Market Monday: Evolution or Devolution?
This week, following fresh tracks attesting to the new law of the industry jungle...
Sign o' the Times: In a stellar example of the adage "Things change very slowly, then all at once," this week the New York Times abruptly killed all future coverage of the arts and food scene in Connecticut, New Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island. The decision-makers reportedly described their decision to retire these beats in the tri-state area as "structural and philosophical, not economic." In other words: We could afford to do it, but nah. While the paper's regional correspondents seem to feel blindsided by the move, it follows naturally from the April launch of a $50M initiative to expand the brand's digital presence worldwide––an initiative signifying that theTimes had revised its larger mission from remaining "the paper of record" to becoming the "indispensable leader in global news and opinion."
That pivot shows why the tri-state area's nonprofits, galleries, and artists will now suffer on two levels. They won't just lose the regional audience bump that Timescoverage historically gave them. They'll also lose access to a nascent audience of international elites that could in theory change their fortunes even more dramatically. Viewed from the opposite side of the looking glass, the move also reflects the paradox of contemporary art's globalization: As the community of potential patrons expands wider than ever, the powers that be narrow their focus to the few people, places, and brands they believe can play everywhere. And given that the trend lines in the industry, as well as in economics and culture more broadly, show no signs of reversing, every artist, collector, and arts professional currently locked outside the in-crowd would be wise to seriously consider how they might infiltrate it at all costs... or build/contribute to an alternate ecosystem for contemporary art altogether. [artnet News, via Deadline]
By Any Means Necessary: With assistance from Caroline Elbaor, Ben Davis took a quantitative approach to analyzing the impact of an MFA on commercial success in the art industry, specifically through the lens of career auction sales over the past 50 years––a dependable if fraught metric, as Davis himself points out. To me, the findings double as an art-industry corollary to one of my favorite picture books growing up: Margery Cuyler and David Catrow's "That's Good! That's Bad!," in which every apparent positive becomes a negative on closer examination (and vice versa).
Here's what I mean: Supporting the standard industry perception of graduate-studio education, the data shows that a disproportionately small number of schools produced a disproportionately large number of top performers at auction––a telltale distribution obeying what statisticians call a power law. Just as important, and just as characteristic of this phenomenon, the relative value of programs within this exclusive cohort sometimes drops exponentially as one moves down the list. For instance, more artists in the top 500 auction-earners received an MFA from first-place Yale than from second-place UCLA and third-place Columbia combined. That's bad for most artists, right?
No, that's good, because if you zoom out to the bigger picture, Davis found an almost even split between MFA-holders and MFA-lackers among the most bidder-beloved artists: 53 percent to 47 percent, with a surprising six of the top ten performers absent an advanced degree. That's good for most artists, right? No, that's bad, because the equilibrium shifts noticeably if you deprive the non-MFA crowd of stars from alternate galaxies, such as street artists (see: KAWS, RETNA) and mainstream celebrities (see: Adrien Brody, Kurt Cobain, and Marilyn Manson). After that data adjustment, artists with MFAs expand to a 58-percent share of the sample––a clear win over their less formally educated peers.
In total, then, Davis and Elbaor's study also shows another type of power law governing the art market today: the power of brands. Whether it comes from an industry-approved graduate program or from pop cultural renown, name recognition of any type offers artists (and "artists") a quantifiable sales advantage. So if you want to make money making art, getting into one of the most famous schools would probably help... but so would just getting famous, period. [artnet News]
Venture Forth: After interviewing several venture capitalists who double as arts patrons, Sarah Thornton dug into the often-overlooked traits that VCs share with contemporary artists and industry professionals. Her various subjects draw out parallels that include the desire to transform the world, prioritization of long-term potential over short-term gains, and a strategy of constant iteration (or at least a willingness to pivot at key moments) in pursuit of success.
As enthusiastic as I was about these insights on the first read, though, reviewing them convinced me that an important disconnect complicates the comparison somewhat. In almost all cases, the parallels in question only really apply to artists focused on substance over sales, as well as on an increasingly small subset of gallerists committed to following the Leo Castelli model, i.e. a business plan based on a years-long commitment to nurturing talent and gradually cultivating meaningful collectors. But as close industry observers know, the 21st-century has ushered in the widespread hyper-professionalization of the young artist––a sales-oriented evolution influenced, if not triggered, by the Koonses and Hirts of the world––and as my blog post above explores in more depth, many gallerists' abandonment of the Castelli model for a less patient, more transactional approach to the discipline. All of which suggests that the philosophical crossover between VCs and contemporary art is an even more niche phenomenon than we might expect.
Still, if VCs are sincere about replicating their investment strategy in their collecting habits (as many of the patronage choices made by Thornton's interviewees suggest), that motive at least opens a POSSIBLE route to safety for unbranded artists and gallerists. The question just becomes whether that route is accessible anywhere outside of Silicon Valley––and even if so, how many escapees the venture-capital community alone will consistently support. [ARTnews]
Old Masters, New Problems: Finally this week, in a story titled "Can the Old Masters Be Relevant Again?," Robin Pogrebin tried to get to the root of the industry's anemic interest in the genre that ruled premier auction houses, museums, and private collections until the latter stages of the 20th century. But her reporting strongly suggests that the Old Masters' alleged irrelevance may be both a less definite and more nuanced story than many suppose. For example, the Met's recent Vigée Le Brun show drew upwards of 165,000 visitors in its three-month run, and "attendance remains strong" at classics-inclined institutions like The Getty and The Frick. In fact, Pogrebin even reminds us that when top-quality Old Master works hit the auction block, they continue to perform well––as evidenced by Christie's $58M sale of Rubens's "Lot and His Daughters" this July.
What eventually becomes clear in Pogrebin's piece is that its headline––which, as a reminder, likely came from the editors rather than her––really concerns whether Old Masters can be relevant to the status-seeking and/or asset-minded COINs (Collectors Only In Name) who most consistently churn the art market. And the long-ago greats don't stand much of a chance based on that demographic's incentives and interests. From a jet-setting lifestyle standpoint, all that can be done to sex up Goya and company is to curate their work alongside hot contemporary artists in premier industry events, as Christie's has now done multiple times (including last May's record-setting "Looking Forward to the Past"). And while I continue to believe art is most definitely not a wise investment (or truly an investment at all), sellers pitching Old Masters to COINs now probably most resemble brokers pitching mutual funds to coke-twitchy twentysomething playboys: voices of (relative) reason foiled by their strategy's fundamental inability to deliver orgiastic overnight returns. Ultimately, this combination of characteristics adds up to the Old Masters' fatal flaw in the new jungle of collecting––and perhaps their greatest virtue in the vanishing land of aficionados. [The New York Times]
That's all for this edition. Til next time, remember: No species stays on top forever.