Owning and selling over $1 billion in art

The art collection of Paul Allen will soon go to auction with the proceeds going to charities:

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In a statement, Christie’s said that the famed auction house will sell off more than 150 ‘masterpieces’ belonging to Allen’s foundation. The collection spans over 500 years of art history while the value of the works is more than $1 billion. The auction is titled: ‘Visionary: The Paul G. Allen Collection.’ The proceeds will be divided up among various charities.

Among the artists’ whose work is featured in Allen’s collection include Paul Cezanne, Jasper Johns, David Hockney, Edward Hopper, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Georgia O’Keefe, Paul Gauguin, Roy Lichtenstein and Claude Monet. Following Allen’s death, it was revealed that he was the anonymous buyer of Monet’s haystacks painting titled Meule in 2016. The painting sold for $81.4 million.

Because I am teaching a class titled Culture, Media, and Society this semester, a sociology of culture course, this news caught my attention for several reasons:

  • The amount of wealth concentrated in a set of created objects is fascinating to consider. This is considered a good investment for those with the means:

In the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, the art world continues to see major gains. According to a UBS study, the art market generated over $65 billion in 2021 alone. The US art market made up 43 percent of the value share. 

  • This is a reminder of the amount of wealth – and presumably networking – involved in the major art markets. People with fewer resources can see major works in museums or galleries but the owners of such works are in different social categories and circles.
  • Living with such work that is considered important and/or expensive must be interesting:

In 2015, he told Bloomberg: ‘To live with these pieces of art is truly amazing. I feel that you should share some of the works to give the public a chance to see them.’ Allen said in the same interview that his art collection was a ‘very, very good investment for me.’

  • How does someone become invested – economically, socially, personally – in art? According to Allen:

It was a visit to London’s Tate Gallery that exposed him to classical works by J.M.W Turner as well as the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein. That visit left Allen ‘profoundly moved.’ The bio continues by saying: ‘That experience ignited within him a passion for art — and for making art accessible to more people.’

As we consider culture as “processes of meaning-making” (definition from sociologist Lyn Spillman), there is a lot of meaning-making in Allen’s milieu, actions, and legacy.

McMansions as part of a world ruined by climate change

A new art exhibit includes McMansions in the imagery of a world after the negative effects of climate change:

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When Josh Kline debuted his “Climate Change” series at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, the slick sci-fi work looked a little smug. The New York-based artist, who at 43 has pieces in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, is known as a political fantasist with a dyspeptic view of life under capitalism. A recent series of dirty, resin-soaked American flags shaped into televisions, for example, is meant to critique Fox News.

Even so, Kline’s apocalyptic vision of warming seas for the biennial had outdone itself for corporate-chic confidence: a series of 12 greyscale photos of emblems of U.S. power — San Francisco skyscrapers, the front desk of Twitter’s headquarters, a statue of Ronald Reagan — partly submerged in water in plexiglass cases and lit with medicinal ambers and greens. Pumps recirculated the water over the prints, erasing them slowly, like the washer in a darkroom or a hotel water feature or, maybe, liberal tears. The message was propagandistically clear: climate change is real; the water is rising; turn back the tide while you still can.

Now, three of these flooded works appear at LAXART, a nonprofit project space in Los Angeles, as part of Kline’s new exhibition, “Adaptation.” In this setting, they seem less declarative, more hunkered down. The relentless combination of time and trickling water soaks the photographs with an aura of romantic decline. A Silicon Valley McMansion’s peaked roof peers through a curtain of cloudy fluid in “Luxury Home, Los Altos Hills.” A white patch of blight creeps up from the bottom of “Deck, Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel, Menlo Park.” In “432 Park Avenue, Manhattan,” which depicts a supertall residential tower that may be more an investment storehouse than an actual home, a little scummy foam jiggles on the water’s surface.

Kline’s earnest warnings about the effects of climate change are still blunt — the immediate greed of energy and tech and lifestyle companies will still doom our civilization, if not the world, to a watery end. (In fact, the artist doubles down: the back room also features “Consumer Fragility Meltdown,” 2019, a soy wax model of two commercial buildings slumping and sweating on a heated steel table.) But as each image breaks apart, Kline’s message also erodes. Ambivalence creeps through the gaps. Then, when the emulsion has been rinsed away, the print is replaced and the cycle begins again.

