Charlotte Burns: Hello and welcome to In Other Words, where we cover everything you ever wanted to know about the art world but didn’t know who to ask.
I’m your host, Charlotte Burns, and on today’s show we have a chance to look back at some of the hot topics that came up in our podcast throughout the year. I’ve brought along my colleague, Julia Halperin, who is the executive editor of artnet News, to break it down with me.
Glenn Lowry: “I have very strong opinions about de-accessioning, and I don’t pretend for a moment to be aligned with many of my colleagues.”
Lynne Cooke: “It called into question what can be conceptualized by somebody without formal training.”
Richard Armstrong: “The threat of violence was real, and you can’t allow your coworkers to be subject to that kind of threat…”
Jerry Saltz: “I Google my name once a day and see all the terrible things people write about me.”
Before we get into the show, here’s a quick reminder to check out our In Other Words newsletter, at artagencypartners.com.
And now, on to today’s episode.
Julia, thank you for joining me.
Julia Halperin: Thanks for having me.
Charlotte Burns: Looking back, there were some themes that kept popping up.
We had lots of great conversations with museum directors and curators this year. We did a panel discussion in Hong Kong with Michael Govan, who’s the director of LACMA, and Doryun Chong, who’s the deputy director and chief curator of M+. The collector Budi Tek, who owns a private institution [Yuz Museum Shanghai] and is collaborating with LACMA, also made an appearance. It was our first ever live event. Here are some quotes:
Budi Tek: “If I share more than 1,000 pieces of artworks worth a lot of money, share to dozens of people, actually it means nothing.”
Michael Govan: “We’re rethinking everything, and we’re rethinking it in the context of that changing political-social environment, always toward, hopefully, greater awareness of the possibilities.”
Doryun Chong: “We also have to be adaptable and flexible because the whole context that we’re working in is different, and the models and the rules that already exist, which we do take seriously, and learn after, but have to be always aware that you can’t just apply them directly here, because it just doesn’t make sense.”
Charlotte Burns: Budi Tek announced an unprecedented collaboration between the Yuz Museum and Foundation in Shanghai and LACMA. There’s a conversation, too, about what the museum model is and where. So, for Doryun Chong at M+ in Hong Kong, it’s very different museum model then when he was working in American museums. There’s a lot of innovation that’s happening
Julia Halperin: It’s a moment where museums are having to reassess their relationship to private collectors. We’re seeing that also at, for example, SF MoMA [San Francisco Museum of Modern Art] where the museum engaged in an unprecedented partnership with the Fisher family to have a long-term loan of the Fisher collection that is the anchor of its new building. I think that those are really interesting to follow. I think that they bring up a lot of thorny questions about curatorial independence, but at the same time I think it also gives institutions the opportunity to gain access to these works that they might not have been able to otherwise.
I think it’s something that we’re going to see keep shifting.
Charlotte Burns: It also has to do with connection management. A huge amount of museum overhead is spent on maintaining collections, whether that’s storing them or preserving them.
Every museum director, bar none, talked about the problems of balancing the books. Museums are very expensive to run. Typically there is more support for event-driven fundraising like a new extension, a new building, than there is for the plumbing in the toilets.
A lot of museum directors are thinking about the economics of running a museum. Part of this is the always-controversial topic of museum de-accessioning. Two leading museum directors were very candid with us this year: Glen Lowry, the director of MoMA, and Richard Armstrong, the director of the Guggenheim Museum and Foundation. Here are a couple of quotes from them.
Glenn Lowry: “I have very strong opinions about de-accessioning, and I don’t pretend for a moment to be aligned with many of my colleagues. I don’t believe you should de-accession to fund operating costs. I think that is a categoric mistake. But I do believe that one should de-accession rigorously in order to either acquire more important works of art or build endowments to support programming.”
Richard Armstrong: “There is an open conversation at AAMD in particular. What there needs to be, I think, is an agreed-upon set of rules. I think the conversation’s been lively and informative. Now we need, I think, to form some sort of consensus.”
