Industry

Art Basel Executive Noah Horowitz Is Joining Sotheby’s as a Gallery Whisperer, the Latest Sign of Collapsing Categories in the Industry


Ever since Noah Horowitz stepped down as Art Basel’s director of the Americas last month, the art world has been wondering where the intrepid executive would end up next.

The guessing game is over. Horowitz has jumped ship from the world of art fairs and landed at an auction house. He will join Sotheby’s on September 20 in the newly created role of worldwide head of gallery and private dealer services. He will report to Brooke Lampley, who was promoted earlier this year to become chairman and global head of sales for Sotheby’s fine art. 

Horowitz will focus on strategy and building Sotheby’s relationships with galleries and dealers, the company said. The news was first reported by Vanity Fair

The move comes during a moment of tectonic shifts in the art world as businesses try to figure out how to scale their operations and expand their client bases. Galleries such as David Zwirner and Johann König launched initiatives that aim to take market share from regional art fairs. Auction houses, which have been impinging into dealer territory for years with private sales, have more recently experimented with different models to inch their way into the primary market. 

During the beginning of the pandemic last spring, Sotheby’s launched a digital sales platform for galleries called Sotheby’s Gallery Network. As part of the deal, it received a flat commission based on sales, with all artworks available exclusively through the auction house’s website.

(Dealers have largely remained mum about their experience with the platform, though some admitted sales were minimal. Although the website currently lists 56 galleries as “participants,” it is unclear how many are actively involved. Only seven dealers had work listed at press time, none of which was part of the original blue-chip cohort when it first launched.)

In a statement, Lampley described “the importance of a healthy art market ecosystem in which auction houses, galleries, fairs, collectors and institutions all benefit from working together. With Noah’s arrival, we can serve the market at an even greater scale, by bringing together all the capabilities that Sotheby’s has to offer to foster creative and rewarding collaborations.”

Horowitz has worked closely with international galleries for at least a decade. Since 2015, he led Art Basel Miami Beach, the major contemporary art fair in the U.S. Prior to that, he turned around the struggling Armory Show during a four-year tenure as its executive director. In the process, he has gained the trust of many art dealers—a major asset considering that galleries typically regard auction houses with suspicion, if not outright disdain.

“I am thrilled for him,” said Tim Blum, co-owner of Blum & Poe gallery. “He’s somebody, who at the very least cares about artists and galleries. He’s not posturing. He spent a lot of time and energy traveling the world. He brings more authentic, grounded approach for Sotheby’s.”

Horowitz will also bring some firepower to Sotheby’s senior ranks, which have seen considerable turnover in the past year. “I’m enormously excited to be joining Sotheby’s at this decisive moment for our industry and look forward to leveraging the unique combination of talent, expertise, resources and digital know-how at hand towards creating a successful new offering for today’s international gallery and private dealer community,” Horowitz said in a statement.

Sotheby’s has tried to blur the lines between auctions and other services before. It launched, and then quietly shuttered in 2018, a division designed to advise artists’ estates, which some saw as an effort to impinge on galleries’ turf and creep into the primary market.

“If galleries are going to collaborate with anyone at the auction houses, it will be Noah bc of the quality of relationships he built during his time at Art Basel,” said Miami collector Dennis Scholl. “But it remains a competitive industry.”

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How One Dog-Eat-Dog Market Proves That the Art Industry Really Doesn’t Have to Be That Way (and Other Insights)


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, a reminder that we live in a world of our own making…

 

COMPETITIVE INSTINCT

Let’s talk about art-market psychology. As a gateway, consider this excerpt from a brilliant story published in a major magazine last week:

“The more popular the gallery is on the internet, the more clout they have,” says Molly, a collector in New York. “If you have a really good social-media presence, you can throw your weight around.” (The clout goes both ways: Posting about your new acquisition on Instagram is an indirect way of broadcasting that someone out there deemed you morally worthy enough to be chosen.) She inquired about eight artworks in six weeks from about five different dealers, only to be continually rejected. She finally got an interview with a gallery whose prized exhibition she had seen on social media. They asked to tour her apartment over Zoom. Fine. They asked for her references. Great. But then they asked if she would pay for an expensive art handler. She asked if she could wait—not only was it during the height of COVID, but the cost of the sessions with the handler could be close to $1,000. The person she was dealing with said over email that artworks were investments and suggested she look elsewhere. “I was like, ‘This is so art world,’” she says.

Nice microcosm of the art market in 2021, right? I suspect many of you are nodding your heads, rolling your eyes, or smirking in knowing agreement with Molly about now. Maybe some of you have even been through a similar experience recently, as speculative demand surges in the primary market for emerging talent thanks partly to the rich getting even richer during lockdown. Absurd that it’s come to this, isn’t it? 

I expect a smaller number of you actually read this passage in its original context in the last nine days and are now trying to recall where that was. But if you’re having a hard time making the connection, don’t blame yourself. The reason is that this was not actually a story about the art market—at least not directly. 

