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How to Fix the Art World, Part 3

HANDWRITTEN TEXT BY ALEXANDER DUMBADZE

HANDWRITTEN TEXT BY ALEXANDER DUMBADZE

Welcome to Part 3 of ‘How to Fix the Art World.’ If you are just now tuning in, here are the links to Parts 1 and 2, and here’s a little background:

Back in August my staff and I embarked on an epic project: we wanted to know what inhabitants of the art world think is wrong with it and how they would fix it. In the ensuing months we spoke with more than 50 individuals—artists and curators, critics and historians, art dealers and an art fair director—to gather a range of perspectives. Some wrote longer essayistic responses; some artists responded with visuals. We finished our research and put the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews to bed on the eve of the U.S. presidential election. Subscribers will receive the print edition later this month. Because some of our respondents wanted to speak about what’s right with the art world, we are posting a portion of the many responses in these days before the Thanksgiving holiday. We hope you will read them with the same great interest, and the same open mind, with which we did when we received them. We hope that you will continue the conversation. —Sarah Douglas, Editor-in-Chief, ARTnews
(Please continue reading the other parts of this feature: part 4.)


 

CONTENTS

Jimmie Durham Gavin Brown
Ruba Katrib Clifford Owens
Jorge Daniel Veneciano Ad Reinhardt
Michelle Grabner Jack Shainman
Tobias Ostrander Kendell Geers
Emma Sulkowicz Wendy Ewald
Cecilia Alemani David Nash
Raqs Media Collective Tom Finkelpearl

 


Jimmie Durham
Artist

Jimmie Durham, Self-Portrait, 1986. ©WHITNEY MUSEUM, N.Y./WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK, PURCHASE, WITH FUNDS FROM THE CONTEMPORARY PAINTING AND SCULPTURE COMMITTEE

Jimmie Durham, Self-Portrait, 1986.

©WHITNEY MUSEUM, N.Y./WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, NEW YORK, PURCHASE, WITH FUNDS FROM THE CONTEMPORARY PAINTING AND SCULPTURE COMMITTEE

I think the world is what is wrong. We are all being led around by money. Whenever I say that, some thoughtless person says, “Don’t you want money?” But the problem is that money has become the criterion for everything. I do not know how much money Laurence Olivier made for his work, nor would the question seem pertinent: we think only of the quality of his acting. In any news outlet, we can read daily who is the highest-paid actor. These actors are not even called actors, they are stars. A most ridiculous way of naming, to call a person a star. Is it because they are large gaseous bodies or because they are far away?

Then, how could that nomenclature slide over into art systems and give us “art stars”? We need to work in ways that contribute to the various communities that we are part of and that therefore we take personal pride in. The criteria for human endeavor must be centered on that sort of success.

I want to say that we should take ourselves seriously, but the world constantly conspires to make us all more stupid. I want better books, better films, better music, better attention given to quality and to intellect, not to monetary value. (Back to top.)


Gavin Brown
Art Dealer

grid_gavinbrown2What is wrong with the art world?
It is in imbalance. Too many artists. Too many galleries. Too much money. Not enough art. Not enough meaning. Not enough matters. And in the world “outside,” we face a crisis of existential proportions. This crisis has no place in the art world of today. Perhaps, then, the art world is a perfect reflection of the current condition: denial in the face of impending tribulations.
 
And how would you fix it?
Imbalance on this scale can probably be “fixed” only through radical rebalance. A do-over of biblical proportions. (Back to top.)


Ruba Katrib
Curator, SculptureCenter

HANDWRITTEN TEXT BY RUBA KATRIB

HANDWRITTEN TEXT BY RUBA KATRIB

The usual: corruption, sexism, racism, delusions of grandeur. But finally, I think we are slowly shedding light on the biases and assumptions that have become entrenched around us, and realizing how we are implicated. To address them, I only hope that we can get away from social media obsessions and inauthentic gestures. Can meaningful critique really be posted on Facebook with a selfie? How much are we using the shallow logics promoted by today’s marketing and celebrity culture to communicate our ideas? Is there space for difference here? How can museums and galleries understand their true position and adapt in this changing environment? Can the art world keep up, could it even lead? I am extra suspicious of following trends now. I think we have to be vigilant about empty gestures. False politics. Reactionary thinking. Power games. We are entering a different time, one that might weed out hype and power mongers to allow more space for rigor and depth, or at least redistribute the balance. And hopefully create a chance to make real changes to address inequities, and not only through press campaigns.

