The Business of Art

One way or the other, everybody was up in arms about "Sensation," the exhibition of "Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection" that recently closed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Details of that show and the outraged objections to it were reported in the media with a relentlessness usually reserved for airline disasters. But in the end, Mayor Giuliani's efforts to breathe life into the old culture-war cadaver failed. Art prevailed over the politicos, and the Brooklyn museum will not be turned into a Home Depot. Instead, what we're deep into now is a panic about the collusion of art and money.

The press is on the case (after ignoring it for years). Breathless stories about the Brooklyn museum's cozy relations with a long and glamorous list of art patrons and art dealers were quickly followed by news about the Guggenheim Museum's dealings with the clothing designer Georgio Armani. (He is donating $15 million, according to reports, and getting a major retrospective of his work.) And rest assured there will be more such revelations--where the press looks, the press finds--each ringing anew the alarm: The moneylenders have entered the temple.

The same anxieties surface whenever the art market booms. In the glitzy 1980s, artists and dealers such as Julian Schnabel and Mary Boone took the heat for the commercialization of art. The 1990s bust in the art market quieted that for a while. But an exuberant recovery has followed, and prices of rare works are again hovering at stratospheric levels. Sotheby's has just sold a picture by George Bellows (Polo Crowd) for $27.5 million--the largest amount ever paid for an American painting. In mid-November, Picasso's Seated Woman in a Garden was bid up to $51.3 million. Meanwhile, 27 records were set for living or recently deceased artists at the fall contemporary art sales of the two big auction houses. And in a subplot to the electronic gold rush, venture capital is doling out big dollars to virtual auction and gallery start-ups. The huge sums have readied public opinion for another bout of finger wagging--and this time it's directed at the museum, that last beleaguered fortress of art's supposed independence from money.

The call for ethical cleansing is amplified, of course, when institutions supported in part by tax dollars are caught in the act of promotion. But what counts for right and wrong around art is actually far from clear--and nowhere more confused than in the realm of contemporary art, where commercial activity plays a major role and the art itself is little understood. The Washington Post, for instance, found it "truly reprehensible" that the Brooklyn museum "engaged in a cynical campaign to draw attention ... and thus visitors and money to the museum." But what exactly is it that's wrong here?

The mayor and other guardians of art's purity were apoplectic that Charles Saatchi himself paid for insurance and $160,000 of the museum's costs for the "Sensation" exhibition; that he was allowed to weigh in on details as particular as the placement of the wall labels; that David Bowie, the rock star and art patron, donated $75,000 and did a voice-over for the audio tour, while obtaining the right to put "Sensation" on his lucrative Web site; that Christie's, the auction house, for $50,000 earned various sponsor privileges. Yet the dollar figures and the complexity of deal making around "Sensation" were trivial compared to the mergers and cross-promotions that routinely go on elsewhere in our kaleidoscopically integrated cultural industries. (Compare Saatchi's $160,000 deal to AOL-Time Warner's $160 billion.)

The assumption seems to be that museums that court private donors--or even large audiences--are surrendering curatorial judgment. But those who stage contemporary art exhibits for a living beg to differ. John Killacy, who runs San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, said of the stream of follow-the-money news articles about Brooklyn: "I read them like an exposé. But what are they trying to expose? This is our life."

Opinion about the world of contemporary art is often based on one of two inaccurate fantasies. Maneuverings like the Brooklyn museum's and the Guggenheim's would seem to confirm the worst fears of both.

The first is a sinister and status-obsessed view, with museums at the center of a conspiracy to exclude the unmoneyed and uneducated from a zone of privilege. The perpetrators of this connivance are dealers, collectors, and others, who fashion a mystique around art so as to justify exorbitant prices. Quality doesn't count, or even exist, according to this view. The scenario runs thus: Sons and daughters of well-heeled families graduate from lavishly endowed art schools and are recommended by their complicitous professors to galleries with links to enterprising collectors who buy new art as though they were investing in penny stock. Acting on tips that in some lines of business would be called insider trading, the coterie of collectors bid up the value of one or another up-and-coming artist. Validation is bought on the cheap from struggling critics, who receive kickbacks in the form of work by the young genius. Public approval is nurtured through exhibitions of increasing stature. The ultimate goal of the conspiracy is appearance in a museum, whose trustees already own work by the young star or are actively courting future donations from collectors who own it. The collectors oblige, further escalating the reputation and value of their collections.