Instead, it was a story about the maddening difficulties of trying to adopt a rescue dog in the Empire City during the pandemic, written by Allie Conti for New York magazine. I just swapped out exactly 14 of her original 184 words. Here’s the actual excerpt, this time with the text I replaced in bold:

“The more popular the rescue is on the internet, the more clout they have,” says Molly, a writer in New York. “If you have a really good social-media presence, you can throw your weight around.” (The clout goes both ways: Posting about your rescue dog on Instagram is an indirect way of broadcasting that someone out there deemed you morally worthy enough to be chosen.) She inquired about eight dogs in six weeks from about five different rescues, only to be continually rejected. She finally got an interview with a rescue agency whose cute dogs she had seen on social media. They asked to tour her apartment over Zoom. Fine. They asked for her references. Great. But then they asked if she would pay for an expensive trainer. She asked if she could wait—not only was it during the height of COVID, but the cost of the sessions with the trainer could be close to $1,000. The person she was dealing with said over email that dogs were investments and suggested she look elsewhere. “I was like, ‘This is so Brooklyn,’” she says.

I’m not just doing this because it’s an especially wild example of economist Tyler Cowen’s mantra that there are “markets in everything.” I’m doing it because Conti’s story runs rampant with meaningful parallels between what she calls the “pandemic puppy boom” and our current moment in the art-market cycle, where galleries’ waiting lists for hot young artists are again extending to the length of Medieval scrolls, sending prices soaring on the few works rapidly resold at auction. That means it’s the perfect time to sniff around the lockdown-era tussle over rescue dogs for a scent that can lead buyers away from ruin.

Genevieve Figgis, Untitled (Lady with a Dog) (2013). Courtesy Susan Barrett.

Genevieve Figgis, Untitled (Lady with a Dog) (2013). Courtesy Susan Barrett.

SHARED BLOODLINES

I won’t belabor the Business 101 consonance between the market for in-demand artists and the market for COVID-era canines: huge demand for a small supply of desirable assets. The primary motivation in the realm of rescues, of course, was what Conti terms “a lonely, claustrophobic year in which thousands of white-collar workers, sitting at home scrolling through their phones, seemed simultaneously to decide they were finally ready to adopt a dog.” 

The result in New York was a competitive ambush. Practically overnight, rescue shelters that typically received about 20 weekly applications in the Before Times were bombarded by hundreds of new hopefuls every seven days. Conti relays that up to 50 would-be adopters sometimes faced off for the right to take home a single furry friend. 

More interesting, however, is a related complication of this specialty market: what econ geeks would call a lack of price elasticity. Conti declares early in the piece, “The rescue dog is now, indisputably, a luxury good, without a market pricing system at work to manage demand.” In other words, no matter how many people wanted the asset, its cost never changed. These are adoption agencies, after all, not for-profit breeders willing to capitalize on the emergence of a seller’s market. 

To the everlasting astonishment of people I know outside the art trade, the same is true in the primary market for hot artists. A willingness to overpay gives collectors no advantage, because the system is designed to keep the price fixed regardless of the number of interested buyers. Wealth has a tendency to become necessary but not sufficient. Which means, in turn, that some other mechanism must sort the many candidates into winners and losers.

The mechanism is status, an attribute that gatekeepers in each of these two markets can only ever judge subjectively. In the rescue sphere, Conti cites the example of Zainab, an applicant who has “a leadership role in public education,” a master’s degree, and (in Zainab’s own words) makes “good money”… but was deemed unworthy of 60 (!) different dogs by various rescue agencies. Her breakthrough came when she leaned into her status, creating a multipage résumé that “features testimonials from high-powered friends, including local elected officials.” 

I’ve never heard of collectors deploying this tactic with art dealers in their pursuit of sought-after works, but how different is it really from communicating your institutional ties, your other acquisitions, and even which other art-world names you summer with? Assuming they operate south of the tier where a dealer already knows their reputation on sight, any savvy buyer will be sure to drop data points like these when in pursuit of a fiercely contested acquisition. What is that if not a kind of résumé?

The power of reputation extends into the virtual realm too. Particularly among younger demographics, your online presence increasingly functions as a living testament to your art-world status. Who pays attention to you? Who actually engages with you in public view, and on what terms? What else is in your collection, and are there clues as to how you got it? Where do you travel, what do you do while you’re there, and who do you do it with? This supplementary info can help fill out the reputational picture with details you might not be able to suss out through the art-dealer whisper network. 

As Conti expressed in the excerpt I used to open this column, social-media clout isn’t just a one-way mirror either; it acts as a multipurpose marketing tool. Your social media-affirmed status helps you get the prized asset in the first place, and then advertising that you got the prized asset boosts your social media-affirmed status higher… which in turn increases your chances of getting the next prized asset, and on and on, in a feedback loop of specialty market navel-gazing. What a time to be alive.

