Georgina Adam’s Big Bucks won’t be released in the US until the end of this month and we haven’t been able to get a pdf (*cough* Georgina! *cough*) to read yet. So we’ll have to rely upon the Grumpy Art Historian’s take:
Georgina Adam is one of the smartest art market commentators, and this book is a lively view of today’s craziness. She’s especially penetrating in her analysis of the market’s corruption – both the corruption of the market and corruption by the market. For example, she tells us that members of Tate’s collection committee each donate at least £10,000 a year – or, to put it less politely, buy their way on. Though she doesn’t draw it out in this particular case, that gives opportunity to promote purchase of artists that the committee members collect, boosting their value. And it skews the Tate’s collection towards art cherished by rich collectors who are not necessarily the sharpest connoisseurs (though some of course are the sharpest connoisseurs; my point is simply that connoisseurship is not proven by a donation of ten grand).
Adam quotes an anonymous American museum director:
“The problem of collectors sitting on museum boards and trying to use their position to validate their own holdings is ubiquitous, and is being exacerbated by the new class of trustees, who today are investor-collectors … They will try to use their position to either influence the purchases of the institution, in line with their own collection, or have their own works included in museum exhibitions. You cannot imagine how cajoled and caressed I have sometimes been to take a painting into a show!” (p. 172)
Actually I can imagine. And this is the tragedy of the contemporary art market – not that collectors over-pay for fashionable mediocrity, but that the ghastly bad taste of the contemporary market pollutes the public sphere by influencing museums. This book gives insight into how the contemporary art world works.
Grumps goes on to take issue with a few things. Notably, he rightly points out that “She speaks of increased professionalisation, like the use of PR firms, and increased globalisation and scale. But none of this is unique to art dealing; the economy has become more global, and many business sectors have become more commercialised. There are lots of comparisons between art dealing today and art dealing in the past, but too little comparison of the art trade and other trades.”
Where Adams does look above the parapet to survey the broader economic landscape, the Grumpy Art Historian suggests, she may be too glib: “In the conclusion Adam speculates about whether the art market is ‘too big to fail’, but this is to misunderstand the concept of too big to fail. ”
He also observes that “comments on collectors today being more likely to jump in at the top end of the market, or being more focused on the investment angle, are speculative. It’s hard to know if the story here is about the changing nature of the art collector or the changing perception of the art collector.”
Finally, it’s refreshing to see that Grumpy isn’t having any of the “shock, horror” nonsense about commercial matters polluting disinterested scholarship, one of the deathless canards of the art market observer: “Connoisseurs like Berenson were utterly implicated in commerce, and many experts sold certificates of authenticity, advised dealers and collectors or traded art themselves. There has been a period when museums moved more consciously to distance themselves from the trade, and I agree that has been breaking down. But it’s a more nuanced story than the rupture implied here.”
All of that said, we can’t wait to read it.
Grumpy Art Historian: ‘Big Bucks’: Georgina Adam on the art market (Grumpy Art Historian)