Market Monday: Cultural Tourism
Recapping a week in which art served as a bridge across borders––but not always a sturdy or generous one...
Brand Ambassador: The Fondation Louis Vuitton became the axis of an international diplomatic incident on Tuesday, when the Kremlin canceled Vladimir Putin's scheduled trip to France––an excursion meant to include a tour of the foundation's new exhibition "Icons of Modern Art: The Shchukin Collection"––after French President François Hollande "suggested Russia committed war crimes in Syria by supporting the bombing of Aleppo." Sergei Shchukin, the show's namesake, was a Moscow industrialist who began collecting avant-garde western European art in 1898. The 135 works on view at the FLV include pieces by Monet, Cézanne, Gauguin, and other must-haves of the early modern canon, all selected in collaboration with the Hermitage and Moscow's Pushkin State Museum as part of the ongoing, state-sponsored France-Russia Year of Cultural Tourism. Thanks to Hollande's comments, Putin apparently now has as little personal interest in said cultural tourism as he has in letting a shirt contain him when photographers are near.
And yet, incentives-obsessed analyst that I am, my main reaction to the story is: Why would the Vuitton Foundation agree to do this show in the first place? To be clear, the Shchukin collection seems entirely museum-worthy and, more to the point, features the type of modernist "Who's Who" that tends to draw massive crowds. But the privately-funded FLV shouldn't have the same need to maximize audience numbers (and court outside sponsors in the process) as French arts institutions dependent on dwindling state support in an age of austerity.
Instead, I can't help but speculate that volunteering to celebrate a great Muscovite collector might help the LVMH brands curry a little extra favor with both Russia's socioeconomic elites and, more important, a government known to... well, let's just say "play favorites" in the business realm. If so, the Shchukin collection could be more than just a nice (if largely unnecessary) tourism bump for the institution. It could also give Bernard Arnault's entire luxury empire extra leverage in a lucrative international market, reinforcing once again that culture, commerce, and politics are often more intimate companions than many art enthusiasts like to imagine. [The Art Newspaper]
Revisionist History: Christie's officially opened its first permanent location in Beijingon Saturday, completing a Chinese trifecta with its already-operating buildings in Hong Kong and Shanghai. Christie's Beijing comprises 8,600 square-feet of mixed-use space, which includes "a multifunctional and interactive venue for exhibitions, art forums, lectures, and other activities," according to the press release. However, Nate Freeman also notes that, in a prime case of burying the lede, it leaves unanswered whether or not the floor plan includes an actual auction room. (For a bit more clarity, The Art Newspaper confirmed later in the week that Christie's "does not currently hold auctions in Beijing, although its license permits it to.")
More interesting to me, though, is the space's inaugural attraction: an exhibition meant to draw out the supposedly deep cultural interchange between Picasso and the artistic heritage of China, specifically via early 20th-century painters Zhang Daqian and Qi Baishi. The only minor issue, as Freeman points out, is that Christie's isn't exactly selling the connection with full-throated gusto. He highlights the following excerpt from the press release: "While Picasso’s paintings and his various artistic styles may not reveal distinct influences from Chinese art, the artist, in fact, was familiar with and curious about the Middle Kingdom’s rich painting tradition.” Okay then!
It could very well be that the exhibition will throw into high relief these resonant and largely unexplored thematic bonds. After all, that's what high-level curating is supposed to do. But I can't quite shake the feeling that Christie's may be exaggerating the strength of this aesthetic connection in order to pander to affluent Beijing buyers, who may be more eager to spend big on these works if the house can simultaneously make the Picassos feel more personal and the Zhangs and Qis feel crucial to the arc of a western legend. As Georgina Adam pointed out in her (excellent) book "Big Bucks: The Explosion of the Art Market in the 21st Century," some sought-after contemporary artists have recently proven themselves willing to reach beyond their usual visual vocabulary for subject matter tailored to nascent elites in specific emerging markets. (For example, consider Cai Guo-Qiang's unexpected appropriation of Arab imagery for a 2011 exhibition in Qatar.) Christie's inaugural exhibition in Beijing sounds to me like an attempt to reverse-engineer the same strategy onto dead icons of western and eastern painting alike. And you know what? I suspect it just might work. [ARTnews]
Bias(?) on the Block: Spurred by the ever-growing concern about a lack of cultural diversity in the art industry, Brian Boucher combed through the last three decades of auction data to see how African American artists have fared in comparison to the rest of the field (which, of course, is mostly about as white as a stack of printer paper). His findings confirm what many, if not most, close observers of the market would likely have anticipated: a small constellation of black stars shining bright in the foreground... and a vast Milky Way stretching out behind them. In the past 30 years, four of the top ten artists by auction volume (i.e. total sales value within a given year) identify as black or African American: Jean-Michel Basquiat ($2.8B), Mark Bradford ($106.6M), Glenn Ligon ($78.4M), and Julie Mehretu ($70.4M). But expand the telescope's lens to the top 100 artists by auction volume, and the aforementioned quartet is joined by only seven more artists of similar heritage. Even more sobering, David Hammons is the only black/African American talent included among the 100 priciest auction lots hammered down in the past five years––and, as Boucher emphasizes, he makes the list as number 100.