Julia Halperin: These were pretty major statements for both directors to make. I mentioned the Glenn Lowry comment to a couple of other people over the course of the year and those who hadn’t heard it responded with a lot of exclamations. They were like, “What!” I think it was a really serious statement that he knew would be listened to. But I think that it is emblematic of a moment when museum leaders are thinking, “Maybe we have to reconsider this kind of orthodoxy.” This year we saw a lot of different museums deaccessioning, whether it was the Berkshire Museum, or [La Salle] University, or the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, and all for various reasons and inciting various levels of outrage.
I think people are willing to have more practical discussions than they were in the past. Something that came up in some of our coverage, and we ran an op-ed by a fellow In Other Words podcast guest, Adrian Ellis—
Charlotte Burns: Adrian yet hasn’t yet been on the show, but he will. Adrian is an unofficial-official sounding board for In Other Words editorial. So, hi Adrian.
Julia Halperin: He wrote about the rule that he coined the Ellis Rule, which is this proposal that if a museum wants to sell a work, it must ensure that the person or entity who buys it can guarantee equivalent or greater conservational standards and equivalent or greater public access. If that can be done, then you should be able to use the money for whatever you want to use it for.
Charlotte Burns: That’s interesting. There’s another school of thought that says you should deaccession works, but only use that money towards collections management. To have more autonomy over who it gets sold to, essentially, but that the money is only used for certain things and not necessarily for the operating budget.
I remember years ago interviewing Glenn Lowry and researching that and getting deep into the MoMA archives. I found this great story about [former MoMA director] Alfred Barr. It was around the time of the blitz, and he asked the collections manager at the museum to come up with a list of works to be saved were there to be a blitz-style attack on Manhattan.
I’m going to get the numbers slightly wrong, but it was very low. The manager came up to him and said, “Look, I’ve made a list of the works and, I don’t know, maybe 30% of the collection is worth saving.” Apparently, Alfred Barr said, “Good God man, you’re an optimist. It’s more like 10%.”
I just thought that was so funny. Can you imagine anybody saying that out loud publicly these days?
We just had Glenn Fuhrman on the show, and he’s got a great collection and is a patron of MoMA. He’s like, “MoMA doesn’t want to take everything of mine. I love everything in my collection, but MoMA would probably want these things from it.” He was thinking about looking at someone like Aggie Gund [Art for Justice] and the way that she sold a work to use that money for philanthropic causes. That’s another form of collections management
It’s not just museums, actually, that are thinking about what to do with their works. I don’t think collectors these days assume that if they give their entire collections to a museum that the museum would be able to show it or keep it, even. It’s even beyond deaccessioning and into the policies of accessioning, and what museums will accept and can accept.
Julia Halperin: Yes, the compromises and deals they’re willing to make.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, very much.
Richard Armstrong spoke about this idea of digital swarming, which is a relatively recent phenomenon. The conversation can be quite dangerous because people are issuing threats of violence against museum staff that have to be taken seriously, which places the directors in a pretty difficult position.
Here’s a quote:
Richard Armstrong: I came to a moment of recognizing that the hysteria was so high that the threat of violence was real, and you can’t allow your coworkers to be subject to that kind of threat… we were caught off guard and this notion of digital swarming, we are hopeful now in the next few months of having a private conversation with leadership and our peers around New York in particular about how best to act while it’s happening and how best to prepare for it.
We have various museum directors talking on this. I’m just going to throw a few things out there and we can discuss them all at once, if you don’t mind Julia.
The dangers of digital swarming—which is linked to censorship. A lot of the outrage was about works that were on show that people felt should be censored.
When we did our talk in Hong Kong, it was really interesting talking to Doryun Chong. He said, “Everyone always asks me about censorship. Quite honestly, US museums are more sensitive than museums in Hong Kong”, which I thought was a really interesting take on it.
There are downsides of new technology. Then there’s the upside of new technology—the potential to be post bricks and mortar, to be transmissive—which is something Lisa Phillips talked about in a podcast.
Here’s Lisa on that. Also Glenn Lowry, talking about this idea of expanding your location:
Lisa Phillips: We are working with international partners all over the world to present programs and projects on a pretty regular basis. So, that’s beyond bricks and mortar. That’s something that we deeply believe in, which is partnerships and collaboration. I think that was part of the founding DNA too, and I think very much, if I dare say, part of a female orientation in consciousness, that willingness and desire to collaborate.
