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After the Boom, Assessing the Contemporary Art Market in New York: Thoughts and Links

It seems to me that artists should be able to weather a severe recession. Creative types routinely make art anyway, come hell or high water, and the lack of any conventional means of support does not ordinarily diminish the urge to create. Artists like this are in it for the long haul, just like those of us who lose their money in retirement funds but keep it there anyway. Some artists are lucky or bewitching enough to have landed supportive partners. On the other hand, the artists who make art solely for an art market and not for themselves are really business people in artist disguise, and unlike real artists, are too other-directed for their own good. They just want to please the teacher. Real artists work from within and eat cheap food. Artists do what they have to do. They just might not be able to sell anything in the current market.

Still, in a time when commercial galleries start closing and museums fight for more funding, visual artists encounter real problems finding places to exhibit their work. This is true even in good times. Writers and journalists are better off. They may have suffered from the general fall of print media, but the digital means of production and self-publishing online are available to those who work with words and sentences. For example, if you're a writer in need of a publisher, go to the upper right-hand side of this page and click on the words "Create Blog." Filmmakers, at least the ones comfortable with the look of digital conversions, can also find new homes of the net. Much visual art, however, the kind where the work's material qualities matter- i.e. brushstrokes, tactile surfaces, relationship to 3-D space, etc., needs to live in the real world and be seen in person.

While many artists are brilliant in the studio, they're hopeless when the work goes out the door. Many can't talk about it, frame it, explain it, market it, or sell it to anybody. They need a professional intervention. That's when they hope the commercial art market steps in. Then they'll meet all sort of people - dealers, curators, directors, archivists, and assistants, several of whom will make their lives a living nightmare. Many artists need and want galleries, and that's a problem if galleries start closing.

One thing writers and artists share in the current economy is a crisis in value. What are these words worth? What price shall we put on this painting? Writers are ahead of the artists right now, because we've already seen the contraction of the print industry, the place where words exist in a tangible way and where writers were often paid for their work. Now, many writers publish in digital spaces like this one and give words away. Others are remunerated through a base salary with a bonus based on hits and links. Visual artists who often put high price tags on their work haven't wandered into this territory yet.

I've rounded up some recent articles on the current state of the contemporary art market. Compounding the problem, of course, is the state of the global economy and the forecasts for New York's art economy.

"The Boom is Over. Long Live the Art" by Holland Cotter. The New York Times, February 15, 2009. After giving a succinct history of recent contemporary art, Cotter argues that art schools should rethink the standard curriculum and encourage art students to be more interdisciplinary. He also suggests critics need to go back to school to broaden their knowledge and that the art industry should drop its attachment to "art’s traditional analog status."

"Down With the Cube!" by Jerry Saltz. New York Magazine. Feb 8, 2009. On the anniversary exhibit at the White Columns gallery.

"Frieze After the Freeze" by Jerry Saltz. artnet.com. November 3, 2008.

"Recession strategies for commercial art galleries" by Edward Winkleman. artworldsalon.com. January 13, 2009

"Chelsea Dealer Downsizes His Roster." Art Info. February 12, 2009

"Art Dealer Zach Feuer Drops Eight Artists to Weather Recession" by Katya Kazakina (who does good art reporting in general for Bloomberg News). Bloomberg News. February 12, 2009.

For uncertainty about the New York local economy, read "Economists’ Forecast: Chance of Change 100%" by David W. Chen. The New York Times. February 16, 2009

And, for the long view, read Bohemians of the Latin Quarter, by Henry Murger from 1851, a translation of Scènes de la vie de bohème at Project Gutenberg.

Image: "Art and Literature" by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905), 1867, oil on canvas, Arnot Art Museum, Elmira, NY. The artist was wildly successful during his lifetime. This painting would look ten times better in person.

Comments

Anton Deque said…
A timely post. Here in Newcastle upon Tyne England where I now live, we have an exhibition at the Baltic Contemporary Arts Centre – a vast and often underachieving space – on the 'Fluxus'... I was going to write 'movement' but I suspect it was rarely anything so defined. The leading light however was a Lithuanian emigre to the USA, George Macunias. Macunias comes over as a completely committed individual regardless of what one makes of the Fluxus aesthetic (anti-aesthetic might be the more appropriate term to use). I will not intrude on your space and write more about this show and how I feel it relates to your thoughts, but searches using the keywords above will 'reveal all' as they say.

Macunias died young-ish and in poverty regrettably but in galleries on the upper floors Yoko Ono, whose name eclipses Macunias' and that of Fluxus itself on the publicity material for the show, equally evokes the message that as a spectacle, celebrity is everything today in art. Not I think what George was about at all.
Teri Tynes said…
Thanks, Anton, for your generous and smart remarks here. I realized just now about the Baltic Contemporary Arts Centre. I remember seeing an image of a Jenny Holzer installation on the side of the building a few years ago and wondering about the place.

I'd love to see your Fluxus exhibit.

There's been some Fluxus news here in NY. Detroit developer Gilbert Silverman and his wife recently gave their large Fluxus collection to MoMA. This should a wonderful source for future contemplation and study. I would like to know more about George Macunias.
Anton Deque said…
The Baltic show is effectively all the Silverman's archive collection. The Silverman's are – must be – to be thanked for what they have done both to preserve Macunias and Fluxus by making the material more widely available.

I am sure much of Macunias' work and that of his collaborator's is easily dismissable; but I came away thinking he was 'on to something' and it wasn't simply "fame, wealth and beautiful lovers".

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