The art of adaption: Keeping the arts afloat in stormy economic times

17 10 2009

Image: Hugh Jackman, Daniel Craig

It seems that the arts are flourishing in the midst of these gloomy economic times. In a very interesting article published in today’s Age, Raymond Gill looks at the reasons behind the booming arts scene, and attributes it to programming decisions which have favoured ‘safe’, populist productions featuring stars who have household name recognition. Not surprisingly, this combination has proven to be extremely successful. Hello, Salvador Dali.

It’s not uncommon to hear voiced the opinion that populist programming is somehow a sell-out, and that it causes a dumbing-down of the arts which alienates loyal audiences who have a preference for more challenging productions or exhibitions. But in the absence of indexed government subsidies, what are arts companies to do to keep the lights on? Why wouldn’t you stage a Gilbert and Sullivan show starring perennial favourites Anthony Warlow and Lisa McCune if it will guarantee bums on seats, and allow you to subsidise the production of more challenging, less popular works?

Then there’s the question of access and diversifying audiences. Art galleries, live theatre and dance venues, and orchestral and operatic performance spaces can be terrifying and intimidating places. Who amongst you hasn’t been in the position of wishing the plush red carpet would open up beneath your feet and swallow you whole, to divert the disapproving glares from those around you as you attempt to suppress a coughing fit, or quieten an overly jingly-jangly piece of jewellery in the midst of a monologue? Even though I’ve been an enthusiastic audience member  for all things arty for decades, many are the times that I’ve cursed my choice of clattery stiletto at an opening in a cavernous, hushed white cube, or wished I’d rethought my second-act choice of snack – the enticing chocolate-sodden almonds mocking me from inside an impossibly crackly cellophane bag.

How much worse must it be for people who have little or no exposure to the arts? Arts education in the Australian government school sector has all but disappeared. Unless they’re lucky enough to grow up in a household where they’ve been immersed in the arts from a very young age, it’s likely that kids of the future will have little if anything to do with the high arts. Until relatively recently most school students studied music, art and theatre at some point during their education. Whether you loved it or hated it at the time, this exposure introduces people to the lexicon – gives them a passport and permission to partake in the arts if they wish. Without some grounding or background in the arts, it’s not even that people will find performances or exhibitions incomprehensible… they won’t even know to look for them in the first place.

And so we have Hugh Jackman and Daniel Craig performing on Broadway to sell-out crowds in ‘A Steady Rain’. Although the production has only attracted lukewarm reviews, you’d have more chance of being invited to the Obama’s for morning tea than you would have of securing a ticket.

If the promise of seeing James Bond and Wolverine performing in the flesh entices people into the theatre who would otherwise rather watch paint dry than see a live theatrical performance, then surely that must be a good thing. Particularly if some of them enjoy themselves so much that they become converts for life. Or even if they just become receptive to the idea of the arts as an accessible and enjoyable past-time.

(Image: Daniel Craig and Hugh Jackman at the curtain call for ‘A Steady Rain’. By Evan Agostini, AP, via


ACCC Reviews Goodman’s Sotheby’s Proposal

5 10 2009

But is it still ‘My Sotheby’s’? Hmm. And news just in – the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has launched an informal review through its mergers register seeking ‘comments’ from ‘interested parties’ concerning the proposed acquisition of Sotheby’s Australia by First East Auction Holdings P/L.

I won’t be saying anything. But I wonder whether Goodman’s competitors will be able to resist the opportunity to shoot one across his bow. Better hurry, chaps. You’ve only got a week!

Aussie Sotheby’s iSnack 2.0

4 10 2009

Tim Goodman

Auctioneer Tim Goodman (picture: Anthony Geernaert via

Well, if anything was going to waken me from my interweb slumber, this would be it.

Down here downunder, we pride ourselves on our audacious and irreverent approach to most things. And so… now we have locally-born Monsignor Tim Goodman – formerly of Goodman’s Auctions, more recently of Bonhams and Goodman, giving Robert Brooks, chairman of British powerhouse Bonhams, the ol’ heave ho. It seems that Tim got a better offer. Bonhams who?