Glenn Lowry: “As these technologies enable this collapse of the virtual and the real world, they also simultaneously expand the space of the institution from a location to any location. I think that’s actually a really interesting thing to think about. How do we use that intelligently? How do we create the communities of engagement that benefit from the knowledge that’s available?”
Charlotte Burns: Then also this idea of the museum-going experience—how you try and find solitude in a sea of selfies, essentially. One institution that’s managed to maintain that sense of personal pilgrimage is Dia [Art Foundation], which has several sites around the US. I think that idea of isolation is something that the director Jessica Morgan is very keen that guests embrace. Here she is talking about that:
Jessica Morgan: “We try never to begin a project thinking about popularity, which is not to say that we don’t care about people coming. Of course, we’re thrilled that people seem to be appreciating all of our sites more and more and that attendance is going up. But it’s a very dangerous, slippery slope, and I’ve been at institutions where I’ve seen that happen and it does affect your thinking.”
Julia Halperin: Social media has been around for a bit, but it feels like it really found museums and in some cases, took them by surprise this year and last year. The power of what it can do when people are looking at what you’re doing—some may fully understand and be fully informed, some people may not. Just the velocity and volume of feedback, in some cases vitriol, you can get.
I also think even that has a populist or positive effect, which is that there are voices who would have been easily ignored in the past that are now being taken seriously because they can be amplified on social media.
It’s something that we saw with Scaffold, a work by the artist Sam Durant that was made for the sculpture park of the Walker Arts Center. It included reference to one of the worst mass killings of Native Americans in history that happened near where the sculpture was installed. Members of the Native American community protested strongly against the work and the fact that they also hadn’t been consulted about it.
Obviously, everyone agreed it would have been better to have this discussion before the work went up. It ended up being a really interesting moment where you could see online outrage transition into productive conversation. There was actually a series of discussions between the artists, the institution and the local Native American leadership.
They ultimately came to a resolution together, which was that they would turn the work over to the elders who would ceremonially bury the work. I think it’s something that is an interesting model in this moment where people are yelling at each other online so much that they can’t hear. Whereas that happened, and then it shifted over into in person one-on-one or small group conversations that resulted in a resolution that maybe not everyone agreed with, but that everyone involved agreed with.
Charlotte Burns: I find it really difficult to think clearly about this. There’s this one part of my brain that’s like, “You shouldn’t create things to take another person’s history and use that in a way that people feel used.” Then there’s another part of me that’s like, “Every artist forever has stolen everything.” Essentially, a lot of that’s Modernism, that kind of taking of other cultures and not sticking in your own lane, basically.
And there were ramifications from that. It wasn’t a totally peaceful solution. The director of the institution—
Julia Halperin: I should say I think it was a great solution, I don’t think that everybody at the museum thought it was a great solution. There was definitely some tension on the board and it ended up very much contributing heavily to the departure of its director at the time, Olga Viso. I think that actually shows how much we haven’t figured out how to deal with this.
Charlotte Burns: In a way, it’s kind of a dangerous precedent, that the fate a work of art could be decided by groups who are not involved in the making of that art, but feel themselves to be involved in the history that the work refers to.
There have been a lot of calls this year for works of art to be destroyed, burned and covered up. It is destruction, not renewal. It doesn’t seem wildly positive to me.
Julia Halperin: I would say I generally draw the line at the destruction of art, but I feel more in-between about these other discussions. Obviously, censorship is not good. But I also think that we’re living in a moment where people who have for a really long time been silenced are demanding a voice and demanding institutions adopt a different outlook, which is one of empathy: empathy for people that they haven’t had to consider, or chosen not to consider for a really long time.
We’re in this moment of real growing pains, where the audiences that museums are accountable to are changing and often growing in such a way that the board members at the top and the grassroots public at the bottom could tear museums apart because their interests are not always aligned. I think we’re watching museums figure this out in real time.
Charlotte Burns: That’s definitely true. The thing that alarms me is the violence of it. Having discussions about works of art is absolutely valid and it’s really what art can trigger. The conversations are fantastic and necessary and helpful.
