Are the dealers back?End of the Art Fair Age?High Art versus Pop Culture


Until the recession took over the art market talk, one of the most discussed topics in 2008 was Damien Hirst’s decision to sell brand-new work at auction. According to the artist, it was a more democratic way to sell art, and a gesture against the greed and snobbery that defined the art market’s boom period. “What I find unfair is the Van Gogh thing. The artist doesn’t make any money, but everyone else does,” he said. For many dealers, it was also another threatening incursion of the auction houses into the primary market. Rumors sparked that Murakami and Koons might soon follow suit.

In the current art market, such rebellious gestures seem unlikely, at least in the short run. As Christie’s and Sotheby’s half-year results demonstrate, today’s sellers seem/may be less attracted by the auction salesroom’s risk and visibility. Without the lure of financial guarantees, more and more collectors choose rather to sell privately. A more discreet option, private sales prevent speculation around the motive of the sale. Most importantly, they avoid the risk of seeing your works flop. If your painting is on the cover of an auction catalog and it has been marketed globally and then does not sell, ouch. You will probably not be able to sell it in a couple of years “If it doesn’t sell privately, at least it’s not a public event,” said Michael Findlay, Acquavella Galleries.

For some buyers, the fanfare of the auction room has also lost some appeal. As businesses across all industries cut jobs, citizens are more aware of the way our leaders spend money. Habits that just a year ago could arouse envy and admiration are increasingly perceived as irresponsible or tasteless gestures. If you are spending the bonuses from AIG or a bailed-out company, the last thing you want is to be seen buying/trading at auction. Those who can afford to buy art now try to be more discreet than usual.

A growing concern for discretion, however, might be one of this year’s best news for many dealers. After losing power to auction houses, it could bring consignments back to their offices. After all, they have traditionally claimed recessions are the time of the dealers. As dealer Paul Gray told Artinfo, “There are things we have this year [at Art Basel] that we wouldn’t have had last year, because the auction houses no longer hold the advantage by throwing money at consignors. We have the advantage now.” Distressed sellers see private sales as a more discreet alternative, cashing in their works before the auction season allows. With prices in flux, collectors may prefer the flexibility of a private sale option. “It allows collectors to have control over the prices. If the price is not satisfactory, they can just walk away.”

Does it mean power will shift away from the auction houses and back to the galleries? Is the time of the dealers really coming back? It is hard to tell. The biggest drawback to these arguments is that auction houses conduct private sales too. And as they have reported over the past weeks, it is one of the departments that is performing better across the crisis. Christie’s reported sales of almost $200 million during the first half of the year (just slightly down from 2008 figures), including several $30 million transactions. Sotheby’s private sales rose by 46% in the second quarter of the year to $134 million.

Even from a private sales perspective, auction houses have numerous advantages over private dealers. In the current art market, the biggest challenge may not be to find material, but to reach the buyers. And as Brett Gorvy, International Co-Head of PostWar and Contemporary Art at Christie’s said in a recent interview, “What gives the auction house the greatest strength is the reach that we have. I’ve got 60, 70 colleagues just in the Post-War and Contemporary Art department working around the world. I have access to emerging markets, to people who have never appeared on the gallery scene before. If I get something for sale (privately), I can pick up the telephone, and within our internal network, I can place this work very carefully.… Without crushing the dreams of the dealers, the biggest challenge dealers face is reaching the buyers.” If you have ever seen how many works Mr. Gorvy wins on behalf of his anonymous bidders at auction, it is evident he knows where they are.


Over the past few years critics have repeatedly addressed the hyperinflation of art fairs. The outburst of the financial crisis last autumn appeared to be an irrevocable signal, rushing many of them to proclaim the demise of this model. If you have attended The Armory Show, Art Basel, Frieze or the FIAC in 2009; you may start to suspect, however, that their prophecies were only a recurring conversation, because with attendance figures holding up, and lines at their doors defying economic logic, the claim that art fairs would die out seems unlikely. Whether they are the most appropriate model to show art is another question, which I will not address in this column.

Like most commercial enterprises, art fairs have certainly been hit by the current economic crisis. “Collectors are more choosy now. The days of the five-minute decisions are over,” admitted Christian Viveros-Fauné, Director of Volta art fair. But as reports demonstrate, sales are still happening when quality works are found at the right price. Similarly, dealers have also become more selective about the fairs they participate in, where booths can cost over $100,000. Fairs, which did not fulfill dealers’ expectations in the past, are therefore going to have a hard time attracting exhibitors. Some may need to reduce the price of booths, an unlikely alternative when sponsors are also cutting back, or take a “sabbatical,” like Barcelona’s emerging art fair SWAB, which announced it would be back after the crisis in 2010. Others are choosing to downsize and better edit the material displayed, as Artissima, ArcoMadrid and NextChicago have done recently. As Art Basel’s Co-Director Marc Spiegler said in a recent interview for Art in America, “It’s not the flea market model anymore, in which we just sold square meters and dealers brought whatever they could.” Viveros-Fauné agrees, “People are looking for content. Art fairs need to give primacy to the exhibition rather than follow the mall model.”