McMansions are often connected to climate change and concerns about the environment. This can happen in two ways. McMansions themselves are the problem: they take up a lot of land, they require a lot of resources to build and maintain, and they exist in part due to a sprawling, car-dependent social arrangement.

The second way of linking McMansions and climate change is to use the symbol of McMansions as indicating larger concerns about sprawl, pollution, land use, and environmental destruction. McMansions are an easy target for an era in the United States revolving around consumption, the use of resources, and limited action regarding consequences. It is less about the individual dwellings than it is about an ethos or an era without regard for environmental consequences.

Put that McMansion in Silicon Valley and perhaps the symbol is even more potent: in a time of technological and lifestyle changes, people lived in these environmentally destructive homes in one of the wealthiest and most influential parts of the United States.

The Robert ruins in Gallery 218

The Art Institute of Chicago recently featured on social media a painting by Hubert Robert:

Among the many worthwhile works on the second floor of the Art Institute are these four works in one room. I have always enjoyed them. Building off yesterday’s post about how today’s buildings could become tomorrow’s fossils, these paintings romanticize ruins from past civilizations. Imagine walking through such structures. There may have been centuries when people could wander through such ruins in Rome, Greece, Egypt, and more. Today, such a site would be hard to find as many ruins are swarming with tourists.

What always impressed me about these paintings was the scale of the buildings. As the social media post notes, the people at the bottom are very small. The buildings are massive and impressive. They connote great civilization and activity. Imagine this building above with a full vaulted ceiling and full of people. The buildings have lived on even as the individual leaders and residents changed.

The Diderot quote above is an interesting one. These buildings are falling apart and time will conquer them. At some point, the pillars will fall, the arches will be no more, and the scene will look very different. But, rulers and leaders construct such buildings in the first place so that the structures outlive them. They will not last forever, but even as ruins or remains in the ground they can still attest to a past era.

Hints of growing art scene in English suburbs, towns

COVID-19 and housing prices have pushed more artists out of English big cities:

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Now, the pandemic is prompting a wider exodus from the British capital, pushing up real estate values in outlying regions. Months of remote working have made city dwellers reassess their housing priorities. And like many office workers, contemporary artists such as Mr. Allan — who makes art under the moniker “Dominic from Luton” — are also finding that they no longer need to be in a big city…

Hastings, with its scrappy mix of stately but unkempt 19th-century houses, 1970s seafront amusements, poor transportation links and limited employment opportunities, was recently ranked as the most deprived town in southern England by Britain’s housing ministry. But its distinctness and affordability have long been valued by artists…

Supported by a new [Croydon] City Hall-funded initiative called Conditions, 27 such spaces are being offered for £138 to £230 a month in a repurposed bicycle factory and office building. Katie Sheppard, one of the artists based in the complex, makes digitally embroidered portraits based on selfies; another, Felix Riemann, makes sound sculptures for performances…

This vision of an accessible, locally grounded art scene is very different from the elitist flying circus of blockbuster exhibitions, auctions, fairs and biennials in destination cities that has dominated the art world in recent years.

On one hand, as is noted in the story, the Internet and the smartphone make art possible from anywhere.

On the other hand, art is more than just a single genius creating while sitting quietly somewhere. Local conditions, such as housing costs, matter. Having a set of like-minded arts around who provide support and spur creativity may be essential. Funding, local resources, and neighborly or community goodwill help.

One of the biggest barriers to art in these communities may just be the decades of suburban and small town critiques that suggest they are dull and backward locales. Can art only work there when conditions in big cities are too difficult for artists?

More broadly, this speaks to the concept of art worlds in which artists and numerous other actors operate. The creation of art is a social activity involving multiple pieces and social forces. Art can indeed flourish in many locations, including suburbs and small towns, if the conditions are right.

Rahm Emanuel on what divides people and how art can bring people together

Toward the end of an interview about the arts during his tenure as Chicago mayor, Rahm Emanuel briefly discussed factors that divide people and bring them together:

I think Lori and Amy know that the arts are the soul of a great city. Martin Luther King used to say the most segregated day in America is Sunday. The arts can make the other six days more integrated. Technology is balkanizing and dis-aggregating people. Only a government working with artists can create equity across shared experience.

According to this short quote, two factors work against community:

  1. Religion. Watch MLK make his 1960 statement about the most segregated hour in Christian America. So if religion in the US has tended to divide people by race (see Divided By Faith) and Chicago is one of the most segregated cities in America, Emanuel may have a point about this in Chicago.
  2. Technology. Emanuel could join a chorus of pundits and scholars who argue technology has detrimental effects on community life.

