Art Falling Apart: Hidden Costs for the Contemporary Art Collector

As anyone with common sense is aware, much of today’s contemporary art market is populated with works that are eye-poppingly overpriced, let alone horribly clichéd. Collectors are paying astronomical sums of money to dealers and auction houses for works which were only created within the last few years, by artists whose long-term prospects remain, at best, uncertain. Such purchasers are largely engaged in a money game, hedging their bets that a piece which they purchase for $10 million today, will be worth $50 million five years from now when they re-sell it, or donate it to an art institution for a tax write-off. Yet now comes a new entity known as the Art Preservation Index, which is creating quite a buzz about a budding problem for these collectors, apart from the obvious one of their terrible taste: one which has largely been ignored or swept under the rug by the art market until recently.

Unlike more “traditional” materials – canvas, wood, stone, etc. – many contemporary works of art are created using non-traditional materials and methods. This experimentation is part of the art, as it were, but to the uninformed collector, it is also a potential minefield. Whereas an oil painting can last for centuries when properly cared for, many modern materials begin to disintegrate relatively soon after they have been employed in the creation of a work of art. The person or entity that commissioned a portrait painting or sculpture in 1700 reasonably expected that the object would last forever, or at the very least for many, many years. What is the reasonable expectation now, for a portrait or sculpture created in 2015 using non-traditional, untested materials and methods, whose long-term viability remains to be seen?  

The argument can be made that the more ephemeral nature of many pieces of contemporary art is part of the story being told by the artist. However, one wonders whether most art collectors, paying millions of dollars for objects which may well cease to exist within their own lifetimes, are being properly informed about the situation that they are getting themselves into by collecting such works. Perhaps as collectors, they are drawn to the idea of art as investment, i.e. anticipated resale profits, or as a form of liquidity. Perhaps they are drawn to the feeling of excitement and enhanced social standing which a savvy art dealer or auction house can evoke through the sale of a major work of art, and they are unconcerned with the long-term preservation of the art which they are purchasing. The rule of caveat emptor – buyer beware – applies to art sales just as it does to the sale of other goods, but of course the price tag in question is considerably more than that for a used car or a second-hand washing machine.

People have always traded in art as a commodity, just as people have always collected art because it makes them feel like they have one-upped their neighbors. Yet what has changed, in addition to the decline of standards in content and execution, is a corresponding decline in many instances of the understanding and use of materials to create works of permanence. In the past and still today, when a collector purchases a painting by Rembrandt, or a sculpture from Ancient Egypt, they anticipate that such works will endure well into the future, given that such pieces have already survived for centuries. Today, in many instances, the works accumulated by a contemporary art collector face a very uncertain future, to say nothing about the publicly-funded institutions which subsequently add these works to their permanent collections.

In art history, one of the complaints leveled against Leonardo da Vinci even during his own lifetime was his deviation from tried-and-true methods in the creation of his art, often with disastrous results. For all of his unquestioned genius, a review of Leonardo’s existing artistic output reads like a catalogue of failures: paintings that failed to stick to walls, bronzes that could not possibly be cast, projects taken up and never completed, etc. Today, we excuse the limited quantity of his artistic output, by focusing on the quality of those works which he did complete.

One wonders whether, centuries from now, the same excuses will be made for many of today’s contemporary artists, whose materials are often even more unstable than those employed by Leonardo, and whose work rarely if ever even begins to approach his in terms of technical study, masterful composition, and sensitivity of content.


"The Last Supper" (detail) by Leonardo da Vinci

Lutherans Gone Wild: Bad Art, Bad Taste, Bad Theology

Turns out Cardinal Mahoney isn’t the only one with a shaky grasp on the concept of Sacred Art.

In a move which portends great, great ugliness and heterodoxy, the historic Lutheran Church of St. Anne in Dresden, known as the Annenkirche, has commissioned the Dutch-based South African artist Marlene Dumas to replace a ruined early 20th century fresco of the conversion of St. Paul on the road to Damascus, with an artwork of her creation and thematic choosing. The only restriction given her was that the resulting work not be “depressing”. Ms. Dumas promises to deliver something exploring different stories of creation in the form of trees.


With respect to the underlying premise of the project, I invite the reader to Google some of Ms. Dumas’ paintings, most of which are largely unoriginal, a mash-up of the work of Francis Bacon and Egon Schiele with some collage thrown in. More to the point of the commission, her works are usually portraits of people who look like corpses. Therefore you’ll no doubt wonder, as did I, why the church picked her, of all people to create a giant work of art that is not “depressing”.