A recession does not, however, mean that the art fair model is near extinction. On the contrary, new art fairs continue to emerge, from JUSTMadrid to the highly publicized Art Abu Dhabi, and from Verge Miami to Pinta in London. Fairs play a crucial role in today’s global art market, and have become indispensable sales tools for galleries. As Katelijne de Backer, Director of the Armory Show, said, “Last year, at The Armory Show, we had over 56,000 visitors, including some 9,000 important collectors in our VIP program. How many galleries can claim that kind of traffic in a whole year?”

Another indicator, the number of art fairs scheduled for December in Miami, remains about the same as in 2008, since emerging galleries have immediately occupied the vacant slots in the Convention Center left by “deserters,” and new satellite fairs have replaced deceased ones. Galleries who did ten fairs in 2008 may do four fairs now, and those who used to do four fairs may do two. Yet as De Backer says, “I don’t think galleries can afford to lose access to the share of the international market art fairs provide.” “On the contrary, they are even more important in a contracted market,” adds Viveros Fauné, “Where else are galleries from Sao Paulo, Istanbul or Miami going to find buyers?”1-bortolossi-new

Not unlike their historical precedents, the nineteenth century International Exhibition and the twentieth century World’s Fair, art fairs occupy a central position in today’s art world, allowing the public to discover the newest art production and trends. From the legendary Armory Show of 1913 to the recent art fairs in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, these shows have often been important as educational platforms, introducing contemporary art to the public even before museums were built. According to Paco Barragán, artistic director of Circa Puerto Rico and author of the The Art Fair Age, “over the past few years, art fairs have [actually] started to compete with biennials and museums as cultural destinations.”

As Andy Warhol stated in the 1970s, “New York restaurants do not sell their food, they sell their atmosphere.” Similarly, art fairs offer more than a menu of international art in a tight and crowded space. They are exciting platforms to see art and provide unparalleled networking opportunities. While the works displayed could easily be purchased at their respective galleries, or even bought online from JPEGS, many collectors seem to prefer buying at art fairs, which for some galleries represent up to 70% of sales. They offer art professionals and collectors the opportunity to meet periodically, exchange gossip, show off their latest acquisitions, or in rougher sociological terms, to see and be seen. And in our increasingly digital world, that human contact is becoming more and more valuable.


« Feature

High Art versus Pop Culture Now. (An International Survey)

 Walter Bortolossi Immanuel Kant meets Mark Zuckerberg, 2011, oil on canvas, 47.24” x 59.” Courtesy the artist.

ARTPULSE has asked professionals it has identified as relevant in this ‘expanded field’ to address either one or several questions related to the dialectics of High Art versus pop culture-or, on the contrary, to express an overall position on the topic in general. The ARTPULSE questionnaire has been sent out to approximately 130 professionals internationally, among which art professionals (art historians, art critics, artists, curators and museum directors) and professionals from the field of visual studies, cultural studies, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and literature.

By Paco Barragán

In our current era of ‘cultural capitalism,’ as I like to frame it, revising and reformulating the complex and contradictory relationship between High Art and pop culture is not an unbearable exercise of nostalgia or outdatedness, but a serious attempt to comprehend the ideological, sociological and cognitive conventions of neoliberalism and how it affects the contemporary subject.

Besides the global international scope of the ARTPULSE questionnaire, we also pursued a mix of established and emergent practitioners. And at the risk of sounding self-congratulatory, we sincerely believe we have achieved this goal-we received 62 questionnaires-and would like to express our gratitude to the wide and varied participants for their commitment, knowledge and challenging perspectives.

Following are the series of questions we posed to help articulate this paradigm:

1) Is there a way past the Marxist and Frankfurt School’s “undialectical” dialectics of High Art as authentic art and pop culture as mere commodification?

2) How can we reformulate Greenberg’s definition of ‘kitsch’ that comprised practically all pop culture?

3) Are museums to blame for turning artworks into mass-consumed icons reproduced on mugs, bags and towels, or is this process inevitable in advanced, free-market democratic societies?

4) Can we develop strategies to comprehend the complexities and contradictions of pop culture in the context of contemporary capitalism and so provide a more critical perspective of culture?

5) Does pop culture have any positive effects on democracy and social life?

6) Is art history still the primary discipline engaging in a critical and fruitful dialogue with pop culture, or do we need to look extramuros?


