Global Director, Art Basel
The art world and all its players—from curators, collectors, and artists to museum leaders, arts critics, advisers, and beyond—are more international, interconnected, and hyperextended than ever before. We throw ourselves into a state of perpetual motion, forever shuttling from the newest museum’s opening to the next must-see biennial. That vibrant development is great, but the accelerated pace places a tremendous pressure on artists to be in a constant state of creative production. Yet artists need time and space to fully develop, and the frenetic atmosphere tempts too many artists toward overproduction, with long-term risks for the quality of their work and the longevity of their careers.
Of course, we all take part in shaping this hyperactive environment—fairs such as Art Basel included. This is one of the reasons why we place such a priority on works not made merely to feed the market (like those in Unlimited, our film series, and performance programs). We also aim to highlight especially those galleries that try hard to insulate their artists from the market’s pressures—for their own good and for all of us who love to see great art coming from all over the globe. In the long run, a slower-paced, content-driven art world is more rewarding than a jet-set treadmill.
Warren Buffett said, “Never invest in a business that you do not understand.” The art world is replete with problems but, here, I will address class. There are some artists who can continue to make work without becoming established because they have a financial safety net or have decided to make art that requires no overhead. Fine, but an inept system should not determine our work, its means, or the source from which it is made. Artists who have not made it into the top tier of the market cannot live on their art. These artists often work multiple day jobs, and often in the form of precarious freelance labor without benefits. If they are lucky, these day jobs are “flexible,” yet artists have to pay—in the form of time off to work—to meet the demands necessary for being a part of the market. This leads to compromised work. By the nature of making things, usually in a studio, artists’ life expenses are doubled and their stable income is partial.
These numbers simply do not make sense. If we define Buffett’s word “business” here as art, then artists know they are participating in a system in which they are not fully valued (or again in Buffett’s terms, understood). Therefore, they have one option, to opt out, or follow Duchamp’s advice: “go underground.”
Let’s treat radical ideas as living things, ones that deserve to thrive, or at least be sustainable, regardless of the market’s temperament. The art world increasingly favors highly productive individuals who make explainable objects. This is not congruent with making art; it is linked to the logic of the greater economy. Artists should not be defined as part of the “creative class.” Artists make work from messiness, from not knowing what they are doing, from trial and error. Time spent doing nothing is required in order to unwind the construction of daily life, which is so tightly wound.
At the national level, benefactors and consumers of art should be required to invest in livelihoods, not just specific objects. If one dollar were added to every institutional entry fee and every collector were required to devote an additional percentage in proportion to their total annual purchases, we could create a consistent stipend for artists. This would not be a government program; it would be the art industry investing in its own future. If this won’t work, let’s figure out what will, or follow Duchamp’s advice.
Director, U.S. Latina/o Art Forum
Notwithstanding the art world’s so-called global turn, institutions across the board (museums, galleries, art fairs, biennials, and universities) are still not reflective of this country’s, much less the world’s, demographics. The Euro- and Anglocentric canon and the Occidentalist norms and hierarchies of difference that sustain it still dominate.
Educate to challenge timeworn hierarchies and values that sustain settler colonialism’s racialized and gendered cultural logic; this includes the framing of alternative narratives and histories in ways that ultimately serve only to perpetuate established hierarchies of value. Support organizations and individuals committed to developing and disseminating new conceptual structures that more accurately reflect our society and the world.
Critic & Curator
These questions of what is wrong with the art world and how to fix it are ones we should probably have been asking ourselves more often in past years, but I suppose everyone was too giddy over the stupid money, blind ambition, greed, star-fucking, and petty gossip to spare a moment for crucial self-reflection. Despite the shadows of crisis that threaten a brutal contraction in the playing field, it is certainly not too late at least to ask them now.
Let us begin by being clear about what we are addressing. The art world is not the same as the art market, and this persistent confusion is at the root of our troubles. The art world is not such a big domain and, for all its dysfunction and sprawl, it is a cozy place in which many of us have made a comfortable home for ourselves, a community we share that ameliorates those forces that continue to make it somewhat colder, ruthless, and more alienating. The art market is as vast as it is soulless, the antithesis of the creativity, honesty, and empathy that both engender and define the very best in the arts.
