Star status in the art world often hinges far more on strategic publicity and geography than genuine talent.
I don’t follow international art auctions with much interest, as I view that world as a kind of high-end racket manipulated by a bunch of corporate players. Works by relatively obscure contemporary artists are often arbitrarily earmarked as value-added investments, like IPOs or stocks. It’s contrived, to say the least.
I have observed the marginal art market for Canadian artists compared to how the big guys in New York, London, Berlin, and Hong Kong present, profile, and promote their artists, and the difference is glaring. Of course this isn’t just a Canadian issue. It’s the same for artists all over the world who haven’t broken into the centres of the empire or been elevated to the company of the elite.
In 2007, a Warhol canvas sold in New York for $71 million (U.S.), and a Peter Doig painting of a canoe, not unlike the work of David Milne, went for £5.7 million in London. Works by Lucien Freud, Damien Hirst, and Francis Bacon also sold in the $45 million to $75 million range, shattering all previous records.
The first question that comes to mind is, who has this kind of money to spend on art? Second, what are the tax-shelter incentives for the rich who make these acquisitions?
By contrast, Canada’s only “value-added” artists tend to be dead and, when alive, they are focused on landscape – the Group of Seven, Tom Thomson, Emily Carr. A Lawren Harris landscape estimated at $800,000 (Canadian) sold recently at auction in Vancouver for $2,875,000.
In an essay I wrote on Barnett Newman and “The Rest of Us” in 1990, I pondered the vagaries of the art world. I recalled an American TV talk show where a framed black-and-white ink drawing of intense swirls and scribbles rested on an easel. “How much?” the affable host asked the audience. “Six hundred!” someone shouted. Fifty dollars and $350 were other suggestions. The host grinned and said, “$2 million.” It was a Jackson Pollock.
So I began to wonder, how do artists acquire “hot” reputations? How is artistic worth determined? How does “the art world” exploit artists’ reputations for its own means? How do well-timed, whispered conversations about certain artists from “experts” in the right places snowball into full-blown stardom and wealth for some and stagnate for others?
Canada’s National Gallery in Ottawa hit the headlines in 1990 when it announced its acquisition of American abstract painter Barnett Newman’s large three-stripe canvas “Voice Of Fire” for $1.76 million. Behind all the media hoopla, a Barnett Newman support system existed out there with more than just stripes on its agenda. A cabal of curators, collectors, and art critics contributed to Newman’s canonization culturally and financially. I know many excellent Canadian stripe painters whose work cannot garner this kind of added value: Rita Letendre, Jack Bush, and Reg Holmes, for starters.
With the purchase of this 5.4-metre abstract three-stripe painting, the National Gallery joined a consenting partners’ consortium of private and institutional collectors who owned now valued-added Newman’s. As well as being a conversation piece, this work became a tourist destination like the “Mona Lisa” at the Louvre, giving the gallery an enhanced reputation, enabling its director to describe the painting as evoking “a human dimension that is profound and spiritual.”
Since little produced in a cultural colony ever acquires the enhanced reputation of work produced at the centres of the empire, formerly Paris, now New York, London, Berlin, and Hong Kong, the cultural colony’s art institutions spends taxpayers’ money to acquire branded art from elsewhere that has been deemed significant. This is called “building an important collection.” The goal is to gain prestige, which is unavailable in regional cultures. Branding and promoting are key to this process. Reputations cleverly fabricated are the key to added value, created by consensus and co-operation among many partners – dealers, collectors, auction houses, the press, and public galleries and museums.
How can the National Gallery of Canada get points in international museum circles? Become a club member. Buy what’s considered internationally hot. How do we know it’s hot? Because the consenting partners agree that it is.
The reality for Canadians is that of a less concentrated market spread over vast regions of a sparsely populated landmass bigger than China, with regional artists often unrecognized in other parts of the country. It wasn’t Canadians who made Québec abstract painter Jean-Paul Riopelle’s prices to soar in the 1980s. That started in a New York auction house, and its effect was felt in Canada later. *Nul n’est prophète en son pays* – No man is a prophet in his own country.
In Canada, public sector support for living artists has been a traditional fallback in the absence of a highly charged marketplace. Abstract painting is tailor-made for state sponsorship. Politically, it’s neutral: visual valium. It’s grand, bland, glamorous, mystical. Abstract artists are obviously adept at pushing paint around, but what about ideas?
Often, art works come to symbolize what the official system finds acceptable. If the funds for a work of art destined for the National Gallery come in part from the taxpayer, what might a particular government promote or reject? And why?
Fully developed public art institutions ideally should provide access networks that integrate art and artists into the public’s consciousness. Paltry budgets prevent them from doing what they should do better: acquire and promote the work of the best artists in Canada, at home, and even more importantly, internationally.
There are also great artists from India, China, South Africa, Germany, Japan, Israel, Australia, France, Portugal, Argentina, and Afghanistan, to name a few. Which of them will become as famous as Andy Warhol? How many will get their 15 minutes of fame? How do regional artists cope with their obscurity? How many artists live quiet isolated, albeit contented lives in rural towns and villages, barely making a living from their work?
Assuming there are 10 to 20 million working professional artists worldwide, how many are really awful, how many merely mediocre, how many are not bad, and how many are pretty good? How many are brilliant? How many are rich and respected? How many can expect to become international art stars? To paraphrase the real estate adage, it’s all about “Location, location, location.” In the art world, it’s all about “Promotion, promotion, promotion.” Seems like if you’re lousy at promoting, you’re out of luck.
Has the current economic downturn affected investments and sales in the Canadian art market? Probably. But just like investing in the stock market, it’s the buy-and-hold philosophy that makes long-term collectors winners. Buy art because you like it and want the life-enhancing experience of surrounding yourself with something meaningful to you. Whether or not the work will be famous and worth millions one day is beside the point.