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Why the Biggest Blue-Chip Art Collectors in the World Are Pumping Hundreds of Millions of Dollars Into the Sports Memorabilia Market


Billionaire investors have a new collecting passion—and it’s not for undervalued Modern masters or emerging art stars. 

Steve Cohen and Dan Sundheim, known for their blue-chip art holdings, are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into sports collectibles, a niche market that’s been on fire since the pandemic.

The art world, myself included, is catching up with the craze. While I know my 1932 Picassos and 1982 Basquiats, I am a complete neophyte when it comes to rookie cards of Mickey Mantle, Wayne Gretzky, or Mike Trout.

Apparently, I am not alone. 

Art adviser Anita Heriot unwittingly found herself giving a crash course on the topic to her new British colleagues while getting them up to speed on the portfolio of one of her top clients. The collector’s holdings included works by Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, but the most valuable and fastest appreciating asset was a trove of trading cards.

This was unfamiliar territory for a group of art advisors. “What are trading cards?” Heriot said her colleagues asked. 

A baseball signed by Babe Ruth that was put up for auction in October 2016 at Christie's New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

A baseball signed by Babe Ruth that was put up for auction in October 2016 at Christie’s New York. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Pocket-size trophies featuring legendary and contemporary athletes as well as their sneakers and jerseys, bats and balls have soared in popularity, taking the sector from $1 billion to $10 billion almost overnight, according to research by Goldin Auctions, a rapidly growing house for sports memorabilia.

Boosted by wealthy millennials, fractional ownership companies, and growing digitization, baseball, basketball, and hockey cards have fetched as much as works by Calder and CondoFor actor Rob Gough, buying a 1952 Mickey Mantle rookie baseball card for $5.2 million was like getting the Mona Lisa. 

“Money is cheap and people are hedging against inflation by buying hard assets,” said Chris Ivy, the head of Heritage Sports, which sold more than $100 million of sports collectibles in 2020. 

A popular hobby in the 1980s and 1990s, sports cards are now considered an asset class. “People who are now in their 40s and 50s have disposable income to invest in these cards,” Ivy said. “When the pandemic hit, they were bored, stuck at home.”

Those who as kids had trading cards spilling out of shoeboxes in their closets now collect for both sentimental and investment reasons. It makes you feel young again,” said Ralph DeLuca, a consummate collector of trading cards, vintage movie posters, and contemporary art. And the fact that something that brings them pleasure from their youth is also an amazing investment vehicle if you handle it right is very intriguing to people.”

Capitalizing on the rising demand, investors such as Cohen Private Ventures, Sundheim’s D1 Capital Partners, and Blackstone Group, whose CEO, Stephen Schwarzman, is a major art collector and museum patron, are investing in companies that manufacture, sell, and appraise these collectibles.

“It just shows the strength of the market,” said Simeon Lipman, a veteran pop culture specialist and appraiser. “You see a lot of big guns jump in because they see an opportunity.” 

Last week alone, two significant investments were announced.

Dan Sundheim. Photo by Sylvain Gaboury ©Patrick McMullan.

Dan Sundheim. Photo by Sylvain Gaboury ©Patrick McMullan.

Collectors Holdings, a company formed by Cohen, Sundheim, and entrepreneur Nat Turner, acquired Goldin Auctions for an undisclosed price believed to be around $200 million.

Meanwhile, Blackstone agreed to buy Certified Collectibles Group, which authenticates and grades items for sale, and has been valued at $500 million. 

The arrival of some of the world’s biggest collectors into this space makes sense given that some of them own sports teams. Cohen owns the New York Mets and has been vocal about collecting memorabilia. Sundheim bought a minority stake in the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets from Michael Jordan in 2019. Both collectors declined to comment.  

“You see a big crossover between sports memorabilia and watches and some contemporary art,” said Elizabeth von Habsburg, managing director of Winston Art Group.

Traders in this field include musicians, sports figures, and “your regular contemporary art collectors, especially those who made money in crypto-currency or tech industry,” she added. 

Auction houses are trying to cultivate the crossover. In November, Goldin and Sotheby’s organized a joint auction, “A Century of Champions,” with 74 lots ranging from sneakers to rookie cards. The results were mixed. While the sale totaled $3 million, with 67 percent of its bidders new to Sotheby’s, more than a quarter of lots failed to find buyers.

“Our customers prefer to deal with our platform,” Ken Goldin, the auction house’s founder, said this week.

But sport has a much broader appeal than art—and so do sports collectibles.

