“structure of the system is overwhelming. A dealer’s job … gets swallowed up by this endless sea of events, fairs and biennials. The pace of it means you don’t have time to reflect or think, or strategise about the right steps for your artists’ careers. The standard of the art goes down, but there are always buyers and, if you don’t take part, you’re not successful.”
Two days later, almost chiming in, Jerry Saltz wrote a “eulogy” for the “gallery show” in the New York Magazine, roughly along the same lines:
“Chelsea galleries used to hum with activity; now they’re often eerily empty. …Fewer ideas are being exchanged, fewer aesthetic arguments initiated. …Instead, the blood sport of taste is playing out in circles of hedge-fund billionaires and professional curators, many of whom claim to be anti-market. There used to be shared story lines of contemporary art: the way artists developed, exchanged ideas, caromed off each other’s work, engaged with their critics. Now no one knows the narrative; the thread has been lost. Shows go up but don’t seem to have consequences, other than sales or no sales.” (http://www.vulture.com/2013/03/saltz-on-the-death-of-art-gallery-shows.html)
The views of two stalwarts of the contemporary art world are neither to be lauded nor rued, especially by those of us somewhere South-South-East of the global centre geographically and conceptually. Their comments point not to the capitalist, globalisation malaise but to failure of the gallerists and art advocates in understanding the role and the place of the market accurately in the art sector. What both are describing are the capitulation to the market by the “art leaders” especially in the case of gallerists and many art institutions over the past two decades. While they welcomed the market and enjoyed the sales and sponsorships they neglected their duty to be the drivers of quality and allowed themselves to be consumed by “the customer is always right” mindset, which makes them complicit in the lowering of standards being complained about.
Too many art openings, gallery and museum have lost appeal by excluding artists by prioritising the sponsors and the moneyed collectors. Too many gallerists no longer see their jobs as being purveyors of art but being merely purveyors. The results are predictable.
However there are opportunities in the current situation, which are both immense and important if we have courage and vision to act.
The flipside-upside of the marketisation of the art world has created a global infrastructure for dissemination and creation of art. The market has made contemporary art prominent and relevant in a much broader range of countries and cultures than in the past. As much as they are maligned, art fairs have created earning opportunities and enabled the participation in the art scene for a much wider geographical and cultural spectrum of artists. This in and of itself has expanded the sustainability of contemporary art sectors around the world and the very creation of art and art scenes engaged in critical dialogues relevant to their countries in cultures across the planet. If this means that New York is less of an art capital, so be it.
Not to put too fine a point on it, while people may not be flocking to art openings in New York, but the openings in our tiny space in Harare are packed and people are discussing critical issues and exchanging ideas and the same phenomenon can be felt in Bangkok and Lagos and Bogota. The globalisation of the art market has created an infrastructure for democratisation of access and decentralisation of the art world and this is major progress.
What is important and relevant to recognise however is that the contemporary art sector has allowed itself to be market led and that has never led to the making or the propagation of quality art. We can accept that much of the interest in contemporary art and emerging art markets was and is primarily driven by greed, but we don’t need to be passively led by it.
Art dealers and leaders need to leverage the infrastructure and the momentum present in the globalised market to assert the primacy of art over money. This is in fact a survival imperative if contemporary art is to retain any credibility and long-run value (c.f. fad prices). There is no alternative.
Jerry Saltz’s nostalgia for New York of yesteryear is nice but not helpful. We know that art is not going to perish and new forms of presentation, exhibition and representation will emerge and re-emerge as they have done for centuries and millennia. What the art world needs now is leadership, courage and vision of where we are and what the best interests of art and artists require. That vision means recognising that art centres today have shifted and will continue to shift. That today art is made everywhere and arguably the best art no longer comes from established centres of the past century and that is very very ok. Our job is to make sure that quality and talent succeed, wherever they come from. Other than that, plus ça change, plus la même chose.