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Who wants to buy a painting?

Amanda Roberts takes a critical look at the contemporary art market right now


Image(s): Instagram, jerrygogosian

The image appearing on my phone shows a raging fire on the top half and a photo of actor Will Ferrel, hands around his mouth, screaming out into the void in the bottom half. The caption of the fire reads “THE WORLD RIGHT NOW”, and below that the words across the Will Ferrel photo read “ART DEALERS: ANYONE WANT TO BUY A PAINTING?”. It’s mid-July, and I’m scrolling through my Instagram feed, paying little attention to what’s on my screen. But this meme by much-loved art world meme account @jerrygogosian catches my eye. I have to say I am not one to really understand memes (it’s a running joke in my friend group), but this one is pretty clear: the world is on fire, but art dealers, mega galleries, and auction houses are still there too. And they need collectors to buy art.

The luxury contemporary art market has long been criticized for exorbitant prices. Damien Hirst’s $12 million stuffed shark in a vitrine of formaldehyde and Jeff Koons’ $91 million ‘Rabbit’ are just a few examples of the high prices collectors are willing to pay for a work of art. Those in the art world generally tend to accept these price tags. They are what they are and if a collector wants to pay that amount for a work, what is the issue with that? It typically takes massive amounts of work to sell artwork, and at the large galleries and auction houses, there are many departments and staff (from sales and curatorial to publishing and catalog production to registrars and art handlers) involved. Money from big sales - while flashy and newsworthy - has the very real effect of helping to support all the departments required at a large gallery or auction house and the people who work in them. But what happens when the world metaphorically goes up in flames, as it has over the past several months of the coronavirus pandemic? In a time of global crisis, when millions have lost their jobs and millions more have been forced to cut down their spending to only the essentials - in a time when there seem to be more calls for help than ever and when every social and economic injustice that already existed has been magnified and multiplied - how should art dealers navigate this new normal? How to strike the balance of being more than just aware of the global circumstances right now, while also continuing to pursue collectors and sell art?

The memes poking fun at the seemingly pointless endeavor of trying to get collectors to purchase expensive art abound on Instagram. The best ones can all be seen on the aforementioned account @jerrygogosian (the name is a play on art critic Jerry Saltz and mega dealer Larry Gagosian). One meme shows an image of an anxious and terrified looking man trying to force a smile with the caption in bold caps “WE NEED ART NOW MORE THAN EVER.” Another features an image of a 90s Ben Affleck and Gwenyth Paltrow, with Affleck whispering into Paltrow’s ear as she disinterestedly looks away. Affleck is labeled “Art declaring itself essential in these usual times:)”, while Paltrow is aptly captioned “Everyone else:”. The meme says it pretty clearly: what is the role of art (specifically luxury modern and contemporary art) in a global pandemic, and how are the sellers of this art to navigate this new climate?

As with pretty much everything else in the world, the art world went fully online last spring. While online viewing rooms used to be something still relatively new and not a feature every gallery offered, they are now commonplace. In addition to gallery exhibitions, auctions and art fairs also moved online. If you are a collector or art lover, and you are subscribed to just about every gallery newsletter, your inbox filled up in June with galleries advertising their viewing rooms for Art Basel, one of the largest and most prestigious art fairs which normally would have taken place in Basel, Switzerland at the beginning of the summer. As the world deals with a raging pandemic that has also highlighted a multitude of socio-economic inequalities, art galleries are still there - and they need collectors in order to exist.

The @jerrygogosian memes I mentioned suggest that art is essentially useless right now. But there are those who would disagree, who would state that in fact, we need art now more than ever. Art is a core part of culture. It can facilitate important conversations and help people see the world in a new light. Above all, art (good art at least!) can bring with it a hopefulness that is desperately needed in these times. As artist Judy Chicago wrote in a recent op-ed for the New York Times, “When art is meaningful and substantive, viewers can become enlightened, inspired and empowered. And this can lead to change, which we urgently need.”

Rather than carrying on ‘business as usual’, it is crucial for galleries to take a more nuanced and socially-aware approach. I think it is necessary that galleries devote a portion of their time, energy, and online viewing space to artworks and special projects that have an intentional message of social action. Galleries can do this by supporting artists in their rosters who want to be involved in special projects and exhibitions various art institutions and nonprofits are putting on right now. One great example of such an endeavor is the #CreateArtForEarth campaign. A partnership between several prominent contemporary artists, Greenpeace USA, the National Museum of Women in the Arts, and the Serpentine Galleries, the global campaign highlights art that addresses the climate crisis and urges people to take action. While for-profit galleries may not always be name partners on such projects, there is a lot of work they can do behind the scenes to support artists on their rosters who want to participate, and they can advertise the work to collectors through their newsletters.

Another solution is for galleries to make room in their own exhibition schedules to highlight art that deals directly with current social issues. A great example of an artist who adjusted her practice in response to current events is Marilyn Minter. Since the U.S. presidential election of 2016, Minter has dedicated her practice to exclusively political work, creating a flag declaring “RESIST” that was installed atop a building in Manhattan and paintings depicting urgent calls to action with phrases such as “OUR COUNTRY NEEDS YOU!!”. Judy Chicago (who is participating in the #CreateArtForEarth campaign) is another great artist to look to. Her series of works about climate change highlights the dangerous effects our society has on the state of the planet. One work, ‘Stranded’ (2013) depicts a polar bear on a floating ice cap with a quote from environmentalist Derrick Jensen underneath reading ‘Every creature on the planet must be hoping...that our culture’s time of awakening comes soon.’ Other works in the series depict trees, sea turtles, frogs, and other elements of nature, all accompanied by text highlighting how humans are endangering the planet.

Art like this can both expand people’s views and inspire them to take action. Art can wake people up and make them pay attention to critical issues in today’s world - and now is definitely the time for that. However, in order for galleries to participate in those special projects and shows and dedicate time, energy, and money to supporting such work, they still need to be able to sell the art they were trying to sell before the pandemic - the art that may not deal as explicitly with political and social issues. The solution is for galleries to strike a balance between on the one hand supporting their artists in participating in nonprofit projects and carving out exhibition time and online space to highlight socially-relevant work and on the other hand still doing the same job they always have. Now is the time not for the art market to ‘pause’ but rather for it to expand.

Image(s): Instagram, jerrygogosian


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