Market Monday: Mr. Fix It
Reviewing a week of dubious solutions around the industry…
POPULARITY CONTEST: On Wednesday Margaret Rhodes investigated Artsy’s quest to raise humanity's visual taste level en route to establishing “a world in which art is as popular as music”—a mission that, to me, raises more questions than a cryptic late-night text from a dead relative's phone. The main reason? Like the socially awkward teen bookworm I once was, I’m utterly confused about the mechanics of popularity here.
For the sake of argument, let’s set aside the basic reality that people consume so much music partially because it’s a great complement to doing other stuff at the same time. (Try scrolling through JPGs of a museum collection during your drive to work tomorrow, or replacing the stereo at your next party with a painting, and let me know how either one works out.) Even then, Artsy still has to crack a vexing—and I think, insoluble—puzzle to reach its preferred destination.
The issue is that taste and popularity often, if not usually, clash with each other. A few examples are useful here. First, to stick with Artsy's pop-music comparison, last November “Closer,” the cliché-mainlining single from music-snob ridicule-magnets the Chainsmokers, became the longest-running #1 song of 2016, per Billboard—and the 12th most-durable chart-topper of all time. Despite the orthodox opinion that we now live in the “golden age of TV,” total viewer numbers tell us that the biggest hit on the American small screen last year was the retrograde two-camera CBS sitcom The Big Bang Theory. And to drive home the point like an armed Van Helsing over an incapacitated vampire, consider this headline from Quartz about the current cinema landscape: “Netflix’s most popular original films are awful Adam Sandler comedies."
As I’ve written before, unlike music, movies, TV, videogames, or books, art is not a mass medium. It is a cultural niche, largely because its appreciation and market have long been powered by the aggressive cultivation of exclusivity. For many, if not most, artists and enthusiasts, the goal is to engage with works that speak to a small group of like minds fluent in our unique language. For sellers, the goal is to strategically restrict access to already-scarce goods in the hope of spiking their value even higher. Although the pharmaceutical industry and a quick browse through your spam folder will try to tell you otherwise, there’s still no aphrodisiac stronger than competition.
In contrast to Artsy CEO Carter Cleveland's proclamation that taste simply "comes from spending more time with something," then, an alternate––and I believe, more accurate––definition of “taste” is this: a minority opinion held by a self-selecting (and often self-interested) in-group that wants to separate itself from the herd, often by consuming what the general public has no interest or no means to consume.
And that concept lays bare the contradiction in Artsy's business model. The platform wants art to be as popular as music, i.e. to become a mass medium. But despite some recent swerves, mainstream popularity is still not what drives longevity or commercial viability in fine art. Instead, the most successful artists, gallerists, and dealers are the ones who connect with a platinum-coated sliver of tastemakers and socioeconomic elites. I'm not saying I would bet against Artsy in the online space overall. I'm just saying that its grandest ambition is unlikely to ever get out of neutral. [Wired]
MASTER OF HIS DOMAIN: On Wednesday Katya Kazakina covered the rollout of the new domain extension .art, which becomes publicly available to would-be website registrants on May 10. Operated by Azerbaijani investor Ulvi Kasimov thanks to his willingness to plunk down $25 million––which, reminder, is basically pocket lint in the finance or venture-capital realms––.art domains have been available to industry professionals with "preferred access" since mid-February. During that time, they were rewarded with the opportunity to pay a semi-absurd $300 per domain to box out URL squatters. And really, how could anyone possibly resist the urge after reading about the profound void in most of our respective online-marketing strategies: “Traditional domain extensions––.com or .net—don’t express a personal vision or institutional mission." Or, as Jeff Sass, CMO of .Club Domains LLC, puts it, "Now you can have meaning on both sides of the dot." Okay!
To be fair, I see nothing wrong with registering a .art domain, especially once the price drops to "as little as $15" when the public marketplace opens, according to Kazakina. But it's silly to act as if the extension will save or damn anyone with a career in the industry. If a website viewer isn't sure whether to take you seriously as an artist, gallerist, etc. in the absence of a .art extension, I feel pretty confident saying that they aren't going to be important to your business anyway.
Even if we WERE to fall for that suspect premise, though, it would still be less preposterous than buying into Kasimov's larger pitch: that .art sites can be used to establish "digital provenance" for individual artworks. How? By expanding their WHOIS information––for the uninitiated, the basic registry data about who owns a given domain––to include fields like "size, year of creation, medium," and others.
Could artists, gallerists, dealers, and auction houses do this? Sure. But they could also transform their bodies into living catalogues raisonné by tattooing themselves with every relevant bit of information about every artwork they ever produce or possess. Buying up and filling out a hard-drive's worth of .art sites for 21st-century authentication purposes would be just as clunky, inefficient, expensive, and painful––basically, every negative that tech-based solutions are supposed to banish from our lives. So if you want a to expand or protect your web presence, go ahead and register a .art site. But if you want to take digital provenance seriously, follow Felix Salmon's advice and look into a blockchain platform like Monegraph instead. [Bloomberg]
SPLITSVILLE: Finally this week, Paddy Johnson reported on a nascent strategy seeking traction in the emerging and midlevel tiers of the primary market: gallerists' charging their exhibited artists for art-fair costs. Based on Johnson's sources, the arrangement so far seems to take one of two forms. In the first, the gallerists shift the commission split in their favor for all sales made at the fair––say, 60% gallery / 40% artist instead of the standard 50/50. In the second, gallerists commandeer 100% of fair proceeds until the resulting revenue covers the artist's designated portion of fair overhead. LES gallerist Muriel Guepin, the enthusiastic endorser of the latter strategy, justifies the approach by proclaiming, "I am the one taking all the risk and paying... But if an artist is not willing to ‘invest’ in his artwork it makes me wonder why I should.…”
Now, you'd be hard-pressed to find someone more convinced than I am that midmarket gallerists will have to be flexible and forward-thinking to stay solvent in the years ahead. But, in honor of the Kentucky Derby this past Saturday, these "solutions" are absolute horse shit. And that's true no matter which side of the stable one it evaluates them from.
First, in an industry where projecting an unwavering image of success is crucial to convincing collectors to spend their money with you rather than a competitor, it can be lethal for word to leak out that any gallery is financially insecure enough to start demanding that its artists ante up for the basic expenses of art fairs. To actually go on the record to CONFIRM and BROADCAST that you're doing this is about as self-destructive as bringing your mother with you to a speed-dating event.
Second, Guepin's mentality so drastically misunderstands and condescends to serious artists that I have to question why she even opened a gallery. The truth is that every artist is essentially a small business in an increasingly winner-take-all industry. This means that, short of the Cloud City of established superstars, their lives are an all-encompassing, unceasing gamble. They risk everything every day to pursue a goal with almost cosmically remote odds of financial stability, let alone major success. It borders on the perverse to essentially call them cowards or traitors for resisting the idea of giving up more than half of their sales cut just because fairs are expensive.
As I've written before, if we want to start proposing blunt-force solutions to the very real economic challenges of mid-tier gallerists, there's an alternative that would work just as well for sellers as squeezing more blood out of their artists: closing their clients better. But strangely, that's a fix I suspect most gallerists aren't interested in hearing. [Art F City]
That’s all for this week’s edition. Til next time, remember: When you're intent on being a hammer, everything looks like a nail––even your reflection.