Tag Archives: markets

rattling the chains

queue for "Chain Letter" installation

Queue for "Chain Letter" installation. Photo by Calethia DeConto.

Earlier this summer I received an email from a friend inviting me to take part in an exhibition entitled “Chain Letter” curated by Christian Cummings & Doug Harvey at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica. The invitation read in part:

“Chain Letter” is a group show wherein 10 artists have been invited to participate. Those 10 then invite 10 artists whom they admire. Those 10 invite 10 more and so on. This cycle continues for 30 days.

The result is an exponentially massive, artist-curated group show based entirely on admiration.

This wasn’t the first time I’ve been invited to take part in such ‘artist invites artist’ shows, but in most cases the invite chain has been only one or two links long. So the first thing that struck me about this show was those works “exponentially massive.” No kidding: I invite 10 people, they each invite 10 more (making 111 so far), they invite 10 more (1,111), and so on for 30 days. Multiplied by all the other people doing the same thing along other branches of the tree. Even accounting for duplicate invitations and decisions not to participate on the part of many invitees, it still seemed to me unlikely that the artworks so solicited would be likely to fit in anything much less than an airplane hangar.

Another thing that struck me about the invitation was the degree to which responsibility—by which I mean labor and costs—was shifted from the gallery to the artist. Other rules for the show included the following:

  • Artists are entirely responsible for installing their own work.
  • Artists must bring their work to the show in a single 8-hour installation window.
  • Artists must pick up their own work at the end of the show, and they risk having it “recycled, traded or discarded” if they miss the specific pickup window.
  • Artists must not email the curators or venue with questions.
Scamwatch, 2011

Scamwatch, 2011

Ok, so I’m all for a DIY approach in many instances, and I’ve certainly taken part in shows and events where a good deal of the organization, installation, and so on fell on the artists. Even down to painting the venue—every artist I know has been there, done that. And it can be exceedingly worthwhile to work with a gallery or other venue this way. But here’s an instance where all the labor and expense is being thrown on the artists—truck rental costs, shipping costs, insurance, moving time, installation and deinstallation, not to mention the cost of making the work in the first place—and for what? The chance to place one’s work in a mass exhibition where it can get lost among perhaps a few thousand other works? Where’s the upside here?

At first I thought I wouldn’t take part, but I passed on the invite to a bunch of people I admire anyway (more than the 10 specified—I figured there was no point being restrained if the numbers were going to become astronomical anyhow). Ultimately I decided to make an infographic piece expressing my reservations about these kinds of chain-invite shows, as a kind of public service. It’s styled after scam-watch websites like this one and this other one. I’ve emailed it to all the artists I invited, as well as the person who initially invited me, with a note that they are welcome to further distribute it in any way. I printed it out poster size for the show itself, and I reproduce the web version here at left. Since the text is very small at blog jpeg size, I’ve created a separate post with the main text of the piece. But here is an excerpt:

Artists are often not aware until too late that the total number of artists who can be “accepted” into a single show through this kind of chain email tree can easily reach the thousands in a short time. This logarithmic escalation effect is similar to that seen in other pyramidal set-ups, such as Ponzi schemes.

What this means is that even artists who manage to claim space for their own work during the installation window are likely to find themselves in an extremely crowded, “salon-style” show with little prospect that their work will stand out from the crowd of other objects. Artworks that are fragile, small, require sound isolation, or have other special requirements will especially suffer. Furthermore, since art critics tend to look askance on mass exhibitions, the desired reputational benefit will probably not materialize.

I went up to the gallery yesterday as instructed during the installation windowmy piece is mainly circulating virtually, but I wanted to see if the show was going to be the kind of zoo I figured it for. My initial plan was to arrive early, but because of a morning meeting I ended up arriving around 2 pm. At that point the parking lot at Bergamot Station, where Shoshana Wayne Gallery is located, was filled to capacity and the line of people waiting to check in with the gallery staff was 150 long, by my count. The word was that there had been an even bigger mob in the morning. I was really curious now and joined the line. It took a little under an hour to reach the check-in desk, at which point I was given artist number 1,227 and directed to a space in the F1 section of Bergamot Station.

