Let’s start by stating the obvious: there’s no model for what Christy MacLear is trying to do at Sotheby’s in her new role as an advisor to artists’ estates.
As such, MacLear and Sotheby’s are simultaneously taking a big risk and trying to exploit a potential opportunity. Not surprisingly, the announcement has provoked a number of strong reactions. It is instructive to explore some of these reactions. So let’s start with some of the most public ones.
Kelly Crow went straight to some art lawyers to see what they thought on the day the news was announced. (She also spoke with some gallerists whose opinions will be discussed behind the paywall.) Here’s Crow:
Even so, art lawyer Thomas Danziger said the latest move feels unprecedented. “This is huge,” he said, calling the move a “tightrope act” that will require the auction house to balance its need to appease shareholders seeking profits with artists seeking long-term guidance on how to get—and stay—in the art-history textbooks.
“If there’s a tight quarter, will Sotheby’s be tempted to sell off works in a way that could impact their artists’ careers?” Mr. Danziger said.
This is a strange extrapolation from what is known about MacLear’s plans. It seems to capture a fair bit of the hysteria surrounding the announcement simply because it posits Sotheby’s having direct control over an artist’s estate. Such a leap, especially from an art lawyer, seems odd. Sotheby’s has a Trust & Estates department but no one is suggesting that in tight quarter the auction house plots the demise of a good prospect.
Crow’s conversation with a gallerist gets much closer to the real thorns here:
Marc Glimcher, the president of Pace Gallery, which represents the Rauschenberg estate, praised Ms. MacLear as “talented,” but said auction houses shouldn’t try to poach artists from galleries if they want to continue serving as a neutral barometer for art values overall. “For an auction house to represent a living artist is like MGM representing Fred Astaire—you can’t tie up all the sides of a transaction,” Mr. Glimcher said.
The dealer said the situation could prove particularly thorny if price levels ever plummet for artists allied with the auction house. If the house intervenes in an artist’s market too heavily by removing works for sale or mounting additional shows to promote their work, dealers and collectors might cry foul; if the house lets prices free fall, the artists or their estate trustees might complain or cut ties as well. “The people representing artists need to be advocates,” Mr. Glimcher said, “not a huge conglomeration that boosts or cuts down artists’ markets whenever buyers say so.”
There are two problems with this line of argument. The first continues the assumption that Sotheby’s is proposing having a market-making role for artists’ estates. That might be a logical extension of developing an estate advisory capacity but it would a secondary or tertiary role or phase for the auction house. In other words, Sotheby’s is very far from being able to figure out how it would play such a sophisticated, high-risk and potentially conflicted role in an artist’s market. (They may have ambitions to get there but this very uncharted territory which will take years to map and exploit, even under the best circumstances.)
The second problem with Glimcher’s critique is that it could easily be applied to a large gallery like Pace too. Just as the largest artists are beginning to re-construct their relationships with their galleries around the world, artists’ estates are seeing the need to manage their relationships with art galleries differently from the past. Glimcher assumes an artist’s estate would want the gallery (or auction house) to take a leadership role that it might be more appropriate for the estate to begin to fill itself.
There are prominent artist’s estates that take very active roles in their artist’s market. Whether that kind of activity can or would come out into the open remains to be seen. But the evolution of artists’ estates over the last decade and a half has been toward the estates becoming more professionalized.
In fact, if there is a case to be made for MacLear’s initiative, it lies more in the realm of spreading best practices in estate management than it does in providing Sotheby’s direct access to the art held in these estates. (Let’s add a quick caveat here: no one denies that Sotheby’s is eager to sell art. But the balancing act between the sales aspect of Sotheby’s and its advisory businesses is a broader one for Sotheby’s to figure out and communicate to its constituencies.)
MacLear, by all accounts in the nascent profession of managing artists’ estates, has been and exemplary figure. And she may be best known for having inherited a substantial mess as the Robert Rauschenberg estate’s trustees demanded a $60m payment that was eventually reduced to $24m. So her expertise lies more in good governance than it does in disposing of an artist’s artistic holdings or defending the long-term market. That’s what she pitched to the Wall Street Journal:
Ms. MacLear said galleries excel at selling prized art to museums and collectors, but fewer offer the kind of detailed financial and estate planning needed to help artists transition from a studio setup to a legacy foundation. Artists typically rely on their dealers, friends or studio managers to help them realize any posthumous plans they might lay out in their wills for art-related scholarships or other projects. Such arrangements, Ms. MacLear said, can bog down if the caretakers lack legal or financial expertise. In some cases, she said artists’ ad hoc planning can deteriorate into “unwanted fire sales” or financial abuses.
She reiterates this line on Sotheby’s website:
Artists should be concerned about creating a clear vision and plan for their estate, identifying a well-rounded composition of stewards for their assets (professionals as well as friends and studio managers), and setting thresholds for estate trustee fees. It’s best for artists to plan their estates and foundations during their lifetimes – history surprises us with stories about how family or friends translate intent unexpectedly or avarice creeps in. Finally, as artists often have more art and real estate assets than cash, having a prioritized plan so the creation of a balanced financial reserve will steer clear of the long-range use and plan for the artists own work. Sotheby’s will be a great partner for artists, lawyers and even galleries to help think through these important questions and plan accordingly.
Having been through the wars, MacLear is selling her experience to help living artists build an estate that will be able to accomplish the artists’ own goals. Is Sotheby’s the right place to do that? It remains to be seen. But there is no reason to assume it is absolutely the wrong place to do that.
Perhaps a better way to look at this is from MacLear’s personal vantage point. As the CEO of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, MacLear led one of the world’s wealthiest foundations. As jobs go, that’s more of a sinecure than a career stepping stone. Moving to Sotheby’s is a risk for MacLear personally. The auction house is risking very little but money in hiring her. And their commitment cannot last more than a few years. Which means MacLear doesn’t have a terribly long runway.
Add to the fact that MacLear is starting with a blank slate—no infrastructure, no competitors, no pre-existing business model—and one can begin to see that this is a very brave and ambitious move on her part. It might also turn out to be a foolhardy one. Either way, it hardly seems like one to get so worked up about.
Sotheby’s New Bid to Manage Artists’ Careers (WSJ)
A Champion of Artists: Christy MacLear Joins Sotheby’s (Sotheby’s)