Art Bubbles and Brain Drain

May 18, 2009

I am seriously bummed that I won’t be able to watch this awesome-sounding documentary on the implosion of the art bubble.  Fortunately, I was able to locate this excellent essay by the film’s producer from December on what the past five years have meant for the art world. Definitely worth a read:

Even these numbers understate the incredible tulip-like increases in the value of the hottest artists. The Chinese painter Zhang Xiaogang saw his work appreciate 6,000 times, from $1,000 to $6m (1999-2008); work by the American artist Richard Prince went up 60 to 80 times (2003-2008). The German painter Anselm Reyle was unknown in 2003; you could have picked up one of his stripe paintings for €14,000. Now he has a studio with 60 assistants turning them out for about €200,000 each. Any figures for the whole contemporary art market are guesswork, though Christie’s chief executive, Ed Dolman, recently estimated that it had grown in value from $4bn a year to somewhere between $20-30bn in the past eight years. 

Contemporary art turned out to be an ideal vehicle for speculative euphoria. The market is almost entirely free from state interference. Governments have had little interest in regulating the trinkets and playthings of the super-rich. Art works are a uniquely portable and confidential form of wealth. Whereas all property purchases have to be publicly registered, buying art is a private activity. And unlike old masters, which are often linked by history to specific places, contemporary art knows no frontiers. 

As disconcerting as this is to big city art market participants, it should be doubly troubling to anyone concerned about the future prospects of markets outside the bubble-spaces of New York and California. Though we’re definitely at the end of this bubble, the mentality of the art-as-investment has a remarkable durability amongst buyers and artists, and its likely that we’ll see a comparable situation emerge a decade or two down the road.  

The persistence of this mentality is troubling for the same reasons Jeremy Beer raised last week in relation to the economic prospects of small towns: The potential value possessed by creative people, just like that possessed by the intellectually and economically gifted, makes  remaining local vastly more undesirable, and the presence of a permanently speculative art culture dramatically worsens the situation. Their combination acts to upset locality, rewards a lack of genuine concern on the part of art buyers, and sucks away the cultural marrow of the rest of the country.

Here I can speak from experience: when I was younger, I had the good fortune to attend a selective, residential public high-school, the Perpich Center for Arts Education, and it is really quite depressing to consider how few of my classmates have remained in Minnesota after graduating. All but a few of the truly gifted students have migrated to the coasts, first for school and later because they are the only places where one can have success as an artist. The Twin Cities, amazingly, manages to have a vibrant art scene regardless of artistic brain drain, but I wince to imagine its effect on smaller towns.

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