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Artnet News
8/8/01


SCARY NUMBERS FROM SOTHEBY'S
Where Sotheby's goes, can the art market as a whole be far behind? If so, we better hold onto our seats -- business is slowing. Yesterday, the celebrated auction house reported total revenues for the first half of 2001 of $186.9 million, a drop of 12 percent from the $212.1 million recorded for the same period in 2000. Sotheby's net loss for the first half of 2001 is $8.3 million. What's more, in light of the "highly competitive auction environment" and the continued losses in its internet auction unit, Sotheby's anticipates a loss for the full year 2001. "2001 stands as a time of transition," said Sotheby's CEO William F. Ruprecht, who promised that the auctioneer's ongoing restructuring would keep it at the top of the art-market heap.

As for Sothebys.com, the online sales unit continues to hemorrhage money. Total internet sales for the first half of 2001 were $23.8 million, but actual revenues from the sales -- not specifically stated in the report -- is closer to 10 percent of that total. Expenses at Sothebys.com in the first half of 2001 totaled $13.9 million. Internet-related expenses in the first half of 2000 were considerably higher -- $33.2 million. The new "buy now" feature, an "immediate purchase" option, has resulted in sales of nearly $375,000 since it was launched in May.

One bright spot on the horizon is the opening of the new Olympia Salesroom in London for middle-market sales on Sept. 3, 2001, to complement the New Bond Street headquarters. Olympia has scheduled 33 sales for fall, including Asian art, Old Masters and early British paintings, rugs and decorative objects, and sporting and entertainment memorabilia.

Sotheby's total auction sales for the first six months of the year totaled $942.9 million, down nine percent from the same period a year ago. Market commentators cautioned that the aggressive entry of Phillips, de Pury & Luxembourg into the auction business no doubt contributed to the drop, along with the effects of any overall economic slowdown.

GIULIANI'S DECENCY COMMITTEE
What's up with New York City mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani's controversial "decency committee," launched in April in an effort to quash museum exhibitions that his honor finds offensive (like "Sensation" at the Brooklyn Museum in 1999 and a Renee Cox photo of a topless female Jesus figure earlier this year)? The panel hasn't released its recommendations yet, but one thing seems clear: despite being hand-picked by Giuliani and headed by Nixon crony Leonard Garment, it doesn't seem to share the mayor's appetite for censorship.

According to a rather confusing series of stories in the New York Times over last weekend, the decency committee -- otherwise known as the Cultural Affairs Advisory Commission -- has drafted a 26-page report that guarantees museums "freedom of expression." Freelance journalist Martin Bergman, however, working with Giuliani deputy mayor Anthony P. Coles, compiled a stricter "code of ethics" that would prohibit museums from showing art that is for sale, or exhibiting works that might offend religious groups.

Bergman also suggested cutting city funding for museums by about $11 million, and using some of the money to audit them instead -- a slap at another Giuliani opponent, the city Department of Cultural Affairs and its director, Schuyler G. Chapin. (Reportedly, among Bergman's recommendations is the absurd idea that "suggested donation" signs at museums should be removed, on the grounds that they are "prohibitive to the poor.")

Finally, in a press conference on Aug. 7, Giuliani declined to give a timetable for issuing the panel's final report.

MET FOUNTAINS FACE DEMOLITION
The Metropolitan Museum wants to excavate beneath the plaza in front of the museum as part of its $200-million, 200,000-square-foot expansion, and that could mean the permanent destruction of the two oval fountains flanking the entrance staircase, according to a report in the Aug. 8 New York Observer. "From an esthetic or an efficiency point of view, they are not the greatest fountains around," said Met president David McKinney. Designed by Kevin Roche and unveiled in 1970, the fountains were donated by Reader's Digest co-founder Lila Acheson Wallace as part of a $7.5-million entry refurbishment. Excavation could conceivably begin in 12 months -- but the scheme faces community opposition (Ed Hayes is lawyer for the coalition of neighbors protesting the plan) and must obtain city Landmarks Commission approval.

BRITS, HOUSTON IN DOG FIGHT
The British Museum needs to raise £662,000 by Aug. 26, 2001, the day a coveted 2nd century Roman dog statue goes on sale, if it hopes to out-bid the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for the marble mongrel. The twice-life-size Dog of Alcibiades is believed to be the only surviving Roman copy of a Hellenistic sculpture illustrating the legend from Plutarch, in which the Athenian general Alcibiades cut off his mastiff's flowing tail in order to redirect attention from himself. It was brought to Britain between 1753 and 1756 by British collector Henry Constantine Jennings. The dog currently resides on temporary display at the BM, right next to a donation box for visitors' contributions.

WALTERS, BMA TO MERGE?
A move is afoot among arts advocates in Baltimore to effect a merger of the Walters Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Art, according to a report in the Baltimore Sun. The two institutions collaborate on exhibitions already, and that is as far as it is likely to go, according to public comments from BMA director Doreen Bolger and Walters head Gary Vikan. Stay tuned.

LIVES OF THE RICH AND FAMOUS
Is the Smithsonian Institution really going to turn its respected National Museum of American History into a kind of history-theme-park Madame Tussaud's? Two big-bucks benefactors seem to want just that. According to a story by Elaine Sciolino in the New York Times, the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation has pledged $38 million to fund a "hall of fame" of "eminent Americans" that would focus on the likes of Martha Stewart, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jordan. Meanwhile, California real estate developer Kenneth E. Behring has donated $20 million for a hall of "American legends and legacies," similarly peopled with exhibits devoted to pop-culture celebrities. Museum professionals are complaining that new Smithsonian director Lawrence Small is allowing wealthy donors to have too much influence over museum programs.

NEA FUNDS DESIGN
The National Endowment for the Arts wants to improve public architecture and design and is spending $500,000 to do just that. In its second annual "New Public Works" initiative, the federal arts agency has granted ten $50,000 grants to underwrite national design competitions for public works projects. This program will expand in 2002, allotting $1.25 million for up to 20 projects.

The juries for the current competition include the big names in the business. Architect Frank Gehry and Richard Koshalek, president of Art Center College of Design, are on the jury for the design competition of Arroyo Parkway, the "gateway" into Pasadena from Los Angeles. The jury for the design competition for a new Brooklyn Visual and Performing Arts Library at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) Cultural District includes Museum of Modern Art curator of architecture Terrence Riley, BAM chairman Harvey Lichtenstein, and celebrity architect Elizabeth Diller.

Other design projects include a new high school in Perth Amboy, N.J., the highway leading to the Denver International Airport, the 11th Street bridges in Washington D.C., and an expansion of the Queens Museum of Art that would double the size of the museum.

-- compiled by Evonne Gambrell, Lily Kim and the Artnet Magazine staff.