Having just returned from London for the Frieze art fair and October auctions, it is becoming ever more clear that the market for, and interest in, new art is becoming increasingly challenged and imbalanced. A generation of buyers who had been consistently collecting contemporary art for several decades is now reaching an age where their appetites, or capacities, are waning. A new generation has been entering the pursuit with a very different and far more deliberate focus. And while the very effective professionalization of the field of art has produced a much larger pool of young artists, it has become increasingly difficult to pinpoint with confidence the great artists to have emerged over the past ten or 15 years.
It is becoming apparent that the wider ecosystem through which art is tested, challenged and given room to fail, change and evolve is diminishing. And that doesn’t serve any part of this enterprise well. So, I find it ever more fulfilling at this moment that Sotheby’s has created an annual prize of $250,000 to be given to museums to produce groundbreaking exhibitions of the sort that have become increasingly difficult to fund.
When I think back to the most significant exhibitions of postwar art of the past few decades, they have not been those retrospectives that bring clarity to the achievements of known masters (the kind of show which has increasingly become the norm), but exhibitions that rethink recent histories, challenging our perceptions and redefining which voices are vital, where they come from and the very role of what has previously been termed “marginal”.
It was my great fortune to be on a jury several weeks ago with some of the most eminent curators and museum directors of our time: Sir Nicholas Serota (chair, Arts Council England), Connie Butler (chief curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles), Okwui Enwezor (director of the Haus der Kunst museum in Munich), Donna de Salvo (senior curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York).
The two-day discussion that resulted in the jurors’ selection of prize-winners was engaging and highly revealing of the challenges institutions are facing today. Museums are often—and for completely understandable reasons—focusing on retrospectives of already-validated artists. Thematic exhibitions are much more expensive to mount; they are less popular in terms of audience and, as a result, don’t bring in the large crowds that blockbusters do and therefore do not generate the same levels of income.
Government and corporate funding is being reduced, and so the main source of support tends to come from a museum’s patrons, who are more likely to engage with exhibitions dedicated to artists whose work they have already supported by collecting it, and the galleries that represent them.
The system becomes self-perpetuating. There are more exhibitions of the kind that reinforce what we already know, and fewer that challenge the status quo. The contemporary art museum in this country that has done the most forward-thinking shows over the past several decades is LA MoCA—and it almost went out of business doing so.
Rethinking art as we know it
And yet, despite the increasing difficulty in funding exhibitions that seek to re-shape the history of art as we have thus far known it, it became clear to all of the jurors that museums of all sizes (but especially mid-sized and small institutions) currently are driven to take risks, be willing to take on serious financial debt and to challenge head-on the problems with the increasing nationalism taking grip across the globe.
While the intent had been to award the prize to a single exhibition, with the understanding that the show would likely not be realized without such a grant, the jury faced so many prescient opportunities that, at the last moment, we decided to split the award, with two institutions each receiving $125,000.
One of the exhibitions, “Pop América, 1965-1975” at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University, has been fully researched and will now be fulfilled through the grant. The other, “Many Tongues: Art, Language, and Revolution in the Middle East and South Asia” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, is just beginning to be formed, so the grant will make it possible for the curatorial team to do the work necessary to fully research and conceive the exhibition.
Exploring forgotten histories
In addition, we found that there were so many other exhibitions worthy of citation and funding that we selected three to receive commendations and a small grant of $10,000. The recipients span from the small and little-known Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville, Florida through the mid-sized Institute of Contemporary Art, University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia to one of the best-endowed museums in this country, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Arkansas.
The Cummer museum will stage a survey of the relatively obscure but highly significant artist Augusta Savage, who was from Green Cove Springs near Jacksonville and was a mentor to, and had great influence over, some of the most important artists of the Harlem Renaissance, including Norman Lewis, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence.
The ICA in Philadelphia will mount the first retrospective in the US in almost 40 years of Ree Morton, who died in 1977 after a mere seven years of highly exuberant and influential artistic production which is little seen or known in this country today.
Crystal Bridges aims to create what will in effect be the first history of Native American art, a field that has been woefully neglected by most US art institutions.
My secret wish
While we are all thrilled to be able to make possible and acknowledge exhibitions that look beyond the status quo, it is my not-so-secret wish that the prize not only plays a meaningful role in the essential job of rethinking art as we know it and as it is currently valued, but also provides a base of inspiration and entry point for other patrons to become aware of important art historical work that they themselves might be inspired to fund.
