How Bernie Madoff Helped the Art Market

Question: What is the future of the art market?

Arne Glimcher: I think the art market is still very strong. It's strong for its important things. It's not strong for speculation. You can still achieve very high prices for great works of art, and there's quite a large audience out there. This past summer, Ezra Merkin had to sell his collection as part of fallout from the Madoff situation. It's been in all the papers, so I'm not revealing anything. And it's a collection that we put together largely ourselves, of Rothko and Giacometti. And we resold the collection for $310 million. So there was somebody there to write a check for $310 million for a group of works or art. So there are people who are taking advantage of the opportunities to get works that were previously not available. And a lot of masterpieces have been locked up in the hands of people who would ordinarily never have to sell them. They are slowly becoming available as people need more capital. So you know, there are opportunities like that. My illustration is just that there is a very healthy art market out there. What appeared to be a healthy art market during the boom was really a sick art market.

Question: How is the role of auction houses going to change in the next few years?

Arne Glimcher: Auction houses have been as much responsible for the crash as any other entity. I think they're incredibly irresponsible, overestimating to get things, then calling clients and saying, we haven't had so much interest in the work of yours we're going to auction. You should come down on the reserve price. They are very sneaky. That's a good word, sneaky. We should bring back sneaky. And they're having a lot of trouble getting work. I was talking to someone at Sotheby's, and they got a very nice but small estate from Akron, Ohio, and one of the guys at Sotheby's said to me, if we hadn't gotten that group of works, we would have had 22 works for the auction. So now people have trepidations about the auctions. The problem is, if you put a work into the auction that has a high value on it, and it hasn't sold and it doesn't sell, you have burned the work. A lot of collectors don't want that work then. There is a public confirmation that this work was not wanted. Why should I buy that? And that's a danger. So people are being very cautious now, and I think the auction houses' problems have been to our benefit. We've gotten a lot of things that ordinarily would have gone to auction because people want them sold quietly and privately and discreetly.

Question: There’s more art being created now than ever. Is this a good thing?

Arne Glimcher: No, I think it is just the opposite. I think it marks a kind of fallow period where art has become an elective rather than an imperative. I like to think that art chooses the artist, but in recent years the artist has chosen art as a vocation. You go to art school or -- and you can make a fortune out there. All you have to do is something that's interesting, and your shows are going to sell out, and people are going to be waiting in line. But you know, it's like a Magritte painting. There's a Magritte painting of men with bowler hats and umbrellas falling from the sky like rain. I think that's what's happening right now: all of those guys are falling from the sky like rain. And it’s bad. It's very negative. I think I got off the track, didn't I?

Topic: The up side

Arne Glimcher: For me the most exciting art is coming from China, and that's why I'm there. And I'm not saying that because we're there; that's why I'm there. It's fresh. I saw a 28-year-old artist's video piece that was just spectacular last week. Never seen her work before, and she did a series of videos that made an environment of three couples sitting on benches together, three very beautiful Chinese couples wearing white clothing, very sheer white clothing. And as they begin -- the men were absolutely stationary -- and as they began to twitch and move, the women started to become restless, and at one point the women stood up and ripped the clothing apart between the two of them. They were wearing the same clothes. But it was very poetic, it was very beautiful, it was very much about China. And I think that the most boring and the most important art being made today probably is video. There are so many marks that you can make on a canvas, and painting hasn't changed very much since somebody pulled bristles out of the back of a pig and tied them to a stick and dipped it in paint and made marks on a wall. It's been a way of working, and it's harder and harder and harder to say something in that medium. Now, I'm not saying it's getting harder and harder to say something. I think the dialog is always there. Artists will always be there. But the mediums that artists use, the media that artists use, will change.

I think video is really important, and I think the Internet is very important. Not that we've seen, or I've seen anything yet that means anything. But it's there, you know. It's out there right now in the ether. And it's not decorative -- it's not highly decorative. The works of art that we now consider, like cubist Picassos and Matisses, decorative enough to put on walls in sitting rooms, were once not. And video art is even more difficult to use. I have some. I have some wonderful things and I know I turn them on when I come into a room in my house, and I try to read a book, and I'm distracted by it because it's moving, you know. And so I have to watch it for a while and then read my book. But what's really interesting is, I don't watch the painting for as long as I'm watching the video. The painting might be there, and I'll glance at it, but the video demands to be seen, which makes it a lot harder to hang or decorate a room with. But decorating a room is not the objective of making art, or of great art. Great art is about being a tool that extends the perception of society.

Recorded on October 1, 2009

There are more masterpieces available to people now than ever before, says gallery owner Arne Glimcher.

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