Dollar Signs

If you were wondering how the recession has changed the art world, judging from the $43.7 million payed at auction for a Warhol painting (fittingly a painting of money) the answer is not very much. At least not at the top end of the market where, like any other part of the economy, the people with money still have money and are looking to consolidate or expand their holdings. This is the world that Sarah Thornton is largely dealing with in her book Seven Days in the Art World, an entertaining introduction into various facets of a very insular world. Anyone looking for an expose will most likely come away disappointed. It’s not that kind of book. Instead you’ll get snapshots of a Christie’s auction, a crit at CalArts, the “feeding frenzy” at Art Basel, the presentation of the Turner Prize, the workings at Artforum, Takashi Murakami’s studio, and the Venice Biennale which end up showing how small and connected the art world is at the very top.

Most of the research for this book took place before the bottom fell out of the economy. The auction she covers was in 2004 and the most recent entries (the studio visit and the Biennale) are based on events in 2007 so reading it now adds an interesting twist. One point made in the book was that the most recent boom in the art market was fueled largely the work of living artists, the Damien Hirsts and Jeff Koons’ of the world. And that, like other sectors of the economy, there was a lot of speculation. Like the housing market, the art market was distorted by the huge amounts of money flowing into it. The money had to find a place to go and, with the fixed number of Monets and Van Goghs in the world, it flowed into living artists and the search for the next big thing. With the downturn I imagine there will be a return to the blue chip artists like Warhol. As a side note I also recently saw the documentary Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?, a film about one woman’s quest to sell what she believes to be a Jackson Pollock painting that she bought in a thrift store for five dollars. As you may imagine, this film portrays the art world in a somewhat different light.

On a completely different scale, it’ll be interesting to what kind of economic indicator SF Camerawork’s benefit auction (Saturday, December 5, 1 pm) will be this year. Will it be positive like the Sotheby’s auction, an indication that there are still people willing to spend money on art? Or will it be another grim reminder that the next boom is still a long way off? Let’s hope it’s the former.

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