ART WORLD Q & A: Edition 9


For this edition of Art World Q&A, NYC based private art advisor, Todd Levin, provides an in depth look into the art world and shares his extensive knowledge of the current art market.

1. How has the art market changed over the last 20 years?

There are many different Art markets.

In terms of the smaller local and regional Art markets, the internet has offered Artists who otherwise had no way to establish a public presence outside their state or region the ability to erect a billboard on the information highway, although I don’t know in reality how much career opportunity or financial benefit that has created for Artists in those smaller markets.

In terms of the larger national and international Art markets, the populist growth in the audience for Art has wrought a deep change on Art itself, and therefore, on how one advises and collects. Today, the most popular Art magazines and websites have turned into simple picture sheets, charting the shifting micro-fashions of the newest Art and Artists. The avant-garde has fallen away because, as in the fashion industry, there is now the desperate expectation of novelty – but no longer of development. The shift from seeing Art as an intellectual pursuit (and, therefore, advising or collecting as an intellectual pursuit) to one that is seen as a lifestyle/financial issue is a profound one.

Finally, an increasing professionalization of the cultural production system has taken place in the past two decades, and therefore a marked translation of culture into consumer product, or the commodification of culture. The increasing economic rewards for cultural production mean that Artists, in the broadest sense, have become well aware of the potential to transform their symbolic capital into an income.

2. What is the difference between market and value in the art world?

Art’s value is fundamentally about generating new ideas and new forms through the creation of the Artist’s personal language. As a creator of language (rather than a packager of language), Artists do not belong to a social group already molded by culture, but to a culture which they are themselves building up here and now, at this very present moment in time. In order to create a personal language, every great Artist continually breaks with the past by refracting the entire historical and cultural range of earlier ideas and forms.

The Art market, on the other hand, is only about the packaging of the Artist’s personal language, and the marketplace where that language can be branded, bought, and sold. The Art market, therefore, is simply an apparatus through which the Artist is threaded into the Art world.

3. What role do you think taste plays in the decisions that important collectors make when buying new work?

How does a consumer form their idea of taste? If cultural and artistic success is so unpredictable, who is most important in creating a more certain chance of success? The great mystery is why does a certain person buy a certain thing?

The cultural economy, and how we evaluate Art aesthetically and as an investment, is about taste, not performance, and so, unlike a kitchen appliance or computer or car, there is no methodology to evaluate it. Consumption of creative goods depends on taste and not performance, but for creative goods those tastes emerge from distinctive processes. Success in cultural industry ultimately relies on a skilled network – certain people and institutions have enormous power over consumption – they virtually define taste and create status. Creative producers must work fervently to catch the their attention, as their livelihood depends significantly on that skilled network’s approval.

4. What are the advantages/disadvantages of buying at auction versus buying through a commercial gallery?

When one buys at auction, one is not establishing an intellectual rapport with the Artist or the Artist’s gallery. And that is a thumping, epic disadvantage.

The lack of centralization in the Art world today means that many collectors seemingly go to galleries less and less these days. They just go from auction season to auction season. Because of this, auctions have come to constitute their own mini-economy in and of themselves, and an understanding of their internal logic and means of operation is also applicable to our understanding of Art and its value in general. Auctions have become ‘tournaments of value,’ or status contests. At stake in such auction ‘tournaments’ is not only a simple economic transaction, but the establishment of the perceived rank of Artists’ importance, as well as the status and fame of the collectors who can afford the most desirable Art work on sale. Therefore, it is impossible to see/interact with Art in any meaningful way via auction. Auctions are not places where aesthetic or intellectual fields of value are created. Auctions are competitive fields where the destruction of aesthetic and intellectual values takes place for the benefit of consumptive value.

5. What criteria do you use in judging art?

The Artist’s role is not to lead us out of the havoc that we find ourselves in the midst of everyday. Nor is the role of the Artist and their imagination to comfort us while we are constantly barraged with an onslaught of information from myriad sources. I think that the role of the Artist is to make their imagination ours, to gradually watch their imagination spark in our mind. The role of the Artist, in short, is to help us live our lives. The Artist does this by creating a world to which we can turn to, again and again, so that we eventually are unable to conceive of our lives without that Artist’s imagination and feeling. Art is the crucial interface between the imagination and reality, the thing that makes life deeper and broader than what it might be without such insight.

