The Gray Market: Why the Hauser & Wirth Institute’s ‘Wholly Independent’ Research Can Still Be a Major Market Play
Our columnist considers the potential economic impact of the international mega-gallery's new nonprofit research organization.
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.
For this edition, thoughts on what was, to me, the biggest gallery news of the week…
WIRTH ITS WEIGHT IN GOLD
On Tuesday, Hauser & Wirth announced the birth of the Hauser & Wirth Institute, which the mega-gallery described in its press release as a “wholly independent nonprofit” dedicated to “art historical scholarship, preservation, and accessibility of artists’ archives.”
Led by Jennifer Gross, the former chief curator and deputy director of Massachusetts’s DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, the institute will spearhead research on artists with and without a place in Hauser & Wirth’s program alike. Its first two endeavors will be an online catalogue raisonné of the 1950–1962 output of Franz Kline (whose estate Hauser & Wirth does not currently represent), as well as a completely digitized, publicly accessible archive of Jason Rhoades (whose estate Hauser & Wirth currently co-represents with David Zwirner).
Of course, the natural first question concerns how independent this scholarly entity really is. On one hand, my colleague Eileen Kinsella points out that the institute is solely funded by Hauser & Wirth, and two of the five seats on its board of directors belong to gallery co-founder Iwan Wirth (its chair) and gallery partner/director Marc Payot (its treasurer).
On the other hand, the remaining three board members are free of direct professional affiliations with the gallery. At least, if you think Gross, who is among the trio, can be considered neutral despite, y’know, her recent selection by Hauser & Wirth for this job. (Personally, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt.) The institute will also seek “guidance” from an “independent advisory board” comprised of artists, advisors, scholars, and archivists for added objectivity.
What’s undeniable is that the Hauser & Wirth Institute rises up in an era when, as Gross said in a statement, “there are fewer and fewer resources”—read: sufficient funding streams—“available to afford scholars the time and access needed for primary document research.” It also represents a doubling-down by the mega-gallery in the scholarly media space of late.
Remember, in April 2017, Hauser & Wirth hired Randy Kennedy, whose byline bolstered the New York Times arts page for 25 years, as director of special projects in the realms of publications and documentaries. This September also saw the announcement that the mega-gallery would publish a quarterly art glossy called Ursula, with Kennedy acting as executive editor. Fittingly, an email blast landed in my inbox on Sunday morning proclaiming that the inaugural issue is available now.
No matter what space we’re talking about, there is tremendous soft power in providing a scarce resource. It doesn’t matter how well-intentioned the provider may be. If you’re one of the few people with a bunker full of canned food after the apocalypse hits, you become pretty damn influential to the other survivors.
And make no mistake: High-level, high-production-value scholarship is still soft power to dealers. Want to take someone long pigeonholed as little more than a member of a regional artistic movement and instead contextualize them alongside, say, the canonical titans of postwar painting? You need good scholarship and publishing. It’s the way the art trade names things into being.
This is part of the reason Gagosian was already producing its own lush quarterly magazine (with a circulation now around 50,000) well before Ursula was born, high-end galleries have been hiring current and former museum curators to play various roles for years, and even many smaller galleries still try to publish catalogues on their artists and projects as often as they can. (Closely related, of course, is the enduring market power of museum exhibitions, whose subjects have become increasingly concentrated within the ranks of elite galleries in this era of declining public arts funding.)
None of this means the research undertaken by the Hauser & Wirth Institute won’t be legitimate, illuminating, and faithfully executed. But to pretend it will have no effect on the gallery’s commercial success would be naïve. Because ostensibly nonpartisan scholarship can be—and often is—weaponized by economic interests, particularly outside the art world.
As Kinsella notes in her story, the Hauser & Wirth Institute only secured its nonprofit status this summer and finished assembling its board even more recently. But it was established in New York in 2016 as a think tank.
So let’s talk about think tanks for a minute.
In his book The Givers: Wealth, Power and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, David Callahan (who also runs the subscription-based online platform Inside Philanthropy) traces the history of American think tanks. He writes of these supposedly neutral scholarly organizations:
The think tank was invented in the 20th century to offer objective analysis of complex issues. Now, though, think tanks often operate as the motherships of ideological movements on both the left and the right—weaving together a jumble of values and ideas into a coherent story and actionable policy agenda.
In other words, contemporary think thanks tend to use their nominally independent, allegedly nonpartisan positions to lay the rhetorical tracks for other philosophically aligned players to railroad through tangible changes. And best of all, those other philosophically aligned players—who, spoiler alert, tend to have direct business interests enhanced by the think tanks’ recommendations—can underwrite this strategy tax free. Because here in the US, think tanks qualify as 501(c)(3) nonprofits, no different than, say, your local food bank.