"Chain Letter" show 2011, Shoshana Wayne Gallery

"Chain Letter" show 2011, Shoshana Wayne Gallery

When I got there, I found the room was already filled almost literally to overflowing with artworks large and small (mostly small).  Works were packed so closely together that there was no longer any access to the pieces in the corners, and the open floor space was shrinking steadily. Artists of all ages and many styles milled about cheerfully, wedging their works into the small patches of remaining space.

The general arrangement had gone far beyond salon style; the effect was something between an attic, a junkshop, and a dump. It felt like a place where art came to die. It was one of the saddest art environments I’ve ever been in; it hardly seemed possible that art could be made to seem less valued or more abject without actually taking it out and throwing it in the trash. And even that might read as a clean gesture; to create an inadvertent art slag heap within the confines of the gallery system just struck me as a travesty and an insult.

And I’m still wondering what the point of this show could have been. If it was to give less known artists a viewing within the name-gallery system, it wasn’t well thought out since not only is it hard to ‘see’ individual works in the chaos of these rooms but everything looks debased. If it’s to gain some revenue through sales, it might work—I’m guessing there might be some ‘friends of the artists’ type sales to be made here. That probably counts as a win for the gallery, but whether it counts as a success for the artist may depend on whether they tally all their costs. If it’s to gain some rep for the gallery and/or Bergamot Station as a publicly minded entity, it might just work. If it’s to create an event that the curators can maybe pitch as relational art, or a slow flash mob, or a power shift from gallery to artist—well, whichever way you slice it, the reality on the ground doesn’t add up. If it’s to hold the summer’s most well-attended art party, I’m guessing it may be a success—if even a fraction of the thousands of artists come with their friends to the opening tonight, it’ll be quite a blast. Ultimately it seems likely that the main thing most artists will get out of this event is a line item on their art resume.

And that’s  just wrong.

Edit, 7-27-11: It occurred to me that this might work more interestingly as a flea market, perhaps within an existing venue. Bring on the broad demographics, the open haggling, the spirit of ‘what can I do with that?’ that goes along with a flea market.

Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , , |

aspirational pricing

Collage featured at etsy.com

Reams have been written on the often inscrutable relationship between value and price in art. The fact that the art market is mostly unregulated and also deeply corrupt makes it relatively opaque to those who are not insiders, especially at the high end of the price scale. My sense is that there are comprehensible price breaks at the lower end of the market that align with other kinds of goods: under $50, under $100, under $500, under $1000 and so on. The collage shown at left, for instance, has been slotted into the under $500 category, while that at right sits in the under $10 category.

Landscape at etsy.com

Landscape at etsy.com

But most of us will rarely be involved in selling things valued in the tens of thousands (cars, boats) or in the hundreds of thousands (houses), and never in buying or selling things valued in the millions. Consequently, most of us probably don’t have a clear sense of where the price breaks are at the upper end of the art market. What makes a work or art ‘worth’ $6.8 million instead of $9.5 million, especially given the price fixing and other scams for which the upper end of the art market has become notorious?

Oil painting of Bob Marley featured at etsy.com

This is all by way of introduction to a new trend I’ve noticed as I explore art sites online: aspirational pricing. The painting shown at left was for sale at $29,000 when I took the screen grab in late November. This in itself is symptomatic of generally rising prices at etsy.com, which as recently as a year ago featured hardly any art for sale at over $500. More interesting is the fact that the painting on offer is a very poor piece of work technically, conceptually, and aesthetically. It’s the kind of painting that in pre-internet days one would have expected to see at a garage sale or open studio event or on a coffeehouse wall, priced at maybe a few hundred bucks and commanding even that much largely because of its sheer size.

Bob Marley Google search

Google search results for "bob marley painting"

It’s hard to imagine who would want this work apart from Bob Marley aficionados—and a simple Google search shows that there is a vast sea of Marley iconography available, a large proportion of it better made than the etsy.com painting. So what then might have prompted the creator of “Flowing Spirit” to push his painting to just under $30,000? Sheer ignorance of the art market is one possibility, of course, but probably not the most likely as etsy sellers by the nature of their business tend to be attuned to markets and prices and very interested in sales.