6. What criteria do you use in pricing art?

It is impossible to interact with Art in any meaningful way – aesthetically or monetarily – if the only discussions taking place are about its price. The value of Art collapses under the brute weight of pure quantification of data, without the requisite education and real world experience to qualify that information meaningfully. And if the value of Art collapses, so will its price – sooner or later. Art is not a growth industry.

7. What is long-term market value largely dependent on? How relevant is long-term market value with the fluctuation of auction prices going up or down each season?

What drives long-term market value is not supply – it is not the sheer availability of more contemporary Art than ever before that sustains the seemingly infinitely expanding number of galleries, auctions, and Art fairs worldwide. And there is more exhibition space world-wide in institutions, galleries, auction houses, and Art fairs than there is good Art that actually deserves to be exhibited. Nor is it quality. Art today is no better or worse than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago, the number of historically important Artists in any given decade or generation is no larger or smaller than it was 10, 20, or 30 years ago, and gallerists and collectors are no smarter or dumber than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago, when I began working in the Art market. The force behind all of this, quite simply, is increasing demand.

8. How are art fairs shaping contemporary art? What is the primary role of art fairs?

One only has to open a lifestyle or fashion magazine to find articles on Art fairs such as Art|Basel Miami Beach, the attendant parties and dinners, and what the Artists are wearing. Art fairs are now staged as purely theatrical events, despite their poor attempt at window dressing them selves as ‘intellectually serious’ with a few panel discussions thrown into the mix. Art fairs have become an extension of our ‘experience economy’ – an ad-hoc mixture of show business, Hollywood, and Wall Street.

This results in “Art fair Art” – a proliferation of meretricious Art called into being by market demands – Art that has what one might call ‘wall power,’ a kind of immediacy, a style of ingratiating effect, many times a jumbo economy-sized scale; in short, the ability to stand out amongst so many other artworks in a crowded salon like setting where everything is clamoring for your attention in the midst of a total visual/sensory overload. At places like Art fairs, Art and money exchange roles: money becomes ‘divine’ by being translated into Art, and Art becomes commonplace by being translated into money.

If, however, we take an alternative look at Art fairs and their effect on the Art market, we find a different, but partially hopeful story. Art can take us into new worlds, new countries, new kinds of culture, new sets of priorities, new social systems, and new impetus to society and its commerce. Art Fairs can open different kinds of windows for us into societal culture and its values.

9. What do you look for in the art you collect?

A compelling concept that is manifested as a compelling object.

10. What is the best advice you can offer to someone who is ready to start collecting contemporary art?

Keep your wallet shut.

Build a reservoir of connoisseurship.

People love to offer the pablum “collect what you love.” It’s utter nonsense. Educate yourself as much as possible. What one ‘loves’ today may bore one of tomorrow, and what one does not understand today might be deeply appreciated next week.

Ask questions and listen aggressively.

And when asking questions, always be aware if the advice being offered is fully objective, or compromised by a conflict of interest. This leads me to the next point…

Know who the client is.

Remember that while gallerists want to be helpful, the collector not the gallerist’s client – the Artists are the gallerist’s clients – it is the Artist’s best interests that gallerists have to look after. That means that your best interests as a collector are a lower priority, so you must have enough education to represent yourself wisely when dealing with a gallerists (or auction house, or dealer, etc.).

About Levin Art Group

In the past quarter century, Levin AG has carefully reviewed over 15,000 artworks for acquisition from primary gallerists, secondary dealers, and auction houses. We have been responsible for the purchase of over 1,000 artworks with a cumulative value in the mid-nine figures. This enormity of statistical data provides us with massive quantitative knowledge in a market where concepts of price and value constantly shift.

Many art advisors working today were not involved in the 1980’s art world when the largest historical art market boom ground to a screeching halt in 1990.  The true measure of an experienced advisor occurs when the market suddenly stops or severely reverses.  Our direct experience with art market cycles over the past quarter century provides us with qualitative wisdom to envision where opportunities are located in the midst of confusion, and how to turn a major market reversal into a collector’s advantage to capitalize on others’ lack of confidence.

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