One art, Two worlds

Small rant coming up. Ready?

Warhol's Silver Car Crash Auctioned At Sotheby's Contemporary Art Auction

I’m reminded of the Marx Brother’s song, “Sing While You Sell.”

Too often you will see news stories that equate the art exhibition world (museums) and the art business world (auction houses). This is understandable, because between the two there is the world of galleries, some of which are commercial in nature, others not so much. Recently, a New York Times article by Robin Pogrebin asked if Old Master art can remain relevant to contemporary audiences (I’m not going to link to the article; it’s a symptom, not the cause).

Now it’s immediately apparent that we are talking about vastly different audiences. Auction houses have no interest in the work aside from how much money they can sell it for, and how to keep the buyer coming back. Museums are concerned about repeat attendance, but they’re not interested in selling. Education is the foremost mandate of museums; it’s optional for auction houses. Galleries, being a betwixt-and-between creature, have mixed agendas. Repeatedly, the press makes connections between commercial business and educational non-profits, connections that don’t work.

I question the whole basis of Ms. Pogrebin’s article (I want to read it a second time before getting into specifics). Old Masters are a world unto themselves, and their scarcity is sufficient to guarantee them a market with auction houses. Museums, interested in the steady flows of history, require Old Masters if they are to attempt any sort of timeline of the development of art. Galleries, which largely lack permanent collections, have an as-needed-basis attitude that serves their purposes.

Another, slightly tangential, angle: auction houses are a business, and secrecy is sometimes required where money is involved. Museums, based in education, should avoid secrecy whenever possible, especially in regard to money.


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