art world

The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One

Life after the coronavirus will be very different.

Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images
Photo: Noam Galai/Getty Images

The title of this essay isn’t mine. “The Last Days of the Art World” was the title my editor gave to another essay I wrote, last week, about the last day that I spent in New York art galleries before they shuttered for the foreseeable future. I thought it was too sensationalistic and untrue. I freaked out, scared, and asked him to change it. But less than seven days later, I am seeing his dark light and thinking there may be more to that bleak prediction than I wanted to believe at first.

Why didn’t I see it that way originally? In large part, I think, it’s because I’ve watched the art world go through episodes like this before — not pandemics, of course, but contractions and crises of various kinds, which each have shaped, not destroyed, the community I love. I thought, “Don’t be a disasterist; we’ll see what happens.” In particular, I’m a true believer from one particular former bygone world. I came of age during the last years of the smaller, nonprofessional, non-moneyed 1970s art world, where there were no such things as stable careers, sales, art fairs, big audiences, and auctions. This world ran on the desire and passion of semi-outlaws, vagrants, ne’er-do-wells, visionaries, creeps, geniuses, hangers-on, exiles, gypsies, and aristocratic bohemians. It was a world before the one we know now that has grown so large, hyperactive, circuslike, top-heavy, and professional — all seasoned with obscene amounts of money, however concentrated it is in the hands of a lucky, mostly white 1,500 people.

I’ve always chosen to see the art world — even after it went corporate — in that spirit, frustrated by the strange compromises we all made with money but still sure that artists were, at heart, still semi-outlaws and ne’er-do-wells. Mine was a world before we lost “the underground”; before “greed became form,” as curator Francesco Bonami puts it. It was a world where, when I was a young trucker, Paula Cooper and Robert Gober asked me to sit down for coffee and cigarettes with them when I made a delivery to her gallery; where I called the Marian Goodman Gallery to schedule a pickup, she answered the phone, and we did the paperwork together when I got there, and she offered me a snack; where I witnessed the pure art history of John Cage at a diner; where in the late 1970s, I beheld the sum of all things, John and Yoko, creating shock waves of awe as they glided down Madison Avenue.

This optimism has all always made me sure that the art world could, and would, survive anything. But last week, that optimism started to die. Even an art-lover lifer like me has to admit much of the art world infrastructure feels like it’s already in the balance. Some of it may be gone even now. In three months, or six months, or — God forbid — 12 or 18 (there has never been a vaccine for a coronavirus)? There will be galleries on the other side of this chasm, and museums, and artists making work, of course. But I worry that such a sundering will only exacerbate the inequalities that more and more dominate this universe, with megagalleries and art stars surviving and the gap between them and everyone else only widening, rendering the scrappier artists and galleries something close to invisible.

A lot depends on how long this all lasts, of course. And even as South Korea is already going back to work and some report “business as usual,” America’s failed response to the coronavirus crisis suggests that our shutdown may last a while. Chef David Chang estimates that “90 percent of restaurants” will not reopen when this passes; he surmises the food world will return to the pre-internet days of the 1990s, before diversity was introduced into food. If restaurants are too fragile not to fail, the far far smaller, more fragile art world could see terrible losses.

And in the art world, things were already rocky for those not at the top of the food chain. Numerous galleries were reporting being financially strapped by skyrocketing costs and paying to participate in (keep up with?) endless art fairs, always flying to biennials and exhibitions around the world. Artists were leaving smaller galleries in droves for megagalleries. COVID-19 has multiplied this a hundredfold. Most galleries don’t have cash reserves to go through a lockdown of six months. Or to open and then go through it again in the fall and winter should the virus return. The Wall Street Journal reported that many performing organizations don’t have the reserves to go more than a month. The majority of galleries aren’t much more prepared. These galleries will close. Employees are already laid off across the gallery world. If the stimulus doesn’t include art-world provisions against evictions, short-term rent abatements and checks from the government, Chang’s 90 percent of restaurants closing could be exacted on galleries, the primary delivery vehicle of contemporary art.

Art schools might follow suit. Last week, the 150-year-old San Francisco Art Institute announced that there’d be no incoming fall class. Art schools got too expensive, but it’s still possible a century’s worth of educational infrastructure will be decimated, as will the jobs and benefits of tens or hundreds of thousands of people who work in these spheres. These jobs are the only way many artists make a living.

I believe the pandemic could spell the end of art fairs except Art Basel, which owns its own convention hall in Switzerland, and maybe Frieze — the Brits love big, glitzy, theatrical tent-city productions. (I do not think many galleries will mourn this loss.) Unfortunately, auctions may be the cockroach in the art-world coal mine. They don’t require much of a physical footprint; much of what they do is done digitally and online. I wonder, however, if the regular dick-waving rituals of establishing hierarchy and financial clout will be performed if they aren’t performed in public.