When the conversations have to translate into an action, that can be more difficult. Whether that action is to remove something, burn something, bury something. Whether that action is to, like Richard Armstrong spoke about on the show, about receiving threats of violence against the staff of the museum from animal rights protestors around a work of art. The advice from the police was to have armed guards in the museum.
Julia Halperin: That was fascinating and so this moment, where the real world collides with your art temple. It’s just not something that we think about very much.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, but I think that the museum directors are. It’s so bizarre that we’d been thinking about having armed guards in museums.
Julia Halperin: I know.
Charlotte Burns: One trend we’ve seen this year is a broadening of the canon across markets and museums. I’d like to start with a special issue we produced in collaboration with artnet News, looking at the representation of African American artists in American museums and across the markets internationally.
As part of the issue, we also recorded a podcast with Valentino Carlotti, who’s the global head of business development at Sotheby’s, and Allan Schwartzman, who’s the cofounder of Art Agency, Partners and a chairman at Sotheby’s. We discussed in conversation with them the data that we’d collected over a three-month period, which essentially revealed that progress is much more recent and benefits far fewer artists.
And here’s what they had to say:
Valentino Carlotti: The vastness of the disproportionality in the numbers bears what you’re saying out—that there’s got to be more going on. Of course, there’s bigger issues, bigger forces afoot. I was not surprised by the numbers themselves or the vastness of a gap. The continuing hurdle is that there is a natural disposition to not want to believe them, because it just can’t be this bad.
Allan Schwartzman: “Even if the market attention is, as always, principally driven by ear rather than eye, I see great potential for our sense of recent history to change and therefore of us being equipped to look further back in time.”
Julia Halperin: We worked together for a few months to track the evolution of collecting work by African American artists at US museums: 2.3% of the total number of acquisitions at the museums we looked at over the last decade were of work by African American artists, and 7.6% of all exhibitions.
Charlotte Burns: We took all the data—we asked the museums to give it to us, and it was kind of interesting to me that they didn’t have it. No one has been tracking progress through data in this way. So, it was a kind of task to even get it. And everybody was pretty happy to give it to us, although a lot of people didn’t even know how to go about that process.
Julia Halperin: And it opened up a whole Pandora’s box that I think we had to figure out when you do these kinds of research projects, which is even the first question of, “Okay, so how are we defining African American?” And all of these questions that come up when you’re trying to put numbers on something that’s incredibly complicated and intersectional and nuanced, and also hasn’t really been counted before.
Charlotte Burns: Yes, exactly. So we wanted to layer the data with other people’s insights to bring in some of that nuance. We spoke to more than 30 people—museum directors, academics, curators, artists, collectors—and some people were very surprised by the numbers: major museum directors were quite taken aback.
And then there were other people who weren’t surprised at all and said, “Well obviously. This is bad, and we’ve been saying this for a long time.”
It’s so interesting how the popular perception is that there’s been huge progress, whereas when you look at this, it’s 2.3% of acquisitions over the past 10 years and really only beginning to gain steam in 2015. It’s so recent that you can’t exactly say that it’s a fundamental reshaping of history yet. It could just be a trend.
Julia Halperin: The other thing that was striking was just how much of that progress had taken place just this year.
Charlotte Burns: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: The consensus was that there is not enough. The needle has not turned as far as it really needs to.
There’s much, much more work to be done. And the market’s much more narrowly focused, of course, than museums are in their collecting, and very top-heavy. If you take out Jean-Michel Basquiat, which is $1.7bn of the market over the past 10 years. The overall market is $2.2bn, so take out Basquiat and the market’s very small.
Julia Halperin: In a way it jives with what we found on the museum side, which is just that for so long, this work was not circulating in what we consider mainstream channels. It was being sold by people who had worked with the material a long time, who knew the artists, who were selling to people in their community and working with local, smaller museums—who now have incredible collections, both individuals and these smaller institutions. But I think because of a combination of provincialism, racism, snobbery, that has only incredibly recently started to seep into what we think of as the canonical institutions.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. It’s also interesting, too, the way in which the market has probably shoved smaller museums into different directions. And those directions can actually be incredibly fruitful. When we were doing this data, we broke our museums down into two groups: half, roughly, were some of the best attended museums in America. And the other half were leading urban, suburban and college institutions who are doing good work in this field. Some of the smaller museums were pretty frank about the fact that they were kind of priced out of the AbEx market a long time ago. They can’t just all of a sudden start forming masterworks from the ’50s and ’60s collections. And they don’t have those patrons, either.
