Sunday, March 28, 2021

Museum Exhibitions after Covid

The pandemic has not had many plusses, but it has helped in advancing innovation mostly through technology.  I have written about how art museums, deprived of local visitors and tourists, have come up with online programs that can reach folk across the world. As well as seeking new sources of support museums are looking at how technology can save them money. 

We know there is no substitute for seeing an original work of art so travelling exhibitions will return once museums reopen and new methods are being explored to cut the costs.  The day I started writing this Missive I saw an email from Artnet about the fortune that museums can save just on shipping and courier fees.  They even may be able to have their curator, conservator or registrar supervise a loan virtually thus not only saving money but also keeping their staff where they are needed most.  It is a delicate balance. The negative side is that these trips result in professional development with exposure to institutions, collections, methods and colleagues from around the world that directly benefit the home institution. 

Today, a curator can sit at home and supervise the installation of a loan to an exhibition via Zoom or similar technology. Previously he or she had to be there in person. But first, the work of art had to be sent with a courier to ensure its safe delivery. This meant that the courier stood on the tarmac watching the crate being loaded onto the plane.  He had to have at least a business class seat to be sure to get off the plane first to watch the cargo being taken off the plane and then to the museum.

If the work of art were too large for a passenger plane it had to go on a cargo flight where courier accommodations are less comfortable. Most loans require some trucking and if the distance was long, the trip would  be non-stop with alternating drivers and the courier sleeping in the cab of the truck. Once on site the currier had to be put up in a hotel with a per diem allowance. Then, don’t forget the works must go onto the next venue and home again after the show.  For a large exhibition with loans coming from different sources the transportation costs could easily run to a million dollars!

A personal courier is no guarantee either.  One registrar recalled a courier who watched his crate go on the plane, signed the paperwork – and then missed the flight.  It doesn’t happen often but there can always be snafus in any system.

As I was looking on-line for material for this Missive 99% of what I found was information from transport companies that have their own personal currier services. These companies that specialize in moving exhibitions around the world will surely have to find new ways to function in this digital age.

You know how you can track your package when you order from Amazon or other places.  The museums will have their own systems.  They can use an art logistics app.  Artcheck, which allows for a virtual courier system with transit information, quality check and communications between parties all in one place.  The packing of a work of art can include a tracking device and sensors that transmit movement, temperature, and exposure to light.  Of course, skilled art handlers and a knowledgeable conservator are still necessary on the receiving side to inspect the art and do a detailed check of its condition when the crate is opened. However, this can now be done with the participation and guidance of the home curator through the internet.

It’s a whole new world out there where a decade ago is the ancient past.  It is scary but I find it a fascinating subject that I shall return to.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

Will Shuster’s Santa Fe (1893-1969)

The happy news of this Missive is that my wife and I went to the New Mexico Museum of Art for our first museum visit in a full year! There we saw the exhibition, “A Fiery Light: Will Shuster’s New Mexico”.  

Maybe Shuster was not the greatest painter of all time, but he was an effective visual reporter who conveyed the life and spirit of Santa Fe, its surroundings, and its communities.  He moved to Santa Fe in 1920 to recover his health after being gassed in World War I and it was here that he took up painting, mentored by the Ashcan School artist John Sloan who had become a regular visitor to New Mexico.

New Mexico became a state in 1912 and already by the early 20’s was established as an arts colony.  Five artists, one might say, were the founders of this tradition.  They were Jozef Bakos, Femont Ellis, Walter Mruk, Willard Nash and Will Shuster.  They called themselves “Los Cinco Pintores” but were known affectionately as “five little nuts in five mud huts” referring to the adobe houses they built for themselves in the Santa Fe tradition.  They lived on a road that is just above town.  Today it takes 5 minutes by car to get there, but in those days, I would guess, it took quite a bit longer.

The exhibition title, “A Fiery Light”, is particularly well illustrated in Shuster’s painting “Fire at Bustos Midway Cash Store” lent by Zaplin/Lambert Gallery. The event took place in Pecos, New Mexico, in 1947.  Pecos is a small village not far from Santa Fe.  At the time of the fire the population was about 1,200 and has not grown that much since.  Schuster captured the small-town drama vividly.

