The Centrality of Art Within the Art Industry

February 23rd, 2014  |  Published in *, Features, February 2014  |  1 Comment

by Daniel Brown

We are regularly informed that the arts have become big business; the investment potential of a work of art has become far more important in late capitalist culture than whether the art is any good, what it says, how it’s made, or whether it matters.  It may surprise people under 50 that the financial potential of artwork was never discussed until the 1980’s, the same era that gave us the ubiquitous word “lifestyle”.  Collecting artwork became an essential part of 80’s lifestyle, but one rarely heard people ask whether a $1,200 painting by a relatively unknown regional artist was going to increase in value.  That question began to assert itself in the late 80’s and early 90’s.  I was still selling art then, and I only had one answer, which was “no”.  I found myself asking people whether they intended to resell their leather pants at auction, whether the botoxing of skin and coloring of hair, or the removal thereof, would also bring some sort of financial advancement: the conversation became absurd.  But it began to replace the reasons why people used to collect art. 

Concurrently, other issues that had been considered social, political, part of the Public Good, educational, moved into the arts, thus moving the art itself away from the central purpose of museums and even galleries, while the plethora of non-profits moved into the mainstream of exhibiting art while removing the sales aspect of exhibitions.  For example one of the major movements of the 80’s in museums was educational, and its first cousin, community outreach.  There was no doubt that art made by African Americans, and by other marginalized ethnic groups, but also including women, were rarely exhibited in major museum exhibitions, and museums set out to remedy and rectify these situations, just as educational systems, particularly public ones began to throw the arts out, as they were considered both “frills”, unlike sports, which generally maintained their primacy in high schools and universities.  In order to reach out to what became known as “underserved populations”, museums and art centers began to add extensive programming to redress these issues, while most grant giving organizations refused to pay for any salaries or staff requirements, leaving existing personnel to virtually double their workload, and for museum professionals to find ways to add staff by the back door. Budgets at museums virtually doubled, as did staffing requirements. Budgets at museums virtually doubled, as did staffing requirements. Whether these additions were necessary at museums, rather than, say, at educational institutions wasn’t rationally discussed, alternatives or creative collaborations weren’t sought.  It seemed as if enormous changes in educational and outreach programming was dictated from On High, and that the social implications of museums began to override the central concern of all museums: collecting and exhibiting artwork. 

At the same time, in Cincinnati and no doubt in other smaller cities, museums were asked to start collecting and exhibiting cutting edge contemporary art, whether or not museums wanted to do so.  We already had the two examples of The Museum of Modern Art and The Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston, where board and community leaders met and decided that the modern and contemporary art lovers would found their own institutions in the same cities, rather than adding an iffy dimension to the museum as it had been defined for centuries.  I believe that exhibiting cutting edge contemporary art at museums is part of the reason for the decline in attendance, particularly at The Cincinnati Art Museum in the past fifteen months or so.  We have The Contemporary Arts Center, The Weston Gallery downtown, and, in the past year or so, The 21c Hotel, and the re-defined Carnegie all exhibiting cutting edge contemporary art.  I believe that, under these circumstances, The Art Museum should be left to examine and exhibit art from the other 25 centuries or so, and from continents including Asia, South America, The Middle East, large swaths of Europe, Africa, Canada, the Scandinavian countries, and, no doubt, other places whose art and artifacts from history are being ignored in favor of the trendy, the immediate, and, underlying both the ubiquitous search for those “young professionals” about whom we hear so much, but apparently know so little.  It would appear that the only way we are to know or lure our not-so-young brethren, is to glomp onto every social media invented hourly, and or have them come late, after 10, to parties which may cost more than they gain, and where the art almost always seems to be completely ignored, unless they are in it.  But our young have brought some major fresh approaches to the world of art, including the centrality of fashion, graphic design and all forms of design as primary signifiers of their identities.  One thing that Boomers and their children and grandchildren have in common is a deep understanding of popular culture, and our museum professionals should be able to find exciting ways to integrate popular culture and the fine arts in ever exciting new ways.  None of these ideas involve financial expansions: only creativity. 

These issues are leaving our museums running around chasing social issues and urban anthropology and sociology at the expense of its primary missions.  Thus, social trends become artistic trends: outsider artists become insider artists as soon as their work is shown in museums, but every possible “underserved population”, and the art attendant to their group identity, ends up in museums.  I am not suggesting that this is a bad thing, but I am suggesting that we have plenty of other places to introduce art of such types, and that we are forcing our museum professionals to do more than they should be asked to do, while raising money for each new movement besides.  I’d like to see the corporation that runs well under such strictures.

Toss in the perceived need for “diversity”, which began as a real need for female and African American board and staff members, and is devolving into chasing for white people in exurbia, while failing to see that communities such as Blue Ash, Anderson Township and Fairfield are all building their own art centers.  I fear that we are working at cross purposes, and that the museum is at the center of all of these issues.  I write this now so that while we are looking for a new museum director, that our expectations of what he or she should do are realistic, and revolve around the centrality of art itself as the museum’s mission, while we ask other organizations here to address some of these other issues, the most important of which will bubble up the museum itself, rather than expecting the museum, or any museum, to be a laboratory of social experimentation where the art reflects little but financial value and the new narcissism rampant in contemporary culture.



  1. cynthia kukla says:

    February 24th, 2014at 11:04 pm(#)

    This article is so rich with the history of recent art world changes and developments, it gives me such an overview of what has taken place, for good or ill. Information like this, hopefully, will be used by area museums to move forward.