The Gray Market Weekly
Seven days in the evolving business of fine art —This week, stories driven by the forces of art-industry attraction...
THE KENNEDY CENTER
In a transition less expected than Caitlyn Jenner, Hauser & Wirth announced on Thursday that it had hired respected New York Times art critic Randy Kennedy as its Director of Special Projects. Kennedy will be tasked with overseeing a variety of in-house “editorial, writing, and documentary initiatives for web and print,” including serving as editor-in-chief of the mega-gallery’s print publication Volume, which has been on ice like a Victorian corpse since Winter 2015.
In his piece on Kennedy’s new role, ARTnews’s Andrew Russeth called the move to the for-profit sector “an exceedingly rare one” for an art journalist to make. But I would respectfully disagree with that assessment. Aside from the two cases Russeth cites as exceptional—scholar Robert Pincus-Witten to Gagosian in the '90s and former Art Newspaper editor Charlotte Burns to Art Agency, Partners' editorial department last year—let’s not forget about Marc Spiegler’s crossover from freelance writer to Art Basel director, Ben Genocchio’s hop from editor-in chief of artnet News to director of The Armory Show, friend of The Gray Market Christian Viveros-Fauné’s journey from Village Voice critic to managing director of the Volta and NEXT art fairs, and Allan Schwarzman’s ascension from scribe-for-hire to market-shaping adviser. And this is to say nothing of the noteworthy figures still doing double duty as dealers and writers, like Kenny Schachter, Adam Lindemann, and to some extent, yours truly.
I would argue that these kinds of professional segues aren’t just much more common in visual art than in other cultural sectors. They also tend to be much more successful. For instance, celebrated film critics Pauline Kael and Elvis Mitchell were both hired to prominent positions at major Hollywood studios, but both flamed out shortly after accepting their offers. (Kael lasted only a few months at Paramount in 1979, and Mitchell allegedly never showed up for his first day at Columbia Pictures in 2005.) In comparison, Spiegler and Schwarzman qualify as two of the most influential figures in the art industry of 2017, while many others flit back and forth between the written word and the sales floor with relative ease.
More important, Hauser’s decision to hire Kennedy is downright logical given his actual responsibilities. The mega-gallery isn't asking him to shape-shift into a sales kraken like they did (against all good sense and historical precedent) with lifetime nonprofiteer Paul Schimmel. Essentially, they’re just asking him to run a branded-content division—a task Kennedy should be well-qualified to execute thanks to his near quarter-century at the Times, which has been particularly adept at building its brand through multimedia lately. In light of in-house storytelling's surge across all industries in recent years, then, Kennedy’s new position feels less like a plot twist than a development more of us probably should have seen coming… and one we should expect to see mimicked elsewhere soon enough. [ARTnews]
MASTER OF HIS DOMAIN
In a much less surprising union of big names, Tuesday saw Louis Vuitton unveil its humbly titled "Masters" line of bags and scarves, all sired by Jeff "Sales Is the Front Line of Morality" Koons. Although the designs are technically interpolations of Koons's infamous "Gazing Ball" paintings, the defining element in each product is the painstaking recreation of a landmark Renaissance or modern work like the Mona Lisa or Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Cypresses –– along with a rendering of the original artist's name in gold or silver block letters about as subtle as martial law. Hilariously, despite a duffel bag full of rhetoric about using the line to mix high and low and “put [Koons's] work on the street”—terminology that sounds a lot more like a euphemism for pimping than the artist or Vuitton apparently realizes—the Masters line will skip e-commerce platforms entirely, appearing only in a select number of physical stores at prices mostly “hover[ing] between $1,000 and $3,000” each, per Vanessa Friedman.
As much as I would enjoy teeing off on either the casual hypocrisy of the marketing or the overwrought, “Mr. Me Too” kitsch of the material—I mean, if you want to mix Old Master influence with flamboyant luxury fashion, just buy Gucci, for God’s sake—I’ll zero in on the re-emergence of one of my pet peeves. Concerning Koons’s side-hustle in luxury retail, Larry Gagosian is quoted as saying, “Jeff is one of the few artists who can step into that water without screwing up his day job.” Here's my question, though: Who are all these unnamed artists who have been cast out of art-industry heaven for slapping their signatures on branded products? Because every time this subject comes up, the names that get touted as exceptions to the alleged rule are ones like Koons, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama, and Andy Warhol––all of whom are both wildly successful in the high-end art trade and widely exhibited in museums and public collections worldwide.
A rational review exposes the lie in the myth of the sell-out. The reality is that the select few artists capable of successfully straddling merchandising and the upper-echelon art market are the only ones who get invited to spread-eagle themselves in the first place. It's not as if Chanel is chasing after Paul McCarthy in a Brinks truck to try to get him to design luxury bags that look like freshly harvested internal organs. The partnership would be equally counterproductive for both parties, because the aesthetic and the clientele simply wouldn't match. Which is exactly why it’s misguided to agonize over the prospect of meaningful art losing its soul to retail: In almost all cases, talent tends not to give itself over to mainstream brands until it’s already stopped producing much work of progressive merit anyway. Koons’s “Masters” line is just more proof that to say otherwise is to kid ourselves. [The New York Times]
EASY AS ABC
On Wednesday Stefan Kobel reported that Art Cologne and abc art berlin contemporary are advancing toward a merger––one in which the ashes of the individual fairs will be compressed into a new diamond (they hope) called Art Berlin. The union is one of only two logical outcomes for smaller, regional providers in a rapidly consolidating world, as I wrote when abc announced it would scale back to "a more concentrated presentation" last September. But the main question remaining is whether even the merger will be enough to protect the German market against the advance of art-fair empires like Art Basel. My guess? Doubtful. [The Art Newspaper]
THE SPACE RACE
Finally this week, Jeffrey Deitch announced that he will bookend his hallowed Wooster Street gallery with a 15,000 square-foot space in Los Angeles. Based on the scarcity of both local industry chatter and local media coverage here in the City of Angels, I feel comfortable saying that New York is a lot more intrigued by this development than Southern California is. I’d wager that the contrasting coastal reactions have something to do with a thick sirloin cut of irony: Deitch is telling the press that he decided to embark on this new adventure in order to present atypically long-running “museum-level shows” at his LA gallery… when he got drummed out of the directorship of MOCA largely because many people felt he wasn’t even presenting museum-level shows at his LA museum. But hey, I'll look forward to reading all about the comeback story in the New York press. [The New York Times]
That’s all for this edition. Til next time, remember: Not all attractions are healthy ones.