Archive for the ‘art business, museums, galleries’ Category

The Value of a Photograph

November 12, 2011

Andreas Gursky Rhein 2A glass-mounted print of Andreas Gursky’s Rhein II recently broke the record price for a photographic work, selling at auction for $4.3m.  As reported by BBC, the auction price greatly surpassed Christie’s anticipated sale price estimate of $2.5-3.5 million.  The buyer was not identified.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York also owns a print of Rhein II, a 61-1/4″ x 10′ 1-1/2″ chromagenic print.  The MoMA collection information about the piece indicates that in the process of making the image, Gursky digitally removed industrial buildings from the scene.

Not long ago, photographs and photographic based artworks were often relegated to the low end of the art market, but this is still in the process of changing.  Although it is an exceptional case, the sale of  Rhein II  demonstrates that artworks composed of photographic and digital media are (rightly) receiving recognition of their significance as contemporary art.  It also strongly suggests that the art market believes that photographic works will retain long-term (monetary) value, a perspective that counteracts the prior prejudice against non-traditional media as unmasterly, mass-produced objects.

California’s Art Resale Royalties

September 19, 2011

In regards to yesterday’s posting, one concern is the effect that such corporate oriented changes to Federal artist rights would have on similar state laws.   Depending upon the scope of a Federal law, it could potentially preempt (override) an overlapping state law.  If so, it would be particularly detrimental to California artists who already have a right to receive royalties upon the resale of their artwork.

The California Arts Council (CAC) is the agency that manages the art resale law.  Here’s a seller’s guide about paying the royalties, when it is required and how to do it.  A few of main points are that the sale must occur in California and that the seller has experienced a gain in the sale.  The resale royalties are only required when the artist is a U.S. citizen or an established California resident, and is still living or no more than 20 years have passed since the artist’s death.  Another condition is that the artwork is sold for more than $1000 or exchanged for property with a fair-market value of the same or more.  If the artist or heirs cannot be found by the seller, the California Arts Council holds the funds on behalf of the artist for 7 years.  If the funds are not retrieved, then they eventually revert to CAC for the purpose of public arts projects.

See:  The California Arts Council ( and especially the section on the resale royalties law.

CAC’s list of artists who have not claimed their resale royalties.  (Interestingly, it includes some well-known names).

Backhanding Artists’ Rights

September 18, 2011

A for-profit corporation proposes profit increasing legislation under the guise of artists rights:

The Art Newspaper reports that a corporation known primarily for its copyright licensing business is lobbying Congress in support of Federal legislation that would create art resale royalties. Artists have sought a law whereby subsequent sales of a physical artwork would mandate a small royalty fee to the artist of the work.  Generally, such fees are only paid during the lifetime of the artist of the artwork.  However, this is not necessarily the goal or result of the Federal legislation now.   It is apparently proposed  under the guise of artists rights or droit de suite, but in this case, it belies the probable aim of the proposed law– the increase of corporate profits.

The lobbying effort is apparently supported by the Artists Rights Society, which despite its name is not a grassroots or artist-based rights organization.  Rather, Artists Rights Society is a for-profit company whose primary business is copyright licensing.  Artists Rights Society, Inc., (ARS) is listed on the New York Department of State website as a (for profit) business corporation.

Not to confuse the proposed law with, for example, the California resale royalties law, the ARS supported Federal legislation apparently has a drive-a-truck-through-it sized exception for galleries and dealers.  In other words, galleries and dealers would not have to pay the resale royalty to artists.

Although this author strongly supports resale royalties for artists, I particularly oppose the ARS supported legislation because it would be detrimental to most working artists and because it excludes the primary generators of potential royalties– galleries and dealers.  The ARS supported legislation is far too exclusionary and would not benefit any artists whose work is sold by a gallery or dealer.  This would likely subject only auctions and private party hand-to-hand sales to the royalty payment, the later of which are somewhat atypical and often unreported.  The legislation seems designed to primarily benefit ARS and the like, rather than average artists, and seems to be geared in part towards ARS’ side business of artist representation.  In other words, it appears that as ARS (and other such businesses) may be the true recipients of the royalty payments gained from art sales.  It certainly isn’t clear if ARS would pay the revenue to any of the (living) artists that it may represent, but it seems not.  It would be interesting to see the terms of ARS’ representation contracts.

The Art Newspaper says, quoting John Henry Merryman in part:

“The rights collecting associations, the principal lobbying force for enacting the resale right in the US and abroad, would break out the champagne and dance in the streets,” if the resale law was made legal.

Legislation that provides for a Federal resale royalty should be for the interest of the average visual artist, as real support for the progress of the arts, rather than as profit for the exclusive few and corporate business interests.  (See U.S. Constitution, Art. I. § 8 (8)).  Progress in the arts depends upon artists, not licensing companies.  I do not support this legislation and I encourage artists to not settle for a so-called rights law that does not protect or adequately recognize their interests.

The Teriyaki Sauce of Art in America

April 17, 2011

Exoticism of the other is still alive and well in the American art scene.  A recent article by New York Times art critic Holland Cotter somewhat inadvertently exposes the persistent bias against non-western/non-European culture in American art, at least in the area of art critique.  Until a decade or two ago the face of art in this country was Caucasian and male – not exclusively, but the dominance was a substantial one – and many of the “art stars” today are still white males.  As the Times’ article illustrates, we’ve some way to go yet before the arts are free of discriminatory bias.

