Lecture notes
30 March 2013
Relational Wall, Watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on panel, 2009

Relational Wall, Watercolor, colored pencil, and graphite on panel, 2009

This isn’t a formal essay, but the thoughts might be worth sharing.

Today, I think the art world, all of them, feels a little bit like MoCA. The situation there is an interesting intersection of everything that is going on in both the market and the museum world in relation to broader economic trends, which I hope most of us are aware of.  MoCA is struggling to maintain their independence as an institution, but is desperately beholden to its board members and trustees for money, and sort of got into this mess when it leaned too heavily on one oligarch in particular, Eli Broad.  Mr. Broad bailed out the museum a couple of years ago with $30 million in exhibition funding, which had some explicit and implicit strings attached to it.

The donation included explicit conditions such as the ‘No merger with any institutions within a 100 mile’ clause, and less explicit ones like the addition of New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch as the new Director of the museum.  That decision hasn’t exactly worked out since Deitch’s main task was to raise money for the museum, and not to curate the shows, which was Paul Schimmel’s job.  While popular shows and attendance figures look good, museums typically only generate anywhere from 3-11% of their operating revenue at the gate.  I believe all museums should be free to the public, and free to curate whatever shows they want, not ones that are engineered primarily to attract crowds.  Still, any loss of revenue is important to a museum, and that money could translate directly into staff positions. Unfortunately, Deitch’s gambit to make the museum relevant to the public with shows like ‘Art in the Streets’ didn’t make museum-rescuing money or lead to big time donations.  Pretty much all the artists, minus four, quit the board when Deitch allowed the dismissal of Schimmel.

So the museum finds itself caught in a power struggle between Michael Govan and his allies at LaCMA and Mr. Broad.  Probably just Mr. Broad, alone with his money, foundation, and own museum being built near MoCA.  Even Roberta Smith, whose consistency of judgment I often question, called for MoCA to distance itself Mr. Broad to strengthen the institution.  Apparently, a healthy board requires more than just one rich person’s vision, which included fucking over LaCMA by not donating works to their permanent collection and allowing his foundation to retain ownership of the works loaned to BCAM.  That wing of LaCMA is like a Russian nesting doll, a privately funded museum within LaCMA, but not exactly of LaCMA.  BCAM has it’s own funding and staff paid for by Mr. Broad, and shows work from his foundation, which is held in public trust, but privately administered according to Mr. Broad’s wishes.  The Rubell Family Collection does a fair job of describing this model of public-private and private-private model of foundation/museum collaborations.  Also of note is Rob Reich’s recent piece on the role of private foundations in our questionably democratic society, which reads something like “the wisdom of plutocracy”.

MoCA is currently trying to raise a $100 million endowment, which if fully-funded, would generate enough interest to pay about 30% of the museum’s annual operating budget.  While that would be a solid base compared the current reliance on Mr. Broad’s conditional and soon-to-expire funding, this all a lot of talk to say that they are still fucked financially.  To continue operating, they will still have to raise a great deal of money through fundraising, which puts them in the same position as the rest of the art world, reliance on the beneficence of the 1% or the .01% to be more precise.  This is the condition that society finds itself after decades of neoliberal policies that have promoted privatization of pretty much everything in society from education to prisons to museums.  The dictum is basically, “make everything more efficient with Capitalism!”

How well these policies work is entirely dependent on how you think the world is doing, and not just our society.  Obviously things continue to churn along and work to the degree that you are satisfied or dissatisfied with your quality of life.  I am not convinced that neoliberal capitalism is the end of history, and the system we have all been waiting for or that it serves the public interest and promotes the general welfare of the citizenry (which we are obliged to do).  The main evidence of the failure lies in the concentration of wealth in the hands people like Mr. Broad and other oligarchs like Bill Gates, who find themselves in positions of shaping not only culture, but public policy.  Mr. Gates’ foundation funded the small schools movement here in New York City, and I wonder about  his qualifications as an educator. His views on education are backed by an enormous amount of money and what he says will continue to shape the reform movement in American education.  I’d rather see local communities or at least educators and academics working with the government to shape sane policy.
Regardless, the continued concentration of wealth at the very top of society is having outcomes in the art world that are not very encouraging.