A different scenario, often taught in college courses, sees art works as suffused with a unique value, the search for which is undertaken in the ongoing conversation among painters and sculptors that is art history. In this view, if the art world is somewhat mysterious, it is so because its investigations, like those of science, are lodged in a tangle of theory and history.

In this fantasy, art schools inculcate students into the art conversation. The critics' job is to show how artists fit into the historical record and to illuminate the connective tissue of ideas. Collectors and dealers are there, but mainly to participate in the dialogue. (High prices are simply metaphors for exceptional quality and historical importance.) Museum directors pick for their shows only art validated by the cognoscenti. Indeed, art's autonomy--a signal accomplishment of modern society--requires that it answer only to its own logic and that it be protected from the "real world" by a firewall. Otherwise it could devolve into a mere commodity and lose its authority to edify, unify, challenge, and heal our democratic community.

The two fantasies--dark and light, opportunistic and optimistic--both miss the point. The art world isn't an unscrupulous racket. But only the most naïve could assume that money and influence do not play a role in deciding what kind of art gets to be exhibited in museums. There is simply nothing new about the fact that artworks placed in exhibitions and published in catalogues increase in monetary value, or that corporate sponsors are allowed to wine and dine clients in museums, or that lenders to exhibitions are also asked to write checks. The fact is, the kinds of deals (if not the actual deals) struck in Brooklyn and at the Guggenheim are fairly standard operating practice. How could they not be? Over the past several decades, the art world has been hurled at the mercy of market forces.

One challenge has been the stupendous escalation of art prices. Fifty years ago, museums weren't in the business of exhibiting brash young artists--Jackson Pollock, for instance--but if they had been, they could have acquired his pictures for a pittance. In contrast, the price of work by thirty-somethings like Damien Hirst, whose sliced barnyard animals appeared in "Sensation," now runs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. (The situation with modern and old masters is even worse.) To keep up, museums have been revving up commercial revenue streams and searching for new providers of support. But these sources of money appear to be drying up.

According to a new report by the Alliance for the Arts, which tracks New York arts organizations, government has been picking up a smaller and smaller share of the cost of running the city's nonprofit cultural sector. Between 1982 and 1998, the share of support from all government sources dropped by more than half, from 28.9 percent to 11.1 percent. (Federal arts funding dropped a whopping 88 percent, to a negligible 1.2 percent of New York arts organizations' income.) Corporate funding, which comes with more and more strings attached, is also on the wane. According to the report, it fell from 5.6 percent to 3.9 percent of arts organizations' income--a 30-percent share reduction. Foundation support has been easier to come by in these flush times, but it is a hit-or-miss affair, and who knows what will happen to it when the greatest stock boom in history comes to an end?

Museums interested in contemporary art must therefore increasingly rely on living donors to support living artists. This is unquestionably fraught with greater perils than having dead donors support dead artists. Dead artists tend not to ruffle political feathers, and there's generally less argument about their merits. Dead donors, for their part, don't sell off their museum-validated inventory at auction or insist on idiosyncratic placement of wall labels. They do, however, talk back through their wills. Witness the agony of the Barnes Collection in Philadelphia, where pictures must stay in the same erratic constellation as they were found after the founder died in a car wreck, or the debate about the Robert Lehman wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which is segregated from the museum's collections for the sole reason that its donor so insisted.

Today's art world has also grown into a sprawling web of organizations, no longer manageable by a conversation among the initiated (as it was 25 years ago, when almost all exhibitions were reviewed and everyone who mattered could see them in a weekend). It is now governed instead by the universally acceptable and seductive logic of business--tie-ins, buy-ins, cross-promotions, joint operating agreements. Managers are replacing aestheticians at the helm. The stakes are too high and the environment too complex for it to be otherwise. And with such shifts in the sociology of leadership comes a willingness to experiment with methods that once were thought to be inconsistent with art.