Visitors pass in front of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump on May 7, 2010, at Art Basel. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.

Visitors pass in front of a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat entitled Boy and Dog in a Johnnypump on May 7, 2010, at Art Basel. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images.

NATURE VS. NURTURE

I can’t decide whether I’m more relieved or depressed to be reminded that the art industry isn’t the only arena hosting these phenomena—and further, that they spread beyond even other collectible markets like design objects, fine wine, classic cars, and sports memorabilia. Their prevalence underscores that we humans (or at least, we humans in rich capitalist communities) almost can’t help but do this nonsense. As Gimlet Media’s Lydia Polgreen put it on Twitter in reaction to Conti’s piece…

Jessica Pierce, a bioethicist and conflicted dog owner Conti spoke to, concluded that the pandemic puppy boom is “driven by a reflection of human narcissism and neurosis,” and if that description isn’t an evergreen one for much of the art establishment, I should probably retire as an analyst immediately. 

The counterpoint, however, is that it doesn’t have to be this way in any market. For proof of this fact in the COVID canine gauntlet, consider Defector cofounder Tom Ley’s response piece “If You Really Want a Dog, You Can Get a Damn Dog.” 

The crux of Ley’s argument (which is more sympathetic than I expected from its headline) is that even in New York, there are dozens of dogs waiting to be adopted from city-run shelters uninterested in the status-based shenanigans of many rescue agencies. Conti’s subjects plunged themselves into the cyclone by fixating on a handful of suppliers with gale-force marketing resources and high visibility among a large-enough demographic of pretty successful, very online New Yorkers (doubly ironic, he emphasizes, because rescue organizations with enormous Instagram followings often just source dogs from the city-run shelters anyway).

You don’t need me to tell you that the same tunnel vision afflicts many, if not most, art collectors during a bull market, but it’s worth emphasizing that they could probably satisfy their art thirst through far less humiliating venues. Assuming, that is, that a meaningful art experience, not a guaranteed status bump, is the endgame. 

At one end of the spectrum, you have more and more artists selling directly to consumers seemingly each day, and each year seems to produce more and more sales channels with light-touch industry infrastructure that are geared toward removing the elitist stigma around collecting. For example, take the Other Art Fair, an international slate of annual in-person and online fairs championing affordable works in cities from New York to Los Angeles to London to Melbourne. Many of the fair’s attendees “have never purchased art before in their lives,” according to director Nicole Garton. “They are looking for a home in the art world, and so a lot of what we do at the fair is to help put people at ease and empower them to explore their own tastes, while having a fun day out.” 

The environment tends to be as important as the artwork when it comes to bringing the art market back down to earth. Just as at kindred spirit Kasseem “Swizz Beatz” Dean’s No Commission fair series, artists double as the exhibitors at the Other Art Fair. Some are “as excited and nervous as the visitors themselves” because they’re showing their work for the first time, Garton said, and all of them tend to be “eager to chat with anyone who shows an interest in their passion.” This aspect transforms the art-discovery process into something vastly more welcoming than the smashmouth status game of the traditional system.  

Collector and producer David Hoberman contemplates Kennedy Yanko's sculpture Anoint (2019) inside Kavi Gupta's booth at Felix 2020. Photography by Tim Schneider.

Collector and producer David Hoberman contemplates Kennedy Yanko’s sculpture Anoint (2019) inside Kavi Gupta’s booth at Felix 2020. Photography by Tim Schneider.

There is support for a more fraternal approach farther up the industry hierarchy too. This weekend, the latest edition of Los Angeles’s homegrown Felix art fair returns to the cabana-bedecked patio of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. Cofounder and veteran collector Dean Valentine stresses that he and his partners in the venture, L.A. dealers Al and Mills Morán, did not intentionally launch Felix to counterprogram the traditional fair model. But he did acknowledge that “every year, with every art fair, it was getting harder and harder to look, to have meaningful conversations, to have an experience” in what often feels to me like the art market’s answer to the cubicle farm. 

“Fairs have become high-speed, high-pressure shopping,” Valentine continued. “We wanted to build something that was a bit more low key, a bit more human.”

Felix’s venue does a lot of the work on this front. “It’s a lot easier to talk hanging by the Hockney pool with a drink in your hand than on a crowded aisle in a convention center, and looking at art in an actual room is a much more immediate and intimate experience than in a fair booth,” he said. (He added that the fair’s braintrust had ideas about how to push the sensibility even further than in past editions, but that COVID restrictions forced them to table those prospects until it comes time to plan the fair’s next February edition.)

And then of course there’s the financial side of the equation. Aside from the true whales, budget constraints limit every collector’s options. But the need to work within your limits can be a golden opportunity rather than a fatal flaw. As Jeffrey Deitch told me for a story on fractional ownership this spring, “If you want to participate in art, there’s great art at every price range.” You just might have to search harder and be more deliberate about what you’re really looking for. 

