Report: Olav Velthuis at Juicing the Equilibrium (at Independent)

a black sclera contact lens from the Juicing the Equilibrium website

Amidst the storm of attractions and distractions pummeling New York last week while the art fairs were in town, one event stood out for making an earnest attempt to rehabilitate the potential for real criticality in today’s art world. Organized by curator Howie Chen and artist/attorney Jason Kakoyiannis (in collaboration with Columbia University’s Center on Organizational Innovation), Juicing the Equilibrium is a series of talks that solicits thinkers from outside the art world to apply their own readings and methodologies to the infinitely complicated matter of the art market. Essentially, how can an artist actively be both cognizant and critical of market forces?

The series launched at Independent, the new, boothless hybrid art fair/consortium sited at the former X Initiative and former-former Dia building on West 22nd Street in Chelsea.  The March 5th event featured a talk entitled “The Return of the 90s–The Art Market in Times of Crisis” by Dutch economic sociologist Olav Velthuis.

I interviewed the organizers in advance of the event, and now I’d like to report on Velthuis’ talk.

He began with a disclaimer that one party, either he or the audience, would be disappointed by the end of the hour. This is because for the past several years he has studied the art world as an anthropological subject. If he had succeeded in synthesizing the testimonies of dealers, collectors, artists, curators, etc. into an objective account of how the art world functions as a “tribe,” then his words may not sound immediately familiar or palatable to an audience of those intimately acquainted with their perceptions of themselves.  On the other hand, if his descriptions did ring true, he would register this as his failure to have gleaned scientific truths from the subjective agendas presented to him as research.

I would say he set the bar a bit too high. The art community, as any I suppose, is fairly self-obsessed. They/we are also notably attuned to self-critique and reflection on the systemic nature of how value and meaning are produced (at least you better be!). This interest goes beyond enhancing one’s understand of how things work to boost profits, it goes back (again: hopefully…) to a natural curiosity about these things which gets a person involved with art in the first place (case in point: the event’s organizers).  Velthuis did manage to maintain an appropriately distanced take on his subject, but I am pretty sure most people in the room already had a sense of what he was talking about, if not empirically then at least intuitively (this was confirmed gruffly by one gentleman during the brief Q&A).

The thrust of Velthuis’ presentation hinged on the explication of recurring phases experienced by the art market, which are informed by the greater economic climate and spirit of a given era. Boom times are followed by times of modesty, and when the guard changes over, it’s a complete paradigm shift of values systems. Taking Damien Hirst’s historic sale at Sotheby’s on September 12, 2008 as the end of an unprecedented high for the art market (he refers to the period as the “2000s”), he compared the new, present era to the lull of the “1990s” (and the 2000s he placed in analogy with the “1980s”).  Velthuis parsed the two phases, high and low, according to threads such as “dominant narrative” (“superstar” and “prudent”), “form of capital” (“ecomonic & cultural” and “symbolic”) and from there on to the corresponding natures of prices, collectors, neighborhoods, styles of engagements, and the principal contexts for all this activity.

This data was organized in a two-column table, which, with good reason, he denied be published online: if it were disseminated out of context it could give the appearance of truth statements (when in actuality they are generalized characterizations based on observation).

The heart of what I took away from the talk I did already understand intuitively: everyone who is successful within the art market adapts their behaviors to changing values systems dictated by the universal ebb and flow of spending, speculation and exuberance.  Players constantly strategize to expand their enterprises, however in slowed down times, development of symbolic capital and solid relationships, and the support of risky, innovative art forms are the shrewdest ways to go—because these become the priorities of the collectors who ultimately introduce money into the equation. During a bubble collectors may participate in the art market to turn a profit on a work, or to raise their social status.  These impulses, and frequently these people, drop off during quieter times.  It’s all sounds a bit elementary in summation, and I can’t say that my mind was blown, but the depth of detail and the detached academic treatment presented by Velthuis is certainly a positive contribution in terms of hard research about the famously under the radar subject.

An interesting side note he made about art fairs is that they function as a way for the art world to establish a power hierarchy to the outside world, via the celebrities, moguls and other influences that take part in fairs.

In conclusion, Velthuis expressed his slight dismay for the dearth of alternate models of doing business he encountered during his research. Meanwhile, I was in a way waiting for the other shoe to drop—I thought he had set the stage marvelously for a clinching assessment of those practices that have gone against the grain and opposed the dominant values of a given time, finding success against the odds.  I’d wager that fleshing out a hypothetical trajectory like this could point to a thread of evolutionary practices (like the ones he cites as missing).  Of course that is just my speculation and now is really not the right time for reckless speculation!

As the first part of Juicing the Equilibrium, Velthuis’ talk succeeded in isolating the terms and dynamics that must be clearly understood for a serious, collaborative inquiry into the art market. I’m looking forward to future installments that could zero in on the responsibilities, limitations and new prospects for artists who assume critical stances in their practices.

The second installment of Juicing the Equilibrium will be held on Sunday, April 11th at Artists Space and will engage French sociologist Luc Boltanski, who identifies six social orders that operate within society covalently: civic, market, transcendence, fame, industrial, and domestic. His current work involves a search for a seventh, which he calls a “connectionist” regime, referring to the flexible networks that revolve around the conception of “the Project.”