[We need] less stuff and more consideration. Remember that the art is what is powerful. Reconnecting to the love of art is paramount. Think. Enjoy. Be nice, be generous to the people around you. Don’t take yourself so seriously. When the fun leaves art, what’s the point? And I don’t mean the content of art has to be lighthearted, but I think we are doing something really special working here, why turn it into every other grind? We all make up this art world, and if we each chill out, it might be cool again. (Back to top.)


Clifford Owens
Artist

grid_cliffordowens3What is wrong with the art world?
My friend, the late Terry Adkins, would lament that one of the problems in the so-called art world is that many artists are “creatures of (and cowards for) the market.”
 
And how would you fix it?
The problems with the art world are unfixable; it’s a fixed social and market economy of ideas. (Back to top.)


Jorge Daniel Veneciano
Director, Museum of Arts and Design

Call it “unearned pretentiousness.”

Elitism is its salient symptom. It functions like a mask, at times, for vacuity or insecurity—a mask that hides (or vacates) the multihued complexion of aesthetic wealth contributing to art, generally. It is a mask of universalism, witnessed in Eurocentric modernism, for example.

Universals subordinate their adherents. It is in this sense that I reject cultural specificity—as a form of subordination to the nonspecific, the universal. Hence, a museum like El Museo del Barrio [where I was director from 2015 to 2016] is no more or less culturally specific than El MoMA.

The fix? Read José Martí’s “Nuestra América” or José Vasconcelos’s “La raza cósmica,” not literally but for their counter-hegemonic politics. There, you find Latinidad as alternate universal rather than subordinate specificity. Today’s art world continues to be blind to this realization. (Back to top.)


Ad Reinhardt

In the 1950s, Ad Reinhardt (1913–1967), the American artist best known for his black monochrome paintings, came up with his own ways to fix the art world, many of which he expressed through his comics. This chart, which Reinhardt created for the May 1956 issue of ARTnews, reimagines the New York art scene as a mandala, turning the art world into a universe ruled by deities—and museums. (Click to enlarge and explore.)

reinhardt2
© 2016 ESTATE OF AD REINHARDT / ARTISTS RIGHTS SOCIETY (ARS), NEW YORK; COURTESY DAVID ZWIRNER, NEW YORK/LONDON
(Back to top.)



Michelle Grabner
Artist and Curator, Portland2016 biennial

grid_michellegrabnerWhat is wrong with the art world?
The ridiculous schism between the authority of academic critique and the risk-free citations of acritical information that masquerades as interpretation and evaluation in much of art writing. Outside the ivory tower this gulf is unfortunately, albeit effectively, backfilled by market appraisals, and not with the cultural imagination. Interpretation and evaluation in the art world pivot on theory, or press releases.
 
And how would you fix it?
Language that attends to the depth and intensity of our attachment to art. Look to the literary world and you will find engaged, impassioned, dialogic, and capacious evaluation. Only ubiquitous criticality, inside and outside the academy, will keep market evaluations in check. (Back to top.)


Jack Shainman
Art Dealer

One of the issues of the art world can be summed up in a question I am regularly asked, which is, if a work doesn’t sell right away, collectors can get concerned and ask why. Of course this is a sign of a heated market, but it also implies, falsely, that there must be something wrong with a new work that doesn’t sell within the first week of a show. The reality is that some works, for a variety of reasons, take longer to place than others.

Recently, I was listening to a podcast with curator James Meyer and the esteemed art dealer Virginia Dwan; Dwan was recalling that when she first showed Rauschenberg’s Combines, they didn’t sell. She even sent them to Texas to try to entice buyers there, but ultimately she had to return them to Leo Castelli. Now of course those pieces are hailed as a major body of work! This is obviously a dramatic example, but it’s important to view today’s fast-paced, much-hyped market through the lens of perspective and historical distance. I try to encourage collectors to trust their instincts and ignore the buzz. Collecting, after all, is so personal, and comes down to really loving and living with the work. (Back to top.)


Tobias Ostrander
Chief Curator and Deputy Director for Curatorial Affairs, Pérez Art Museum, Miami

grid_tobiasWhat is wrong with the art world?
Homogenization within institutional programming.
 
And how would you fix it?
Thinking more creatively about site-specific programming, tying exhibitions to institutional context/site, and thinking regionally. (Back to top.)
 


Kendell Geers
Artist

Kendell Geers, Rack, 2015. COURTESY STEPHEN FRIEDMAN GALLERY, LONDON

Kendell Geers, Rack, 2015.