“With art, it’s very subjective,” said DeLuca. “You can say, ‘Oh I have an Andy Warhol,’ and it can be the wrong size or the wrong color, the wrong series than the market wants right now.”

Figuring out the value of trading cards and other sports collectibles is a lot easier. “That’s why Robinhood people and crypto people and hedge fund guys like trading cards,” Goldin said.

Price depends on the condition, which is determined by a handful of grading and authentication companies. One of them, PSA, was acquired by Cohen, Sundheim, and Turner’s Collectors Holdings in a $853 million deal earlier this year.

The agencies grade the items and encase them in hard plastic shells that can’t be opened, a process called slabbing. While there are numerous cards of the same player, only a couple may merit the top ranking—and record prices.

“Once it’s slabbed with a grade, a card becomes a commodity,” DeLuca said. “You can trade it like a stock.”

A 1910 Ty Cobb baseball card. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

A 1910 Ty Cobb baseball card. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images)

Ebay, a major marketplace for lower-priced material, sold 18 million trading cards, generating more than $1 billion in the first quarter this year, the company said. That amounts to about 130 sales a minute, and a 345 percent increase from the same period in 2020.

At moments, the demand threatened to overwhelm the system. At Heritage Sports, the wait time for ungraded material is six months to a year, Ivy said. In March, a tsunami of submissions and a million-card backlog at PSA forced the company to suspend grading lower-priced items. 

The sheer volume of orders that PSA received in early March has fundamentally changed our ability to service the hobby,” Steve Sloan, the company’s president, said in a letter to clients on March 30. “The reality is that we recently received more cards in three days than we did during the previous three months.” 

This month, some of the services returned, albeit at higher prices “to manage demand,” Sloan said. 

As a sign of further commodification, some are trying to leverage their troves of cards and collectibles. In the past year, a handful of investors approached lenders like TCP Art Finance, but so far values haven’t met the company’s minimum loan amount of $500,000.

“It’s something we would consider if the collection was valuable enough,” said Joe Charalambous, the company’s president.

But not everyone is planning to jump in.

Collecting is “a big world,” said Amy Cappellazzo, who’s planning a new art business following her departure from Sotheby’s this month. 

“Dan and Steve are especially interested in this world,” she said, referring to Sundheim and Cohen. “I don’t think I have a lot to add. In the end, I am going to stick to my lane.”

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Why the Art Market Is Colliding With Investors’ Biggest, Weirdest New Obsession (and No, It’s Not Crypto)


Every Wednesday morning, Midnight Publishing Group News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, checking the thermometer inside and outside the art market…

 

TEMPERATURES RISING

Over the past week, events in the art and finance markets underscored that buyers are only intensifying their interest in speculative assets as rich countries like the U.S. approach full reopening. The similar heat waves gathering in these adjacent economic sectors indicate where the art trade is heading in the coming months—and why market participants should be extra careful not to lose themselves in the swelter ahead.

Let’s start with a standout feature of spring auction week’s New York return. Premier works by several time-honored artists were instrumental in sending Christie’s and Sotheby’s surging north of a combined $1.5 billion in evening and day sales, but so too was a slew of fiercely contested pieces from ascendant talents. In fact, almost all of the most in-demand artists were ‘80s babies. (All sales figures include premiums unless otherwise noted; presale estimates do not.)

Salman Toor, The Servant (2013). Photo courtesy Christie's.

Salman Toor, The Servant (2013). Photo courtesy Christie’s.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s respective evening sales set four personal records for artists under age 40: Nina Chanel Abney ($990,000), Salman Toor ($867,000), Jordan Casteel ($687,500), and Alex da Corte ($187,500). The day sales built at least three more new pinnacles for members of this demo, as my colleague Nate Freeman noted. A Claire Tabouret canvas peaked at $870,000, nearly triple the high estimate; a rare Issy Wood reached $201,600, about 2.5x more than the house’s most optimistic projection; and a Jammie Holmes nude barely missed tripling up its high estimate, landing at $175,000. 

Focusing exclusively on shattered records also obscures the fact that buyers chased hard after multiple lots by the millennials above, as well as their sought-after peers. A trio of paintings by Toor all went for more than three times their presale ceiling in Christie’s day sale. Another Holmes painting (this time of the Wall Street Bull) doubled its high estimate at Sotheby’s. When the smoke cleared, Amoako Boafo’s portrait of Studio Museum director Thelma Golden changed hands at just under $479,000 despite a top expectation of $350,000. Two paintings by the late Matthew Wong both blitzed through expectations, with In Dreams (2016) finding a buyer at $189,000, almost quintupling its high estimate.

