COVID-19 has touched every industry in our country, causing a scramble to adapt and hopefully avoid failure. The art world, where status and pricey works go hand in hand, is no different. A recent report found that gallery sales of recent art dropped by more than one-third during the first six months of 2020.
But some in the industry are actually heralding this as good news and hoping that this will cause a reset.
Blake Gopnik, the author of “Warhol” and a frequent contributor to The New York Times, is among them. He shared his point of view with Marketplace Morning Report host David Brancaccio. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
David Brancaccio: Now, what is it? Your premise backed up by field work that people in the art market are relieved that the pandemic has let the air out of the art market?
Blake Gopnik: Yeah, you know, most industries are obviously terribly troubled by the fact that things are going terribly. You won’t find a restaurateur that says thank God for the pandemic. But weirdly, in the art world, that’s kind of what’s happening. I mean, earlier this fall, a report came out saying that gallery sales had dropped by something like a third. And I for one, at least, am kind of happy about it. Because the art market had gone so crazy in the last 10 or even 20 years, that it had lost all sense of reality. And I think a lot of people in the art world, either explicitly or at least secretly, are really happy that this giant correction is happening.
“Bad art is selling for a ton”
Brancaccio: And you’re not making the classic financial bubble argument, that if prices get too high, they need to come down to something more normal. You’re actually, in part, talking about the quality of the art.
Gopnik: Yeah, I think what has people especially upset is that really bad art is selling for a ton. It used to be that you said, “This is a work of great art, so it should sell for a lot.” And now that’s been reversed. Now people say, “Wow, that sold for a lot. It must be a work of really great art.” And that’s what I’m objecting to. But it’s not just me. All sorts of people I’m talking to in the art world — dealers, people who make their living by buying and selling art — are saying that things have gotten so crazy that it would be a good thing if there was a massive correction in the art market.
Brancaccio: But spare a thought for the struggling artists. If the market is so much reduced by pandemic, what would have sold higher is selling lower. That’s not going to help the artist.
Gopnik: You know, the big problem is that this crazy art market has helped a tiny, tiny number of artists, many of whom are vastly mediocre. But it hasn’t done any good for your average midcareer artists. In fact, quite the opposite. They’re the ones who’ve been slammed. You know, billionaires are willing to buy really splashy work that looks good over the sofa. And that’s really what they’re buying. But they’re not buying, you know, the midcareer video artist who’s been struggling to make really interesting work.
I mean, one of the big problems is that really mediocre painting, what some people are calling “zombie abstraction” — that is, kind of abstraction from the past that’s come back to life — is what’s selling really well. Or what I call “Frankenstein figuration,” kind of paintings cobbled together from the corpses of old figurative paintings. That’s what’s selling. It’s pretty stuff. It’s decorative, but it has no real depth. That’s what’s fetching the really big money.
And even high-end collectors are complaining about that. I spoke to a pretty famous collector called Alain Servais from Belgium, and he talks about event-driven buying at art fairs, where people just want to get the latest painting that everyone’s talking about. They’re not thinking hard about it. They’re not asking curators, or for that matter, critics like me, you know, what’s gonna stand the test of time? They’re just buying what everyone’s talking about.
“All sorts of people I’m talking to in the art world … are saying that things have gotten so crazy that it would be a good thing if there was a massive correction in the art market.”
Blake Gopnik, art critic and author of “Warhol”
The return of the gallery?
Brancaccio: So we understand, I mean, the pandemic — it’s not just galleries that close. Some of the big markets for art, these bazaars, have also had to close.
Gopnik: Yeah, the trade fairs is where the markets really collapsed because you can’t have 5,000 people from the art world all crowding into the convention center. And that’s where a lot of the sales haven’t happened. That’s what’s really hurt. But those were the most noxious part of the recent art market, so no one is lamenting the death of the art fair. All of the serious collectors I know, all of the serious dealers, especially, just find the art fairs a nightmare, even though that’s where they were making their money, because galleries really can foster old-fashioned notions of, I hate to say it, but art for art’s sake.
