Decline in art sales could actually be good for the industry, critic says

David Brancaccio, Meredith Garretson, and Rose Conlon Dec 30, 2020
Heard on:
Blake Gopnik calls galleries safe places to contemplate art, contrasting them with the more sales-driven and crowded art fairs. "No one is lamenting the death of the art fair," he says. Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery

Decline in art sales could actually be good for the industry, critic says

David Brancaccio, Meredith Garretson, and Rose Conlon Dec 30, 2020
Heard on:
Blake Gopnik calls galleries safe places to contemplate art, contrasting them with the more sales-driven and crowded art fairs. "No one is lamenting the death of the art fair," he says. Tim P. Whitby/Getty Images for Barbican Art Gallery

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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