Amoako Boafo, Thelma in Colored Blazer (2018). Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Amoako Boafo, Thelma in Colored Blazer (2018). Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

The point is bidders are once again plunging into trench warfare with one another for the right to pay multiples of the primary-market price for works by the most sought-after young artists in the game. Their behavior also tracks with what investors have been up to lately in another realm of high-variance speculation.  

 

A FOUR-LETTER WORD

If you’ve never before heard of a special purpose acquisition company (known as a SPAC, pronounced like it rhymes with “jack”) you’re not alone… but you’re in a smaller crowd than you would have been a year or two ago. Andrew Ross Sorkin of New York Times DealBook fame called SPACs “the biggest thing in financial markets of the moment” this February—yes, even amid NFT-mania—and their influence among investors has only grown in the time since. 

Beyond leaving their imprint on general wealth-pursuit strategies, however, a handful of recent SPAC-related developments typifies the magnitude of the speculative moment we’ve entered. In that sense, they might just be the alarm screaming loudest about the mounting pressure to overpay for upside opportunities across every market right now—including art.  

For the uninitiated, I’m going to hand off the task of summing up SPACs to Bloomberg’s Matt Levine via the May 12 edition of his “Money Stuff” newsletter: 

The basic way a special purpose acquisition company works is that a sponsor raises a pool of money and has two years to find a company to take public. If the sponsor finds a company, signs up a deal and gets the SPAC’s shareholders to approve it, the sponsor gets rich—typically the sponsor gets shares in the newly public target company worth 20% of the amount raised. If the sponsor does not do a deal within two years, though, the SPAC’s shareholders get their money back, and the sponsor gets nothing and has to foot the bill for the SPAC’s startup and administrative costs.

This is why SPACs are sometimes referred to as “blank-check companies.” By buying into a public SPAC, investors also give its sponsor the autonomy to pursue whatever private companies the sponsor wants with no oversight—or at least, no oversight until the potential merger has been hammered out between would-be corporate partners. SPAC shareholders get an actual vote at that point, as well as retaining the option to simply sell their SPAC stake back on the market if they think the proposed endgame of the SPAC is trash.

(If you haven’t figured it out by now, everyone talking about SPACs loves to say the word “SPAC” as much as humanly possible. Try it now. Kind of delightful, right? I half-believe that the jargon accounts for at least 15 percent of the cash now sloshing around SPACs, especially when you factor in the opportunity to use even more amusing adjacencies like “SPAC-off”—that is, a bidding war between two SPACs courting the same company.)

Investment in the SPAC space has grown so hot and humid over the past several months that it makes the NFT market feel like a climate-controlled museum vault. Consider that NFT sales during the first quarter of 2021 totaled about $2 billion across major exchange platforms, according to a report from blockchain gaming and collectibles database Nonfungible.com. For argument’s sake, let’s add another billion on top of that to give the benefit of the doubt to some significant platforms (primarily NBA Top Shot, Nifty Gateway, and Rarible) that Nonfungible excluded from its report due to implied suspicions over the integrity of their transaction data. 

Rounding up like that might not even be especially aggressive, since NBA Top Shot and Rarible have combined to ring up about $672 million in lifetime NFT sales per crypto-analytics site DappRadar.com. In the end, though, it kinda doesn’t matter once you push SPACs onto the scale: By mid-March 2021, investments in SPACs had soared to just shy of $88 billion, according to SPAC Research

Another way of saying it: Even the most generous appraisal of the NFT trade in Q1 still gives its investor base about 30X less buying power than the investor base for SPACs. Which raises the obvious question: What’s the appeal? And it turns out the answer ties us right back to the art and collectibles market.

 

TO THE MOON(?)

SPAC sponsors are sometimes seasoned investors and entrepreneurs whose business acumen could mean something major for investors’ potential returns. (Mega-collector Michael Ovitz and finance goliath Bill Ackman co-sponsor one, for instance.) But many others are fronted by celebrities with… let’s say “highly variable” business credentials. They include superstar athletes (Shaquille O’Neal, Serena Williams, Colin Kaepernick), pop music figures (Jay Z, Ciara, Sammy Hagar), and even career politicians such as former Speaker of the House Paul Ryan

Paul Ryan attends the game on January 11, 2020, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Paul Ryan attends the game on January 11, 2020, at M&T Bank Stadium in Baltimore, MD. (Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

If some of those names sound a lot like the types you’ve heard cashing in by issuing their own NFTs this year, your pattern-recognition skills are on point. Recall the recent crypto-collectible debuts of Snoop Dogg, Paris Hilton, William Shatner, and NFL tight end Rob Gronkowski.