COURTESY STEPHEN FRIEDMAN GALLERY, LONDON

The problem with asking “what is wrong with the art world[?]” is that there is no such thing as an art world. There are many art worlds overlapping, and it has become a bad habit to imagine that the exclusive club of auction houses and investment art is anything but the folk art of a small but powerful economic and social elite club. From this point of view art is read through its economic value only, and art cannot afford any content beyond its price tag and investment potential.

Unfortunately, this reading has confused too many museums, magazines, curators, critics, galleries, and collectors, blinding them to everything but the price of art. Some great art is valued below market and some great art is valued above, but the market is nothing but a market. Auction records and price tags have nothing to do with art, and today’s top-selling artist will be thrown out with the dishwater once the market has laundered its last bill.

Since there are many art worlds, nothing needs to be fixed. We get the art we deserve and if we deserve “get it” art, we have obviously made a bad investment. To quote Bruce Nauman, “SREKCUF REHTOM NOITNETTA YAP.” (Back to top.)


Emma Sulkowicz
Artist

grid_emmasWhat is wrong with the art world?
Opacity. The number of shows, exhibitions, and panels that an artist is featured in is often directly proportional to that artist’s connectedness in the art world. In school, we learn to make sensitive, meaningful, moving art. We are told that our work alone will earn opportunities. We graduate unprepared for the art world. It comes down to privilege—educational, sexual, financial, racial, and otherwise. Those with the most privilege get to interact with those who have power in the art world.
 
And how would you fix it?
Transparency. We should demystify the art world, and be open about the fact that the people with the most power tend to be the most privileged. I would also stop speaking as if there were only one art world. We should empower the art worlds that aren’t structured by privilege. (Back to top.)


Wendy Ewald
Photographer

“What is wrong with the art world is that it doesn’t include the rest of the world.”

X (n.)  Twenty-fourth letter of the alphabet, 2000. COURTESY THE ARTISTS

X (n.) Twenty-fourth letter of the alphabet, 2000.

COURTESY THE ARTISTS

(Back to top.)



Cecilia Alemani
Director, High Line Art

grid_ceciliaalamaniWhat is wrong with the art world?
Market values of artworks are mistaken for a tool to evaluate the quality of an artwork, bypassing the institutional consensus by museums and curators.
 
And how would you fix it?
Lessen the power of the market in favor of the artists’ creativity (and pay them their cut of auction profits). (Back to top.)


David Nash
Art Dealer

In my experience the commercial art world is always changing: the balance between dealers and auction houses has changed dramatically in the last 25 years and it continues to change every season, as does the competition between the auction houses themselves, and their proliferation. Is there something “wrong” with this competition and should it be “fixed”? And if so, how? There are obviously many complaints about this development, but it depends on whom you talk to.

HANDWRITTEN TEXT BY DAVID NASH

HANDWRITTEN TEXT BY DAVID NASH

Dealers complain about auction tactics and their hypocritical lack of transparency; auction houses complain about each other—and transparency! The auction houses continue to increase their buyers’ premium because they compete so fiercely for prime properties that they cut into that premium in order to give a rebate to the seller to induce the consignment. This is clearly a ridiculous situation: the auction houses make no money selling these “record-price” works. Also, buyers resent the steadily increasing premiums they are forced to pay, which affect mainly the lower- and medium-priced lots. Is there something inherently “wrong” with this aspect of the art world? What would be the “right” system? It evolves all the time.

The commercialization of contemporary art is another topic that people complain about. Until about 1985, contemporary art had a very low resale potential. If a collector bought the latest work of a living artist, he could not expect to get much of his money back from its resale—like a new car. Now, many buyers buy contemporary art with the expectation that they can make money by “flipping” it—if they have “invested” in the right artist. This is a big change in the balance and the attitude of the market. Is it “wrong” and does it need “fixing”? (Back to top.)


Raqs Media Collective
Artist and Curator, 2016 Shanghai Biennale

grid_raqs1What is wrong with the art world?
Instead of being able to hack the system’s code, artists themselves have been hacked.
 
And how would you fix it?
Stop arresting hackers! Institute an Aaron Swartz Award for artists. (Back to top.)


Tom Finkelpearl
Commissioner, NYC Department of Cultural Affairs

ILLUSTRATION: ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

ILLUSTRATION: ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

When ARTnews asked the question “How do you fix the art world?,” my first response could have been, “Is it broken?”

Artists at all stages of their career still flock to New York from across the world for the energy, experience, and connections the city provides. Anecdotal reports that people are leaving in droves are simply not borne out by evidence. Thousands of cultural organizations engage millions of people—from the itinerant dance company to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Attendance and cultural tourism are at record highs, and our economic and civic fabric are closely linked to this signature sector.

