Nothing left to say after modernism: museums as theme parks for the 1%

Along with the New York Times, I recently have subscribed to The New Yorker. (I’m obsessed with New York right now. Maybe because of the immanence of the NY Art Book Fair? ).

Two articles in the August 27th issue of The New Yorker, read together have some interesting things to say about today’s art world.

Continue reading Nothing left to say after modernism: museums as theme parks for the 1%

Art ± Economics

A long time ago, sometime after I started this blog, I discovered Hans Abbing and his book Why are artists poor? A short while later Don Thompson came out with The $12 million dollar stuffed shark. It seemed the world was turning its attention, finally, to the complicated financial realities of creative people.

I learned, not surprisingly, from Statistics Canada that artists were among the lowest of the low paid. And among artists the lowest of the low were the potters and the poets, my favourites. 

I started to write a bit about Abbing and Thompson. The economics or economy of the arts was a good topic, a worthy pursuit, but still… I couldn’t quite muster my time or focus. Like a lot of creative people, I am moved to act at certain times and it’s not systematic. At the same time, certain people of my acquaintance, got hold of this topic or idea too, and sort of wrestled it away from me. I don’t quite understand to this day what happened, but it’s a not uncommon circumstance in the arts, where people can be gossipy, bitter, jealous and vindictive and cripple others out of fear, suspicion, insecurity, and ambition. Whatever.

That leaves us here, today, a million years later, after years of too little too late, thinking about whether it might be possible to pickup the thread, and do it justice this time.

Artists and “real jobs.”

At 8:33: after swing music and the Lindy Hop died, even a stellar dancer like Frankie Manning had to get a “real job.” He went to work for the US postal service.

There are few things as irksome to the artistic temperament as the idea of doing something because you have to instead of want to. “Get a real job” is such a cliched invective, a thing of the past you might think. Or hope. Artists, however vainly, cling to the idea of following your bliss.

The arts are, of course, full of characters, dishwashers, and nightwatchmen, and cab drivers, waitresses and nannies – who paid their dues before getting a break, and a lot who never stopped paying.

Anyway, as I’m getting into the Lindy Hop dance scene, I was a little shocked to learn that a figure as legendary as Frankie Manning, who basically invented it, had to deal with that particularly grim financial reality of the money running out and having to pay the bills late in his career, but also pleased to hear him talk openly about, which he does in several interviews. A lot of artists will talk about how it reall was for them of course, if you ask. We should ask more often. 

It didn’t turn out badly for Manning. After 30 years with the post office he was “re-discovered” and asked to teach, which he did up almost until his death in 2009, at the age of 94. At 75 he co-choreographed the Broadway musical Black and Blue, which won a Tony Award in 1989. In the decades following the 80s revival of the Lindy Hop, he became a global celebrity. He lives on too, every time someone dances the Shim Sham, an original Manning routine of jazz-shuffle-tap steps. 

What’s in a Name? WordPress’s “Gutenberg” Editor

Title of WordPress’s post sent to all WP user’s blogs: “Of Mountains & Printing Presses”

Today when I logged into WordPress, I was prompted to try out the new editing interface called Gutenberg. Great name for citation on a blog about reading. Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press was the beginning of public literacy and one could argue that everything since then that promotes writing and reading sort of belongs to him. 

It’s a big name for WordPress to appropriate, like Google adopting “Alphabet”. By the way, how exactly did they get away with that.  Isn’t “alphabet” a generic term lacking the distinctiveness required to be capable of intellectual property protection?

Anyway, below are some sample “blocks” from the WordPress announcement. Looking good. I think I’ll like using it:

What you are reading now is a text block the most basic block of all. The text block has its own controls to be moved freely around the post…

… like this one, which is right aligned.

Headings are separate blocks as well, which helps with the outline and organization of your content.

A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Beautiful landscape
They sure got nice images for this post launching the Gutenberg editing interface.

“It is a press, certainly, but a press from which shall flow in inexhaustible streams…Through it, God will spread His Word. A spring of truth shall flow from it: like a new star it shall scatter the darkness of ignorance, and cause a light heretofore unknown to shine amongst men”

― Johannes Gutenberg


If you want to learn more about how to build additional blocks, or if you are interested in helping with the project, head over to the GitHub repository.

Thanks for testing Gutenberg!

You’re welcome!

Drop cap block. Cool.


Publishing ups and downs

Keanu Reeves rushes in (to publishing art books):

Where angels fear to tread (a great magazine editor runs screaming from the field):

As you may gather from the links above, I’ve subscribed to the New York Times! My friends know because I’m sending them articles like the ones above daily. Or posting them to Facebook and Twitter.

