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Pamela Auchincloss

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A Predicate to Change

Posted: 01/29/2010 10:16 am

The art world is in flux. Shifts in influence, business practices, marketing strategies, and the dissemination of culture in our global landscape are being shaped and driven forward by a new set of determinants and hard and fast realities.

New York gallerist Jeffrey Deitch's recent departure from the commercial art world to join the ranks of the institutional sector, notably as director of the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (LA MOCA), sparked a moment of speculation, gossip, conjecture, and outrage. However, this is not the first time we have seen movement between the two sides of the aisle, albeit the flow is usually from non-profit museums into the for-profit sector. Consider David Ross' and Robert Buck's respective moves from the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Brooklyn Museum of Art as the directors of major museums to gallery consultants, or Lisa Dennison's prosperous jump from the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to Sotheby's auction house where compensations often included bonuses tied to performance. How did Deitch, a major player who builds artists' careers into pinnacles of financial success, suddenly become the policy maker and standard-bearer for one of the largest not-for-profit cultural institutions presenting a contemporary art program in the U.S.? It is a question a lot of people are asking.

Having spent 9 years of my professional art career in California, it is easy to understand the West Coast chagrin some feel about Dietch's appointment, a sort of capitulation to Hollywood entertainment values--Deitch is well known for the gallery's extravagant funding of elaborate installation projects, themed parties, and enormous sculptures at the Basel art fairs. The radical shift in leadership from ousted director Jeremy Strick, who arrived in LA with the institutional accreditation of senior curator at the Art Institute of Chicago, to the impresario-styled Deitch will be something to witness. And who, one might wonder knowing what we know about the Deitch gallery history, will be signing the checks following Jeremy Strick's dismissal for his financial mismanagement of LA MOCA?

A key player in Mr. Deitch's selection is Eli Broad, the billionaire developer whose $30M contribution to LA MOCA rescued the museum from insolvency. Mr. Broad also had a hand in recruiting to the West Coast another New York cultural leader, Michael Govan. Govan directed the New York City-based contemporary art presenting organization and artist support foundation Dia during its extraordinary development of the 300,000 square foot box printing factory in Beacon, New York into a repository and exhibition space of some of the most important works of art made between 1960 up to the present. Mr. Govan assumed the positions of Director and CEO of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 2006. One Californian colleague moaned, with a sort of despair, that LA is importing New York City's talent and, thereby, it's brand. But perhaps the reason is just simply about business. There is no question that Deitch and Govan have managed multi-million dollar operations with a degree of success.

And while this is happening on the institutional level of museums, what is happening in the commercial sector? It is clear there are cracks in the system. As the galleries and auction houses struggle to pull ahead of unemployment and the fragile recovery from the recession, the second tier of current chatter is: What lies in store for the gallery model? Some see Deitch's departure as a clever golden parachute out of a high-flying plane that is going down--that his rebooting is a harbinger of the future and a paradigm shift in how transactional business will be conducted going forward. West Coast art consultant Dorothy Goldeen's blog recently observed following Miami Basel:

"The Art Fairs have become the venue of choice for viewing and buying by the art-loving public. Sixty thousand people pass through Basel or Arco in a few days, while galleries have weeks that deliver only a few dozen viewers."

This is surely evident as one takes a walk through galleries in New York's Chelsea or Lower East Side, London, Los Angeles, Berlin, even Beijing. How sustainable, then, is the high cost of maintaining these architecturally-designed, pristinely white-washed "four walls that smell of latex paint," as an artist recently smirked? Yet, it remains surprising how few galleries have closed in the past 18 months, though a number are starting to downsize or take on new partners.

Goldeen also points out in her blog that "bricks and mortar still count." On more than a few occasions art world colleagues have argued that the "boutique" is still a necessary part of the art-buying experience. It is the "feel good" part of transacting a major purchase, the place where you are addressed not only as a client, but also as a sophisticate--a member of an exclusive class. As art increasingly becomes a part of popular culture, does this popularization matter enough to enfranchise this newly enabled purchasing power? Taking Goldeen's statistic into account, it is clear that the art fairs generate a growing audience of potential buyers, and, therefore, like other capital-based markets, should result in economic growth in the art industry that outpaces the extraordinary boom of the past decade.

Finally, given the shifting landscape of commerce and information dissemination, is it possible that the Internet will be the emergent delivery system? Last week the NY Times reported that young people (and that includes pre-teenagers) spend 7.5 hours with some sort of electronic media device--handhelds, video game consoles, computers, and the like excluding telephone talk time or texting--each day! This is an extraordinary statistic that the purveyors of culture--and here we are talking about the visual art world--must consider.

For my part, I am watching, considering, reconfiguring, and implementing new strategies. It is hard not to see Mr. Deitch's new role in the art world as something of significance. Not because of the person, but rather because of the imminent change.

Pamela Auchincloss, CEO
Artist Pension Trust (APT) - Trademarked

 
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