For the Love of (Art and) Money
By Hans Michaud
For anyone with even one eye apprehending the art world with so much as a cursory gaze, it’s no news that the business of art has become an even bigger one for the past few years. For individuals graduating college these days, no longer are the only hot and lucrative career choices the traditional shark-infested waters of Wall Street or Madison Avenue. These days, folks looking to make a bundle are also winding up in the western edge of Chelsea, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, occasionally showing up on East 57th Street. To say nothing of the other coast, Asia and Europe.
In addition, for anyone wishing to catch a glimpse into what the wealthy/newly-wealthy are dumping their money into, the answer is hedge funds. Hedge funds have been in the spotlight for about the same amount of time as this recent economic upswing in the art world, though they’ve been around longer than that, certainly.
Hedge funds, in essence, are privately owned investment funds. Because they are privately owned, Hedge Fund managers are rewarded on their earned returns. Hedge funds also can achieve higher-than-market profits. This is appealing to those investors who are still trying to play catch-up after the dot-com crash/bubble-burst of the early millennium.
I began this article only to illustrate a simple chart of the incredible rise and popularity of art in the international economy over the past few years. But when I began to do research, the parallel upward sloping of hedge funds and corporate takeovers/mergers caught my attention. In addition, the relationship between the art world and big business has never been this close. In fact, I’d hazard a guess that they’re not even different worlds at this point. Don’t get me wrong; the art world in the 20th Century has always been rife with greenbacks. At this point, however, it’s not only greenbacks, and it’s not only the West. And it certainly is not only traditional sources of art money.
Corporate raider Asher Edelman, who was weaned very early by his parents on “lesser impressionists” and other decorative arts, has jumped in and out of the art world throughout most of his adult life, and then some. When he wasn’t being a corporate raider, that is. The character of Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street was supposedly based on Edelman. Heidi Neuhoff’s 57th Street space, the Neuhoff Gallery, was reborn this year as Neuhoff Edelman.
Edelman is but one instance of heavily moneyed power brokers who have been flexing muscle over the past few years within the art world. There are many, many more, and we’ve all heard stories of pieces of contemporary art fetching jaw-dropping sums of money from a Hedge Fund star or a relative stranger to the art world, stepping in both to see what all the fuss is about and making a potentially lucrative investment or two in the process.
Can anyone really blame the sharks when they express interest in the art world? Last year Willem de Kooning’s “Untitled” (1977) sold for a clean $27 million. In May this year, Andy Warhol’s “Green Car Crash” took in a cool $72 million at Christie’s.
The list goes on. Reliable sources in the comparatively small art setting of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, report that there exist New York artists, under 30-years-old, who are bringing in six-figure sums for single pieces. Is it just I, or was this unimaginable fifteen years ago?
What’s most interesting to me about this recent hockey-stick upswing is the very fact that while the business of art is very much like most other commercial ventures, art pieces, being one-of-a-kind commodities, can fluctuate wildly, depending upon a few things, for instance the fickle tastes of collectors, critics, dealers, and also depending very heavily on the tenor of the surrounding economy. Who is making the rules in the surrounding economy? Is it the Asher Edelmans? Even more importantly, is there even a point any more in differentiating the art economy from Wall Street?
I remember the first time I lived in New York City, in the late 80s. At parties in SoHo one would hear conversations relating specifically to intellectual pursuits all things Continental: Foucault, Derrida, Baudrillard, Barthes, to name only a few. Conversations would stretch to encompass topics such as Post-Structuralism, Lacan or the current crop of Lit Crit. By the late-90s the conversations were all about Bill Gates. Mere years after that, the subjects people at parties talked about ran the gamut from hedge funds to real estate and back again to hedge funds.
One last thing: Damien Hirst’s recent show at London’s White Cube included a piece titled For the Love of God. It’s a diamond-encrusted human skull, made by hand by (I’m assuming here) Hirst’s assistants. The price tag was £50 million.
I haven’t checked if anyone’s purchased it yet.
©2007 by Hans Michaud
Hans Michaud is a freelance journalist in New York.
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