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Decline in art sales could actually be good for the industry, critic says – Marketplace.org

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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.

Which essential workers should be prioritized for vaccines?

Front-line health care workers and residents of long-term care facilities are getting the shots first, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance. Essential workers will be considered next, but with limited vaccine doses and a lot of workers considered essential, the jockeying has already started over which ones should go to the front of the line: meatpacking workers, pilots, bankers and ride-share drivers among them. The CDC will continue to consider how to best distribute the vaccine, but ultimately it’s up to each state to decide who gets the shots when.

Could relaxing patents help poorer countries get vaccines faster?

The world’s poorest countries may not be able to get any vaccine at all until 2024, by one estimate. To deliver vaccines to the world’s poor sooner that, some global health activists want to waive intellectual property protections on vaccines, medicines and diagnostics. India, South Africa and Kenya have asked the World Trade Organization to allow pharmaceutical plants in the developing world to manufacture patented drugs without having to worry about lawsuits. The United States, Britain and the European Union, have repeatedly rejected the proposal at the WTO.

The Pfizer vaccine has to be kept in extreme cold at minus 94 degrees Fahrenheit. And keeping it that cold requires dry ice. Where does that dry ice come from?

Also, is there enough of it to go around? And how much is it going to cost? The demand for dry ice is about to spike, and a whole bunch of industries are worried. Now, dry ice sells for $1 to $3 a pound. While the vaccine gets priority, smaller businesses and nonessential industries may end up losing out.

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Visit the city's tiniest art gallery: Five things to do in Saskatoon this weekend – Saskatoon StarPhoenix

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In an effort to help Saskatoon residents share art with one another, Suzy Schwanke has created the Free Little Art Gallery YXE outside her home at 332 Hilliard St. E.

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Whether you’re interested in art, a virtual party, some outdoor activities or cleaning up around the house, there’s a little bit of something for everyone this weekend in Saskatoon.

1. Visit the Free Little Art Gallery

In an effort to help Saskatoon residents share art with one another, Suzy Schwanke has created the Free Little Art Gallery YXE outside her home at 332 Hilliard St. E. Designed in the style of community libraries and kitchen boxes, visitors to the gallery can take a piece of art, leave a piece of art, or do both. You can check out some of the artwork on Instagram @Freelittleartgalleryyxe.

Art teacher Suzy Schwanke is hoping to bring “a little joy to the community” by installing a tiny art gallery on her front lawn in Saskatoon’s Queen Elizabeth neighbourhood.
Art teacher Suzy Schwanke is hoping to bring “a little joy to the community” by installing a tiny art gallery on her front lawn in Saskatoon’s Queen Elizabeth neighbourhood. Photo by Matt Smith /Saskatoon StarPhoenix

2. Hit up The Bassment’s virtual party

Featuring the music and talents of eight Saskatoon bands, The Bassment presents InTune 2021 — a free online party playing from 2 to 9 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The shows will be streamed live through the Bassment’s Facebook and YouTube pages.

3. Check out local performers

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Watch as some of Saskatoon’s performing artists share their work in Episode 1 of Persephone Theatre’s Open Stage, which was published earlier this month. The episode is available to watch whenever you want at persephonetheatre.org and features Peace Akintade, Kathie Cram, Amanda Trapp, Sketchy Bandits, Carla Orosz and Ellen Froese.

4. Have some family fun

The Fuddruckers Family Fun Centre (2910 8th St. E) is open from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Sunday, weather permitting. Families can practice their skills on the 18-hole Putt N’ Bounce miniature golf course, reach new heights on The Rock climbing wall or take a swing at the Grand Slam batting cages. More information is available at fudds.ca or by calling 306-477-0808.

5. Drop off your hazardous waste

The City of Saskatoon is holding its first Hazardous Household Waste Drop Off of the year on Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at the Civic Operations Centre (57 Valley Rd.). The drop off is open to Saskatoon residents from residential properties only. Products eligible for drop off include aerosols, automotive fluids, batteries, cleaners, light bulbs, yard chemicals and more. Learn more at saskatoon.ca/hazardouswaste.

  1. Art teacher Suzy Schwanke is hoping to bring

    Little art gallery brings colour, connection to Queen Elizabeth neighbourhood

  2. Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon

    Persephone Theatre brings in community co-leads for new Artists’ Working Group

The news seems to be flying at us faster all the time. From COVID-19 updates to politics and crime and everything in between, it can be hard to keep up. With that in mind, the Saskatoon StarPhoenix has created an Afternoon Headlines newsletter that can be delivered daily to your inbox to help make sure you are up to date with the most vital news of the day. Click here to subscribe.

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YK ARCC celebrates 10 years by pushing for NWT art gallery – Cabin Radio

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Its trailer doubles as one of the NWT’s only art galleries. Now, the Yellowknife Artist-Run Community Centre is turning 10 years old.

The group, YK ARCC for short, formed in 2011 in a downtown Yellowknife church scheduled for demolition. “There was always something going on,” recalled Métis artist Rosalind Mercredi, owner of the city’s Down to Earth Gallery, who was YK ARCC’s first president.

“I think it was so good to be able to have a space where people wanted to work on stuff and, if they had bigger projects they wanted to do, there was a space to do it. It was pretty vibrant times, I would say, for art.”