Or maybe not, according to Garton. 

“Nowadays, it’s fairly common for people to encounter art outside the context of the traditional art world in their everyday lives—from street art, to music videos, to brand collaborations selling at a local box retailer. Art is everywhere, and people naturally gravitate towards the things they love and find inspiring,” she said. “Ultimately, while some broader trends may be influenced by the top of the market, people are trusting their own instincts and buying the art that speaks to them.”

Mr. Doodle at the launch of "Sense of Space" a multi-room sensory art experience in Exchange Square in London in 2018. Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Broadgate.

Mr. Doodle at the launch of “Sense of Space,” a multi-room sensory art experience in Exchange Square in London in 2018. Photo by David M. Benett/Dave Benett/Getty Images for Broadgate.

Personally, I think that’s as true of first-timers sliding a few hundred bucks directly to an overwhelmed artist at the Other Art Fair as it is of moneyed East Asian collectors bidding works by Mr. Doodle out to the farthest reaches of space at major auction houses.

So maybe you can’t pay up for a unique work by a canonical great without handing over your life to a loan shark. Maybe your status level won’t win you a fresh-from-the-studio piece by the next scorching-hot twentysomething gallery sensation. Maybe you aren’t even interested in, say, an editioned print by a respected mid-career artist offered by a friendly poolside dealer at Felix. 

That’s okay! In fact, I’d argue that the best outcome for the long-term, full-body health of the art market is for a bunch of art lovers to be compelled to expand their viewfinders beyond the establishment channels, the sizzling names, and the hyperbolic headlines. 

So the next time you feel discouraged by cutthroat competition or discriminating dealers in a status-drunk art market, don’t make the same mistake as the upwardly mobile Brooklynites laser-focused on rescue dogs. What’s available elsewhere is just as deserving of a loving home.

[The Cut | Defector]

 

That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: if you hate the rules of the game in front of you, choose another one.

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Art Industry News: Here Are the Winning Art Projects for London’s Coveted Fourth Plinth + 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 Monday, July 5.

NEED-TO-READ

Trouble at the Norway Biennial – At least seven artists asked to withdraw their work from the Momentum 11 biennial in Moss, Norway, after curator Théo-Mario Coppola was fired just weeks ahead of its June 26 opening. The biennial cites Coppola’s unprofessional behavior as the reason for their dismissal, while the curator blames unfair working conditions and a lack of preparedness to execute installations from a technical perspective. Artists Marinella Senatore and Karol Radziszewski say that their works have been included in the exhibition against their wishes. (The Art Newspaper)

France Is Bringing Creatives to the U.S. – The French government is launching the Villa Albertine, a roving residency program that will give French artists around €20,000 ($23,600) each to work on projects in the U.S. But unlike the nation’s Rome residency, the Villa Medici, the new initiative doesn’t have a dedicated headquarters, which allows participants to stay in different parts of the U.S., or to travel during a one-to-three month residency. The inaugural cohort of artists includes cartoonist Quentin Zuitton, who will draw portraits of teenagers while riding the rails from New York to Los Angeles. (TAN)

The Next Fourth Plinth Artists Have Been Chosen – Artists Samson Kambalu and Teresa Margolles have been chosen to make the next two commissions for the fourth plinth in London’s Trafalgar Square in 2022 and 2024. Kambalu’s sculpture will re-stage a 1914 photograph of Baptist preacher and pan-Africanist John Chilembwe and European missionary John Chorley, and Margolles, who will create the plinth in 2024, has cast the faces of 850 trans people from London and around the world. (Press release)

Controversy Embroils Korea’s Venice Biennale Pick – The Arts Council Korea had narrowed down its choices for the nation’s pavilion at next year’s Venice Biennale to just four artists—until it was revealed that two of the finalists had worked with a member of the selection committee, creating a potential conflict of interest. That judge has been asked to step down, and the now six-member panel will restart the review process to consider all 12 applications. (Korea Times)

ART MARKET

Banksy’s Painting With Critique on Climate-Change Fetches $6M – Banksy’s 2009 hijacked oil painting, Subject to Availability, sold for $6,342,180 at Christie’s last Wednesday. Banksy copied an 1890 painting of Mount Rainer and added his own snarky commentary on climate change to the work, writing: “*Subject to availability for a limited period only.” (Seattle Times)

A $4.42M Copy of the Declaration of Independence Breaks Records – A signer’s copy of the Declaration of Independence that was printed in the 19th century sold for $4.42 million at Freeman’s in Philadelphia. The rare document sold for more than five times its $800,000 upper estimate. (ArtfixDaily)

COMINGS & GOINGS

Sculptor Kenzi Shiokava Dies – The Brazilian-born artist, whose wooden totems inspired by Brazilian and Japanese motifs were included to much acclaim in the 2016 “Made in L.A.” biennial at the Hammer Museum, died last month at the age of 82 from chronic conditions exacerbated by a recent car accident. (Los Angeles Times)

