In year-end summaries of the best and worst in art, a number of prominent critics predicted that the economic nosedive could be a good thing for the art world at large—“a vital correction,” in the words of one, for an age of excess, and an opportunity for new talent and creativity to rise from the ashes of an overheated market. Some predicted that 2009 could be 1989 all over again, with vital energy surging through new exhibition spaces even as many galleries are forced to close.
After the great bust of 1989–90, a number of trends emerged that had been overshadowed during the go-go Reagan years, when Neo-this and Neo-that seemed to command a disproportionate share of attention from collectors and the press. The early ’90s, perhaps culminating in the infamous 1993 Whitney Biennial, saw the rise of new forms of art that focused on identity and gender, on spirituality and multiculturalism, and on ephemeral or unpredictable materials. All of it looked like a gigantic smack in the face to the supposed triumphant return of figurative and expressionist painting in the ‘80s.
“Difficult times bring out the best in the best artists,” says David Ross, who was director of the Whitney Museum during that biennial and is now director of Albion New York, a SoHo affiliate of the London gallery. “When the economy falters, there can be a remarkable growth of seriousness in art.” But others see the notion of an art-market meltdown leading to new forms of creativity as specious hogwash. “I’d say the bohemian fantasy is sweet and sentimental, but rather insulting to artists,” says Christopher Knight, art critic for the Los Angeles Times. “In my experience, artists do what they do, market or no market. During the ‘80s boom, terrific work was being made by artists who barely got the time of day, and some of them were artists we simply started to look at in the ‘90s as the dust settled from the crash. That will happen again.”
Some stress that hard times are bad for everyone, but especially for young artists. “You sometimes need five to seven years to learn your craft, to pull it together, and you live off the crumbs of a vigorous market,” says painter Alex Katz. “When the market closes down, the crumbs disappear and a lot of artists are pretty much destroyed or really seriously hampered.” John Ravenal, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, cites the financial meltdown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, as a disturbing sign. “The recent spectacle of one of our nation’s major museums almost going under, as if cultural institutions were like corporations, was a sobering reminder that ultimately it’s a romantic fantasy that economic hardship will benefit the art world.”
As works that would have fetched high prices at auction a year ago remain unsold, galleries lay off staff, and museums cut programming, some still see tough times, at the very least, as an opportunity to have a new kind of dialogue about art. “I think we’re finally entering the 21st century in an entirely different way,” says RoseLee Goldberg, director of the performance-art biennial Performa. “We’re asking: What is the role of art? What is its capacity to introduce a new humanism or a new esthetics? The kind of art we’ve been looking at for the past ten years is incredibly sophisticated, but it’s really been driven by a loaded market.”
Michael Govan, director of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, believes that once money is no longer part and parcel of the esthetic discourse—as in, “That painting sold for howmuch?”—works will be “seen and debated and discussed among curators, critics, collectors, and dealers, but on a more even playing field.” He adds, “There’s a clarity about seeing art now, contemporary art in particular, that just didn’t exist in a red-hot market.”
The very nature of the way artists are perceived changes when the price tags cease to be that important. “In a downturn, artists are no longer validated according to their market value,” says Mary Sabbatino, vice president of Galerie Lelong in New York. “You’ll have an end to the quote-unquote critical description of Marlene Dumas, for example, as the most expensive living female artist.”
Others believe that the recent era of excess had a positive side. “This last decade has seen, with all this influx of money, an enormous increase of interest in and knowledge about contemporary art,” says Tom Eccles, executive director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College. Eccles, who began his career in London at the same time as many of the so-called Young British Artists, notes that Tate Modern grew out of an explosion of curiosity about the works of artists like Rachel White-read, Sarah Lucas, Douglas Gordon, and even Damien Hirst. “There have been some real gains,” he adds. “Contemporary art has really become much more a part of our knowledge bank, participating in culture in a way that it never did 20 years ago.”
But no matter how keen the appetite for the new, a downturn inevitably means that art will be seen and exhibited in different ways. If galleries close and museums lose some of their funding, artists will have to seek out ever-more inventive venues. The founding in 1971 of P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center as an edgy alternative space, notes Tom Finkelpearl, director of the Queens Museum of Art, “was based on a terrible economic situation in New York City. There were big empty buildings available because businesses had closed throughout the city. Those kinds of resources could become available again.” The art-fair boom of the last few years saw its genesis in a few rooms in New York’s Gramercy Park Hotel in the early ’90s, several observers noted.
