Market Monday: The Change-Up
This week, stories about the need to dramatically re-evaluate––and the discomfort it often entails...
Four Play: As (I suspect) a bit of counter-programming to the commercial madness of this fall's New York auction week, Loney Abrams compiled a four-item list of "ways for artists to fund their studios without actually selling artwork." While the radical premise made me eager to read, the results left me more than a little disappointed. The reason runs deeper than just the obviousness of Abrams's first three suggestions: applying for grants, public-art commissions, and residencies. The even-more troubling aspect is that she can't even really conjure up a fourth recommendation to satisfy her prompt. The final word of advice in her piece is to get a teaching job, which Abrams admits "may not TOTALLY count," since it involves opening an entirely alternate revenue stream to studio practice (except by the most generous definition). I agree with her assessment on this point. Frankly, I still find myself wishing that she'd just skipped straight to marrying for money. (Not that any serious yet struggling artist would ever do that.)
Through its shortcomings, though, Abrams's list nevertheless does something valuable: It demonstrates just how difficult it often is for traditional artists and art-industry thinkers to break away from the classical conception of how to monetize their endeavors. When a legitimate art-media platform designates the items on this list as outside-the-white-cube thinking, it's a signal that our baseline assumptions about artistic sustainability may be even more deeply entrenched than I thought. And I fear that if most aspiring visual artists, curators, and arts entrepreneurs remain unwilling to reconsider nearly everything about what they do, odds are that the increasingly winner-takes-all economics of the art market may very well leave them wishing they'd been as creative in their business strategy as in their aesthetic efforts. [Artspace]
Debt Collectors: On Thursday, Robin Pogrebin introduced readers to the 63 artists selected for the 2017 Whitney Biennial, as well as the core theme that ties them together. According to the museum's Christopher Y. Lew, who shares curatorial duties for this edition of the event with independent curator Mia Locks, much of the biennial will center on "the artist or a self in relation to the tumultuous world that we're in." In other words: Rather than glossy market fodder or art about art, expect identity politics, social consciousness, and a gaze that extends beyond the industry's own increasingly well-waxed navel.
Although more than a few of the artists spotlit by Pogrebin work outside the bounds of traditional art capitalism––the presence of the collective Postcommodity speaks volumes even if you know nothing about its output––I'm particularly intrigued by the inclusion of the activist group Occupy Museums, an offshoot of Occupy Wall Street. Occupy Museums' contribution to WhiBi17 will be a new edition of its Debtfair project, which, in Pogrebin's words, "packages works by United States artists who are in debt into 'bundles' that can be purchased for the cost of the artists’ monthly loan payments."
I'm fascinated by this concept for two reasons. Number one, I love that actual artists managed to beat the art-finance sector to the punch on concocting what are essentially the industry's first derivatives. But more important, the Debtfair project goes beyond cleverly raising awareness about the everyday fiscal burdens so many rank-and-file artists assume to try to professionalize their passions. It also simultaneously reaches for an actual solution, imperfect as that solution may be. True, the project is unlikely to change the underlying lot of artists in any tangible way. Yet I still applaud its founders for putting on blast the too-often-muted realities of a market that, in my view, can only sustain a wider base if and when participants recognize it as a form of commerce rather than a higher calling deserving special protections. Remember: No problem can be solved until it's acknowledged. [The New York Times]
Recognition and Repair: In what was easily the most thought-provoking piece I read this week, Sarah Douglas and her team at ARTnews posted a meaty excerpt from the magazine's forthcoming Winter issue on "How to Fix the Art World." The project hands the megaphone to a cross-section of industry notables ranging from gallerists and dealers to artists and curators, all of whom identify what they see as the most fundamental problems hamstringing contemporary art's evolution. It's a long read but a worthwhile one.
My favorite contributions to the roundup came from sources on totally opposite sides of the rodeo pen. The first is––and believe me, no one is more surprised by this than I am––Jeffrey Deitch, who asks whether the traditional art establishment can maintain its long-held status as the alpha and omega of taste despite that more and more of the wider world seems to be taking its aesthetic cues from pop culture and DIY platforms. On the other end, artist-activist group W.A.G.E. (Working Artists and the Greater Economy, who I've written about before) uses its space to advocate for a wholesale re-contextualization of contemporary art-making as labor––no more, no less––rather than as a sanctified exception to capitalism. And this shift is important because, despite the nonprofit sphere's too-frequent attempts to "compensate" artists in exposure, everyone knows that labor deserves payment.
Since I'm still formulating my thoughts about Deitch's premise––it's essentially the crux of the final chapter in my book––I'll just say this about W.A.G.E.'s conclusions: They drive my comparison-seeking brain right to the NCAA's conception of the so-called "student-athlete," a label created and mythologized by a sports cartel to avoid paying anything beyond room, board, and tuition to thousands of collegiate employees who collectively generate billions of dollars in annual revenue for its member institutions and administrators. Like NCAA critics (including yours truly), W.A.G.E.'s argument is that distributors shouldn't get to have it both ways, i.e. enjoy the right to monetize the labor of others while claiming some intangible greater good justifies their refusal to compensate the workforce that made that monetization possible. As a relatively small number of activists in both college athletics and the arts make clear, you can't kill this brand of exploitation without first destroying its rhetorical shield. But considering how tightly art-industry participants on all sides tend to clutch the idea of art as gateway to transcendence, that's a demolition it may take years, if not decades, of hard work to complete. All the more reason to get started now. [ARTnews]
A New Chapter: Finally this week, a bit of personal business news: After four and a half years of freelancing, I've accepted a position as Director of Research at Kayne Griffin Corcoran here in Los Angeles. I'll be working with the gallery's partners to develop strategies for their newest contingent of represented artist, led by the under-recognized Mary Corse, as well as for the business as a whole. It's an opportunity to try to implement some of the ideas I've spent so much time thinking and writing about since founding The Gray Market in 2013, with more resources and a bigger platform than ever. Don't worry: The newsletter will continue as normal. In fact, I'm hopeful that the synergy between my writing and my new gig can amplify any positive difference I'd be able to make through each on its own.
That's all for this edition. The Gray Market will be taking this coming week off for the Thanksgiving holiday. Til next time, don't be afraid to switch everything.