Here are some of the most obvious suggestions:
Get rid of the speculators, they don’t give a damn about art and are profoundly detrimental to its health.
Get auction houses out of the contemporary art game. They are pure poison and you all know it.
Stop all the funny money floating through this unregulated market. The art market has always been complicit in the most egregious financial schemes, but it has only gotten worse and one of these days a bunch of you will rightly end up in jail.
Prevent flipping works by creating major penalties for the sale of them within ten years, especially for profit.
Bar the shipment of art directly to free holds for indefinite storage just so a bunch of vulgar monkeys can dodge taxes while moving around their wealth in portable lucrative commodities.
Stop writing about art as if it’s an investment. Its true value is one of usage, what it brings to the people who actually live with it.
Stop with all the putrid gossip about rich people and celebrities. They have nothing to do with the real conversation we need to be having. Put an end to clickbait on these brainless art websites. Refuse to reduce the chaotic and unruly nature of visual art to dumbed-down listicles.
Disrupt the patterns of ratification that make art so damn boring half the time. Greatness has never been found nor fostered by conversations among collectors who are all ears and no eyes. Remove the inherent conflicts of interest on the boards of most cultural institutions. Remember that art has never been served well by the academy, so stop trolling that short list of MFA programs that churn out market-ready, debt-burdened victims of our pathetic addiction to meaningless novelty. Look to the streets and other nontraditional venues for art, listen to those vernaculars that exist beyond the politesse of art-speak, and wonder for a change why there are so many artists out there who never show in galleries but have millions of followers and real fans who are deeply invested in what they are doing. You might be missing something a lot more vital and important than the next wave of empty formalisms. (Back to top.)
There are two things guaranteed to undermine any self-respecting artist: One is the word “career”; the other is the notion of having a “career” in the “art world.” There is something wrong with the whole concept. A world-conquering imperialist claim that overreaches combined with a diminished sense that we are just part of a “world” within the world—a special bubble apart from reality. Maybe there is nothing wrong with art and artists and curators and galleries and collectors, but there is a big problem with this concept that there is an “art world.” There is an existing world and we operate within it. Maybe there wouldn’t be a perceived problem with the art world if we considered ourselves as operating within the world as it seems to be. The problem is that it is not that simple.
So let’s assume that there is art, and there are artists, and there are galleries and curators and institutions. And let’s assume that there are good ones and bad ones. Even when we do this, there is still the nagging feeling that there is also an art world, and there are problems with it, and that we need to fix them.
So the art world is a thing in itself. It is a malignancy that threatens the active artist. It has unique qualities. Yet those deep inside the art world bubble also complain about the art world. It is something exterior and interior simultaneously. We are of it and not of it at the same time. The art world is all the things about our work that we do not like. The art world is also other people; alongside them, it is all the things we can all agree are irritating.
There is no fix to something that we are in and simultaneously hate. It is an expression of self-loathing to complain about the art world, for when we do it we are complaining about ourselves. The art world does not exist unless we keep locating its presence and feeling its heat. The art world is a put-down. It suggests a place of pretension and frivolity in equal measure. The art world is all the bits and pieces, moments and tedium that surround our work.
Art world is a phrase that has been increasingly deployed as people who have no empathy or taste enter what they perceive to be a coded system. It is a term that can be used to identify new markets where experiences alongside art can be presented and consumed. The art world cannot be willed away through conferences and good deeds. It is a system that feeds off a deliberately weakened host. It surrounds the vulnerability of subjective art and conscious critique.
The art world creates stress and touchiness. It is not really a world at all, it is a state of anxiety. The best way to fix it is to shut your eyes and will it away.
