Art Activity but No Art Business

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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, 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.

Art Market Booming, Dealers Say

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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.

Speculate in Art? Not Us!

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Billed as “The First World Art Market Conference,” the show was, as John Everett, president of the New School, said in his opening remarks, about the “business of art.” It appeared to be mostly a media event. The press was given the three front rows, fussed over with TLC. Some four hundred others, dealers, and collectors from around the country, and a few artists hoping to learn about “business,” paid $200 each to see and hear the superstars of the art market. Those expecting a clear view of the crystal ball—specific investment advice—were disappointed. But they got lots of encouragement and word that the art market is very good these days.

What Price Art? A Market of Mirrors

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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?

The Art Talk That Ate New York

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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.”

Hitting Rock Bottom

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“Welcome to the Armory Show TED Talks,” joked Christian Viveros-Fauné, a New York–based art critic who was the moderator of today’s panel. He said that everyone onstage for “From the Bottom Up: Rethinking Art Galleries in a Commodity and Event Dominated Ecosystem” is or was involved in exhibiting in a gallery situation or with an art fair, except for Georgina Adam, a columnist for the Financial Times and BBC.com and an editor-at-large for the Art Newspaper. If only the panel had been, like a TED Talk, uplifting and inspirational. When the dust settled, the speakers neither established a historical assessment of the art fair’s ascendance over the past twenty years, nor did they interrogate—and I choose this word purposefully because of Viveros-Fauné recent cynical, under researched rants—the perceived state of the art market and art world. While I recognize the panelists witnessed the rise of the art fair firsthand, their recollections of the recent past were grounded in anecdote, hearsay, and received wisdom.

The Market Is the Moment

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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.

The Fever Peaks

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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.

First, Do No Harm

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“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.

Flowers and a Nasty Note

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Halfway through this conversation, the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith was asked, “How do you choose what to write about?” She responded by stating that it’s the art she really likes or dislikes, no matter if the artist is super popular or under recognized. “I’m interested in the unit of a show,” she noted, yet “we’re in this post-post-post period.” Although Smith gravitates toward “rematerialized objects,” a play on Lucy R. Lippard’s famous notion, “any kind of work can be made now.” This was all good news for the crowd of fifty-plus that gathered in a crit room at the New York Academy of Art, a small graduate school known for figurative and representational work.