As the New Year horns sound, January streaks out of the blocks. PST exhibitions at the museums continue, gallery openings abound and the art fairs jockey for calendar space. The press is full of analysis of last year’s winners and losers in every realm. Art has been declared a winner. The Mei Moses World All Art Index (MMAI) which tracks art sales across several categories, indicates that art returned 10.2% in 2011, trouncing the S&P’s zero growth. Even Time Magazine hosts an article in their Jan 30 issue touting the amazing growth and profitability of the art market. Citing wealth diversification, emerging market participation, particularly China’s, and the bonus of social cache, investing in art is the place to be.
Art can certainly be a lucrative investment. However, acquiring artworks with investment potential requires sophisticated knowledge, due diligence and sometimes privileged access to opportunities, similar to the stock market. While art risk and return may not correlate with equities, neither guarantees a profitable investment. Record prices at auction are generally awarded to sanctioned artists of historical significance, for works from the artist’s strongest years of production with favored style or subject matter. These works are of limited availability, in perfect condition and fresh to the market. Because these characteristics are rare, more people with increased wealth are ready to pay bigger prices. The cycle continues upwards. The press sells the story to the public.
Financial gain from selling art is wonderful. I seek it for my clients and on my own behalf. However, I also lament the absence in headline articles of any mention of the intangible benefits in acquiring and living with art: the intellectual, emotional and spiritual gift inherent in the best work. Investment, branding and global reach are increasingly prized. Art’s commodification is complete. What could be further proof than Damien Hirst’s Spot paintings in all 11 of the Gagosian Galleries?
This brings me to the art fairs here in Los Angeles this January. Art Fairs have proliferated and for many are the preferred and often only venue in which art is viewed for purchase. Time and convenience are of the essence. Art Fairs may be enjoyable and functional, but they are a challenging environment in which to hone the eye.
The odds of ferreting out quality and a potentially investment-grade artwork is greatly enhanced by the excellence of the fair’s exhibitors. In fairs like Art Basel Miami or Switzerland, the vendor quality is meticulously vetted and consistently high, so buyers are greatly assisted in their search. However, in a fair like the LA Art Show, it’s a very mixed bag. The organizers did strong publicity, had significant sponsors and a worthy charity for the gala opening night. They provided a solid lecture series and filled the convention center space. But where’s the beef? Works of merit were in short supply; the vendor level was exeedingly uneven.
The IFPDA section of the fair is limited in scope, but is of good quality. The Fine Art Show had some pleasing pictures. But the LA Art Show, the primary draw, continues to disappoint. I went in with low expectations so I was less depressed than in years past. Now that the show has been acquired by the organizers of Art Miami, let’s hope it perks up in the future.
Among the highlights at the LA Art Show was Jack Rutberg’s booth. It featured works by Patrick Graham and Hans Burkhardt as well as an editioned Jasper Johns flag of note. Jonathan Novak Contemporary presented works by Sam Francis, among others. The Paul Thiebaud Gallery is a reliable source for Wayne Thiebaud paintings and prints. Among the overseas galleries, ME Photo Art Gallery from Beijing brought some of the new young photographers from China. The Chinese artists have been doing excellent photography for over two decades. While these works have been collected by institutions in the West, it is an undeveloped area of collecting for the Chinese. This is beginning to change slowly inside China and we will undoubtedly be seeing more work on our shores.
Art Los Angeles Contemporary housed many of the best Los Angeles galleries with a smattering of exhibitors from elsewhere. It was a small show with an emphasis on younger, edgier work. There was no pretense. It’s a fair where one can look, learn and acquire a potentially rising star at a reasonable price. As for investment, be sure to also buy what you love…
Regarding highlights around town, I’ll mention just two that illustrate the vast range of offerings. Roberts & Tilton has a fascinating show of vintage photographs by Gusmano Cesaretti. Curated by Aaron Rose, the show includes 24 unique prints that feature the East Los Angeles sub-culture of the 1970’s. The night of the opening, the Klique Car Club had some of their hottest rides parked out front in all of their glory – a great display of passion and pride.
At the opposite end of the aesthetic spectrum, the Frederick R. Weisman Museum at Pepperdine just opened “The Epic and the Exotic: 19th Century Academic Realism from the Dahesh Museum of Art” in New York. These 32 paintings are romantic, skillful, idealized pictures that epitomize the values of their time. Another kind of fantasy.
Lastly, “Phenomenal: California Light, Space, Surface” at the Museum of Contemporary Art in La Jolla and San Diego is arguably the quintessential show of the Pacific Standard Time initiative, among the mainstream offerings. As indicated by the title, it showcases the unique contribution of Southern California artist’s in the 60’ and 70’s in their exploration of light and space as manifest in objects and installation. Their legacy is powerfully brought forward in the dazzling room installation by Jennifer Steinkamp that accompanies the show.
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