Market Monday: Misrepresented
This week, stories about relationship friction between artists and their sales agents, as well as between the industry and the bigger picture...
Freedom of Choice: On Monday, Anny Shaw went in-depth about the growing trend of blue-chip artists pushing back against the traditional concept of dedicated gallery representation. When it comes to market darlings like Richard Prince, Danh Vō, and Anish Kapoor, top talent has become increasingly willing to play hopscotch on a court of branded galleries, skipping from one competing space to the next on a show-by-show basis without officially joining anyone's roster. Nor is this development even exclusive to 2016. As just one earlier example, consider Richard Serra's uncomfortable ménage à trois with Gagosian and Zwirner almost two years ago.
So what does this development mean? Brand-centric art adviser Lisa Schiff appears in the piece to tease the possibility that "the idea of representing artists goes away completely" in the future. But I would be hugely skeptical of that prospect even if Schiff weren't powerfully incentivized to advertise it. (After all, advisers would become even more influential in such an unstructured industry.) Instead, artist and activist William Powhida nails the more complicated reality later on in Shaw's piece: namely, that this change only really benefits the few most profitable artists in the market, i.e. the ones who no longer need gallerists to drum up interest in their work among collectors, curators, and institutions. Just as important, this all-star team's freedom to play the field might consolidate collectors' interests even further, since fewer exclusive commitments to gallerists means more potential sales channels for sought-after talent, and thus more opportunities for brand-focused buyers to score their work.
That said, I also wonder whether this disturbance at the peak might trigger a different kind of cascade down Representation Mountain. Contracts between gallerists and their roster members remain exceedingly rare at all levels of the hierarchy. But part of the reason for that convention has always been that the most profitable gallerists have gained the most from a system built on instantly breakable commitments. If it's your bed that artists want to hop into once their careers are in heat, why would you push for reform that complicates quick and painless divorces from their current partners? But by dismissing all expectations of commitment in favor of a free-love ethos, superstar artists could finally compel elite galleries to rethink their longstanding resistance to formal representation agreements––if not for everyone, then at least for the younger talent on their rosters still short of Prince-style clout. I'm not saying it will happen. But it's amazing how people's stances on freedom change once they feel they have something to lose. [The Art Newspaper]
I Can't Quit You: Last May, Brushstroke Baroness Cecily Brown sparked more than a few Lisa Schiff-style conversations about the end of the gallery model by leaving Gagosian––after 15 years––for independent "artist agent" and former Gagosian director Andrea Crane. The revolutionary potential was obvious: Rather than uniting with another blue-chip gallery, Brown chose to entrust management of her US career to a rep without a permanent exhibition space. Less than 18 months later, though, the rebellion came to a quiet end. Robin Pogrebin broke the news on Thursday that Brown has joined high-end New York mainstay Paula Cooper. The artist's inaugural exhibition at her new stateside gallery will debut some time in 2017.
Since Brown has so far offered little insight into her decision, we're left to ask: Did Crane fail to deliver on her client's expectations, compelling Brown to retreat to the safety of a blue-chip gallerist? Or was this arrangement ever the paradigm shift that some in the industry (including a younger, more idealistic me) made it out to be? From my perspective, the most telling fact is that Brown never completely left the gallery system to begin with during her gap year (and change). She was the subject of a one-off solo exhibition at Maccarone early last summer, and she continued to be represented by London's Thomas Dane Gallery during her US free agency. Even Brown herself never portrayed her partnership with Crane as a permanent replacement for gallery representation. Consider these comments she made toVulture about the decision last year: “Being with a gallery is kind of like a marriage, so there doesn’t seem to be any reason to leap into another marriage straight away. At the same time, it’s a lot of work to represent yourself and I certainly don’t want to get into selling from my studio.”
My read is that Brown recognized all along that the artist-agent model is fatally flawed as a long-term solution. The main issue is that the art industry, particularly the primary market, still thrives on social gatherings around tangible work shown in physical locations. If an agent doesn't consistently control a big, beautiful, metropolitan exhibition space, it's extremely difficult to consistently generate the type of momentum and sales that an artist's career thrives on––or dies without. In my opinion, that means the lone artist agent may never be more than a temporary fixer for already sought-after artists who want a breather from dedicated representation and/or a negotiator on their side when determining where to sign next. That doesn't mean Brown and Crane weren't trailblazers. It just means that their path only stretched between stations rather than into the great unknown. [The New York Times]
What Have You Done For Me Lately?: Finally this week: Three years after Oscar Murillo's "Untitled (Drawings off the Wall)" scorched bidding paddles at Phillips like a miniature forest fire en route to a $401,000 sale, Brian Boucher ran some numbers to see how other works by the equally hyped and hated artist have performed in the auction sector since. The results look like a mixed bag by 21st-century art-market standards. Boucher reports that Murillo's "paintings have remained steady at around $300,000" each, according to statistically adjusted measures on artnet's Price Index. Yet his works in general have been in nearly uninterrupted year-on-year decline in raw-numbers categories like quantity of lots auctioned, total sales volume (i.e. the cumulative dollar-value brought in by all sold lots), and sell-through rate (i.e. how many offered lots actually sold at all).
At the same time, it's indicative of the industry as a whole in 2016 that we feel we might be able to determine anything of real value about an artist's career based on his auction results between his 27th and 30th birthdays. Yes, the metrics above mostly seem to imply that Murillo is underperforming. But is he really? And even if so, what do we mean by "underperforming," anyway? Consider for a moment the strangeness of the idea that a year-on-year decline in the quantity of lots auctioned––in other words, evidence that collectors are becoming more inclined to KEEP an artist's work rather than try to get rid of it––can now be seen as a negative. Even more striking: Many, if not most, of the other twentysomething painters Murillo rose up with between 2011-2014 have already been sucked into the industry's propellers, chopped up, and sprayed back out in anonymous chunks. From that perspective, Murillo is already a success based purely on the fact that we're even still talking about him three years after his auction apex.
Now, given that explosive early success under the gavel played a large part in launching Murillo to prominence in the first place, analysts will always be inclined to overweigh his auction results' importance in defining his career. Nor am I criticizing Boucher for writing the piece or artnet for assigning it. Both are only responding sensibly to the incentives and expectations in the market today. Nevertheless, the short-term turbulence around Murillo's auction performance is a reminder of what I wrote after listening to a Q&A with then-80-year-old Light & Space artist Helen Pashgian: Young artists now tend to be judged on their day-to-day sales (and resales) success rather than their creative strides. If they don't deliver the former, they probably won't be supported long enough to make the latter. That might be good for business in the short term, but it represents a troubling omen for the long-term dynamism of contemporary art as a discipline. [artnet News]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, don't stick around with anyone who doesn't have your best interests at heart.