Which leads us back to auction week, believe it or not. Among the explosive results for sought-after millennial artists, Christie’s also notched a big win for an NFT by model and collector Emily Ratajkowski, whose backstory-rich token brought $175,000 after being offered with no estimate in the house’s day sale. But were bidders spurred on more by the perceived long-term value of the underlying digital asset, or by the allure of Ratajkowski’s pop-cultural aura in an overheating market enabled by a historically askew economy?  

Celebrity SPAC sponsors invite a similar question: Are most, or even many, of the investors cramming billions of dollars into these vehicles like clowns into tiny circus cars making a sober fiscal decision? Or are they getting sucked in to dumb-money deals by the gravitational pull of the stars at their centers, whatever universe those stars occupy?

The NFT comes with an image of the model before a work depicting her by Richard Prince. Photo courtesy of Emily Ratajkowski and Christie's Images Ltd 2021.

Emily Ratajkowski’s NFT. Photo courtesy of Emily Ratajkowski and Christie’s Images Ltd 2021.

As ever, the answers lie somewhere on a long spectrum rather than on one side or the other of a hard binary. But whether the investment (or “investment”) target is a SPAC, a celebrity NFT, or a hotly pursued work by an ascendant young artist, the ferocity of the chase and the velocity of the resulting prices are driven by already-rich people who got much richer during the shutdown, accidental millionaires who lucked up on crypto or meme stocks, or regular Joes/Janes/Jesses putting stimulus money into what they hope will be high-upside, quick-return alternative trades.

Yet the SPAC news cycle has given us the most glaring reasons to think carefully about how much some of these opportunities are worth flying after—and when it’s time to eject from the cockpit. 

As you may have noticed in Levine’s explanation of SPACs, there’s often a troubling spread between their sponsors’ incentives and their investors’ interests. Sorkin noted in a more recent column that most blank-check firms only prevent sponsors from liquidating their 20 percent ownership stake for a year after the merger closes, and “many include a trapdoor” allowing sponsors to cash out early if the post-deal share price of the SPAC stays more than 20 percent above its initial share price for 20 days out of any 30 consecutive days.

That might sound like a low-probability trigger… until you find out that most SPAC shares start their life trading at $10, meaning that if they top $12 for 20 days, many sponsors can grab the bag and GTFO. Sorkin also backed up fears about the divergence in incentives with data, writing that “in a review of hundreds of deals, many sponsors of SPACs appear to be planning to rush for the exits from the outset, and they rarely invest much of their own money in the first place.” 

This curious arrangement has generally worked out much better for SPAC sponsors than SPAC investors. According to JPMorgan Chase, sponsors made an average return of 648 percent on their stakes between early 2019 and early 2021, often by flipping quickly. But shareholders who invested in the same SPACs after they executed their mergers, then held on, made an average return of only 44 percent—worse than the upside of buying into a standard index fund tracking, say, the S&P 500.

Redbox movie rentals in Simi Valley, California. (Image courtesy Getty Images.)

Redbox movie rentals in Simi Valley, California. (Image courtesy Getty Images.)

The (possible) upside and (more likely) downside were both on view in recent days. DealBook broke news this Monday that a SPAC called Seaport Global Acquisition Co. is preparing to ally with Redbox, the once-ubiquitous DVD kiosk business, at a $693 million valuation. Which could be a brilliant wager on a post-shutdown bounceback for customers hesitant about streaming… or a disastrous bet on an increasingly niche entertainment sector hurtling into a death spiral

Over the weekend, Bloomberg also reported that five electric-vehicle startups (an especially hot target sector for SPACs) have collectively shed about two-thirds ($40 billion) of their peak market value since going public via different blank-check companies. 

And if none of that makes you wary of the froth content in the speculative finance market, let me close by noting Friday’s executive shake-up at New Jersey’s Hometown Deli, the unassuming sandwich shop that stymied investment analysts for weeks by pairing $40,000 in sales since 2019 with a mysterious $100 million valuation (not a misprint!) and institutional shareholders including Duke and Vanderbilt universities. The puzzle was finally solved in late April, when FT‘s Mark Vandevelde learned Hometown’s holding company is actually… a pseudo-SPAC designed to shuttle an Asian company onto a U.S. stock exchange ASAP.

To be clear, I’m not saying that winning a Salman Toor at auction last week is identical to buying shares in a Garden State deli sliding through an SEC loophole. But I am saying that market participants are showing all kinds of signs that they’re chasing returns at full throttle. No matter who you are, it’s worth asking how that race affects your own behavior on the road ahead. 

