October 25, 2008

The art world's downmarket retreat

Last year, my first article published in The Brooklyn Rail examined how an impending art market "correction" might affect artists. "In a fairly typical scenario, the gallery an artist has worked diligently to cultivate, having been powered by the bull art market, doesn’t make the rent when it turns bearish. The artist is left without representation. He or she may lose artwork kept 'in storage.' Furthermore, as Edward Winkleman has chronicled in his well-regarded art blog, check kiting becomes de rigueur in times of financial distress, and even formerly fair galleries may resort to withholding payment for work previously sold. Widespread gallery closings also mean fewer exhibition opportunities for younger artists. The abundant part-time jobs—often at the galleries themselves—that kept them solvent dry up.

"Some artists will simply hunker down, eke out work at restaurants and bars, and wait for the market to grow again. Others may start collectives or DIY galleries to generate new collector niches. This strategy has worked in the past. Witness iconoclastic successes like Joe Amrhein’s Pierogi 2000 and the proliferation of artist-run galleries in Williamsburg after the art market contracted due to 9/11. The lack of exhibition opportunity actually creates a more experimental atmosphere since few artists are tailoring their ideas or curbing their impulses to cater to a particular audience. Another hidden bonus is that as real estate development plateaus and gentrification slows, artists have more time before they are squeezed out of their once grittily affordable neighborhoods."

This week in New York magazine, Jerry Saltz addresses how the downturn will affect not just artists, but all the different spheres in the art world. "If the art economy is as bad as it looks—if worse comes to worst—40 to 50 New York galleries will close. Around the same number of European galleries will, too. An art magazine will cease publishing. A major fair will call it quits—possibly the Armory Show, because so many dealers hate the conditions on the piers, or maybe Art Basel Miami Beach, because although it’s fun, it’s also ridiculous. Museums will cancel shows because they can’t raise funds. Art advisers will be out of work. Alternative spaces will become more important for shaping the discourse, although they’ll have a hard time making ends meet.

"As for artists, too many have been getting away with murder, making questionable or derivative work and selling it for inflated prices. They will either lower their prices or stop selling. Many younger artists who made a killing will be forgotten quickly. Others will be seen mainly as relics of a time when marketability equaled likability. Many of the hot Chinese artists, most of whom are only nth-generation photo-realists, will fall by the wayside, having stuck collectors with a lot of junk....The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists—especially emerging ones—won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want."

3 comments:

Of course there is a down market in the art world; Damien Hurst now has all the liquidity.

Saltz says: "The good news is that, since almost no one will be selling art, artists—especially emerging ones—won’t have to think about turning out a consistent style or creating a brand. They’ll be able to experiment as much as they want."

I like the idea there, but the reality is that many artists' jobs are tied to the art market. If no one is buying art, those jobs will disappear. Artists will have a hard time paying studio rent and purchasing materials. Experimentation? How about survival?

Survival = experimentation.

Nobody has the right to be an artist. It's something you fight for.