I was speaking to Paula Cooper, who’s one of the really senior dealers in the business. She’s been doing it for 50 years. She’s more respected than anyone. And what she says has happened because of the pandemic is that people are coming to the gallery and they’re looking slowly, carefully. They’re not just there to buy. They’re there because galleries, especially when they’re half-empty because of the pandemic, are just fabulous places to slowly contemplate art. So she hopes that if the art fairs kind of die, and the market calms down, people will go back to that kind of looking. And it looks like maybe that’s what’s already starting to happen.
Brancaccio: But they should wear masks.
Gopnik: They should definitely wear masks. The strange thing is that galleries are some of the safest places you can go right now. They’re almost empty. They’ve got amazing new [heating, ventilating and air conditioning] systems. Everyone’s wearing a mask. Everyone’s plenty spread apart in the galleries.
Read Gopnik’s op-ed in its entirety below:
The art world’s known as a strange place, but how’s this for peculiar: It might be the only segment of the economy that greets a major downturn with a sigh of relief.
This fall, a report on the global art industry revealed that, in the first half of the year, the pandemic led gallery sales of recent art to drop by more than a third, partly because the art market’s trade fairs were cancelled left and right. For many of us, that’s good news.
Like many critics, I feel that the explosion in sales of the last decade or two has left the art world obsessed with market values at the expense of artistic worth. Where people used to say, “That’s a great work of art — it should sell for a lot,” they now say, “That sells for a lot — it should count as a great work of art.”
Because few rich people are any good at art history or aesthetics — their expertise is in making money — they pay huge prices for art that will never earn space on museum walls. Most of the art market’s current “masterpieces” are fancy baubles for Billionaires’ Row. For a few years already, critics have been complaining about the mad market for “zombie abstraction”: new art that tries to revive the bank-lobby abstracts of the 1960s and ’70s. And lately that’s been joined by what I call “Frankenstein figuration”: works cobbled together from the corpses of long-dead realisms. But you’d never know any of these pictures were in doubt from the attention their price tags garner. Art investors, only in it for the money, pile onto the same objects that collectors prefer and thereby complete the vicious circle. That’s the circle that I fondly hope will be broken, or at least slowed, by a pandemic-inspired market correction.
My view may not be surprising for a head-in-the-clouds critic, but when I reached out to some of the market’s sellers and buyers, they shared my fond hope for change.
Magda Sawon co-founded Postmasters gallery in New York more than three decades ago. She has made a living from art sales ever since. But for Sawon, that other art market, where the headlines are made, is the enemy. She talked to me about the coronavirus as “the best possible way to disrupt the horrible toxic system” of an art world dominated by “big brands and money.” In a recent opinion piece, she wrote that — hoped that — COVID-19 might do to the art-market giants what the asteroid did to dinosaurs. She sees the small, smart galleries like hers as the mammals that survive.
If Sawon takes pride in “doing things wrong, and differently,” Sean Kelly seems a normal high-end operator. His 22,000-square-foot gallery, suitably posh, is near the new (and, for now, empty) Hudson Yards development in New York; he has a staff of about 25. But when I visited Kelly there, bemasked and keeping my distance, he complained about the art world’s collapse into “investment culture.” He said the artistic values that launched him into the art business have been “debased and eroded” by the market surge: “Now everybody is beholden to the great god Money.”
The most yawn-worthy paintings now vastly outsell, and therefore overshadow, the video, conceptual and performance art has long been the site of some real art-historical action. (Kelly recently showed Joseph Kossuth’s clocks printed with pithy quotes; he also “exhibits” — even sells — performances by Marina Abramovic.)
For many market-doubters, art fairs are where things have gone most astray. Kelly spoke to me of their huge environmental costs — all those people and objects being flown in and out; all that discarded carpet and drywall — and of the frenzied pace they’ve imposed as short-lived events that require weeks or months of prep. The final demise of at least some fairs, and the decreased influence of others, would be one upside to the downturn.
The Belgian collector Alain Servais has long raged against the “event-driven buying” that goes on at art fairs and the easy-read paintings they favor. Speaking to me about the current “dichotomy between the cultural value of art and the financial value of art,” he sees traditional, artist-focused galleries like Kelly’s as offering a possible antidote to the sales-focused fairs. He pointed out that, until mass vaccination takes hold, galleries are among the safest places to have an in-person encounter with culture. Always near-empty, anyway, except on opening nights (which have been cancelled for a while now) the galleries now add anti-viral HVAC and hand sanitizer to their “attractions.”
