The Gray Market: What the Berkshire Museum Saga Tells Us About the Future of Philanthropy (and Other Insights)

This week, our columnist asks why the endowment of regional museums is a 100 times less than big-city ones—and offers his take on Tom Campbell’s Instagram kerfuffle over 'Salvator Mundi.'

Every Monday morning, artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.

This week, three alternate views on the much-hyped “democratization of the art market”…

ALL FOR ONE, ONE FOR ALL: On Monday, Andrew Russeth went long for ARTnews on the continuing scandal surrounding the Berkshire Museum’s efforts to save itself from what it claims will be fiscal collapse by deaccessioning 40 works from its permanent collection. The piece is easily the most layered I’ve read on the subject to date, and it touches on one vitally important facet that has been largely missed in the torrent of coverage surging over this courtroom drama: the decline of regionalism in an increasingly connected world.

Near the end of the piece, Russeth quotes Jonathan Binstock, the director of Rochester’s Memorial Art Gallery, talking about the fiscal “pinch” that his institution must perpetually worm out of—a pinch that “most institutions in regional locations whose economies are not growing robustly would feel.”

Similarly, after talking to Matthias Waschek, the director of the nearby Worcester Art Museum, Russeth points out that “philanthropists in Massachusetts have tended to concentrate their money in the Boston area, to the detriment of museums elsewhere in the state.”

Case in point: Russeth reports that the Berkshire’s endowment currently totals $7.45 million. For comparison, I can tell you that in fiscal year 2016—the most recent for which data was available online—the endowment of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, totaled $547 million.

To make matters even starker, the same annual report celebrated that the MFA had then successfully completed a $200 million capital campaign. All of which means that, if you combine its endowment and goal-specific fundraising, one of Massachusetts’s premier metropolitan arts institutions literally controlled 100 times the resources of one of its humble regional counterparts.

Yet what really matters to me is that this story is bigger than arts nonprofits, New England, or even the US.

Consider the following….

Along with reporting a digital-only subscriber base that had grown to 2.5 million a few weeks ago, New York Times chief executive Mark Thompson reaffirmed his belief that the vertical could reach 10 million total subscribers by 2020. Meanwhile, local newspapers around the country continue shriveling up like forgotten hot dogs in a gas-station warming machine.

Two years ago, hedge funder John Paulson gifted $400 million to Harvard, a university with an endowment that then totaled $36.4 billion. (Yes, that’s a “b.”) Meanwhile, Harvard Business School professor and Silicon Valley lust object Clayton Christensen—originator of the term “disruptive innovation”—recently concluded that half of the United States’s more than 4,000 colleges and universities will go bankrupt in 10 to 15 years.

And in honor of Cyber Monday—a retail event that owes its entire existence to the growing dominance of mammoth e-commerce over more personal IRL commerce—let’s not forget that 43 percent of all online sales in the US now take place at Amazon, while Alibaba began vacuuming up more than 75 percent of online sales in China back in 2015.

From the Berkshire’s struggles to Jeff Bezos’s obscene success, all of the above are, on some level, manifestations of the phenomenon I call the tyranny of options. Whenever we as a species feel overwhelmed by the number of available choices, we tend to gravitate toward the same few, well-known things.

The more information we’re confronted with in the digital era, the more often we lapse into this habit. It doesn’t matter whether the context concerns online retailers, trusted news sources, or arts nonprofits. The democratization of access—and thus, awareness—eliminates the advantages that used to be held by local or regional best providers.

Instead, more and more of our money and attention diverts to the global, or at least national, consensus choices, typifying the cultural turning point that haunts me most from Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind: “Family and community are replaced by state and market.” And that’s a development that no museum deaccession—or its halt—will reverse.


SOCIAL STUDIES: On Tuesday, the Art Newspaper’s Anna Brady first reported on a conflict that erupted between the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ex-director Thomas P. Campbell and various parties with an interest in Christie’s $450 million sale of Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi—with all of the drama playing out on Instagram.

Campbell (@thomaspcampbell on the app) ignited the flames of controversy by posting a pre-conservation image of the prized lot with the following caption. (Notice his inclusion of @christiesinc, ensuring that the house would see his commentary, and the impish sendoff #readthesmallprint.)

Salvator Mundi pre-conservation and post-kerfuffle

The Notorious TPC’s unexpected diss soon provoked a principled rebuke in the comments section by Robert Simon, a key member of the consortium that bought Salvator Mundi from an unassuming US auction house in 2005 and later hired lauded conservator Dianne Dwyer Modestini to resurrect the damaged Jesus.

