The Demise of the Future
The New York-based gallerist Gavin Brown and the Swiss curator Daniel Baumann take a shot at an unromantic view of the art market. It turns out depressing, entertaining, and instructive at once.
Daniel Baumann: The end of the 90s saw the rise of a group of young galleries such as yours, Andrea Rosen Gallery, Petzel Gallery, Toby Webster’s The Modern Institute, Sadie Coles HQ, Maureen Paley, Galerie Eva Presenhuber, neugerriemschneider, Esther Schipper, Air de Paris, Galleria Franco Noero, Casey Kaplan Gallery, and others. Together and in competition with one another, these galleries created a new scene, which was international, fast, into partying as well as seriously promoting emerging artists. In 1996, some of these gallerists were actively involved in establishing the Liste Art Fair in Basel, the "mother“ of alternative art fairs, whose success pushed Art Basel to further develop its "Statements“ section established the same year. The market expanded, and along with these other galleries, you were responsible for the creation of a new generation of collectors, and for transforming contemporary art into an enviable lifestyle. People nowadays are wondering where the next generation of galleries will be found. Is it still possible to do it the way you did? Or was it a unique moment that was itself the result of a particular economic situation? Are young galleries doomed to fail, since any successful artist is very quickly picked up by a bigger gallery?
Gavin Brown: That is a scary bunch of people you have described. I love them all but the thought of being historicized like that is terrifying – and depressing. But I’ve watched it happen. You talk about Basel. That is the perfect mechanism for watching people grow older year after year. Same place each year. Same neighbors. Same art on the same walls year after year after year. And each June you and everyone around you is one year older. Then one year you turn around and realize you are no longer the cocky young thing you once were. The sneer no longer applies. There is too much money to be made. Or not made. AND – the hard partying lifestyle – which admittedly was fun – has been literally coopted by $warofsky and Smegjets. AND – I’m not even invited anymore. It’s really confusing. And not good for the selfesteem. Old and not cool. I have been nervously wondering when and where the young gallery would come from that would make me look like someone I used to regard as a target. Then after many years of nothing happening I began to think that maybe we had reached the end of history. A perfect Fukuyama art/money moment. I thought "we" – that group you mentioned above – had squeaked in right before it all flatlined. That there would no longer be any younger galleries of any interest. I was getting gray hairs and I still felt that every gallery that emerged after that group was essentially mistaking "gallery" for "career". They appeared to be waiting for permission. Waiting to be called to the corner office for their meeting with the boss and told they were being promoted to "vice-president for client data and management information co-ordinator". Recently, though, something seems to have changed – several snotty upstarts have popped up and don’t seem to be paying the proper respect to their elders. Thank the lord. So yes – within each generation, each moment, resistance must always be made possible. It is essential. It is the obligation of each generation to find and brandish that resistance. Will they fail? Is failure when a "successful" artist gets picked up by a bigger gallery? I don’t think failure needs to be defined on those terms. Neither does success.
DB: But let’s get a bit more depressing. It is said that the market operates between the global and the local, between the international beer industry and
microbreweries. The art market is an exception, since you still find mid-sized galleries like the group mentioned above (and many others); there is still what you might call the middle class. But what if things continue to develop like in the music industry, with galleries such as Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth, White Cube, and Zwirner each managing 200 or 300 artists worldwide, then merging with each other and so on. Buying art would become depersonalized, so would the relationship between the gallery owner and the artist. One consequence would be that artists move away from demanding intimacy through galleries, such relationships would take second place to accessing the international market, making a career, and being successful. Is this the future? Did the success of the group described above in fact mark an end, not a beginning?
