Friday, March 12, 2010

William Powhida, The Brooklyn Rail, and 20X200

Robert Boyd

This should probably be three different posts, but they all kind of flow together. If you follow the goings on of the art world (and good for you if you don't), you may have heard of the controversy of a show at the New Museum in New York curated by Jeff Koons selecting from the personal art collection of Greek uber-collector Dakis Joannou--who just happens to be a trustee of the museum. Major conflict of interest. How? Remember what Don Thompson wrote in The $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark--museum shows brand art. Given two otherwise similar pieces by an artist, if one was included in a major museum show, it will on average be worth more. So this looks like a way for Joannou to increase the value of his collection.

Tyler Green wrote an excellent criticism of this practice. But it is unlikely to stop as long as contemporary art and big museums are seen as amusements for the rich. Why should the average person get too bothered? (More on this later.) The wittiest take-down was done as a drawing for the cover of the Brooklyn Rail by William Powhida.

William Powhida, cover of the Brooklynn Rail, November 2009

OK, that was really cool, but what is the Brooklyn Rail? It turns out that they are a monthly magazine (I've never seen a physical copy--is it more of a newspaper?) with distinctly contrarian views about art. In a recent editorial where they basically say ditto to a piece written by Roberta Smith for the New York Times (well worth reading, by the way), the editors of the art section of the Rail wrote the following:
As Ms. Smith made quite clear, New York museum curators “have a responsibility to their public and to history to be more ecumenical, to do things that seem to come from left field. They owe it to the public to present a balanced menu that involves painting as well as video and photography and sculpture. They need to think outside the hive-mind, both distancing themselves from their personal feelings to consider what’s being wrongly omitted and tapping into their own subjectivity to show us what they really love.”

We would go a step further and state unequivocally that many of these individuals have not only shirked their public responsibility, they have turned the museums into playgrounds for an elitist group of trustees and globetrotting art fair devotees, stocking their exhibitions primarily from “powerful galleries.” And if our position is not clear enough, it will become more so in the coming months through in-depth articles and well-researched drawings examining the actions of particular individuals, their public statements and their exhibition track record.  (editors, Brooklyn Rail,  March 2010)
Personally, I can't wait. Taking names and kicking ass makes for good reading. But part of the problem is that well-to-do collectors who are able to buy very expensive works of art end up having a lot of power within the art world. Now I don't find this particularly sinister. I think most of these people are really into art and want to be involved in some way. I can fully relate to this. I'm not an artist, but I like it and want to be involved. But people who have spent a lot of money on a thing (shares of a company, a house, a piece of blue-chip contemporary art) want it to retain its value. This is going to provide an incentive for some of them to do what Joannou has done.

So is there a solution? I have my doubts. Let's face it--artists and curators have been playing around with solutions with varying degrees of success for at least 40 years without really changing the system. The usual solution is to try to build an alternative space or scene. This works for a while, but it's hard to sustain. Money (and its lack) is always a problem. If you choose not to be commercial, you are reduced to begging for grants and donations. You can scrape by this way, but who is giving those donations? When you need to build a new roof for your space, the tip jar isn't going to cut it. You need a person or institution with deep pockets.

Here in Houston, if you talk to young artists or curators, these issues are always brought up. I always feel like the odd man out in such conversations. I'm older and have a knowledge of business and economics that most of the younger artists just don't have. So for me, the problem of sustaining a viable space or scene is fundamentally about cash flow, but for them it's about creating something within a hostile culture. (A gross simplification, of course.) But even so, Houston artists keep on doing, just as they have been for decades. You're a young curator like Keijiro Suzuki, and you whip together the Temporary Space, and for a time (hopefully a long time) it is a place where exciting art happens. But eventually, Suzuki (or someone) has to ask someone for money. If it is one person or one institution, that person or institution ends up having a lot of power over your space. (Note: I am not suggesting Suzuki is or ever will be a sell-out!)

But I think solutions come from getting more collectors involved. Instead of depending on the tastes and wishes on a small number of very rich people, disperse the art income to a large number of small collectors. That means more people buying less expensive art. I asked earlier, why should the average person care about the ethics of museums? If the population of "average persons" included a lot more small-scale art collectors, they might care--they might become an important constituency in these matters. I've written about one such scheme in the UK to encourage art collecting among non-rich folk. Another is 20x200. Jen Bekman is a gallery owner who came up with a way to connect to potential collectors who 1) are not rich, and 2) may not have access to lots of galleries.

Jen Bekman opened her pocket-sized gallery on the Lower East Side nearly 5 years ago with the mission of supporting emerging artists and collectors, and she's made a name for herself doing just that. 20x200 takes the mission one step further, making art available for everyone.
On a Sunday night back in January2007, Jen came up with a formula:
(limited editions x low prices) + the internet = art for everyone

As we see it, there are a lot of people out there who want to sell their art and a lot of people who'd like to buy it. They just have a hard time finding each other. The internet is the perfect place to bring those people together, and we're exactly the right people to make it happen. We're passionate about art and the internet at 20x200. We're really excited about creating a place where almost any art lover can be an art collector.
Cool idea. But how is it different from, say, Etsy? I like Etsy, but with art (like other artforms), you need gallery owners and curators and editors and other gatekeepers. This sounds very elitist, but without these people, you have a chaos of random art that would paralyze a lot of collectors (it would paralyze me, at least). Jen Bekman's 20x200 works for me because she is a good gatekeeper.So when I discovered her site (through Art Milk, another good gatekeeper), I went ahead and bought a print. (This was back in early March--I haven't gotten it yet.) Here's what I bought:

William Powhida, Why You Should Buy Art!, archival pigment print, 2010

Here's what Powhida (always verbose, if you haven't noticed) has to say about this piece.
When I was in Miami during Art Basel last December, I conducted an interview with New York Times journalist Damien Cave who repeatedly asked, "What's the alternative to the art market?" The question is not an easy one to answer.
Short of radical social and economic reform, which seems incredibly unlikely in our pro-Capitalist, market-trusting society, I struggled to articulate my thoughts surrounded by the spectacle of Basel. While I was down there, I also saw Jen Bekman's booth at PULSE and it reminded me that one of my answers to Mr. Cave should have immediately been "access." Access to contemporary art is often restricted by high prices, including my own, that put it out of reach of the majority of people who love art. 20x200 offers a way to make art and the experience of buying art accessible to the broader public than the limited pool of collectors who have the means to buy unique and often wildly expensive art objects. Art, in many ways, is a luxury commodity and the larger question remains, "what is enough?"
I believe that it's a matter of scale; prices leap from hundreds to hundreds of thousands based on branding and marketing. I hope that established artists who command hundreds of thousands of dollars for their art will consider what it means to sell to a very small collector class. Are they really reflecting their own creative expression or the tastes of the ruling class? I don't begrudge their wealth or values, but I do believe that art is made freely and for more than those who can afford to own it.
-William Powhida, Maker*
*Please see my bio for William Powhida the "Genius"

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