On the other hand, Emanuel cites two forces that encourage community:

  1. Art/the arts.
  2. Government helping to facilitate the work of artists.

There is little doubt that major cities in recent decades have used the arts and cultural experiences alongside public art to try to drive growth. Whether this truly enhances community in the long run, particularly when other forces at work – with Emanuel’s reference to equity, I can’t help but think of uneven development and capital investment in cities like Chicago – work against community, remains to be seen. In other words, can shared experiences overcome persistent social inequalities?

Drawing artistic inspiration from growing up around McMansions

Artist Katherine Vetne builds upon a childhood spent around McMansions:

Vetne says her interests in exploring (and subverting) objects of status and consumerism started when she was growing up in Newburyport, Mass. She observed the differences between established “old money” and the newly affluent: A lot of the newer families built “McMansion” houses that looked like new versions of the town’s historic homes in an attempt to emulate that status.

Those experiences led to a unique form of art:

Vetne, 31, of San Francisco, has been building a reputation as a sculptor who works in an unusual medium: destruction. Vetne’s best-known work during the past three years has been a series of sculptures made from kiln-melted housewares crystal, which takes a distinctive, puddle-like shape when heated.

She then “mirrors” the melted crystal mass in a chemical process that turns the blobs into reflective objects. The pieces are presented individually or in big groups, like in her “Guilty Pleasures” installation that was part of the Catharine Clark Gallery’s summer show, “We tell ourselves stories … In order to live.” Ford and Vetne took the shopping trip at Clark’s invitation to find the raw material for a piece Ford recently commissioned from Vetne.

The idea of working with crystal, whether it’s fine Baccarat or more mass-market Avon, appeals to Vetne, who is interested in exploring issues of class, gender and materialism. “At the crux of my practice is the more middle-class people with some amount of resources trying to look ‘higher class’ than they are through the objects they acquire. I am interested in concepts of visual excess and how they’re supposed to communicate something. Usually, it’s ‘I have a lot of money.’”

Given the general reputation of McMansions, this is not surprising: take objects by which aspiring people try to build up their status and then destroy them to show what those objects are really about. Perhaps it would even be more shocking if an artist celebrated McMansions.

I’m also trying to imagine this destruction process applied to actual McMansions or parts of McMansions. Could a piece of performance art involve taking a wrecking ball to a McMansion? Or, imagine taking a two story foyer to a museum and showing it falling apart every so often, like the way “Concert for Anarchy” displays a piano in an unusual form. Or, take granite countertops and stainless steel appliances and destroy them.

We need more public art along highways

I recently embarked on the Troll Hunt at Morton Arboretum. The best troll I saw sat on a hill overlooking I-88. One week ago, I viewed this troll from the highway coming back from an early morning trip to O’Hare Airport. Here are two views of the troll looking toward the highway:

TrollOverHighway2

Joe the Guardian at Morton Arboretum. Created by Thomas Dambo.

 

TrollOverHighway1

Joe the Guardian at Morton Arboretum. Created by Thomas Dambo.

This is a busy stretch of road with over 160,000 cars passing by daily (as of 2014). As the pictures suggest, this is not a particularly scenic area. At this point, the highway is at a lower point with a hill to the east near the interchange with I-355 and to the west at the Naperville Road exit. The north side has hills at the edge of the Morton Arboretum and large power lines. The south side has various office buildings and residences. A driver here is in the middle of the western suburbs just over 26 miles from State and Madison in Chicago’s Loop.

Having art here is a great idea. The troll certainly catches your eye as you drive by. It adds whimsy to what is a fairly typical stretch of highway. It enhances the brief stretch of greenery provided by the Arboretum. Perhaps most importantly, it presents something unique and thought-provoking. It is not another billboard trying to catch your attention. It is not a building with a sign displaying its inhabitants. It is not something that your eye quickly passes over. It is there for you to enjoy, to ponder. I do not know if it would make the daily commute any shorter but it may make just a little bit more enjoyable.

Inserting a number of installations or figures along major highways would not take much. This would require the cooperation of private landowners – for example, the Arboretum has six more trolls to see that require admission while only this one is visible from the highway. I realize that this art may not generate much money. Just imagine if the land on which this troll stands could be converted into office space or luxury condos. Or, at the least, a billboard could sell advertisements. Instead, put public art on the sides and tops of buildings. Find spaces between structures. Highlight interesting topographic features. Use private land and structures to benefit many. Give drivers and visitors something to look forward to as they file away yet another highway mile.