 

That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: Sometimes you get to ride the bull market to glory, but eventually you’ll just get the horns.

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The British Museum Wants to Hire a Curator to Fix Its Biggest Problems (Without Having to Pay Too Much) + Other Stories


Art Industry News is a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market. Here’s what you need to know on this Wednesday, March 10.

NEED-TO-READ

Meet the Early Investors in NFTs – Who on earth is actually spending tens of thousands of dollars (or more!) on NFT art? ARTnews offers an introduction to some of the cryptocurrency-rich players, including 28-year-old Tim Kang, founder of Cue Music and an Ethereum backer, who fell for digital art in 2016 after buying a work by crypto-artist Pak for $42,720. Alvaro Luken, an ex crypto-miner, was another early adopter. He bought one of artist Beeple’s early drops when editions cost $1 each and later resold it for $700. Now, similar works are going for exponentially more than that. (ARTnews)

EU High Court Says Embedded Images Can Violate Copyright – The European Court of Justice has found that embedding content from copyright holders on third-party websites without permission could be a violation. (Similar cases are underway, but currently undecided, in the United States.) The ruling came as part of a legal battle between the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and a copyright protection organization, VG Bild-Kunst. The upshot: If images are embedded on a website without permission, it could be seen as a violation of copyright, provided that the copyright holder took steps to prevent the reuse by, for example, specifying that they did not want their images to be embedded elsewhere. (Courthouse News, Monopol)

British Museum Seeks Curator for Big Job (and Not Much Money) – The British Museum is hiring an experienced curator to oversee “a comprehensive redisplay of the galleries” as part of the museum’s new master plan. The redisplay intends to “make it easier to understand the connections between different cultures, both ancient and modern,” after the institution came under fire in recent years for misrepresenting the Americas (lumping North and South America together in the same space) and marginalizing its Africa displays (which are located in the basement). The lead curator’s salary is £48,169 (around $66,000) for a 24-month contract. As art critic Jason Farago pointed out on Twitter, “The enduring problem with the British Museum and other London institutions: a curator experienced enough to take on a job as difficult and important as this does not work for £48k.” (The Art Newspaper)

The Rise of the Artist Talent Agency – Artists are increasingly eschewing the traditional gallery model in favor of entertainment-style talent agencies. Hollywood’s Endeavor, Creative Artists Agency, and United Talent Agency have sections for the visual arts—and there is also a growing number of start-ups focused specifically on brand-building for individual artists. These include Southern & Partners, founded by former Blain Southern partner Graham Southern, which has started working with Bill Viola and Elias Sime. (TAN)

ART MARKET

Winston Churchill’s Slippers Fetch More Than $40,000 – The market appetite for all things Winston Churchill shows no sign of abating after a pair of the wartime prime minister’s slippers sold for nearly £40,000 ($55,000) at a UK auction yesterday. The monogrammed slippers from the 1950s hit the block alongside a brandy glass used by Churchill, which raked in £18,300 ($25,000). (Evening Standard)

Cynthia Erivo Will Curate Sotheby’s Sale – The actor and singer, best known for her Tony Award-winning role as Celie Harris in The Color Purple on Broadway (and here at Midnight Publishing Group News HQ, for her fantastic turn in the HBO series The Outsider), will organize Sotheby’s New York’s contemporary curated auction on March 12. Erivo has selected 16 pieces, including a work by Ruth Asawa and Andy Warhol’s portrait of Aretha Franklin. (Barron’s)

COMINGS & GOINGS

Artists Shortlisted for the Preis der Nationalgalerie – Artists Lamin Fofana, Sandra Mujinga, Sung Tieu, and artist duo Calla Henkel and Max Pitegoff have been shortlisted for the prestigious award for artists under 40 in Germany. A selection of their works will go on view at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin from September 16 through February 27, 2022. The winner will be announced on October 7. (Monopol)

Workers at MASS MoCA and Studio in a School Launch Unionization Efforts – The number of art workers launching union efforts just keeps on growing. Staff at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art will vote on joining UAW Local 2110, citing “job insecurity, inequitable conditions, low salaries, and pandemic layoffs.” Meanwhile, artists and staff at New York’s Studio in a School are taking a vote of their own, saying they want more predictability in assignments and transparency in scheduling decisions. (Berkshire Eagle, New York Times)

FOR ART’S SAKE

Top Artists Donate Work to Benefit Food Banks – Blue-chip artists including Lorna Simpson, Louise Lawler, and Rirkrit Tiravanija have donated work to the Artists Support project in New York, which aims to raise funds for local organizations and food banks. Prints are available in exchange for donations of between $3,000 and $35,000 made directly to the artist’s selected charity. (TAN)

