Market Monday: Door #1, or Door #2?
This week, pairing up similar contestants who chose opposite fates...
Respected London-based gallerist Timothy Taylor announced on Friday that he has joined the sector's ever-growing cavalry of international expansionists. His new space will occupy the ground floor of a Chelsea townhouse starting this September. But Timothy Taylor 16 x 34––the location's official moniker––stands out from the vast majority of his rivals' galleries in at least one regard: its physical size. The space's numerical postscript comes from its actual dimensions (in linear feet), making the gallery less a full-fledged satellite than a minimalist space probe. Taylor's decision to keep his first US location so compact reflects an important truth about the optics of expansion in today's globalized industry: While collectors (and artists) tend to see more spacious galleries as superior to less spacious ones, it's better for ambitious gallerists to have a permanent presence of any size in multiple markets than to be pigeon-holed as a one-city seller. [The Art Newspaper]
Elsewhere in Manhattan, Tracy Williams revealed that she will close her namesake space, Tracy Williams Ltd., at the end of July and "move away from the gallery model." In a letter announcing the move, Williams writes that her next (as-yet-unnamed) iteration, which she plans to debut this fall, will prioritize "fleetness and fluidity" by "striving to identify alternative and unusual spaces for exhibitions and events, and forging links between the visual arts and other disciplines, such as literature, music, and fashion." All of which makes Williams an industry case study on multiple levels. As only the latest midlevel gallery forced to tap out by the sector's brutal economics in the post-2008 era, she reminds us again that an entire tier of the private market has been bleeding out even more slowly and agonizingly than a gut-shot Mr. Orange in "Reservoir Dogs." [NSFW] And yet, by singling out collaborations with pop culture as a possible path forward, Williams also acknowledges that this continued assault on the traditional art market's middle has coincided with an unprecedented surge in contemporary art's mainstream appeal. Does that mean midlevel art can reach sustainability by teaming up with books, music, and other mass media aimed at a broader public? Or should Williams be more concerned that most, if not all, of the other art forms she's looking toward for help are actually being hollowed out in the same ways as the gallery sector she just evacuated? Stay tuned... [ARTnews]
Elsewhere on the blog, I took my magnifying glass to the mystery of why MCH Group, the parent company of Art Basel, struck a deal to buy the Pinterest-like art startup Curiator last week. While I suspect more than a few observers anticipate that MCH will try to directly monetize their new acquisition––possibly even by creating some kind of online-only "art fair"––I think Curiator is much more likely to be used as a tractor beam whose direct target isn't money at all, but data. [The Gray Market]
On the flip side of the startup coin, ArtList, the 19 month-old collector-to-collector online resale platform, shut down this week, immediately after the collapse of an exit deal with an unidentified investor. I've been consistently impressed with co-founder Kenneth Schlenker's thoughts and perspective whenever I've encountered them the past few years, so I'm a little disappointed about this one. But I'm also not necessarily surprised. ArtList's fate underscores the monstrous challenge facing every art startup: Tech companies normally only become profitable by achieving scale, and achieving scale is damn hard in a market driven by only a few thousand meaningful customers. But ArtList also stuck its head in the lion's mouth by designing its marketplace to keep buyers and sellers anonymous from one another––a would-be feature that ultimately did more to damage the platform than enrich it. In an industry where reputation and relationships still rule, most collectors would much rather know exactly who is on the opposite end of a deal than blindly trust a middleman, regardless of whether that intermediary is online or in the flesh. [artnet News]
Switching to the auction sector, Sotheby's made a pair of creative hires this week. Candy Coleman, the (soon to be ex-)director of Gagosian's Los Angeles mainstay, will join the house in order to try to strengthen its grip on the west coast's contemporary-art market. Eric Shiner, the (soon to be ex-)director of the Andy Warhol Museum, will become the senior VP of Sotheby's new Amy Cappellazzo-led fine-arts division, with a concentration on private sales. Together, the dual addition of Coleman and Shiner allows the house to simultaneously target both new business (in the form of the western US's burgeoning client base) and evergreen business (in the form of the Warhol market), which feels like an intelligently balanced strategy. But I'm even more impressed by the decision to execute that strategy by importing top talent from other spheres of the industry. In doing so, Sotheby's new brain trust shows that it recognizes future success in its sector will likely flow from fundamentally different revenue streams than past success. Think: nascent buyers, private sales, and an expanded palette of related services rather than longstanding collectors and traditional auctions. Bravo to them for gauging the winds of change. [Coleman: ARTnews | Shiner: The New York Times]
On the other hand, Phillips also made two high-profile personnel additions, but I'm hard-pressed to call the choices anything more enthusiastic than "solid" and "safe." Robert Manley, once Christie's deputy chairman of postwar and contemporary art, was officially named the house's deputy chairman and senior international specialist of 20th-century and contemporary art. Scott Nussbaum, an ex-VP of Sotheby's contemporary department, will adopt another title long and bland enough to make all but the most die-hard auction fan's eyes glaze over like hospital patients who just pressed the morphine button. (It's senior specialist and head of 20th-century and contemporary art, if you must know.) I'm being so snarky about the names of these posts because they embody the same problem as the men picked to fill them. Phillips remains a distant third in the auction space, and despite plenty of talk about rising up to compete with Christie's and Sotheby's, I've seen very little evidence that the house is doing anything radical enough to disrupt the decades-old status quo. Although I'm a little reluctant to invoke the wisdom of "Mad Men" yet again: If you don't like what's being said, you have to figure out how to change the conversation. And I seriously doubt that Manley or Nussbaum's appointment does that for anyone outside of Phillips itself. [ARTnews]
Finally this week, a mirror-reversed pair of cautionary tales from the annals of art authentication. In a bizarrely Kafka-esque move, a federal judge in Chicago has ordered Prometheus of the Palette Peter Doig to prove in court that he did NOT paint a work that a retired corrections officer alleges the record-setting artist sold him as an LSD-addled teenager on a Canadian prison farm over 40 years ago, even though A) Doig has already denied authorship, and B) the signature on the painting––which reads "Pete Doige '76"––would mean that young Doig misspelled his own name. Meanwhile, halfway around the world, Mono-ha Maverick Lee Ufan transported South Korean authorities straight into the leading role of their own personal "Pink Panther" movie, when the artist blew up a year-long counterfeiting investigation by claiming authorship of 13 works already declared fakes by forensic experts, art appraisers... and the actual art-forger at the center of the sting. I have no clue how either of these sagas will end. But they both reinforce the absurd truth that the most essential question in the multibillion-dollar art market––"Is this piece even legitimate?"––still has no foolproof answers in 2016. [Doig's Debacle: The New York Times | Lee's Ufanity: Artsy]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, choose wisely.