 

Bringing art and renovation to outdoor basketball courts

Project Backboard seeks to both renovate and bring public art to urban basketball courts:

The transformation of mural-style courts across America has its roots in Memphis, where Daniel Peterson noticed the majority of courts had fallen into disrepair. It was then, in 2014, that Peterson founded Project Backboard, a nonprofit that has renovated public basketball courts in cities from Los Angeles to St. Louis. More renovations in Memphis, Maryland, and New Rochelle, New York, are underway, and Peterson has consulted on projects in Oregon, Virginia, and Belgium, and talked to several other urban parks departments.

In Memphis, where one in four residents lives beneath the poverty line, Peterson found in 2014 that around two-thirds of basketball courts across the city didn’t even have basic lines: foul, three-point, or out-of-bounds. Backboards were tagged with Coke logos or vinyl stickers. The courts just didn’t work. Today, mostly teen boys and young men play on more than 20 renovated courts, whose 30 public works of art include whimsical silhouettes on Lewis-Davis Park, bright profiles and symbols in Chickasaw Park, and geographic shapes in Pierotti Park.

All of this is in the context of making basketball courts more inviting spaces. This is not necessarily easy to do when some residents dislike outdoor courts:

Fear-driven efforts to shut down outdoor courts seem to disproportionately affect people of color. A so-called “kill-the-hoops movement” has spread across small towns and cities, including Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, as a maneuver against guns, noise, fights, and drugs. In 2016, a neighborhood group in Brooklyn proposed replacing basketball courts with tennis courts to curb crime, and was accused of racist motivations.

“Obviously, I don’t subscribe to the belief that inviting more people into an area is going to have a negative impact on your community,” Peterson said. “We think the more people you bring into the community, into public spaces, the more positive impact it’ll have in the community.”

See these earlier posts from 2011: Thinking about the lack of outdoor basketball courts – Part One and Thinking about the lack of basketball courts – Part Two. Compared to some other park options, basketball courts can be relatively low maintenance (concrete, poles and backgrounds, replace the nets fairly regularly) and they require participants to bring little more than a basketball (and you may only need one for a large group). Yet, basketball courts tend to attract young males and this may not be welcomed by nearby residents.

The idea of infusing public art with outdoor courts is a clever one but I am curious about the long-term effects. Do the courts help attract a broader range of nearby residents? Is the artwork maintained? Does the artwork change behaviors on and near the court or perceptions from insiders and outsiders about the neighborhood? I could see some interesting opportunities arise with artwork and competitions; NBA and college teams have similar gotten into some crazier court designs in recent years to create a home court advantage as well as attract attention.

Housing prices drive punk music to the suburbs

Punk music is associated with gritty urban life – until that urban life becomes too expensive:

Shows like that are increasingly common in Santa Rosa, and it has a lot to do with the prohibitive cost-of-living in nearby San Francisco. “I had every intention of moving down to the city,” said Ian O’Connor, 23, who organized the gig. “But when the time came, it was too expensive.” Instead, in the last three years, he has booked dozens of all-ages gigs in Santa Rosa, mostly at unofficial venues: detached garages, living rooms, lobbies of sympathetic businesses. The scene thrives on the participation of people like him, area natives in their early 20s who, not so many years ago, would’ve likely moved an hour south to Oakland or San Francisco…

One hallmark of punk’s inception in the Bay Area and throughout the Pacific north-west was the notion of cities as places of possibility, so hollowed out by eroding tax bases and selective civic neglect that they seemed “deserted and forgotten”, as music journalist Jon Savage wrote of his 1978 trip to report on San Francisco punk bands such as Crime and the Dead Kennedys. “It was there to be remapped.”

But with the same cities stricken by intensifying affordability crises – premiums on space that make somewhere to live, let alone rehearse and perform, available to a dwindling few – they don’t beckon young punks like they used to. And though reports of music scenes’ deaths tend to overstate, news of shuttering venues (see eulogies for The Smell, The Know, and LoBot) deters some of the intrepid transplants needed for invigoration. Dissipating metropolitan allure, however, helps account for the strength of scenes in outlying towns…

According to Samantha Gladu – bassist in the feminist, wrestling-themed hardcore band Macho Boys and chief advisor to state senator Chip Shields – recent revelations about what a state investigation found to be cripplingly over-burdensome nightclub regulations have done little to calm the Portland punk scene’s nerves: “Rising rents and recent reporting on the city government’s apparent selective regulation for venues leave punks with the impression that not only can they not afford Portland, they aren’t part of some officials’ vision for Portland.”

