The Gray Market Weekly
Seven days in the evolving business of fine art. This week, from regional hunts to failing wings, stories about the changing nature of expansion within the industry...
As the next anchor point in its ongoing expansion into regional fairs, Art Basel proprietor the MCH Group acquired 25.1 percent of art.fair International GmbH and its forthcoming event ART DŪSSELDORF (formerly Cologne's ART.FAIR). Despite one MCH official's lip service to maintaining "friendly, neighborly relations" with nearby players like Art Cologne and Art Brussels, the acquisition immediately transforms the new fair into a possible existential threat. (For a long read on why, check my thoughts here.) Nor is MCH even entirely masking its ambitions. Marco Fazzone, the company's Managing Director of Design & Regional Art Fairs, publicly declared an intention to make ART DŪSSELDORF “the leading regional art fair in Germany, the Benelux region, and the Rhineland” (which, sidenote, will never stop sounding to me like a fantastical world where wizards tutor young lords on how to defend the crown from bloodthirsty orcs).
In my eyes, the most telling aspect of this entire deal concerns art.fair International—or more specifically, its majority shareholders’ spotty track record. Alexander Forbes reports that founders Andreas Lohaus and Walter Gehlen “consistently drew lower-quality galleries and almost exclusively local collectors” to ART.FAIR’s 14 iterations in Cologne. Meanwhile, their other venture together, Düsseldorf Contemporary, “ran for just one edition [in 2007] before closing due to poor sales.” Lohaus and Gehlen have taken pains to declare that ART DŪSSELDORF will be “a totally different concept” than their past fairs. But as I’ve written before, that’s a dubious position for any fair to take, since in this sector standardization and repetition are strengths.
Or at least, they’re strengths if you have the resources and branding firepower for conquest. MCH Group does. And although I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that the organization targeted art.fair International BECAUSE of past weakness, my hunch is that MCH's decision-makers don’t much care about Lohaus and Gehlen's lackluster history. Instead, they know that MCH's reputation and infrastructure will trump all but the most heinous shortcomings of any smaller fair-organizer in which they buy a stake. This is why it’s significant that the pact with art.fair also includes an option for MCH to acquire a majority stake at some point in the future. Strategically, that clause sets up MCH to capitalize on an “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” game plan: take control of an ailing host, make it useful (see: profitable), and––if successful––never return autonomy to the original owners. It’s smart business. But whether it’s a plus for the increasingly bland and consolidated art-fair sector is another conversation entirely. [Artsy]
Breaking + Entering
Courtesy of Spring/Break Art Show.
On Monday, the Spring/Break Art Show, one of the few sources of flavor left in the fair buffet, announced that its 2017 edition would be held in a refreshingly unorthodox location: floors 22 and 23 of the former Condé Nast Building at 4 Times Square. The event's theme will be “Black Mirror," a concept that seems to drape playful self-awareness over an all-too-serious concern with real-world sociocultural issues. And hell, even if that doesn't smell like your cup of dystopia, I'd say Spring/Break is worth a look given that the entire fair even HAS a theme other than “Six Months Ago We Thought the Contents of This Booth Could Sell.”
And yet Spring/Break's choice of venue isn't even necessarily the most unexpected element of its next installment. Nate Freeman points out that the press release acknowledges that “Floors 22 and 23 are provided with the support of The Durst Organization,” a company operated by the clan of New York real-estate moguls who owns 4 Times Square. If I know anything about PR-speak in the art world, this means Spring/Break's proprietors are getting this year's digs for nothing (or, at the very least, a deep discount).
Which raises the obvious question: What does the Durst Organization get out of the deal? For starters, the two floors temporarily housing Spring/Break would otherwise be vacant anyway, so it's not as if the Dursts are really losing any money in the trade. More important, though, is the fact that the fair will attract at least some amount of wealthy business owners from around the globe, especially since (as with fellow smaller New York fairs like Independent and Moving Image) the event is scheduled to benefit from the larger gravitational pull of Armory Week. I suspect The Durst Organization hopes that one or more of these clients leaves 4 Times Square with a serious interest in leasing some of the available property, not just acquiring some new work. That makes its "support" of Spring/Break another example of corporate America's manic efforts to leverage the cool of contemporary art into valuable access to an aloof high-end clientele. But kudos to Spring/Break's execs for recognizing that they could leverage corporate America right back for their own purposes. [ARTnews]
Course of Empire
Finally this week, the Met advanced boldly onto the digital frontier by using public-domain dedication CC0 1.0 Universal to liberate over 375,000 images of its collection from all copyright restrictions. As Claire Voon relays, the museum's new Open Access policy permits anyone with internet access to "copy, remix, and distribute all of these artworks for any use," whether recreational, educational, or even commercial. The Met also licensed the same treasure chest of images to external platforms including Creative Commons, Pinterest, and Wikimedia Commons. In this last case, the museum's reach will extend even further with the help of Richard Knipel, the institution's inaugural Wikipedian in Residence, who will be "integrating [the images] within Wikimedia projects" and collaborating with other users on related metadata documentation and article refinement.
While I would have enthusiastically endorsed this initiative anyway, the Met's latest online strategy looks especially intelligent in light of last month's report that its $600M architectural expansion may be delayed for up to seven years. At a sliver of the cost of its new (and newly troubled) physical wing, Open Access and its associated elements should allow the museum to saturate the world's online art consumption to an unprecedented extent. Approving commercial use of its images even allows the Met's brand to penetrate into the for-profit sector like never before. And while this intangible growth may not translate into revenue immediately, I'm bullish about the way it positions the museum for the next generation of fans, artists, and donors alike. [Hyperallergic]
That’s all for this edition. Til next time, remember: In this market, if you're not expanding your presence, you're contracting––whether you realize it or not.