France Returns Painting to Hugo Simon’s Heirs – The French government has returned a Max Pechstein painting to the heirs of its former owner, a Jewish banker who fled to France after the Nazis took power in 1933. The painting was in the collection of the Musée national d’art moderne in Paris. (TAN)

FOR ART’S SAKE

World Wildlife Fund Recruits Artists – The wildlife conservation group is marking its 60th anniversary with a print sale called Art for Your World, hosted by Sotheby’s London and organized by London’s Artwise Curators. The auction, running from October 8 to 15, will feature Tracey Emin, Anish Kapoor, and Jadé Fadojutimi, among others. The initiative hopes to raise awareness of the potential risks to wildlife caused by climate change and rising temperatures, as illustrated in World Wildlife Fund’s recent report, “Feeling the Heat.” (ARTnews)

Futura Beats The North Face in Lawsuit – The clothing retailer North Face is in trouble after using an atom-like logo that street artist Futura says is a copy of his signature design. Futura filed a lawsuit claiming the brand purposefully invoked him in order to suggest an association. The brand denies any copyright infringement, but says it will begin to phase out its use as a gesture of goodwill, adding that it is committed to supporting artists and their communities. (Creative Bloq

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Industry Veteran Simon de Pury on Why Portrait Commissions Are Making a Comeback for the Art World in the 21st Century


Every month in The Hammer, art-industry veteran Simon de Pury lifts the curtain on his life as the ultimate art-world insider, his brushes with celebrity, and his invaluable insight into the inner workings of the art market.

When I was growing up, most of the paintings that were hanging in my family’s home were portraits of ancestors. Not being of royal lineage, none of them were painted by great masters. To an impressionable child, some of them were outright scary. 

But when my passion for art awoke as a teenager, I became fascinated by some of the greatest portraits ever made in art history. Portraiture has been a main strand in artistic practice through the centuries. The portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni by Domenico Ghirlandaio from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection epitomized for me the ideal of feminine and artistic beauty combined. Ghirlandaio himself can’t have been displeased with the portrait he was commissioned to paint in 1488, since he put on it a Latin inscription which roughly translated means “Art, if only you could depict character and soul, there would be no more beautiful painting on earth than this one.” 

Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian, 1449–1494), Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1489-90, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images.

Domenico Ghirlandaio (Italian, 1449–1494), Portrait of Giovanna Tornabuoni, 1489-90, Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, Spain. Photo by VCG Wilson/Corbis via Getty Images.

Some of history’s most poignant portraits have been self portraits by art giants such as Dürer, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Goya, Van Gogh, Picasso, or Warhol. “All is Vanity” was a sentence that my mother kept repeating to me when I was growing up. That expression came from King Solomon. Vanity has always been the main engine behind self portraits and portrait commissions. It is that engine which today is behind the phenomenal success of social media platforms such as Instagram or TikTok. The advent of photography in the 19th century diminished the need for patrons to commission artists to paint their portraits, and the market for the practice dwindled. With time, photography became an art form in its own right and an additional medium through which artists could express themselves. 

One of my favorite questions to friends is: “If you could have your portrait done by any living artist, who would be your top three choices?” and the follow up: “What about for artists of the past?” Most people have to think hard before answering the first question, and can only come up with one name or two at most. Answering the second one comes much easier. The two most frequently mentioned artists in that category are Lucian Freud and Andy Warhol, artists who revived the tradition of portraiture in the 20th century. 

Eric Fischl, Simon and Ahn (2003). Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

Eric Fischl, Simon and Ahn (2003). Courtesy Mary Boone Gallery.

Freud took a very long time to complete a painting. His works were done from life, meaning that his sitters had to pose for hours on end. His love life was extremely active, and occasionally affairs with some of his female subjects would end before he had had the time to finish their paintings. He categorically refused to do portraits on commission.

In the early 1990s I was renting a flat in Holland Park, very close to where Freud had his studio. I would give dinners and would always try to have a fun mix of guests. On one occasion, I invited Freud as well as Eliette von Karajan, the French widow of the great conductor. As soon as he sat down at the table, Eliette told him: “I would like you to paint my portrait.” He instantly shot back: “Never ever would I do that; my art dictates whom I will paint! Eliette, who is far from being a pushover, answered equally abruptly and it was the start of a very intense and long exchange. The other guests stopped talking and were riveted by the skirmish. Years later, Lucian would still ask me “How is Eliette?” and Eliette would sometimes mistakenly call me Lucian.

With Warhol things were the exact opposite. From 1968 onwards, he made numerous portrait commissions. He utilized the hugely popular SX-70 Polaroid camera to take snapshots of his sitters. This took no time at all. His staff would then make a silkscreen which was used as the basis for the portraits. In the early 80s the price for one portrait was $25,000. Anybody who was anybody had to have their portrait done by him.