There are only three solutions to the dilemmas posed by this set of challenges. The first: a radical increase in government and nonprofit funding for visual art, which would take the pressure off institutions to engage in promotional acrobatics and enter into apparently Faustian bargains with private donors. The second: a radical decrease in prices on the art market, which would offer similar relief. It doesn't take a postcolonial deconstructionist to figure out the likelihood of either of these happening. So we are left with a third alternative: waking up to reality and coming clean about what's needed to get the job done. We are left with admitting that at a time of shifting boundaries between public and private arts financing, museums are inexorably backing into the kind of strategies that were brought to light in Brooklyn and will continue to be "exposed" elsewhere.

Two kinds of enterprise already mix in museum programming of both contemporary and traditional art. There are exhibits of little-known art important mainly to scholars and aficionados, and there are exhibits of art that's a sure-fire hit and is intended for a mass audience. In lucky instances, the two kinds of programming overlap, but the money-maker shows are usually a breed apart. The stodgier museums boost attendance and revenues with shows that feature gold or impressionists; contemporary galleries have their traveling exhibitions and art-star retrospectives. Such blockbusters, needless to say, have much in common with products of the entertainment industry. This is nothing to be ashamed of, but it is important to acknowledge. Museums depend on the one kind of effort to subsidize the other, and they have no choice but to familiarize themselves with the merchandizing techniques of the record companies and film studios with whom art today must compete for audience attention.

A recently released report of the Museum and Galleries Commission of Great Britain has rightly urged museums to take advantage of relatively unproblematic commercial revenue streams, such as catering, retail, publishing, licensing, sale of reproduction rights, picture loan schemes, consultancies, and touring exhibitions. But this ethically easier tack won't solve the problem. Even the venerable Met in New York earns only 4 percent of its $120 million in operating revenue from profitable enterprises. (No museum makes more than 5 to 10 percent of revenues through commercial ventures.) And the trend is discouraging on this score, too. The Alliance for the Arts report categorically declares, "The era of rapidly rising earned income derived from gift shop sales, space rentals, and other such activities is over."

To experiment with new ways to raise money, museums need to be unshackled from the unattainable romantic standards that forced Brooklyn museum director Arnold L. Lehman to dissemble in front of his accusers rather than admit to otherwise fairly commonplace practices, and that sent his colleagues in the museum world running for cover. Yet surely museums must not become galleries in disguise, mere means to augment the value of private collections. The best way to avoid that is for museums to acknowledge the involvement of private donors, develop appropriate guidelines for dealing with them, and add those to their code of ethics, which is at present virtually silent on the sticky issues raised by "Sensation" and the Armani show.

Arts professionals may want to take a cautious look at the newspaper industry, where the strain between the content side and the business side is more openly acknowledged. I do not wish to argue that the news media have solved this problem. Far from it. But the fact is, newsroom managers in charge of editorial content--the curators of news, if you will--do generally decide what's news, while the advertisers who pay the freight--the funders, so to speak--stay in the back seat. Processes are in place to resolve conflicts between the business side and the news side. A cottage industry of think tanks and watchdogs monitors activity. Coming to terms with the schizophrenic nature of the business--where commercial means support innately noncommercial ends--helps to sustain the integrity of better news organizations. In the museum sphere, the opposite seems to be happening. An anachronistic belief in the purity of the project leads to the denial and demonization of business practices and the people associated with them. A reluctance to confront aspects of the enterprise that are needed for survival in the modern world creates festering conflicts.

About 100 years ago, the French academy, until then a fantastically effective arts promotion and distribution system, imploded under the weight of its own success. There were simply too many artists in Paris to cram into such a monolithic system. The artist-gallery-dealer-museum matrix that took the place of the academy has served the visual arts well, presiding over an effervescent era of innovation and growth. But it's showing signs of wear and tear.

So far, the fears of the art purists have been largely misguided. But if, in the end, the continuing uproar points us toward a new forthrightness about the problems of museum autonomy in a time of relentless commercial encroachment, it will have done the art world a favor. ¤