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  • The Art World's Wealthiest One Percent

    An Editorial Commentary on Life at the Top

    By Mat Gleason



    If you are a reader of political blogs, the following is called a "Fisking." If you are a reader of sports blogs, you may recognize it as "The Fire Joe Morgan Treatment." When I encounter a wholly offensive opinion piece in a field that inspires my personal passion, it is time to be "ruthlessly factual" in debunking it.

    In the climate of nationally assessing the vulgar core of the one-percent haves and their poisoning of the 99 percent have-nots, writer Bettina Korek takes to the pages of Forbes Magazine with a glib worshipping of wealth and its stranglehold on the pulse of art titled, "Not a Billionaire? You can Still be an Art Collector."

    Korek begins with a genuflection to that monied art world mecca-- the auction houses...

    The auction season got off to an uneven start last week but proved that high-end art remains a hot investment. While the Impressionist and Modern sales at Sotheby's "soared," bringing in $200 million, Christie's took in an "anemic" $141 million. One anonymous private collector snapped up one single landscape painting by Gustav Klimt for $40.4 million.

    Are you rubes excited yet? If you didn't get enough of Robin Leach and Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, come on over to the art world.

    Most of us do not have the resources-- or clout-- of billionaire collectors Edye and Eli Broad, Norman and Irma Braman or Doris Fisher.

    The use of the word clout is a reminder to those who subscribe to magazines like Forbes that for all those in positions of "trusteeship" who steward art and art institutions at the highest levels, their raw power is really what all those pretty pictures are in service of.

    But starting an art collection is more affordable than you think and you can take a cue from them and become an arts patron at the same time... "Without supporting a museum or an arts organization, the collector is just a tourist in the art world gathering souvenirs. With the support comes citizenship."

    Well pass the plate; this isn't an art scene you are at, it is a church service. Dig a little deeper and you might buy your art salvation!

    Now Korek hits her stride in an evangelical wail for the wealthy to find personal salvation not only in the art world, but within the clutches of the money-hungry art world middlemen who are neither creative forces nor passive caretakers...

    You should first and foremost love the art that you are buying, because the market is fickle. With some time and good advice, you can learn about art and collect based on art's historical significance. Traveling to art fairs and exhibitions gives you the opportunity to see what other collectors are buying and mass buying affects value. The most important thing is to take an informed approach.

    Nothing like mixed messages. You basically have a choice-- you can buy the art you like and get laughed at or buy the art everyone else is buying at all the places they go to buy it. Either way, who knows what you'll ultimately end up with?

    The art world is a complicated and compelling social network. Your influence and prestige as a collector will be boiled down to purchasing power and your relationships with galleries, artists and institutions.

    For you one-percenters who just are not getting sucked-up to enough at home or work, there is an endless supply of sycophants in the art world.

    You can hone your intuitions about a young artist, or a work that may rise in value, into a true skill by educating yourself through constant looking and reading. Some resources to start with are Artforum, Art in America and ArtInfo. Be sure to keep track of the things that you like.

    Here is an odd dichotomy. If you have money, you can get all the art education you need on the cheap by reading art writing in magazines like ArtForum and Art in America, and on websites like ArtInfo. But if you don't have money, your arts education will cost you a hundred grand of student loan debt and three years in an art institute MFA diploma mill.

    Familiarize yourself with the market. Browse auction catalogues... This is a great way to become more familiar with market values. Keep in mind that auction prices are public record.

    If you read Forbes, you know what "market values" are. When wars or revolution disrupt production in oil fields, the market value of your oil stocks goes up. When solar power becomes affordable and available to the public, the market value of all that goop under the dirt goes down. Well the art market is not like that at all...

    The art market is like an antique store. Imagine the scene... "Oh yes, this beautiful old curio might possibly be the only one in existence from long ago that is in superb condition and on the market today, which makes it important and an object of desire-- so you better grab it now. If we have three more of them in here the next time you visit our fine establishment and you raise your voice, I might just give you all three for the price of one."

    And those public records are SO public that the names of the sellers and buyers are rarely disclosed, even when the seller is the buyer-- in the name of artificially elevating "the market value" of his or her holdings. But we don't talk about that.

    Look in the right places. The chances of finding a good artist increase when you are looking at a good gallery. Look at gallery websites-- it's easy to kill time at your desk browsing through sites of galleries that participate in top fairs like Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach, Frieze...

    Heaven forbid you dare get adventurous in the conformityville known as the high-end art world. If you ask Korek where to shop for the holidays and she gives you the same advice, it would translate as, "Buy Calvin Klein and shop at The Gap."

    Becoming a collector is a process, and one of the best ways to expedite the process is to become a patron at the same time. You want the privilege of knowing curators, and learning what work they are looking at. It's important to be generous and support art for art's sake; it will give you information and access.