GB: To be honest I have no idea what is happening, but it all seems constantly unprecedented – year after year. In his red-hot book (that I have not yet read) Thomas Piketty estimates (based on admittedly slapdash research) that the richest 1 percent currently owns about half the planet’s wealth. And that half the planet’s wealth will be in the hands of the richest 0.1 percent within 30 years, impoverishing not only the middle, but also the upper-middle classes. In a situation like that, instability and unrest will be endemic throughout all strata except that thin strip at the top. Gated communities will be the norm. Gated galleries too? For they will be catering to that 0.1 percent – who will by necessity live in a protective bubble – similar to what one finds in India. Forget about what that means for "middle-class" galleries. What does this mean for artists? For the "lucky" ones who fall into the spotlight of this extreme market, there are enormous returns. But those artists will have to play the game, and a Polke, for example, would not survive in this climate. He would be too uncooperative. What kinds of artists become successful in this future?
And the model of gallery we have grown up with, have tried to emulate – handed down to us from Leo C and Ileana S – that model is probably over. The large galleries are adapting and responding in an organic way to the expansion of the market. They are the actually a result or byproduct of that expansion. I don’t think that Larry Gagosian set out to open twenty galleries around the world. As to the success of that group of galleries whom I emerged alongside, I am not sure our success is yet proved or certain. I hear and speak with my friends about the death of the middle and I am beginning to feel it is actually happening.
Art, of course, will never go away. But it will be interesting to see what form it will take (alive or dead?) in any of these new titanic emporiums, in 30 years time. I wonder if there is a natural inevitability that any "art" made to be shown there will have to reflect and support and defend the interests of the places that house it. Is that even art anymore? I see it starting already. An echo chamber of self congratulation. It’s interesting and the best of it is still art – diabolical – but still art. How long till it is only, purely a stand-in for the only entity that will matter – capital.
DB: It’s likely to be a bubble, another situation of "irrational exuberance". In a recent interview with Artspace, American collector Peter Brant says: "I think it’s still probably just fifty collectors in the world who are there to buy works that are in excess of $10 million." In a New York Times article (May 6, 2014) Brett Gorvy of Christie’s is quoted saying, "Christie’s estimates that it has 141 clients now willing and able to spend more than $50 million for just one work of art." It still feels small to keep this tulip market going. So what you’re saying is that artists and artworks inevitably become echo chambers of the market’s expectations. Are we then witnessing the development of a new form of academism? Not one dictated by the academy, by an artistic movement, a style, an art critic, or an -ism, but by a virtuously codified contemporary art language accepted and adopted by most critics, the culture industry, and the top end of the market. One thing is for sure: artists are annoyed with the situation, but unlike throughout the twentieth century, they are not opposing it very actively. It’s as if they were afraid of being taken for romantics, or as if there was no choice. Within this context, there is another change to be observed: suddenly, museum collections, which were considered rather unsexy, have become a safe haven, far from speculation. In the 60s and 70s, artists wanted to leave the museum, now they see it as a shelter from the greedy market. How often do you talk with your artists about this situation? What do they think about it?
GB: First, can we drop the notion of a greedy market? We all take part in that market to some extent. We are all in a market of some kind. To pretend otherwise is denial and snobbery. But your question is about artists and museums. How supposedly unhappy they are with the hyper-monetization of art; how the museums and artists have secluded themselves away from the dirt and smell of the "market". I don’t believe that’s true – I think that is a construction to make a distinction between various social/economic groupings easier to make. But I think these distinctions you are making are self-serving. If what you say is true, then those museums and artists are either delusional or cynical. We are all in this together. There are many different places or situations where the interests of the museums, artists, and the market coincide. Museums have boards of trustees who – given their wealth and the returns on their wealth, are very much in favor of the current situation which is encouraging this boom. The museums have joined the arms race and are all expanding. As for the artists, if they said no, none of this would be able to happen. It seems to me that there is greed all over the place.
