Art fairs, algorithms, and aficionados
Jan Winkelmann in conversation with art advisor Sima Familant
Photo: Sima Familant
Jan Winkelmann: I think we first met in Basel some 14 years ago. If I look back, I must say the fair and the buzz around it was, at that time – although the fair was already quite big – almost cozy compared to today. Now there are two days of previews with different access categories. The VIP Lounge is four times as big as it was some years ago. Hotels, even small ones, double or triple their prices during Art Basel. It seems to me as if the hype rolled from Basel to Miami, and came back to Switzerland even bigger. How do you see this development?
Sima Familant: I completely agree with you about the strong development of the art fair culture, specifically with Art Basel as the leader and the strongest. When I met you there in 2000, Basel was a very cool place to visit, and you were an aficionado if you went. Everyone there was very serious about art and/or the business. I remember that it was very heavily European, and felt even more exotic to me as an American. With Art Basel Miami and then the rest of the art fairs, some 50 per year across all the major cities, the idea of Art Basel – a coming together of the art world and intelligentsia – has become watered down.
Until recently, missing Art Basel seemed inevitable. There are already two big art fair weeks in New York within three months of each other (the Armory Show in March, and Frieze in May – both with many satellite fairs) as well as Art Basel in Miami in December. Do you still feel the necessity to travel all the way to Switzerland to see Art Basel? Is it different from all these other fairs, and if so, how?
I still hold Art Basel in high esteem and recommend it to all my clients. Especially because many of my clients are from the US and don’t know and/or haven’t seen the collection depth that you find in a city like Basel. The problem is that many collectors confuse the fairs and feel that if they go to one – i.e. Miami Basel – it is enough. But they each have a different theme. And I find that with Fondation Beyeler, Kunstmuseum Basel, Schaulager, and Zurich nearby with all that it has to offer in the arts, there is no comparison to the US. Miami Basel is only eleven years old. Basel is over 50 years old. The other reason why Basel is different is that it was started post-war while the small galleries in Europe were struggling for commerce. Now an art fair is started because they want to capture yet more commerce. It feels more like our focus has shifted to capitalism, and that is the driving force behind art fairs as opposed to the coming together of the art conversation.
It seems to me that although the global art fair roundabout turns faster and faster, it interestingly becomes more regional at the same time. Do you share this observation?
I love this question as I have been saying the exact same thing. I found this to be the case when I went to Hong Kong for the fair. It was two years ago, and when I was attempting to buy work, the dealers would only sell to me, an art advisor, if the work was going to a client in that part of the world. I was there for two clients – one based in Melbourne and the other in Singapore – yet if I had not had that type of clientele, I would have been wasting my time. It is as if the fairs are geared to people of their region, instead of, for example, to an American wanting to experience all the flavor of seeing art in Hong Kong, predominantly art from that region. I found this astounding. And short-sighted. It deters travel and global understanding. If an American collector isn’t initially interested in Asian art, that could easily change once they visit the region, deepen their understanding of the culture, and begin to participate.
After Art Basel in Miami and Frieze in New York, another major fair from Europe is expanding to the United States. FIAC launches the first edition of FIAC Los Angeles in late March of 2015. LA was always a great place for art production, but was rather quiet when it came to the art market. Now there are a number of bigger galleries soon to open new spaces there. What do you expect from the fair, and do you think it might help bring LA back into the light?
The art world in a city happens in stages. LA has been known as a center of art production as it has fantastic graduate art schools. With less expensive living, LA has become like Berlin, a city known to have artists settling there after grad school, and moving there for community, more space, and less expensive studios.
Now we are seeing the next step. Galleries want to be closer to their artists and the galleries are moving there en masse. Established galleries such as Hauser & Wirth and Matthew Marks, as well as younger galleries such as Hannah Hoffman Gallery, are opening to accommodate artists who live in LA as well as to show international artists. And with less expensive rent, especially for bigger galleries, I assume it makes financial sense to have a base in LA.
The criticism of LA as an art town has been the lack of collectors. Yet as we see it, it feels like “build it and they will come.” Collectors, especially from Europe, are fascinated by LA and are visiting, while more LA-based people have begun to collect. And New York/LA is an active corridor for anyone involved in the art world, with people from both coasts continually traveling back and forth, myself included.
With all this happening, it is no wonder that the art fair market wants to be in LA too, and take a piece of the financial pie. Art fairs want to be where there is some depth in the art world – artists, galleries, institutions, and presumably collectors.
The art market is becoming more and more industrialized. Companies such as ArtRank give well-paying clients advice about who to buy and who to sell. Art advisors like Stefan Simchowitz are highly controversial because of the speculative practice of "art flipping" – buying works by up-and-coming artists with the intention of reselling them quickly. How has this development changed your job as an art advisor?
As you mention, these new companies are a result of the professionalization of the art world. With the Internet as the biggest disruption in contemporary society, it is of course going to have an effect on the entire art system – information, production, and distribution.
Your question has two parts. First, how are companies such as ArtRank affecting my job as an art advisor? Second, how has the dissemination of information, and the distribution, and the transaction quotient, changed my job as an art advisor?
The Internet is allowing an increase in information and data sorting, and companies such as the one you mentioned are using this as their mode for discussing art. In this case, it comes down to numbers and algorithms as opposed to a critical conversation about the artwork – who has the most sales and most articles – a deciphering of elements that are countable and tangible. This is changing the type of clients that are purchasing, and the type of art that is being produced. The funny thing is, the art world used to be about the intangible. One wanted to find the most unusual and unique art object. Instead, using this new model, the collector wants what is the most popular. As an art advisor I work harder to find the collector who is not transfixed with this counting of information, to find the collector who understands that this is art collecting, not buying art. For me, popularity comes into the equation because it is great art, not because an article or an online service says this is so.
With regard to art flipping, the crux is money. Who is making it? This has changed exponentially, and is a major change in distribution. Now, when a gallery sells a work to a collector, and the collector turns around and re-sells the work fast due to the demand – what is known as flipping – and makes a profit (and in this market, sometimes a very large profit), it is the collector, not the gallery and artist, who is controlling the price and location, and realizing the upside. What gallery and artist want this? Now “who are you?" becomes the big question. Why should the gallery sell to you? Which brings us full circle, as this is the area where the Internet is not helpful, as it is now no longer about numbers cranked on a computer, but about what I like to call a classic business model. It is about relationships, which is where my job is crucial. It is my responsibility to have great relationships with the dealers, and work with clients that the gallery wants to help collect. Meaning I have to sift out the people who are in it for a short-term profit.
This sounds like a very sympathetic approach. And it seems as if you are in the enviable position of being able to choose your clients. Very nice.
The art system and with it the market has grown over the last 20 years. There is more of everything. For me that is exciting, as it allows for opportunities. More people will survive in the creative field. A great thing. Like all good things, though, there is an over-indulgence. Happens all the time within capitalism. The system easily tips over. Like all markets, it will find its balance. I feel the real question is about connoisseurship. What is it? Who is doing it? How do you teach it? That is the niche where I want to be interacting, and think about such things as where is the next Leonard Lauder who will give a billion-dollar gift to the Met? Or something comparable. And perhaps that is the nexus of collecting, and what we, in the art system, should be thinking about.
Sima Familant is an art advisor and private curator, based in New York.