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Artists Retreat

With the economy slowing down, hedge funds getting shaky, and investors seeking refuge, the art market seems certain to contract in a big way. “We’ve seen an unprecedented appreciation of contemporary art in the 35 years that I’ve been collecting,” billionaire collector Eli Broad told The New York Times in August. “We’re bound to have a correction.” Large-scale investors will start to worry about the illiquidity of their art holdings, and abruptly lose their taste for art. The Damien Hirsts and Brice Mardens are safe, but the emerging battalion of artists on the thin margin of commercial viability is imperiled, and so is the fragile infrastructure that supports them.

In a fairly typical scenario, the gallery an artist has worked diligently to cultivate, having been powered by the bull art market, doesn’t make the rent when it turns bearish. The artist is left without representation. He or she may lose artwork kept “in storage.” Furthermore, as Edward Winkleman has chronicled in his well-regarded art blog, check kiting becomes de rigueur in times of financial distress, and even formerly fair galleries may resort to withholding payment for work previously sold. Widespread gallery closings also mean fewer exhibition opportunities for younger artists. The abundant part-time jobs—often at the galleries themselves—that kept them solvent dry up.

Even artists who were flagged by the art press as up-and-comers, and are lucky enough to retain representation, find themselves with flattened trajectories. Their work almost certainly won’t sell at the pre-bust prices. The question becomes whether to keep the prices at the same level so that existing collectors feel secure, or to drop the prices so that new collectors will buy. If the artist chooses the latter, all the artwork they have sold has effectively lost value. An artist used to sunnier times wonders whether she or he should continue making art.

Outsiders may regard all this angst as the hand-wringing of spoiled children. After all, American art did not merely survive but flourished after the Depression and World War II. Why should we worry about it now? Real artists will stay their course and make their mark. The idea is that the free market, hard or soft, will filter through the truly great ones. It’s a hopeful and very American notion, but that market, at least for artists, has not historically been so bountiful. Yes, Abstract Expressionism sprung from children of the Depression. But artists like Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, James Brooks, Balcombe Greene, and Norman Lewis—to name but a few painters of the era—fed themselves on wages from the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration before they hit it big. Yes, minimalism flourished after the war. But Ellsworth Kelly and Al Held were able to go to Paris and find their muses only because of the GI Bill. Federal subsidies, it would appear, were key to sustaining the nation’s artistic capital.

Systemic sources of extra-market support for artists still exist, but they are not as abundant, generous, or widely available as the WPA was in the Thirties or the GI Bill was in the Forties and Fifties. In this light, it is perhaps too harsh to say that true artists would not default to careers in banking, IT, law, social work, cabinetry, or teaching, as many have. Galleries and collectors once committed to nurturing these artists may simply move on to the new crop of art school graduates, renewing the market cycle. But we’ll never know how their work might have developed had economic opportunities not deserted them. It is a virtual certainty that at least a few of them would have been great, so their foregone contribution could be considered a cultural loss and a failure of the market.

It follows that in these ominous economic times, emerging artists should be encouraged to use all possible resources to keep on keeping on—and to see whatever silver might be lining the hovering economic cloud. While philanthropic support for them is not abundant, private funders generally recognize the hard times they face. Although the philanthropic foundations’ own portfolios are smaller during a market downturn, they are also likely to present more targeted opportunities for such artists—for example, smaller grants for innovative work. Having herself benefited from the WPA, Lee Krasner started the Pollock-Krasner Foundation specifically to support promising artists who lacked a financial safety net. It provided $375,000 to 45 artists directly affected by September 11, and the organization funds up to 200 artists a year to the tune of over $3 million. The Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation specifically aims to help those who have no other source of funding. New York-based Creative Capital approaches funding as a kind of partnership, providing advice and promotional support as well as financial aid to especially inventive artists.

Some artists will simply hunker down, eke out work at restaurants and bars, and wait for the market to grow again. Others may start collectives or DIY galleries to generate new collector niches. This strategy has worked in the past. Witness iconoclastic successes like Joe Amrhein’s Pierogi 2000 and the proliferation of artist-run galleries in Williamsburg after the art market contracted due to 9/11. The lack of exhibition opportunity actually creates a more experimental atmosphere since few artists are tailoring their ideas or curbing their impulses to cater to a particular audience. Another hidden bonus is that as real estate development plateaus and gentrification slows, artists have more time before they are squeezed out of their once grittily affordable neighborhoods.

The decision to continue making art in tough economic times inevitably entails some degree of discomfort and insecurity, but the right blend of humility and constructive opportunism can see many artists through. The hardest thing for the individual artist will be striking a psychological balance between Pollyannaism and panic.


Sharon L. Butler

Butler is a professor at Eastern Connecticut State University and blogs.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2007

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