    The privilege of knowing curators? Do these curators go to the Sistine Chapel to vote for the next Pope? Do they take your Sunday Service donations with them to Rome or distribute them among the poor?

    Join an innovative nonprofit space or museum at a higher level ($1,000+). Be as generous as you can afford to be. It's not hard to identify these places... Research these groups a bit to see what piques your interest.

    Unstated here is that many of the biggest collectors have given up this flushing down the toilet of their money in the form of donations to non-profits. The new art world power play is to buy the art they like and open their own museums run by their own non-profits. But for you, going it on your own like that defunds the middlemen and women of the art world, aka Korek's clients.

    The higher your capacity to give, the more opportunities there are to interact with curators and other patrons. Members of LACMA's annual Collectors Committee Weekend pool millions and vote on proposed acquisitions from museum curators. The ticket price ($15,000 and up) includes a private dinner Friday night at a collector's home with specially designed menus and wine pairings.

    So when you go to the museum and read the placard next to the picture that says it was acquired by some museum collectors' council, now you understand the banal nerdiness of their existences. How do you like having your museum's art selected by people so boring they pay fifteen grand to go to each others' houses for dinner? Is it safe to wonder aloud now whether the art world functions as a cult at the highest levels?

    LACMA director Michael Govan once called Collectors Committee "the 'American Idol' of the museum world" and the curatorial presentations are an invaluable way to understand how experts make their decisions.

    Just to be clear-- the people with the money are not the experts. The people who watch American Idol are the experts. I can't humiliate this observation of the writer's anymore than her debasing prose itself.

    International Committees are another great way to educate oneself, and to travel with insider status... an "important way to bring an international group of collectors and patrons together, to connect with the museum and each other, while sharing personal insights and specific knowledge."

    You don't have insider status if you let the museum herd you around in a tour of preselected galleries sanitized of anything but the international style of monied objects and installations. But has groupthink ever sounded sexier or more stylish?

    Independent non-profit spaces often have opportunities to support artist's projects or exhibition with gifts ranging from $1,000-$15,000. LAXART, a nonprofit arts space in Culver City that is working with the Hammer Museum and Getty Research Institute on major projects with emerging artists, organizes intimate gatherings with artists in the homes of collectors for its Curator's Council...

    I count three middlemen, one council and an unnamed number of collectors hosting parties in their houses that are getting in between the artist and the donor here. Welcome to the art world. The pocket that is picked feeds four times as many art administrators as it does artists!

    Looking at art graduate school exhibitions is a great way to buy early, but keep in mind that you're taking a calculated risk.

    Notice how it is never a risk when you give money to institutions, no matter how terrible their programming is and without any discussion of their fiscal responsibility. But the moment you might dare just give money to an artist, albeit one in grad school, all of a sudden it is a calculated risk. So you give the museum fifteen grand to get an entree and wine pairing, but to give a grad school artist three grand for two paintings that you find compelling... woah there cowboy, you are taking a huge risk that you might actually own art that you enjoy. Wow, such a reckless existence... you have been warned!

    Develop a relationship with an independent art advisor... asking galleries who they recommend, who they trust and believe in, and who really knows what he or she is doing... it's important to ask a potential advisor how they will help you become involved in the art conversation by getting more involved philanthropically... get the facts straight about the fee structure before you start. Some advisors take commission on purchases, others work on a retainer, and some require both.

    Get YOUR facts straight. These hucksteresque soothsayers, oops I mean professional art advisors, can play you any one of 85 ways, so take this advice and be wary of the possibility that all they'll do is make it easier on the in-crowd to squeeze maximum dough out of you as they steer you toward buying art you don't like from art dealers they love.

    Build a library. Art books are a fantastic way to jump-start your collecting... Books in themselves can be art objects.

    In other news, Forbes readers, the sky is blue and the dollar is green.

    Get advice from other collectors you admire... Editions are a great way to get your feet wet, and can be a great area to focus on. New (art collecting web)sites... are also a great place to look.

    If you happen to be rich, there is likely nothing you hate more than letting someone else who is rich blab on and on about whatever they think you should be doing with your life. Precisely zero rich Forbes readers will take this advice, and that is a good thing.

    Over time, developing an interest in art can connect you with an incredible social and intellectual community. Collecting art is best approached as a life-enriching adventure and one that can build a new asset for your future along the way.

    If by "social" you mean climbing and "intellectual" you mean degreed elitists, you nailed it. Of course, no mention of actually getting to know artists and what creating art is all about, the only true experience and advantage to spending time in an art world you do not understand. I would suppose that since Korek spends all of her time in the one-percent art world, she doesn't know any artists.

    ***

    Mat Gleason is a Los Angeles art critic, curator, blogger for The Huffington Post, publisher of Coagula Art Journal, and owner of Coagula Curatorial art gallery.

    ***

    Disclaimer: The above editorial commentary does not necessarily reflect either the beliefs, attitudes or opinions of Alan Bamberger or artbusiness.com

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