Articles in This Issue
Here are our main takeaways from last week’s market events in London—Frieze Masters, Frieze London and the auctions at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips. These are generalized remarks (which means, of course, that there are exceptions).
Talk of change
There is talk of a correction in the trade, but that presupposes change across the board, whereas the art market is not monolithic—and what we’re seeing is potentially more extreme. Beginning to shape our industry in profound ways is the continuing bifurcation between the top (works, dealers and artists), and everything below.
Shifts in supply
On the secondary market, the highest quality works of art keep going up in value. (This doesn’t include objects touted as top-level, but which are in reality almost there.) While supply for the most choice material is as tight as ever, we see signs that people are beginning to eye their inventory for works below that level. People are beginning to trade out of lesser works, perhaps recognizing that they’re only going to get more difficult to sell. Nobody is expecting the market for a mediocre anything to improve.
Primary market strong, for some
Dealers who represent great artists in developing parts of the market or who are solid players in the primary market at the upper level are doing very well—they’re making strong sales. While this varies from artist to artist, there is a consolidation and increasing demand.
In contrast, the middle of the market is far more challenged than people are indicating. Those middle-market dealers need the fairs—it’s where the action is—but many are suffering: the costs can be prohibitive and, with so many events, fair fatigue is real. Some galleries are going for broke to try and get over the hurdles. But, there will be attrition over the next few years.
The announcement of the closure of Andrea Rosen’s gallery space earlier this year opened the floodgates and we’re expecting something between a big wave and a deluge to follow. Those swells will wipe away the markets for lots of artists. Some of them weren’t necessarily great. Others are good and show potential. Some artists in that number are truly great, but unfortunately, not shored up by capital and with no effective links to the buyers who drive up value. There seems to be no safe harbor for them in the current market, which is focusing on the top.
There is no doubt that if you overprice average pictures, you won’t sell them. If you overprice even rather good pictures, buyers might still balk. There is increasing price consciousness at all levels.
Challenges = opportunities
On a related note, the market is soft at several price points, for example, in the $75,000- $300,000 range. One could argue that the difficulty is really all the way up to $1m, but especially under $500,000.
This is to say that there are lots of opportunities for those willing to take some risks and do some homework. Few buyers in the current market are prepared to seriously engage with artists whose work hasn’t yet been given a market (or museum) imprimatur, which means there are some potentially great artists being completely overlooked.
People don’t want to jump first. There were several occasions during the auctions when phone buyers seemed to be hesitating, waiting for someone else to make the first bid against the reserve. A similar trend is playing out across the galleries: there has been consolidation of interest around certain artists, and many collectors are reticent to make their own, fresh judgments.
Put simply, people are chasing the same things, and the next phase of the market will be defined by the extent to which buyers gain confidence in their commitment to artists whose work might not yet be appreciated by everyone else. The market is greatly in need of broadening its definition of valuable and important art. Having said that, we are beginning to see new pockets of interest opening up.
October hasn’t traditionally been a major auction season but it is a significant market moment in London, and so the houses have attempted to build up the size of their sales over the past decade. It is becoming clear that, while the London October sales are solid affairs, it’s in New York in November and May that the fireworks really fly.
There were some notable trends to emerge. Several markets are on the rise, including that of Cecily Brown, who is showing strength on all fronts. There is a growing appetite (again) for works by male artists associated with the 1980s such as David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Peter Halley, Richard Prince and Albert Oehlen. The market for Howard Hodgkin, who has been widely accepted by the Brits as a national treasure after his recent death, is also going up.
Wade Guyton at the Serpentine was a reawakening for many. The exhibition, “Wade Guyton: Das New Yorker Atelier, Abridged” (until 4 February 2018) reinforces a new level of range and shows that he is among the most significant painters of his generation.
With the increase in the number of fairs and the globalization of auctions, to quote Elvis Costello, it’s getting mighty crowded.
Andy Holden has a reputation for expanding the seemingly inconsequential and personal into dizzyingly diverse meditations on life, the universe and everything within. In past works, the British artist has enlarged a chip off an Egyptian pyramid (which he pocketed on a childhood trip) into a giant hand-knitted bolder, as well as putting together an animated film-cum-lecture conflating the capers of Tom and Jerry and Roadrunner with quantum physics to explore how the non-Newtonian physical laws of the cartoon world are a metaphor for our precarious modern existence.
