Market Monday: The Shape of Things to Come
This week added more fuel to the fire melting art into a borderless amoeba of luxury...
Room for One More?: On Thursday, Marc Spiegler and company announced that Buenos Aires will be the inaugural civic partner in the Art Basel Cities program. At this point, details are still vague about what exactly the arrangement will entail. The press release simply states the following: "Together with the city, Art Basel will develop and host a vibrant and content-driven program of events... [that] will celebrate the local art scene and build lasting relationships between Buenos Aires and the international art world." And a bit later: "In addition to hosting a unique art program in the partner city, this initiative will bring projects from the city to the Art Basel shows, providing Buenos Aires with additional opportunities to engage with Art Basel's international audience." To me, that sounds like Basel gives Buenos Aires some version of a one-time-only biennial, and Buenos Aires gets some of the world's priciest––to quote Theaster Gates––"five-day real estate" at Basel's three-stop, continent-spanning circuit of annual fairs.
Assuming that's generally accurate, my central question about this endeavor is whether the Art Basel brand will be enough to convince its high-profile audience to add yet ANOTHER international destination to its 2017 itinerary, especially one so far off the industry's gilded map. The existing art-world event nearest to Buenos Aires seems to be Saõ Paulo's SP-Arte in April, which many insiders seem to be comfortable skipping already. Worse, apart from Art Basel Miami Beach in December––which the organization won't want to cannibalize through scheduling conflicts––other late-year "must-see" events tend to be based in the UK (see: Frieze London) and western Europe (see: FIAC in Paris). Not exactly a quick puddle-jump from the lower reaches of South America. As for the other half of the Cities bargain, we just learned this week that there will be 269 exhibitors at Art Basel Miami Beach 2016, which is essentially par for the brand's course in both Hong Kong and its namesake Swiss home, as well. Given its fairs' already-sprawling nature, then, I think it's fair to wonder how much attention visitors will pay to Buenos Aires's presence at Art Basel's traditional events.
To be clear, I'm not predicting doom for Art Basel Cities, either in its first run or overall. I have too much respect for the organization's officers, as well as their past results, to believe they haven't already thought through these issues. But right now, what I can say for certain is this: Art Basel, the world's premier art fair organizer, is attempting to expand beyond the art fair. And along with the revolving personnel door between for-profit and nonprofit arts entities, auction houses' recent moves into advising and private sales, and a growing list of other examples, that makes Art Basel Cities another tectonic plate-shift away from the industry's old territorial boundaries and toward art-world Pangaea. [Art Basel press release]
Pleasure Principle: Catapulting off the debut of "Electric Earth," his career survey at Los Angeles's Museum of Contemporary Art, multimedia artist and crossover impresario Doug Aitken announced that next month he will unveil a new environmental installation, in the most literal sense of the term. The as-yet-untitled piece will consist of three mirrored underwater "pavilions" to be "suspended... in a kelp-rich marine preserve" off the coast of Avalon, the crown jewel of southern California getaway Catalina Island. Presented in conjunction with the eco-activist nonprofit Parley for the Oceans, Aitken designed the works so that divers and native sea life alike can explore their "cave-like structures" in harmony. He also plans for the piece to act as both the practical and conceptual anchor for an early November "24-hour music-and-performance-fueled 'happening,'" likely in the same vein as the stops on his 2014 "Station to Station" project.
While Aitken defined the project as a dynamic, eco-friendly alternative to the monolithic, man-conquers-nature approach of older American Land Artists, I think his Catalina pavilions matter much less for their creative or thematic contrast with that reference point than for their lifestyle contrast. Whereas artists like Michael Heizer, Robert Smithson, and James Turrell engaged with challenging desert locations that demand visitors endure at least a somewhat hardy trek for the payoff, Aitken's environmental installations and happenings largely tack to destinations that rarely ask anyone to leave creature comforts behind. Aside from the tourist haven of Avalon––not to mention the November happening's venue, the Catalina Casino, which Jori Finkel calls "the most visible and glamorous landmark on the island"––"Station to Station" held court almost entirely in major American cities, and Aitken activated his 2011 video installation "Black Mirror" by projecting it on a barge visible off the coast of Hydra, the Greek island that Condé Nast called "a stop-off on the glittery international art circuit" that has "long attracted artists and art money." Like much of the rest of his sought-after work, then, Aitken's latest site-specific piece underscores one of the dominant trends in the 21st-century art industry: the ongoing push to treat high-end pleasure as a supreme value and animating force. [The New York Times]
To Live and Dine in LA: In light of Los Angeles's much talked-about ascension as an international arts center, Catherine G. Wagley dug into the city's recent cultural evolution, largely with an eye toward a question that has haunted the west-coast art industry for decades: Can LA cultivate a strong enough local collector base to sustain a surge-in-progress for the long term, without external intervention? En route to a potential answer, Wagley weaves a diverse set of subjects and background info into the most thorough, accurate portrait of the Los Angeles scene I've read lately––an accomplishment as worthy of attention as the nuanced skepticism that arises in response to its prompt. (Side note: Shout to ARTnews for assigning this story to an actual Angeleno arts writer, rather than following the worn-out art-media playbook by strapping a parachute to a New York correspondent.)
