Thursday, January 28, 2010

To Complicate Things

When Ed Winkleman offered his space to Jen and I to consider "alternatives/solutions" to the market, we had some very different ideas initially.  One of our first impulses was to completely invert the normal function of the gallery by banishing Ed, Murat, and Max from the space and creating something else.  Jen and I had some evil laughs thinking about what that might look like, but the idea never got past Ed, as he felt we were singling him out as a proxy for all shitty art dealers.  I thought that position was a little defensive, since Ed isn't a shitty art dealer.  It's just that dealers create the market as it exists now.  If you're not an art dealer, you run a non-profit, director.

Part of the logic of removing Ed from the equation also correlated with our desire to remove the 'luxury art objects' from the gallery as well.  For me, this stems from the fact that galleries sell a lot of the same thing, types of art with minor variations from artist to artist.  Eventually a few artists rise to the top of the heap for a period of time.  Then, commercial success gives way to museum shows, grants, prizes, and only or two artists from any given style, school, or camp are cannonized and given a shot at the history books, which requires some level of critical support.  Currently, The Bruce High Quality Foundation is being elevated into the Whitney Biennial from the collective institutional critique camp.  Having admired their efforts, I think it's cool, but reminds me that what Jen and I are doing with #class is being done in different ways by different groups world wide.  Not all of them of market friendly, but TBHQF seems to have commercial representation and the Whitney nod will confer a new level of value on whatever they do next.

The problem is, however much I may admire TBHQ foundation from afar, I've never actually seen anything they've ever done and just like the idea of what they are, I understand that we are in competition for the limited number of spots in the star system.  I mean, galleries have two or three stars in their stable, two who sell and one who gets the critical acclaim.  This is one of the things that makes me particularly queasy about the art market,  considering my experience during the boom of people happily selling art and rarely willing to discuss ideas.  Most conversations stayed in the area of "What are you doing next?", "How was your last show? (ie, did you sell out?), and "Congrats on your (Insert publication) review.  It was great!"  Underneath the veneer of artistic comraderie, there is something much darker and less talked about.  Usually, we acknowledge the sour grapes, "Powhida is just jealous of TBHQF for getting into a Biennial. What a dick."  That's a fair statement, in that I would also love to be in a Whitney Biennial any of these even years, but have stopped holding my breath.  I'd already be dead.

What I'm hoping, in part, is that #class will open up areas of dialog that don't happen very often without several cocktails and a conspiratorial tone.  Well, we may have cocktails, but it will be an open discussion not just for insiders.  Artist Ken Weaver, who also shows at Schroeder Romero & Shredder (I still have trouble saying the whole thing), has proposed a variation on this topic, hoping to start a conversation about 'artistic jealousy' and the difference between our public reactions to success and our private conversations.  I think Ken and I probably have some things to discuss...

But, back to the 'luxury object'.  There still is that startling amount of repetitive sameness that permeates the market.  This dull sameness will be magnified by Armory, Pulse, Volta, and whatever new fairs pop up to capitalize on fair week.  I'm sure it was part of the reason that Ed offered Jen and I this slot during Armory to address and hopefully problematize the fair mentality.  It really is a perfect time for the show.  Ed will be participating in two fairs, PULSE and another new 'alternative to the alternative' fair.  This is a spectacular set of conditions for #class to exploit and be exploited by.  Ed hopes to potentially take part of our show and enter it in to the real market, while Jen and I hope to invade the polished, hushed art fair atmosphere in return.  What I love about this project is, even as I'm writing this, I will also potentially be participating in two fairs, definitely PULSE with Charlie James Gallery from LA and Ed, depending on what fair he decides to take part of our show to.  If anyone still believes for a second that I am not a 'pig' as Jen Dalton describes those of us who participate in the market (the other choice being 'loser' and the attendant poverty and integrity that comes with it) then you should really go back and take a look at my art.  I have been trying to sell out for years, and have found that it takes an incredible amount of work to make any headway at all.