Campbell fired back at Simon by posting a reply of his own (closing with “Seems to be a lot of over-sensitivity out there”), then pivoted to Christie’s Americas contemporary co-chair Loïc Gouzer, who seems to have at least had the good sense to criticize Campbell via (private) direct message instead of public comment. After accusing Gouzer of “abusive bullying,” Campbell ended his retort with the old standby, “If you don’t enjoy my occasional Instagram posts then don’t follow me.” #SickBurn bro!

Thus ends the @ reply play-by-play—and with it, any lingering doubts as to whether social media can reduce a Ph.D.-holding ex-director of a world-class museum to weaponizing some of the same bratty conventions as a scorned millennial.

And yet, as unseemly as some of this social-media sparring looks, I think it still offers us a real (if sobering) insight about the art business today.

Despite past coverage by publications ranging from the New York Times to Forbes to Vogue all calling Instagram a paradigm-shifting art-sales tool, evidence and experience both suggest to me that the app’s greatest impact concerns information, not acquisitions.

Which influential collectors, curators, and dealers are looking at which artists and exhibitions? What’s the scale and tenor of their constituents’ reactions to specific posts? Who’s meeting, working, or arguing with whom, and where?

Not all of this intel is valuable, though. In many cases, the content is banal, lurid, or even self-damaging. Which raises the question of why high-ranking figures within a system that largely traffics in secrecy and discretion would lapse into open-air slap-boxing on a platform often dedicated to dog pics and sexting.

Here’s my theory. Setting aside humanity’s eternal need for connection with others, many, if not most, people in the industry now feel that, like the ill-fated Marvin in Pulp Fiction [NSFW], you gotta have an opinion on issues as prevalent as the Salvator Mundi sale. And more than that, you gotta let the world know about that opinion via social media—at least if you want your peers and juniors to know that you’re still in the game and still worth paying attention to.

What we’re often left with is less the democratization of art per se than the democratization of gossip. But as the late celebrity journalist Liz Smith once quipped, “Gossip is just news running ahead of itself in a red satin dress.” Today’s sideshow may lead to tomorrow’s substance. And any of us in the art trade with an Instagram account would do well to keep that in mind the next time we feel compelled to hit “send,” for any reason.

[The Art Newspaper]

THROUGH THE EYE OF A NEEDLE: Finally this week, Alexxa Gotthardt reported on a new online platform called Foundwork, which aims to connect mostly unrepresented artists around the world with “curators, gallerists, and other prospective collaborators” interested in looking beyond the bounds of their local geographies and personal/professional networks.

As of my writing, Foundwork’s FAQ states that seekers of all types can use the platform’s search engine free of charge, with no expiration date in sight for that privilege. While artists have through March 2018 to create and maintain a profile on the site at no charge, they will be asked to pay a $5 monthly subscription fee thereafter.

However, the platform demands more from participating artists than a willingness to surrender the cost of one decent happy-hour beer every 30 days. “Perhaps Foundwork’s most defining characteristic,” Gotthardt writes, “is that all featured artists are either enrolled in a US MFA program, or are alumni of one. Any artist who falls into either of these categories is welcome to create a profile on the site.” Everyone else is kindly asked to exit stage left.

To be clear, I don’t necessarily think there’s anything insidious about Foundwork’s gatekeeping criteria. It’s difficult to build a coherent product or service without defining some parameters. In the piece, founder Adam Yokell sensibly pitches the MFA requirement as a way to safeguard against the tyranny of options while still spotlighting a deep—and scalable—repository of serious talent. Which helps explain why, as Gotthardt points out, Foundwork currently hosts profiles for just 36 artists.

At the same time, the platform’s fixation on American MFAs serves as a useful reminder about innovation: Even in 2017, tech can still only hit the targets approved by its engineers and desired by a critical mass of its users. Expecting art-industry startups to automatically create disruptive democracy would be like leaving a tray of surgical instruments at a patient’s bedside and expecting it to magically extract a swollen appendix without further human intervention.

Someday, for better or worse, Yokell may decide that Foundwork should abandon its initial mandate in favor of chasing the same massive scale that generally rewards startups in other industries. For now, though, many undiscovered artists no doubt feel that its intentionally narrow gates make the platform a type of democracy all too familiar in 2017: one which works only for those who have already dedicated tens of thousands of dollars to being heard by the people in charge.


That’s all for this edition. ‘Til next time, remember: We get the democracy we deserve.

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