Day after day, art magazines, blogs, newspapers and other media outlets categorize a shrinking field. Museums and galleries close, staff are laid off, students in arts-related programs obtain degrees for which there is no foreseeable opportunity.
What’s evident is that the arts as its current model exists – educational institution, creator, writer, critic, curator, collector, gallerist, agent, muse – simply doesn’t function any more. The market itself is so top-heavy, even after its recent ‘adjustments’, that works of art and their relative values have no correlation today. This is as evident in the four figure prices of emerging and mid-career artists as it is in the speculative nature of the auction market. Dollars and euros seem, to ‘coin’ a phrase, chase good money after bad as a market built on demand dwindles to bewilderment.
Consider, for a moment, what it means for a major corporation like Polaroid to have its collection, wait, its assets, appear in public and private sales. What can it possibly mean if, using recent figures from artnet.com, as many as six hundred and twenty seven works by Ansel Adams suddenly enter the market?
Here’s how the house of cards must have worked – speculators, pardon me, collectors, purchased major works in an overheated market, driving prices and values up for everyone involved. Now, in a cool market, not only are the implications of that strategy becoming evident, but every organization reliant on the market is suffering. What’s even more remarkable is that educational institutions that should have been immune – those ivory-tower bastions of scholarly pursuit, ne’ertofore sullied by the vagaries of the market (heaven forbid) – now find themselves in precisely the same predicament, with fewer donors, shrinking endowments, ambitious plans.
So what in the world can this possibly mean? Will we see the market become a ‘cash-for-clunkers’ emulating, bargain chasing, free-for-all positioned by whoever might be left when the galleries and auction houses have swept their rosters clean of ‘surplus’ staff or shuttered their doors entirely?
Maybe the actual issue is that it is time to lift the veil and recognize that art is a market, that apart from its scholarly frameworks, its intellectual positioning, its speculation on mood and emotion, in the end its simply a transaction that is based as much on supply and demand, scarcity and availability, as anything else.
So what we have now is a more educated class of educated people, artists, professionals, supporters, languishing in a field of closures, cutbacks, and changes of scale.
I wonder if anyone took the time to consider something on the way up – did anyone outside the bubble really care? Did more people come to exhibitions? As prices were being driven up, did it actually attract people to the market, make them more generous with their time and money? Did we really make it bigger, stronger and faster? Or was it just some bloated behemoth teetering on the edges of speculation and belief, propped up by language and then deflated when the bubble burst.
Ask yourself now, what’s working? I’m in the business, and I don’t even think I have an idea.