This idea that museums in America are recently beginning to think locally in that way—about who their communities are—it’s a relatively new phenomenon at that large museum level. But for some of these smaller museums, they’ve always been community-focused. It’s interesting to think about who a museum is for and whose histories museums tell.
Julia Halperin: I think that people always feel, rightly, somewhat uncomfortable around the concept of counting because it can reduce complexity to numbers.
But I stand by the real importance of establishing, “Okay, this is the reality, this is what we’re working with”, so that we can move forward and be fully informed. And that was the kind of feedback that I got. I heard from a lot of the institutions, including those who said: “We didn’t have this information before. We counted it for the first time and we were, frankly, pretty embarrassed about the numbers that we gave to you. And now we can use this in conversations with our board and with acquisitions committees to make an argument.”
Charlotte Burns: Yes, I heard that too. A lot of people said that they had taken it to their boards to shape acquisitions. I thought that was really positive.
The art world isn’t very good on facts. There aren’t that many publicly-facing organizations. So, having some actual information I thought was really helpful because it took something that can be a very emotional conversation and made it, still emotional, but factual. You can’t really argue with 2.3%. There isn’t really a light in which that looks good.
Julia Halperin: I think it’s very easy to dismiss these huge, entrenched, systemic problems and just assume that because the last two shows you saw were of work by black artists that everything is changing. I think this was really helpful to say “This is a long game, it’s something people have been working on for decades. It’s cyclical, if you don’t pay attention. And you can’t argue with numbers.”
Charlotte Burns: That was the thing that Hamza Walker said when we were interviewing him, this idea of totemic value, that people can attach a symbolic importance to a singular event—whether that’s a Kerry James Marshall exhibition or a massive auction price for a work by Basquiat. And it is important. Those things are important, they are significant. But they are also outliers.
Which brings us handily on to the next show.
Charlotte Burns: “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” was one of the most talked-about exhibitions of the year. We spoke to the curator, Lynne Cooke, during the exhibition’s D.C. leg at the National Gallery of Art. It’s since traveled to the High Museum in Atlanta and is currently on show at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until March.
Lynne Cooke is a very thoughtful curator and it was a real pleasure to talk to her. She said that curating is about —and I’m quoting her here—”dispensation of privilege.” This show was focused on art made by people on the peripheries, often in marginalized positions because of their race, gender, class or age. Here’s one quote from Lynne about that:
Lynne Cooke: “A great deal of this work was made by African American artists. Their work has simply not entered into the circuits and orbits of the contemporary art world for lack of opportunity, for lack of education, for lack of money. As I said: class, race.”
Charlotte Burns: This is what we were just talking about: this idea of who gets to be seen, who gets to be considered and whose history is told. I think that there is a kind of shift in thinking at museums—this idea that you have to complexify things, you have to make things a little bit more messy and complicated. But, the challenge of that is, how do you catch up on more than 200 years of histories that have been overlooked?
Julia Halperin: Artists are one of the key drivers, and the key advocates, for some of these historically overlooked talents.
Charlotte Burns: Lynne had a great quote about our understanding of creativity as well, and what we prize as a culture, because some of the art on show is incredibly moving in this exhibition. I highly recommend, if anybody can get to LA to go and see it, they should absolutely check it out. Here’s the quote from Lynne:
Lynne Cooke: “So, seeing all of this work utterly changed my sense of who a self-taught artist might be, and what a marginalized creator might do. At the same time, it called into question a whole set of ideas about creativity and the basis on which innovation and originality and exploration take place, or what can be conceptualized by somebody without formal training.”
Charlotte Burns: All of this, really, is a conversation about power: who gets to be heard, who gets to be seen, who gets to be shown. That’s really about who has power. One of the things that’s really necessary if you’re going to broaden up the canon is to give more voice to different people, is to give more equity to people within institutions. The next show that we’re going to discuss is very, very much about power—and conspiracy.