Noldor Artist Residency Expands in Ghana – Ghana’s Noldor artist residency has announced a major expansion. Set in a 700-square-meter former pharmaceutical warehouse in Accra, the residency plans to incorporate and repurpose additional industrial spaces. The annual four-week program for contemporary African artists will also add a year-long fellowship aimed at emerging and mid-career artists from Africa and its diaspora. (Press release)

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Here Are the 12 Biggest Controversies That Rocked the Art World in 2020—and Why They Won’t Disappear Next Year


Within the art world—and, to a much larger extent, outside of it—2020 was one of the most tumultuous years in history. Museums and galleries faced financial challenges that threatened their very existence, as Black Lives Matter uprisings forced a reckoning with the art world’s structural racism and controversial monuments that celebrate shameful histories around the globe.

Here, we spotlight 12 thorny questions that sent shockwaves through the art world and sparked spirited debate that is sure to boil over into 2021.

 

Should Universities Teach Traditional Art History Surveys or Not?

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. 

Back in January—a much more innocent time for most of us—the year’s first controversy presaged many of the debates to come. Yale University announced it would eliminate its popular survey course, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance to the Present,” as part of a broader overhaul to address concerns that its curriculum promoted a white, Westernized canon at the expense of other narratives. (New thematic courses—including “Art and Politics,” “Global Craft,” “The Silk Road,” and “Sacred Places”—would replace the standard 101 lineup.) The move struck a nerve with those who already felt cultural norms were changing more quickly than they could keep up with; New York Post labeled it “PC idiocy,” while the New Criterion likened Yale’s art-history department head to Joseph Stalin. The university, for its part, suggested the dust-up was largely a misunderstanding. In a statement, the department wrote: “Recent excitement on social media about Yale’s curriculum demonstrates just how significant and lively—even controversial—the study of art history can, and should, be.”

 

Why Did a Microsoft Ad Featuring Marina Abramović Spark a Right-Wing Satanic Conspiracy?

Promo image featuring Marina Abramovic wearing the HoloLens 2 headset Photo: Microsoft.

Promo image featuring Marina Abramovic wearing the HoloLens 2 headset Photo: Microsoft.

In the spring, a stranger-than-fiction clash entangled software behemoth Microsoft, world-famous performance artist Marina Abramović, and conspiracy theorists the world over. It all started when the tech company uploaded a promotional video for HoloLens2, a headset designed for mixed reality, that prominently featured the artist. Less than a week later, the ad vanished. In the interim, it turns out, it had been given a “thumbs down” by more than 24,000 users on YouTube. Many of the disapproving votes reportedly came after Infowars, a far-right blog run by Alex Jones, published a story attempting to connect the video to a bizarrely resilient theory—which stretches all the way back to 2016’s “Pizzagate”—that Abramović is a Satanist.

Confused? Midnight Publishing Group News critic Ben Davis went down the rabbit hole to unravel this controversy, and you can read about it in more detail here.

 

When Is It Okay For a Museum to Sell Art?

Christopher Bedford in Venice for “Mark Bradford: Tomorrow Is Another Day” at the US Pavilion for the Venice Biennale 2017. Photo by Awakening/Getty Images.

When Midnight Publishing Group News spoke to Baltimore Museum director Christopher Bedford about the museum’s plan to sell several blue-chip works as part of its latest effort to diversify its holdings, he sounded more than confident about the decision. Though he stressed that the sell-off was not related to financial strain, he sought to take advantage of the fact that the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) had temporarily loosened its guidelines on how members could use the proceeds from deaccessioned art amid the pandemic.

He may not have expected just how emphatic the blowback would be. Weeks later, hours before a planned multimillion-dollar auction at Sotheby’s, the museum withdrew the works from the sale.

Other museums, including the Brooklyn Museum and the Everson Museum in Syracuse, forged ahead with deaccessioning efforts that took a more conservative approach to the new rules. But since the loosened guidelines remain in effect through April 2022, this is likely not the last time a museum will push the envelope when it comes to deaccessioning.

 

How Should We Reckon With Controversial Monuments?

