BY MICHAEL WORKMAN
Below is an essay that recently came out in the Chicago-based periodical art journal Proximity. I’m reproducing it here in its entirety with the permission of the publishers. Written last summer, the issue was held up awhile, and a few points are deserving of some follow-up commentary which I’m working on for a forthcoming piece. In the end, this essay was written with an eye to the future of the art culture in the city of Chicago, but the research and work of this essay I believe salient to the wider art world as well.
“Business art is the step that comes after Art. … After I did the thing called “art” or whatever it’s called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art Businessman or a Business Artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art. During the hippie era people put down the idea of business—they’d say, “Money is bad,” and “Working is bad,” but making money is art and working is art and good business is the best art.”
—Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again
It’s clear that the societal idea of support for artists has reached an eroded low point over time, and has reached an even newer low point now. Bad as Chicago has it, the material boundaries it faces have remained pretty consistent over the years, and it has found a place to function within them. No significantly-sized super-wealthy collector base, tribal ideological gulfs that separate its tiresomely infighting factions, an isolating boosterism, and all this wrapped in a regional preference for art chiefly to decorate the home and an occasional sculpture park. The city does have art schools, and those art schools turn out some fine artists who stick around awhile to open apartment and storefront spaces to work out their ideas, and they are after awhile forced to leave unless they manage to fill some cog in this mechanism of necessary expulsion. There’s just no market here to actually sustain artists over the long-term, and if you stay on, it’s with an acceptance of that fact. There’s no Wall Street wealth, no United Nations intersection of world cultures, and no concerted LA-style internal support system of local collectors buying any stretching of the definition of “work” by local artists. Chicago functions in the wider art world as a sort of demilitarized zone from the pressures of the art market, and there are certainly benefits to this. But these are benefits you can find pretty easily in other places with the things Chicago doesn’t have, in Bushwick or Glasgow or Berlin. I’ve made my home here for a short fifteen years, but you don’t have to look far for local history examples of the functional limitations currently encountered by artists most anywhere in the world, regardless their ostensible degree of wealth. Art Chicago, a show previously owned and operated by a Chicago entrepreneur, itself in turn spun off from the Chicago International Art Exposition previously owned and operated by a man who had taken a page from Art Basel in Switzerland, fell on hard times in 2006 (the Swiss show had shorn up the market against the original effort in Koln). Money had run short, and the show was now-famously snatched up in a last-second buyout bid to save the show and Chicago’s position in the art market by the Merchandise Mart under a famous business manager, itself owned by NY-based commercial real estate giant Vornado Realty.
Basically, Art Chicago lost its market strength due to competition from the new Art Basel Miami Beach and the Armory Show (not to be confused with the 1913 Armory Show that introduced Modern Art to America, of course, but from which the name was taken), begun in 1994 as the Gramercy International Fair. Mainly from the Swiss show, however, under a pre-boom director who commercialized and made sponsorship a key instrument of his elevation of the art market to the level of financial construct. Art was already on its way to becoming a tool of “revitalization,” and the investment soon came pouring in from all sides to these new market centers. These two shows blatantly eroded much of Art Chicago’s longstanding New York and international art gallery support base. For whatever reason, Art Chicago held out until, unable to mount the fair and desperate, the Mart offered to mount it, in exchange for the petty bargain of its ownership of the show. After that first year, in 2007, the Mart began a move to consolidate its gains, inviting every small art organization in Chicago to participate under the guise of reconstituting the city’s civic pride and to participate in a stated intention to use the show as a conduit to the international art community that Art Chicago had once represented for participants around the world. I was present for much of this salesmanship, and was convinced they were capable and of sufficient capital means to swing a market. Having staged a small art show of emerging artists called Nova the year of Art Chicago’s transition, I was identified as one of the Chicago-local “stakeholders,” and invited to private meetings to discuss their ideas for the rebirth of Art Chicago.
