With September only days away, it dawned on me that I was coming up on 30 years in the contemporary art business -- hardly the blink of an eye. I thought this might be an opportune time to reflect on some of the changes I have witnessed in the industry, since getting my start in 1978, at the age of 23.
One of the great joys of being a young dealer from San Francisco was my initial trip to New York to do business. While the blue-chip action was predominantly uptown, the heart and soul of the art world was SoHo and its five-block concentration of contemporary galleries. The beauty of the scene was that if you were willing to be friendly and respectful, you could probably meet every single serious dealer within a week’s time.The unofficial mayor of SoHo was Ivan Karp, still going strong today at 82. He treated everyone with courtesy and respect, whether he thought you could do something for him or not -- that and the fact that he had the only public restroom in SoHo. Another approachable dealer was Louis Meisel, Photorealism’s greatest advocate. He not only enjoyed showing you around his space, but would often invite you upstairs to his loft to view his personal collection of Mel Ramos paintings. Still another art dealer, the former owner of Artforum, Charles Cowles, delighted in turning you on to his stash of eccentric ceramics by the "Mad Potter of Biloxi" -- also known as George Ohr. That’s not saying every dealer was altogether welcoming. It depended on whether you were "properly introduced" or whom you talked to. I distinctly recall visiting Maxwell Davidson. When I expressed an interest in one of his artists and asked for photos, he nodded but warned, "Let’s start a relationship. . . not end one." Then there was Mary Boone. I can still envision her sitting behind an ebony desk polished to a mirror gloss, with only three objects carefully spaced on its surface -- a Rolodex, a phone and an effervescing glass of champagne. Talk about style. Eventually, I met Arne Glimcher, who in the pre-Gagosian days was the biggest dealer around. One of my Californian colleagues snickered, "Did you kiss his ass?" To which I responded, "Both cheeks!" The point is the dealers were as distinctive as the artists they represented. You knew what they stood for. If you wanted to look at 1960s Pop icons, you went to Leo Castelli. If you were curious about famous architects’ drawings, you climbed the stairs to Max Protetch. If you wanted to see what Minimalism was all about, Paula Cooper was your destination. What’s more, anyone who paid attention could rattle off the names of virtually every painter on each gallery’s roster. The art world, prior to 1990, was that small. What changed? Many things. What immediately comes to mind is the sheer size of the contemporary art market, not to mention its international scope. The key to its expansion was that art became an investment -- an asset almost on par with securities and real estate. All of this was made possible by the tremendous upheaval in the secondary market, fueled by the auction juggernaut.
Back in 1978, the two primary New York auction houses, Sotheby Parke-Bernet and Christie, Manson & Woods, as they were known then, were places that members of the trade went to buy inventory. Rarely was a collector seen on the sales floor. It was an elite club where dealers were said to make arrangements before each sale to go partners on certain lots and lay off others to allow a colleague to buy on the cheap. Was any of this legal? Hardly. Did it matter? Of course not. The art business was so insignificant then that no one really cared.
Many observers point to 1983, the year that A. Alfred Taubman bought Sotheby’s, as the turning point. Taubman’s marketing genius transformed the auctions into a welcoming place for collectors. He made it easy for the average person to buy and sell. For the wealthy art lover, he introduced a variety of financial instruments -- loans against the future sale of property, credit, guarantees, etc.
The most important factor was that auctions brought credibility and transparency to the art market. Prices became a matter of public record. Gone were the days of gallery owners fibbing about what something was worth. A collector was no longer at the mercy of his dealer when he wanted to resell something. If he didn’t like the price the gallery offered for his Sam Francis, he could always put it up for auction.
The art market as we know it now had its roots in the 1980s, when Charles Saatchi, a British advertising executive masquerading as a collector, became its first official speculator. He bought up undervalued artists en masse, promoted the hell out of his collection, and then sold much of his holdings at auction. He created the template for today’s large-scale art investors who stockpile works by individual artists -- Picasso, perhaps, or Warhol, Basquiat and Wesselmann -- and bid up their works at auction, presumably reaping the financial benefits as their collection appreciates.