My own top three choices to have my portrait done by a living artist would be: David Hockney, Elizabeth Peyton, and Richard Prince. I loved the exhibition of 82 portraits done by Hockney at the Royal Academy in London in 2016. Elizabeth Peyton’s oeuvre consists mostly of gorgeous portraits done of celebrities past and present. Richard Prince’s Instagram portraits would probably be the closest equivalent today to the society portraits Warhol was doing in the 1970s and ‘80s. When you check #selfie on Instagram you see it has been used at least 450 million times. The ultimate ego trip therefore has got to be to have your IG portrait done by Richard Prince. 

But there is a big snag with my dream list. None of these artists will agree  to do portrait commissions unless you are their close buddy or the Queen of Sheba. Even with my extended dream list, which would include Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald—who did the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama—Amoako Boafo, Cindy Sherman, Mickalene Thomas, Zeng Fangzhi, as well as photographers Mario Testino, David LaChapelle and Juergen Teller, it would be near impossible to get a portrait commission out of them.

Anh Duong, <i>Le Bonheur Paralyse mon Esprit</i> (2013). Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska.

Anh Duong, Le Bonheur Paralyse mon Esprit (2013). Courtesy of Galerie Gmurzynska.

I would be hard pressed to name even five good contemporary artists who today would take on portrait commissions.

However, the tables may be about to turn. There are two exhibitions taking place currently of artists who do portraits on commission. Anh Duongh’s first solo show in Switzerland just opened at Galerie Gmurzynska in Zurich. Long an insider tip amongst art lovers, she has over the years made portraits of some of her friends such as Diane von Fuerstenberg and top model Karen Elson. Her strongest works, however, are her self portraits. Her penetrating gaze dominates these and they are the 21st century equivalent of Frida Kalho’s powerful self portraits. She has in the past exhibited in New York at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. This exhibition shows that her most recent work is her best, which is an excellent sign for a mid-career artist.  

Henry Hudson, Sean Scully (2021). Courtesy

Henry Hudson, Sean Scully (2021).

The other exhibition is one that I have the pleasure to present. “Henry Hudson—Microcosm,” is currently taking s place in the artist’s East London studio. Where Anh Duong paints oil on canvas, Henry Hudson first uses his iPad to take a photograph of his sitters. Using the Procreate app for digital painting he transforms these photographs into striking images, which he then prints on different surfaces using a U.V. flatbed printer. The final outcomes are unique works that have different textures depending on whether they were printed on slate, tile, denim, perspex, or dried flowers. He did the portraits of friends, artists, curators, dealers, and collectors from the microcosm of the art world. Like Anh Duong, Hudson does take on selected commissions. It takes Hudson even less time to do an iPad photograph than it took Warhol to do a Polaroid shot. The only thing the sitter has to do is to choose the size and the surface on which he wants the finished work to be printed. 

With artists like Hudson and Duong creating a new market for quality portraits on commission, the time-honored tradition of society portraits could be revived once more in the 21st century. Who will you choose to do yours?

 

Simon de Pury is the former chairman and chief auctioneer of Phillips de Pury & Company and is a private dealer, art advisor, photographer, and DJ. Instagram: @simondepury

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Why the Myth of the ‘Good Billionaire’ Is Undermining the Nonprofit and For-Profit Art Industry Alike (and Other Insights)


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, how the top of the ladder has taken the art world sideways…

 

HEEL TURN

On Sunday, journalist and author Anand Giridharadas delivered a scalding rebuke of the pinnacle of the U.S. donor class in the New York Times. While mega-philanthropy takes the brunt of the heat, his argument also carries implications for the for-profit side of a polarized art market. The full scope of his analysis clarifies once again how the economics that define the culture business proceed from policy choices made on a much larger canvas. 

At the center of Giridharadas’s sights is Berkshire Hathaway C.E.O. Warren Buffett, the apotheosis of what he calls the “Good Billionaire” myth. In Giridharadas’s telling, the myth holds that America’s largest problem today is only the abuse of its economic system by a few galactically wealthy bad actors, not the design of the system itself. When top earners just behave with a shred of dignity and fellow feeling for the rest of society, everyone prospers together. 

Buffett has long seemed the best evidence for these beliefs. He comes across as humble, uninterested in wealth, and even welcoming of common-sense reforms that would reduce the net worth of his billionaire peers. 

Giridharadas reminds us that then-President Barack Obama named a modest wealth-tax proposal in honor of Buffett, who has frequently railed against the unfairness of a system that allows him to pay a lower proportional tax burden than basically everyone who works for him. He is among the founding billionaires behind the Giving Pledge, the pact in which each signatory commits to donating at least half of their wealth to nonprofit causes before the hearse pulls up. He has lived his entire adult life in Omaha, Nebraska, for crying out loud. How much more down-to-earth could a billionaire get?

