The Pulse of the Art World, Mid-Pandemic

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This week, I’m writing about the for-profit part of the art world and how it’s doing in a health emergency and an economy steamrolled flat by our leaders and opinion makers — you know, the people still getting paychecks as opposed to the 17 million thrown out of work. Judging from a few recent news stories, slices of the not-for-profit art world in New York seem stuck in la-la land. I’ll write about these, too.

I’ve talked to friends at the big New York auction houses and at small ones. The business of buying and selling has slowed since almost all previews and live auctions are postponed. A big part of the business, though, is getting consignments. That’s got a pulse. We haven’t yet gotten to the 2009 and 2010 zeitgeist, when the market was ruled by the Three D’s: death, debt, and divorce. Then, no one sold unless thus motivated.

Today, the reports I’m getting say that they’re securing private-sale consignments, a big part of the auction business. Will the art find buyers? That’s another story.

I suspect that the pandemic and the government-induced depression will accelerate the movement of the auction business to virtual platforms. We’ll still have live previews but, over time, more and more phone and online bidding. The duels to the death that give the business buzz — two rich, obsessed collectors battling in public like gladiators — will almost never happen. The big exception: the evening contemporary art auctions, which are powered by glitz and glamour and need to be live.

Crowd at the 2020 FEFAF show.
Crowd at the 2020 FEFAF show.

Art fairs aren’t going to happen for a while. A month ago, I was at the big European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. A handful of people I know are sick, and it takes only a handful to kill a business based on crowds. At news of the first COVID-19 positive test, the Maastricht fair closed.

These fairs and the invitation-only openings are always packed and are big money makers for fair sponsors, many of which are charities. These charities are among the big losers. The biggest fundraiser for the East Side Settlement House in the Bronx, for example, is the Winter Antiques Show at the Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan. Art-fair sponsors, for profit or not-for-profit, will be skittish about planning events that a panic can close in an instant.

I looked at the sales results of two midlevel online auctions occurring last week. I was surprised at how much people paid for less-than-perfect art. Shopaholics exist in the art world — surprise, surprise — and this explains what I thought was indiscriminate bidding. With many auctions postponed and every New York dealer’s doors shut, those few art-buying venues still available are battered by the winds of a million flapping checkbooks.

Many small dealers are in bad shape. Most haven’t fully recovered from the financial crisis of 2009. These dealers aren’t drastically affected by city streets turned to tumbleweed alleys — foot traffic has been falling for years. Rather, a purposefully flatlined economy has put their businesses in ICU. For every shopaholic buying online with the zest of a teen playing Mortal Kombat 11, there’s a sober collector who’s wondering whether he’ll need to smash his piggy bank to pay his mortgage.

Dealers are keeping in touch with their loyal customers. Many will open by appointment. Shrubsole, the silver dealer, is known for erudition and connoisseurship. It’s sending daily anecdotes to its mailing list — about great objects that it’s sold over the years, along with accounts of larger-than-life, vinegary buyers. They’re wickedly funny.

Les Enluminures, the premier dealer of illuminated manuscripts, sent a charming, clever online message to its customers, illustrated with closeups of rabbits from the Book of Marie. It’s a stunning late-13th-century prayer book belonging to the Queen of France. Easter bunnies give us a break from death counts. Two Palm Press, the best fine-art printer in the country, just sent an online show of Mel Bochner prints it produced. It’s called “Oh Well” and matches the times. Some dealers are doing online exhibitions and virtual gallery tours.

A dealer friend just got a fantastic, museum-quality painting by a famous artist — I’m sworn to secrecy — that’s never been on the market. Does he offer it to his best clients now, or should he wait? This is a tiny example of the uncertainty sown by the bozos running the country and reporting the news.

A chunk of dealerships will reopen only to then phase out and close. Many of my older dealer friends are seeing what retirement means, and they’re liking it. Some will close their shops and sell from their homes. Another dealer friend told me, “Well, some people figure they’re going to die, so they might as well buy the art they’ve always wanted.” We are indeed in uncharted waters, and everyone’s struggling to divine the right business plan. Psychiatrists and fortune-tellers, where are you?

Meanwhile, let’s jump through the Looking Glass to the public sector and not-for-profit worlds. New high-end culture appointments in New York show that the powers-that-be have a problem selecting qualified people — or, worse, they like to hire people with crazy priorities. Worse still, there are people in the higher-education world who don’t seem to care about anyone except themselves. Tin ears abound. The for-profit world can’t afford idiosyncrasies like these.

Members of the Vienna State Ballet perform on stage during a dress rehearsal of <i>Hommage an Jerome Robbins</i> at the opera house in Vienna April 30, 2011. The Jerome Robbins Library at the NYPL is the world’s best dance archive.
Members of the Vienna State Ballet perform on stage during a dress rehearsal of Hommage an Jerome Robbins at the opera house in Vienna April 30, 2011. The Jerome Robbins Library at the NYPL is the world’s best dance archive.

The New York Public Library appointed a lawyer, Jennifer Schantz, to lead its Performing Arts Library. It’s one of the world’s best theater, dance, and music libraries. Schantz comes from the venerable New-York Historical Society, where I was the museum director. She was one of many vice presidents and in charge of operations.

