The Back Room: Rise of the Machines
This week: A.I. chatbots approach the art world, Korea’s changing market, the Met’s sneaky Philip Guston drama, and much more.
Every Friday, Artnet News Pro members get exclusive access to the Back Room, our lively recap funneling only the week’s must-know intel into a nimble read you’ll actually enjoy.
This week in the Back Room: A.I. chatbots approach the art world, Korea’s changing market, the Met’s sneaky Philip Guston drama, and much more—all in a 6-minute read (1,583 words).
Top of the Market
The Robotic and the Redundant
Developments in artificial intelligence keep grabbing headlines in 2023, and the latest model getting airtime is an A.I.-powered chatbot that is already upending industries ranging from education, to journalism, to coding. Now, the art industry is due for a reckoning, too.
Called ChatGPT, the software qualifies as a so-called Large Language Model (LLM)—basically, an algorithm trained on a gargantuan amount of text-based information scraped from the internet.
Over time, and through extreme repetition, LLMs learn how to generate new texts of varying size from short-form written prompts, with the results usually sounding convincingly informed and human.
In this week’s Gray Market, Tim sketched out ChatGPT’s likely appeal to, and limits in, the art industry. In his words: “Images may be central to this industry, but text is the main tool wielded to give all those images meaning, context, and marketing support.”
On one hand, the latest generation of A.I.-powered chatbots mean that it is suddenly faster and cheaper to automate certain kinds of art-world texts than it would be to hire a human to write them.
Potential use cases include…
- Museum educational content, such as bios and overviews for star artists and movements.
- For-profit business copy, such as gallery-show press releases, staffing updates, and auction-catalogue essays.
- Some art-media new stories, where the task is largely to just streamline and repackage the types of content in the previous bullet.
However, before everyone runs off to fire their interns and junior cataloguers, it’s critical to understand where ChatGPT and its ilk still fall short—and why grappling with artwork might be what Tim calls “the ultimate stress test for this technology.”
Since A.I. chatbots learn from vast amounts of data that already exist in the world, they are best at generating texts about individual artists or movements that have been written about a lot, and emerging or overlooked artists whose practices fit neatly into styles or categories that have been written about a lot.
For example, think of well-trodden subjects like Picasso or Abstract Expressionism—or even artist statements about young painters making figuration centered on personal identity.
The flipside is that the technology breaks down whenever it’s prompted to consider artists or artworks that are doing something genuinely new or unconventional. So far, the machines literally do not have the frame of reference to assess these subjects.
One case study is artist Jura Shust, whose current solo show at Management gallery in New York exploits the gaps in an A.I.’s comprehension of folklore lacking a written record. With few online reference points to draw from, the algorithm essentially has to guess what it should produce based on Shust’s niche inputs. The artistic results are rich because the functional results are poor.
So, ChatGPT cannot penetrate the heights of artistic or literary achievement. But it’s also worth remembering that, as Tim wrote, “the majority of art made in the world, and the majority of text churned out about it, is relatively generic”—and therefore fair game for A.I.-powered chatbots.
The Bottom Line
As art businesses seek to cut costs and find efficiencies in 2023, ChatGPT will almost undoubtedly come into play. Too many people want quick, cheap, just-good-enough wall texts, press releases, or online-only essays about the canonical and the typical. This is the audience for automation.
But the technology hasn’t yet grown sophisticated enough to replace humans able to whip up genuinely revelatory texts (or to supply the social allure of a big-name writer). If and when it levels up enough to negate this critique, we’ll have bigger concerns than the effects on the art world.
The latest Wet Paint tracks the next generation of young collectors flocking to the antiques and decorative art at the Winter Show, then gets the low-down on a fake George Condo sold on a sketchy auction website.
