Theater of Exhibitions, a slender new book by Jens Hoffmann published by Sternberg Press, offers fifteen brief chapters on curatorial work. While Hoffmann, a 41-year-old curator, writer, and deputy director of exhibitions and programs at the Jewish Museum in New York, rarely mentions specific works of art, he discusses his own exhibitions and criticizes—in a casual way—the alliance between museums and the wealthy, the blandness of international biennials, the overproduction of artists, and the extension of curatorial work into publications, conferences, screenings, and workshops. Unlike Hans-Ulrich Obrist, whose recent reflections on the profession were published in Ways of Curating, Hoffmann is not a storyteller. Instead he writes gently provocative essays that immediately make you agree or disagree with him.
Not only is art alive, it is thriving, was the assessment given by some of the nation’s foremost museum officials, art dealers, and artists to some four hundred persons at the first World Art Market Conference over the weekend. “Far from being less pertinent, the fine arts and the art museum will become more important,” declared Thomas P. F. Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Art is a conveyer of status, a vocabulary of power. Men and women of wealth and influence, after they have acquired their money and power, need signs and symbols of their importance. Collecting art is often a way to gain entry into a desired social stratum. How do dealers “make a market” in a living artist’s work?
Titled “What Price Art,” and provocatively subtitled “The Economics of Art: An Agenda for the Future,” the conference promised to explore the economics of the visual arts market, with practical details on costs and price structure provided by “national experts in economics, finance, law, public policy, art and journalism.”
The question “How the Market Gives Form to Art” is one I ask not at all cynically. I think it’s the question of the ’80s and a difficult one to answer. My premise is that the drastic change in the art market over the last twenty years has effected a change in the condition of the artist as modernism defined it, that is, as outsider. The artist’s life is still difficult, the speculative nature of his or her work remains the same, generating insecurity and so providing a continuum with earlier times. However, today, opportunities are far more numerous than they were two decades ago and this seems to have reduced the artist’s identification with the marginal.
In April 1987, New York magazine ran a story on “Art Fever,” picturing socialite art collectors on the cover and evoking the hum of art rapidly transmuting into gold in the text. By 1989 the business press was routinely showing graphs that proved the superiority of art over stocks as long-term investments, and art-talk events across the land took on the flavor of “Cashing In”—a panel held, please note, at a business college.
“Is it ethical for an artist to make work that sells?” was the first question asked of Randy Cohen, who responded by saying that terms like “sincerity” and “ethics” do not apply in aesthetic situations—you judge an artwork on its own merits. He then asked the room, “Is it shameful to produce work that people enjoy?” If a person has an urge to make money, he mused, then art is a quirky field in which to earn a million.
Moderated by the painter Annika Connor, “Art outside the Gallery” addressed the ways in which savvy promoters can reach audiences for art beyond the traditional white cube. Connor activated the entrepreneurial side of her practice ten years ago, after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with many unanswered questions about the workings of the art world. Back then professional development and advice for artists, through books, workshops, and classes, had not yet fully developed into the cottage industry it is today.
The art market prospered in the Dutch Golden Age, as Rembrandt van Rijn, Johannes Vermeer, and Gerard Dou, among many others, began to meet a growing demand for portraits, still lifes, genre scenes, and landscapes. “Most pictures were bought by private, middle-class citizens, known as burghers, from modest artisans to wealthy regents,” writes Mariët Westermann in A Worldly Art: The Dutch Republic, 1585–1718 (1996). Even laborers and peasants, she notes, likely owned “a few mediocre prints.”