At the same time, I'm left wondering this: Apart from New York and possibly London, what other city's art industry COULD survive, let alone thrive, on its residential collectors alone? More important, is this even an appropriate question to ask in the globalized art industry of 2016, where practically every high-end gallery is desperate to occupy multiple cities, art-fair sales are responsible for a major chunk of most sellers' annual revenue, and the market-making collectors spend every year Gulfstreaming around the world in a nomadic caravan of luxury? In my mind, the notion of a self-sustaining local collector base is as much a relic of a bygone era as the notion of buyers' basing their decisions on exhibition reviews. The reality is that we've left the old country behind. Many of its customs no longer apply to the new one. And the settlers who have already recognized as much––even if they don't like it––are now devouring their rivals' lunch like Grizzly bears in a "Man vs. Beast" hot dog-eating contest. Spoiler alert: The bear wins. [ARTnews]
Corporatus Ex Machina: After nearly 753,000 visitors took in the show before it concluded on Labor Day, the Met's "Manus x Machina: Fashion in the Age of Technology" became the seventh most-attended exhibition in the museum's history. The Met now counts three fashion exhibitions among its top ten all time, with each member of the trio presented in the past five years. Only four of the other seven shows on the list featured art alone, while the remaining three––"The Vatican Collections," "The Horses of San Marco," and reigning attendance champ "Treasures of Tutankhamen"––fit what I would call a broader cultural mandate.
In addition to its stellar visitor total, "Manus x Machina" is also noteworthy for being the first arts or culture programming sponsored by Apple. It's the combination of these two traits that earns the exhibition a spot in this week's recap. Together, they help explain why we should expect cash-strapped museums––which increasingly means "all museums"––to continue along the blockbuster exhibition path for the foreseeable future, specifically by reaching past even mildly challenging arts themes for the most mainstream subject matter available. Despite that admissions generally account for only a sliver of American museums' annual revenue––usually two to four percent for institutions outside of New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco––corporate patrons are most likely to support shows and projects that make headlines. After all, they're paying for the opportunity to reach as many members of a target demographic as possible, and there's no more dependable way to do that in a museum setting than to shatter attendance records. But you're not going to pull that off that by sponsoring, say, Chris Burden crucifying himself on a Volkswagen or Hito Steyerl projecting dystopian corporate hellscapes into a Tron room. A Rem Koolhaas-designed installation of futuristic couture, though? That's the type of programming that moves iPhones. [artnet News]
I Like My Nonprofits Venti: Finally this week, Daniel Grant took a revealing tour through the next phase of the American museum sector's expansion craze: Instead of just trying to outgun each other architecturally, institutions across the country are now in an arms race over amenities and customer service. From childcare and yoga classes to concert series and artisanal restaurants, museums are now spending big to offer their local communities an ever-widening array of reasons to visit, aside from whatever might be on view in the galleries. Much of the trend can be summed up in the following statement from Mark Walhimer, president of the San Francisco-based consulting firm Museum Planning and author of the forthcoming book The Museum Customer Experience: "Our expectations of going to museums increasingly are like our expectations when going into a Starbucks: We want things to be tailored to our individual likes and interests. We want to be greeted, ‘Hello, Mark, how’s your morning?’
Setting aside the entertaining image of Philippe Vergne or Thomas Campbell serving up lattes in a green apron, in principle there's valid justification for this institutional trend. Museums have become increasingly aware over the past several years that they're not just competing against other cultural attractions for visitors and revenue. In the 21st-century attention economy, they're competing against EVERYONE and EVERYTHING ELSE with designs on our precious free time and excess income. That makes it necessary to fundamentally rethink the museum's battle plan rather than just try to present the most crowd-pleasing exhibitions possible.
And yet, there's a fine line between engaging the community and pandering to it, particularly at the expense of what sets any museum apart from non-museum competitors: the artwork. And I would be, uh, hard-pressed to come up with a better allegory for this idea than to mention an anecdote in Grant's piece about how an unnamed Oregon museum's "all you can drink" event allegedly culminated with a couple having sex on a Henry Moore sculpture. (Side note: I hope for the participants' safety it was a Henry Moore like this, not one like this.) I agree that it's crucial for institutions to try to make art more meaningful and accessible to the average citizen, both now and into the future. Yet I also think it's dangerous for museums to over-extend their resources by delivering a gargantuan slate of cookie-cutter amenities with little connection to the reason museums exist in the first place. Yes, arts nonprofits are locked in combat with restaurants, retailers, professional networking events, and so much more. But, as Nietzsche advised in a different context, they also have to be careful not to become the very monsters they're fighting. [Observer]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, try not to drown in the primordial soup. The world needs all the structure and solidity it can get right now.