Tuesday, March 02, 2010


Since I grew up in Portland, Oregon, which is a dynamic art town, art has been a major part of my life, or maybe I should say “arts” since I’m including film, dance, theatre, public monuments, the Portland Art Museum, so on. Music, less. For the Sixties decade that I was with Bob Scriver it was as an insider but an insider in a small part of the Big Time Art world. I saw that Bob’s work was good enough for New York City and pushed him to join the National Sculpture Society and the National Academy of Design, which took him into the historical context of the Paris Beaux Arts rather than the smaller Russell/Remington circle. In his later years he fell back into the local Montana scene.

But Beaux Arts representational art, which can be said to include the Animaliers and Rodin, is hardly relevant to the modern planetary landscape. These days one can monitor some of the latter by subscribing to free automated e-newsletters like Art Journal and ArtDaily, plus a lot of email auction monitors limited only by one’s capacity to handle foreign languages (there are auction aggregators like “Invaluable Live!”) and a lot of institutional newsletters like the lively one put out by the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole. enews@wildlifeart.org I have a two-foot tall stack of downloads.

Major forces have changed the art landscape. One is the growth (some might say “overgrowth”) of new major art mortar-and-brick institutions (maybe beyond the supply of informed and capable managers, let alone fund-raisers) side-by-side with the decay of some of the hoary old museums full of prestige but short on cash. Often seen as Chamber of Commerce fodder or memorials to individuals, art always lives in tension between local or national and international interests.

The same forces that brought us stock market “instruments” of dubious quality and mortgages that go “underwater” also underlie a lot of recent shocking art world developments. One is secretive “de-accessioning” which is a euphemism for selling museum assets, sometimes to underwrite salaries and operating expenses. The boards of the institutions are the ones responsible for controlling such actions but they often don’t quite realize what they are approving. Proper curators, of course, know it is at least unethical and sometimes simply in-house theft by people who carry the house keys. Part of the problem is that art goes in and out of fashion, so what seems reasonable to discard in one decade might turn out to be quite valuable later. But no institution has infinite storage.

Brandeis University ran aground when they despaired of making their Rose Gallery pay for itself and didn’t want to wrestle with piecemeal de-accessioning, so proposed just selling all the art and closing the gallery down. Not only did they trigger outrage, but also were forced to realize that they hadn’t carefully read the will that endowed the installation in the first place. The Barnes Museum near Philadelphia found themselves trapped in a bad part of town where they attracted very little traffic but the will was so restrictive that the board had to go to court to get permission to move the institution to a better place. The appetite for de-accessioning conflicts with the pride of “ownership” on the part of the public or, in the case of historical societies, the wish to memorialize one’s family in perpetuity -- followed by the later shock of realizing the bequest has been sold or discarded or “lost.”

Related to the above is the porous wall between private galleries and “public” museums, which may be either free-standing foundations or governmentally supported. If a private art dealer can manage to get a piece or a show into the institution, it legitimizes and inflates the value of that artist. The collector may “gift” art to the institution for the sake of the enhanced reputation of the artist and of the collector’s other holdings. The little game of gifting art of high value but keeping it in one’s home has attracted the interest of the IRS. There are other games.

Auctions are notorious ways to slip through walls and encourage sleight-of-hand in quickly moving circumstances where inquiries into provenance can be deflected and people have no time to consult experts as to authenticity. It’s the perfect place to sell a Seltzer with the signature cut off so it can be represented as a Russell, esp. if the event is full of CMR admirers. Occasionally in various auctions people have spotted stolen art and other collectibles zooming past the auctioneer’s gavel.

On the other hand, online catalogues mean that specific works and artists can be tracked and researched ahead of time. Websites like www.askart.com list almost all the American and Canadian artists, which of their works come to auction, the artists’ biographies and, for a fee, will tell you what the auction prices have been. There are other websites that will do the same thing for no fee. This can reveal the “gradient” factor (see a previous post on this blog) so that, for instance, the Taos Seven artists (quite fabulous!) are moved from the SW where they are relatively common and familiar, to the northern prairie where people haven’t grown accustomed to them. Auctions might not work so well for local artists of lesser reputation whose works are bought because people know and love the artist and want a connection. This is especially effective if one buys the art directly from the artist in person.

Art entrepreneur-ship, commonly called “wheeling and dealing,” depends on capital. Part of their reputation as shady comes from capital underwritten inventory created by one management strategy: buy low/sell high. The morality is profit, so whatever pushes down the buying price and pushes up the selling price is just fine. The gradient here is greater knowledge on the part of the dealer. Buyer beware. Full disclosure is only a theory. The push/pull is generally based on theories about what will gain in value or prestige. Art is a good marker of status for a plutocrat, implying good taste and resourcefulness. The plutocrat then becomes agreeable to supporting institutions and patronizing galleries and auctions.

The best advice remains the same: study the catalog, do research before attending an auction, buy what you really like, buy what you can afford, buy from the artist or a local and stable gallery, and don’t drink at auctions. I presume the advice also applies to livestock auctions.

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