Sunday, December 05, 2010

Cutting out the "unscrupulous" intermediary

LONDON. Stories of artists being hard done by their dealers are well known: the artist is a starving genius, the dealer, an unsavory intermediary operating freely on an opaque and unregulated market. As a result, artists are increasingly exploring alternative ways of selling art that challenge today's traditional model such as direct sales from the artist's studio (it's worth noting that collectors, tired of "blacklisting" practises and snooty art world conventions, are likewise often eager to cut-out the middleman). All Visual Arts ("AVA"), a "commissioning agency" launched in 2008 by hedge fund billionaire Mike Platt and art dealer Joe La Placa, represents a recent venture moving away from the artist-dealer consignment model towards the "old days of art patronage." AVA provides its artists (currently six, all British) with upfront funding on a long-term basis and then lines-up buyers, "offsetting the advances against a final sale price and splitting the excess 50:50 with the artist." So in fact the only real novelty of the venture is the upfront funding since the 50/50 split is already the standard in the market (the 70/30 split referred to is not and for the sceptics out there, see Edward Winkleman in defense of the 50/50 split). Notwithstanding the reality that there can be no creation of art without the necessary funding, I fear AVA-participating artists may be trading-in the routinely overlooked important functions of a dealer for the sake of short-term financial stability. Case in point: the sale of seven Wateridge paintings to François Pinault, two of which sold for 10 times their price before AVA's involvement. This to me suggests that AVA is possibly more concerned with maximizing financial returns in the near future (understandable given its upfront investment in the artist) than with "placing" an artist's works with a view to ensuring his/her long-term career and ultimately gaining institutional recognition. To increase the going-rate for Wateridge's works tenfold may sound fantastic now but there's a real risk that the artist will not be able to sustain the market at that level and he will crash and burn just like others have in the past (e.g. Cecily Brown at the hands of Gagosian). Not to mention the impact this arrangement could have on the artist's creative freedom of expression for as Rebecca Salter points out, there may be "eventual pressures on artists to produce work guaranteed to sell" (a phenomenon that arises more and more with living artists selling on the secondary market in the past traditionally reserved for deceased artists). That's putting an unwarranted amount of faith in the market to distinguish between a passing trends in taste and truly great art.

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