Over the last several months in New York, as their galleries have reopened, dealers tell me that they’ve noticed visitors have less of a shopping mentality. “They’re not just making the rounds,” said veteran gallerist Paula Cooper. “They’re really spending time. They’re there to look.”
“I do think that the pandemic has accelerated and sharpened the questions we ask about what we are all in this for,” said Greg Miller, a New York banker and collector. If there’s a “silver lining” to the market correction, Miller told me, it’s that it might push the conversation away from return-on-investment and back toward the slower values of world-changing art. Thanks to COVID, some nonprofit spaces, like the White Columns gallery whose board Miller heads, might even win back the attention they’ve lost to art sales in recent years.
Of all the art-worlders I canvassed, only Pamela Joyner, a West Coast collector of African American art, seemed sanguine about the market. Over the last few years, she said, exploding prices and increased attention coincided for Black artists, letting them “leapfrog” out of the obscurity they’d endured. But Joyner recognizes that this long-neglected art now demands the deep, deliberate study that a hot market cannot offer. The art she collects gets an outsize benefit, she said, from the “slow-looking paradigm” that our post-lockdown times can provide.
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In Conversation With French Art Gallery Owner, Nathalie Obadia – Forbes
Nathalie Obadia, founder of her eponymous gallery with spaces in Paris and Brussels representing artists such as Fiona Rae, Laure Prouvost, Benoît Maire, Valérie Belin, Fabrice Hyber, Roland Flexner, Lorna Simpson, Sarkis, Manuel Ocampo, Wang Keping and Xu Zhen, discusses the pros and cons of online art fairs.
During the age of COVID-19, do you believe we’ll see more online art fairs worldwide in the future?
Online fairs were very important last year, but we already feel a weariness. Collectors do not visit all online viewing rooms. Some collectors said they are already tired of it. Since the ’60s, fairs and their success rely on the possibility to gather galleries, collectors, curators, press and artists. Nothing will change the physical perception of a work and meeting all the different actors of the art world. If in 2021, international art fairs cannot be organized, there will be less online visits. Nevertheless, it will strengthen local business in galleries in New York, Paris and London.
How has the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns worldwide affected the way in which you support your artists, collectors, curators and visitors, instituting new online content?
Until now and since March, we are lucky as this period went well. We sold several artworks online and at the gallery thanks to loyal collectors. We will have to adapt to a longer, and therefore structural change: less travels, less art fairs, less exhibitions of non-European artists, as they cannot come to France. We will focus on artists living in Europe.
What was the percentage of your online sales in 2019 versus 2020?
Our online sales grew by 30 % in 2020 compared to 2019.
Will you continue to participate in as many art fairs as before (whether physical or digital), or reduce the number?
Of course we will participate in fewer art fairs in 2021, as fewer art fairs will occur. Nevertheless, we will work on the French and Belgian markets, which are stronger than people are used to admitting. We will participate in international and strategic art fairs if they aren’t canceled, such as Art Basel Hong Kong, Art Basel Miami and more. Moreover, we will participate for the first time at Asia Now, which is a small and specialized fair in Paris that takes place the same week as FIAC contemporary art fair.
Why did you decide to participate in the physical edition of Art Paris 2020 last September, after the fair had been postponed then canceled?
Nothing will replace a meeting at a booth and a collector looking at an artwork. Nothing replaces an exchange, a spontaneous discussion in front of a work or around art. It is also an opportunity to meet many people that we have not seen for months. We were very happy about Art Paris, which was a test. We learned to work wearing a mask for 10 hours and to recognize our collectors despite that. We concluded more than 20 sales, mostly to French collectors. That is a good sign and means that we have collectors in France despite what we usually hear. A third of our sales were made to new collectors.
How has your vision of the future of the art world changed? Does COVID-19 spell the end of massive physical art fairs, or do you believe that they will be able to survive now and in the future and remain relevant?