He may just be scraping up the slops, but Tim Goodman (pictured) has successfully wooed the floundering British auction house Sotheby’s and orchestrated a deal by which he will use the Sotheby’s name here in Australia. This in itself is rather surprising. Many in the industry suspected that  Sotheby’s might follow its arch-rival Christie’s, which closed its Australian branch in 2006, and withdraw from the local market. But Sotheby’s has been disinclined to dilute the brand thus far, and has chosen to close under-performing branches rather than pass franchises onto enthusiastic locals. Seems that Tim was very convincing.

My immediate concern? Upwards of 50% of Sotheby’s Aboriginal art sales by value went to international collectors. Whereto from here in the absence of Sotheby’s self-appointed  Aboriginal maestro Tim Klingender? There’s a glittering but fragile network of collectors throughout the world who have looked to Sotheby’s for an indication of what is the best/only Aboriginal art to buy.

Will Goodmans/Sotheby’s be able to stoke the same fires?

A guaranteed disaster? Art auction houses left hanging as the market turns.

6 04 2009

Francis Bacon's Study for Self-Portrait




Picture this (if you’ll pardon the pun) – you are the fortunate owner of an artwork of mind-blowing significance. The art market is booming – nay, it’s gone warp speed, hyperbole be damned. You love your painting… have loved it and treasured it for many years. But the sky-rocketing prices prove too much for you. You approach an auction house or three – this is a seller’s market, remember. No point settling for the first offer you get. A pre-auction bidding war ensues. One of the auction houses offers you a guaranteed minimum price – if that price isn’t reached during the auction, the auction house will be compelled to pay you the guaranteed price and to take the painting into its possession. Nothing to lose, right?

Well, it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. But now that art buyers are more concerned about paying the heating bills and filling the fridge than buying art (as much as art warms the cockles of the heart and nourishes the soul), the practice of offering art-sellers a minimum price when they consign works for sale may well have left the big auction houses in a bit of a pickle. In Sotheby’s case, a pickle of the magnitude of up to $US 500 million. That’s a very, very big pickle.

In documents filed with US authorities in April 2007, Sotheby’s listed outstanding guarantees of $US 295 million. Although I’ve been unable to find an indication of the company’s exposure in late 2008 when things started to go pear-shaped, the board set a ceiling of $US 500 million on its exposure through guarantees. Comparable figures for Christie’s, which is not  a public company, are not readily available. But to give a sense of how much of the art that passed through the top end of the market may have been guaranteed, witness the following figures: Sotheby’s guaranteed 78% of a single contemporary sale by value (14 November 2007), and Christie’s 52% of its 13 November 2007 sale.

So, the last sales of 2008 and the first of 2009 are likely to have been pretty tricky for the big auction houses. Artworks consigned for sale under the old guard popped up on the rostrum, with associated guarantees and big promises, but with far fewer big-spenders in the audience. Case in point: Francis Bacon’s Study for Self-Portrait [pictured] turned up at Christie’s in November 2008 with a minimum estimate of  $US 40 million. The Florida-based collector, George Weiss, consigned the painting for sale at Christie’s after the auction house offered him a guaranteed minimum price. But the ultimate timing of the auction wasn’t so flash-hot. Weiss’ painting, which was billed as the sale highlight, was sharing wall-space with works consigned by Lehman Brothers ne’er do well, Richard Fuld. Not a good time to be competing for attention with such a tangible reminder of the unfolding economic disaster.

The Bacon did not sell. In fact, almost a third of the 75 contemporary works on offer that night didn’t find buyers. Weiss expected to be paid his guaranteed minimum price. Christie’s International, citing “the changed climate of the art market”, refused to pay up, according to the breach-of-contract complaint Weiss filed in New York.

Could this just be the tip of the proverbial iceberg?

Image: The Guardian 

Art as investment: or, the root of many evils

29 03 2009





It seems the economic apocalypse will play out in many and varied ways in the art market.

In America, dealer Lawrence Salander has been arrested and charted with counts relating to larceny, fraud, forgery and perjury. Along the way, he managed to fleece tennis über-brat John McEnroe and film legend, Robert De Niro. The amounts are significant: prosecutors claim that up to $US 88 million has been soaked up by illegal dealings.

And we have our very own drama unfolding here in Australia. Until very recently, no major art auction was complete without Ron Coles and his hefty cheque book in attendance. Now, he has disappeared into thin air, leaving behind a chaotic mess of bad debts, dodgy paintings and accusations of fraud on a grand scale.