This was a super fun show to record. We were joined by Doug Eklund, who’s a curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Ian Alteveer, who’s also a curator at The Met. They had teamed up to create this show which essentially looked at ways in which artists have reckoned with power, conspiracy and truth in its various manifestations and manipulations from the ’60s forward.
The show is split into two. The first half grapples with artists who kind of hew to the record. The second half is what Doug terms as the “fever dreams of the disaffected”. It covers various events in American history, from Watergate to the assassination of JFK, RFK, MLK and the US government’s handling of the AIDS crisis. It’s the first major exhibition on this topic to take place in a US museum. Here’s what the two curators had to say:
Doug Eklund: “It’s kind of like the chaos and anxiety of now is coming to conscious understanding of these connections, and so that’s part of the realization. It’s the positive side to the negative—which is that everyone is a conspiracy theorist and freaking out. But the other side is that everyone is now aware of the webs that we’re all caught in. We’re in a difficult place.”
Ian Alteveer: “Skeins of influence: everybody from the Clintons to the Bin Ladins to multi-national offshore banks. And you can spend hours looking at those drawings. You might realize your friend’s father is there somewhere in that mix.”
Charlotte Burns: Part of the power that’s reckoned with is the institutions, of course. The idea that any museum is a neutral space is questioned in this show. Some of the artists basically jump up and down on that hinge and push it open.
Julia Halperin: Just to broaden it out a little bit, I think that was also one of the major themes of the year for institutions. We’re in a moment where we’re seeing institutions be a lot more critical of themselves, maybe trying to get out ahead of criticism, but also just more reflective about what their role is and what their responsibility is in presenting complicated material.
Charlotte Burns: Also, we’ve come off the back of an unprecedented boom in museums in terms of building collections, building new buildings, opening more museums. There was a moment in which it seemed like perhaps you were just going to travel from city to city and see the same kind of stuff. And that seems to be being complicated.
What do you have to offer that’s unique? How are you going to attract your audiences, absolutely, but also your patrons? And so, you have to probably diversify.
Julia Halperin: Now just get museums to tell that to art fairs. And we’ll be in a better situation.
Charlotte Burns: Yes? In what way?
Julia Halperin: Well, I think this is something that has come up, I think, in a lot of conversations about the market especially this year with art fairs. There’s been a proliferation, we’ve become overrun with them. It’s stretching dealers to the brink and in some cases making their businesses unsustainable.
How do we make it more sustainable for dealers? And how do we make it more valuable for visitors, so you’re getting something unique instead of traveling from convention center to convention center and seeing the same five things in the same mix-and-match chocolate-box-booths everywhere?
Charlotte Burns: I think it’s just a moment of change. It’s still shaking out. I think in 2019 we’re going to see more of that: people being more deliberate in their choices.
Julia Halperin: And I think you’re seeing similar kinds of shifts towards choosiness in the auctions as well.
Charlotte Burns: Part of this is about supply. The problem is always supply and we’re just getting more and more and more concentrated in the market on the top. We started doing podcasts about the auctions with Allan and with Nicholas Maclean, who is a dealer in the London and New York dealership Eykyn Maclean.
Allan Schwartzman: “It is a sign that the market is starved for broadening what it sees as valuable. This is a big triumph; this is a turning point in perception.”
Nicholas Maclean: “I couldn’t help but feel that, maybe, there was actually a little bit speculation has been going on… It’s another thing saying: ‘I’m here as a white collector looking at this very interesting artist, but really about an era I don’t know particularly well. But I can see that he’s a really good artist and his market is clearly going to go places.’”
Julia Halperin: I think Nick’s point about speculation is important. It’s something that came up a lot in my conversations for our collaboration. It’s an anxiety about whether everybody who’s getting into this game right now is fully committed to supporting the legacy of these artists and not just trying to flip something and make a quick buck, because it seems like something is heating up really quickly.
Charlotte Burns: To be realistic about it, of course you’re going to have everything. There are certain collectors who just want to make a profit at the top in that quick flipping thing, like: “The trend is women, let’s get into the women market!” There is something cynical about that, absolutely, but I mean, that’s the thornier thing: do you need a person’s politics to align with the artist that they’re buying?