But there are worries, and not simply those of neurotic New Yorkers with misplaced angst, but serious concerns, mostly about the expense of living and working in the city. There is indeed a looming crisis, with the high cost of living and a cultural sector out of step with the diverse demographics of the communities it serves. Student debt and lack of affordable space in which to live and work pose serious threats to our city’s ability to remain a capital for culture and creation.

In recognition of this, the mayor has proposed an affordable housing plan, committed to building 1,500 units of artist housing and 500 affordable workspaces over the next decade; and Artspace PS 109, a former school that provides 89 units of affordable artist housing and community arts space, opened in East Harlem in 2015. It shows us what can be achieved when we build strong connections between artist housing and our communities. The art world in New York City will endure only if it sees itself as part of a diverse, dynamic metropolis.

More than 3 million New York City residents were born in another country. Hundreds of languages are spoken across the five boroughs, and New York’s 8.5 million residents have a wide variety of lived experience. To stay relevant, New York’s cultural community needs to develop programming that speaks to different audiences.

A report released earlier this year on the arts and culture organizations that receive funding from the Department of Cultural Affairs found that, by a wide range of measures, our cultural groups fail to reflect the diversity of the communities they serve. The arts sector is not alone in facing this challenge, but given its prominence, it must lead by example to ensure that our institutions are inclusive, equitable places, where every resident can gain education, inspiration, and fulfillment.

Since the release of the report, we’ve steered more than $4 million toward opening arts organizations to more diverse staff and leadership. For instance, the city’s Theater Subdistrict Council made more than $2 million in grants available for theaters to increase diversity in their staff earlier this year. We also provided the city’s Cultural Institutions Group (CIG) another $1 million to support their efforts to cultivate more inclusive staff and leadership. And in September 2016, we announced a new partnership with CUNY, the Cultural Corps, which provides paid internship positions for undergraduates at member organizations of the CIG, opening doors for CUNY students who can’t afford unpaid internships that tend to favor candidates with greater means of family support. There are now student interns from across New York City working at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Queens Museum, Wave Hill, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Snug Harbor, and others, providing these cultural groups with a direct pipeline to future staff and leadership with deep interest and experience in the arts.

But even with a diverse workforce, we need to form coalitions with New Yorkers outside the art world, to become more integrated into the lives of more people.

We need new ways to understand how art and culture feed into other parts of society. The Department of Cultural Affairs, for example, has launched a number of programs designed to bring the ideas of artists to bear on civic issues. To name a few:

In collaboration with the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs and 40 cultural institutions in all five boroughs, we were able to provide participants in New York’s municipal ID program (IDNYC) access to free membership at cultural institutions. The card, launched by Mayor de Blasio in 2015, is a key to opening doors throughout the city: it grants holders access to government buildings, serves as a library card, and offers discounts at pharmacies to anyone who has proof of New York City residency, regardless of immigration status. Now, more than 900,000 residents have the card, and over 430,000 free memberships have been redeemed at cultural organizations.

Inspired by Mierle Laderman Ukeles’s pioneering, decades-long artist residency with the New York City Department of Sanitation, we launched Public Artists in Residence (PAIR), creating a number of new artist residencies with city agencies, where artists use their creative practices to address civic issues. Our first new PAIR residency, announced in 2015, placed artist Tania Bruguera in residence with the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, where she is working to build trust between new immigrants and the local government. PAIRs with the Department of Veterans’ Services and Administration for Children’s Services have followed, forging connections between practicing artists and agencies whose work is often defined exclusively in terms of social service.

Many other partnerships throughout the city wed arts and public service: Materials for the Arts, run by Cultural Affairs with the Departments of Sanitation and Education, diverts items from the waste stream to its warehouse in Long Island City; we run a creative aging program, placing artists and arts groups in residence at senior centers in all five boroughs; and the Department of Education invests substantially in integrating the arts into its curriculum. The arts community here in New York—from galleries to community-based nonprofits, from Rockaway to Chelsea—is a vital source of creative and intellectual energy.

We’ve often heard people admit that we need to do better. That may be true, but we need to do it now—not next week or someday. Forming a more inclusive, engaged cultural sector is essential—and urgent—if we are to create a community that lives up to the progressive ideas that have driven the art world for generations. To remain a place to which society looks for understanding, for new ideas, for answers to our world’s most pressing questions: these are things we have to solve today, together. (Back to top.)

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 62 under the title “How to Fix the Art World.”

Copyright 2016, Art Media ARTNEWS, llc. 110 Greene Street, 2nd Fl., New York, N.Y. 10012. All rights reserved.


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