DB: Why bring morals into it? Markets are not a priori greedy, and actually this isn’t even a market, but an irrational and absurd development, so "greedy" is just a description. And obviously we are all part of it, and there is no in or out, yet there is still space to figure out one’s options. Wade Guyton just reprinted a series of paintings from the same file he used to print one painting from 2005 that was up for sale at Christie’s on May 12 (estimate $2,500,000 – $3,500,000). He posted the new versions on Instagram, where you can see the same picture – or rather a similar one – ten or fifteen times. It may seem pointless, especially since Guyton’s painting sold for its high estimate, but he did raise his voice while many others play it cool with a kind of laconic attitude. Talking of options, what are yours? Soon, you’ll have to move out of your building on Greenwich Street. I admire that you’ve always run your gallery as a space that is more than walls to hang art on. It has been a place to hang out, meet, and it has wanted to play a role in its surroundings, in the neighborhood. A lot of people in New York – critics, artists, and gallerists – increasingly see Los Angeles as the option. You already run a space there, 356 S. Mission Road; are you moving to California?
GB: No. I’m not moving to CA. I have a life in New York. My children are here. The question I wake up to is more like, "What movement is left available to me in NYC? Or any other city?". There is no escape from this reality. Los Angeles is great but it’s still firmly part of the global network. In a similar way, Wade can print the same image all he wants and block every hole with them, but capital will find a way in. It is a deluge now. Look at the result of that sale, one that was purported to be curated and supposedly showed us the gritty underbelly of contemporary art. Talk about slumming! So is there any place left? Not a physical place. A place of psychic refuge and strength. A room with a view. A place to call one’s own. How do I (you) live in and amongst the supremacy of the coin and tell the stories it cannot see. The stories that are inside. As Sturtevant would say, we need to look inside art to its core.
DB: Other gallerists think on exactly the same lines, as do artists, curators, and some dedicated collectors: we do it because of what you call the inside, but also because of what form the inside takes and how it occupies a place in a given space and moment. I can’t do it without all of this, just the core is not enough for me. I want to see how it hits our realities and what happens when I encounter it. The other day, Andro Wekua almost angrily said that the only reason why he became an artist was to be lazy, not to have to work too much. Duchamp spent a lot of time playing chess, Sturtevant played tennis for years, Rob Pruitt became a waiter, and Mladen Stilinović’s text "The Praise of Laziness" is cult reading. This contrasts with the pervasive professionalism of most of the art world, this obsessive networking. But to return to concreteness – what do you think a new space should offer and make possible? Is it possible to change the terms, to do things differently?
GB: I would love a lazy life too. Inside this system, I think one person’s laziness comes from another’s activity. I too dream of less work. I dream of it probably in direct proportion to the increase in work that comes at me each year. If Wekua were to truly opt out he could be as lazy as he likes, but as long as he is in this system then he must abide by its rules. And these days that means production. Just as there seems to be a bubble of capital there is also a bubble of activity in response to that capital. We are all strapped to the oars and the drum is beating faster and faster. Ramming speed! I’m not sure there is going to be a negotiated end to this. No compromise of a soft landing. The crises seem to be all choreographed to crescendo together. So the only new space I can envisage these days … is a shipwreck. Hopefully we can all get washed up on the beach.
Gavin Brown studied art in London and arrived in New York at the end of the 80s, where he participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program. In 1994, he opened the gallery Gavin Brown's enterprise, which now represents Rirkrit Tiravanija, Urs Fischer, Frances Stark, Sturtevant, Mark Leckey, and many others. From 1997 to 2008 he ran the artists’ bar Passerby in the Meatpacking District, which had a disco dancefloor designed by Piotr Uklański. Brown is a cofounder of the exhibition space 356 S. Mission Road in Los Angeles, which opened at the beginning of last year.
Daniel Baumann is a freelance curator and critic living in Basel. He was co-curator of the 2013 Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, worked for the Adolf Wölfli Foundation in Bern, and co-founded the project space New Jerseyy in Basel. He has curated an ongoing exhibition series in Tbilisi, Georgia, since 2004, and he is a regular contributor to Spike.