Market Monday: Reality Bites
Recapping a week where the non-art world left teeth marks all over the industry...
Mikolai Napieralski, a former marketing-department staffer at the Qatar Museums (QM), gave his behind-the-scenes account of the rise-and-fall of the nation's multibillion-dollar effort to establish itself as a 21st-century leader in global visual culture. Many of the transactional and economic particulars will be familiar to readers who have been following the QM saga for the past several years: its long-rumored acquisitions of Cézanne's "The Card Players" and Gaguin's "When Will You Marry?" for a combined $550M, the large-scale migrant wage-slavery powering the construction of its new starchitect-designed institutions, the crude-oil price's euphoric-then-catastrophic effect on the entire Gulf's arts ambitions. But Napieralski's piece also offers fresh insight into the numerous conflicts inherent in trying to establish a world-class art program in the context of Qatar's professional, bureaucratic, and Wahhabism-dominated religious culture. Just a few of those conflicts included scattershot workweeks perpetually subject to change based on Allah's will (or at least its casual interpretation), sudden de-installations of high-profile works due to key officials' displeasure over sculptural nudity or the prospect of idol worship, and royal-family infighting over an arts enterprise dependent on expats often unwilling or unable to meet the lofty behavioral expectations of the Emir in their after-hours lives. (Not surprisingly, it sounds like the hotels housing QM's foreign staff once again proved what I learned as a college RA in a cold-weather location: Concentrate a couple dozen stressed-out people in isolated spaces with few outside options for relief over a multi-month span, and you'd damn well better expect copious substance use and mass sexual hijinks.) Through that angle, Napieralski's story irons a subtle wrinkle into legitimate concerns about the onset of a globally indistinguishable high-end art aesthetic: Even though brands travel and money talks, not every artwork or reality of the industry can plug and play in every region––no matter how badly some decision-makers might want it to. [Quartz]
To resolve the legal cliffhanger in last week's Market Monday, Judge Gary Feinerman finally let sanity ring from the mountaintop by ruling that Peter Doig "absolutely did not paint the disputed work" at the heart of the absurd authentication lawsuit brought against him by Chicago dealer Peter Bartlow and Canadian retiree Robert Fletcher. For a detailed breakdown of the verdict and its justification, I recommend Dushko Petrovich's artnet News recap. But before anyone pops the cork on a celebratory bottle of bub, I think it's important to look past the decision itself to the shadow the case may cast well into the future. As pointed out by Nicholas O'Donnell, a partner at Sullivan & Worcester and a member of the New York City Bar Association's Art Law Committee, Judge Feinerman's ultimate ruling in the case fails to negate the larger reality that "part of the damage is already done. In upholding a legal theory that allowed the plaintiff to get to trial, the case upends what seems to be an unassailable point, namely, that an artist himself is the final word on authentication." In other words, the practice and interpretation of law largely turns on precedent. No matter how forcefully pro-Doig the final decision was, it's arguable that Judge Feinerman set back artist's rights by decades purely by giving Bartlow and Fletcher their day in court. Now the next time a slimy, desperate, or misinformed plaintiff wants to drag a reputable artist into a years-long legal dispute over the authorship of a dubious work––remember, Bartlow kicked off this indecent affair all the way back in 2012––the Doig trial's existence in the annals of law strengthens the argument that the next judge should take that new plaintiff seriously, regardless of how outrageous his or her claim may be. And for artists, gallerists/dealers, and fans of reason in businesses of all types, that means Judge Feinerman already guaranteed weeks ago that Fletcher & Bartlow Vs. Doig would become the art-law equivalent of the 2004 schlock-horror epic Alien Vs. Predator: Whoever Wins, We Lose. [Sullivan & Worcester Art Law Report]
