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▼ Report: The Near Future/ of Museums

03/18/2010

The New York Times is covering the slow paradigm shift liquidating museum’s of their critical status. In the near future, museums will lose the difference which has always defined them: the difference between a commercial gallery and museum.

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On the Guggenheim’s Walls, and Now on Yours, by Fred A. Berstein

“Museum auctions are nothing new — many institutions sell pieces donated by artists or collectors to raise money for programs. But the Guggenheim has taken things a step further, mounting a major exhibition with the intention of selling its contents.”
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This is a death of museums, not an isolated event.

The show at the Guggenheim, “Contemplating the Void”, was conceived as a benefit for the museum – but is more than a charity event for an institution.  It is part of a testing of the waters for museums who have been searching for a way to compete. Because of inflated prices set by gallery dealers and collectors, museums have been increasingly unable to acquire contemporary works. Museums have decided to imitate commercial galleries. The decision to imitate rather than protest inflated prices highlights museum directors complicity with a corporate ethos.

We are losing the distinction between a cultural space and a commercial agenda. A panel discussion at this years’ Armory art fair in New York treated fairs as the new biennials. A similar upcoming discussion at the Saatchi Gallery in London, framed as a debate over the ethics of art fairs, is a thinly veiled endorsement of art fairs as the most important spaces for contemporary art. This debate at the Saatchi Gallery is interesting becasue it is as transparent as a debate on Fox News. There is a set-up from the beginning.  On one side we have the “critics” (not the artists, writers, curators even dealers who criticize art fairs) but the “critics” and it says the critics are “scoffing”. Not very pretty. On the other side we have the business folks who are framed in positive glowing light as just wanting to help promote art to the world and isn’t the art fair the best way to do so and don’t you think maybe art fairs are THE way to experience art? The strange spin in the event’s statement, is a quote from critic Jerry Saltz. It is a supposed attack on art fairs, but again it is a set-up: Saltz is the perfect critic of commercialism for Saatchi to put in the spotlight because he is not a critic of commercialism at all.
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“Art fairs are about money not art” / This debate is part of a new initiative presented by the A Foundation called The Economy of the Gift, a boutique-scaled art fair which will take place in Liverpool, 9 April – 22 May 2010.

“Art fairs, scoff the critics, have become shopping malls for the super-rich. They are giant marketplaces for the wealthy to buy, invest and speculate on the commodity of art. Galleries pressure artists to churn out ‘safe’, sellable works, which are not so much looked at as bought in bulk. As the critic Jerry Saltz put it, ‘art fairs are perfect storms of money, marketability, and instant gratification’. Is this criticism justified? Or are art fairs in fact the perfect format for visitors to see art from all over the world which they wouldn’t otherwise see? And by allowing artists to show their work to potential buyers en masse are these shows a crucial lifeline for artists today?”
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With its space in Bilbao, the Guggenheim franchised itself with a crass spectacle and shortly after gave the Armani corporation, a fashion corporation, a retrospective after monetary endorsement by the same corporation. The multi-leveled corporate partnership between the New Museum and New York Magazine has debased both cultural entities with a mixture of ad campaigns, project sponsorships and unending favorable articles. The New Museum finished the destruction of its own credibility with its current show, “Skin Fruit: Selections from the Dakis Joannou Collection”; a show devoted to the private art collection of one of the museum’s trustees, curated by the trustees favorite artist Jeff Koons, who is the very image of corporate ethos. New York magazine’s well known art critic Jerry Saltz defended this merger of private collector and cultural institution with two articles devoted to the subject, both of which denounced criticism of the show as “bitterness” and “cynicism”. Saltz exposed his own corrupt bitter and cynical nature, and because of his magazine’s economic dependence on the New Museum’s sponsorship, Saltz destroyed any remaining credibility. In front of us he became an entertainment writer.

New Museum ad campaign in the style of New York Magazine’s cover.

All museums seem to be intent now on shifting their function. New York gallery dealer Jeffrey Deitch has been appointed museum director of L.A.’s MOCA. The Museum of Modern Art has renovated itself and now feels like a combination of an austere shopping mall and a bank headquarters. With MOMA’s renovation came ticket prices beyond the reach of most New York based artists. The Guggenheim’s latest gesture – exhibiting a show for profit – is disguised as a charity event, but it is a slip of ethics that leaves only one more boundary to be broken: museums selling art without the false pretense of charity.

