Art Fairs: The View From The Top

by Whitney Kimball on December 10, 2012 · 12 comments Art Fair

Looking down from the top of the world. Photograph by Barry C. Bishop.

What a turd. Reporting from Art Basel Miami Beach, New York Times writer Patricia Cohen gets the exclusively super-rich take on class war. Unsuprisingly, they don’t get what the big deal is.

Cohen mentions the list of writers who’ve had it, like Sarah Thornton, Felix Salmon, Will Gompertz and Dave Hickey. She leaves the criticism at that; Thornton’s disgusted retirement from art market reporting is summed up with the quote “Money talks loudly and easily drowns out other meanings,” while Simon Doonan’s lengthy, hit-and-miss piece in Slate is boiled down to a quote about how there’re a lot of cheese platters.

Meanwhile, Cohen’s sources are given carte blanche to say whatever they like, without any response or fact-checking. Jason Rubell asks, “What do people want — to go back to the recession?” at a time when unemployment remains higher than it has been since the Great Depression. Nor does Cohen bother to counter Pace heir Marc Glimcher’s conception that “more people than ever before had developed an appreciation for art.” That’s an idea that you can only have at the top: auction prices are up, but museum attendance is down, and government support has been dropping here and abroad for years.

Mera Rubell points out that collectors and their pet museums, exhibition spaces, and art centers can improve neighborhoods; the Rubell Collection, for example, used to be a DEA warehouse. That’s fair, but a long way from proving Cohen’s “social, economic and cultural transformation of Miami that the fair and collectors like her have helped bring about.” To establish that Miami is a nicer place now than it was before Basel, you’d have to ask someone other than the fair organizers and collectors themselves.

Don Rubell seems to believe that trickle-down economics, which do not work in economics, somehow work in art. “There’s 20 ancillary fairs,” he tells Cohen. “Whatever amount of money you have in your pocket, you can enter this magical world of art.” “Whatever amount,” though, probably does not refer to the number you were thinking of: Don Rubell, after all, is the same man who believes that auction house Phillips de Pury is a “great incubator” for cutting-edge emerging artists.

Besides which, the fact that there are 20 ancillary fairs says nothing about the health of those fairs. None, other than perhaps NADA, would be able to succeed financially without Basel. None, other than perhaps NADA, have many exhibitors who wouldn’t rather be a rung closer to Basel. None, crucially, get as much press attention as Basel. We counted 10 articles in the New York Times and T Magazine about Art Basel Miami Beach; the only mention we saw of NADA, Pulse, or Untitled, the three largest satellites, was in a breezy events roundup post on T Magazine’s blog. One ArtsBeat blog post discussed how a Bill Viola piece at the Museum of Contemporary Art, North Miami seemed reminiscent of Hurricane Sandy, but nowhere was there coverage of galleries like Derek Eller, Foxy Production, and Winkleman Gallery who overcame the almost complete demolition of their businesses to show at NADA and SEVEN.

To be fair, the satellite fair SELECT got a post from Cohen, entitled “Artists with more modest hopes”.  And no, we don’t expect full coverage on the smaller fairs, because there’s too much going on, the art often isn’t great, and art fairs aren’t about the art, anyway. But this is what divides people: without coverage of the world outside, ever, the view from the top is the only one that exists. There’s the side that gets pummeled by police barricades on behalf of Sotheby’s locked-out art handlers, for example, while a record auction takes place inside. Then there’s the side that makes it into the next morning’s Times report on how well the auction went—as though a routine transaction at an auction house is the significant news story there.

This especially rings true when Eli Broad simply tells Cohen, “I don’t consider myself a tastemaker.” As a MOCA founder with a massive collection, a new museum in Michigan, and another museum coming soon, he is not only a tastemaker. Thanks to writers like Cohen, Broad is one of the only tastemakers. He just doesn’t care to acknowledge it.


