Monday, December 10, 2012

High (priced) art.

Tired of the Cliff?  So am I, so here’s something different.

The movers and shakers of the art world — museum notables, gallery magnates and deep-pocketed collectors — gathered in recent days for the annual Art Basel Miami.  There are similar events in Basel, Switzerland (where it all began in 1973) and in Hong Kong.  This is the tenth Miami extravaganza drawing the usual crowds and much attention, not all of it positive.  Full disclosure, I’ve never attended. 

As reported in the NY Times, Art Basel Miami is stimulating considerable conversation this year brought on by a number of art critics who have voiced dismay at the role big money is playing in today’s art world.  Not surprisingly, leading the pushback against such critiques are the Rubells — especially Mera and her son Jason — unquestionably Miami’s first family of art.  They own one of the largest and most important private contemporary art collections in the world.  Much of it travels to shows around the country, but the core collection is on view in a repurposed Miami storage facility that they have turned into a museum open to the public.

The contention of the critics is that money drives the art world when assumably it should be the art.  It’s a compelling argument and one that certainly resonates at a time when money is playing such a pivotal role in much of our society.  We just experienced the most expensive presidential election in history and are in the midst of a battle royal over taxing the rich.  More important, the huge, might I say unconscionable, disparity between the super rich and almost everyone else is in the spot light, not only here but also in many countries around the world.

Munch "The Scream"
According to the Times these critics are, “arguing that the staggering sums of money being spent on works are distorting judgments about art and undermining its long-term cultural significance.”  It’s a powerful argument but hardly new, something I’ll return to shortly.  Despite the ups and downs of our economy, major (and some would argue not so major) works of art continue to fetch astounding amounts of money at auction houses like Sotheby’s and Christie’s.  This has been a banner year capped off by the sale in May of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” for a record $120 Million.  It is currently on view at the Museum of Modern Art.

These lofty numbers effectively price the average and even economically above average art lover out of the market, or perhaps more accurately a specific end of that market.  Even museums can’t compete these days and not merely because they can’t buy art at these levels.  One of the current valuation’s unintended consequences is that institutions often can’t even afford the insurance required to borrow important works for shows.

Returning now to the fact that all this it is not new.  Decades ago, I worked for a consulting company headed by the then son-in-law of John Hay (Jock) Whitney, scion of a fabled American family.  One weekend my wife and I were invited to spend the afternoon at Greentree, the Whitney’s Long Island estate.  To be sure the imposing mansion was memorable, but what left the greatest impression were the works of art hung on its walls.  These were the likes of Cezanne, Manet, Degas, Monet and Picasso.   “Know that work” (I said to myself) but only because it was pictured in some art book or had been temporarily on display at the Met or MoMA.  Jock Whitney was among the world’s richest men of his time and, like others of such wealth and background, he bought art.  It was the kind of art that was out-of-reach — an understatement — for almost all of us.

But that was nothing new because the intersection of wealth and art is age old.  Art Basel Miami is a place to see and to be seen, a playground for the rich and famous, something that may turn critics and many art lovers off.  But rich people, often royalty or popes, have been buying the works of great artists from the very start.  In many eras they dominated the buying market.  Michelangelo and Rembrandt depended on rich patrons, as did Picasso and Matisse in more recent times.  Even so, some art has always been affordable — even works that today fetch those millions but could be bought for a song.

It’s important to remember that wealthy collectors including today’s Rubells of Miami and yesterday’s Cone sisters of Baltimore (see my recent guest posts on the Artbouillon blog) have amassed great collections that they ultimately share with the public.  The Rubells have their gallery and the Cones left most of their astounding assemblage to the Baltimore Museum.  Most museums, old and new, have built their collections around art that was either donated or bequeathed to them by the rich.

Roy Lichtenstein "Crying Girl" (silkscreen)
Moreover, while the great paintings may be out of reach to the average art lover, she or he is not precluded from becoming a collector.  The most notable example of course is Herb and Dorothy Vogel, a couple of very modest means — a postal worker and a librarian — who amassed one of the great American art collections of the twentieth century.  I have been able to surround myself with affordable originals by artists I love in collecting mostly their works-on-paper.  And wonderful drawings, paintings, collages and sculptures by new and less known artists still sold at reasonable prices are widely accessible.  Perhaps we don’t all have Herb Vogel’s eye, but we know what we like, and hopefully love.  Yes there is an exclusive side to Basel Miami but many art lovers of average means make the trek there each year as they did last week.

The vast majority of artists struggle financially, often forced to have “day jobs” in order to make ends meet.   Of course the same can be said for actors and musicians but also of people in almost any other field.  When Gertrude Stein and the Cone Sisters started buying from Picasso he had barely enough resources to support a very modest lifestyle.  Their patronage of him and Matisse made it possible for two of the greatest twentieth century artists to carry on with their work.  You might say their wealth was put to good use. 

In the past the gap between most artists and their patrons was, to put it mildly, wide. Rembrandt had some prosperous years but died in debt. Van Gogh’s emotionally troubled life was probably compounded by his ongoing financial struggle.  Artists whose paintings now command millions saw none of the riches that their works would bring.  But one consequence of bidding up of art prices today is that a probably larger number of living artists than was the case in earlier times have benefited directly, have amassed wealth of their own.  Picasso certainly became wealthy, and the same can be said, among others, for artists like the Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein and Robert Rauschenberg each of whom left large estates.  So maybe that’s a difference, something positive out of today’s expensive art world.  Yes, it would be wonderful if we all could afford great works of art, but it’s satisfying to know that some artists are benefiting directly from the run up.

It’s easy to bash the rich and bemoan the cocktail parties and dancing that went on in Miami.  Some of the disdain may even be merited.  At the same time, a good number of today’s (and yesterday’s) wealthy collectors see themselves as temporary custodians of the art they’re purchasing for sums too great for most of us to even contemplate.  Some, like the Rubells and Eli Broad or before them Norton Simon or Ray Nasher have established their own museums; others have just turned their treasures over to an existing public museum near you and me.  People of wealth buy big houses, cars, yachts, jet planes and the like to pamper themselves.  Many also buy art much of which will end up accessible to us and enriching our cultural lives.  That has long been the case and, considering the result, it’s really not such a bad thing.

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