I’ve long thought the NYT is amazing. The best of the best. I thought that because every time I picked up a copy, which was very rarely, I would find at least two stories that were right up my alley; great reportage on things that matter to me, like art, art books, museums, cultural matters generally, politics (on the progressive or social side). I often felt it uncanny how the NYT would have an article so bang on. I felt tuned in, and turned on.

Now, reading the headlines daily (I get their Daily Briefing to my email inbox and then go to the full “paper” for the rest of the major stories and usually a quick scan through the Arts section) I find it much less interesting. There’s still something special about the NYT. It’s just a little less impressive as it’s becoming more familiar.

I guess the big news for me is really not about the NYT but that I’ve finally accepted that to be well-informed today, you have to get the news online, and for the most part, if you’re serious about it, pay for it.

Sort of… I see the Globe and Mail has instituted a paywall. I’m not going there, yet.

Worth reading

Which is better, reading a print newspaper or getting the news online?

Picture of international newspaper kiosk in Paris France, source Wikipedia
International newspaper kiosk in Paris, France. (Source Wikipedia)

This article in The Guardian says print, every time.

I agree. The reading experience is better.

Digital media read differently. With the New York Times, for example, online there’s no longer a clearly defined daily edition. Stories may be featured for several days so if you read it daily, there’s an annoying redundancy, and if you don’t read it every day, you can’t be certain what’s current.

Sections are also more fluid. Web pages linked from side bars or footers offer “related” stories on an assortment of topics. When you’re finished one article, you’re as likely to flip to another topic area as stay with the business or arts section you were on. It’s like an invitation to ADHD.

Online, it doesn’t matter how big your digital viewing screen, the page is truncated. Text is too small or too big, runs off the page.

And much of your time is spent clicking and scrolling, basically wayfinding. It’s like being lost in the woods; you are hardly going to stop to take in the view when you don’t know where you are or how to get home.

In a print newspaper, you read bits here and there too, a headline here, a paragraph there, but you always have a sense, reinforced by your peripheral vision and the feel of the paper in your hands, of where you are, how much or little there is of that article, and where it fits in the editorial scheme of things, above the fold or below.

Online, “home” is just a metaphor. It might as well be a randomly selected page. They might call it a front page but it is not a front page. There is no prominent title/name, no heft as with a 13″ x 26″ piece of paper backed up with 50 to 100 or more solid pages of content, no table of contents.

Fundamentally, online, once you get there, there is no there there, as Gertrude Stein once quipped, there is no “whole” to be taken in at a glance, no fathomable project to begin, no sense of what completion would consist of, what you might get out of it.

Instead we have an unfathomnable, bottomless pit of more or less undifferentiated stuff casting around for a reason to be. I’m sorry, but we, the readers, cannot alone provide that reason. We look to newspapers to help us make sense of the world, as a tool that helps us formulate opinions, and ultimately make decisions.

No wonder, as Neil Thurman has found, people read on average 30 seconds of news online each day, compared to 40 minutes immersed in a newspaper. And no wonder somebody can dismiss it all as “fake” and, though it is puerile and ignorant, we are relatively powerless to contradict them. There IS something wrong with the news; it may not be the news itself so much as the failing digital media. All spectacle, you can call it what you want. It’s just a show.

Now, which is the best paper? For me, in order of quality, importance and scale; the New York Times, Guardian, Globe and Mail, Winnipeg Free Press, Thunder Bay Chronicle-Journal, and our own very local Sioux Lookout Bulletin.


“Modern art was once deemed serious because it derived from an avant-garde, and what the garde was in avant of was the market.”
Searching for Jean- Michel, by Stephen Metcalfe, The Atlantic, July/August 2018

J-M Basquiat, “New”, 1983

The above quote is from an article in The Atlantic about the artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1961-1988). It’s a tender, heart felt search for the substance of genius and an answer to the artist’s premature death. Metcalfe turns up the usual suspects: poverty, abuse, mental illness, random circumstance that would drive the average person to despair, but against which talent and intelligence not only provide defence but turn desperation to advantage, only succumbing to the poison of excess.

A bunch of unconvincing cliches (who but a critic could say that Basquiat couldn’t draw or imagine that art derives its value from “deep study”?) riddle the piece but the history of Basquiat the person and artist developing in the midst of an art market catching fire is insightful and seems true to the times (that miserable decade, the 1980s).

By article’s end, you feel like you are standing before the paintings, stroking your chin and nodding beside Metcalfe: can’t explain it, the money is crazy, but that is truly something to behold.

Another most quotable quote, attributed to Picasso: “For paintings to be worth a lot of money, they must at some point have been sold cheaply.” But that is a topic for another day.

The unexceptional economy of design

The economy of the art world, or of the design world – how things are valued and how the money flows – is not so different than how money works within the production and distribution systems of consumer goods, say purses or fast food.

