Re-Framing the Art Market

At the 21st-annual Art Show in New York, purchases have slowed, as gallerists try to make artwork precious again—but not overpriced. Judith H. Dobrzynski reports.

The crowd was cordial, happily sipping from glasses of Champagne, white wine, and soda. Big collectors like Marty Margulies, Agnes Gund, Frances Bowes, Don Marron, and Helen Schwab roamed the art-filled aisles. As everyone walked around during the gala opening of the annual Art Dealers Association of America art fair in New York last week, they were smiling, laughing, pausing frequently to chat and to look at the art in the gallery booths.

What they weren’t doing, despite valiant new strategies by some dealers, was buying much art.

“We need to get away from the notion of art as solely a commodity, and back to the language of art,” says Roland Augustine, of Luhring Augustine Gallery.

The annual Art Show has never been a “gentlemen, start-your-engines” competitive drive to buy art, the way Art Basel and Art Basel Miami Beach are. But the uncommonly leisurely—and pleasant—atmosphere last Wednesday night couldn’t veil the crestfallen spirits in the old Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue in Manhattan, which has hosted this show for 21 years. Like chronic hypochondriacs, everyone there was trying to take the art world’s temperature—and the size of the crowd, much diminished from years past, told the tale. Instead of squeezing in and out among the throngs, you could easily make your way from booth to booth, not just early on, when tickets cost from $500 to $2,000 and the quiet was eerie, but even after 7:30 p.m., when the gala’s entry price dropped to $150. The art market is hypothermic.

The mood at the 2009 Art Show was more sedate than it was in the early-1990s recession and the year after 9/11. “We did OK in January,” said Hildegard Bachert, a director of Galerie St. Etienne, which specializes in German & Austrian Expressionist and outsider art, an area that has suffered far less than contemporary art. “But some of our colleagues here are telling us gloom-and-doom stories.” As another dealer put it, “it’s dead.”

Well, not quite. At the gala, David Tunick sold a $250,000 etching by Winslow Homer, and Per Skarstedt sold a photograph by Cindy Sherman priced at $600,000. At the booth of Acquavella Galleries, director Michael Findlay proudly said, “I sold a painting”—and pointed to a 2008 work by James Rosenquist. The asking price was $550,000, and Finlay says he got nearly that from a New York collector.

But elsewhere around the cavernous drill hall, transactions were sparse or small—as they have been ever since October, when it felt like someone flipped a switch and turned off art-collecting.

It was about that time that many dealers began to plan what to bring to this small, gem-like fair, populated by blue-chip dealers and low-flash collectors. Most years, galleries tend to bring a sampling of their works—putting up a Matisse drawing here, a Diebenkorn abstraction there, and a Richard Misrach photograph there in hopes of attracting as many kinds of collectors as their inventory allows. It’s a trade-show approach.

This year, things are different: Of the 70 galleries there, 41 decided to take the riskier, European-dealer approach of curating their booths, either bringing works by one artist or organizing their displays around a theme. Marian Goodman, for example, brought only works by Gerard Richter. James Cohan Gallery used “Body as Prop” as his theme to present eight artist representations of the human figure. Michael Werner had a stunning display of paintings by French painter Eugène Leroy interspersed with 2,000-year-old South Arabian alabaster sculptures. PaceWildenstein showed gouaches by Sol LeWitt, and Ameringer & Yohe Fine Art has landscapes by Hans Hoffman. Galerie Lelong is showing early work by Brazilian artist Helio Oiticica, who was recently the subject of major exhibitions at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the Tate Modern, London.

These intellectually driven displays serve artists more than commerce, and are more visually rewarding to fair visitors. But they have a commercial point, too. “We need to get away from the notion of art as solely a commodity, and back to the language of art,” says Roland Augustine, of Luhring Augustine Gallery, “and the way to do that is to have a carefully curated and qualitative approach.”

In other words, dealers want to make art precious again—not just pricey. Galleries that look like museums help do that and, when Wall Street woes have scared off buyers anyway, why not? “They are taking this approach now because they understand that this long-term approach is the sure-fire way to go,” Augustine says. Instead of encouraging people who speculate in art, treating it like a stock, these shows aim to develop true collectors, who buy and hold for years.

The other obvious trend at the fair is also good for visitors: Some art is again affordable.

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Dealers brought lower-priced works, have reduced asking prices, and are negotiating much more than they have in the recent past. Evidence is everywhere. Those Richters at Marian Goodman aren’t paintings, which have fetched as much as $15 million at auction, but small works on paper that cost from $30,000 to $50,000. Dealers admit they’ve dropped prices they were able to get during the bubble by 25 percent to 30 percent on some works. And buyers aren’t scorned if they start their offer at 25 percent less than the asking price. Everyone’s more realistic.

For despite all the financial turmoil, people do have money to spend. And dealers are hoping they can rely on an eternal verity of the art world: Collecting is an addiction, and once collectors are really hooked, they can’t stop.

Judith H. Dobrzynski, formerly a reporter and a senior editor at the New York Times and at Business Week, as well as a senior executive at CNBC, is a writer based in New York.