Art Dealer, Advisor, Agent, & Collector
The Swiss army knife: Sometimes a bottle opener, often a knife, many times a toothpick. The art business must adapt to a nonlinear environment in which traditional hierarchies are constantly in transition. This is a world where no one is actually in charge, much as it comforts us to think there is order and authority in fixed positions. This is the global position for all socioeconomic, political, and cultural environments. The art world is not comforted by this. The traditional system likes the new system about as much as the newspaper industry enjoyed the creation of the blog.
One can imagine the art business like a knife: blade, handle, sharp edge, point. An object with a simple and singular purpose and mission. It knows where it must be held and knows exactly where to cut or stab. However, the knife does not work when you are trying to open a bottle of wine or remove spinach from your teeth. The art world needs to transform itself into a device that does not define itself with the singularity and safety that comforts the elites who hold capital power and/or intellectual authority, a device that is highly responsive and adaptive to changing environments in which no one really has a grasp on what is truly going on. So in the words of Bruce Lee, my advice is simple:
“Be formless, shapeless, like water. Now you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. Put it into a bottle, it becomes the bottle. Put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.
Chair of Department of Fine Arts and Art History, George Washington University
You know, that’s a really tough one. The more I think about it, the more I think that how people feel about the art world is generational. When you are young, the art world is new and exciting; it’s still a world of wonder and full of possibilities. That said, I think there has been a malaise hovering over the art world for years. There’s too much going on. People are oversaturated, overcommitted, or simply tired.
There is still good art being made, and a larger contemporary art world means that different types of people can participate. But with that world being nonstop, there’s also little room for experimentation. It’s hard for an artist to have a bad show, and to recover from that. Or just to goof around. There’s constant pressure. That pressure is mostly economic; critical pressure doesn’t hold much water right now. The idea of relevance is so short-term at the moment. It’s like quarterly reports; there’s no model for a slow burn.
There’s a lot of noise, and the problem is to find the signal within the noise. That’s one of the big challenges right now. It’s boring to talk about things in terms of the market because the market is always a problem. But there are too many art fairs, too many shows, too much pressure.
I don’t know if there is a structural fix to this. I think it’s really key for people to figure out what generates meaning for them personally. I often joke with students and friends that there are easier ways to make a living. So people are making art and writing about art for a reason. I think it is because they have a fundamental belief in art’s power to communicate. The mystery and wonder of art—those things don’t fade in the face of increasing professionalization, of the demand to produce.
What’s great about the art world is that it’s still really personal and it’s still face-to-face and people getting together, and those little communities matter. The way a show affects someone, or being in a studio with other people, matters.
I think people shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that making art and looking at art is an intellectual project. Maintaining a community and a discipline for a whole lifetime is hard, and it’s something that needs to be constantly rethought and reinvented.
In terms of a structural fix, perhaps the five biggest New York galleries should provide subsidies to the other galleries to help redistribute the money. Or maybe there should be an art sales tax that goes to a general fund to support the art world. Everyone’s trying to figure out how to pay their bills.
Once upon a time, in the land of fantasy, there was a boy with no front teeth, dirty glasses, and funny hair who became a rich and famous artist before he was 24 years old, internationally critically heralded and feted as a world champion painter. Believing they, too, could immediately roll in dough by learning the rules, ambitious future generations registered in MFA programs, seeing art as the springboard to a life of carefree luxury, Tribeca penthouses, sophisticated dinner parties with the likes of aesthete Aby Rosen, and the movable feast of the art fair–Biennale yacht and private-plane crowd.
In the real world, however—or at least for Frank Stella—the story is somewhat different. Stella never went to art school anywhere. His parents were Italian immigrants. However, his mother was a painter and his father, sure the boy was destined to be a doctor like himself, or at least a lawyer, sent his son to top schools. At Phillips Academy, Andover, two of Hans Hofmann’s best students, Maud and Pat Morgan, passed on Hofmann’s lessons to the teenage wrestler, who spent perhaps even more time in the art studio than he did playing lacrosse. At Andover, he and his friends Carl Andre and Hollis Frampton discussed aesthetics, history, poetry, and music, as well as art.