Others worry about what will happen to the alternative spaces that already do exist. “What does this economy mean for White Columns or Artists Space or places that got their funding from the sort of foundations that lost a fortune?” asks Jon Kessler, a professor of art at Columbia University. “It’s kind of a bubonic plague that’s going to tear through the art world. Something will emerge on the other side, but it’s hard to say what that is.”
Most predict a scaling back of the sprawling, celebrity-studded art fairs that have mushroomed around the globe and a subsequent shakeout among artists who have depended on those events. “A lot of artists have been producing work just for art fairs,” says Eccles. “And I know a number who made quite a good livelihood that way.” Irving Sandler, the scholar and critic who witnessed and chronicled the rise of American art in the ’50s and ’60s, believes that artists will “begin to create their own institutions, if you want to call them that. Artists will get together and think of fending for themselves, and this is happening right now. My sense is that they are considering the collective situation, just as we did in the ’50s with the Artists’ Club and the Cedar Street Tavern.”
We may see a change, too, in the way art is produced, which will of necessity be reflected in the character and materials of the art object. “You’ll probably see less video- and film-based work because of the kind of production standards that artists have demanded and the kind of financing they need,” predicts Eccles. Work that requires an atelier worthy of a Renaissance master could also fall by the wayside. “What we’ve seen in the last few years is a lot of art with high-production values, expensive and very sophisticated studio or out-of-studio production,” says Gary Garrels, senior curator of painting and sculpture at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. “There’s been a kind of celebration of lavishness and monumentality and very eye-catching work.” Harry Philbrick, director of the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, adds, “Artists who could count six months or a year ago on projects being subsidized by museums, dealers, or collectors are suddenly finding that they will have to trim that budget, and that may mean choosing less-costly materials or scaling back projects.” And artists themselves are foreseeing changes in the way they work. “I’m finally getting around to working my way through all the materials that I already have in my studio, which is a lot of fun,” says Ellen Harvey. “In general, I’m trying to think of projects that are less expensive to make, and that’s fine. Expensive is not necessarily better, anyway.”
“I’m seeing incredible, great work made out of nothing, nothing,” sculptor Petah Coyne says of a recent visit to a show of M.F.A. candidates at the School of Visual Arts in New York. That’s an esthetic that’s not particularly new and might be said to go all the way back to early Cubist collages and Kurt Schwitters’s Merz, finding its latest incarnation in the low-rent assemblages of last year’s “Unmonumental” show at the New Museum. Govan doesn’t believe that artists who want and need certain materials will cut corners. “There are so many stories of Picasso, when he had not a nickel, buying the most expensive cerulean blue, the most costly pigments for his paintings,” he notes.
As for decisive shifts in sensibility or esthetics, it seems far too soon to say what the art of the coming years will look like or to predict what thought processes may underlie its making. Garrels believes that the choice of Bruce Nauman to represent the United States at the Venice Biennale this year is a portent, and some say Venice itself will offer a reflection of the times. “We’re going to see a shift toward work that’s more psychological and introspective and more out of an old-fashioned studio kind of work,” Garrels comments. “It will have to be a much more sober biennale this time around,” says Carlos Basualdo, curator of contemporary art at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and cocurator of the U.S. Pavilion. Garrels, too, sees “a return to work that is a little more personal and exploratory. A good example of an artist who really came to represent that shift in the moment, from the late ’80s to the early ’90s, would be Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Again, you had thoughtful art with low production values. Felix was an artist who came to the fore right after the last collapse of the market, and I would not be surprised to see something parallel happen now.”
“People who travel light and do things that are contrary and ephemeral are going to have a good moment,” says Robert Storr, dean of the Yale University School of Art. Storr also notes that the last decade has seen surprisingly little political activity among artists, and virtually no politically inspired art, in spite of eight years of governance that has led to an unpopular war and a staggering deficit. “People talked revolution but didn’t do it,” he says. “If I could spot a change, it would be at the point where artists start to think outside the politics of the art world, or outside the academic discourses, and look around and ask, what’s going on here? This is an area where somebody with an idea and enough anger could have an effect.”
Like the rest of the economy, the cultural world has lived through cycles of boom and bust since the first serious museums and dealers opened their doors in the middle of the 19th century. It’s still too early to say what will happen in the coming year or two, but the one certainty is a curiously reassuring uncertainty. “Artists are basically problem solvers,” says Bonnie Clearwater, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami. “They will respond to whatever the situation is in completely unpredictable ways.”
Ann Landi is a contributing editor of ARTnews.