Robin Pogrebin has an entertaining piece on the converging efforts of galleries and auction houses to gain a piece of the growing value in managing artists’ estates.
Pogrebin’s story is a good primer on the issue; it’s a better source of entertaining quotes. Shots are fired on all sides.
Take this one aimed at Sotheby’s:
“Their interest is selling,” said Arne Glimcher, the chairman of Pace, which represents living artists such as Mr. Close and Kiki Smith. “Making money is a long-range process with us.”
Apparently Glimcher was mentored by Gus Levy. Other enjoyable comments come from recently converted players like Brett Gorvy—now a gallery booster—and Sotheby’s Christy MacLear, who happily shared her prospect list with Pogrebin:
“This is a field that’s growing fivefold,” Ms. MacLear said, with “people considering what their legacy is.” Those on her potential wish list: Frank Stella, 80; John Baldessari, 85; and baby boomers like Eric Fischl, 68.
“How hard it is to contemplate your own death,” Mr. Fischl mused in an interview. “There’s taxation, and whether it’s better to keep the art and sell it off a little at a time or to try to sell it off before you die and put the money in a foundation — it’s hugely complicated. I find it incredibly daunting.” He said that his own galleries have not navigated such terrain.
Fischl’s comment does get us past the mirth of the story and into the serious issues that lurk beneath all of the jostling for position. The truth of the matter is that Sotheby’s nascent consulting business is not currently in the position to manage any artist’s estate directly.
MacLear’s value to artists would be in acting as a consultant to help them build the infrastructure that will outlast them. As Loretta Wurtenberger, herself a consultant to artists’ estates in Europe and founder of the Institute for Artists’ Estates points out in Apollo magazine:
The organisational capacities of ‘industry leaders’ such as the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, Joan Mitchell Foundation, or Judd Foundation, has rubbed off on all forms of estate management to the extent that smaller estates, often run by a single family member, are also becoming more independent and self-conscious. Such independence – from inventory management and catalogue raisonné projects, to the interaction of artists’ estates with the art market – is evolving and thus influencing all sectors of the art world.
In other words, MacLear’s most immediate value to any artist or estate is the benefit of her experience at the Rauschenberg Foundation, which is no small thing. Sotheby’s does not currently have the capacity to manage an artists’ estate directly.
Pogrebin spoke to Jonathan Laib who was able to manage to do good work for the Ruth Asawa estate while at Christie’s. But Laib is now at Zwirner which has been focusing, like rival Hauser + Wirth, on building up its stable of artist’s estates.
None of these dealers manages the estate itself. In Apollo, Christa Blatchford, who runs the Joan Mitchell Foundation, makes it clear that managing an estate’s commercial side is not the same as managing an estate:
I have worked to strengthen our relationship with museums nationally and internationally, ensuring that the foundation is known as a resource because of our collection, archives, and knowledge. Many new artist-endowed foundations and estates partner with galleries in similar ways. Yet while the gallery and museum worlds have grown closer over the last decade, it is the role of foundations – and also estates – to act as a mediator, to have a more objective voice not motivated by the commercial art market. For example, we might encourage scholarly research and museum exhibitions on Mitchell’s works on paper rather than, say, focusing on the paintings which are of more value. Although we must pay attention to Mitchell’s reputation in the commercial art market, as a foundation we cannot and should not try to control it.
All of which is to say that the growing field of managing an artist’s estate has plenty of room in it. Were it a zero-sum game, there would be no point to Sotheby’s initiative.
And whether Sotheby’s can succeed by leveraging MacLear’s reputation and experience develop the capability to manage the commercial side of an estate is not really a threat to dealers. That’s because both the Times and Apollo point out that there are a number of wealthy artists who have established— or will establish—foundations in the past few years.
As Top-Tier Artists Age, the Art World Hopes to Cash In (The New York Times)
Are artists’ estates too protective of artists’ reputations? (Apollo Magazine)