He kept up this dialogue at Princeton University, where he majored in English constitutional history, with fellow art buff Walter Darby Bannard and philosophy student Michael Fried. He studied medieval art history and took classes with painter Stephen Greene and painter and curator William Seitz, as well as with art historian Robert Rosenblum. They took him to important art shows in nearby New York and introduced him to their friends, like John Bernard Myers, director of the Tibor de Nagy gallery. Upon graduation in 1958, Stella decided to move to New York rather than Montreal to play lacrosse—his other choice of profession. He lived in a one-room flat with Andre, Frampton, and a composer named Mark Schapiro, who worked at Nedick’s and supplied them with hot dogs. There was only one mattress, but Frampton fortunately worked the night shift in a photography laboratory, so he slept days, while Stella had the mattress at night. (Andre, forced to sleep in a sling chair, constantly complained of post-nasal drip.)
Stella got a job sorting scarves and began painting his “Black Stripe” series, which impressed Myers, who offered him a show in fall 1959 at Tibor de Nagy. When Myers, known to spend summers drinking at Harry’s Bar in Venice, never returned from holiday, Stella accepted Leo Castelli’s offer to have a show at the gallery he had just opened. Castelli usually got his information from other artists, who pointed him in Stella’s direction. On a visit to pick paintings, Castelli brought with him MoMA curator Dorothy Miller, who decided to include Stella, now 23, in “Sixteen Americans.”
Miller was used to making risky choices, but the critical reaction to Stella’s black paintings was extreme. Emily Genauer, a critic for the New York Herald Tribune, found Stella’s “huge black canvases carefully lined with white pin stripes [sic] unspeakably boring.” In agreement, Brian O’Doherty called Stella “the Oblomov of ennui.” Hilton Kramer wrote in 1966 that Stella’s Castelli show left him “with too great a sense of all that has been lost from the universe of artistic discourse.”
Stella sold a few black paintings to friends for $75 apiece, but Castelli couldn’t find any buyers for works in that show, nor for the next six annual shows he held of Stella’s paintings. His career sorting scarves cut short, Stella turned to painting over the cockroaches in Bedford-Stuyvesant cupboards. Castelli made it possible for him to paint full-time by agreeing to a monthly advance—a munificent $300—really all he could afford, since he was also advancing money to his other artists, including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, John Chamberlain, and others, who did not make enough to pay their studio expenses, let alone to eat. Fortunately, Rauschenberg and Johns were both excellent cooks and often invited fellow artists over for Southern delicacies. Rauschenberg was famous for his gumbo, which, if you walked in at dinnertime, you were invited to share.
When Stella showed in 1961 in Paris at the Galerie Lawrence, the only collector who came was Joseph Hirshhorn. Hearing that Frank and I had just been married, he offered to send a case of champagne up to our suite. Embarrassed to tell him we were staying in a fifth-floor walk-up, I said, “My husband doesn’t drink, but we’d really appreciate it if you bought a painting.” He demurred. “No,” he said, “They aren’t speaking to me.” But was there anything we needed? “Frank,” I said, “can I tell him I don’t have a winter coat?” And then and there, Joe, always a sport, peeled a hundred-dollar bill off his wad. So I had a winter coat by the time we went back to Spain, where I had a Fulbright that allowed me to spend the days in the cathedral archives while Frank drew the paintings he would make for the next five years at a nearby café. We spent a lot of time looking at old masters in museums. Frank was particularly struck by Francisco de Zurbarán’s St. Hugo in the Refectory now in the Museum of Seville, originally painted for the Carthusian order founded by St. Bruno, which became the inspiration for his irregular polygons.
When we came back from Spain, it was to the tenement at 84 Walker Street that Frank had rented, where his studio was on the top floor and Virginia Dwan stored art and artists on the second.
We slept on the first floor in a double sleeping bag. I was pregnant and very ill, and there was no heat. Steve and Sigrid Greene took pity on me, and I took advantage of their couch until Frank convinced Leo to shell out an extra $100 a month to rent a telephone booth–size room (again a fifth-floor walk-up) until I had baby Rachel. Then it was my job to mooch the extra funds for diapers and formula from Leo.