Now Holden joins forces with his eminent ornithologist father and innovative commissioner Artangel to take over a 19th-century former library building near Elephant and Castle in South London with what is his most ambitious series of works to date. “Andy Holden/Peter Holden: Natural Selection” combines film, sculpture, music, animation, archive material and natural specimens to examine both the natural art of birds’ nest-building as well as the human (and quintessentially English) practice of birds’ egg collecting (until 5 November). Along the way, unusual and often uncomfortable aspects of both human and avian behavior are brought to light.
Situated in the dank basement where, appropriately, Victorian father and son collectors Richard and Henry Cuming once housed their joint collection of natural history specimens, is the show’s pièce de résistance. The work, How the Artist was Led to the Study of Nature (2017), comprises a spectacular profusion of bird eggs in all sizes and colors. According to a wall chart, these are the eggs of pretty much every wild British nesting bird ranging from the common rook, robin, magpie, seagull and sparrow through to the very rarest specimens from the golden eagle and peregrine falcon.
Beauty and horror
There’s both a beauty and a horror in this mass display of stilled avian lives. Matters turn yet darker on the discovery that this is no scientifically assembled set of specimens, but a meticulous recreation of a stash of 7,130 eggs that were discovered in the bedroom of notorious British collector Richard Pearson in 2006. Taking wild birds’ eggs is a criminal offence and Pearson was jailed for 23 weeks.
His collection surpassed that of any public institution but was nonetheless destroyed in its entirety to discourage future egg-thieves. Now it has been resurrected in an installation that presents the eggs exactly as they were found, not in scientific display cases but hidden in cake tins, polystyrene cartons and margarine boxes.
There’s another layer of obsessiveness in the fact that every specimen in Holden’s work is a lovingly hand-painted porcelain facsimile, created by a devoted and less destructive egg enthusiast commissioned by the artist. Changing attitudes to our beleaguered natural environment are brilliantly encapsulated in this laboriously recreated hoard.
At the same time, the work also offers up an insight into a little-examined slice of English cultural history. In an adjoining room a three-screen film—narrated by the artist in the bizarre form of a talking animated rook—traces the decline of egg collecting from a popular hobby of eccentric English aristocrats and a widely encouraged educational pursuit for schoolchildren to its current degraded criminal status.
Buried in its subterranean chamber, Holden’s disturbing and provocative egg display transcends its specifically English origins to act as a compelling monument to our human urge to acquire and accumulate that—whether expressed in a hoard of eggs or art—hovers between malady and therapy.
For me, there are two works that got away. When I was very young and doing a lot of art writing in the 1980s, I would often end up at Printed Matter in New York where I would write about artists’ books using their stock—they let me use it like a research library. I remember looking frequently at Ed Ruscha’s first-edition artist books—which in those days cost maybe $9 or $12—and thinking they were wonderful.
Ed has had lots of great moments throughout his career and the 1960s were one of them. He was working in many different media at one time and using photography in a really interesting way. Those books have a wonderful, ironic quirkiness to them—they’re simply great works of art by an extremely important artist. But it never occurred to me to buy one (my husband was a book artist so we were generally in the habit of trading books). I really love Ed’s work and the books especially, so I look back on that as an opportunity sadly missed.
The other instance happened several years later. When I first started to travel to Brazil, I would see works from Hélio Oiticica’s “Metaesquema” series. They cost around $9,000, which seemed like a great deal of money at the time—and it was for me—so I never bought one of those exquisitely refined little paintings. But I often wish I had: I have a strong connection to that work, which of course would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars now. So, I likely never will own one.
The Metaesquemas are early works, and Oiticica made quite a few of them. They are small and exquisite geometric abstractions that tell you the origins of his most radical work. He never really gives up that geometry—later on, he would work in ways that disguised it, but the geometry is always there.
We just staged an exhibition dedicated to his work in at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh: when you walked through the largest installation, Eden (1969), you experienced the work as though walking through sand and leaves, but when you looked down on it from the balcony, you saw Mondrian.
The Metaesquemas are far more traditional than his work ended up being, but they’re so revealing and dynamic—you’re talking about an exquisitely talented artist, so you get that refinement in his work.
Made You Look
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