From Dwell magazine, May 2016
From Dwell magazine, May 2016

However, the art+design world holds itself apart, perhaps because the people who work in these fields are not like you and me; they are more driven by and drawn to emotion, and to truth perhaps. Living a life chasing insight is a peculiar vocation, one without the proverbial bottom line of cost effectiveness.

Or perhaps the art+design worlds hold themselves apart because they are, and want to be, more like luxury goods. In the book The $12 Million Dollar Shark – The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art, York University business professor Don Thomson shows that “the art market, and contemporary art in particular, is as much brand-driven as any other high-end luxury market, through case studies (the dealers Larry Gagosian or Jay Joplin, the artists Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin, Jeff Koons or Andy Warhol, the auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s, the collectors Charles Saatchi or Ronald Lauder…) and broader considerations on the overall economics of art. (Reader review on, link above)

Another popular conception of the difference between the art+design fields and other “normal” economic activities holds that artists, and creative types generally, are “not good with money.” How many artists and designers hesitate to talk about money matters with their clients, galleries and dealers? And end up suffering, underpaid or unpaid altogether?

Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer
Wassily chair by Marcel Breuer

In this regard, this letter, from the office of architect Marcel Breuer (best known for his elegant tubular steel and leather chairs) to a prospective client, is refreshingly forthright about what it costs to hire the firm. Kudos to Dwell magazine for reproducing it. Both consumers and producers of good design need to see how it’s done.

Change, period.

Art. Future. Change. Canada Council for the Arts report on the state of the visual arts in Canada, 2015The Canada Council for the Arts’ new report on the state of the visual arts in Canada could well have used the imperative tense in its title, just plain “Change.” It’s a road map for the visual arts.

Based on extensive consultations over the past three years, “Art. Future. Change.” reflects current economic and cultural shifts. It also introduces the term “ecology” as a way of looking at the arts, to gently promote holistic and adaptive thinking.

Below are some highlights from the report, with added comments to bring out what I see to be the meanings between the lines:

“Pervasive in the consultations was a strong resistance to being viewed through business frameworks that are seen as insufficient representation of the arts sector. However, much can be learned from innovative strategies in start-up culture, social enterprise and experimental development; as well as emergent non-profit business models that are being explored across other sectors.”

The arts have for too long simultaneously spurned and feared business; mystification has kept both business and the arts from learning from each other. A business plan is neither sufficient nor insufficient, but a tool. Like a chisel or paintbrush, trowel or spade, the magic is in what you do with it.

The reference to social enterprise and startups is especially gratifying since we have been drawn into this sphere since 2012. What is a social enterprise? The most succinct definition I’ve found yet is: “a business that solves a social purpose,” which comes from this Reuter’s article about how Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre is raising funds via a social impact bond.

Read more about that project in relation to public art museums, with other examples inspired by the report, on our other blog: Four innovative social enterprise concepts for art museums.

“Organizations are motivated to do too much.”

Capacity has been identified as a critical issue in the arts for well over a decade now, and still it’s not going away. Organizations over-reach because they have so few options. Scaling up appears to be the only way to attract more resources. And it’s true; the bigger you are, the more resources you can attract. But not everyone gets to be the AGO. Some end up like the ROM. Growth cannot be an end in itself. Thinking ecologically, growth results from favourable conditions and should naturally produce greater impact too (more fruit, more shade).

“There is a strong fear of communicating failure.”

This is probably the most important insight of the report and also the most difficult. We don’t understand failure well, not just in the arts but everywhere. We avoid talking about it. (Why would we?) But this is changing: a fertile discourse is developing around what failure is and how important it is to success. The Harvard Business Review has embraced it. In Canada, there’s a brilliantly named project, Fail Forward, supported by the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, that has this to say about failure:

“When everyone speaks openly about failures we can implicitly say ‘If you have no failure to discuss, you are not being honest, or you are not being innovative.’ It’s a paradigm shift. An acceptance of failure genuinely turns the concept of performance on its head: you aren’t under-performing if you fail; you’re under-performing if you don’t admit failure, because when we admit failure we all learn from it.”

“The sector has experienced a loss of long-term philanthropists.”

Baby boomers give differently than the industrialists of old. The generations coming after the baby boomers will give even more differently. It’s not that boomers don’t give, or that younger generations won’t when they get there, but attitudes to what is worthy of supporting are evolving. In the cultural ecosystem, institutional authority is decaying, fresh sprouts are springing up everywhere and those with means are noticing. Increasingly they want to see how their dollars are making a difference. The days of giving for the prestige of your name on a building or donor appreciation wall are numbered.

“There is a lack of evidence-based research on the arts.”