Once again, with Leo’s aid, since Frank was selling no paintings, we were able to move to an actual apartment near Union Square. Frank made me a desk and the frame for a couch, which I topped with a slab of foam I bought on Canal Street. The old sling chair became the home for Andy Panda, the six-foot stuffed panda that Warhol brought as a gift for the baby. Our parents having written us off, it was the only baby gift we got. Clem and Jenny Greenberg had just had a baby too, and they gave us their English stroller, since we couldn’t possibly have afforded a carriage. Fortunately, Mickey Ruskin opened Max’s Kansas City a few blocks away, where he traded food for art, so we had a running tab when Frank traded him a painting.
Frank and I could never afford to go out without baby Rachel, who got to sleep through La Monte Young concerts and visit a lot of artists’ studios. Don Judd lived nearby and he suggested we might pay his artist neighbor $2 an hour so we could go to a movie. The artist turned out to be Yayoi Kusama, who stared at Rachel and said “very nice pretty little woman.
All this happened in the art world before there was an art market. Then, in 1973, the Robert Scull auction turned into multimillions the peanuts Scull had paid artists for their work. Johns’s Double White Map, bought for $10,000, sold for $240,000. Rauschenberg’s Thaw, a combine painting purchased for $900, went for $85,000. Sounds like small change today, but it was proof that fortunes could be made trading contemporary art, which was suddenly converted to global bitcoin. Once art became big business, of course everything changed, and profit became the dominant, if not the only, motive. As for idealistic young artists and gallerists, greedy landlords have made sure they can’t survive in Manhattan, which is today a coffin for creativity.
Today’s art world is not the art market. Indeed, the two are growing further and further apart. There are groups of artists who form communities and support each other. Small regional and university galleries have exhibitions not geared to drawing as many people as would fit into a sports stadium. But there are no longer collectors like Dorothy and Herb Vogel because of the income inequality that is the scourge of the world today. The Museum of Modern Art, where the greatest artists used to learn from the greatest existing art, once had a rental gallery from which the public could rent excellent works for eventual purchase. Now they have showcases supported by “emerging collectors” who bid up highly publicized pieces at auction by “emerging” artists whose brands are granted the museum seal of approval. Nothing will be done about this state of affairs as long as the leisure class has no culture and the cultured class has no leisure, and until a different set of values “emerges.”
The biggest problem, in my opinion, is the tendency toward monopolization. In the last several years just three or four big galleries have come to dominate the art market, squeezing out the small and mid-level galleries. This is fundamentally undemocratic, and it reflects the larger, global question of increasing income inequality. The economic reasons for this are complex, but one exacerbating factor is internet technology. Starting with Roman roads, all networks have served to consolidate power, i.e., to create hegemonies, but they do not do this unilaterally. Income inequality is also reproduced in our educational system in the form of high tuition costs. Internationally, the United States is the worst offender on this score. Vis-à-vis art schools, students increasingly tend to consider their practice in market terms, if only to pay off their student loans. The real estate bubble is yet another manifestation of this: What are the spaces for art? How can it be presented to a “public” and under what conditions?
In framing prospects for a solution, I’d reference two texts: First, Adrian Piper’s essay “Cheap Art Utopia” as a heuristic principle. Second, Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century as a pragmatic critique and an outline for change. I don’t think any ironclad solutions are possible, but changes in public policy would be a good way to start. One of these possibilities would be to rethink the role of the National Endowment for the Arts. After the Culture Wars of the 1980s, conservatives effectively gutted sponsorship for individual artists and in that regard NEA policy has changed very little since. Ironically, many of the sexual issues that conservatives once considered so unacceptable and so transgressive have become more or less mainstream, but NEA policies remain bound to what has become an archaic battle. Most important, though, a renewal of NEA funding for individual artists would also help recast art making as a matter of public discourse, rather than one of personal accumulation of aesthetic goods. A second solution would be tuition reform. Low or free tuition would immediately help democratize art production and help foster a climate of critical artistic autonomy.