Photo Credit- Tom Wesselmann, Sunset Nude (Variation #1), 2002. Courtesy Opera Gallery.
Race to the Bottom
BY Anthony Haden-Guest
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
So often in our times have we been hearing, reading, maybe even using the phrase “Strange Days!” that it’s unsurprising to find disconcerting goings-on in the art world too. Some could be described as just ordinarily exotic, such as the way that Salvator Mundi, the $450.3 million at-least-partly-by Leonardo da Vinci painting, did not go on its promised display in the Louvre Abu Dhabi but was supposedly swallowed up into a Saudi yacht. Others have been predictable, like the multi-national legislation against the longstanding use of art to launder money, but there was a nice twist here too when the new anti-washing laws in the UK were rejigged at the very last moment this May to exempt artists selling directly to collectors. I’m guessing that interesting within-the-artworld conversations may develop from this.
Money naturally figures in other changes too. When collectors had been attacked as speculators, as they routinely were, I’d been inclined to defend them, whether individually or as a collective entity, saying, sure, collectors are speculators, they’re speculating that they’ve got an eye for good art. As has usually been the case. But then along came the hip abstraction called Zombie Formalism by the painter Walter Robinson and this bred a group of collectors who were so quickly in and out that they were known as Flippers.
Photo Credit- James Mayor-Courtesy Anthony Haden-Guest, Gregory Lahmi -Courtesy Opera Gallery
And now? “I ask new collectors what you like to buy,” says James Mayor of the Mayor Gallery, a long-established dealership in Modern and Contemporary art on London’s Cork Street. “And they list the artists! I like to look at a painting and decide if I like it. And then discover who it’s by. To give a list is crazy.”
The relationship between a dealer and his or her collectors has long been an art world staple. Was this still so?
“I don’t think so,” Mayor said. “It’s a desperate thing to get into a new investment. Up until 1990 all the great galleries basically were less than ten people. Now they run into the hundreds. And it’s feeding time at the zoo.”
You’re sounding rather dark, I observed.
“I think we are in the dark ages,” Mayor said. “I want to see passion rather than money. Somebody’s got to say it. There’s no passion. It’s just financial. The joy of selling paintings to people who love them is just fantastic. But not to somebody who is just going to put it in a warehouse. And wait. And put it in an auction. That’s crazy.”
Other gallerists concur that the artworld now is fifty percent speculators and fifty percent collectors. “Yes. That’s what we can see now,” says Gregory Lahmi, managing director of Opera galleries in New York and Aspen, Opera being a group with spaces also in London, Paris and such promising locations as Dubai, Beirut and Singapore. “Today it’s really a mix between the investors and the collectors. Ten years ago that was not the case. Now the market is an essential aspect in dealing with any serious piece of art. Many dealers are hiding from that. They say no, no! Money is another thing. It’s not another thing, it’s everything! Because you’re speaking about market share. So anyone who wants to buy a Calder or a Dubuffet or anything, they have to pay for it. And there is a market price. So I think today there is a mix between investors and collectors. And some of them are both. They can enjoy the piece that they have for five years. And then they will resell it. And, by the way, they buy it to resell it.”
I asked Lahmi about the world-wide spread of manias for collectibles which has spread from art to such objects as the sneakers of sports stars but is most widely known for the crypto-backed phenomenon of NFTs, namely Non-Fungible Tokens, these being certificates which represent ownership of some fraction of whatever is on offer, often a minute fraction, so inexpensive. There are elements of real cultural history here. The woodcuts and engravings of the great German, Albrecht Durer, such as Knight, Death and the Devil and Melancholia, took art out of houses of worship in the late 15th and early 16th century, and put it within the reach of collectors and the popularization of prints in the 19th Century meant you didn’t have to be in a well-to-do collector’s house to see Old Masters. Both with the Internet and, most especially, with NFTs this democratization has gone mass-media.
Lahmi’s word for the process is tokenization. “Tokenisation means buying a tiny piece of a Chagall,” he says. “But tokenisation is not only for art. You can tokenise real estate. You can tokenise cars ... yachts ... private jets ... “And the tokens can be minuscule. “It could be one percent. It could be zero zero zero one percent. It’s also a new definition of ownership. It’s not the ownership we used to have before. It’s new. For artists it’s very new. Four or five years.” The Opera gallery is not involved. “We are not in this market. It makes no sense for us to do that right now. I don’t think right now any serious galleries are. But it’s a market. It’s here. It won’t disappear. It’s the birth of a new world. The NFT mania is here to stay.”
Photo Credit- Botero, Femme au Serpent,1983. Courtesy Opera Gallery
The artist/gallerist, J. Steven Manolis, has other things on his mind. Manolis’ grandfather, a Greek immigrant, had been adamant he not become an artist, saying “No grandson of mine becomes a Communist” so he had joined Salomon Brothers, and devised a way of monetizing mortgages, which led to him becoming the youngest partner there. He retired in his middle years though to, yes, become an artist, built a career as an abstractionist, paints ten hours a day and runs Manolis Projects, a terrific space in Miami (Declaration of interest: He shows my cartoonery there).
Manolis’ views of the Post-Covid artworld are molded by this dual experience. We have all heard dark guesstimates of the number of galleries that will fail to reopen and museums who may open with a changed model. Other museum news is on the record. “The hurting museums made an application to the American Association of Museums that they wanted to sell works from their permanent collection in order to pay salaries,” Manolis said. “In certain cases they allowed them to do that. Absent those approvals if you sold something from the permanent collection to pay salaries that would lead to the expulsion from being an accredited museums.”
The plus side has been an increased appreciation and an increased demand for art. And the dealers? “They have to prepare for the future, which means they have to become technically proficient. There are a lot of different opinions. I happen not to think it’ll be purely electronic. I don’t think that’s a good model. I think you have to have both a physical gallery and an electronic gallery. But all this is up for grabs. A lot of people have different opinions. That is just my personal opinion. A lot of people who used to have galleries are going to stay in the art business but they are most likely going to try to become private art consultants.”
Manolis concurs with Lahmi that the Internet has had a profound effect. “There’s a questioning of what is art? And what is the value of art?” he says. “The question is how good can the art be? And at how cheap a price? And the answer is that you can get a very nice piece of original art from Saatchi & Saatchi for between one and three hundred dollars. Nice art! Three feet by four feet. The artists are from Sri Lanka ... Pakistan ... It’s good art, it’s amazingly good art. So you don’t have to get prints. They’ve got one of a kind best stuff. For nothing! That’s why it’s called race to the bottom. For regular people in the business trying to sell things, it’s led to the phenomenon of why are we charging these prices? And it’s causing a whole revaluation of the industry. What should art be priced at? And why should it be priced where it’s priced? And that is no longer a theoretical question. Never before in the history of art would you get anything at any size for a few hundred dollars. It’s really good art by kids in their twenties for one hundred or two hundred. Low end artists in the United States are completely fucked. Because it’s global competition. And it’s really good business. Saatchi & Saatchi are the Chairmen of the Board of the race to the bottom.”