Auction speculation has recently been taken to a new level by the overnight success of Richard Prince’s "Nurse" series. A painting that you could have bought at Barbara Gladstone for $80,000 in 2005 (if you were important enough to be offered one) now brings $5 million or more at auction, with the underbidders including those high rollers who already own one or more works from the series.
However, the pendulum may have swung too far. On September 15-16, 2008, Sotheby’s is holding an unprecedented sale of major new works consigned directly by Damien Hirst. The artist has bypassed the middlemen, his primary dealers (in this case White Cube and Gagosian Gallery) to sell directly to the public, with the artist taking the risk, such as it is, and paying a much smaller share of the final sales price to his shopkeeper partners. In the old days, you would expect Gagosian and White Cube to cut the artist out of their stable for this kind of disloyalty. Apparently, today so much money can be made representing Damien Hirst that his dealers have chosen to grin and bear it, rather than alienate their money machine.
Where the auction houses go from here is anybody’s wager. For auction houses to move into the primary market for top contemporary artists is a scary development for galleries -- and something inconceivable when I began dealing art.
Almost equally inconceivable is the way that technology has transformed the art market. Veteran dealers still grow anxious when they hear the word "transparency." That’s because the word is symbolic of how business was once conducted. Before the arrival of the Internet and digital cameras, dealers had to resort to shooting 4 x 5 in. transparencies of paintings they were trying to sell. Not only was it expensive to hire a professional photographer, it was time consuming. The whole process could take an entire week. First you shot the image, then had it developed and delivered to the gallery, and finally sent it Federal Express to a potential buyer. Now you can shoot the image with a digital camera, transfer it to your computer, and send it -- in five minutes.
The Internet has narrowed the playing field for collectors as far as access to information. One leader in this field, needless to say, is Artnet and its database of auction prices. Before the Artnet database went online in 1996, art dealers had a distinct advantage. Not only did they know where the "bodies were buried," but they usually had greater and quicker access to past auction results. No longer. While most dealers are reluctant to potentially "burn" a $1,000,000 painting by plastering it on the internet, they certainly have learned to trust it for displaying almost everything else. Dealers repeatedly tell me that their business reach has become global as a result of the internet.
Cell phones have sped up business and made art dealing infinitely more convenient. I can recall the time I walked around the art neighborhoods of New York specifically to stake out "quiet" pay phones for future use. Did you ever try to conduct business with a jackhammer, garbage truck or fire engine disrupting a crucial moment in a deal-making conversation? Barney’s on Madison Avenue was a favorite. SoHo was more problematic. And you could forget about the bank of pay phones at the auction houses, for obvious reasons.
I’m not saying the art world is a better place than it was in 1978. It’s just different. Like the publishing and music industries, the art business has become strictly bottom line. At the risk of sounding cynical, money has never been more important; connoisseurship and independent thinking never less so. There’s also no sense of history. Anyone who entered the field during the current Chelsea era rarely has a clue as to who their ancestors were that built the art world. I would be shocked if half the dealers in Chelsea could identify Irving Blum, Leo Castelli, Peggy Guggenheim, Sidney Janis, Ivan Karp, Allan Stone, Betty Parsons and other pioneers. The characters who defined the business are almost gone. Young kids who open galleries today are no longer the black sheep of rich families, but career-oriented, well-adjusted individuals with good educations.
Regardless of the permutations of the market, the great art itself remains beautiful. When you’re feeling jaded, just go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, or the Whitney and savor your favorite artworks -- if you can put away the mental "price list" when you look.
RICHARD POLSKY is a private dealer based in Sausalito. He is currently working on a sequel to his book I Bought Andy Warhol, to be called I Sold Andy Warhol (too soon). Comments can be directed to: Polskyart@msn.com