Market Monday: Minority Rule
This week, a bloc of stories highlighting the gaping disconnect between high art and the general public...
In the aftermath of Chinese conglomerate Taikang Life Insurance's recent acquisition of a 13.5 percent stake in Sotheby's, Chris Buckley attempted to suss out the strategic basis for the deal. His analysis centers on the involvement of Beijing-based auction house China Guardian, which holds a majority stake in Taikang, and Chen Dongsheng, a co-founder of both entities, whose memoir reveals a borderline Fatal Attraction-level obsession with Sotheby's and its business practices––many of which he mimicked in painstaking detail at China Guardian, thanks in part to secret video footage he shot inside Sotheby's Hong Kong in the early 1990s. Buckley argues that China Guardian has fallen into second place in the national auction market behind upstart Poly, just as Sotheby's has fallen into second place in the global auction market behind Christie's. A pact between China Guardian and Sotheby's could therefore help both houses strengthen their positions relative to the high-end Chinese buyers now pivotal to the worldwide market. Sotheby's gets a stronger foothold in the region via China Guardian, and China Guardian, as Marion Maneker wrote elsewhere, gets an eastern prestige boost thanks to its team-up with Sotheby's western brand. But what's the game plan from there? Chen himself has made zero public comments since the announcement of the Taikang deal. Yet I think some of his past quotes to Chinese media outlets suggest one strategy he WON'T be advocating inside Sotheby's. In recent years, he's said that he aims to "recreate China's cultural aristocracy," and that, "Without commerce, there is no art, because if art has no value, then nobody will go to enjoy it." Based on that worldview, Chen may have gone from sneaking into the back of the room with a camcorder to bursting through the front door with a machete, intent on carving up any lingering doubt over whether Sotheby's should indeed scale back at the market's high end to focus on the middle, let alone what lies beneath. See you on the mountaintop. [The New York Times]
Switching scale and sectors, Michael Anthony Farley became the next contestant on the industry's most popular 21st-century quiz show, "Real Art or Real Estate?," by investigating the mysterious dismissal of social-practice artists Samantha Hill and Ed Woodham from their inaugural residency at the Mill Hill Arts Village in Macon, Georgia. Funded in part by a National Endowment for the Arts grant, the Mill Hill project/development centers on renovating historic houses in the area for low-income residents, while also providing "cultural programming and green space." Hill and Woodham were hired away from Chicago and New York, respectively, to jointly design and implement that cultural programming, only to find their temporary homes and studio spaces in Macon unfinished––and, less than a month later, their responsibilities revoked. The problem? Well, no one seems to know, exactly. Or if they do, they're not willing to go on record with the answer. The Macon Arts Alliance (MAA) only states that the artists failed "to live up to specific items within their contractual agreements." Hill and Woodham, on the other hand, allege that they were fired for unearthing and attempting to counteract a nefarious plot to exclude all Macon artists who don't fit what Hill calls "a small little paradigm of pottery or Monet paintings," as well as all members of the community not previously "screened" by the MAA. Based on Farley's reporting, though, the would-be collaboration seems to have exploded less because of malevolence than misalignment, with the project growing too ambitious and inclusive for its administrators to actually execute, yet still not ambitious or inclusive enough for the ex-artists-in-residence to support. In that sense, the mayhem at Mill Hill represents the central challenge of synergizing art and urban development: No project of either kind will ever satisfy an entire community. Try merging all three, and the only path to completion leaves someone's wants by the wayside. [Art F City]
Economist Robert Ekelund penned a feature on a topic regular readers of this space know well: the inherent dissonances in the business of American museums. While Ekelund spends most of the piece covering public institutions' growing reliance on private philanthropy and, as a result, the surging dominance of contemporary work––both touched on in last week's Market Monday–– he also raises one point completely new to me: the idea, borne out by his academic research, that museum attendance tends to be countercyclical. This means institutions generally have to accommodate fewer visitors when broader economic growth is strong, and more visitors when it weakens. Why? Mostly because museums and their often-free programming become much more appealing options to the average citizen when money is tight. Ironically, that situation spells budget trouble for the institutions themselves, since government arts funding and corporate giving alike normally contract in tough times. Count this paradox as yet another way that the general public's wants and needs actually clash with the very arts outlets theoretically designed to serve them. And unless Americans are comfortable with a future in which socioeconomic elites entirely control both the for-profit AND nonprofit sectors of the industry, then arts professionals, lawmakers, and activists will need to devote serious attention to squaring the museum-funding circle. [The Washington Post]
Finally, in related news, the tragic spate of recent terror attacks in Paris has apparently only hardened the resolve of French mega-collector, luxury goods titan, and Christie's owner François Pinault, who has doubled down on his effort to debut his forthcoming private museum in the City of Light before the dawn of 2019. Doreen Carvajal's story on the project alternately portrays it from two very different different angles: the first as another phase of the ongoing, um, let's say "Pinault-measuring" contest between François and longtime rival Bernard Arnault, whose Frank Gehry-designed Louis Vuitton Foundation private museum debuted in Paris in 2014; the second as a genuine yet almost absurdly idealistic attempt to heal a city gashed open by cultural differences and left to fester by political dysfunction. Of particular note is Pinault's determination to insure that his museum will, in Carvajal's words, "reach beyond the core of the French capital to the banlieues, the suburbs that are concentrations of poverty and isolation," particularly for Paris's underserved Muslim minority. The question is: How exactly does a rich white guy's 3,000-piece collection of contemporary art do that, especially while housed in a Tadao Ando-designed superstructure in the city's center? I sincerely wish Pinault and his team the best in figuring it out. But if his real goal is to unify the Parisian populace, I can't help shake the feeling that he could accomplish much more on that front by taking the reported $55 million now earmarked for his museum and diverting it elsewhere instead. [The New York Times]
That's all for this edition. Cultural programming note: In another example of a regime imposing its will on the populace, the blog and newsletter will be on hiatus this week so I can close a monograph I've been editing on the artist Liza Ryan, plus subtly heighten downtown Los Angeles's gentrification level by moving into a new apartment there. Til next time, remember that almost all revolutionaries become conservatives once they manage to actually grab power.