Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hubris and greed — welcome to the art market dead pool


Alexandra Peers' recent piece in New York Magazine refers to an artist calling himself Buck Naked who has started a blog entitled Death Watch to name-check those art dealers most likely to fall victim to the severe art market contraction currently taking place. Visitors can register and effectively blow the whistle on gallerists or businesses that they know/guess are in debt or which are unlikely to be able to ride out the recession.

What's worrying some in the trade is that the forum could become a self-fulfilling prophesy and may even encourage short-selling of the galleries mentioned.

One member of the trade has called the site, "Ghoulish! Obscene! Dishonourable! Tasteless! Potentially Harmful! Gruesome! Offensive in Every Way Imaginable!" Such gushing praise will be echoed by the many artists still unpaid by defaulting galleries who overstretched themselves during the years of milk and honey.

Buck Naked has responded to the criticism thus: "Yes, (most) dealers do work their asses off, but some, including those on this list, have displayed incredible hubris during the good times. Multiple spaces which they really couldn't afford, and treating artists as a free source of capital, to be paid back whenever it's convenient. Gruesome? Maybe. But these are gruesome times, and this list is not unseemly."

I'd have to agree with that. The Death Watch blog clearly genuflects towards FuckedCompany.com of beloved memory, founded by Philip 'Pud' Kaplan in 2000, which reached cult status during the dotcom meltdown for its shameless monitoring and broadcasting of doomed startups (FC logo reproduced with apologies above left).

One thing common to the dotcom period and the recent art market boom was the hubris to which Buck Naked refers. Hubris, and greed. Oh, and the fact that both the sites mentioned above had a loyal following among 'victims' of that greed and hubris. In the case of FuckedCompany it was the employees kicked to the kerb by their employers; with Death Watch it's the artists left twisting in the wind by their dealers.

Having been approached in 2006 to help fix a prominent online contemporary print company that had started to great fanfare during the dotcom period, I subsequently discovered that the directors from whom I took over had, in the previous five years, quietly but effectively bled the company dry through a combination of corporate mismanagement and embezzlement. But it's one thing to syphon off venture capital injected by credulous shareholders who should have known better, and quite another to play fast and loose with money rightfully due to artists whose work had been sold.

Now we're seeing similar scenarios played out all over again. Is it any wonder that artists are seeking new routes to market that swerve round the gallery option?

On a related note, The Guardian's arts correspondent Charlotte Higgins wrote a good piece in Sunday's Observer about the current art market correction (here) in which she said, "Only bad artists and clueless, greedy collectors should fear the consequences of the economic meltdown. For the rest of us, it's an ideal time to bring some rationality back to the art world." She forgot to mention the dealers and auctioneers.

I agree with most of what she wrote and almost snarfed orange juice down my nose on seeing the quote from a Sotheby's contemporary art suit who counselled, "Don't worry, there is a return to seeing the real object and what kind of presence it has, what's great and what is not so good. And what's great will nowadays sell." Ah, OK. And there I was, worrying...

It's easy to snort with derision at these silver-tongued plonkers and other art market bottom-feeders. But why did Ms Higgins wait until the correction had actually begun before pulling the trigger on the greed and poor judgement that has accumulated like so much scum on the surface of that rancid pond in recent years? She could have said this months ago, so what stopped her? Perhaps she feared the short-sellers. One upside of the current correction might be a return to fearless criticism. If it's bad, then say it's bad. If the hedge fund guys short-sell it as a consequence, so be it. Fucked Gallery RIP.



Death Watch Stalks Galleries Alexandra Peers in New York Magazine