Shifting Shadows

Shifting shadows of influence continue to cloud our field so that sometimes it’s difficult to sort wood from trees.  The increasingly muddy waters around marketing ceramics and the involvement of some auction houses within this arena causing conflation of the primary and secondary markets is one of the murky bits that poses conundrums for artists.

Some facts:  There has always been an occasional artist, needy of rapid funds, who has placed a piece fresh from the kiln into auction.  That’s their decision. And it’s a one-off.

There has been some manipulation of the values for various artist’s works by buyers and sellers. Even, it is said, some artists have been known to collude…

Auction values are largely determined on reputation.  The monetary value of a mark or signature piece bears little relationship to other worth, as determined by peers or experts. Many of the current collectors buy only on name and not what they can see because often, they cannot ‘see’.  Connoisseurship is in markedly short supply.

Some auction houses have been in the secondary market in a serious way for about fifteen years, either through actually starting the secondary market for ceramics or having an agent who knows most collectors and has built relationships,  so that is where collectors will place the pieces they are de-accessioning.

Some more facts: Our culture has risen from a mutually helpful struggle for survival in what was a post-war field. One supportive structure was the formation of co-operatives to market ware. In the halcyon days of the 60s and 70s it was easy as the market could not get enough and it mattered not how one sold, there was always a retailer wanting what could be spared. However after mid-80s or so this easy market underwent change. Now, co-ops barely exist anywhere, selling from the gate arouses little interest, the average retailers have disappeared although studio sales often do fine once a level of reputation is reached.  But the best hope is a professional gallery picking up the artist, nurturing the career, doing what only a good professional gallery can do and offering opportunities for exhibition at intervals. We now have some good professionally-run galleries that offer new talent early occasions to show, like Objectspac and, maybe the newly reconfiguring Academy in Wellington. Another layer is the professionally-run craft media gallery like Masterworks, Avid, Form etc. Now we have a number of ‘white cubes’ that customarily show the so-called fine arts also demonstrating support for some artists working  in craft media – drawn from throughout the spectrum. All major cities have at least one or two and in Auckland there are many more. At least six.

Enter the auction house – designed to serve the secondary market, and useful it is too (except they resist paying the maker a share of the income they and the sellers make) But, good secondary market prices help elevate the primary market price in these days of internet access to everything.  Auction houses are not doing much of the specialty push for ceramics that they did in earlier times – markets are affected everywhere and the increasing prices paid for ceramics applies only to very few ceramic artists. The rest are still at bargain basement levels. I’m told there have not been many/any new collectors entering the market for quite a while.

Now we have one auction house openly soliciting new work for auction. They don’t mind where it comes from – top level, fiscally buoyant, avidly collected artists who sell well in the primary market through to students from the Distance Learning Course and all in between are being targeted.        And hence the conundrums….

It is, of course, entirely up to the artist/maker how they sell their work and it must be admitted, the auction house’s 15% +GST and a $35 “promotion” fee is tempting for those artists who remember well the free-wheeling days of the 60s and 70s, to make a little extra for their efforts. It’s also tempting for new artists, with no gallery representation yet, to see it as an opportunity to display their work in “the exhibition” that is offered. It’s even tempting for those between so that way they can maybe pass on work that has been sitting around for a while. All reasonably understandable, but in these days of necessarily increasing professionalism there are some other points that must also enter the equation….

Richard Parker always maintained that the reason we do not enjoy a lively circuit of professional galleries in our field was that we set up co-ops and marketed our own alongside gate and studio sales and open days – wanting a bigger slice of the fiscal pie instead of supporting a range of profitable galleries that, in these harder times, would be supporting and working for us.

Those artists who are a part of a gallery’s ‘stable’ might consider that they owe some loyalty. Yes, these professionally run white cubes and craft galleries take more in commission but in return they invest time, energy and money in an artist they consider has talent, potential and fits their gallery style. They do this by providing expensive space for exhibition opportunities and generate publicity in ways only they can; they have, and utilise, contacts within the art and related worlds so they are in a position to advance prospects for the artist; they research and actually write or assist writing grant applications and work for other opportunities such as residencies for their artists; they gift artists exclusive access to what is one of their primary resources, which is their client list and they have been known to pay writers and photographers for texts and top-quality images on their artists’ work for features in relevant publications. They have contributed to books that include their artist’s work and have even produced books about their artists.  None of these are to be sneezed at in these days when it’s mostly self-help and every man for himself.