Buffett may be the prototype of the virtuous plutocrat, but he’s not alone. Bill Gates has transformed in the public imagination from ruthless software monopolist to benevolent vax daddy of low-income countries. Michael Bloomberg is regularly lionized (even in the past by me) for the millions he gives to cultural and climate nonprofits annually. The latter two characters may come off as less aw-shucks than Buffett, but their examples still seem to suggest mega-wealth delivers society a great good when the right people are involved.

Giridharadas, however, argues that this is all crap—a grand smokescreen perpetuated by the most powerful to keep everyone else ripe for exploitation. He writes:

There is no way to be a billionaire in America without taking advantage of a system predicated on cruelty, a system whose tax code and labor laws and regulatory apparatus prioritize your needs above most people’s. Even noted Good Billionaire Mr. Buffett has profited from Coca-Cola’s sugary drinks, Amazon’s union busting, Chevron’s oil drilling, Clayton Homes’s predatory loans and, as the country learned recently, the failure to tax billionaires on their wealth.

That last sentence refers to both some of Buffett’s investments and, more importantly, a scorching investigation published last week by ProPublica. Using leaked tax records, it didn’t just show that the very wealthiest Americans have been paying meager amounts of federal income tax—and sometimes, none at all—for years, or that the billionaires in question have done so over and over again by completely legal means. It also showed that some of the most cunning plutocrats have been the ones often portrayed as the most virtuous.

(If you’re curious about how they’re pulled it off, the answer is by taking meager annual salaries—Amazon, for instance, paid its C.E.O. Jeff Bezos less than $82,000 annuallywhile taking out a cascading series of low-interest loans against their stocks and other assets, which generate no taxable income until they’re sold. Here’s a good explainer.) 

Buffett’s folk hero persona did not stop him from leveraging this loophole for all it was worth. According to ProPublica, he paid a “true tax rate” of just .1 percent on the $24.3 billion he added to his net worth between 2014 and 2018. Bloomberg managed to pay only slightly more than Buffett during the same span: a 1.3 percent true tax rate on a gain of $22.5 billion. (In statements to ProPublica, both men emphasized that they paid the maximum amount of taxes owed.)

So what does this have to do with the art business? I’m glad you asked.

Activists of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) protest the Sacklers at the Louvre. Photo by Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images.

Activists of P.A.I.N. (Prescription Addiction Intervention Now) protest the Sacklers at the Louvre. Photo by Stephane de Sakutin/AFP/Getty Images.

GIVE AND TAKE

The term “artwashing” is normally only associated with cultural philanthropy doled out by plutocrats whose wealth can be traced to businesses or products that do direct harm to vulnerable populations. From mass-manufacturing opioids (see: the now-in-the-penalty-box Sackler family), to peddling tear gas (see: former Whitney Museum trustee Warren Kanders), to charging extortionate rates for phone time with incarcerated loved ones (see: former Los Angeles County Museum of Art trustee Tom Gores), it has not been hard in recent years to view plenty of high-dollar giving to arts organizations as outright plunder. 

Yet Giridharadas’s point is that “actually malevolent and disastrously negligent plutocrats” are not the only ones to blame for our wealth-stratified, winner-takes-all society. They just make it easier for the rest of the superrich to hide their ill effects on modern life. In fact, the Good Billionaires are actually the “most dangerous,” because they preserve the fantasy that the structure of the U.S. economy is sound and fair when in reality the foundation has been cracked and crumbling for decades. 

Mega-philanthropy, Giridharadas argues, has been the most effective camouflage for the damage. Set aside the gifts made by clean-conscience donors who would be unaffected by Senator Elizabeth Warren’s proposed “ultra-millionaire tax” on fortunes above $50 million. What makes donations from “supposed Good Billionaires” like Buffett and Bill Gates more insidious than donations made by “the crooks and the scoundrels and the people manifestly looking for quick P.R. highs” is that they give so much moreand are so much better at weaving a righteous narrative around those gargantuan gifts thanks to their spotless public images. 

This also means the Good Billionaires can keep pillaging the economy with little public scrutiny landing on either their own revenue streams or the system irrigating them. Giridharadas notes that in Buffett’s strenuous defense of his tax history, the Oracle of Omaha suggests his large-scale charitable giving does more for the commonwealth than robust payments to the federal government ever could. “I believe the money will be of more use to society if disbursed philanthropically than if it is used to slightly reduce an ever-increasing U.S. debt,” Buffett wrote.

Of course, his framing abstracts that the “ever-increasing U.S. debt” is a bill for actual stuff—some of which people need, and some of which they don’t. On one hand, it includes stimulus payments and enhanced unemployment benefits shown to have “substantially reduced hardship” during the Great Shutdown, as well as a minuscule amount of federal arts funding. On the other hand, it also includes regime after regime of tax cuts disproportionately benefiting a donor class that needed no extra help, as the ProPublica investigation reinforced. 

