Searching for the Gross Domestic Art index; Florence and Herbert Irving Strike Again
This commentary by Marion Maneker is available to AMMpro subscribers. (The first month of AMMpro is free and subscribers are welcome to sign up for the first month and cancel before they are billed.)
Artnet released it semi-annual market report this week with the cover line, “the art world is over, welcome to the age of the art industry.” The pitch continued with the sort of statement only a straw man could love: “Once the modestly sized province of passion-driven dealers and connoisseurs, the art market today exists as an interconnected global network dominated by multibillion-dollar corporations and profit-minded investors.”
The idea that art has become overrun by vandals looting the sanctuary for its economic, not spiritual, value isn’t a new one. Everyone wants to believe that they are the aesthete and the other guy, usually the one who bought the aesthete’s painting, is the vulgarian looking to make a buck. At the peak of the pre-crash market, dealer Jeffrey Deitch had begun to talk about the art business evolving from a community into an industry.
Community brings to mind caring. Industry, as depicted by a smokestack on the cover of Artnet’s report, harkens to soulless dystopian capitalism. Industry evokes either the vertical integration of production from raw materials to finished goods and even finance or a broad supply-chain of cooperating and competitive sectors that unite in a dance guided by the unseen hand of the market.
In this view, because art has become more valuable it must have become a commodity, a widget imperceptibly different from its interchangeable alternate. Though some people involved in the art world rail that art is a commodity, it’s just not so. Sure, there are a few instances of mass-produced objects trading as art. But they are hardly the dominant material on the market. In overall terms, these few items, like Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds or Jeff Koons’s Balloon Dog plates account for a miniscule amount of value. Throw in the markets for collectibles like sneakers or vintage watches or handbags and even wine, the so-called Luxury category, you still won’t have a preponderance of the value changing hands in the art market.
Even without the commodity as the defining feature of industry, one might still consider the presence of so many ancillary resources and services around the art world to be enough to make it a different animal now. Look at all of the art fairs, the insurance professionals, the advisors, the bankers and the rest. The art industry has become so large and complex that there are now conferences organized around the theme of art business. And yet as anyone knows who has suffered through one of these events, or worse, paid good money to market their services there, these conventions are chock full of sellers waiting to pounce upon the rare buyer who shows his stripes.
Like the gallery business, the art services industry has room for only a very few to succeed. Perhaps one reason Artnet is keen to declare the art world an industry this week is that we’re seeing the launch of Pace Gallery’s new Chelsea flagship, 75,000 square foot monolith that seems more like corporate Death Star. Even with all of the big, new flashy buildings, the art market remains dominated by a few family firms—Pace, Hauser + Wirth, Acquavella—and sole proprietorships—Gagosian and Zwirner, not to mention Ropac and Skarstedt—and a few old-fashioned partnerships like Lévy Gorvy.
All of these businesses have more in common with the kinds of firms that existed before the advent of the joint stock corporation. They are financed in such an ante bellum way, using private money raised through very personal familial and social networks, that they are actually more like the community Artnet and Deitch imagine they replaced.
Even the auction houses with their heavy dependence upon talent and contacts seem more like the ancient and recombinative institutions like Lloyds than they do like sophisticated data-driven finance companies.
You may ask, as someone did on Twitter, “What in God’s name is going on here? Is it really so ‘controversial’ to say that the art world is an industry?” And the answer would probably have to be ‘no, it’s not controversial at all.’ And it might not even matter.
But to call the art world an industry is to give in credit it doesn’t deserve. The growth in the value of art objects hasn’t made it possible to provide more art to more of the people at a lower price. The big gallery buildings or multi-city footprints haven’t made art more scalable; its production and distribution isn’t more efficient. The pricing of art isn’t more transparent or posted on an exchange because of the art world becoming an art industry. We don’t have complex financial products that smooth out the volatility of supply and demand. There is no Gross Domestic Art index, no indicator predicting whether better or worse art lies ahead.
Industry is a centrifugal force. It pushes goods and services out toward the edges even as it draws profit to the center. The art world these days is a centripetal force that collapses inward, creating density at the very center.
If the art world isn’t an industry, perhaps that is a good thing. The selling of heterodox objects remains a unique endeavor, perhaps even one that, for all of its use of modern technology, is immune to becoming anything more than a face-to-face business. Maybe because of that it has become the last refuge of a kind of market behavior that requires human interaction.
So instead of decrying the art world as a fallen industry, we should celebrate it as a community of individuals constantly interacting to create value. Let’s just not declare it over.
The Met’s $8.2m Sale of Chinese Works of Art
This Qianlong jade washer from the Florence and Herbert Irving gift to the Metropolitan Museum of Art was sold at Sotheby’s on Tuesday for $1.3m over a $150,000 high estimate. The entire sale of 300 lots made $8.27m. The works offered represent the ‘overflow’ of a 1275-object donation to the Met made by the Irvings, whose fortune came from having founded the institutional food supplier Sysco. The Irvings were major benefactors of the Met having also given $80m in funding while agreeing that their collection of Chinese works of art would be catalogued and the excess items sold to fund acquisitions. The contents of the Irving’s apartment appeared at auction earlier this year at Christie’s in a sale that made $17.89m.
Because of the combined provenance of the Irvings and the Met, the lots were likely to be conservatively estimated. Nonetheless, there were numerous sales well above the high estimates and a few works like the jade washer, a jadeite table screen that sold for $1m over a $120k high estimate, a carved jade boulder estimated at $250k that made $800k, and a celadon jade inscribed boulder estimated at $150k that sold for $740k.