The case off-shore is quite different, as I well recall when I visited the studio of a major USA ceramist who took me into her basement showing me years of older work – much returned from exhibitions. One piece had just been sold directly to a public institution in a distant State and, being ignorant and from here, I offered that she would therefore keep all revenue (some US$17500). She looked at me in surprise and responded that if she did that and her gallery found out , as they eventually would, she’d be ‘dead on the water’ with all galleries in town!. Once she was paid she would be giving her regular gallery the USA standard 50% commission, even though it hurt!

Those with a gallery in town that works for them, even if every service listed is not always on offer, might find, if they do sell via other means that all is well, or they might find that when they front-up for that next exhibition slot that it is not so readily available as previously.

For students and recent students in ceramics courses who have no gallery, while they might consider that their work is top quality and deserving of high returns because of all that work invested, there will be others showing at “the exhibition” that don’t have the same standards and simply want – and have often been given to expect- some return for the cost of all those lessons and materials. Well, any experienced ceramist can tell you that a show is only as good as the worst piece present.  It only takes a couple of poor pieces to pull down the rest.

Times have changed and we no longer have a ready market for new work except that which meets  criteria recognised by the demands of fine art or that which is superbly fitted for function while being individually, stylistically executed. We need more of both, as gallerists will tell you. We don’t need a heap more of what lies in between.

I’d suggest, if making work that bears no interest for the galleries, and attracts no attention in exhibitions like Portage (which has exhibited many never-seen-before artists) then maybe the work needs more work? Keep going and stay developing. It’s not instant.  If the artist is still convinced that what they offer is great and has simply been passed over, maybe put it away for 25 years until the retrospective and it can be brought out so as to prove how mistaken was the audience of now. But meantime, perhaps start something new.

I remain unconvinced that any auction house can display ceramic works to full advantage. They have neither the expertise not the equipment to do this anywhere near as well as a good gallery and set pieces out only as best they can on what they’ve got. So I remain unconvinced that selling, as primary market, through an auction house serves anyone any good (except the auction house) and muddling the re-sales with new work does what I wonder?  Even with a major publicity thrust that exceeds all that has gone before, are there really new collectors out there, cheque books poised, awaiting fresh talent and if there are – will they head to an auction house or to Objectspace or a private gallery? The auction market attention, for those that go, will remain with the few artists whose work has attracted most interest, and highest values, over the past few years and unknown names and marks are unlikely to benefit in any way from this exercise and possibly suffer the humiliation of being passed in, or over.

I’m happy to have my mind changed if anyone can tell me something different and accept that there may be angles I’ve not yet considered.  But right now it seems to me that ceramics is in no way advantaged by this muddying of the waters and that the answer, or a good part of it, lies in increasing professionalism and a modicum of integrity.  Either the artist is a specialist with a career plan that is taken seriously and adhered to, or is a something else with a hobby that is satisfying and rewarding in its own way. That gap Garth Clark talked of when he was here has opened. We’re in the 21srCentury and we can no longer have it both ways.



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3 responses to “Shifting Shadows

  1. rfw

    Response from Leslie Ferrin , of Ferrin Gallery in Mass. USA.

    Thanks for bring this issue to light. As a gallerist in the USA, we too are experiencing the impact of the auction market. As established collectors age and begin scaling down, they look to deaccess artworks by artists they collected, many of whom are still producing. The collectors are older than the artists and the artwork that they purchased is often relatively recent, as in produced in the last 10 – 15 years. As these artworks are presented at auction, new collectors can purchase for less than the galleries can sell the same artists’ recent works thus depressing the prices for those artists and also meeting the needs of new collectors to acquire, thus taking the sale from the gallery and the artist.

    Artists do not typically offer their older inventory to auction houses however, the benefit auctions that are so typical as fundraisers for all the cultural ‘not for profits’ do the same thing; they provide an opportunity for artists to “give” and “support” a cause, then the work sells for less than full price and the collector fills a spot on their wall, checks a name off their list and is not inclined to purchase another at full price from the gallery. These are just two of the ways the auction market has served to divide the pie that the galleries and the artists depend on to survive, pay bills and make new work.

  2. I guess that is the market and its forces. I suppose, as Dave Hickey said as he left the world of art behind, “The art market is calcified, self-referential and a hostage to rich collectors who have no respect for what they are doing. They are in the hedge fund business. It’s not worth my time”. One of the smartest voices in art has quit the arena. Will such absence make a difference or will it just continue being run by market forces and others colluding to maintain values in every sense?

  3. Marie N

    Lots to think about ..

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