I have made some progress.  Nearly two years ago, I was commissioned to do a piece for a collector that involved traveling to the Bahamas as 'research' for the painting.  Now, I am finally traveling down to Grand Bahamas Island with my wife and volunteer assistant, Thomas.  Jen and Ed have been making fun of me (hypocrite!) comparing me to Koons and suggesting the commission is analogous to designing a yacht called "Guilty Pleasure" for Dakis Joannou.  The thing is, I don't have to paint a giant boat and put a patina of class on a massive, floating luxury item.  I get to make fun of the whole thing, myself, and the collector.  There's no restrictions on the narrative I create from the experience.  If there were an analogy to Koons it would be that I would have had the freedom to sink Dakis' yacht off the coast of Athens and the only people who'd get to see it would need scuba gear.  That said, I will be sipping cocktails on white sands in balmy weather while Jen and Ed start installing the show.  Then, as soon as I disembark the plane I will descend back into my inferior social status and head to the gallery to start putting up on panels and painting them with chalkboard paint.  Unlike Koons, Jen and I can't just have the show fabricated to our specifications.  We have a budget of $250 dollars.  It's not really a joke, but it seems like one.  Jen and I will have to work hard to make some drawings that people can make an offer on, and help us fund the month long series of lectures, panels, performances, sits-ins, interventions readings, conversations, eulogies, yoga classes, game nights, and other bizarre activities we haven't even heard yet. (Well, I might be able to use some of the money I will be getting from a certain European collector for one of my New Museum prints.)   If we end up making any money, I think we will all be shocked.  We'll be sure to keep a running balance sheet on the walls during the show of what went in to it and what we all got out of it in economic terms.  The rest of it will be harder to quantify.

These would be the intangibles.  After Ed rejected the radical reinterpretation of the space (ie kicking him out) we spent a long time discussing the intangible values associated with the gallery system and why we all continue to participate when we make (a) very little money or (b) put ourselves in debt. Ed may only have ten collectors who might buy work during the course of a show, but he takes immense pleasure in talking about the art and the artists.  One of the intangibles for Ed is that dialog he has, and that is one of the reasons he objected being taken out of the equation.  For other dealers who do not engage the public as much, that might not be an issue.  As far as art goes for me, I invested $36,000 dollars into my BFA and MFA.  I've paid it down to $26,000 since 1999.  I'm way fucking behind.  I don't know about Jen or Ed, but in general the economics of selling art is largely unsustainable unless you or your gallery breaks the 100k barrier for art and stays above that threshold.  During the art boom, there was enough money to make people feel like they probably had a long-term shot, but that was illusory.  A 'how are they doing today?' chart comparing sales of artists from 2005 to 2009 would be awesome, but no one is likely to volunteer that information.  It would be like committing career suicide.  We can see variations on this idea through auction returns, but the values at auction are far more stable than the inflated prices of the art fairs.  I'm sure a great number of artists live in fear of seeing their 2005 $10,000 art fair price point get eviscerated at auction.  These questions fascinate me, and I'll continue to explore them as long as I can and as long as someone will help exhibit the results of my preoccupations.  Part of the paradox is, unless it sells or generates press/controversy/critical interest, the less people are inclined to show it.  On that note for another visual representation of this, check out my new Brooklyn Rail drawing Institutional Celebration.

We understand the economics of art, and it's not a pretty picture.  Hrag Vartanian has proposed a "Who Owes Who Money in the New York Art World" box for #class.  While that might be revealing, it won't be shocking unless you believe that Goldman Sachs and A.I.G. work to better the middle class.  What we want to explore more deeply are the intangible aspects of participating in the art world with the market being the focus.  We chose the title #class, because it is an evocative word suggesting social hierarchies, economic conditions, school, access, exclusion, difference, taste, luxury, or conflict.  This show is an open call to everyone, even those who might want to participate but fear sullying their brand or reputation (I'm talking to Andrea Fraiser, Sean Landers, Matthew Barney, Jeff Koons, Jeffrey Deitch, Kehind Wiley, Damien Hirst,  Josephine Meckesper, or anyone with something to lose by even setting foot in Winkleman Gallery or 27th street, but would be amazing to hear from unmediated by the press and their representation)  So, let the concept for #class unpack a little more in your heads and think about what what you love and hate in the art world.  Then, yell at us! Propose an idea! Commit career suicide! Argue!  Whatever, I'd love to see Tyler Green and Jerry Saltz sit down in the space, have a beer and discuss "Ethics, Moralism, and the contemporary Witch-Hunt."  Facebook is really no place to get into it.