What about writers? Art magazines and blogs depend on advertisers, but what will those advertisers advertise? Are art galleries still paying previous ad contracts to art magazines to advertise shows that aren’t happening? A generation ago, newspapers and magazines supported hundreds or even thousands of professional art critics. The recent decline of the business means that that number has been cut by a factor of ten at least, and a prolonged period of economic suffering will probably accelerate that trend as well. Will publications be able to pay their writers, staff, benefits, and their own overheads? Blogs and smaller arts organizations and littler galleries share some of the DNA of auctions and have smaller footprints, fewer employees, and lower overheads. But their incomes are smaller too. Right now, blogs and galleries are posting a steady stream of listicles, art that can be seen online, trying to organize online viewing rooms, and other things to do in seclusion. These things keep spirits necessarily high, but they bring in almost no money.

As for museums, they’re all closed too. Many have already laid off large numbers of staff: The mighty Met estimates it could lose $100 million and has announced widespread layoffs; the Hammer Museum laid off 150 part-time workers; L.A. MoCA laid off its entire part-time staff; S.F. MoMA expects to lay off 135 on-call staff members; Mass. MoCA is laying off 120 employees. Meanwhile, many maintain restoration labs, care for vast collections, pay insurance premiums, electric bills, and thousands of other unseen costs. Other than the Getty, Kimble, the Met, and MoMA, most museums don’t have vast endowments that can allow them to get through something like this. As former Walker Art Center director Olga Viso observes, “All those cushions and reserves … have been depleted.” Any institution that has to earn its annual operating budget is in dire straits.

Which brings us to the oldest, most tenuous, and precious profession of all, artists. Of course, art will go on. That goes without saying, since art is much bigger and deeper than the business that supports it. Art will vanish only when all the problems it was invented to explore have been explored. Although, just months before the coming of COVID-19, the great painter Peter Saul seemed to glean something in the tea leaves, saying: “There are just too many artists. Too many artists, period.” Indeed, the environment in which art is made is already changing. For now, there aren’t big studios, dozens of artist assistants working on one artist’s work, whole staffs keeping track of it all. Now art is being made in smaller spaces, on kitchen tables, out of things at hand, with kids nearby, cooking happening in the background, Nana washing clothes, life going on all around. This is how our species made most things over the last 50,000 years. Creativity was with us in the caves; it’s in every bone in our bodies. Viruses don’t kill art. But even successful artists will be pushed to the limits, let alone the 99% of artists who always live close to the edge.

But while my memories of the 1970s make me sure artists will survive, even thrive, under any circumstances, there is one big thing about the world in which they operate that does worry me. Over the last decade or so, the art world in peril has seemed to lose the ability to adapt. Or, rather, it now seems able to adapt only in one way, no matter the circumstances: by growing larger and busier. Expansion and more were the answers to everything.

I don’t think that response would be healthy in this climate. And so, in that spirit, I want to speak loudly for what art has always been — something done against the rules of advanced capitalism. Art isn’t about professionalism, efficiency, insurance, and safety; it’s about eccentricity, risk, resistance, and adaptation. Mike Egan, owner of the visionary Ramiken Gallery, writes to me, “Art will not survive as some dull thing, some social good that we must support out of consensual responsibility to the social good. Art will explode with the desires of the people to see action play out, with tears, screams, harmonies, and some death.” He goes on, “Watch what happens next. Galleries will go under — unless they survive. How to survive? Passion. Obsession. Desire.” Indeed, in this time of sheltering-in-place, he just moved his gallery to a decrepit building across from a garbage dump and told me he opened “a secret show.” I thought I felt the rumble of art’s old thunder when he wrote this to me. In this and other similar gestures, I imagine a new “First Days of an Art World.”

Whatever happens, we’re all conscripted into the service of art; we’re all volunteers of America. We need to play loose, loving, generous, being as creative and as unafraid as possible, adapting to change as it comes and not falling back on old, outmoded, mean, or inapplicable dogmas. We all want to go the distance for what we love. That distance has begun. Things are bleak, but batons will be and are already being passed to generations who will emerge on the other side of this who will have the brilliant chance to build a whole new art world. How long the interregnum lasts, I do not know. But on the other side, the survivors will always have the knowledges of what they learned about themselves as the angel of death walked among us.

*An earlier version of this piece misspelled Marian Goodman Gallery.

The Last Days of The Art World. And the Start of a New One