Everywhere in the artworld there is talk of museums revolutionizing their practices to compete with galleries. Some have called collectors the new curators. Others have hailed gallery owners as the new museum directors, or others insist art fairs are the most relevant forum for contemporary art, not the museum.

Art’s real value, not its monetary value, was understood in the past. And just as understood was how at odds the business of art was to the real value of art. The real value being resistance: the related experience of human existence. Because it is poetic, this value is resistance to the corporate stream. Commercialism left unchallenged since the 1980s has allowed for the debasement of art.

As the distinction between a commercial art gallery and a museum is obliterated both by museums themselves and by the interests of powerful collectors the museum is lost as a space for difficult work that is not commercially viable. The museum will be a commercial gallery. Commercial tastes will prevail with absolute sovereignty.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. 03/18/2010 11:13 pm

    Damian-

    I think you make a forceful point here. The current New Museum show which embodies your topic seemed to me nearly irrelevant to both studio practice and non-economic art discussion and I think it’s because the objects jumped out as status symbols before they could become artworks. (not sure by exactly which formal means Koons pulled that off- he’s definitely a master). Yet… I wonder whether it might be time for artists to stop beating themselves up over this state of affairs. Find new spaces to make work and define the art as somewhere far away from the New Museum: show it informally, find new forms that can’t be bought and sold, start talking to each other about ideas, take bigger risks, etc. Historically it’s always a cat and mouse game between cultural producers (artists) and the wealthy class who try to control culture (museums, collectors) Let’s stay a step ahead of the game, not behind. Let’s be feline not rodent.

  2. 03/19/2010 12:42 am

    Noah,

    As I write in the report, commercialism left unchallenged since the 1980s has allowed for the debasement of art. Critique has either been asleep or complicit for too long.

    Common opinion needs to shift and it will only shift it the ideological structures of the artworld are met with blueprints for their destruction. Just as I don’t think we support the commercial artworld by questioning it, I also do not believe selling in the commercial artworld destroys resistance of art objects. I think we have to drop the purely theoretical concept of the dangers of reification – the idea of disengagement.

    The commercial artworld does not need to be abandoned, especially in the United States where artists have no alternate source of funding. Sentiment needs to change within it. The commercial artworld is not resistant to these ideas but has settled into an apathy. The apathy lives on truisms developed within the clan, the industry, and these truisms all derive from critical theory. An engagement with the commercial artworld is a critique of its theory as well as its practices.

    Artists, I suppose, have sat quietly on the sidelines allowing their power to be taken away by an ever growing investment industry since the late 1970s. The industry expands and expands. Young artists are loosing the concept of resisting commercialism. One effect is art absent of psychological depth. If the commercial art world itself does not change, art will die on the vine.

    Resistance is never futile.

  3. Amos permalink
    03/19/2010 4:26 am

    Some of this reminds me of the manifesto of the open source software movement, “The Cathedral and the Bazaar”. Clearly, open source is a gift economy as opposed to the greed economy of the art market these days, but the structure of top-down vs. bottom-up validation is an interesting though experiment.

    http://www.catb.org/~esr/writings/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/

    • David Yanez permalink
      03/19/2010 8:18 am

      I agree with you Damien. The museums, instead of shelling out millions of dollars to buy an artists work from the commercial enterprises should say ‘No’ we absolutely will not pay more than… This way at least they have a role in the pricing of art and keep it from spiraling out of control like it has. They already have the power to influence an artist’s credibility why not the pricing of their work. All they see now are dollar signs, asking themselves how can we increase our worth? They increase their worth by continuing to buy art at inflated prices, further increasing the worth of their own collection. The responsibility of a museum is to house works of art and preserve them for the future, not to increase their value or sell them. There are other ways of raising money without selling the collection of the people. That is whom the collection belongs to, the people.

      There is no comparison between how artists were supported in the past and how they are supported now. We all know that most artists have to work their ass off just to support themselves, not their art. The artists that do manage to support their art are either living on the edge of poverty or have someone to support them. Most artists just drop out all together. These are artists that are just as talented as any other, but are disillusioned by the state of the artworld and its lack of support for the artist. Yes, there are plenty of places that offer residencies of a few months or so but a few months does not make an artist. Artists need permanent studios. An artist needs life long support.