At a series of meetings afterward, I was invited to stage our second-year show in a building adjacent to the Mart called the Apparel Center, under the auspices of an unfortunately-named cultural umbrella called Artropolis. After a lot of back and forth negotiation about maintaining our independence and their supposed devotion to the art community, we accepted the invitation. We were promised a galaxy of different kinds of support, including a share of the overall ticketing revenues, though when we were given a lease to sign for the space, they failed to mention that it was the only written agreement we would receive (no mention of ticket revenues, of course). In retrospect, the strategy was clearly to wine and dine our galleries and artists, while keeping our company small by limiting any financial benefit from our association with the Mart. I’ll leave it to aficionados to look up the March 7, 2007 City Club of Chicago breakfast speech on Art Chicago. In retrospect, it’s clear I was naïve.
Then things got even more interesting. The Mart’s second-lieutenant summoned us to his offices for a private meeting where I was coolly presented with a high six-figure offer to sell our company to MMPI, and cautioned that if we refused, they would develop a “property” of their own. At this point it was clear that the offer was more about eliminating us as competition, not about supporting talent; the Mart’s patronage came attached with the understanding that we would be signing on with them as owners with the right to final say over our every decision. There was, flatly, no negotiation on this point. We declined their offer, packed up our things, and left. The Merchandise Mart subsequently went on a ravenous buying spree that included “properties” including the Armory Show, the Toronto International fair, and the Volta Show in Basel, not to mention “NEXT,” the property they came up with to replace us (clearly, with a lot of thought given to the name), an opportunity seized on by a former investment banker.
Having worked the last ten years, under one project name or another, as an entrepreneur producer of the mom-and-pop shop equivalent of an art fair, I’ve come to a few conclusions about the damage caused by private interests in art patronage. Chicago likes to believe it operates in a vacuum of context, which is simply not the case, and not solely the going concern of a merchant class, but of artists too. All too often, the art world survives or perishes in its revolution around the perfidy toward art endemic to private interests that fuel much of the world’s patronage. This is of course aggravated by what I would characterize as a motivation for self-enrichment, of which expanding one’s personal fortune is a component, though by no means the most relevant. This is not at the outset or on the face of it a bad thing, or even meant as reflection on a hierarchical structure. Let’s admit, without the largess of the wealthy, artists would enjoy much less preeminence in society, though there are very solid historical examples of artists with sufficient diplomatic and business sensibility to accomplish financially successful careers. Yet, in the art world, a patron is still a requirement. The patronage system of private interests, in collusion with those who benefit from it, willfully privileges the concern for art beneath that of their own socioeconomic well-being. No amount of card games at the Groucho Club can clean up the fact that even artists who manipulate and mock patronage in its present forms need it for their work to live.
In the art world of today, patronage is now like some central riddle: Where does the support come from? Artists, of course, are missed and go unnoticed. But the question persists, and society has offered some pragmatic solutions: Ditch digger? A job at the local university? Imitate nobility? Work at a museum? Drug Dealer? Day job? Hustle for gallery show sales? Business art? Everywhere, a compromise is negotiated with artists over their sources of support. This is not always obvious. Artists like to salve their consciences by pretending that not-for-profit organizations, for instance, are impartial and outside the influence of patronage. Sadly, this is naïve. One look at the membership of any not-for-profit’s board of directors should put any such specious notions to rest.
I’d like to make use of Habermas’ discussions of private interests in society and their interaction with the public, but I’m sure there’s no limitation of willingness to look this up in our literate society. Public life and patronage are deeply married with domestic concerns particular to the aggregation of wealth and resources as codified in personal estates, a concept ultimately written, to a greater or lesser degree, into the structure of Modern governments. This is, after all, merely an exercise in a well-established culture of self-fulfillment. Every headline-stealing sum commanded by a Picasso or a Klimt is a testament to the compulsory service artists render to increase the luster of their patron’s house.
Artist and patron joined operate with the equanimity of investors in the art world, where the current stock-in-trade has changed over the decades to accommodate in the boom times the interest of speculation and of end-of-production evaluation. This has bred an industry where the market has reduced the useful range of thinking about art to a financial final-aggregate calculation. Public perceptions have followed this tack, and the art culture in general has sought to encourage emulation of its supply and demand model. As prices have risen, so has the demand for wealthier and wealthier patrons: UBS thus steps in to sponsor Art Basel, and Qatar invests in an outright purchase of collection loan and naming rights from the Louvre. Damien Hirst, famously dissatisfied with the prospects provided him by mere galleries, offers new works directly out of English auction house Christie’s. Economics become the rule of the house, not even slightly managing to stretch credulity with the lived implication for most artists of a casino atmosphere pervading. This has led to affiliation with not only unlikely partners, but those with proven use of the economics surrounding art for their own institutional self-interests. This is at a high level of involvement in the art world, of which the offshore tax scandal surrounding Art Basel is only the most recent example.