The story of Santa Fe is that of three cultures, Native American, Hispanics and Anglo.  Only this past year’s Covid restrictions prevented Santa Fe’s annual Spanish Market and Indian Market which are both sales and commemoration events. Members of all cultures are welcomed to most dances in the nearby pueblos under certain rules of respect.   Although photography, and even sketching, by non-tribal members is no longer allowed there was no such concern in Shuster’s day. Here is his 1929 depiction of The Santo Domingo Corn Dance that the artist donated to the Museum.

Shuster’s “Sermon at the Cross of the Martyrs” of 1934 from the Museum’s permanent collection portrays the religious devotion of the Hispanic community. Today the hilltop cross is a tourist attraction for the panoramic view of Santa Fe it offers but it was created for a much more serious reason. It was erected to commemorate the death of 21 Franciscan friars during what is known as the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, a successful indigenous rebellion against Spanish colonial occupation of what is now New Mexico. On Fiesta weekend in September a candlelit procession to The Cross of the Martyrs from Saint Francis Cathedral occurs after a special Mass.

Santa Fe wouldn’t be Santa Fe without Zozobra, referred to as “Old Man Gloom”. Everyone is invited to contribute records of their misfortunes to be stuffed into the giant puppet recreated every year whose burning prior to Fiesta is a cathartic celebration. Believing that an event was needed to bring all parts of the community together Shuster created Zozobra in 1924 with the help of his friend, artist and puppeteer Gustave Baumann. With Newspaper editor E. Dana Johnson, they came up with the name Zozobra by picking a word from a Spanish-English dictionary that means “anguish, anxiety and gloom”.  No crowds were allowed to gather this past year to chant “Burn him, burn him” but Santa Fe’s worries and troubles went up in flames with Zozobra, nonetheless. Here is “Viva La Fiesta” a model of the event created by Luis Tapia in 1996 as well as an image of the actual burning.

Sunday, March 14, 2021

NFT’s In Art

Twenty-five years ago, my gallery had its own website.  There was nary another art dealer who had one.  I was explaining the concept to many well-known art dealers who did not have a clue what it meant or why they needed one!  Today, I am happy to know how to turn my computer on and from there on I need assistance!

A week or so ago my older son, Dan, sent me an article saying, “Thought this might be good for an art blog for someone who can’t leave the house because of a pandemic… If you can understand it …”.  I thought the last part was rather a sarcastic remark made to the older generation.   Boy was I wrong!  

If you are as clueless a I was you may be interested in learning something about this New Art World of NFTs. When I first read the article from an Apple-published virtual magazine called “The Verge” I had no idea what they were talking about.  So, I dId what everyone else does, I Googled.   I found an article from the hard copy magazine “Art in America”.  Then in a recent email I saw the headline, “The world’s first ‘Major’ NFT Art Exhibition is about to take place in Beijing, Headlined by Beeple, Fewocious, and Mad Dog Jones”.  This week articles about NFT’s have been flooding in.

Mike Winkelmann, known in the Digital World as Beeple

An NFT is short for non-fungible tokens which are unique digital assets, individually identified as a block chain which allows one person to own a widely disseminated digital artwork, ie the “chain” links it back to the owner and it is blocked from anyone else owning it.

One of the best ways to describe an NFT is as a sort of digital certificate of authenticity, and for some it's become a desirable collectible. Last month an NFT of the 10-year-old meme Nyan Cat sold for $580,000, and a video clip of basketball player Lebron Jones went for over $200,000.

What I find quite amazing is that these NFT’s have been around for a decade and I never heard about them before, and now suddenly every art email I receive seems to have something to say about NFT’s.  Is it possible this is because one of the largest and best-known auction houses in the world, Christies, had its first auction of this material this month.? In that sale one of Beeple’s works titled,  “Everydays — The First 5000 Days,” had a starting figure of $100 and brought sixty-nine million dollars! In an interview I saw at the end of last week Beeple said it took him 13 years to complete!