So does this data tell an encouraging or a discouraging story about diversity in contemporary art? Personally, what I see at work here is a phenomenon called moral licensing. To paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell's discussion of the subject on his podcast a few months ago, moral licensing explains why many people will retreat to, and even amplify, their worst behaviors after doing a bare-minimum number of good deeds. Essentially, they feel their few exceptional moves prove to the world that they are virtuous, open-minded, or progressive people... which consciously or subconsciously "licenses" them to go right back to being just as selfish, narrow-minded, or regressive as before––if not even worse. Hence, social psychologists have conducted studies finding that some people who voiced support for a black politician "were then MORE likely to express racially questionable opinions" about other topics afterward.
My fear is that Boucher's results show moral licensing at work in the auction market and, by extension, the contemporary-art market overall. The outsized success of Basquiat, Bradford, Ligon, and Mehretu in recent years could be the exception that proves the rule. After opening the penthouse suite to this small subset of artists, collectors may very well feel good enough about themselves to shut the door again, before a much larger, more diverse, and just-as-worthy contingent of artists can enter. I hope I'm wrong. But let's run these numbers again in 2021 and see how much more progress we've made. [artnet News]
Uslip, You Fall: Finally this week, the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis announced on Tuesday that chief curator Jeffrey Uslip, one of the animating forces behind the public-relations wildfire that is its current exhibition "Kelley Walker: Direct Drive," had "unexpectedly accepted a new position at another institution." No further details were provided about either Uslip's employer-to-be or role-to-fill, fanning speculation by cynics and realists (like me) that the announcement was nothing more than a smoke bomb tossed out to mask the sight of either Uslip falling on his sword or his superiors running him through to try to spare themselves.
For the uninitiated, Walker––a white artist making his American-museum premier at CAM––lit the match for this inferno by creating a body of work that, in the words of St. Louis artist and activist Damon Davis, "takes images of black women, and photos of Black people being attacked by police and dogs and smears toothpaste and chocolate on the images." To state the obvious, this would not have been an advisable artistic or curatorial choice to make at any reputable institution in the US in 2016, let alone one less than 12 miles from Ferguson. And yet somehow Walker, Uslip, and the other decision-makers at CAM went ahead anyway, igniting a blaze that has only been intensified by events since. Among them: the artist and chief curator's perceived dismissiveness of audience questions about racial insensitivity at a museum Q&A; CAM's ham-handed attempt to quell the controversy by simply surrounding "Direct Drive" with additional walls and literal warning signs stating that "some viewers have found [the exhibition] offensive"; and, last weekend, news that a female CAM staffer of color had been "verbally and nearly physically attacked" at a local gas station by an assailant accusing her and the institution of racism.
While it's too early to tell whether Uslip's departure will be enough to smother the scandal still roaring around CAM, I'm also left wondering what the industry will do with Uslip himself. Assuming his "new position" at this unnamed institution is indeed nothing more than what my grandpa used to call a snow job, nonprofit and for-profit parties alike will now be left to weigh whether Uslip is a radioactive waste heap with a Ph.D. or an asset temporarily undervalued thanks to a single (if egregious) miscalculation. Prior to "Direct Drive," Uslip had organized shows by heavy-hitters like Mark Bradford, Laurie Simmons, and Katharina Fritsch, as well as intriguing upstarts like Jon Rafman. So his track record suggests that he has talent and taste that aligns with the market. And that leads me to believe that, after a necessary detox period, he may re-emerge in a prominent role somewhere in the gallery or auction sector, where––as we've seen proven again and again, sometimes in mind-melting fashion––empathy with the broader public is generally about as necessary as a mosquito net on an Everest climb. [artnet News]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, remember: The line between vacationing and trespassing can be a lot thinner than we think.