By chowardbc | Books | January 18, 2010 |
By chowardbc | Books | January 18, 2010 |
An easily readable and irreverent memoir of the recent art market explosion (with an epilogue about the subsequent crash), i sold andy warhol (too soon) doesn’t feign to be anything more than a biased and personal recounting of Polsky’s experiences as the market forced him to shift from art “dealer” to art “financial advisor.” Polsky’s previous book, i bought andy warhol, explored questions from potential art buyers about pricing strategies and fluctuations in value. i sold any warhol (too soon) continues to track the volatile art market as it explodes out of even Polsky’s league.
The book starts by recounting Polsky’s story of selling his prized Fright Wig Andy Warhol for $320,000 in 2005, two years before the art market explosion during which the same Fright Wig could have sold for several million. Polsky then goes on to explain the economic shifts in the art world from the galleries to the auction houses and the implications of the inflated market (run by the auction houses) on the dealers and the artists themselves. He not only pokes fun at the perceived seriousness of “art” but also at the narcissistic and pretentious tendencies of some of the most prominent figures of the art scene.
Since no one in the art business has any traditional job skills, everyone has to create some hustle and bustle to validate their existence. Even a dilettante has to keep busy. The reality of the art trade is there isn’t a whole lot to do. Most of the deals are done elsewhere: over dinner, during a visit to an artist’s studio, or a collector’s home. On a typical day in Chelsea, most of the galleries are deserted. On Saturday, the action picks up with lots of ‘lookers,’ but little of it is productive. (p 48)
As an artist and a curator, I can attest that the art market doesn’t require “traditional job skills.” You can have all the “traditional job skills” (hard work, self-motivation, organization, financial acumen, a personable and trustworthy personality) in the world, but unless you have close connections to wealthy collectors or potential collectors, those skills won’t matter in the slightest. Little in the top tier gallery world is accomplished during regular business hours, and all financial/marketing success is dependent on networking, dining, and flattery. And the artists will rarely make more than a modest living no matter how much their work sells for in the galleries (and they will see no money for the pieces resold at auction). Galleries generally take half of the sales price, which often barely covers their overhead, especially when work isn’t selling. When considering living expenses ($30,000 a year for places not in New York) and costs of materials ($10,000 a year), artists who can produce as many as 20 paintings a year for $5000 that all (miraculously) sell, they are still barely squeaking by with a $10,000 profit. And then, if they “make it” and can be represented by a top tier gallery, can command five or six figures for a piece:
Non-art-world denizens have no idea how overwhelming it is for an artist who has always struggled to make a modest living suddenly have his work almost quintuple in value. Rather than be thrilled by the development, you suddenly get scared. From what I understand, your fear of it not lasting swamps your emotional canoe. You think about reaching for your psychic life jacket, rather than enjoying the breathtaking scenery of the journey. (p. 125)
Polsky expresses sympathy for the foundation of the art world hierarchical pyramid — artists, confiding that Mary Boone, one of the most successful dealers, said that the best way to get artists to produce was to “Get them into debt … Get them to buy lots of houses, get them to get expensive habits and expensive girlfriends and expensive wives. That’s what I love. I highly encourage it.” However, he is sure to remind readers that these same lifestyle pitfalls force dealers, like Polsky, to sell, to speculate, to make a profit, driving up the prices in the art market, and ultimately, creating the artificially inflated art bubble.
Polsky’s flippant examination of the art world is refreshing and educational for anyone interested in viewing, creating, or collecting art. While Polsky goes off track, as is the nature of the memoir, to discuss various dabbles in his love life, the most entertaining and engaging sections of the book are those devoted to critiquing and analyzing the processes behind the phenomenally inflated prices brought by contemporary artists at auction. All in all, it seems like all those who put work into making sure an artists work is shown (the artists themselves, galleries, dealers) get the short end of the stick, seeing little to no profit when the art world becomes an economic market is built around speculative investment and short term resale, which benefits the pocketbooks of the incredibly wealthy auction houses and collectors.
This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. To read more of chowardbc’s reviews, check out the blog, Drown in a Pool of Books.