You won’t be surprised to learn that this market has been driven by tech investors in cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin. At the moment you can’t buy your groceries or pizza delivery with Bitcoin ,but you can buy an NFT with digital currency.  Can you do this at Christies? Possibly, but will Christie’s accept their commission in Bitcoin?  

History will tell us if NFTs and digital art will continue to have high values.  Art is always a question of taste. The fields I dealt in for decades a for substantial sums now bring pennies on the dollar, but tastes change and what people do not value now can become popular again. Material works of art will be around through change of taste but will NFT’s survive the changes in computer technology? 

Whether Digital Art will survive is a more difficult question than will the concept of the Block Chain survive.  Just before finishing this Missive, I spoke with my son again.  He is in the real estate business and has also been studying bock chains. He said he would not be surprised if the real estate business went in this direction. The transfer of ownership of a house requires a great deal of paperwork. But what if, instead you would just need a block chain transaction to guarantee that ownership?

Sunday, March 7, 2021

Did the U.S. Presidents Appreciate the Arts?

After a discussion with one of my office mates I set myself what I thought would be a simple task to see what U.S. Presidents had to say about the arts.  It turned out to be far more difficult than I thought.  Not all went on record on the subject but the attitude of those who did is of interest.  We have so unfortunately learned from the last administration much of the general public follows and believes their Commander in Chief, something which I would have said some years ago is as it should be.

How did some of our Presidents show their appreciation of the arts?  As a matter of fact, our first President George Washington was a great supporter. He wrote “The Arts and Sciences, essential to the prosperity of the State and to the ornament of human life, have a primary claim to the encouragement of every lover of his country and mankind.” He also wrote “To encourage literature and the arts is a duty which every good citizen owes to his country.”

Thomas Jefferson called Monticello his "essay in architecture." Designed in an American form of Neoclassicism it is a monument to his scrupulous study of the architecture of Rome. He acquired a considerable art collection which he personally catalogued around 1809 itemizing numerous paintings after Old Masters, as well as several sculptures by Houdon, and their distribution among the rooms at Monticello. In the spirit of a true collector, he wrote “Never buy what you do not want because it is cheap: it will be dear to you.”

I could not find a direct quote about the arts from Abraham Lincoln, but I did enjoy his comment on a portrait done of him, “I presume, sir, in painting your beautiful portrait, you took your idea of me from my principles, and not from my person.”

One President who was often associated with the arts was John F. Kennedy.  He said, “The arts incarnate the creativity of a free people," and once wrote, "When the creative impulse cannot flourish, when it cannot freely select its methods and objects, when it is deprived of spontaneity, then society severs the root of art."  (I can testify to Jackie Kennedy’s interest in art for the White House as a friend of hers requested we donate a specific object that was needed, which of course we did. Years later another friend brought her to visit our gallery.)

Among the Presidential quotes posted online by artist Marvin Mattelson is one from an unexpected source, Lyndon B. Johnson: “Art is a nation’s most precious heritage.” 

Many Presidents had their portraits painted, but a few were, or attempted to be, artists themselves. Surprisingly among these is Ulysses S. Grant. He painted this rather accomplished landscape when he was 18 years old.

Other Presidents who found a satisfying hobby in painting are Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush.

I will finish my meager tale with a story I just read recently, and you may have seen.  It is about a painting, not by a U.S. President, but by another great statesman, Winston Churchill. Titled “The Tower of the Koutoubia Mosque” it was painted in Marrakech in 1943 shortly after the allies met in Casablanca and decided that only unconditional surrender from Germany was acceptable.  Churchill gave it to President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a symbol of the special relationship between two allied Nations.  What makes the story even more interesting is that after changing hands a few times it was acquired by Angelina Jolie’s family in 2011, reportedly as a gift to the actress from Brad Pitt.  It was recently sold at a Christie’s auction for $11.6 million dollars.  What a difference provenance makes!