For those unfamiliar with the controversy surrounding UBS’ sponsorship of Art Basel Miami Beach, a little background. On July 17, 2008 there was a Senate Subcommittee hearing chaired by Senator Carl Levin about offshore banking practices. In the staff report of the hearing, it’s noted that the prosecution of a Swiss banker by the name of Bradley Birkenfeld represents “the first time the United States has criminally prosecuted a Swiss banker for helping a U.S. taxpayer evade payment of U.S. taxes[i]” and the summons issued by the IRS to UBS AG, the title sponsor of Art Basel Miami Beach “the first time that the United States has attempted to pierce Swiss banking secrecy by compelling a Swiss bank to name its U.S. clients.[ii]” That’s a lot of firsts, but with good reason: all told, in a Statement of Facts signed by Birkenfeld, he alleges that UBS AG “had $20 billion of assets under management in the United States [in] undeclared business, which earned the bank approximately $200 million per year in revenues.[iii]” Whatever the cost to mount and produce Art Basel Miami Beach, $200 million a year must have met applause amongst the honchos back at the UBS AG head office in Switzerland as a pretty solid return on their investment. Birkenfeld alleges it was all planned from the beginning, stating that “UBS sponsored U.S. events likely to attract wealthy clients, such as the Art Basel Art Fair in Miami Beach,[iv]” and that UBS went so far as to identify in advance “the 25 most affluent housing areas in the United States to provide ‘targeted locations where to organize events.’[v]” It’s not much of a leap to speculate that Art Basel Miami Beach was nothing more than an invention of UBS for the sole purpose of defrauding the American government.
Today, forms of private interests in patronage continue to cut across society at all levels in an art world that suffers from an acute case of overproduction, of which the open market’s oft-cited proliferation of art fairs is simply the latest conduit for the epidemic. This presents not simply a problem in economy of scale. As Jacques Borzun accurately describes, there is also a way in which this situation rushes the more careerist art, rather than the most original, to the top of the rankings.
“The public is assailed by so much art that it unconsciously protects itself against it. One way is the star system. Headliners save thinking, but they also constitute a kind of monopoly to the detriment of the large and less successful majority. […] The glut leads to a second protective response. The experience of high art becomes commonplace and loses its intensity. Instead of being enthralled participants, the followers of art turn placid customers. Arts councils and foundation officials are especially susceptible to this attrition of feeling, which means that awards rarely go to original workers. Geniuses run the same risk of lifelong neglect as they always did.” [vi]
No wonder then that most artists graduate with an inflated sense of entitlement, giddily awaiting their art star coronations only to encounter a bottomless void of opportunity or even prospects for a paycheck afforded the most basic of skilled laborers. This is the state of art practice in the contemporary art culture, which is not a matter of ideological orientation or approach to an artist’s studio practice alone. While the rise of the merchant class, of course, as pointed out by Barzun, was the soil in which the seeds of the Modern market were planted, its transformation of the artist into a mere seller had an important influence on the public’s expectations of artists as to an increase in their own self-aware pursuit of profits:
“Repeated bargaining between artists and patrons who were or had been merchants was bound to turn the pair into regular buyers and sellers. […] The era of haggling, of high-, medium-, and low-priced art was beginning. It led, of course, to the open market situation we take for granted today. […] These new means of sustaining art turned the artist from a domestic, a courtier, or a “favorite” into an independent entrepreneur, a dealer-manager-advertiser of his own wares.” [vii]
Warhol’s famous pronouncements about “business art” have their roots in this artist-as-entrepreneur reality, and of the underlying implications of the artist as in a sort of predetermined conflict with their own private interests. Artists today are the stockbrokers of their own commodity, and their ability to oversee exchanges of wealth thus determine everything in the art world, whether it’s access to the establishment of even the most basic of provenance or, if you’re lucky enough to make it into a museum collection, whether that work ever makes it out of cold storage.
