#Hashtags: The Business End of Art

#artmarket #creativeeconomy #collectors #entrepreneur #philanthropy #support

As in nearly every field of commerce, it seems that the tension between old and new models of the business of art is coming to a head. Traditional galleries see that their established methods of selling selectively and covertly to buyers of high social standing are under threat. Museums, which once were beneficiaries of philanthropic largesse from those same well-heeled collectors, now often find that their leading patrons are competitors; rather than donate their holdings, they establish private institutions instead—like LA’s new Broad Museum—that rival the scale and scope of the Moderns and Contemporaries, which are left empty-handed. Even major gifts to museums, such as the unrivaled Fisher Collection now entrusted to SFMOMA, come with strict and costly requirements, such as new buildings and capital campaigns. Meanwhile, the most visible and valuable contemporary artists are no longer those who have been vetted by scholars and curators, but those whose works can be most readily flipped on the secondary and auction markets. Under these circumstances, the art object is purely a marker of exchange value upon which certain complicit thinkers heap vague claims of cultural use value that seem to apply only to the acquisitive culture of the 1%.

The Broad under construction, view from Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Photo © Iwan Baan. Courtesy The Broad.

The Broad under construction, view from Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Broad. Photo © Iwan Baan.

The anxiety of the old guard toward the new manifests most clearly in the recent New York Times and New York Observer profiles of art impresario Stefan Simchowitz. Simchowitz has a venture-capital background, a Los Angeles aesthetic, and a start-up approach to artists, dumping money into new and unproven talent so as to play the odds that some of the artists he supports will reach the upper echelons of the market and bear out his investments as a group. Both profiles describe a man who sees himself as an underdog and, as belies his tech-funding background, a “disrupter” of established systems. His critics, who include several prominent dealers, call him a “flipper” who takes advantage of emerging artists while devaluing their output for personal profit. His champions see him as a person willing to take a risk on an unproven artist in an era when few collectors seem to value that kind of patronage.

Occupy London Stock Exchange. Capitalism is Crisis. 2013.

Occupy London Stock Exchange. Capitalism Is Crisis, 2013.

Simchowitz’s methods can be troubling. His relationship to emerging artists is more paternalistic than paternal, and his tendency to hoard artists’ works and then liquidate them in large numbers when an artist’s market peaks (known as “flooding the market”) is potentially damaging to a young artist’s longevity. Still, his claim in the Observer that the art world “weaponized me” rings true. After all, Simchowitz did not create an art-school system that neglects to teach young artists how to manage their financial and personal affairs, or a gallery system that treats artists as freelance content creators without health care or a steady source of income. He is simply exploiting structures that were engineered to engender exploitation. Jerry Saltz, with typically dated bluster, called Simchowitz a “Sith Lord.” The implication that Saltz (whom the public may remember from that paragon of integrity “Work of Art”) is a Jedi knight by comparison conveniently obscures the critic’s track record of championing artists of what Hito Steyerl calls “shiny instability,” “baffled and mesmerized” by “the not-so-discreet consumer-friendly veneer of new and old oligarchies, and plutotechnocracies.” In other words, the debate is less black hat/white hat, and more shades of gray.

2014 Otis Report on the Creative Economy: The Fast Facts.

2014 Otis Report on the Creative Economy: The Fast Facts.


Meanwhile, the onslaught of the “creative economy” continues unabated. Lumping artists in with designers, entertainers, and producers, this line of thinking focuses exclusively on the economic power of creative work while eliding questions of culture, ethics, and precarious or contingent labor. Artists are valued because they create economic value, not because the work they do is valuable. Government and foundation grants are increasingly bound up in this rhetoric and the related discourse of “creative placemaking,” which essentially codifies artists’ heretofore inadvertent role in the march of urban gentrification. Meanwhile, artists are rarely the beneficiaries of the economic growth they are credited with generating. According to the 2014 Otis Report on the Creative Economy, “In the visual and performing arts, there were nearly 2.7 self-employed persons in Los Angeles County for every salaried worker.” In 2012, the report shows that 64,108 self-employed visual artists and writers earned a cumulative total of $2,645,500,000, or an average of $41,266 per capita in annual earnings in a county where the median household income was $55,909 according to the US Census. This means that more than two-thirds of the self-employed artists and writers in Los Angeles county, representing almost 1.75 workers to every 1 salaried worker in the visual and performing arts, are earning lower-than-average wages. “Creativity” is being celebrated as a profit center, but artists are still being starved.

Ray Beldner. Moneybags, 2008. Sewn US currency. Courtesy Charlie James Gallery.

Ray Beldner. Moneybags, 2008; sewn US currency. Courtesy of Charlie James Gallery.

