Twilight at the Museum

The year 2008 started with a sense that the sky was the limit and prices for artworks - especially contemporary art, a great investment - could only go up. People felt the discovery of a young artist would be like discovering gold or an oil well in the yard. But now the year is ending with a feeling that there is a limit and the question remains as to where exactly it is.

Still, this is a market where huge sums are turned over: the December auctions in New York at the auction houses of Christie's, Sotheby's, and Phillips de Pury & Company totaled more than $400 million. Nevertheless, the upheaval of the world financial crisis will apparently trickle down soon, and there are already rumors circulating among leading galleries about buyers who cancelled deals because of the collapse of Bernard Madoff's investment company.

The interesting question is, will the financial crisis lead to significant change in the perception of art as merchandise and nothing more, or will this be a fleeting crisis, like that of 1987 or the faltering of the market after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks?

Art has almost always been considered merchandise. Works of art, such as jewelry, manuscripts and items now classified as design pieces, were part of the wealth of royal courts and religious centers. Romance art, and later, modern art, attempted to differentiate between the artistic and the practical. There was a lot of talk about free association and creation, but there was never any inherent change in the fact that art is sold and bought as merchandise in every sense, that artists wanted to sell and collectors wanted to buy.

But in recent years, a lot more consultants, intermediaries and financial advisers have entered the picture, upsetting the delicate balance between an engagement in art stemming primarily from a love of art and one that is motivated mainly by the desire to gain wealth.

Financial terminology has become a fixture in the dialogue of art and courses in marketing and finance have been included in the curricula of numerous art academies. If in the past the stars were painters (for example, Rubens in the 17th century, Picasso in the 20th century), in the early 21st century, the undisputed star is someone who is a businessman, marketing wiz and media star no less than he is an artist: Damien Hirst of Britain. As 2008 winded down, after a few more financial downfalls, Hirst came out with the following statement: "Before the prices were unrealistic. I was starting to think that God had graced me."

The reference to God in not coincidental. In early 2008, the hubris of art financiers surged to new heights when the emerging markets in China and India and the first indicators of the success of Iranian art seemed to contain great promise. Questions of quality and content were pushed aside. The art arena expanded rapidly as if growth itself had become a value. Biennials and fairs opened during the past decade all over the world, from Tbilisi to Istanbul, and Athens to Tel Aviv. The veteran Art Basel fair expanded to Miami, along with a slew of satellite fairs, and the London based Frieze Art Fair, launched in 2003, had by 2007 expanded to gigantic proportions, which made attending half of its events impossible. The yearly calendar of art professionals turned into a world trek to events whose organizers were competing for their attention.

The role of museums, from the Museum of Modern Art in New York to the Tate Gallery in London, became less central. Today they are courting collectors in order to get them to lend pieces from their private collections. In other words, the museums have somewhat lost their independence and are no longer the only ones determining what they exhibit. Often, they are forced to exhibit certain works just to acquire other pieces they are interested in. In effect, they have been transformed into showcases for upcoming auctions. The Israel Museum provided a notable example of this phenomenon when it held an exhibition, "Made in China: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Estella Collection," last winter. The pieces featured were sent directly from the museum to an auction at Sotheby's Hong Kong in April 2008.

If that were not enough, museums all over the world today are dealing much less with content and intellectual innovation and more with impressive construction projects. That has created a gripping sense that the museums are in the midst of a process of renewal and endeavor, while the parts that merit particular attention are the giftshops and coffeehouses within. The New Museum that opened in New York in December 2007 signified the peak in the construction of art venues devoid of content, of which the Guggenheim Museum that opened in Bilbao, Spain, in the 1990s is the archetype. Since the beautiful building opened in New York, there has not been even a single exhibition that stirred excitement among art lovers, which of course did not prevent it from becoming a must on the itineraries art collectors' visits to New York.

The strongman of the international art world anointed in late 2007, is not a museum director or prominent curator, but the same Hirst who in September 2008, after the crisis erupted, managed to sell his works for 100 million pounds sterling in an auction at Sotheby's London. With that, he momentarily created a feeling that contemporary art was immune to financial crises.

Is it possible to restore the experience, the excitement, the pondering and the deliberations to the center of the artistic discourse? Will the commercial side go back to being just another side, as it was in the past? In an era when rapid images of news and ads constantly flash by in every possible media, a return to true introspection into art could have great cultural value, the kind that deviates from a glance that ends with a cry of wonder and a quick move to the next object.