Friday, April 9, 2010

If It's in the Art Market, It's Art

Some dealers have failed to benefit from the market transparency brought on by the Internet. In particular, gallerists in the business of buying and selling previously owned work aren't doing so well now that even the rich have figured out how to plug search terms into Artnet's auction results database. Now, with the stroke of a key, anyone can find out how much all the Pablo Picassos in the world sold for last month. Prior to this, simply shopping out of town was enough to enable a smart dealer to double the resale price, as most collectors wouldn't know the original purchase price.

But these days every art world cloud has a lining fabricated by some up-and-coming artist. "All roads lead to the contemporary art market," a prospective emerging art dealer told me casually over dinner the other week, while explaining the rules of supply and demand. "Slimmer profit margins and fewer available art works within the secondary market increases the number of dealers, buyers, and art making within the field of contemporary art."

What the hell does that mean? The secondary market is made up of work that has previously been bought and sold, and over the years a lot of those Picassos, Matisses and Cezannes have been placed in museums and private collections. At least this is one story. Another is simply that collectors want return on their investments, and according to Bloomberg those markets were down 25 percent last year.

Of course, the contemporary auctions were down by 50 percent over the same period, so who's to say my friend wasn't entirely right about the rush to emerging art?

Still, looking around Chelsea, the contemporary gallery scene looks much the same as it did during the boom. We may be in a recession, but only a few spaces have folded, and if my latest trip through Manhattan's gallery epicenter is any indication, there's still a fair amount of big production-value art being made. 303 Gallery's Mike Nelson has created a rickety labyrinth-like motor home, which despite issuing a warning that viewers enter at their own risk, must have cost a boat load to produce. The trailers aren't transformed enough to be engaging for something other than motor homes, but it's reasonably fun to walk through the piece regardless. Nearby Pace Wildenstein showcases two of Sterling Ruby's jails, one of which is a bad boy bus with an expensive speaker system, and Luhring Augustine presents the fancy sound engineering of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller's merry-go-round. Both have size and expense going for them and, at least in the case of Cardiff and Bures Miller, that might be about it.

Further evidencing the expanded market, famed comic book artist Robert Crumb's incredible The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb's Book of Genesis is on display at David Zwirner, a show I doubt he'd have been given even ten years ago, when there simply weren't enough collectors buying work made by artists outside the art world. This despite the fact that Crumb had long reached the mainstream, both through Ron Mann's groundbreaking 1988 documentary Comic Book Confidential, and his 1995 biography, an instant art school staple. Given the amount of high quality work produced by artists in other fields, the art market's expansion is probably a good thing. I'm interested in an art world that showcases the most relevant cultural material, regardless of form. And if that means reading a few more comic books and watching some good TV so be it.

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