What, then, is the alternative for artists who wants to control their own careers and finances? One option is to embrace the label of “entrepreneur,” which some have done, such as stARTup Fair organizers Steve Zavattero and Ray Beldner, though not without criticism. Writing for SFMOMA’s Open Space blog, Bean Gilsdorf and Joseph del Pesco critiqued that San Francisco “independent” hotel fair not only for a pay-to-play model that charges artists exhibitor fees based on the cost of gallery fairs, but for lacking “a sense of dignity,” calling self-identification by artists as “‘entrepreneurs’ or ‘creative visionaries’” “hollow self-nominations” and “clichés of corporate culture.” Certainly, the promise of entrepreneurship puts a positive gloss on numbers like the ones cited above, framing precarious employment as a choice rather than a condition of, as the Otis report puts it, “competitive pressures stemming from globalization” that “continue to exert enormous pressure on firms to cut costs,” leading to “companies seeking efficiencies by using more part-time labor, more temporary labor, and outsourcing non-core tasks to independent contractors.” Convincing artists that they are entrepreneurs can be a way of flattering them while exploiting them, as Gilsdorf and del Pesco suggest.

Oscar Murillo. A Mercantile Novel, 2014. Promotional photo of workers from Columbina Chocolate Factory. Courtesy David Zwirner Gallery.

Oscar Murillo. A Mercantile Novel, 2014; promotional photo of workers from Columbina Chocolate Factory. Courtesy of David Zwirner Gallery.

At the same time, critics like Ben Davis have pointed out that artists have long operated in the economic space of entrepreneurs: self-employed, running sole proprietorships or small workshops, retaining intellectual-property rights, seeking angel investors, and ultimately rejecting a corporate mentality that values true entrepreneurship only when it can acquire and consume independent actors, subjugating them to hierarchies of rank and social privilege that are hardly alien to the institutional art world. What, then, of the artist who aspires to loftier goals than mere economic success? This is a particularly thorny challenge given that art objects and, increasingly, performative and intervention-based events are readily commoditized in our culture. In his 2012 Avenali Lecture for the Townsend Center at UC Berkeley, Frederic Jameson spoke of how the art object is no longer the focal point of creative production, but rather functions in the marketplace as a derivative of an event-based spectacle much like pork futures operate as derivatives of factory pig-farming. This perspective goes a long way toward explaining both why a corporate raider like Simchowitz would turn from tech funding to contemporary art speculation, and why an artist like Oscar Murillo, whom Simchowitz claims to have discovered, would downplay the popularity of his market-friendly abstract paintings of late and turn to creating spectacles of labor such as a facsimile of a Colombian chocolate factory which he staged, complete with imported workers, at David Zwirner in 2014. Installations of this kind allow an artist like Murillo, raised in the working class, to engage with issues of class and race that resurface in the context of artistic labor, while creating a pretense of social responsibility that a savvy gallerist can use as large-scale promotion for the artist’s lucrative paintings. At the same time, one can see the 28-year-old Murillo struggling to bolster himself against the capricious market, which he knows will toss him aside as quickly as it lauded him, by branching out into more academically respectable spaces of artistic production than the trendy abstractions that have branded him “a new Basquiat.

Steve Lambert. Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, 2011. 9 ft x 20 ft x 7 ft. Aluminum and electrical.

Steve Lambert. Capitalism Works For Me! True/False, 2011; aluminum and electrical; 9 x 20 x 7 ft.

A safe haven for artists would relieve them of such anxieties by providing adequate economic support for creative labor to liberate it from market whims, but that is not currently a possibility in these United States. Without a guarantee of health care, basic sustenance, and social investment in artists and art institutions—as one finds in Germany or Canada—artists are left to negotiate a winner-take-all system of profit and speculation to the best of their ability. In this country, the art economy mirrors the whole of the economy, while the academic art establishment remains heavily invested in denying the presence of business concerns as relevant to artists’ education while prioritizing those concerns in every other aspect of their operations. Questions of the business of being an artist, from managing personal finances to finding a gallery that will actually work for their 50 percent cut, to juggling part-time employment and a daily studio practice, are neglected in favor of idealism in most art departments despite the unsustainable number of newly minted MFA graduates and the exorbitant cost of an art education. Instead, debt becomes another way that young artists are disciplined into toeing the neoliberal line and abandoning the radical politics of many of their predecessors. I can’t see how artists could be further harmed by seizing control of the business apparatus that is clearly going to affect them whether or not they take an active role in their own financial affairs. If the future of art patronage resembles Stefan Simchowitz, the most successful artist will be the one who knows how to make capital work for her, rather than working for capital.

#Hashtags is a series exploring the intersection of art, social issues, and global politics.