This is the ultimate irony of Buffett’s defense: if Uncle Sam was more committed to making the wealthiest plutocrats pay their fare share to support the systems that helped make them so rich, the debt wouldn’t be so big! But it isand part of the reason is that it has been spraying Good and Bad Billionaires alike with cash they didn’t need, some portion of which they went on to parcel out to nonprofits that were all the more grateful for the private largesse precisely because public funding has been reduced by the decline in tax revenues collected.

Eli Broad.Photo: Courtesy of Getty Images.

Eli Broad. Courtesy of Getty Images.

THE GIVING TREE

Giridharadas’s piece and the ProPublica report were both preceded by the themes in Carolina Miranda’s skeptical Los Angeles Times analysis of the supposed philanthropic void that would be created by this year’s death of mega-collector and arts patron Eli Broad. 

Aside from reinforcing to the East Coast media that L.A. has supported a thriving cultural scene for a century (and even out-donated New York in multiple recent studies), she implored the world to “retire the outmoded idea that the most important factor in a city’s cultural landscape is the presence of some white knight bearing a checkbook and grandiose ideas about turning bulldozed Los Angeles neighborhoods into the Champs-Élysées (as Broad once described his vision for Bunker Hill),” the slice of downtown where his namesake private museum now stands. 

Like Giridharadas’s argument about Buffett, Miranda’s argument zeroes in on Broad to make a larger point. Even within the Los Angeles nonprofit scene, Broad’s record had pockmarks. She reminds readers that LACMA accused him of leaving the museum “holding the bag on $5.5 million in additional construction costs” for the building on its campus otherwise erected with his money and named in his honor. (A Broad spokesperson denied the charge.) He also refused to endow the structure, sticking LACMA with all bills for its upkeep, and then ultimately kept his collection so he could open his own institution

The upshot? Mega-philanthropy isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, even when we restrict our view to the donors’ impact on their home cultural landscape. 

The push for greater public funding of the arts in the U.S. has been gathering steam since last March’s lockdowns. (President Biden is receptive.) Miranda emphasizes multiple examples of robust, broad-based tax initiatives long ago implemented at the state and county levels, from Michigan to Colorado to Los Angeles. In that sense, there’s an argument the nonprofit culture sector could be at least as strong, if not stronger, after the tax code’s billionaire loopholes were closed. 

I would also add that the for-profit art trade could benefit in a similar way from serious U.S. tax reform. Market participants have lamented for years that the middle-class collectors who once sustained a more equitable version of the industry have become an endangered species. Several factors contribute to the change, but many of the most significant are tied up in the larger economy—and all are impacted by the Good Billionaire myth. 

Students pull a mock "ball and chain" representing the $1.4 trilling outstanding student debt outside the second presidential debate 2016. Image courtesy Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

Students pull a mock “ball and chain” representing the $1.4 trilling outstanding student debt outside the second presidential debate 2016. Image courtesy Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images.

A recent piece in Bloomberg captured millennials’ generational struggle to build the type of wealth that many boomers took for granted. After adjusting for inflation, millennials paid about 50 percent more for college than boomers, and they face a median home price about 50 percent higher. Meanwhile, their wages have risen only 20 percent over the same span. (If you’re wondering who is driving up prices in the housing market, one big answer is private-equity firms, which have been fattening their portfolios with everything from single-family houses to trailer parks.) 

The costs of simply getting by, let alone getting far enough ahead to collect art, have mounted too. Many U.S. employers offer fewer benefits than in the past, especially as gig work has replaced more traditional full-time and part-time jobs. Companies that provide healthcare, child care, and paid family leave are increasingly rare (particularly in the gallery sector). Starved of so much tax revenue from top earners, government has little capacity to fill the void with social welfare programs (though Biden’s stimulus bill aims to begin reversing the trend).

The U.S. wouldn’t have to become a mythical socialist utopia to fix this situation. Prior to Ronald Reagan’s 1986 tax reforms, the nation’s top marginal tax rate was 50 percent. Just as importantly, only since 1978 has investment income (capital gains) been taxed at more favorable rates than typical wage income.

Subsequent reforms have torqued the system further and further to the advantage of the mega-wealthy, eventually reaching the present-day scenario in which tax law requires Buffett and other billionaires to pay no more than a nominal amount to the common good. And all of it has been at least partly enabled by the philanthropic narrative that the superrich will take care of the rest of us, including when it comes to art and cultural spending.

The folly of that thinking has become clearer and clearer ever since the Great Recession, and the Great Shutdown has exacerbated it. From museums to galleries, from Warren Buffett to Eli Broad, the Good Billionaire myth has brought too many systems to a breaking point. How exactly we should move toward equitable, sustainable solutions is up for debate, but whether we truly need to is not. 

[The New York Times]

 

That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: if you look around the room and can’t figure out who the sucker is, there’s a good chance the sucker is you.

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