Of course the real problem here is not so much the nature of the art, atrocious and expensive though it will be. Rather, the issue is what exactly this church community is trying to do with this art: How is this piece going to spread the Gospel? Is Christ’s message really aided by diluting it into a one-size-fits-all, Jesus-is-a-great-guru type of theology, where different religions and creation myths are blended together to create a bland but easily palatable whole?

Because whatever that end result is, it is not Christianity. Rather than give carte blanche to an artist who obviously doesn’t know Adam from Edam, the church fathers at the Annenkirche should have recognised that they have a duty to spread the Gospel, not just decorate their walls. By commissioning art which only muddies the waters, they are failing in their duty to the Christians of Dresden, whom they are supposed to be serving.


Art Philanthropy Is Alive and Well…At Least in Manhattan

There are many games which one associates with the lives of those who are fortunate enough to spend much of their time at leisure. There are no competitors of moderate income taking part in the America’s Cup, for example. Yet an interesting piece which appeared in Vanity Fair yesterday on the game known as art collecting shows that there are some games which only the very, very comfortable are able to play. And that game has an important impact on both the art world and philanthropy.

The article in question theorizes that there is a war going on between the three most important art museums in New York City: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, and The Whitney Museum of American Art.  More precisely, the piece suggests that there are power struggles among the various board members of these institutions, which are affecting the institutions themselves. The effort to preserve what is already there, while attracting more visitors to their collections so that what is sometimes termed “high art” remains relevant to younger generations, is an ongoing dilemma for many of these august bodies.

What seems particularly interesting or unusual is the idea that The Met is evolving to better reflect the ongoing history of art.  This is something which the Lauder family has moved along considerably with the donation of their collection of Cubist works. This among other artistic movements of the previous century was an area of acquisition which The Met had largely left to MoMA in the past, given their very different reasons for existing, If The Met is seeking to get into the Modern Art game now it might seem to have left it a bit late, but then again The Met is The Met.

In London of course there is a clear division of powers between the two largest art institutions of that city: The National Gallery and Tate (I still have difficulty in dropping the leading “The”.) If you are looking for Modern or Contemporary Art, you have to go south of the Thames, rather than to Trafalgar Square, in order to see it. Here in Washington, by contrast, although the Hirshhorn specializes in such things, the National Gallery also has Modern and Contemporary works in its possession. Local dictates seem to lead to inconsistent results when it comes to the honing and polishing of a particular institution’s holdings.

However the importance of recognizing these ongoing changes lies not so much in controversies over building expansions, board membership, or the like, but in the nature of the collections themselves. If a public or quasi-public institution holds fast to the idea that art is intended to educate and edify the public, then the choices which it makes in what to acquire and display tell us a great deal about not only the institution itself, but that institution’s perception of the community which it serves. That is where, sometimes, museums can lose their way, by forgetting their purpose.

Is the art museum becoming merely a place of entertainment, a charge levied by some against one of the institutions profiled in the Vanity Fair article? One could certainly look at the museum of today in that fashion. Perhaps they are viewed as a place where the discarded baubles of the dead are put out for the curious to admire, or a venue for holding swanky parties in luxurious surroundings. The counter to that argument, of course, is that art collections large and small have always been sought out by those who appreciate art, whether in the vast corridors of the former palaces of the Bourbons and Medici, or in grand country houses and estates which open their doors to visitors but still remain private residences for most of the year.

Rather perhaps the question which we ought to be asking when we see the evolution of art museums is one not of utility, but of intent. What is the goal of building up a collection of 20th century masterpieces in Manhattan, if not to keep such works hanging on the walls of a penthouse on the Upper East Side? Is it such a bad thing for someone who has been fortunate enough to succeed in this country, to share his good fortune with a major museum, for the pleasure and enlightenment of his fellow citizens?

When many of this country’s art institutions got their starts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they were able to take advantage of the fact that the Old World was getting a bit decrepit and in need of American cash. Whereas most of the European art institutions have their origins in royal collections forcibly or otherwise appropriated from their former owners, in the U.S. it was the well-to-do who realized that they would have to voluntarily build such collections themselves, if there were to be comparable institutions for the benefit of the citizenry. Thus it occurred then, as it does today, that the magnates and financiers who built the original museums have their descendants at present in those who continue to benefit from the opportunities afforded those who are able to make the American dream a reality for themselves and their families, and in the process benefit their communities as well.

Many of the names have changed, as fortunes are won and lost and diluted, but the idea that something needs to be given back remains an essential component of the philanthropic spirit which created the art world as we know it in this country. When Leonard Lauder donated his Cubist collection to The Met, he thanked his children for being willing to give up part of their future inheritance – in the form of works of art estimated to be worth a total of over $1 billion – for the sake of enriching the collections of New York’s most important public educational institution. That says volumes about the state of artistic philanthropy in this country – or at least in Manhattan.

The Met

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York