Pedro Vélez December 10, 2012 at 4:34 pm

Eli just opened a museum in Michigan. Of course he is a tastemaker, and then some.

Pedro Vélez December 10, 2012 at 4:35 pm

Eli just opened his museum in Michigan. Of course he is a tastemaker, and then some.

Will Brand December 10, 2012 at 4:42 pm

Ah, thanks for the correction! Added to the post.

GiovanniGF December 10, 2012 at 4:54 pm

This is so awesome I could kiss you. (Figuratively speaking, of course.)

Kevin Buist December 10, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Great piece. When I read things like this (along with Thornton, Gompertz, Hickey, etc) I start to wonder if part of the problem is semantic. There seems to be a worry that really vapid creative activity will be lauded as the Art of Our Time, and recorded in history as such, while all the good stuff will be forgotten. Unless I’m misreading them, the point of this piece and others is not that there’s a lack of good stuff being made (in Miami or elsewhere) but a fear that the monied bad stuff will be all that enters the Art canon. So maybe it’s a semantic problem and the solution is to temporary jettison the word “art”. Let them have it, walk away and create and write about things without worrying about that label.

I say temporary jettison the word art because there’s plenty of amazing creative activity happening outside of this system. The more we focus on that, the greater the chance that the early 21st century art market bubble will be viewed as a garish blip on the trajectory of art history.

Donald Frazell December 12, 2012 at 2:23 pm

The word art was jettisoned long ago, denying it means anything so therefore it doesnt exist. And opens a pandoras box of vapid vanity projects. There is little art now, as the most intelligent have gone elsewhere, sciences, technology, sports, medicine.

It is time we got back to that eternal battle, lets argue over what art IS. not ignore it and declare everything is art. we have the fruit of that disaster.
Meism and Materialism.

“It is time to put aside childish things.” St Paul and some guy named Obama, and nowhere more applicable than the inbred and decadent “artscene”.

Daniel Cooney December 11, 2012 at 8:35 am

I liked it when Mera Rubell showed her appreciation for Bank of America who has bankrupted hundreds if not thousands of small businesses. Thanks for this!

JosephYoung December 11, 2012 at 11:41 am

so, who is writing about this stuff in a way that will move something? i appreciate the fact that these critics, and this blog, are bringing up the subject, making their dissatisfaction known, but that’s got to be just a first leg. if the art world needs new ideas then it needs new ideas.

WhitneyKimball December 11, 2012 at 1:42 pm

Yeah, that’s fair. Then art writers can stop focusing on the auctions and balance pieces like these with reality. Go to Bushwick every once in a while. Do the necessary research to credit people who are doing a good job outside of the blue-chip system.

Donald Frazell December 12, 2012 at 2:28 pm

Get outside the artworld completely, nothing comes from inside the belly of the beast.
Responsibility, commitment, sacrifice. Mind body and soul. Line as melody, color as harmony, structure as rhythm. when the artworld learns this(yeah, riiight) it will have some validity.

We are at a time as in the late nineteenth century, the academic system is all encompassing and decadent. Storm the Bastilles of art.
Tear down the decadent Ivory Towers, save the Watts Towers, Nuestro Pueblo.

Miss Jones December 11, 2012 at 3:51 pm

This is childish (reporting).

Donald Frazell December 12, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Academic “art” is there to appease its masters, the Patrons of the arts who are the very folks who brought us this depression. Academia is and always has been to create standardized mediocrity to serve the desires of the nouveau riche, and train apologists such as “curators’ and “galleristas’ to provide an investment timeline, not search real history, but create a false “art history”.

Creative art has absolutely nothing to do with contempt art or art academies, which are about career and brown nosing while providing party spaces for “high” society moguls.
Few great artists have ever wasted time and money in graduating from an art academy, seek elsewhere, get off your collective soft duffs and come out into the real world. It isnt so bad. but will have to actually WORK.

art collegia delenda est

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