Private interests in patronage, to sum it all up, functions to exclude entrepreneurship in the art world, with many of its members fixed in an attitude of pandering to the wealthiest of this system of support. At this point, there is no turning back and there is no clear solution to the problems endemic to private interests in art patronage. This is simply the way the art world functions, with few sources of remediation available other than public dismissal and disinterest in its “products.” Barzun evidences the overt transformation of the art world to competition over consumers that has been caused by an embrace of the private interest market model quite well:
“The desperate shifts used by museums, libraries, and churches, such as renting out space for cocktail parties or film-making; the retail merchandising of goods; the program series of music, theatre, and other performances; the “voluntary” levy at the door of a hitherto free public institution, have begun to alienate the public. It represents the bazaar atmosphere and the unfair competition with the other purveyors of art struggling in the marketplace.” [viii]
While the art culture cannot survive without patronage, it is not true that patronage and its private interest corruptions can act as a substitute for it. Chicago, with its immense population of young artists and environment of open exchange in fresh ideas, is uniquely positioned to side-step the immediate iconoclastic influence of private interests and the demands of market expediency by encouraging artists to redefine the individual relationship with their sources of support. This benefits not only art, but the society that consumes it, mandating some definition of quality to the use of the word. Enhancing the available modes of agency within the art culture is a critical solution, and has been greatly expanded upon by new sources of public-funding options that allow artists to maintain creative control over their works, for example. But enhanced forms of entrepreneurship in recent years have also been embraced more widely as an option (if not a growing necessity), with artists expanding the definition of traditional studio practices to the point of imitating existing manufacturing models, including the use of public relations firms, hiring, and participating in the requisite business diplomacy and (unfortunately) litigious dispute-resolution practices of other industries. Of course, this option comes with risks, and the potential for difficult, real-world failures along the way. However, at a minimum, self-patronage permits artists to partially shift the onus away from those of a potential desultory use of art as simply a tool for the gain of bottom-line interests that have nothing to do with the art itself.
Pushed sufficiently far, such models are capable of operating at the level of civic engagement, for instance, by exerting influence on those in public office to alter existing property rights legislation, or to allow for the temporary creative transformation of space for artistic purposes outside the traditional definitions of current permit and assembly law. These are only suggestions, and for any such organized artistic enterprises, civic engagement is a goal only accomplishable in the long-term. But this opportunity to test new models of art cultural entrepreneurship is a specialty of Chicago in-particular, with its willingness to experiment and proximity to, but existence immediately outside the representative supply-and-demand pressures of the east coast.
Precedents abound throughout history of artists undertaking such wide shifts toward greater freedom, for instance, with relation to the perception of their own materials through an emphasis on impermanence, and as regards the preservation and distribution of their work through informed institutional critique of galleries and museums. Simply responding to patronage with a sense of entitlement is inherently self-defeating, and worse, ignorant. Artists have the freedom and right to negotiate their individual relationship with their sources of support and, when useful, to act entrepreneurially and refuse enthrallment to them. Yes, this may at times place the artist at volatile cross-purposes with private interests in the wider art culture, but that may very well be ultimately what makes the city’s current place in that very same global art culture unique. At one time, such entrepreneurial models were exemplified in the city by Art Chicago, and the art fair model as it was understood in the United States more generally, but the market winds have long since shifted against Chicago’s dominance in the field, and this approach is no longer competitive at the market high-end.
With support for artists at what seems an all-time low, new models of entrepreneurship must be invented, and they must spring from the Chicago-rooted needs of artists here not only to chart their own course, but to devise their own vehicle by which to arrive. It is possible to flourish as an artist working in Chicago, operating as it does as an essential source of art production that fuels the larger market, but it’s up to the those who live here to insist on engagement on their own terms, on the strength of their creativity and innovativeness of their ideas, or to throw up their hands and accept Chicago as a city unable to compete. In the end, whatever happens, Chicago will get the art culture that it deserves.
[i] Staff Report, United States Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. “Tax Haven Banks and U.S. Tax Compliance,” June 17 2009, 3.
[ii] Ibid., 3.
[iii] Ibid., 10.
[iv] Ibid., 12.
[v] Ibid., 12.
[vi] The Culture We Deserve, “The Insoluble Problem: Supporting Art,” Jacques Barzun, 36.
[vii] Ibid., 30.
[viii] Ibid., 35.