Already before the pandemic, there was a sign of the system of fairs running out of steam: too many, too large. On one hand, we saw the big global international fairs like the three Art Basels, the three Friezes and the FIAC being organized, and already the energies of some of these big fairs were starting to run out because too many exhibitors put forward globalized international art. On the other hand, smaller boutique fairs like Art Genève, or more specialized like African art in 1-54, are becoming more interesting and will now perhaps be those that will be possible to organize and that will have more visitors.
Works in group show at London art gallery examine year of pandemic – London Free Press (Blogs)
A new exhibition at a city art gallery features works by more than 20 London-area artists exploring their experiences during the pandemic.
Westland Gallery is hosting the annual gallery artists’ group exhibition until Feb. 13 that includes works by artists who will be featured at the gallery this year.
Artists in the exhibition include Catherine Morrisey, Erica Dornbusch, Donna Andreychuk, Johnnene Maddison, Paul Lambert, Jane Roy, Carol Finkbeiner Thomas, Kim Harrison, Sheila Davis, Lisa Johnson, Denise Antaya, Andrew Sookrah, Brent Schreiber, Dana Cowie, Sharon Barr, Pat Gibson, Geoff Farnsworth, Eleanor Lowden, Jeanette Obbink and Jill Price.
“This year we encouraged our artists to submit artwork that reflected on their experiences during 2020,” said Danielle Hoevenaars, the gallery’s associate director.
“The artistic responses we received are as unique as each individual experience of this unprecedented year has been. Contrasting themes play a big role in this exhibition: loss of public spaces alongside reflections of the home, feelings of isolation alongside the pursuit of meaning, happiness and justice.”
Cape Breton woman's COVID-19 inspired public art show features face masks and personal sentiments – TheChronicleHerald.ca
SYDNEY MINES, N.S. —
Bailee Higgins hopes her public art project will help promote an important public health measure while connecting people in the community.
I Wear A Mask For Sydney Mines is a series of digital portraits of people who live or work in Sydney Mines wearing masks, which are designed to reflect their personalities. Included with each portrait is a comment from the subject about why they wear a face mask or a little about their experience during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s a project that’s meant to bring people together since we can’t get physically together,” said Higgins, who is in the art education program at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in Halifax.
“And it’s a project that can encourage people to wear a face mask as a way to help protect everyone during the pandemic, which I think is an important message.”
Created for a public art class Higgins is taking at NSCAD University, the Sydney Mines native received a Rising Youth grant so she could continue the project until March 1.
During the last week of February, she is planning a virtual livestreaming show of all the portraits she’s completed to this point. But the artist, who has a bachelor of fine arts degree from Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., plans to continue doing portraits until the end of the pandemic.
“I want to get as many people as possible involved so we can get as many people’s experiences included,” she said.
One participant who is a COVID-19 survivor living off-island wrote a statement that Higgins calls “powerful.”
In it, the woman said her health will never be the same again and that she wants to live in a world where people care about protecting people around them.
“Our cases have been pretty low here. So hearing from someone who has had it and is still suffering from the lasting effects is really powerful,” Higgins said.
Alex Cormier saw Higgins’s Facebook post looking for subjects for the I Wear A Mask series and the mother of two said she wanted to participate in the project because protecting others is a message that hits close to home.
“It’s affected our family directly, the COVID pandemic. My mother had COVID and now she suffers long-term effects from COVID. Her lungs are permanently damaged,” Cormier said about her decision to be a model in the series.
“If by helping promote the message that face masks work, if we can protect anyone else’s mother or grandmother or father or someone else in the community by wearing masks, then we should do what we can to get that message across.”
Each digital portrait takes about an hour and a half to complete and is done on an iPad with a special pen which allows the artist to draw right on the screen.
To date, Higgins has completed 40 portraits and hopes to finish at least 100 by the time the pandemic is over.
Anyone interested in being a model in the I Wear A Mask For Sydney Mines series can contact Higgins by email at [email protected], through Facebook messenger on the project page or by phone at 902-578-9444.
Nicole Sullivan is an education, enterprise and diversity reporter for the Cape Breton Post.
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