A statue of Christopher Columbus at Grant Park in Chicago is removed early on July 24, 2020. (Photo by Derek R. Henkle / AFP via Getty Images)

As calls for social justice swept the country in June following the murder of George Floyd and other unarmed Black people, the long-simmering debate about controversial monuments leapt to the forefront of the national conversation. Outcomes were as wide-ranging as opinions about how to respond. In Richmond, roughly 1,000 protesters used ropes to topple an eight-foot-tall statue of Christopher Columbus, then proceeded to light it on fire and drag it to a nearby lake. In New York, the American Museum of Natural History ceded to demands to remove a monument to Theodore Roosevelt that had stood outside the building since 1940. In Chicago, Mayor Lori Lightfoot outlined a comprehensive plan to review the fates of the city’s most controversial public monuments following temporary removal of some. Meanwhile, across Europe, a groundswell of activism focused on toppling monuments to problematic figures from slavers to colonizers.

 

Will Leaders Change the Way They Treat Workers for Good?

Nathalie Bondil has been dismissed as director general of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts/Musée des beaux-arts de Montréal Photo by Marco Campanozzi.

Nathalie Bondil. Photo by Marco Campanozzi.

If pressure came to the museum boardroom last year, it came to the C-suite this year. As in other industries, activists and employees joined forces to call out allegedly abusive behavior in the workplace. Whether on Instagram or Twitter; in open letters; in the press; or in the offices of those with the power to hire and fire, workers aired their complaints. And in some cases, speaking up had a big impact. The director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Detroit was fired; a top curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, as well as directors of the Akron Art Museum and the Cantor Arts Center, resigned; as did a board member at Rhizome who was unsatisfied with the New Museum’s response to reports of toxic leadership.

Some institutions hired outside counsel to investigate charges against top brass, including the director of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the chief curator of the Guggenheim (though not everyone was satisfied with the outcomes). Perhaps the messiest executive departure of them all took place in Montreal, where the former Montreal Museum director Nathalie Bondil was fired for (depending on whom you ask) fostering an unhealthy work environment or refusing to cede control to a newly hired curatorial director.

 

Why Was Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia Turned Back Into a Mosque?

Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, later an Ottoman mosque. Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Hagia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox Christian cathedral, later an Ottoman mosque. Photo by Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images.

It seemed no amount of alarm or vocal opposition could deter Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan from converting the world-famous Hagia Sophia, a UNESCO site, from a museum into an active mosque this past July. He transferred operations of the building from the Ministry of Culture to the state Religious Affairs Directorate—and less than two weeks later, announced that mosaics depicting Christian icons would be covered during Muslim prayer. It seemed to mark the beginning of a trend: At the end of August, the Turkish government announced it would also convert the Chora museum back to a mosque. Robert Ousterhout, a professor emeritus in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, called the move a “blatant attempt to erase Istanbul’s rich Byzantine heritage.”

Will Museums Make Good on the Promises They Made During the Black Lives Matter Demonstrations?

Outside the Brooklyn Museum during the Black Trans Lives Matter March in June 2020. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum Twitter.

Outside the Brooklyn Museum during the Black Trans Lives Matter March in June 2020. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum Twitter.

After many museums responded to the Black Lives Matter uprisings sweeping the globe with messages of support over the summer, they were pressured to put their money where their mouths were. Well, first came the initial bumbling responses, like the Getty’s, which failed to mention George Floyd or Black lives; the Met’s, which used a work by Glenn Ligon in a post without his permission; or the Toledo Art Museum’s, which maintained the institution did “not have a political stance.” Some responses drew even more derision, like the Whitney Museum of Art’s (swiftly aborted) plan to present an exhibition of work purchased through charity benefits by predominantly Black artists at below-market prices. After these initial missteps, many museums pledged to take concrete action to address white supremacy in the form of staff trainings, inclusivity committees, and programming goals. But broader and more difficult questions—about how the business-as-usual at museums may undermine the aims they profess to be working toward—remain unanswered as we head into 2021.

 

Why Was There So Much Bad Public Art of Women in 2020?

Maggi Hambling, A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft (2020). Photo by Ioana Marinescu.

Maggi Hambling, A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft (2020). Photo by Ioana Marinescu.

As outdated monuments come down, new ones honoring figures who have previously been pushed to the margins of history are going up. And the years after the #MeToo reckoning have resulted in some… very strange sculptures of women, including a number that ignited the commentariat in 2020. Artist Maggi Hambling set off a social media hate-storm for her depiction of feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft as a sexy nude figure emerging from an oddly shaped mound of silver.

Possibly even more painful to the eyes was the seven-foot-tall nude bronze Medusa statue—holding aloft the head of Perseus—installed outside of the criminal court in Lower Manhattan where Harvey Weinstein was tried. Critics took issue with the idealized figure—as well as the fact that it was the work of a male artist.