The article at issue consists, in part, of a criticism of a (perceived) lessening focus upon traditional (old) ethnic art and a trend in contemporary art that prefers (non-traditional) non-western artists over  artwork that focuses upon identifiable traditional cultural visuals.  “Another thing. A lot of new non-Western acquisitions by museums are of contemporary art. Classical African sculptures still turn up. But they’re outnumbered by dynamic, straight-from-the-studio work…”  That view was apparently not posited as progress, but as criticism.

A discussion of objects that are sometimes (rightly or wrongly) designated as cultural or patrimonial objects versus “fine” art might be useful…but, oddly, Cotter’s argument seems to get this all mixed up.  In essence, his complaint seems to be that, e.g., contemporary Chinese art isn’t Chinese enough.  Or, rather, that the best contemporary Chinese art is that which looks “Chinese” somehow.  The message seeming to be that non-western artists are worthwhile so long as they produce art that is consistent with our (American) vision of their native cultures.  And darn it, the Chinese government keeps taking their own cultural patrimony away from us (loosely paraphrasing Cotter).

Of the art that Mr. Cotter references, including a piece by Ai Weiwei, which he designates as good examples of contemporary art, he says, “These artists combine old and new in ways that look like nothing seen before.”  This view of those works is a simplistic one and tends to misread the artists’ intentions and even the progress of the history of art.  From a limited viewpoint, a shadow of the western attachment to the exotic can be found in those works, not because that was necessarily the artists’ intents, but  rather it is because the artworks reference traditional culture and history.  It is [a] viewer’s reading, and it occurs in many cases without substantial direct cultural experience.  If a work of art contains no references to that which some westerners value in non-western art, the exotic, would it have the same appeal?  If the article answers this, then the result implied by Cotter suggests that non-western artwork has less value if it is not sufficiently exotic (comprehensible) for western tastes.

In contrast, a view exposing that contemporary American artists should produce art that is primarily concerned with traditional American history and culture (whatever that may be) at the exclusion of other subject matter would sound pathetic.  This is not to say that (non-western) artists who happen to work with cultural issues or visuals are not valid; the contrary.  However, there should be a caution as to over-reading Western values into these works if that is not what the artist intended.  The fact is that bias against contemporary non-western art still exists is evident in the persistence of exoticism and other such preconceptions.  The American art world is not an egalitarian paradise, nor are many of those in it necessarily well informed about the (global) cultural world.

Mr. Cotter also offers subtle criticisms for future curators and their (according to him) over-focus on contemporary.  “That said, the reasons people pursue careers in newer art are understandable. Money is one.”  Maybe.  But also, importantly, because the dialogue of contemporary art is a living and changing thing.  Cotter’s perspective on embryo curators suggest that art of the past has value over all else, but this is a misperception of the history of art.  The criticism should not be on students who designate contemporary as their major field, but rather, the focus should be on ensuring that they have a solid basis in history as well.  Really, do we need many more Italian Renaissance historians?  It is a fair certainty that a substantial share of that history has been written already many times over.

Rather than seeing a movement towards contemporary as a kind of progress, Mr. Cotter remains entrenched.  “Young scholars of African art began focusing on present-day urban material culture rather than on an object-intensive study of rural traditions.”  Maybe this is progress, but Cotter does not seem to see it that way.  Yet, when some of these students move on to curatorial positions, perhaps African artists can be viewed without the art market’s fetishization of traditional and old objects, and preconceived ideas about African life and culture.

The reality is that museums need contemporary artists–of all kinds.  All art builds upon the past, and through contemporary art, contemporary audiences are engaged within the visual language of their own times.  There has, notably, been a trend, especially in European museums to incorporate exhibitions of contemporary art along with the older works, and Mr. Cotter briefly mentions this.  It brings in the viewers and refreshes, in a way, the old collections.  It is one way for museums with even primarily old collections to keep bringing in the visitors.  In the bigger picture these types of exhibitions can serve to illustrate the complexity of global contemporary culture.  However, if contemporary artwork is displayed because it conforms to what we already think is valuable–according to preconceived notions of what is important, exotic, about other cultures, then the true dialogue of art is lost.

Why Teriyaki sauce?  To Americans it is an iconic Japanese flavor.  It’s on the menu in virtually every “Japanese” restaurant in America, but is nearly never on a menu in Japan.

October Art Sale?

September 22, 2010

The New York State Board of Regents, in an unexpected action, will allow regulations concerning museum deaccessioning practices to expire on October 8th.

Barring some other action, this will allow New York museums and other cultural institutions in the state to sell artwork from their collections to fund general operating expenses and other purposes. Such sales are usually frowned upon by art ethics organizations which typically take a position that art in institutional collections should only be sold to generate funding for the purchase of other artwork.

Richard Brodsky said to the NY Times that the action, “…removes a substantial obstacle to the monetization of art held in the public trust” and [the Board’s failure to halt the lapse] could cause “the transfer of art from public to private hands.”

Update/clarification:  It seems that the fears of museums selling off their collections to pay for general operating expenses has been overblown.  The regulations set to expire are/were temporary measures, as described here.  Existing general regulations continue to prohibit the use of art sale funds for operating costs.  Artifactum will post links to the regulation in the near future-check back.