Nicole Klagsburn announced today that she’s closing her gallery after 30 years in business, because she doesn’t like the direction the market has oriented art towards; fairs, fairs, biennials, events, fairs, and more fairs.  It’s a shame to hear about someone well-respected in the art community calling it a day. Chris D’Amelio was a little more mercenary in his reasoning when he cited the constant economic pressure facing even upper-tier galleries in his decision to ‘ spread his wings and fly over the chasm’ that now divides the top of the art world from everything else.  My own gallery is moving to the Lower East Side after their rent was increased to $30k a month.  That would mean Magda and Tamas would have to sell $720k in contemporary art in the primary market a year just to pay the rent and the artists, and likely a million just to break even.  What they would have to sell to live on?  I don’t know, but that is a difficult proposition in an art market where prices are increasing at the top for a few galleries and artists.

Leo Keonig is set to take over Postmaster’s old space, and he owns a gallery that has basically had a 100% turnover in artists since the infamous article, “The Businessman” was written about him in 2005. Indeed, he runs his gallery like a business, but that’s not the model I imagine Nicole Klagsburn or Magda and Tamas are interested in.  Klagsburn cited the lack of time she had to develop relationships with her artists as one of the reasons she is moving on to a different model.  What you and I lose is another opportunity to see art for free on a regular basis.

Ed Winkleman, who I’ve known since he ran Plus Ultra in a shoebox in Williamsburg in 2003, recently posted excerpts from an excellent diagnostic essay by Alain Servais on the ‘grow or go’ model facing the commercial art world, which is at the heart of the big-boxification of Chelsea; quite literally expand or leave.  Servais gets at a trend he describes as the consolidation of VBA’s (very bankable artists) in the hands of a few mega galleries like Gagosian or Hauser & Wirth.  This destroys what Robert Storr describes as the ‘record store’ gallery model, where there are a couple of bankable artists who sell alot, which supports a more diverse program that might not sell very well.  In the big box model, every show has to sell well to cover the staggering operating costs of these museum-like operations from staffing to producing publications that confirm the value of the artists’ work.  In this model we face a kind of homogenization of taste oriented towards the 1% who can afford the attendant high prices like a $100k Dan Colen gum painting.  Whether or not you like what Gagosian or Zwirner show is almost irrelevant to the situation, which is our participation in a highly-stratified economy where very few people have most of the wealth, which we must increasingly orient ourselves towards like a plant growing towards the light.

I don’t know if any of you [students] plan on opening a gallery, I would be skeptical of only looking at successful dealers.  You have no idea how they actually succeeded and what role personal connections, independent wealth, or luck played in that success.  There are always a few winners in our Capitalist model and then there is what Zizek describes in his essay “It’s the Political Economy, Stupid”

“I know very well the risks I am courting, even the inevitability of the final collapse, but nonetheless…I can protract the collapse a little bit more, take a little bit greater risk, and so on indefinitely”

I’d encourage you to talk to a lot of dealers and get as much of a sense of the reality of the business as you can, since the gallery model relies all-too heavily on the perception of success, requiring them to appear to be operating out of a condition of excellence versus a condition of need (or likely desperation).  The opacity of the private gallery model will prevent you from getting accurate information, which ironically, Capitalism works worse without.  It’s a general rule in the art world that we don’t talk about money, primarily because it’s not just about one individual, but a series of interconnected interests, which makes it bad for everybody when we go into detail.  “Don’t ask me”.

These are just some of the reasons why the art world feels a little bit like the situation MoCA faces, as if we are all MoCA; cash strapped, beholden to rich people, and in bed with the market (in the broadest sense of Capitalism).  At this point, it is time to seriously consider alternative economies, new models, and different approaches to the production and distribution of art.  This isn’t easy for many of us who have been trained to be studio artists or have run galleries for decades, and I hope we begin this work in spite of income inequality, not because it is the only option left to us by the oligarchs and the tyranny of taste backed by concentrated wealth.