Is it an artefact of being able to compare one’s work easily to a lot of other art on the internet, through sites like artnet.com? Being able to imagine that it belongs in a different peer category because the internet flattens out the image space of art? Is it some kind of ‘race to the top’ competition with other etsy.com art sellers? The result of a profoundly capitalistic sense that a painting is worth what you can get someone to pay for it, and that aspiring to a high price might result in a high price being paid? Or that pricing something high makes its perceived value jump in the eyes of potential buyers? Maybe it comes down to a simple belief in one’s own opinions. Or maybe it’s just a rather spirited response to the state of the art market: if it’s a lunatic’s gamble in any case,  why not jump in and play?

Possibly all of the above?

Still Life at etsy.com

Still Life featured at etsy.com

Poking about further at etsy.com as I tried to suss out implicit pricing assumptions and methods, I stumbled across the still life at left. This much smaller work was priced at twice the Marley painting—I should say, at least twice because the page listed two different prices ($60,000 at upper right and $75,000 at lower right). Is it perhaps twice as well made? Is it perhaps twice as good because everyone knows still lives are a big deal in the history of western art?

high-priced art on etsy.com

some recent high-priced art listed on etsy.com

Or are we back to the race-to-the-top idea? Etsy has three major search sort options: “Most Recent” “Highest Price” and “Lowest Price”, and a big price tag is thus an obvious way to bump your work—and therefore your etsy.com subsite—to  the top of one of these lists. However, I suspect that if this strategy is indeed in play, it doesn’t fully explain the size of the gap between the crowd of works priced at or under the $1000 break point and these two outliers. Here is where I think that the aspirational comes into play, as a semiotics of desire that is more expressive than the work itself. It will be interesting to revisit this phenomenon in another six months or so.

Update: As I was editing this post in mid-December prior to publication, I made a second visit to etsy to see if either of these paintings was still available. The Bob Marley piece has vanished, but the untitled still life is still listed at the same price(s). I did discover that both have been outclassed on the aspirational front: there are now over 40 works of art listed at $100,000 and up. Any bets on when this rather steep pricing curve might level off? I will continue to track this phenomenon.

Posted in 2011, latest | Also tagged , , |

The Beholder

There are now, 15 years into the world-wide web, quite a lot of online art marketplaces. Many of these—from imagekind.com to ugallery.com to much smaller sites—claim to be curated, but the quality of the aggregated work shows that they are either very lightly curated or that their curators’ tastes seldom rise much above the greeting card and hotel art level. That is to say, well-crafted but unadventurous in the extreme because the main goal of the work is to be lovable, friendly, pleasing, soothing, cute. That is certainly a viable (if lazy) set of goals for art, but at the same time it represents a minute subset of art’s capabilities.

I recently came across a small online art market called the Beholder that shows a more distinctive curatorial eye at work. A good deal of the work was still way too decorative or illustration-like for my taste, but artists whose work I did find interesting included Anna Ura, Kate Baum, Mike Monteiro and Celia Marais.

The main reason I’m writing about the site here, though, is that its organizers are clearly putting real thought in how best to support artists who want to sell their work on line. For example, they take a two-pronged approach to marketing: artists can either sell their work as “Beholder artists”, meaning that the gallery takes a traditional commission, or they can sell as “Marketplace artists”, meaning that the gallery takes no cut—artists get paid directly through PayPal transactions. In the former case, the gallery handles the ordering and shipping logistics, while in the latter case, the artists do it all themselves.

In addition, the Beholder invites guest curators to construct an online exhibition from the work represented on the site. Such online exhibitions are becoming more usual, and I think they are a terrific idea in general, since they take the essence of curating—creating a temporary (and hopefully coherent) taxonomy within the large and messy field of art—and apply it within the even larger and messier field of the internet. Within the bounds of an online gallery-cum-market, it is an imaginative way to create groupings of work that can help guide novice buyers. At present, many sales sites take the Amazon/Netflix approach to guiding buyers using algorithms—”if you liked X, you might like Y”—but using a human curator as, in effect, an original neural algorithm allows for much more varied and unpredictable results.

Posted in 2010, latest | Also tagged , |