      Of course artists always find a way to stay ahead of the game, that is their nature; to be creative in the environment in which they live. But this doesn’t mean it is fair. Our society treats artists as the bottom of the barrel and leaves the majority of them to fend for themselves like wild felines, while keeping others as pets and getting filthy rich off of them. The only way for this to change is through education. Educating the artist in that the artworld is not in their interest. They have to resist and rebel as Damien says, and in effect take back control of art in the real world as they had in the past. They have to dismantle the artworld and promote art in the real world.

  4. Amos permalink
    03/19/2010 4:26 am

    …thought experiment.

  5. 03/19/2010 5:18 pm

    Noah, one more thing. I don’t mean this as sarcasm, but after googling you I found you have an active commercial market, even attended the commercial art worlds favorite school: Columbia. I hold none of this against you but how does it relate to your position of ignoring the commercial art world?

    • 03/21/2010 11:24 am

      Damien,

      Thanks for googling me 🙂 Yes I did go to Columbia and learned a lot there. I was there from 2002-4 right when the art market was going insane and many people thought that was how it would be from now on. Education is a double edged sword you could say because on one hand I had the opportunity to develop “freethinking” studying for example with anthropoligist Mick Taussig who conducted a very powerful early critique of the Iraq war (still during the 9/11 moment when everyone was in shock). Artistically I had the opportunity to commune with highly developed artists such as Kara Walker, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Willima Pope L, Matt Mullican, and Jutta Koether.

      On the other hand, its clear to me now that there was a fair amount of Capitalist ideology silently transmitted in the program- the model was a glamorous art career art completely tied up in the market. The high tuition encourage you to literally buy into this. This might be generally true of art programs in the US (and world) but at Columbia there was unusual access to galleries, institutions, success, and therefore possibly a distilled ideology- a feeling that this is all possible and “for me.” (seductive!) So I can say that from Columbia I had an early good view into the workings of the artworld which is for sure valuable but came with an ideological packaging.

      The next part of my education has been a non-institutionalized process of deconstructing this Capitalist ideology in favor or a more interesting and free mode of art practice not always in relation to the market. I’ve arrived at collaborative/ process based/happenings http://www.electricalforest.com/ and continue to search for new free spaces and communities. Actually, one such community/space I’ve found are online conversations such as this one.

      I am not actually opposed to showing or selling in the commercial art world-that would be a dogmatic and maybe impossible position. But in my experience- it’s been more interesting working away from the market- to be in touch with a broader audience, and not worry so much about selling product, or the current aesthetic or philosophical vogue (superficial) but rather go deeper… I prefer to create experiences rather than things.

      In general this conversation reads like the 1960’s debate about whether to work toward revolution inside or outside the system. This I think is a false dialectic. Clearly both ways are necessary to change the definition of art in our times. The market system often seems both toxic and highly stacked in favor of the money people. So I encourage artists to find their freedom and power in other places, but I will add “as well.”

  6. 03/21/2010 7:01 pm

    Noah,

    You described my experience. I completely agree. Having attended SVA 2005-2007, and with a larger group of friends who attended other nyc mfa programs at the same time, much of my resistance to a corporate ethos in art was fed by my experience in the mfa bubble.

  7. David Yanez permalink
    03/22/2010 8:41 am

    When I was in SVA (79-83) my teacher Andrew Gerndt said that artists and art cannot change the world. This statement stuck with me all my life because I couldn’t disagree more. When the East Village scene started happening artists such as David Wojnarovich, Sue Coe and my friend Andrew Castrucci opened my eyes. What I had been taught in school is not set in stone. It’s not just about art anymore I thought to myself, it’s about life. Art schools had put art on top of pedestals and preached its untouchable exquisiteness. Emotions they said have no place in making art. Seriously I heard this a lot. What about Van Gogh and Frida Kahlo I thought? Emotion has always been a part of making art. What about the great Latin American muralists, they tried to change the world through their art. The thing is unless artists are taught that they do have the ability to change the world then change will either never come or will trickle down through many generations. It is not written anywhere that artists cannot control art in the real world. It is not written anywhere that success is in pleasing the art critiques. Where is it written that galleries have to be owned by non-artists? Taking control of the Artworld 101 should be a required class in art school.

    I would consider my life a success if I could influence just one person enough that they could end up changing the world for the better or at the very least influence someone that can. The Internet is one way of doing this and also by being inside the system. Unfortunately I wasn’t born with the personality to teach but I have developed my writing skills enough to influence the way that people think. And so here I am…

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