Tuesday, May 26, 2009

capital, it fails us now

Fellow DC art blogger Matt Langley posted yesterday on his recent Chelsea gallery crawl. He said something that caught my attention:

There were more people in the Gagosian show than I saw at the Francis Bacon and Pictures Generation shows at the Met combined...I think the really interesting thing and only time will bear with me on this is that the show is a cultural bellwether. By that I mean if an art show will get as many folks attending as a museum and can sell the work to boot - what exactly is the allure of museums to the buyer or even the viewer? Clearly, and for some time now, "The Gallery" is more culturally relevant than "The Museum".

This statement is surprising to me, particularly at this moment, with the market in decline. For a few years there, I kept hearing how events like the Whitney Biennial were made irrelevant by art fairs, and how the market would lift all boats and cure all ills. Now that the market is in the toilet, the conventional wisdom would seem to be that it's time for a little introspection from the dealers, artists, and collectors, and that art going forward will suddenly become less market oriented, more thoughtful, capable of critique.

Okay, so that's a bit of a fantasy, even if predictable stories to that effect keep popping up on NPR and in daily newspapers. The answer is never that simple. Contemporary museums can't do what they do without the market, and without collectors who purchase and subsequently donate works. And donations for non-profit arts institutions drop off in a recession, making it harder for them to put together the kind of strong, challenging programming that they (hopefully) offer as a counterpoint or complement to commercial gallery culture.

So the idea of galleries without museums, or museums without galleries, seems silly to me. When a gallery like Gagosian, as Matt describes it, turns its back on the younger members of the stable, and assembles a show of established artists who are already in museum collections around the world...then, yes, I suppose they are putting together something akin to a museum show. What's the allure of the museum at that point, Matt asks?

Well, there's scholarship. There's also the fact that museums collecting contemporary art can be wrong about the works they bring into the collection. A gallery drops the artist who isn't selling, or who fades from the public eye for awhile. The museum hangs on, and the work remains available for research and reconsideration for the long term, hopefully.

As far as art investments go, museums are not in the business of short selling. This is why deaccessioning is usually contentious and ethically fraught. Galleries and dealers, meanwhile, have neither the luxury of being wrong nor the mandate to keep available for the future works of art that currently are of uncertain value, interest, or cachet.

1 Comments:

Blogger matthew langley said...

Jeffry:
I knew there was more to say in that post, but as usual I was rushing. I do agree that galleries and museums go together well and yes, I do think that there is a need and an even bigger place for scholarship.

I think the point I was trying to make is that the galleries are very much in the forefront of new art (as they should be) but that it is no longer a "given" that the museum will "reign supreme" as the place where we look and comment on our culture.

or something like that.

Thanks for noticing the post - talk to you soon.

2:37 PM  

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