Through his prosaically named Sydney-based business, ‘Ronald Coles Investment Gallery’, Coles recruited many clients who had little or no experience in the art market. They gave Coles cash on the understanding that he would acquire investment art on their behalf, and store it for them. It seems that investors believed that Coles was holding a collection of art on their collective behalf worth $A 23 million. Local auction house, Bonhams & Goodman estimate that the collection seized in the course of the police investigation is worth somewhere in the vicinity of $A 400,000. Allegations are now leaking out that there are forgeries of work by at least four major Australian artists amongst the works seized by police. Needless to say, investors are not happy. Not happy at all.

If convictions follow from legal action the question must be asked: how did these people get away with so much for so long?

Unfortunate fact of life: the feeding frenzy witnessed in the art market over the last decade was fuelled largely by people whose overriding concern was the investment potential of the art they were acquiring. That, in itself, is not altogether surprising; it’s been shown that, to varying degrees, the great majority of art buyers do consider the investment value of an artwork prior to acquiring it. But what distinguished buyer behaviour this time around is that people were handing over large sums of cash to dealers for artworks that they never intended to take into their possession. They did not spend weeks painstakingly researching and examining an artwork’s various aesthetic and historical qualities, falling in love with it by degrees. No. These artworks were acquired as places to park disposable income or retirement funds, with the expectation that said investment would increase in value over a set period of time. 

It seems that for some dealers the temptation to initiate a painting ponzi scheme was too great to resist. Why sell a painting just once? Why not sell it to five people, none of whom ever expects to take it home and hang it above the sofa? As long as the cash keeps flowing via new investors, there’ll always be money in the bank to pay off clients who decide they want to ‘realise’ their investments. 

But there’s nothing new under the sun. It all reads like a chapter out of Stan Lauryssens’ recently published autobiography, Dali & I. According to his own account, Lauryssen did much the same thing when dealing in work by Salvador Dali in the 1970s and 80s.

Vanished..Ronald Coles at his art gallery in 2004.

Images: Lawrence Salander: NY Daily News; Ron Coles: Sydney Morning Herald

When Hollywood turns: the New York art market through the looking glass

25 03 2009


Just in time for the economic apocalypse, the almost inevitable backlash: a film lampooning the New York contemporary art world.

Slated for release in September this year, (Untitled) should provide ample entertainment for those licking their wounds after the deflation of the contemporary art feeding-frenzy (note to self: can a ‘feeding frenzy’ technically deflate?).

Starring Adam Goldberg of Entourage and Saving Private Ryan (I’m pretty sure he was the character memorably dispatched by the Evil Nazi in The Bell Tower with the SS Knife), I can’t make any promises whatsoever about the quality, or lack thereof of this film… I haven’t seen it. But Goldberg’s convincing facial hair (above left) and the following publicity still have won me over:

 Images: [Adam Goldberg]: Palm Springs International Film Society –; [Monkey and vacuum cleaner]:

Out with the new, in with the old

23 03 2009





It seems that old art is the new black.

So, you’ve cashed in your stocks and shares. Sure, bitter tears coursed down your cheeks when you thought back to what they were worth a year ago. But what choice did you have? The nausea-inducing swells of this particular financial typhoon got the better of you.

But now… what to do with all that cash? If reports from the Maastricht Fine Art Fair are to be believed, then the thing to do is to buy Old Master paintings and antiquities. Although the article in the International Herald Tribune by Souren Melikian does seem to convey the slightly desperate air of someone trying to talk things up, that might just be my interpretation. I have been diagnosed with a near terminal case of cynicism, after all. And it’s not at all surprising that people would turn to proven market performers as everything else threatens to end up in the septic tank. Dutch genre scenes, Italian Masters and armless Greek goddesses are the art market’s equivalent of gold bullion.

Now that the hedge funds have been pruned back to mere stumps, the rampant speculation in contemporary art by young artists is likely to cease. People will no longer be looking for ‘the next big thing’ to buy and resell in a couple of months for a hilariously large profit. Instead, they’ll be searching for solid, material investments in which to park their cash. The future gains may be modest by comparison, but at least they’ll get something back.

That’s the theory, anyway.

Image: Gabriel Metsu, ‘Old Woman at a Meal’, sold by William Noortman at Maastricht for $US 4.8 million. International Herald Tribune