In the business world, a qualitative assumption about what should work will fail nine times out of ten. Nobody gets it right the first time, or forever. Entrepreneurs are people for whom the desire to succeed is greater than their attachment to a particular idea. They test, pivot, and test again. Artists do this in the studio every day, yet arts organizations find it difficult. This isn’t to say that there’s no a place for challenging, critical ideas, just that what is contrary can be self-serving; like advertising it often puts the impression ahead of the substance.

Evidence is about measurement. Measurement can’t tell you everything but everything can be measured. We learn by comparing things: measurement. But we also learn from the process itself. It is a mindset to focus on impact.

“Audiences are stressed and can’t afford to participate.”

This is a refreshingly frank acknowledgement that the arts aren’t just an ecology but also an economy, and part of the larger one. “Afford” is an interesting term for the report to use. I don’t think it’s meant literally but refers to the fact that many, if not most, people feel that high culture doesn’t address their real lives and in any event isn’t meant for them. As Jason Luckerhoff found in a study called Visiting Art Museums published in Québec in 2009 that the typical public art museum visitor is not defined so much by how much money they have but by other kinds of “capital”; in terms developed by the sociologist Pierre Bordieu, they have enough cultural, social and symbolic capital to feel entitled to enter the museum and participate in the art world. To understand what is going on here will take many kinds of measuring: either the amount of “capital” needed to gain entry to the museum needs to be reduced, the type of capital needs to change or people need help to develop the necessary capital.

“The public wants “social experiences” and not necessarily “arts experiences.”

This observation is not that unique or particularly surprising except that it comes so late to the arts; retailers have been selling “experiences” for years now. The “science” is telling us that everything we do is, at least partly if not primarily, motivated socially. The point of highlighting it here is to show how the report is persistently pointing out a need to look at things differently.

“Peer assessment’s influence has led to safer choices.”

Back in the day, peer assessment – the process of gathering groups of artists together to make grant decisions about each other – was indisputably a brilliant and disruptive innovation. It allowed a new generation to supplant an older one with reasoned selflessness. The principle is sound: so long as artists are gathered to sit on juries based on nominations and experience, the art they decide to fund should theoretically continue to evolve. Alas, no system is infallible. Which is not to say that a lot of brilliant art wasn’t supported thanks to the peer assessment process, only that limits were reached. There are a lot of ways to make grant decisions. How refreshing would it be for Council to itself innovate, trying out new grant assessment processes to capture the art that is truly outlying and deserving of support.

Some conclusions:
Canada Council’s budget has been frozen for years now. Calling for change feels something like a witch hunt: if she drowns, she’s innocent. But if anything can improve Council’s chances for increased funding, it is this report and the direction it stands for. It plainly states where change is needed. It acknowledges that culture looks different today than it did 50+ years ago. It suggests ways to address the differences: talking openly about failure, getting serious about measuring impacts, and trying out new things with the passion and agility of the entrepreneur.

Council isn’t just preaching. It’s setting an example by doing these things itself. More will be known this June, when Council intends to report details about how it is reshaping its programs.

The elephant in the art museum

The Elephant in the Room, Banksy, from Wikimedia
The Elephant in the Room, Banksy exhibition, 2006 Barely Legal show, Los Angeles

If the white boxes within art museums have grown larger and larger over the years, is it perhaps to accommodate the increasing girth of the elephants that museum communities would rather not discuss?

One of the largest of the herd is the question of de-accessioning, an elephant that became starkly visible on or about May 24th, 2014 at the Detroit Art Museum, before being quickly re-cloaked by a unanimous Michigan State Senate Committee.

It is taboo for museums to ever consider selling art from their collections in order to meet expenses. But it is generally considered okay to sell something if the money is used to acquire other art, e.g., to better focus a collection.

There are good reasons for this taboo. Public galleries are very literally not-for-profit. If a practice of selling works from collections was condoned, galleries might quickly drift toward profit-centred acquisitioning, as in “I wonder how much we could get for that 10 years from now?” That kind of market play should be left in the hands of dealers and collectors who are better equipped to speculate and suffer the consequences.

The mission behind museum collections is to preserve great art and give the public access to it, neither of which can be done as effectively in private hands. Selling work has nothing to do with either.

On the other hand, it has been said that too much art is now trapped in museums. Once all the Van Goghs or Tom Thomsons are in public hands, the intrigues and competition of the private market aren’t there to stimulate interest.

Are there other constructive ways of thinking about collections that are still consistent with their purpose? How about a cycle of “catch and release,” taking work into public collections, divesting it after a time (such as 50 or 100 years) so the museum can financially benefit from the phenomenon of market inflation and the work can be coveted and fought over and celebrated in the marketplace once more, eventually to be donated again to another museum, creating both new tax benefits for the philanthropist and new thrills in the museum world?