Tomorrow, Jen will be posting a list of events with short descriptions.  A schedule will follow as we program our available time slots.


  1. A sustainable art market is one that has a sense of permaculture built into it. That is that the inputs and outputs reach a state of equilibrium. As long as artists continue to play by the rules of their social betters, there will be no sustainable art market. Artists need to group and collectivize. The miniscule number of artists who get the majority of press, dealer and collector attention, and who make completely large and arbitrary sums of money from their art are JUST as liable and responsible for the current state of things. Artists should be opting out of this "lottery" system, refusing to show their work at certain galleries or to be represented until fair market prices and fair practices are embedded in the culture of the dealers and collectors. The market is so out of whack that this kind of drastic manipulation is necessary

  2. Artists should be opting out of this "lottery" system, refusing to show their work at certain galleries or to be represented until fair market prices and fair practices are embedded in the culture of the dealers and collectors.

    Not that I'm disagreeing with you, but what would your system of "fair market prices and fair practices" look like? Details...details.

  3. Ed,

    I have the feeling that Zachary is prepared to present those details at #class. It certainly seems like something that could sustain a long discussion, if not an intense debate about "fair market prices". I think it's extremely relevant to the show.

  4. Totally agree.

    Frequently, though, I hear folks call for regulations or other market controls in the art world as if they don't exist because of some powerful lobby that fights to prevent them.

    They don't exist mostly, I think, because there's relatively little money in the system compared with markets the government is right to regulate.

    No one who runs a gallery wants additional red tape to deal with, but I'm open to fairness in the market. I've just yet to see a recommendation for ensuring "fair market prices" that made sense. I look forward to Zachary's presentation.

  5. Sounds like Zachary has something more radical in mind, but what about (just throwing this out there in the spirit of brainstorming) a 1% tax on all art sales above a certain price point: $10,000? $30,000? $100,000? The money raised could fund art grants (many more grants than the few private ones now available) to promising non-established artists to help them to keep working.


  6. I realize as I re-read that that when I say "promising" it makes it sound like these grants would go to young people, and they definitely need it. But most middle-aged artists (including this one) can't really make a living from their work either, which is no less a problem.

  7. Ed,

    The last thing I want to do is impose red tape, top down bureaucratic regulations and controls on the art market. I'm not mandating anything. I think that if anything is to shake up and reorient the art market for long term sustainability (where what is sustained is an artists ability to create and sell their work, and a gallery is able to pay its rent and make a decent though not exorbitant profit)it MUST be a grass roots, bottom up, people and community powered movement. Not something artificial imposed by government or any kind of association. I think the measures Bill mentions above are good conversation starters, arbitrary though they may be. But again, this has to come from within the community. It has to start small, be well organized, but it must come from the bottom up. All great lasting social movements in this country, ones that have lasting impact and are able to sustain themselves long enough to achieve at least some of their goals, are bottom up people powered movements.
    With social media, the community finally has a way to build and strengthen this. We have a way to dialogue, without regards to money, georgraphy or access.

  8. A levee sounds great- people need to give back more and recognize the art world exists because of a lot of pro-bono work - like when you buy your friends pizza and beer for helping you move - but who determines where money goes? The NEA? If you create a slush fund who oversees it? Won't it attract flies? If the art world is self policing how come there are so many assholes in it? So many vanity galleries without any interest in institutional critique but maybe a minor economic interest in leveling the playing field? So many artists who "borrow" ideas and then change with the weather?

    The fact is most artists don't want to belong to any group - ego and personality mixed with the differences in tastes and allegiance to styles of thinking and making, make organization hard.

    Plus, the minute someone dangles money in the cage, playground rules dictate someone will cave into the lottery. Everyone has their price.

    If there is a solution it is either to be more talented and richer than everyone, and thus be in a position to enact the changes in an altruistic spirit (what our forefathers called an enlightened monarchy).

    Ask yourself, who is that talent, and then elect them as president - make sure they owe you one.

  9. zip

    i think we tried that, and it failed horribly miserably and totally. I love the idea of an enlightened monarchy almost as much as i hate the idea of socialism. Again same problems with each, good in theory, bad in practice


  10. " Facebook is really no place to get into it. " OMFG thank you.