Julia Halperin: I don’t think you do. But I do think that it creates some challenging dynamics where if an artist’s work goes from being $40,000 and all of a sudden, within a matter of months, you can get it for $700,000, that prices out a good portion of institutional buying as well as, maybe, some collectors who are planning to assemble collections to donate to institutions.
The thing that was striking to me from talking to people was how quickly some of these artists went from being underpriced to impossible to get. I don’t know how to feel about that.
I want artists who are important to be making money but, at the same time, there is this thing that makes me feel weird about anytime that a work of art is being flipped for profit, and also where the identity of the maker seems to be part of the motivation for speculation.
Charlotte Burns: Because the artist usually suffers. If the market goes up too fast, too quickly—too fast and too furious—then it burns. It takes an artist a long time to recover from that, whether that’s their pricing or whether their collector base was an unstable collector base that isn’t in it for the long term. Or whether it’s just that the artist got so overwhelmed by the demand for a particular body of work that either they couldn’t shift in their practice, or their gallery or their market couldn’t shift interest into other bodies of works. Then they are in danger of becoming essentially one-hit wonders.
It’s definitely problematic and that’s why you need galleries. This year, you did a great market report and you asked me to write about some case studies. One of them was Njideka Akunyili Crosby and we spoke about the huge demand for her work over the last couple of years.
I love her work. I remember seeing it in Miami a few years ago and feeling it was very, very different than the work I was seeing elsewhere around the fair, which was really at the peak of that “Zombie formalism”.
Her work is very textured, it’s figurative, it’s very handcrafted and large. It’s telling her personal narrative. There’s collage. It’s got a very particular aesthetic.
And they’ve been prioritizing institutional sales. So, if you’re just a great private collector who doesn’t want to give it to an institution, you’re not the top of that list. So you may make a decision when that work comes up for auction. That’s what auctions, when they’re successful, do. They’re very event-driven, they give people opportunity to access something then and then only. And if more than one person wants to do that, it can lead to big prices.
Julia Halperin: Yes, I think that’s true, especially for artists like Crosby. I think there are other dynamics with artists like Howardena Pindell, who’s another podcast guest, where a lot of the activity is taking place on the private market and there is a dynamic where there’s been serious price jumps and so certain institutions may not have access to it as they might have in the past.
Charlotte Burns: But why didn’t they take the opportunity in the past—
Julia Halperin: Well, yes.
Charlotte Burns: —Why are they taking notice now? Are they taking notice because of the market? That’s the chicken and the egg question—
Julia Halperin: That’s the question, that’s the issue.
Charlotte Burns: —If this work has been undervalued for so long then, especially in the major institutions, people are struggling to catch up. And actually, if you were ahead of that curve, you’re not going to be in that position.
The market is part of that puzzle, but it isn’t the only part of that puzzle. If the institutions had been there earlier, then they wouldn’t be suffering when the market overshoots.
Julia Halperin: Right. There are moments where the market pushes museums to act, where they recognize value because they might be pushed to recognize value because of a change in the market. And there are moments where the reverse happens, where museums do the scholarly work and the market takes notice of that.
Charlotte Burns: Let’s move on to nicer, calmer territories here, which is the world of art criticism. We had two great critics on the show this year: Jerry Saltz who is New York magazine’s senior art critic, and Roberta Smith who is the co-chief art critic of The New York Times.
Jerry is probably the most well-known art writer working today. His twitter boasts more than 500,000 followers, and he makes active use of his internet presence. He is sort of a marvel, I think, that Jerry more than anybody else in the art world figured out how to use social media. Working at home on his own, surrounded by books, he reinvigorated the idea of who had a platform.
He was fascinating talking about it. Here’s some quotes from Jerry, I’ll let him talk for himself:
Jerry Saltz: “There’s an asshole-ness about my second self and probably my first self that I just can’t get rid of. I try to curb it, and then it pops right up. It’s a terrible thing.”
“Now, it helps that I have elephant skin. I Google my name once a day and see all the terrible things people write about me.”
