The Gray Market Weekly
Seven days in the evolving business of fine art — This week, stories that knowingly or unknowingly steered clear of the larger issue...
HOOK, LINE, AND SINKER
A decade removed from his last major exhibition of new work, one-time prodigy turned art-industry punching bag Damien Hirst swung back into the spotlight a few days ago, as VIPs and press were welcomed inside "Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable," his supersized dual exhibition at François Pinault's Palazzo Grassi and Punta della Dogana. Carol Vogel––a reclamation project all her own, after being capsized by plagiarism accusations in 2014––captained the dominant narrative with a major Times feature based on two interwoven questions: Will major collectors return to sea with the once-mighty artist after his rampant overproduction left them adrift post-recession? Or will this monumental gamble––a series of epic-scale bronze sculptures mythologized to have been dredged up from an ancient shipwreck––finally seal his career inside a watery grave?
It would be foolhardy to pretend Hirst's entire market can ever be bulletproof again. (Woe to the hundreds, if not thousands, of collectors duped into overpaying for butterfly works over the decades.) But it would be much more naive to swallow this alleged high-stakes comeback narrative hook, line, and sinker. We're really supposed to believe that Hirst's future is still up in the air when he already has two of the world's five mega-galleries (Gagosian and White Cube) backing him again, colossal collectors like Pinault and Stefan Edlis pimping their new acquisitions in coy press quotes, and curatorial supernovas like Nicholas Serota and Francesco Bonami stroking his genius in the New York Times? If you want my assessment, Hirst's story has about as much potential for gripping drama left in it as the 1st quarter of the Puppy Bowl.
The grand irony here is that, after spending most of the past 10 years gleefully carving the word "huckster" into Hirst's forehead, so much of the art world is once again regurgitating his talking points as if they're informed critique. We're even all lapsing into the obvious "shipwreck/excavation" metaphors he telegraphed for us! In that sense, the art industry largely threatens to fall into the same trap that dragged under so much of the traditional media in its mishandling of spin doctors like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage in 2016. What the people indulging this "will he or won't he?" fantasy fail to see is that, through them, Hirst is controlling the narrative... and when you control the narrative, you control reality. More than any ridiculous coral-laden sculptures of Pharrell Williams as a pharaoh, that principle has the artist poised to return to the market's peak very soon. In fact, headlines be damned, I would wager that he's already there. [The New York Times]
Hydra and Kali "discovered" by divers (Photo: Christoph Gerigk ©Damien Hirst and Science Ltd.)
'V' FOR 'VALUES'
While the NEA continued pacing on death row in hope of salvation from Trump's budget guillotine, Eileen Kinsella chronicled philanthropist Bridgitt Evans's attempt to fill a segment of the American public patronage void. Evans's nonprofit, the VIA Art Fund, pools money from "more than 50 contributing fund partners" in the US "who meet twice a year to review and vote on grant proposals." Those proposals range from art production to curatorial research to public-exhibition funding (and more). Kinsella reports that VIA disbursed $640,000 in grants in 2016, and has contributed $1.85M total to the visual arts since its launch in 2013. In a vacuum, it's a feel-good, do-good story––one that, in Evans's words, comes when "essential" arts funding has never been "so urgent and so meaningful."
And yet it's misleading to buy into the dream that private funding would ever truly substitute for the public variety. The issue isn't just scale. (Although that too is a concern, as Kinsella points out that the NEA's 2016 appropriations totaled $148M, or about 231X VIA's one-year impact.) Instead, the problem is targeting. The NEA largely funds projects and initiatives with little to no interaction with the established art market, and many of its beneficiaries are based in middle-American communities all but invisible to wealthy coastal patrons. In contrast, Kinsella mentions that "most" of VIA's funding partners "are already collectors," and I would argue that many of their philanthropic choices reflect as much. Sorting through their Grants in Action page, I have to ask whether the arts initiatives most in need of funding in these "urgent" times are blue-chip productions like Mark Bradford's Venice Biennale pavilion, Robert Irwin's permanent installation in Marfa, and Doug Aitken's 2014 "nomadic happening" Station to Station––which, as Melena Ryzik noted years ago, "was financed to the tune of seven figures by Levi's, along with Moog and other sponsors."
To be clear, I'm not trying to demonize Evans or her organization. Some of their giving certainly benefits the public good and reaches individuals/entities below the elite tier. But their record also demonstrates a troubling reality lost in our ever-mounting faith in private-sector panaceas: When you turn over the responsibility of public arts funding to big-time collectors, they still tend to think like big-time collectors. And as the NEA continues its decades-long tumble toward oblivion, that mentality doesn't bode well for the many unglamorous yet valuable arts programs dying of thirst in the space between America's arts capitals. [artnet News]
Bridgitt Evans. Photo by Mark Ostow
On Wednesday, a New York judge refused to dismiss a lawsuit brought by a consortium of street artists against the developers behind the demolition of Long Island City graf landmark 5 Pointz. But due to the terms of the Visual Artists Rights Act (VARA), a jury will likely decide whether the court-labeled "aerosol artists" receive monetary damages largely based on whether their destroyed artworks achieved "recognized stature" in the eyes of supposed industry experts. Zooming out, this question reveals the degree to which art is ensconced as an insider's niche, especially here in the US. It isn't just that self-interested experts work daily to reinforce the perception that art depends on their opinions. It's that our legislators have literally made their judgments on this topic the law of the land. [Artsy]
Photo by Pelle Sten, via Flickr
THE SPACE RACE, CONT'D
Finally this week, on the gallery sprawl tip: David Zwirner announced his homecoming to the Upper East Side, via a new project space set to open this fall at 34 E. 69th St––the soon-to-be-vacated headquarters of Richard L. Feigen & Co., as well as the next-door neighbor to the former haunt of Zwirner & Wirth. The new location will give Zwirner's solo empire three footholds in New York and one in London, with a new space slated to debut in Hong Kong in 2018. Meanwhile, Victoria Miro will open up shop in Venice next month, in the building that long housed Bruna Aickelin's Galleria Il Capricorno. The space will be Miro's third overall and her first outside London. Like Zwirner's assumption of another time-tested gallery location, Miro's (probably wise) choice to take over Aickelin's real estate tacitly underscores the value of tradition in the art trade. Regardless of any other changes in the world at large, the best path to sustained success is still to go where you know the work looks good and the wealthy want to spend their time (and money). And I doubt that strategy will ever stop making sense.
That’s all for this edition. Til next time, remember the wisdom of Norman Vincent Peale: The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.