Wag the Dog
If the recently revealed legal battle between collector Bert Kreuk and conceptual/installation artist Danh Vo wasn’t the story most passed-around the art world campfire last week, it was damn close. I’d recommend this carefully considered breakdown by Greg Allen to anyone who really wants to dive deep into the merits of Kreuk’s case–or in Allen’s view, the yawning existential absence of them.
For the more efficiency-conscious, though: Kreuk’s central accusation is that Danh Vo flaked on a $350,000 commission deal to create a new installation piece for him, deliverable in time to be included in Transforming the Known, an exhibition of Kreuk’s collection at the Hague's Gemeentemuseum last summer. Danh Vo and his representatives contend that no such agreement ever existed, and that Kreuk is now effectively trying to extort the artist for about $1.2M and one of his gallerists, Isabella Bortolozzi, for additional damages.
The plot thickens from there. According to Allen, the court filings clarify that no money for the purported commission agreement ever actually changed hands between Kreuk, Danh Vo, and/or any of his gallerists. This fact at the very least coats even more pollen over the windshield separating us from what happened, and at most confirms that a deal was never finalized–as Kreuk’s inability to produce a contract, invoice, or other paper trail already strongly suggests.
Furthermore, it turns out that Kreuk sold 11 pieces from the Hague exhibition in a Sotheby’s auction within six weeks after it closed, then presented another 29 works in Just Now, a “selling exhibition” Kreuk curated for Sotheby’s in January 2014, with 25 of the artists on view there having been included in Transforming theKnown, according to Allen’s count.
In retrospect these moves could be interpreted as a market-savvy COIN (Collector Only in Name) engineering institutional shine strictly to resell his own works at a premium shortly thereafter. Especially since the typical auction timeline dictates that the consignment agreements for the November 2013 auction would have had to have been finalized at least 45 days prior to the sale date, AKA while Transforming the Known was still on view. (It closed September 29th. The sale happened on November 11th, and these agreements don’t get hammered out overnight, especially when international shipping is involved.)
When various art world media outlets (like artnet) and personalities (like collector Alain Servais) not only floated this general theory but applied the dreaded “art flipper” brand to Kreuk’s exposed flesh, he went on a PR offensive that culminated in this interview with Abigail R. Esman last week. And while that interview appeared in Blouin ArtInfo, it should be noted (as Allen points out in his breakdown) that Esman also blogs for Sotheby’s, the house which consigned Kreuk’s Hague works for sale while they still had that fresh museum smell.
Instead of confronting this sloppy cyclone of litigation head on, though, I want to focus on one particularly shiny piece of debris swirling around its eye. That would be the following statement by Kreuk in his interview with Esman:
“The fact is, in the end, you have good art and bad art. Bad art does not become good by showing it in a museum.”
In other words, the profits Kreuk raked in with the sales affiliated with Transforming the Known didn’t come from their or their makers’ having been shown at the Gemeentemuseum; they came from the pieces’ undeniable artistic quality. If the works were crap, the market would have said so via the hammer prices, regardless of where they had or hadn’t been exhibited prior to mounting the auction block.
It’s a snappy, clever barb aimed at his critics’ jugulars, and it positions anyone who disagrees as either a philistine or, at the very least, less of a connoisseur than Kreuk himself.
Momentarily setting aside the myth of intrinsic value (which I’ve assaulted with a frying pan before), there’s only one minor glitch in the idea: It’s true in only the most surface sense.
Let me explain. Rightly or wrongly (and I think it’s increasingly “wrongly”), institutions are still regarded as being a cloud level above the dirty fray of the commercial art business: the unbiased arbiters of culture, the wise and objective judges of the art historical canon.
Their validation is perceived as an indelible rubber stamp on an artist’s career–and prices in the commercial market reflect as much. It’s the reason that every artist in the game specifically lists museum collections and exhibitions on her CV and every auction house presents the same in their catalog entries for lots on offer.
But the logic scaffolding the optics has to do with consensus-building, both inside the museum itself and outside in the larger market. I already covered some of the finer points of the museum acquisitions hierarchy here, so suffice it to say that precious few collecting or exhibition choices in the institutional domain are the product of a single person. And though it doesn’t apply to the Kreuk/Danh Vo knife fight, the pricier the piece being acquired–or the more resources and publicity being devoted to the show–the more curators and/or execs have to sign onto the decision.
For an artist’s work then, gaining access to a museum means literally being approved by a series of allegedly unprejudiced experts. That notion adds more gravity to institutional decisions than practically any other comparable event in an artist’s career trajectory. And just like in every other field, once someone gets that first “yes” vote–especially from a highly regarded and hypothetically objective body–it becomes orders of magnitude easier for others in the field to say “yes” too.
The best parallel I can think of would be to proclaim that bad politicians don’t become good by getting elected to Congress: An expert might judge the field differently, but to the rest of the populace what matters are the few quantifiable results in an industry largely devoid of them.
Once someone gets into the club–regardless of their merits–their success has a tendency to become self-perpetuating. Just compare Real Clear Politics's estimated 14 percent Congressional approval rating with this Term Limits for America list of current legislative tenures, especially those in the House. It’s a great reminder that the inertia of public opinion can keep (probably) undeserving incumbents happily on cruise control for years, if not entire careers.
But the intra-museum approval process is only the final stage of consensus-building. The truth is that museum curators and execs rarely exhibit or acquire total “discoveries,” to borrow the parlance of Old Hollywood.
Instead, they’re almost always selecting from a subset of artists who have been brought to their attention by powerful gallerists, other blue chip artists, or–in Kreuk’s case–collectors with influence over the institution. Again, relationships matter at least as much, if not more, than the quality of the work itself.
This game of art industry maneuvering happens out of the public’s purview–not because it’s sinister per se but because that’s the way the business of the art world is done. (Remember the Three S’s.) The museum’s co-sign is just the clear visible signal of the momentum gathered behind the scenes–the crowning ceremony for an accession already determined by the real power brokers.
That doesn’t mean that the work being ushered toward the throne is necessarily bad. It just means that denying its claim often risks putting the museum in direct conflict with art world influencers who are probably going to get their way elsewhere regardless, thereby putting the discriminating museum on the wrong side of art history.
For example, there are major institutions which resisted opportunities to buy works by Modernist or early post-war artists in their era, only to watch those same artists become demigods whose prices now make it nearly impossible to rectify their lapses in collecting judgment. (My hometown Cleveland Museum of Art is one.)
So in a sense, one could argue Kreuk is right: Bad art doesn’t become good by being shown in a museum. But bad art can become good art via the chain of validation that gets it in front of the museum’s decision-makers in the first place. It’s a distinction without a difference. And once the validation chain has been forged, it can wag the dog for the rest of time.
P.S. None of the above should be interpreted as an implied assault on Danh Vo’s work, which I actually like quite a bit based on what I’ve seen.