“Doesn’t mean criticism’s dead. On the contrary, criticism is waking up again. I see more and more people taking matters into their own hands, doing what you’re doing, doing a podcast, writing idiot things like me online, on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, whatever it takes to get through.”
Julia Halperin: Both Banksy and Jerry are the ones that my friends outside the art world ask me about or are really excited about. When we ran into Jerry at the Whitney once and he started talking to my friends about what works of art they hated and loved.
He was very sympathetic to my friend who just didn’t get this work by Nam June Paik. She was so excited that he agreed with her. It was like meeting a celebrity and having the celebrity be like, “I feel this exact same way.”
Charlotte Burns: He is, he’s the art world celebrity. We were invited by the Hirshhorn Museum in D.C., to do a talk, it’s “Critics in Conversation”. I interviewed Jerry on the stage, and it was like watching a master at work. He’s a performer. He was up and down, he was really working the crowd—people felt that they could talk to him. That barrier that people often feel about the art world—feeling intimidated or like they don’t know what to say—Jerry goes out of his way to break that barrier down. At the end of it, I could literally barely say goodbye to Jerry because he was swamped by people taking selfies with him.
He’s so committed to art and he’s so committed to opening up to people, and he’s sort of a provocateur. He wants to make a conversation—and he can do that all by himself, which is really fascinating. I don’t know anyone else who can do that, just log on and steer a conversation.
Julia Halperin: Yes.
Charlotte Burns: We also had a conversation with Roberta Smith, who we are both huge fans of. She’s an amazing writer. Jerry and Roberta, this is an interesting fact, were the two most popular shows that we did all year. Roberta is a co-chief art critic for The New York Times and a lecturer on contemporary art.
She discussed the ways in which criticism and media have changed but says essentially, her role is exactly the same: The readers are the engine in her work. The readers are the focus. Here’s Roberta.
Roberta Smith: “I want to help people see art and have a new appreciation of what they’re seeing”
“I would say all art that’s middling-to-great is a strike for freedom, is an expression of liberty… It is somebody asserting themselves in a new way. And that kind of newness, you can hear it in jazz, you can see it in painting. Most of ourselves have the potential for newness.”
“Whatever gripes you have with the art world—and we all have them—this is the most open it’s ever been… I can’t imagine writing in any other time than this, when there’s this kind of explosion.”
Julia Halperin: I think it’s very interesting that the only guest more popular than Jerry was Roberta. I think we talked about Jerry as this populist figure, but he often puts himself in his writing and puts himself in his criticism.
Charlotte Burns: Well, he won a Pulitzer Prize this year for that great piece he did on “My Life as a Failed Artist”—
Julia Halperin: Exactly—
Charlotte Burns: —which is Jerry talking about how he used to be an artist. Then he gave up being an artist, and then he found some of his old artworks and he began getting excited. He describes really well that process of, “Maybe they’re okay actually.”
Then Roberta came in and was like, “No. They’re not, Jerry.” It was like, “Oh yes, I failed as an artist.” I said, “Why did that discourage you?” He’s like, “I trust Roberta’s eye.”
So do thousands of other people!
Julia Halperin: This was so rare, because she so rarely talks about herself and her own career, and how she thinks about and approaches her work. I think it was a really special opportunity to lift the curtain and see how she does what she does.
I think she is so amazingly well-respected. I go to any panel that she’s on, even if it’s about something I know nothing about or have no interest in, just because her presence is so unassuming and yet so commanding. If she’s on a panel with super powerful people, people who love to talk—if she just changes her posture such that you think she’s about to say something, everyone on the panel just shuts up.
She has this kind of gravitas that I think is really rare for a writer today. I think it’s really interesting to hear her talk about how she sees her role as something almost more modest. That she’s not the “voice of our time”, but she’s just telling people what to do with their time.
Charlotte Burns: Yes. “Should you like to, here is some art to go and see.”
Thank you very much for joining me today Julia and thank you to everyone for listening.
I’m sure we will see more of these things— changes in museums, digital swarming, hopefully better ways of coping with that, more criticism hopefully from more and more people, and a bigger broadening of the canon. So, here’s to 2019.
Julia Halperin: Thanks for having me.