On Thursday, Rain Embuscado reported that the Louvre, last year's world leader in museum attendance per The Art Newspaper, suffered a 20-percent hit to its visitor numbers in the first half of this year––but only because France's heartbreaking string of recent terror attacks has sliced the Achilles tendon of the entire Paris tourism industry. With an estimated seven percent fewer visitors arriving from January through June 2016, the City of Light allegedly missed out on roughly $844M in revenue. Still, that means the Louvre's attendance losses nearly tripled those of its host city on a percentage basis. If this is indeed a macro problem, though, the question becomes what kind of macro solutions the institution and, more importantly, the French state can offer. So far, both entities seem content to bank on defense and law-enforcement spending. An unidentified rep from the Louvre emphasized the museum's use of "more police outside and in front of the pyramid," creating a "greater military presence," while President François Hollande lengthened an existing national state of emergency by three more months after July's vehicular homicide spree in Nice. But is this approach the best one? As a counterpoint, consider that Italy just doubled down on its attempt to combat extremism partly with culture, by announcing a $330M arts-spending stimulus program that awards a roughly $560 "culture bonus" to every Italian citizen who turns 18 betweenSeptember 15th, 2016 and December 31, 2017. Recipients can spend the money as they see fit on "books, theater, concerts, exhibitions, and museums, but"––somewhat strangely––"not on the purchase of recorded music." (Clearly, no one told parliament that any teenager who blew $560 on MP3s or CDs in the Spotify era would be viewed by his peers as either a fool or a sociopath.) The initiative comprises part of prime minister Matteo Renzi's pledge to match government spending on defense with government spending on culture, euro for euro. It's a grand experiment to be sure. But it's also a refreshing break from 21st-century orthodoxy on the value of art: an acknowledgment that its protection at all costs may be no more important than its widespread integration into the average citizen's life.
[Louvre attendance: artnet News | Italian bonus: ARTFORUM]
Finally this week, artnet and the Chinese Association of Auctioneers (CAA) released their latest annual report surveying the auction market on mainland China, as well as for Chinese artworks and collectibles abroad. The headline figures for 2015 tell a tale of extremes, including: an estimated 19-percent year-on-year decline that left mainland auction totals at just $4.4B, less than half of their 2011 peak; an estimated 14-percent year-on-year surge for Chinese lots worldwide, with sales reaching $2.6B; and an estimated 41-percent nonpayment rate(!) on mainland auction wins––remarkably, a slight improvement against the 45-percent chance of deadbeat behavior in 2014. Other findings gel with wider auction-sector and industry-wide trends, such as consolidation of market share by the few strongest players in the field, and bidders' outsized interest in the high to extreme-high end of the price spectrum. And yet, despite artnet and the CAA's stated mission to make the report "a new standard for transparency" in an often-questioned market, I still can't say I'm comfortable with placing too much faith in their results. As most readers already know, every aspect of the Chinese economy is notoriously difficult to pin down, largely due to state influence over hard numbers. For example, last year The Wall Street Journal called the People's Republic a "black box" that is "difficult to assess, among murky politics, unreliable data, and opaque decision making." (Sidenote: Sound like any western industries you know?) No matter how sincerely CAA members may want to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the report's prologue shows that the organization works in concert with China's Ministry of Commerce, and, like all others in the country, it undoubtedly only operates as long as it has the blessing of Xi Jinping––not exactly a ruler renowned for letting the sunlight in. So is it advisable to buy into the document's mainland data when, for example, many economists estimated that China's GDP only grew at about half the officially announced seven-percent rate in 2014? Not to sound like a tinfoil-hat pitchman, but wouldn't it provide great support for an ongoing government crackdown on (alleged) corruption if unassailable numbers showed that extreme delinquency by bad actors represented the mainland's biggest obstacle to legitimacy in a culturally important, globally desirable market? And how are we supposed to reconcile that a report supposedly dedicated to transparency refuses to identify the "third-party organization with insider knowledge of the state of the art market in China" allegedly vetting its data? Please don't misunderstand me: I'm sure that artnet and the CAA have done the best they (and likely anyone else) can do. But the more I learn about the mainland Chinese art market across all sectors, the more my position on the subject starts to resemble screenwriting legend William Goldman's famous stance on the movie business: Nobody knows anything. [artnet News summary | Free download of the full report]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, try not to get totally lost in the belly of the art business. Despite how all-consuming it can feel day to day, it's never really the top of the food chain.