The market can launch careers, but museums still matter
Some of Art Basel’s fastest-rising stars are belatedly climbing the institutional ladder
By Charlotte Burns. From Art Basel daily edition
Published online: 17 June 2011
basel. The hype surrounding some of the “emerging” artists on show at Art Basel this week suggests that, for some, it is the market, not museums, that is driving taste. Historically, the public endorsement generated by institutional support is the catalyst for growth in a young artist’s market. But artists such as Jacob Kassay, Sterling Ruby and Simon Fujiwara have been attracting headlines and high prices before securing the slow, critical validation that traditionally comes with museum exhibitions.
The queues snaking around Kassay’s installation of ten silver paintings in Art Unlimited (U17) on Tuesday bore testament to the buzz around this 26-year-old artist, following recent auction results. Fierce bidding for a canvas at Phillips de Pury in May resulted in a $290,500 final price (his work sells for $20,000 to $40,000 on the primary market).
But institutions are now paying attention: Kassay will have a solo show at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts (ICA) in October, and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, is talking to the artist about “a potential acquisition as well as the idea of a small intervention in the permanent collection”, said curator Heather Pesanti.
Commercial platforms bring public exposure that can spur museum interest, said Kassay’s Belgian dealer Xavier Hufkens (2.0/B18). “Art Unlimited has the same prominence as a biennale, in a strange way. We wanted as many people as possible to have the physical experience of seeing his work, rather than an image in an auction catalogue,” Hufkens said, revealing that the work has sold to an institutional buyer.
Nonetheless, this kind of market attention can encourage speculative buying. The consignor of the $290,500 Kassay decided to sell after a similar-sized canvas passed its $6,000 to $8,000 estimate to sell for $86,500 at a Phillips’ sale last November, said gallerist Rodolphe Janssen (2.1/K13), who brokered the initial deal. “When you sell a $6,000 painting, you don’t sell it to the biggest collector in the world. Suddenly, they see a painting going for a high price at auction and they start thinking it is worth a lot of money.”
“It’s an unfortunate side effect of a market where so many buyers are willing to pay premium prices for trophy works. More and more people are looking for next generation artists to fit that bill,” said Allan Schwartzman, adviser to major collectors including Howard and Cindy Rachofsky, who own pieces by Kassay. “I have great confidence in Jacob as an artist and hope this [pressure] doesn’t get in the way of his work,” said Schwartzman.
Other young artists in the spotlight include Sterling Ruby, whose SP166, 2011, sold to a private European collector for $145,000 this week at Sprüth Magers (2.0/B9). “Things have a weird dynamic [at the moment],” said Andreas Gegner, the director of the gallery. “The market has become increasingly important and overtaken other concerns. If prices get too high, too fast, museums get priced out—and you need museums for a balanced career.” As the art market mushrooms, it is increasingly hard for gallerists to carefully foster an artist’s career, said Monika Sprüth, co-founder of the gallery. “It’s much more complicated now,” she said. “There is too much money involved, too much speculation and confusion about the massive attention on artists. It brings a lack of concentration. I need two years to decide whether an artist is really important—and who has two years nowadays?”
Ruby, like Kassay, is now attracting institutional interest, with a show planned for Mamco, Geneva’s contemporary art museum in February 2012, which will then travel to the FRAC Champagne-Ardenne.
Some of the artists, however, are unfazed about how they achieve success. “There is such a strict narrative about how an artist should be to gain credibility. If I only created work in a white box…that three people came to see, would that be more serious than showing in an art fair?” asked Simon Fujiwara, whose Letters from Mexico, 2010, is on sale at Gió Marconi (2.1/N17) this week at Art Basel for €45,000.
Fujiwara has won critical praise following prominent displays at major art fairs—and sales. His Frieze commission, Frozen, 2010, caught the attention of Miuccia Prada, who bought the work for the new museum she plans to open in Milan next year. There are also public exhibitions scheduled in the US and UK. “The market was ahead. Things used to be different—the curators used to come first,” said Esther Quiroga, director at Gió Marconi.
Museum directors and some art dealers say they are trying to ignore market pressures. “My main focus is to keep the artist happy in his studio practice. The audience should consider the work based on quality, merit and context,” said Augusto Arbizo of Eleven Rivington, Kassay’s New York dealer. While acknowledging the strong commercial interest in Kassay’s work, Gregor Muir, the director of the ICA, said he is “totally uninterested in it. What we want to do is show an interesting artist at an exciting moment in their career. It begins and ends with the work.”
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