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Speakeasy

John Link

In early February, Gloria Steinem commented to Bill Maher about Hillary Clinton’s problem getting support from younger women. Young women, she said, ask, “Where are the boys?” Of course, Steinem took a big hit for saying that but,if Maher had asked about Clinton’s problem getting support from younger men, it would have been equally relevant to answer the same way, except with “girls” substituted for “boys”. The point: people gravitate to situations that provide them with what they want.
When I read “Art Galleries Face Pressure to Fund Museum Shows” in the March 7, 2016 edition of the “New York Times”, my first thoughts were moralistic. What a detestable conflict of interest. Surely there are horrible consequences ahead.
I wrote on Facebook:”I think it is more than business because the role of museums is to declare where the consensus of taste has finally settled, more or less. True, you could say now that museums have conjoined their interests with those who sell art. They are no longer a valid source of such judgments. But perception trumps facts, especially when it comes to art.
Museums are perceived as something much more than “just another part of commerce”. They are now leveraging that perception into the commercial sphere in a new manner and I have no idea where that will take us. Perhaps just the same place we are now. They may even have a positive effect by insisting on a higher level of quality. But difference of opinion will probably be even harder to come by than it is now.
NAE’s Chicago editor then suggested I write a SPEAKEASY on the subject. So I read the article again. Wise people say everyone is entitled to their own opinion but not their own facts. The most important fact cited in the article is expressed in a single sentence: “Nearly a third of the major solo exhibitions at museums in the United States between 2007 and 2013 featured artists represented by just five galleries– Gagosian, Pace, Marian Goodman, David Zwirner and Hauser & Wirth–according to a recent survey by The Art Newspaper.
This is astonishing. Turns out there is no conflict of interest whatsoever. Instead, it is a confluence of interest, a profound confluence, probably without precedent in museum history.
So, I changed my mind. It is not a moral problem, it is a reality problem. It is not even a problem if you like what the museum-gallery trust is serving up for your cultural enlightenment. You are in luck, as the thing is likely to continue along the current monolithic path for quite some time. It is “where the boys and girls are” if indeed these boys and girls are the ones that interest you. As for myself, I took great amusement that the galleries are being made to pay for the service the museums are providing. It is, in a perverse way, a relief to see them somewhat annoyed, and complaining, in the ever so polite way the powerful complain.
Freeloaders hate it when they must pay at least something for what they formerly claimed as a right, even when they do not pay the actual costs or value. It is especially gratifying to see the light of day cast so publicly on this particular episode of gallery welfare for those who hardly need it. Their misery is my joy. I fervently hope they are charged much more in the future. What they are getting is too much of a bargain, given the figures quoted in the article. Museums are pumping millions of dollars into the value of their inventories. The galleries are paying pennies on the dollar for this service.
But what if the museum-gallery system’s particular boys and girls aren’t the ones you seek? One of the common myths about Clement Greenberg is that he visited artists’ studios in order to tell them what to paint. It is true that he visited a lot of studios and made many comments. With the exception of his first visit to Pollock’s studio (he could not say anything after 45 minutes of looking and trying), he was a man with a lot to say. When he told me of his difficulty during his first visit with Pollock, he said that is when he learned the worst thing he could say after looking at an artist’s work was nothing
After that difficult experience, he always made it a point to say something, whether the artist explicitly asked for it or not. While he liked artists very much, probably more than any other type of person, he did not visit studios because of his affection for them. After all, he had plenty of social interactions with artists in other venues. Instead, he went to studios because that is where art begins and, in many instances, is the only place it can be found. It is a long and complicated path that takes new art from the studio into any gallery or museum.
Contemporary museums may package their art into an easy-to-digest configuration, reeking of authority and significance but, by their nature, they are not where emerging art is likely to be found. Emerging art is what interested Clem most. Most, if not all, readers of the NAE have good access to artists and their studios. If you are not inspired by what the system is pushing on us, visit some studios. Follow Greenberg’s example. That’s where the real art is.

 

John Link

Painter, Emeritus Professor of Art, Western Michigan University, Professor of Art and Department Head, Virginia Tech, Michigan Editor, the original New Art Examiner, one time member of the New Art Association Board.

Volume 30 number 5, May / June 2016 pp 4-5

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