Here’s what else made a mark around the industry since last Friday morning…
At this year’s FOG Design and Art Fair in San Francisco, “dealers [reported] strong sales and [marveled] in the evening’s upbeat energy.” (Artnet News)
TEFAF named the 78 exhibitors on tap for its New York expo (May 12–16 at the Park Avenue Armory). Joining mainstays Axel Vervoordt, Ben Brown Fine Arts, and Gagosian are 12 first-timers, including LGDR, Karma, and Templon. (Press release)
Christie’s series of Old Masters sales in New York this week brought in a net total of $62.7 million, south of their aggregate low estimates. The top seller was a Francisco Goya painting that went for a premium-inclusive $16.4 million, a new auction high for the artist. (The Art Newspaper)
- Christie’s launched a year-long series of events to support the return of Nazi-looted art, beginning with a public exhibition of works by French artist Raphaël Denis now on viewin the house’s Paris galleries. (Financial Times)
- Two rare Lucian Freud landscapes will be offered at Christie’s 20th/21st century evening sale in London on February 28:Scillonian Beachscape (1945-46), estimated at £3.5 million to £5.5 million ($4.3 million to $6.8 million), and Garden from the Window (2002), estimated at £2.5 million to £3.5 million ($3 million to $4.3 million). (Press release)
Simon Dickinson’s son, Milo Dickinson, is joining his father’s eponymous gallery as managing director after 12 years as Christie’s head of private sales for Old Masters. (Financial Times)
Robert Grosvenor left Paula Cooper after more than five decades, though an exhibition of his work is on view now at the gallery’s West 21st Street space through January 28. He maintains representation with Galerie Max Hetzler and Karma. (ARTnews)
- Veteran Los Angeles dealer François Ghebaly is expanding into a new space in Hollywood, set to open next week just ahead of Frieze L.A. (Artnet News)
After 15 years as director of the Reina Sofia, Manuel Borja-Villel chose not to seek re-election when his latest term ended on January 20. Deputy artistic director Mabel Tapia will take charge of the museum until a new election can be held. (El Pais)
In May, Kathy Halbreich will step down as executive director of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, where she has served since 2017. The board is now seeking her replacement. (Press release)
- Asma Naeem will become the director of the Baltimore Museum of Art effective February 1, making her the first person of color to helm the institution since its 1914 founding. Naeem has served as the BMA’s chief curator since 2018 and interim co-director since June 2022. (New York Times)
Tech and Law
Susannah Maybank, the former head of digital at Gagosian, and Mariam Naficy, the founder of design marketplace Minted, have joined forces to create Tonic, a new NFT marketplace. (Artnet News)
- Illustrators Sarah Andersen, Kelly McKernan, and Karla Ortiz filed a class-action lawsuit against the companies behind a trio of A.I. art generators, accusing the services of violating copyright and unfair competition laws. (Artnet News). ..
- The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is being sued over a prized Picasso painting allegedly sold under threat of Nazi persecution 85 years ago. The plaintiffs are seeking either the return of the painting or between $100 million and $200 million in damages. (Artnet News)
“Accepting so many free Guston paintings flies in the face of the challenge that many museums face right now to redefine their missions in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Practically, and symbolically, it takes up too much of the oxygen in the room.”
—Critic Roberta Smith, on the Met‘s decision to accept a gift of 220 works by Philip Guston (plus $10 million) from his daughter, Musa Guston Mayer. The museum will now hold dozens more pieces by Guston than by any other European or American painter, living or dead, reinforcing what Smith calls the “so-called master narrative that has largely excluded the achievements of women and artists of color” even as institutions should be doing the opposite. (New York Times)
Young Koreans Spent Big, Flipped Fast
The trade volume of South Korea’s art market in 2022 surpassed ₩1 trillion ($812 million) for the first time ever, according to a new English-language report led by Seoul National University. For better and for worse, a major force in the changing shape of the nation’s art industry is the top 20 percent of millennial and zoomer collectors—a subgroup the authors label the “Big Spenders”…
- The artwork budgets of Big Spenders in “Gen MZ” (millennials and zoomers, combined) eclipsed those of their Gen-X and Baby Boomer counterparts last year. More than 40 percent of Gen MZ Big Spenders bought artworks priced above $40,583, more than double the share of the older generations who acquired work in this price band.
- Among 1,361 respondents to a related survey by the Korea Arts Management Service, millennial Big Spenders were by far the most active cohort when it came to reselling works: 48.2 percent of this group had put at least one piece back on the market, versus 19.3 percent of Gen-X and Baby Boomers (combined), and 15.6 percent of all millennials and Gen Z (combined).
- But the report also warned of rampant speculation in the Korean market as a whole: artworks were resold after 330 days on average on the fractional art-investment platform ArtnGuide—and after just 67 days on average on the rival platform SOTWO.
Overall, the report does an admirable job of balancing the positives and the perils of Korea’s burgeoning art trade. Click through below for more data-led takeaways about the nation’s ambitions to cement itself as a global market player.
Thanks for joining us in the Back Room. See you next Friday.
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