As one example of how this game works, Callahan discusses Peter George “Pete” Peterson, former commerce secretary under President Nixon and billionaire co-founder of private-equity colossus the Blackstone Group. Peterson plowed hundreds of millions of dollars into multiple think tanks working to actualize his philosophies about various aspects of the economy. None of these received more attention (or funding) than his belief in the apocalyptic threat posed by… budget deficits.
Here’s Callahan on the effects of Peterson’s think-tank giving in the wake of the 2008 recession:
By 2010, Peterson-backed work was all over Washington, sounding the alarm about growing national debt—and lending mainstream credibility to conservative calls to slash government spending, which, again, many top economists saw as misguided given the weak recovery.
The point? Despite what the paperwork and the manifestos may say, think tanks don’t exactly follow the Swiss model of neutrality anymore. They tend to be about as nonpartisan as the ballots cast by active presidential candidates.
In fact, to see how this dynamic could apply to the Hauser and Wirth Institute, we can look at art-market history, too.
MARK OF THE WILDEBEEST
While founding a nonprofit, ostensibly independent research body may sound like an unprecedented move for a commercial gallery to make, it isn’t. Before the launch of the Hauser & Wirth Institute, there was the Wildenstein Institute, the scholarly entity formed in 1970 by onetime market-making dealer Wildenstein & Co. And far from proving out the nonpartisanship of such an endeavor, the Wildenstein Institute shows just how concussive an impact a nonprofit, ostensibly independent research body can have on the trade.
In their deep-dive history of the weird, wild Wildenstein family, James Tarmy and Vernon Silver position the Wildenstein Institute as an attempt by Daniel Wildenstein, the clan’s third-generation scion, “to transform the gallery and his family from mere dealers into towering experts in the field.” The institute would accomplish this goal through unparalleled research and publishing, featuring unassailable catalogues raisonnés that sometimes required multiple decades to complete. The one on Edouard Vuillard, for instance, took 60 years.
Did the strategy work? Well, Tarmy and Silver describe the institute as (emphasis mine) “a temple to art history whose catalogues raisonnés for the most important artists of the 19th and 20th centuries are so exhaustive that a work by Monet would be worthless without a so-called Wildenstein index number.”
In short, the Wildenstein Institute used research to become the gatekeeper to crucial wings of the western modernist canon. Its resources and mission effectively determined that every piece on the market from an artist it chose to study in depth had to pass through the family’s domain, regardless of whether or not they were working with the artist’s estate.
Think that gave Wildenstein & Co. tremendous leverage in the markets for those same artists? I mean, were grunge bands the best thing to happen to flannel-shirt manufacturers since lumberjacks?
It’s important to recognize that a high-octane academic endeavor like the Hauser & Wirth Institute can influence more than just art buyers. To cite just one recent example, when the executors of the Joan Mitchell estate decided this May to leapfrog from Cheim & Read to David Zwirner, the estate’s CEO cited “the level of scholarship” to be found at Zwirner as a primary motivation for the switch. Shortly after, Paula Cooper torched both the estate’s choice and purported reasoning in the Times, saying, “Cheim & Read actually worked with the artist for so many years. And they’re going to get better scholarship from some gallery that’s going to look things up in a book?”
Cooper’s implication was that the real allure came less from scholarship as scholarship than from scholarship as emblem of robust resources, infrastructure, and market power. And that emblem can be just as enticing to artists (or their estate executors) as to collectors.
Regarding that second demographic, the lush, weighty catalogs and (increasingly) the rich, expansive online archives that come out of gallery-funded research initiatives are not necessarily swaying buyers by igniting their critical minds. In particular, my friends the COINs, or Collectors Only In Name, now tend to evaluate these projects the same way small children evaluate their birthday presents: A big, weighty, beautifully wrapped package is enough to enrapture them whether or not they have any clue what’s inside.
So art history reveals that high-level, nonprofit scholarship can be both a fortress and a beacon for any gallery willing and able to invest in it: a means to protect your existing interests, as well as a means to draw in even more high-value converts. And outside the art world, American politics further demonstrates the symbiotic relationship between nonprofit think tanks and direct economic gains.
I don’t for a moment doubt Jennifer Gross or her new organization’s commitment to sterling, nonpartisan research. I’m sure the Hauser & Wirth Institute will mightily enrich the world’s understanding of great works. But no matter how laudable the intentions, let’s just also acknowledge that, even though the gallery’s executives lack complete control of the board, the institute may also mightily enrich Hauser & Wirth’s bottom line.
That’s all for this edition. ‘Til next week, remember: “Nonprofit” means something very different from “not valuable.”
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