Given that more urban features – including denser housing, more non-white and less wealthy residents, and urban issues – have moved to the suburbs, it isn’t too surprising that artistic ventures could move there as well. Yet, I imagine this is not easy for many artists or others who dislike the suburbs and celebrate cities. Can places that are still criticized for conformity, whiteness, and materialism nourish new artistic ventures? Can suburban communities tolerate people who go against convention or who seek space to spread out and explore? If given the resources, I imagine that most bands would want to be in the big city where there is more energy, similar artists, and venues.

However, this represents an opportunity for suburbs to pursue a more creative vision. Many suburbs hold and promote festivals and fairs committed to the arts, both as a way to generate revenue as well as a way to signal openness and engagement. It is something different to have permanent venues devoted to some ventures; could a middle to upper-class suburb give its blessing to a punk music music site? Or a collaborative of experimental artists? In other words, if cities and/or certain neighborhoods are too expensive, numerous suburbs could join the competition to attract musicians and artists and possibly transform their own communities.

Cutting a suburban house in half for art

In 1974, artist Gordon Matta-Clark sought a suburban house to turn into art:

In the spring of 1974, Gordon Matta-Clark approached his dealers, Holly and Horace Solomon, and asked whether they knew of a house that he could cut in half. As it happened, they had recently purchased an empty, soon to be demolished house, 322 Humphrey Street in the suburb of Englewood, New Jersey – they were interested in the underlying lot rather than the building itself. As the house was going to be pulled down, the Solomons let Matta-Clark work on it for a few months prior to its destruction. [1] It was an ordinary balloon-framed, two-storey house, with a porch back and front and a base of cinder blocks. It was built during the 1930s when Englewood was expanding due to its proximity to New York City and its separation from the decay and lawlessness of the inner city. However, with the postwar economic downturn there had been a decrease in the number of households. [2] The house at 322 Humphrey Street would have been only one of a number of empty lots, and, like the apartment buildings that Matta-Clark had appropriated, was part of the larger system of profit and loss.

Having enlisted the knowledge and help of the German-born artist Manfred Hecht, Matta-Clark jacked up one end of the frame, including one of the porches, removed a layer of cinder blocks, and cut through the entire side of the building – inside and out – with a chainsaw. Gradually he lowered the back of the building onto the remaining blocks, leaving a gap in the cut of about two-thirds of a metre at the top that tapered to a slit at the base. [3] He called this work Splitting, and part of the filmed record features Matta-Clark stripped to the waist, at different times pulling hard on the jacks, up a ladder directing the saw and manipulating the cuts; he appears to be as engrossed in his work as Jackson Pollock in the films that show him dripping paint onto canvas, or indeed Trisha Brown in films of dance performances in which she scales buildings and creates improvised urban encounters. All show the artists’ physical and mental engagement with their work and are performances of a type. When writing about Splitting, Matta-Clark also gave the house its performative role, saying that having made the cut there was a real moment of suspense about how the house would react, but that it responded ‘like a perfect dance partner’. [4] Matta-Clark wrote that the production of the work was not illusionistic, but that it was ‘all about a direct physical activity, and not about making associations with anything outside it.’ [5]…

Matta-Clark felt, like the Situationists, that this dream had been used as a political tool by the ruling classes through the provision of convenience and dwellings, in order to contain and control the masses. [10] It was also integral to the return to family values in America after the war, which were promoted in television programmes, films and magazines. While the home was seen as private, the family was also encouraged to be part of a network of neighbourhood relationships, where conformity was important, but these relationships were ‘sold’ as intrinsic to the ‘good life’. [11] Matta-Clark questioned the interests involved in developing this dream and then providing for it:

The very nature of my work with buildings takes issues with the functionalist attitude to the extent that this kind of self-conscious vocational responsibility has failed to question or re-examine the quality of life being served. [12]

The Whitney Museum of American Art describes the meaning of the project: “This splitting implied both a rupturing of the fabric of domestic space and a liberation of the individual from suburban isolation.” This is one way to cut through the suburban facade…