Art Activity but No Art Business
First World Art Market Conference
Friday and Saturday, October 29–30, 1976
New School of Social Research, New York
Artworkers News also covered the Art Market Conference. Its report [from Gerald Marzorati] featured other speakers and issues, while showing that what seems witty to one reporter may appear distraught to another—although a bounder is still a bounder.
Speakers: Milton Esterow, Thomas Hoving, Thomas Messer, Clyde Newhouse, Leo Castelli, Ivan Karp, Ruth Braunstein, George LeMaistre, Rubin Gorewitz, Deborah Remington, Robert Indiana, and others
“Works of art of course cannot be compared to stocks and bonds,” warned Milton Esterow as he opened the first day’s events.
The keynote address, delivered by Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, bounded quickly across the history of museum art buying in the United States and settled on the future role of the art museum. According to Hoving, whose own museum has escaped the financial crunch plaguing art institutions in the 1970s (the Met budget showed a modest surplus this year), all is changing for the better. He foresees an emerging “technotronic era” which will not, as Orwell warned, snuff out creativity, but enhance it.
“Our Western artistic manifestations will tend to diminish in importance, and we will begin to recognize a multiplicity of centers and styles,” he said, adding that the tastes of a few critics and a small group of curators won’t wield the power they do today. Hoving, whose cry for a larger art public and “museum without walls” seemed to leave many in the audience cold, concluded by predicting a greater role for art museums, proclaiming that art could become “the broadest and most powerful communicator” in history.
His exuberant optimism was countered later in the day by the somewhat distraught remarks of Thomas Messer, director of the Guggenheim Museum, who noted that if the economy remains in its present condition, museums might have to forego collecting and concentrate their energies on conservation. “Museum directors may well be institutionalized dealers in the future, trading and deaccessioning to get new works and funds,” Messer said. He has guided all buying and selling at the Guggenheim since the early ’60s and promised to remain “an activist,” seeking services and funds from all available sources.
For the remainder of the opening-day session, two panels discussed specifics of the art market. Though all the dealers agreed that the boom in art buying of the 1960s is over, most hastened to add that the present mood of the market is a healthy one. Members of the panel, who collectively make up what one reporter termed “the sheiks of the oil-on-canvas market,” emphasized the importance of the quality dealer (usually pointing to each other), the seller with a good reputation, and the importance of the dealer to the history of art. “Every great collection has been formed by a dealer,” boasted Clyde Newhouse, president of the Art Dealers Association and third-generation gallery owner.
“They’re a monopoly—it’s that simple,” commented a young art consultant attending the conference as a reporter for Wall Street Weekly. “Price fixing is a given and 100 percent profits are commonplace.”
At the afternoon panel, “What’s Happening in Contemporary Art,” discussion once again centered on the difference between the market of the 1960s and 1970s. “I’m pessimistic,” offered Leo Castelli, who amassed a fortune over the last decade through the sale of works by such contemporary heavyweights as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. “There is art activity,” he added, ignoring the audience’s mock sympathy, “but no art business.”
Ivan Karp, calling himself the only “downtown” gallery owner on the panel, accused fellow dealers of ignoring the surge of creativity among younger, lesser-known artists, whose work Karp claimed to spend “four hours a day” examining. The most outspoken member of the panel, Karp also denounced the auctioning of art (“the process distorts prices”), the role of critics, and the validity of the conference itself, since, in his words “there is no art market—my artists don’t sell a thing.” Karp, unlike many of his peers, didn’t reap a fortune in Abstract Expressionism and Pop art and therefore had no reason to bemoan the current scene.
The four out-of-town dealers from Chicago, Dallas, Boston, and San Francisco made few comments, as talk centered on New York gossip. The one issue which finally involved the entire group stemmed from Castelli’s assertion that it remains “essential” for all artists who take their work seriously to come to Manhattan.
“Nonsense. I just don’t believe that,” snapped Ruth Braunstein of San Francisco, who had drawn applause for noting the lack of women speakers. “If an artist feels he should be in New York, then he should be. If not, that’s fine too.”
The audience seemed more interested in hot tips and inside information than discussion of trends and comparisons. “What’s the best buy in modern American Art?” read one question put to Castelli, who refused to respond to that and others he said could only be answered speculatively. Most dealers noted, however, that such advice is usually given to customers as part of the rationale for buying a particular work.
“Let’s face it,” said a young Parsons art student working as an usher. “These characters paid a couple hundred bucks to learn how to make more. It’s no different from buying a scratch sheet at the racetrack.”
The second day began with an address by George A. LeMaistre, director of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. Outlining the expanding role of banks in the art market, he said most banks remain hesitant to loan money for purchasing art. He listed some ways bankers’ fears might be assuaged. For instance, one Chicago bank, rather than lending exclusively to collectors, extends credit to artists themselves, usually to sculptors for cost of materials.
In the afternoon panel on artists’ rights, discussion, heated at times, focused on recent legislation in California guaranteeing artists a 5 percent royalty on work resold for over $1,000. Rubin Gorewitz, accountant and adviser to artists and art groups, said the law, which he helped draft, “will help the artist and help everyone else five times more.”
Artist Deborah Remington doubted this, pointing out that there is no mechanism for enforcement. ‘‘I’d have to sue for my money,” she said, adding angrily, “It’s an elitist law anyway.” Only artists of great stature, “the Chagalls and Mirós,” would benefit, because only they have “secondary markets.” “Where we need help is when the artist is young and struggling,” Remington said, “not after he’s getting six figures.”
Robert Indiana, who spoke little during the royalty law discussion, emphasized that the real issue is the status of the artist in America. “An artist is a nonperson, a nonentity—just look at a museum board and see if you can find an artist. They’re not even accepted by those in the art world.” Indiana also was critical of American copyright laws, which, he said, are the primary hazard for visual artists. “The copyright laws have been the tragedy of my own life,” he lamented, referring to his LOVE painting, which was reproduced in thousands of posters without his permission and without royalties.
Both artists agreed that the country needs a federal “cabinet level” department of cultural affairs to give art a higher priority in the national life.
In Terms Of count: unknown
Written by Gerald Marzorati, this review appeared in Artworkers News 6, no. 7 (November 1976); and reprinted in Judy Seigel, ed., Mutiny and the Mainstream: Talk That Changed Art, 1975–1990 (New York: Midmarch Arts Press, 1992), 49–50. In Terms Of thanks Midmarch Arts Press for permission to republish this review.