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Though the organization stayed in the church for less than a year, it has brought art and shows to Yellowknife since. Temporary homes have included an apartment above a Vietnamese restaurant and empty spaces in the Centre Square Mall.

Casey Koyczan, a Tłı̨chǫ artist from Yellowknife pursuing a Master of Fine Arts degree at the University of Manitoba, held some of his first shows with YK ARCC’s help.

“It really helped to be able to show work within an environment that was conducive to more of a fine arts aesthetic as opposed to … a coffee shop, or a pub, or something like that,” said Koyczan, who was on YK ARCC’s board.

“YK ARCC felt like it was getting to more of a formal-exhibit kind of feel.”

‘We need a territorial gallery’

The group made headlines shortly after opening a mobile art gallery in a trailer. At the beginning of the pandemic, the team took art to residents by accepting reservations through Facebook then driving the gallery to make house calls in different neighbourhoods.

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“Because it’s so small, we might be the only gallery in Canada that didn’t have to close,” said longtime board member Sarah Swan. “It has a limited capacity. We knew we could still operate it safely.”

YK ARCC’s first home is pictured in 2011. Photo: Submitted
Casey Koyczan stands in front of a painting at a YK ARCC show in 2014. Photo: Submitted

Yet the trailer’s success simultaneously illuminated what YK ARCC’s members believe is a glaring deficiency in the NWT: the absence of a territorial gallery.

The cost of rent makes it difficult for the non-profit to hold on to one space for any length of time. Many of the spaces that are available in Yellowknife don’t work well for art shows.

“We need a territorial gallery,” former board member Dan Korver said.

That doesn’t mean a commercial gallery geared toward profit, he clarified. Instead, Korver wants a space where artists can show their work and engage with an audience “for art’s sake.”

The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre is the only large-scale, non-commercial, gallery fitting that bill in the NWT. It hosts two fine art exhibits a year.

“It’s just simply not enough,” said Swan. “There are so many more artists and so much more work out there to show, so many more ideas.”

“We created the mobile gallery in the first place to feel that exhibition gap, but also, we created it to be a piece of agitation in itself. That’s why we called it the Art Gallery of the Northwest Territories.

“It’s really pathetic that our territorial gallery is a trailer. We all joke that if there ever is a real gallery of the Northwest Territories that’s not in a trailer, we’ll happily give the name back.”

YK ARCC debuted its mobile gallery in the summer of 2019. Pictured are board member Brian McCutcheon and artist Terry Pamplin. Photo: Submitted
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Art by Shelley Vanderbyl is displayed in Yellowknife’s mobile gallery in May 2020. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
A YK ARCC show in 2018, called Social Fabric, was held inside a former bank in the Centre Square Mall. Thirty-two artists were featured and 800 people attended. Photo: Submitted

Koyczan described obstacles in establishing his career that stemmed directly from the lack of a territorial art gallery.

“Back when I was showing at YK ARCC, it wasn’t recognized by the Canada Arts Council,” he said. “Therefore, when you go to apply for grants and funding … and you provide your CV saying that you showed work at YK ARCC, they check their records and say the show basically didn’t exist because they don’t recognize it as a legitimate gallery.

“I’ve had to work really hard on exporting myself and making artwork that is impactful so that, regardless of where I was located, it would be recognized by people in the south, or around North America, or internationally.

“The NWT needs a contemporary gallery. It’s just holding us back, not having that space.”

‘No GNWT mandate’ for a gallery

In a written statement to Cabin Radio, the territorial Department of Education, Culture, and Employment said it has no plan to create a territorial gallery.

The department said it “does not have a mandate to create physical infrastructure for the arts.”

“However,” the response continued, “the GNWT would be happy to work with regional organizations to see how the GNWT can support their plans.”

Korver believes government involvement in creating an artist-run centre or non-commercial gallery should be limited to provision of funding, so any gallery can remain community-driven and independent.

“We need that physical space, but how do you run it?” he wondered. “Is it better to just provide a grassroots organization – or organizations, maybe there shouldn’t just be one – with stable funding so they can provide those spaces and run those spaces?”

More spaces that can host art are on the way.

Makerspace YK moved into the old After 8 pub this January and is planning workshops and exhibits. The City of Yellowknife expects to open a visitor centre in the Centre Square Mall that would include art displays.

Meanwhile, the territorial government is set to release its updated NWT Arts Strategy this June. The previous territorial arts strategy, released in 2004, had identified a need for more arts spaces.

As a gallery owner, Mercredi said she is curious to see how the strategy is implemented.

YK ARCC staged an outdoor installation in 2017. Photo: Submitted
Rosalind Mercredi, first president of YK ARCC, at the mobile gallery. Photo: Submitted

“You can make a strategy but if the plan doesn’t have an implementation idea behind it, then really just sits,” she said. “How do you implement it when most of the arts organizations don’t have enough infrastructure or people to put those things together?”

Swan said YK ARCC will continue to run its mobile gallery while celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. Members have applied for funding to run a series of “emerging curator workshops.”

“Art is our passion,” Swan said. “I think there’s just this drive to share.

“Because we know how good art can be, or how amazing and fully developed it can be, we want to fight for that. We want to try to grow the art community in Yellowknife.”

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