinflated price estimates and the dismal economy. “Particularly with the fund managers, if they are concerned with things happening in the world, they may be inclined to hold on to their funds,” said Mark Joyce, owner of Koru Contemporary Art in Hong Kong.

That’s not good news for Sotheby’s. Following the poor sales, the auction house’s shares fell 14% on Oct. 6, hitting a three-year low. (Sotheby’s was not available for comment.) Nor does it bode well for the regional art market: the Hong Kong auction was its first gauge after the worldwide financial crisis hit last month. “Due to uncertainty in the markets, investors are making selective choices as to where to spend their money,” said Shirley Ben Bashat, director of the Opera Gallery Hong Kong….

Beijing-based artist Zhao Gang isn’t surprised. “Three years ago the prices started going higher and higher,” said Zhao. “Last year the price was pushed way too high, and it’s got to come down.” …

Still, the local art world isnt’ getting too depressed — yet. Says Bashat, the director of the Opera Gallery Hong Kong, “Many buyers see art as a safer investment in the mid to long term compared to other investments in the market.” Buyers may be turning away from contemporary Chinese art today, but at least they are keeping an eye on Asia.

As the deflated rich in this country wring their hands about how rapidly China is buying up U.S. bonds, securities, businesses, and land, I found it curious to find this story about attempts by Chinese artists who own the international fake art market.

Sept. 24 (Bloomberg) — In a village in southern China, Wu Ruiqiu is worried about the effect of an economic slump on the art market. He should be. Wu represents artists who make 60 percent of the world’s oil paintings. Wu is chairman of Dafen’s art association, which groups 8,000 artists in a suburb of Shenzhen, China’s biggest manufacturing hub. While employees in the city make cheap DVD players, computers and T-shirts, workers here produce Rembrandts, Monets and Warhols — by the millions.

Exports have fallen by a third this year, he said… About 85 percent of sales are exports, with the U.S. the biggest customer. A decline in demand has forced the smaller of Dafen’s 800 galleries to close. Others have slashed prices to compete…

Of the nearly 5 million paintings produced at Dafen each year, almost 75 percent are knockoffs (the locals prefer the term replicas). The rest are original artworks, said Fan Yuxin, vice director of the government’s Dafen Village management office.

Lan Xin, who runs a 100-square-foot gallery with Yue copies propped against the walls and hung on pillars, accepts custom orders. He clicked on an icon on his computer screen that expanded to show miniature images of paintings such as Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe portraits. Lan said he commissions freelance artists to paint pictures customers order….

“The paintings here are cheap, they are good, what’s there not to like?” said Houston, Texas-based Judy Berckman, browsing the stalls of galleries for “abstract art.”Foreign companies think the same. The village’s products line the walls of casinos in Las Vegas and Macau…

Dafen’s prolific fakery roused complaints from original artists and their estates, prompting the government to introduce intellectual property rules that bar galleries from selling copies of works by living artists and those dead for less than 50 years.

Fan said an anti-piracy squad inspects galleries “once a month or once a week” and confiscates works that violate the rules. Still, he said the onus is on buyers and people who commission paintings to clear copyright issues.

“Painters just do as they are told,” Fan said. “Their obligation stops when they deliver the goods to customer satisfaction.”

A walk around Dafen’s galleries, full of copies of works by China’s bestselling contemporary artists, shows that the rules aren’t strictly enforced.