I’m puzzled. Schantz is neither a scholar nor a librarian nor an archivist. She’s a bureaucrat. I don’t think she’s ever been on the creative side, professionally, at least. She played the piccolo in school, I see. I play the piano, but no one’s recruiting me to run Steinway.

The Historical Society has a superb library, but it’s led not by Schantz but by a distinguished librarian and a great professional staff. She supervised what sounds like a brilliant program helping immigrants prepare for their citizenship tests, but the classes were designed and taught by the Society’s great museum educators.

Really, though, how involved was she, in this or in any of the Society’s top-notch creative work? And what does a citizenship class have to do with a performing-arts library? Do future citizens need to know “Yankee Doodle Dandy”?

Schantz is a good lawyer, but does the City of New York library system need lawyers? For an important library like this, a performing-arts library, why set the bar low? Weren’t there any great librarians or theater or music scholars out there? The Jerome Robbins Library is the best archive on the history of dance in the world. Is Schantz the best they could come up with? Since she isn’t an expert in any aspect of the NYPL’s intellectual portfolio, I doubt she’ll have much credibility with the librarians, with donors, or with talent. It’s a nails-on-a-chalkboard kind of hire.

I definitely smell a case of the Peter Principle in the selection of Gonzalo Casals as New York City Cultural Affairs commissioner. (According to this principle, Investopedia explains, “every position in a given hierarchy will eventually be filled by employees who are incompetent to fulfill the job duties.”) Casals has been the director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum — a pioneering place exploring the work of gay artists — for only two years. Before that, he was the deputy director of the Museo del Barrio, probably the worst-run museum in the city. That’s not the best experience.

The Department of Cultural Affairs has a budget of $211 million, more than the National Endowment of the Arts. It’s a serious place. Casals replaces the accomplished Tom Finkelpearl, who transformed the Queens Museum during his years as director and led the DCA for five years.

Finkelpearl developed a quota system linking NYC money to the hiring of minorities for jobs as curators and directors at New York’s museums and the selection of their trustees. It’s a busy-body policy and a terrible idea, but I can’t argue with Finkelpearl’s knowledge and professionalism.

Casals is honest in his agenda: He wants to weaponize New York’s museums, theaters, and other arts venues to fight a culture war. He’ll judge their success not by how well they educate or inspire but by how political they are. Aside from mediocrity, that’s the gist of the entire equity, inclusion, and diversity movement.

The appointment of Casals is a Bill de Blasio Special — leave no left-wing hack unhired — but DCA has lots of moving parts and spends tons of money. Casals will shovel it to his and de Blasio’s buddies. “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” move over. The “Which Side Are You On” types are going to get the big bucks.

Laura Raicovich will run the Leslie-Lohman Museum until it finds a new director. She was fired as director of the Queens Museum in 2018 because she championed, on museum time and with museum money, the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement, widely viewed as anti-Semitic. She was also found to have misled her trustees on several issues. She’s writing a book promoting the use of museums for political protest.

The Leslie-Lohman Museum is a good art museum. I’ve seen some provocative, well-done shows there. It’s a great community center for gay people. It would be a shame if the museum were hijacked by people who spent their time protesting issues such as illegal immigration, weather panic, and Raicovich’s precious West Bank and Gaza — where, by the way, homophobia is public policy.

Raicovich isn’t unqualified. Rather, she’s rancorous and self-important. Directors need an ego but one leavened by humility and open-mindedness. When she was director of the Queens Museum, she didn’t understand that it wasn’t all about her. A surfeit of ego. I believe in redemption, but couldn’t the museum find someone else?

The financial and social implications of the shutdown are staggering, but so is the hospital-ship-size hubris it’s exposing. A couple of weeks ago, New York University MFA students demanded a tuition rebate since their art studios are inaccessible, and, well, you can learn to color by numbers online but not much else. Yearly tuition is $60,282.

Art students need not only a studio but all kinds of specialized equipment, such as ventilation equipment, digital labs for graphic design, kilns, sewing machines, and printing presses. You can’t do a crit, the rigorous review of a student’s work by established artists, by Zoom. Of course they should get a refund. NYU can’t provide the education they paid to get. With a $4.5 billion endowment, it can afford to make struggling artists whole.

Instead, the dean of the Tisch School of Arts, Allyson Green, a dance professor, said no and sent students a homemade video set to the 1991 R.E.M. song “Losing My Religion.”

WTF? I guess that it’s this ditzy dame’s way of saying “I couldn’t care less.” She’s not even a good dancer. Not even some Isadora Duncan “I Am a Swan” moves?

Her paycheck is unaffected by the crisis, so dance away she does. NYU could stay closed for months. She’s one of the “haves.” Unlike Marie “Let ’Em Eat Cake” Antoinette, though, she needn’t go to the guillotine. I’d send her to an airline-complaint hotline center for a week, around the time a blizzard cancels all the flights to Palm Beach. Then she’ll have to learn how to listen as well as learn something about responsiveness.

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