Is the killer art market killing art? Yes. No. Maybe. Well, it depends on whom you ask. The Art Dealers Association of America, ironically, thought it was fitting to raise this question at the Museum of Modern Art during a recent Saturday morning panel discussion, conveniently scheduled two hours before the gates at the Armory fair opened for the day’s sales.
ADAA invited Allan Schwartzman, an art advisor, to moderate the prestigious panel of curators, critics and dealers to discuss the very contentious matter. Roberta Smith, art critic for the New York Times; Paul Schimmel, Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles; Connie Butler, Chief Curator of Drawings at The Museum of Modern Art; Gavin Brown, a gallery owner based in New York; Amanda Sharp, Co-director Frieze Art Fair, London and Gordon VeneKlasen, Michael Werner’s gallery director, were all there to contribute their expertise, insights and personal stories to get to the bottom of the rhetorical question.
Schwartzman began the panel discussion with a soliloquy about his own past in the art world in an attempt to make a distinction between the current art market and the purer, quainter one of the ’70s. As a rebuttal, Roberta Smith dismissed the perception that this moment is exclusive, and to quit reminiscing about the “good old days” of the 1970’s art world. Smith pointed out that we have been through this before, this flush moment is cyclical and art has always been a commodity fueled on unexamined desire. Smith likened the unregulated art market to an illusion or a “mirage in motion” – after the bubble bursts the wannabes (artists and collectors) will fall away, and the real ones will remain. Gavin Brown, on the other hand, believed money and art are separate entities, functioning in their own spheres and not affecting the other. Brown thought the question raised by the panel is moot because art cannot be killed; artists (or his artists) don’t think of money while working alone in their studios, or at least they shouldn’t if they want to survive and remain relevant. Brown also mentioned how dealers are now doing the job of the curators in discovering and exhibiting talent, and followed that by saying how the art fair model is the template for future exhibitions. (Read: curators and museums are what have been killed).
Strangely, not a single artist or collector was invited to sit on the panel to defend their position, or voice their two-cents. And although the panelists talked a lot about their personal histories, not one examined their own part in feeding the art market. A valid question from an audience member about power and how critics and curators wield it ruffled Smith’s feathers. She denied that her critical judgments in the NY Times makes or breaks careers, and that very few read her words, therefore she has no real power. Really? Another oversight was Schimmel’s own curatorial undertaking, © (Copyright) Murakami, the traveling blockbuster museum exhibition featuring the juxtaposition of the Japanese artist’s work with the French luxury goods designer Louis Vuitton’s fully functioning boutique. Schimmel is doing what any good curator does: he recognizes the desires of the artist and realizes it. If Murakami’s equates the success of his art with selling (which he does), then both the curator and the artist’s priorities are straight.
How about we stop obsessing about the killer market and start paying attention to the art? At the end of the day the speculation focused, fueled and fed by newspapers, museums, auctions, galleries and fairs is not what matters, but the individual practice of every horse (oops, I mean artist) in this race.