 

Should a Major Philip Guston Show Have Gone Ahead as Planned?

Sharon Helgason Gallagher, Philip Guston: Now. Courtesy of D.A.P. Art Books.

Sharon Helgason Gallagher, Philip Guston: Now. Courtesy of D.A.P. Art Books.

In September, four major museums—the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Tate Modern in London, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston—announced that they were delaying a major touring retrospective of the work of Philip Guston until 2024. The museums said they were putting off the show “until a time at which we think that the powerful message of social and racial justice that is at the center of Philip Guston’s work can be more clearly interpreted.”

The images at the center of the debate were 25 drawings and paintings that evoke the Ku Klux Klan. Those outraged by the delay included Guston’s daughter, Musa Mayer, as well as 100 artists, writers, and scholars who wrote an open letter admonishing the museums for the decision. The institutions held fast to their commitment to rework the exhibition—but pledged to move the opening date up, to 2022.

 

Will Fallout From the Jeffrey Epstein Scandal Ever Stop?

Leon Black.Photo: © 2014 Patrick McMullan Company, Inc.

Leon Black. Photo: © 2014 Patrick McMullan Company, Inc.

Fallout from the scandal surrounding the late convicted sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein continued to slip over into the art world in 2020.

The New York Academy of Art was thrown into turmoil after alumna Maria Farmer, an alleged victim of Epstein, accused the school of enabling the late sex offender’s abuse. In response, the academy hired a law firm to investigate Farmer’s claims. But instead of closing the book on the issue, aspects of the investigation were characterized by students and alumni as victim-blaming and biased. Four board members, including actress Naomi Watts, resigned from their roles. The school, for its part, apologized to Farmer and outlined steps to address the issues raised in the investigation.

Meanwhile, billionaire collector and MoMA board chair Leon Black has been under fire for his business ties with Epstein and the roughly $50 million he funneled to the financier over the years. The US Virgin Islands subpoenaed Blackas well as Sotheby’s and Christie’s—in connection with the Epstein case. (A spokesperson for Leon Black’s family foundation previously disputed reports that Epstein remained involved with the organization for four years after his 2008 conviction, noting that his presence on tax forms through 2012 was due to a “recording error.”)

 

Was a Museum Right or Wrong to Cancel an Exhibition Containing Images of Police Violence? 

Shaun Leonardo, Freddy Pereira (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Shaun Leonardo, Freddy Pereira (2019). Courtesy of the artist.

Some controversies become more complicated and more gray the deeper you look—and this was one of those. In March, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Cleveland quietly cancelled an exhibition of drawings by the artist Shaun Leonardo depicting scenes of police officers killing African American and Latino men. The museum said it had done so in response to feedback from the community, including local activists Amanda King and Samaria Rice (the mother of Cleveland native Tamir Rice). After Leonardo countered that he had not been given the chance to respond to their objections, the museum apologized; its director stepped down not long after. Rice—who, along with King, maintained the museum had made the right decision all along—issued a cease and desist to Leonardo asking him to stop using images of her son in his work. The series in question resurfaced in a show at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art this fall without incident—and without the work depicting Rice. The entire saga was a powerful illustration of the fact that there is still a lack of consensus about best practices in dealing with such difficult material.

 

Were American Museums Right to Make Layoffs—or Taking the Easy Way Out?

Visitors look at the frescos and the Pergamon altar in the altar room at Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Photo by Maurizio Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Visitors look at the frescos and the Pergamon altar in the altar room at Pergamon Museum in Berlin. Photo by Maurizio Gambarini/picture alliance via Getty Images.

The statistics have been bleak. Dozens of US museums laid off thousands of employees in the wake of sweeping shutdowns in March—and a second round of reductions hit the sector in June, after government loan money ran out. In that month alone, 17 institutions laid off more than 1,350 workers, according to analysis by Midnight Publishing Group News. But just as workers began to speak up about toxic work environments this year, so they questioned the wisdom—and legality—of these decisions. The New Museum Union filed charges against its employer with the National Labor Relations Board, arguing that management violated the law when it let members of the bargaining unit go. One longtime curator at the Nelson-Atkins resigned in protest of its layoffs.

Some onlookers, like signatories of a petition assembled by SFMOMA staff, asked why museum executives with “unreasonably large salaries” weren’t taking deeper cuts. (SFMOMA director Neal Benezra “earns more in one month than a full-time frontline staff member earns in an entire year,” that petition stated.) Others asked why board members were not opening their wallets to retain experienced, valued team members—particularly when staff at museums were themselves contributing to mutual aid funds designed to support hard-hit peers.

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