This article makes me happy I live in Canada (specifically Montreal, Quebec) where despite the fact that there are innumerable problems with the local art “world”, the vast array of government subsidized artist-run centres negates a great part of this unfortunate situation.

john says:

You don’t know me, we’ve never met, but I feel compulsion to type this out because it seems like you’re sharing something you’ve given much thought to and as I type this there are no responses.

Many issues are brought up: complex power relationships, financial woes, subjective tastes, and art. I think the most important issue is the art. Just because a sort of art-by-design is popular and selling today doesn’t mean it will in 10 years, or 20, there are some that certainly will but I don’t think every Jeff Koons work is worth the price paid, some certainly are though. How many balloon dogs does the world really need? At some point I think art can lose it’s cultural value when diluted by the artist (themselves) because there is a coffee table in the Hamptons that would otherwise be sitting vacant. Caveat emptor!

As an outsider in a transaction like that, we have to ask if they are buying art or something else. Perhaps they are buying something else and it shouldn’t be of concern to us. If money is driving the compulsion to make art something is wrong. That isn’t to say artists shouldn’t be paid well – they should but maybe gallerists need to step up to the plate and educate visitors. That’s a difficult task, it requires a degree of risk, taste, and relationships. If someone is in a gallery they want to see art, they want to have it explained, they’re for the experience – but how many times have you been greeted by the ‘gallery girl’ with a thorough understanding of the work? I’ve met employees at best buy that were more enthusiastic and could rattle off phone specs at lightning speed. It’s not entirely fair to attack them, they are thrown into the mix, but they are also the first person you see (even walmart knows to put a smiling greeter at the door). If you want someone to part with 15k dollars you better have a laundry list of reasons why they should instead of the Jeff Koons balloon dog #8000. Perhaps this is why balloon dog #8000 sells – it’s safety. Artists have been vetted, workers vetted, the buyers vetted. There’s little upside but almost zero downside, it’s an investment that decorates a table and will offer a higher return than a savings account.

Now I don’t want to indicate that galleries should be run like big box stores, but reaching out to people is important. Jerry Saltz wrote a piece about how gallery culture is changing recently. Something that jumped out at me was how he can’t have a conversation with anyone because nobody is there! Enter the gallerist, at the very least they should be doing anything and everything to familiarize you with the work. It’s not an easy task and you have to be a people person, but Jerry Saltz should be having a conversation in every gallery he goes into, we all should! It shouldn’t be awkward to ask, we shouldn’t feel like we’re interrupting someones game of ‘words with friends’. I’ve been on terrible dates that are awkwardly reminiscent of viewing work at a gallery.

And that’s bad because I like to make art, I like to look at art, and I like to buy other peoples art. But if I/you/anyone walks in and gets a second class citizen sort of treatment because we didn’t hop out of a benz wearing gucci loafers, well, the taste of disdain doesn’t leave easy.

Why is this important? What does it have to do with anything? It has everything to do with the art market. Grassroots are what need to be tended to the most, it’s where the most exciting things happen, it’s where the most risk is taken, and it’s where new relationships are going to be made. All of those things plus a little time is what turns a good artist into a great artist. If someone like Magda & Tamas had to move their gallery to Bushwick would their customer base suddenly dry up? It’s doubtful it would if they have strong relationships with the artists and the customers. The mantra of ‘location’ is really only applicable to real estate investors. Hell offer free cab rides if it’s that big of a deal, you could deduct if from the amount you save in rent each month and still come out ahead. It’s not like the quality of the art is changing.

There will always be Gagosians of the world, they’re in every business, a guy I work for (indirectly) has a motto ‘better to be a guaranteed number 2 than a failed number 1’. Get used to them. But even still if you have solid relationships artists won’t just leave, and if Larry has you in his sights maybe it’s time for your dealer to up their game instead of hoping you don’t leave them for someone.

If I seem a little passionate about this it’s because I’ve worked with a few companies that rose and fell, the art market isn’t special in this regard the mistakes are pretty universal.

As to MoCA – who knows, it’s probably more complex and simpler than we know.

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William Powhida
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