We will start by highlighting some of the answers of those participants who have expressed an overall position on the topic. If for visual theorist James Elkins (USA, based in Chicago) this debate “will seem like an old question, one that was asked in the early 1990s,” quoting as support for his argumentation the Kirk Vanerdoe and Adam Gopnik’s exhibition at MoMA titled “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture,” (1991) and expecting the return of this debate is “an effect of the artworld’s habit of reading and forgetting selectively.” For Slovekian theoretician Jozef Kovalčik (Slovakia, based in Bratislava), who lectures at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design Bratislava (AFAD), the identity of pop culture was traditionally “defined in relation to high art as mere kitsch-simple, formulaic and commercial,” and since the 1960s “high culture was open to popular culture and democratization,” and “the concept of high culture is not plausible anymore” but ends up signaling the fact that art institutions where high culture is produced “are still not democratic enough.”

For associate professor of communication and culture at Indiana University Jon Simons (UK-Israel, based in Bloomington, Ind.), “The boundary between cultural producers and consumers is being effaced,” and this “transformation of relations between cultural production and consumption matters far more than the distinction between high and low culture, or postmodernism’s undermining of it.” In this same spirit, a series of art practitioners signal this mutual approach or hybridization between “hi and lo.” Dutch photographer and filmmaker Erwin Olaf (The Netherlands, based in Amsterdam) is of the opinion that “Pop culture adapts more easily to high art and wants to use often the ‘looks’ of (high) art as an inspiration or plain imitation to sell more of a mass product,” while high art insists on “communicating first of all that it is art by creating first sight non-aesthetic, repetitive and super intellectual works that prevent the mass consumer to understand.” For visual artist Walter Bortolossi (Switzerland, based in Udine, Italy), high and pop culture are part of the “same rope,” in which the two ends of the rope signal “different manifestations of the rope, and not necessarily the most fundamental” and in which each artist is confronted with the “risk of ‘watering down’ the product in the interest of appealing to a public and shying away from any kind of complexity.”

Performer and new media artist Pamela Z (USA, based in San Francisco) thinks that operating along and occupying the “soft borders of disciplines” has been irresistible, and it is the very nature of our “capitalist society’s commercialism which encourages the co-opting of any idea or thing that can in any way be monetized,” but “affording artists the freedom to incorporate whatever elements they feel moved to include in their work”; on the other hand, painter and educator Jason Hoelscher (USA, based in Savannah) acknowledges as well “today’s intensive hybridizations of culture modes” and proposes the term “differential autonomy”: “not a linear, hierarchically exclusive mode of discourse like that posited by Greenberg, but rather a heterarchical, networked system of feedback relations, in which a form’s independent status is reciprocally clarified and enhanced through the ways it differs from surrounding forms.” French visual artist based in Paris Jeanne Susplugas acknowledges the “leveling of culture” in which “quantity became quality” and provides two examples: While “the Pharrell  Williams curated show at Galerie Perrotin Paris is like rush hour in the metro, people [also] queue up to see Bill Viola’s show at Grand Palais,” concluding that “the problem is that culture has become synonymous with leisure.” Finally, for visual artist Sašo Stanojkovik (Macedonia, based in Skopje, Macedonia, and London), it is important to point out that “in some contexts where the art market hasn’t developed yet and the capitalist structures and relations haven’t yet involved art (e.g. Macedonia), a completely different set of questions are more urgent but are also related to the relation between neo-liberal capitalism and art and how populism overwrites art.”

The director of Spanish MUSAC Museum Manuel Olveira (Spain, based in Leon, Spain) considers “culture today, more than ever, porous and interconnected” and, although he’s aware of the “way in which pop culture feeds back to produce new habits of thought and action, conduct and expression that likely wouldn’t exist in its absence-a culture of high art, as it were”­­­–he is nevertheless worried about the fact “that this open field of culture tends to reinforce more than it challenges one’s existing preferences or ways of doing or appreciating images, things and cultural products.” For anthropologist Carlos Granés (Colombia, based in Madrid), “Pop is acceptance,” and “Acceptance is, or can be seen, as the reverse of high culture.” Furthermore, “Pop culture is an urban culture” that appeals to a “contemporary sensibility because it is transgressive, youthful and rebellious, but in such a way that nothing is really defied or altered.”

For his part, art critic Barry Schwabsky (USA, based in New York) wrote a couple of years ago in his recently reprinted book Words for Art: Criticism. History, Theory, Practice, “The art world is a specialized milieu based on taste” and dependent “on the value of authenticity and a disdain for the aesthetics of mainstream mass culture” and, in a funny sense, “The art world doesn’t know whether it is a subculture pretending to be a culture or a culture pretending to be a subculture.” Finally, Iranian visual artist and filmmaker based in New York Shoja Azadi points out that with the contradictions of cultural production “through the complex web of exchange and the theoretical (read: ideological) mumbo jumbo of academic valuation and curatorial appraisal, the end result is none but that of alienation and estrangement.”